It must have been around 2008, in the Trnavka river region in Western Slovakia; a relatively quiet place, somewhere that perhaps wouldn’t be incongruous in a pamphlet advertising the leafy pleasures of this part of the world.
One town with a firm mark on the map is Trnava, a city nicknamed “Little Rome” or parva Roma in Slovak – a place not too dissimilar from our capital city. Nestled amongst the surroundings of this unsuspecting place, a foreign presence stalks the quiet, cobbled streets – a Scottish footballer looking for McDonald’s.
Ger Rossi’s face transforms into a broad grin at the memory of hunting for the international language of fast food: “One day, I spotted that golden M from the window of the flat. I was living quite far away from the ground and the other lads at the time, so that McDonalds was a godsend,” he said.
“If I was struggling for rice, or table salt, I could nip down there. It actually became a bit of an issue when I started spending all my wages on Big Macs – the gaffer wasn’t too happy when I was training a tad slower than usual the next day!”
We’re sat outside Whitestone Park, the home of Peebles Rovers Football Club, on a humid, muggy night in the town. Seldom have any interviews I’ve done descended into a frank chat about the eating habits of the Scotsman abroad.
Gerard Rossi is player/manager of Peebles Rovers, his hometown team, one of hundreds of players who ply their trade in the ranks of non-league football in Scotland. Armed with a trendy beard and a big grin, Rossi is engaging company as he walks me through his fascinating career.
Aside from his usual antics on Saturday afternoons at Eyemouth and Burntisland, Rossi holds, perhaps, one of the most unique distinctions in Scottish, maybe even British, football; he was the first Scot to ever play competitive football in Slovakia.
Upon discovery of this tantalising nugget of, frankly, brilliant trivia, I swiftly fired a text at the man himself – who agreed to sit down for a chat.
Recorder in hand, sat outside the clubroom after a Tuesday night training session, we began in the early days of his career as a boy growing up in Peebles: “I started off at the local boys’ club, Peebles Thistle, as it was known then. It was the usual sort that ran it; local dads and whatnot. I was asked along when I was quite young, and the love of football grew from there.
“I was playing for the U14s by the age of nine, and from there a guy called Gus MacLean, who had watched a lot of the youth games, gave me a number for a guy through at Hutchison Vale in Edinburgh.
“I went through at nine-years-old, joined the club permanently, where I was coached by Tam Carter and the late Norrie Cameron.”
Despite being a lad from small-town Peebles, Rossi’s arrival in the big smoke heralded a record-breaking period for the young Borderer, as he smashed the U11 goal scoring record by notching 53 times in a single season.
“At the time, I think it was a record for that age group,” he continues. “I imagine it’ll have been surpassed by now, and you have to remember, we were 11-year-olds playing against tiny goalkeepers in massive goals! You could shoot from anywhere and be in with a chance of scoring.”
Modesty aside, it came as little surprise when Hearts and Hibs both came knocking on his door, with Rossi left with a difficult choice to make.
“At that point, I got asked to go along to Hearts. It was a time where a lot of money was being put into their youth academy and, as a result, our Hutchy team broke up.
“I then went to Tynecastle Boys Club for a while where we had another successful year. By that time Hibs had invited me along to training as well – so I did have to make a decision.
“I eventually decided to sign a pro-youth deal at Hibs and I always did feel like I made the right choice. After speaking to both clubs, I wanted to go where was most enjoyable and, for me, that was at Hibs.
“At the time they were doing a lot of technical stuff at their academy. The ball was always on the floor and my small height was less of an issue there, whereas at Hearts there were a lot of big guys!”
Spending almost a decade at the club, Rossi played in the same youth ranks around the time that Hibs’ “Golden Generation” of young players emerged into the limelight.
Whilst he reminisces about the good times at Easter Road, Rossi reflects upon the sheer difficulty of breaking into a Hibs side awash with talent: “I’ve so many fond memories of my time there, looking at the guys that Hibs had and the careers they went on to have was unreal. The conveyor belt of talent at the club was remarkable, with Steven Fletcher, Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson all going on to play for top sides and represent Scotland.
“Obviously now, in hindsight, we had a massive job on our hands trying to unseat guys like that. There were plenty of characters at the club, and I could talk all day about some of the stuff we got up to!
“You’d come in in the morning, and the boys would hide your clothes in the stadium somewhere! You’d be up all night trying to find them.”, he laughs.
