Mayo young­ster Akram hop­ing to push new bound­aries in 2019 sea­son

Irish Examiner - Sport - - GAA - Paul Keane

When the Mayo squad broke up after their Cham­pi­onship de­feat to Kil­dare last June, many of the play­ers cap­i­talised on the early sum­mer exit to travel abroad.

Some hit for the US, oth­ers jet­ted out to Euro­pean hotspots, though Shairoze Akram took the op­por­tu­nity to visit Pak­istan, his home­land and, in parts, a coun­try dec­i­mated by poverty.

It was an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the 21-year-old, who doesn’t re­call much about the four years he spent there be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Ire­land and Mayo in 2001.

“I’d be from Ha­roon­abad, it would be in the Pun­jab re­gion,” ex­plained Akram, ref­er­enc­ing his roots in the east of a coun­try that’s tucked in tightly be­tween Afghanistan and In­dia, with China bor­der­ing on the north.

“I was there dur­ing the sum­mer vis­it­ing my granny after we were beaten by Kil­dare, it kind of opened up a win­dow for me to go home and visit my grand­par­ents. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence. You were see­ing stuff for the first time, re­ally, be­cause you hadn’t seen it in so long and you didn’t re­mem­ber the half of it.

“It’s eye-open­ing stuff, some of the stuff you’d see in re­gards to poverty and the class [di­vide] be­tween the rich and poor.”

Al­most a third of Pak­ista­nis fall into the ‘poor’ bracket, ex­ist­ing below the poverty line, and the life ex­pectancy there is among the worst in the world, at around 66 years, com­pared to 81 in Ire­land. Those are sober­ing fig­ures that con­fronted Akram last sum­mer, just months after he’d earned the dis­tinc­tion of play­ing against Dublin in a Na­tional League game in Castle­bar.

A third-year stu­dent of sports science at Dublin City Uni­ver­sity, Akram gets it that he’s in a great po­si­tion.

“Def­i­nitely, the op­por­tu­ni­ties that are avail­able here to young guys and to peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds are im­mense, even just in terms of col­lege, ed­u­ca­tion, and ob­vi­ously sport,” he said.

Sport has been par­tic­u­larly good to the speedy half-back, who be­came the first Pak­istani to win an All-ire­land medal when he pow­ered the Mayo U21s to glory in 2016.

He was just 19 at the time and after ap­pear­ing twice in last sea­son’s league cam­paign for Mayo, was re­tained on an eight-man de­vel­op­ment squad that trained along­side Stephen Rochford’s full squad through­out the 2018 cham­pi­onship.

James Dur­can, a starter against Kil­dare, was in that de­vel­op­ment group ini­tially too, so Akram knows he’s close. Back at home in Pak­istan, some of his ex­tended fam­ily are aware of how he’s ex­celling at a sport he only took up a decade ago.

Oth­ers aren’t, and he didn’t even bother try­ing to ex­plain the ‘New­bridge or Nowhere fi­asco’ to them.

“No, no, that would have been a tough one for them to grasp,” smiled Akram. “Even for my own fam­ily here that was a tough one to grasp! A lot of the fam­ily would have an idea that I play here, but my granny and grand­dad wouldn’t re­ally get it, they’d be old, but they know I play sport a good bit and are happy to keep in touch and to see that I’m play­ing away.”

It was work that lured the Akrams to Mayo in the first place, his fa­ther tak­ing up a po­si­tion in the lo­cal meat fac­tory.

Andy Mo­ran, the 2017 Foot­baller of the Year, then spot­ted Akram’s po­ten­tial as a sixth class pri­mary school pupil and con­vinced him to take up Gaelic foot­ball.

“I strug­gled a bit in the first cou­ple of years, just the skills of the game and get­ting a grasp of the rules, but hav­ing worked at it for a cou­ple of years I thank­fully im­proved and I’m play­ing now at a higher level, ob­vi­ously,” he said.

In re­al­ity, be­ing the first Pak­istani to win an All-ire­land isn’t some­thing Akram thinks too much about.

“That’s just an achieve­ment to the side, I wouldn’t re­ally fo­cus on that,” he said. “I’m just fo­cused on the foot­ball and how I can im­prove and how I can hope­fully get into

Pic­ture: Seb Daly

Mayo’s Shairoze Akram fends off Cork’s Ryan Harkin in the 2016 All-ire­land U21 fi­nal at Cu­sack Park, En­nis. The first Pak­istani to win an All-ire­land medal, Akram has am­bi­tions to make his name with the Mayo se­nior team in 2019.

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