Republic of Ireland U21 striker Reece Grego-Cox on leaving boyhood club QPR and chasing European Championship qualification history with Ireland
By Damian Dolan
If it’s every schoolboy’s wish to be a professional footballer, then to play for the club you grew up supporting is surely the stuff of dreams. Reece Grego- Cox has done both.
The striker spearheading the Republic of Ireland Under 21s quest to become the first Ireland team to qualify for the Under 21 European Championships joined QPR as a 14- year-old, having grown up watching the Hoops from the stands at Loftus Road.
He signed professionally for the club in December 2014 and by the end of the season had forced his way into the first-team, culminating in a first Premier League start away at Leicester City.
The footballing world, it seemed, was his oyster. A new talent had emerged. Last Friday, though, Grego-Cox left QPR by mutual consent after eight years, despite having six months still to run on his contract.
Twenty-four hours later he came off the bench for new club Woking (known as the Cards) against Tranmere Rovers in the National League. A drop of three levels.
It’s a move he hopes will get his career “rolling again”, which over the intervening two and a half years, since his start at Leicester, has stalled somewhat at club level.
This despite his prolific form at underage level for QPR, most recently their Under 23 side, and for Ireland at Under 17s, Under 18s and now Under 21s.
“I’m 21 now and I’ve come to the stage in my career where I need to be playing, and that wasn’t really happening,” Grego-Cox told the Irish World. “I need to play first-team games and get more experience. I wish that was at QPR, but it’s obviously not meant to be.
“It was a very hard decision to make, and a massive decision, but I felt it was best for me to progress my career. “I always wanted to play for QPR, and I don’t have a bad word to say about them. They’re fine with it, and I’m fine with. They’ve wished me all the best.”
Having burst on to the scene in 2015, a combination of injuries, most notably a knee injury which curtailed a loan spell at Newport County, and a lack of first-team opportunities limited Grego-Cox to just two further first-team appearances for Rangers.
He started against Carlisle in the League Cup (August 2015) and away to Norwich at the end of last season in the Championship. It was then QPR manager Chris Ramsey who brought him into the first-team.
Having been an unused substitute for the Hoops’ FA Cup third round tie with Sheffield United, he made his debut off the bench against Tottenham in March 2015. Two months later he was starting at the King Power Stadium, as already relegated QPR lost 5-1.
For Grego-Cox it was still an invaluable experience, as he soaked up all the knowledge he could from the likes of Richard Dunne and Joey Barton.
“It was an amazing experience and being a part of that team, with such fantastic talent and big characters in the changing room, was really good,” he recalled.
“Being a young player in that environment it gave me a boost, because they always had my back. If I made a mistake in training they’d say ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll do better next time’. It was good to have those sort of characters around me.
“At the time I felt it could be the start of a long and successful career at a high level. But the injuries set me back a little and now I’ve almost got to start again.”
Grego-Cox’s mature perspective is very much in keeping with his personality. He speaks with a wisdom which belies his tender years. How many 21-year-olds would recognise the need to leave the club they’ve supported since they were a boy, in order to further their career?
He feels he now has something to prove, not just to himself, but to others. And he’s intent on proving the doubters wrong.
Woking, to whom he’s signed until the end of the season, have given him the opportunity to do just that. The aim over the next few months is simple. Get some first-team minutes under his belt, score goals, and hopefully attract the interest of a few football league managers.
“The Woking manager (Anthony Limbrick) has high hopes for me there and he’s said I’ll be playing every game,” said Grego-Cox.
“It’s an opportunity for me to play week in, week out and put myself in the shop window for league clubs to come and look at me.”
It seems unlikely he’ll be short of offers. A prolific goalscorer since his youth for Bedfont Eagles FC, he’s his own harshest critic, and it’s his single-minded approach to scoring goals and his role as a striker which sets him apart.
“That’s been there since I was a little kid. I’ve always had the mentality that if I haven’t scored, then I’ve had a bad game. That might not be the case, but that’s just my mentality,” he said.
“I’ve taken that with me wherever I’ve gone and I say to myself before every game ‘if I don’t score I’ve not done my job’. A striker’s job is to score goals and if I don’t it hurts me, even if I’ve had assists and overall had a good game.
“I’m my worst critic, but I don’t feel that’s a bad thing. I’m an honest player and an honest guy, and if I have a bad game I’ll hold my hands up.”
After attending some training camps his international career “kicked on from there’. Grego-Cox qualifies for Ireland through his Clare-born nan, who moved to England with her family when she was six.
She now lives in Cork. He made debut for the Under 17s against eventual runners up Austria at the 2013 European Championships, and marked the occasion with a goal in a 1-0 win.
Although he didn’t score on his debut for Ireland Under 18s, he didn’t have to wait too long to make his mark. He found the net on his second appearance, against Gibraltar, and popped with another in Ireland’s next game against Switzerland.
Elevated to the Under 21s, he made his debut for Noel King’s side in a 4-1 win over Qatar in September 2015 and was amongst the scorers after coming off the bench.
With four goals in Ireland’s opening five qualifying games for next year’s European Championships in Italy and San Marino, Grego-Cox is joint top goal scorer in Group 5 along with Germany’s Marcel Hartel.
He netted in Ireland’s 3-1 win in Azerbaijan, before claiming a hat-trick in a 4-1 drubbing of Israel in October.
“As soon as I got the first I thought to myself ‘I’ve now got 89 minutes to score two more goals’,” he said.
“It’s a big achievement to score a hat-trick at international level, so it’s a career highlight. It felt really good and all of the lads and FAI staff were really pleased for me. It was the confidence boost I needed.”
The only blot on Ireland’s campaign so far, a 2-1 defeat away to Norway in their last game, with the Norwegians snatching the winner in injury-time. Ireland’s bright young stars will hope to take another step nearer qualification when they entertain Azerbaijan in March, with a double-header against Germany and a tricky trip to an unpredictable Kosovo side to come.
“This is the most exciting campaign I’ve been part of, and the most exciting team,” said Grego-Cox.
“All the lads are playing first-team football at their clubs, or are out on loan at league clubs, so if you were to calculate how many league games the team has played, it would be quite high.
“That’s shown in the group so far, in our performances. We’re playing well and look like a very experienced team, who only meet up a few times a year. We’re looking very solid.”
“We’ll go into the Germany games feeling confident. If we play like we’ve been playing I think we can get a result in both games. If we can, then we’ll be in a good position.
“But we’re focusing on March and getting a win against Azerbaijan.”
The events of last Friday have already assured that 2018 will go down as a big year in the career of Grego-Cox, but if he can help steer Ireland’s Under 21s to the European Championships it could yet be a monumental one.