So far, it seemed Rossi’s career was rather straightforward; impress at youth level before being snapped up by a professional team. How could such a normal path into professional football spin off into the crazy path it transpired to be? Like a father being replaced by the evil step-dad, it all changed for Ger with Tony Mowbray’s departure from the Hibs hot-seat, and the arrival of John Collins as manager.
“My eventual path to Slovakia was a strange one, without a doubt. After Tony Mowbray left for Celtic, things changed when John Collins became manager – and my contract was running out.
“I chapped on his door, and told him I was thinking about trying elsewhere if nothing was happening at Hibs. He told me, that If I wanted a contract, I would have to stay and fight for my place, which I understood.
“However, I was getting a vibe. You do pick it up after a while, and you quickly suss out whether you’re wanted or not at a club.
“It became quite clear a new contract wasn’t going to happen and, at the end of the day, football is what pays the bills and I had to do something.
“So I sat down with my agent who was quite a vibrant person and was always thinking outside the box. We sat down and talked through the options.”
Facing life after Hibs, Rossi’s brief spell in upheaval was ended after a shock move entered the frame; with the west coast of America beckoning: “Quickly, my agent told me about the opportunity to go out and train with LA Galaxy. It was just before the ‘Beckham craze’ really kicked-off.
“I was out there for a month or two and things were going really well. I had only just turned 18 at the time, and played a few trial games with the likes of Landon Donovan and Cobi Jones, which was a great experience.
“The training in MLS at the time was radically different from what I experienced in Scotland. It’s a different world, over there. They’re athletes, whereas at Hibs we came in early and were away for 12 o’clock!
“At the time, the standard of the American league was a wee bit behind other countries – but, in terms of fitness and physical attributes, it was frightening – they were streets ahead!
“They were doing double sessions, high intensity, never out of the gym. The problem for me, again, was size. I was wee and, although not quite so much these days, I was very quick.
“In that respect, I was up against it somewhat – but, in the trial games I had played, I was doing well and scored a few goals.”
Buoyed by a positive trial spell in Hollywood land, hands were gleefully rubbed at the prospect of life in the States, however, sod’s law soon dictated otherwise: “We were definitely naïve, my agent and I were high-fiving each other after that trial period. We were thinking it could be a great avenue, not just for me, but for other Scottish footballers looking to go abroad. We thought we had done enough to get a deal done. In reality, the MLS was after big names; as evidenced with Becks.
“They did offer a deal, but it was with their development squad. Which, strangely, was at Seattle Sounders – who are obviously now a very vibrant team in the MLS.
“However, back then, they were a few divisions below. On top of that, issues with my green card became a problem as well as a foreigner.
“It was a pretty dark time for myself; I went from absolute euphoria to rock bottom. One day you’re walking along Malibu Beach, thinking you’ve got it all sussed before being told you’re going back to Scotland to fight it out again.”
Disheartened after the American dream went sour, Rossi returned home facing an uncertain future in the lower leagues of Scottish football, before life took another sharp turn left.
“Coming back, the season in Scotland was nearly done. I was obviously a free agent and I had no choice but to sit around and wait.
“Then, out of the blue, we got a call from Spartak Trnava inviting us over for a trial. I imagine a few people might remember them from when they played St Johnstone a couple of years ago in the Europa League.
“It was a similar situation to LA. I went over and I did quite well in trial game and again it was all up in the air as the Slovakian season was coming to an end.
“We were sitting around waiting to hear from Spartak when I got calls from Airdrie, Brechin and Ayr United. There were a lot of issues for me regarding travel, coming from Peebles and the Borders was a problem.
“I knew I had to do something if I wanted to carve out a career in football. Fortunately, Spartak got back to us and wanted to sign me; telling me I had two days to pack my bags and fly out there!
“Slovakia was obviously a good deal further away than Airdrie! However, the money was better than some of the options I had at home, and I knew It was an opportunity I had to take.
“I was flying over when the realisation that I was moving to Slovakia sunk in. To their immense credit, the club was great with me – it was a return to full-time football and they gave me a flat in the town.”
Life in Trnava in his first year was a world away from the sleepy streets of Peebles, or the bustling intensity of Edinburgh – as a 19-year-old Rossi soon discovered: “That first year over there was an eye-opener for me. I was about 19 when I first went out, and living on your own in a foreign country really opens your eyes and teaches you a lot about yourself.
