"I will keep coming back for more," beamed Eastern Region IRL's stricken Ray Whelehan as he revelled in holding the appearance record in the top amateur competition.
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No one knows the UEFA Regions' Cup quite like Eastern Region IRL midfielder Ray Whelehan; with 27 appearances, the Tolka Rovers FC man has played more games in the world's top amateur competition than anyone else. Having helped steer his side through qualifying, the 31-year-old electrician has been robbed of the chance to play at this summer's finals by a cruciate injury, but he knows it will be a special occasion for his colleagues and all the teams involved.
UEFA.com: What does the UEFA Regions' Cup mean to you?
Ray Whelehan: It means everything to play in it. You put in a lot of effort over the season, all the training and all the travel, and getting to play in the UEFA Regions' Cup makes it all worthwhile. At our level, I don't think you could play in a better tournament.
UEFA.com: What past tournament stands out for you?
Whelehan: The finals in Portugal in 2011 were the big one – it was an incredible ten days. We got our rewards by getting to the final where we lost narrowly to the hosts. I first played in qualifying in Bosnia in 2004; I had just turned 21 and managed to make the squad. I'm 31 now but I run around as if I was 21.
UEFA.com: Is it a big deal for the Irish players to be competing on home soil?
Whelehan: It will be good for our families that they can watch us play without the expense and hassle of travelling. My father comes to every home game – even though I am 31, it's like I was 12 the way we speak after the match.
My mother, wife and mother-in-law came to see me play in Portugal in 2011 and the tournament was a nice excuse for them to get away. I don't know what everyone's families will do now my team are playing in Ireland – a week in a hotel in Dublin maybe! Whoever is lucky enough to make the squad will have great support from family and friends.
UEFA.com: Was professional football ever an option for you?
Whelehan: At the start of my career, the option was there to play in the League of Ireland at a semi-pro level but a couple of things stopped me. I am a self-employed electrician now but at the time, when I was 19 or 20, I was starting an apprenticeship, so the demands of playing professionally would have been very high on my time. Also, I had broken into the squad with the amateur international team for the UEFA Regions' Cup and I knew that if I played at professional level for a club I would not be able to play in future Regions' Cups. So the next level for me was the international side at amateur level – I knew that standard was still very high and I have learned how to compete at that level.
UEFA.com: Ireland's representatives are called Eastern Region IRL but do the team feel that they are representing their country?
Whelehan: Absolutely – we are playing for Ireland when we play in these matches. I know it's called amateur level by people outside the game, but to me this is the highest level we can play at and represent our country. I could not be happier when I pull on that green jersey as I know I am representing my country – I am very proud to be part of that.
UEFA.com: Is it an honour to hold the record for appearances in the UEFA Regions' Cup?
Whelehan: I don't keep tabs of all my games because I don't want to be one to gloat – when people ask how many caps I have, I say 'a few'. But I was blown away when I heard that I had the record. And I will keep coming back for more.
UEFA.com: How do you rate Eastern Region IRL's chances in the finals?
Whelehan: I know from past Regions' Cup experience that it will be a very tough tournament – the standard is very high. You tend not to get one team that dominates the group, but if we can get a positive result from the first game we have a chance of getting to the final. We are not in awe of the continental sides as we have been here before and we have experience.