Northern Ireland v USA: The MLS, Jaap Stam and spectacular saves - ex-Ports keeper Bobby Edwards' leap of faith

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
Watch: Bobby Edwards' top six saves for Portadown
International friendly: Northern Ireland v USA
Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Sunday, 28 March Kick-off: 17:05 BST
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC Radio Ulster and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

From growing up in the USA to falling in love with a Northern Irish town and then making an MLS debut under legendary defender Jaap Stam, life has been a rollercoaster for Bobby Edwards.

The goalkeeper's career path has hardly been a traditional one. After graduating from college he picked up a shoulder injury and with the domestic league already underway in the States he turned his attentions to a move abroad.

A coaching connection brought him to the attention of Portadown boss Matthew Tipton and he signed in July 2019, where his gamble to join a team who are little-known outside Northern Ireland paid off for player, manager and club.

Few players have made such an impression on the Irish League in such a short space of time. His viral clips of spectacular saves often grabbed the headlines but it was his commanding stature and all-round play which really impressed as the 25-year-old set Portadown well on their way to a return to the Irish Premiership after five years in the wilderness.

"I wanted to go overseas to experience new places. I didn't really know what to expect, it was a leap of faith," said the New Jersey native.

"I'd done my research on the club and once I walked through the doors and you see the club itself and the trophy cabinet. It was made very clear the only goal the club had was to get back into the Premiership."

As well as his on-pitch displays, Edwards says it was his time away from the pitch and around the community which cemented Northern Ireland as his "second home".

"For me, football is the most important thing, but it was being able to see the world, that was probably my greatest experience. I would never have got to see Northern Ireland if it wasn't for this platform.

"I obviously missed my family, but the thing I always say about Portadown is the moment I stepped foot there they took me in and treated me like one of their own. After a game on my birthday in August they gave me a cake and sung happy birthday.

"Tippy sent me out my league medal in the post the other days, from his own pocket. Everything just felt right.

"When you feel valued and apart of that club that then translates into your game so it wasn't surprising to me that I felt I was playing well because I knew the people I was playing with were like family to me."

'If you don't go, I will'

Edwards, who stands at six foot and six inches, believes the physical nature of the Irish League suited his style of play and allowed him to command his area.

Tipton joked the club had "been trying to keep him quiet" but the viral clips of spectacular saves kept mounting and he was soon recognised as one of the best goalkeepers in the Irish League.

He had trials with Blackburn Rovers and Burnley before an offer from MLS outfit Cincinnati in the January window proved too good to turn down.

"At the time I wanted to stay in European football, and when the offer came in I did not take it lightly, it was very tough," he said.

"It was an offer that could make or break a career. I spoke to Tippy about it and he whole-heartedly endorsed it, he pretty much said 'if you don't take it then I will'.

"I owe so much to Portadown and I'm very thankful for that. I wouldn't be where I am now without them."

Edwards saved two penalties in Portadown's shootout exit to Glentoran in the Irish Cup, his final game for the club
Edwards saved two penalties in Portadown's shootout exit to Glentoran in the Irish Cup, his final game for the club

Portadown secured their top-flight return on a points-per-game basis after the Championship season was curtailed a month after Edwards' departure but he says he is proud of helping the club achieve their goal.

"I'm glad they are back where they belong and I check their results every week," he added.

"The boys deserved to have a proper season through to the end, but one positive, selfish thing I can take away from the season getting called early it put a lot more value on the games I was there for.

"It was fulfilling to be part of something which means so much to a lot of people and accomplish it after putting in blood, sweat and tears."

Learning from 'terrifying' Stam

Two months after moving back to America, Jaap Stam became manager of Cincinnati and Edwards admits he was "terrified" at the prospect of working under the former Manchester United and AC Milan defender.

"I pictured Jaap to be a terrifying human being who would kill anyone in his way but he was actually one of the nicest people ever," laughed Edwards.

"He is a fantastic manager and he is someone who I managed to learn a lot from. Off the pitch he is a very kind guy but when someone of his stature speaks, you listen.

"So to learn from him and add to my game was phenomenal. It was very cool."

Jaap Stam became Cincinnati manager in May 2019
Jaap Stam became FC Cincinnati manager in May 2020

Edwards moved on from Cincinnati after making two MLS appearances and signed with Indy Eleven in the USL Championship, America's second tier, in January.

"Cincinnati was an amazing experience but when you are behind goalkeepers who have played for the national team or been at the Euros it's tough to compete at that level," he said.

"While I improved dramatically, the most important thing in a goalkeeper's development is to play. Indy have a reputation for pushing guys on to higher levels while being at a high level themselves, and that is important to me."

Ahead of Sunday's friendly with the USA in Belfast, Edwards says that he's fallen in love with Northern Ireland so much he'll be "cheering on the Green and White Army".

In fact, he hasn't ruled out a move back to Northern Ireland in the future.

"It is something I play about with in the back of my head, to go back to Northern Ireland and retire there. I see it as a home and those aren't just words," he added.

"I haven't been able to properly celebrate that we won the league, so although it may be very late I'm going to get back over there, give everyone a hug and lift that trophy."

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