“You have to grow up very quickly, you’re not around the corner from mum and dad anymore! One of the hardest things was after a defeat, where you obviously can’t speak to anyone and mull things over.
“I was quite fortunate in the sense that there were a few boys in the dressing room that could speak English, and some became life-long friends. We had a lot of good times, made a lot of memories and it gave me a great appreciation of other cultures.
“It was an education, and I can hopefully tell my grandkids that I once played a little bit!”
When asked what the biggest challenge about living abroad was, he doesn’t hesitate with his answer: “Simple, the language,” he frowns.
“For want of a better term, it was a nightmare. Scottish people trying to speak English, at the best of times, is a real challenge – trying to speak Slovak was a bit tougher!
“It made daily routine an absolute minefield. I vividly remember going to the local shop and, coming from a place where your shopping is done and your girlfriend looks after you, it became a mission. I picked up what I thought was rice. Went home, where it turned out to be table salt.
“It came in a packet, and it looked like rice, felt like rice- but it wasn’t rice!”, he chuckles.
Despite such monumental hardship, he soon adapted and fondly recounts more mishaps in adapting to his new home: “Slovakia itself is beautiful, like Scotland in some senses. The fans are extremely passionate and they want the best for you, although you do see the other side of it when you come off the park after a bad game!
“It’s an experience that, looking back, I don’t think I could do again. You’re walking around streets you don’t know, looking for McDonalds. I did get chased up the road a fair few times after walking into some dodgy places!
“To be fair, it’s experiences like that that make the whole package in football. Life in the game is so much more than just reporting for training and matches.
“Another time, I went into the local swimming pool where it turned out to be “Naked Hour”. Things were dropping to their knees, and it wasn’t their towels!
“There were good times and bad times – but they definitely helped to shape me as a person.”
Stories about McDonalds and Slovakian nudists aside, Rossi’s four-year-long spell in the country ended on a bittersweet note, as injuries and homesickness took shape in his final year.
“The end of my time in Slovakia came about because of the stuff going on in my life. I obviously missed home, and only really got to go back for Christmas when they had a winter break in Slovakia.
“The longer you stay at home over that Christmas period, the less inclined you are to go back as you enjoy home comforts. The team also started going through a poor patch, and in a country like Slovakia where the fans are so passionate – it can sometimes become quite volatile when you see the other side of that passion.
“For me, I was picking up a few injuries and struggled to train. We managed to stay up that year but by the end of the season, I had made up my mind.
“Rumours were starting to go around that we wouldn’t be getting paid after the season we had, but I was lucky enough to have made some good friends over there who supported me when times became tough.
“I knew I wasn’t offering what I could for the club, and after a discussion with my family it was time to come back.
“I was sad to go, Slovakia was home for four years. I made a lot of, and still have, friends over there. From that perspective it was hard to walk away, but my dad had it spot on when he told me that your health is the most important thing.
Despite a gloomy end to his Slovakian adventure, Rossi returned to Scotland a different person than the boy who flew out on the plane four years earlier.
He would go on to have a storied career in the lower leagues, turning out for Gala Fairydean, Vale of Leithen, Spartans and, in the present day, his hometown team.
In 2013 Rossi and his business partner, Chris Anderson, established CG Elite – a local coaching company for kids. It’s been a successful enterprise for the two, there are plans to expand to nearby Galashiels.
Listening to his stories on such a muggy night, who are the other Scots to venture beyond our borders?
Ryan Gauld springs to mind, along with Ian Cathro and Barry Douglas. I must confess, I’m struggling to remember, if there are any names of other pioneers.
Nowadays, with the riches of England catching the eye of many young Scots, it seems there’s no need for talented young players in our country to venture into Europe and beyond.
Is it worth the risk? It’s a question I extend to Ger, who’s answer might hopefully serve as inspiration to other Scottish players looking to make their way in the game: “Going abroad is something I would wholly recommend. I know that young Scottish players these days are looking at scholarships in America, but not many make the step into Europe,” he explains
“It’s an education like no other and, even though I did come home, I feel like I use a lot of the experiences I had over there in what I’m doing now.
“You have to be brave, there’s no doubt about it, there are a lot of times when you miss home so much. The biggest thing, from my perspective, is that you know what you’re coming back to. You’ll make memories that will last for the rest of your life and you’ll make new friends. I would never force anyone, but I did have some of the best times of my life over there.”
Written by Neil Hobson (@NeilHobson10)