When the offer of a soccer scholarship arrived from California State University Bakersfield there was just no way that Niall Owens was going to turn it down.

Former St Michael’s pupil and Ballinamallard player who broke into the first team at 15, Niall has an ambition to play professional football, and here was the chance to go and train every day, live the life of a professional but also have the opportunity to study and do a degree, or Major, as it is called stateside.

For most heading to University, it is the likes of Belfast, Dublin or Liverpool that are the destinations, so to make the decision to move across the world and knowing nobody was a brave call, but one that Niall does not regret in any way.

“I was just turned 18 when I went. I had thought about it hard but when the offer was there on the table of the scholarship, I couldn’t turn it down. You have everything paid for, you got to train every day and it was a brilliant opportunity. I spoke to a lot of people and they said that if I didn’t do it I might look back in 20 years time and regret it.

“My mum and dad played a big part, they wanted me to take it, the fact that I would come out with a degree was a big thing for my mum,and it was something different from going to Belfast, Dublin or Liverpool,” said Niall, who is currently on a break at home.

So, how did it come about?

“I was contacted about a year and half ago and if I’m honest it was just a back up plan at that stage because I wanted to go across the water and play but I picked up an injury and I felt that wasn’t going to work out. I had a lot of offers from different colleges but then this college got in contact from California. I wasn’t planning to go until this summer but I spoke with this coach at Bakersfield College who is Irish and after I finished speaking to him I knew I wanted to go there,” he said.

Niall finished off his A Levels at St Michael’s and passed the SET exam, securing the qualifications required to get into the University and in July he set off for California.

“I’m not going to lie, it is not easy, it is difficult to get settled in and I went and didn’t know anyone. I arrived at my apartment and there was nobody there and I was there for two weeks by myself because I went early to get myself fit. But once I met the team and my classmates, it has been amazing.

“The coach being Irish was a big part and he had done the same thing that I did. You obviously miss home a wee bit but he helped me with that and I got to the point where although I missed home, I didn’t want to come home.

“If anyone has the chance, they should think really hard about it because it is a really great opportunity,” he added.

With football and study Niall, whose major is in Kinesiology, acknowledges that there is very little time for much else.

“The season is quite short so you play two games at the weekend which is quite demanding physically and then you have school work as well to keep on top of. You are busy all the time, you are always doing something.

“We have one day off training a week and then classes every day apart from a Friday,” he said.

The football has also seen him do a lot of travelling during the college season.

“One weekend we flew to Texas, played two games in Texas and flew back. The next weekend we flew out to Arizona on the Thursday and played a game on the Friday and flew to Las Vegas and played a game on the Sunday and then we were back in Bakersfield on the Monday.”

Indeed, he is happy with his performances for the college on the pitch.

“Personally, it went well, I got a lot of assists although I only got two goals. I was happy though with how I got on.”

One of the big positives for Niall has been the chance to meet people he would not normally haver had the opportunity to.

“I’m mixing with people I would never usually mix with and not even in terms of football but in the classroom. You are meeting people from all backgrounds and ethnicities and I really enjoy it,” he said.

The goal though remains the same and that is to eventually go on to play professional football.

“I would like to sign a professional contract when I’m done, wherever that may be. Football is the main thing I want to do, it is what I have always worked for but it is good to have the degree to fall back on if it doesn’t work out which I suppose is the best of both worlds.”

While at home in recent weeks Niall has been doing a bit of coaching at Ballinamallard and has also been helping out with football sessions at St Michael’s and his former teacher, Dom Corrigan, has nothing but praise for the steps that he has taken.

“You can only admire Niall for the taking the step that he has taken. The easy thing for him to have done would have been to go to Belfast or somewhere like that but he was mature enough to see the opportunity that he had and it has worked out really well for him. I think that young people should be encouraged to travel and it is one of the best educational tools.

“For Niall, it is a new way of life but it will only benefit him in life. It is a wonderful experience and shows the way for others to maybe look at similar opportunities.The staff at St Michael’s are very proud of Niall and he was a fantastic student. We are delighted that he has come back when he is at home and helped coach the Junior classes in the school and I am confident that he will be a success,” said Corrigan.

For now though it will be back to the training pitch for Niall who is to return to California next week.

“I go back next Tuesday and then we are straight back at it again although it is mostly friendly games preparing you for the next season. I don’t think I’m going to come home in the summer because there is an opportunity to go and play in a player development league which is like MLS Reserve teams so hopefully I can get that sorted and can travel more. I’ve got to so many places already which is brilliant,” he stated.