It’s not every time you set out to interview someone that you find out they have played international football against Emmanuel Adebayor but that is exactly what happened when English Players Abroad spoke to VFB Lübeck striker Gary Noel.
“I think the best was Adebayor. We played against Togo last year and his presence on the pitch against us was unbelievable! I even managed to get his shirt!”
The 28-year-old cannot hide his pride when talking about the best players he has ever shared a pitch with but that does not mean the Londoner should be in awe, he has had a very impressive career himself and there are still many chapters to come.
The former Dulwich Hamlet player made the move to abroad in 2011 and hasn’t looked back since.
“I had left Lewes after being relegated from Conference South and didn’t have a lot of options so I thought I would give it a try,” he says.
“I flew out there in the summer and went on a trial at Admira Wacker and in the first week they offered me a contract.”
The initial trial in Austria came through Noel’s association with renowned football choreographer Mike Delaney, who has worked with the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Mike had a friend who was an agent in Austria who had a few contacts in the game over there and he asked him if he knew anyone who would like to give it a try out over there,” says the striker. “I didn’t think twice!”
The fact that the forward is now in his seventh season of playing abroad is remarkable enough but it is even more surprising when you consider how his first season in Austria went.
Despite earning a contract at Admira Wacker, Noel was never given a chance in the first team and was restricted to playing time with the club’s second team, who play in the Regionalliga, Austria’s third tier.
The following season could not have been any more different. Despite still playing in the third tier, the division in which he had managed just three goals in during the previous season, Noel fired home an impressive 20 goals for new side Schwechat to seem him crowned as top scorer in the east division, despite his side finishing fourth-bottom.
“After a not so good season with Admira Wacker where I was not given my chance in the first team and played mostly for the second team, my agent and I decided it was best for me to go somewhere else to play and score consistently – and that’s exactly what I did at Schwechat,” recalls the striker.
The Englishman was now hot property in Austria and his goals did not go unnoticed by teams from higher up the pyramid.
What came next was truly remarkable and a far cry from his spell with non-league sides like Dulwich and Lewes.
Noel joined St. Pölten, a team who played in the second-tier known as the Austrian First League. The transfer began a remarkable chain of events which would take in cup finals and culminate in playing against a Dutch giant in the Europa League.
“My biggest success was what came next [after Schwechat]. I managed to get a move to St. Pölten, where I helped them by scoring some very important goals including the winner in extra time against Sturm Graz to not only send us to into the Austrian Cup final but also into the Europa League qualifying rounds, where I played against the likes of PSV Eindhoven home and away!”
Noel also scored in the cup final but he was powerless to prevent a 4-2 loss to Red Bull Salzburg but his achievements were extraordinary despite the defeat. St. Pölten were in the second tier at this time. They had defeated two teams from the Austrian Bundesliga to make it into the final and his goal meant his side would play in Europe for the first team ever.
The club’s European adventure was far from a token trip abroad too. The Englishman’s side beat Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv in the second qualifying round before only narrowly losing to PSV in the next round.
After a successful first season with St. Pölten, Noel found it harder in his second season to find regular time on the pitch as he drifted between the first team and second team and he eventually moved to First Vienna who played back in the third tier.
A season and a half in Vienna saw his career reignited as the striker scored eighteen times back in the Regionalliga to earn a move across the border into German football for the first time.
“After five years I wanted to try play in Germany because I knew that football over there is bigger and possibly better,” he says.
“VfB Lübeck were the first team to offer me something real so I jumped at the chance!”
Of course moving to Germany meant he would not have to learn another new language but it was not all plain sailing for the forward.
“Well of course they speak German in Austria but in a different way! But spending the whole time in a German speaking environment [in Austria] made it easier! I must say it’s very hard language though!”
At least it was just himself he had to settle in Germany, he had no family to persuade to join him across the border, “I don’t have any kids, something definitely for the future,” he says.
But whilst all this was going on in his club career, something was happening behind the scenes which would make Noel’s career even more remarkable.
“I always wondered if they had a national team so one day I decided to email their association, the Mauritius Football Association and told them I am eligible to play for Mauritius because my father was born there.
“They literally called me the next day and said they were delighted with the news and invited me to fly over!”
Thus began the forward’s unexpected international career.
“I’ve played against some very large countries including Ghana, Togo, Mozambique, Rwanda, Mongolia and Macau.
“It is a huge honour for my family and I that I have the chance to play for my father’s country and best of all, I get to travel the world to many different country and cultures to play football.
“Everything is paid for by the MFA so when I’m picked for the squad all I have to do is pack a bag and my football boots and I’m ready to go,” says the striker.
Unfortunately for Noel, all this travelling comes at a cost. Lübeck play in Germany’s fourth tier, also known as the Regionalliga, a division which does not schedule in an international break.
“Most of the time I have to choose between my club and country. It is a tough decision but most of the time I’ve chosen country because not many people have the chance to play for their country and get to travel the world doing what they love!
“I consider myself lucky!”
His frequent trips to Africa do not seem to have affected his status at Lübeck too much. He hit fourteen in his first season in Germany and has eleven so far this season too. His goal scoring exploits have seen him become one of the club’s star players and his picture is used across the club’s social media, even acting as the player portrayed in their Twitter cover photo.
Clearly the move abroad has done a world of good for the 28-year-old’s career so why don’t more players follow in his footsteps?
“I really don’t know,” says Noel when asked why more Englishmen don’t join him abroad.
“I’m sure there has been many English players who have tried abroad and have had success but also many who haven’t.
“All I know is that it’s all about believing in yourself and your ability and just taking that first step because you never know where it will take you.
“Maybe a lot of young English footballers are scared of taking that first step into the unknown.”
In a career which has gone from English non-league to the Europa League to international football, Noel still has many more years ahead of him. So what’s next?
“My plan was always to come back to England and play”, he says, seven years after leaving.
“I still have a few ex-coaches and managers still coaching in the National League and if something happens in the summer, I could see myself coming back then.
“Ideally I would love to play in the Football League, even League 2 would be great but you never know what happens in football. It can take you anywhere!”
And it’s fair to say Gary Noel is more qualified than most to make that statement.