Lithuanian-born Loughgall striker Nedas Maciulaitis credits football with helping him integrate into Northern Irish society.
We moved to Portadown with his parents when they were only five years old. At first Maciulaitis found it difficult to adjust to life in Ulster, without his usual home comforts. But football was a vehicle that allowed him to form lifelong friendships.
The striker – named NIFWA Championship Player of the Month for September – explained: “At first I didn’t really have any friends at Portadown.
“Things changed when I joined the football team at school. Football was a great way for me to build relationships. When I think about it, I know practically all my friends through football. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you love football you will always have something in common with people.
“One of my best friends is Pablo Andrade, who is from Brazil. He was in a similar position to me, so we became friends at school because we both loved football.
“Years later we now play on the same Loughgall team and are still great friends.”
Maciulaitis, 23, now has a Northern Irish accent.
He said: “I was so young when we moved here that I learned the language quite quickly. It was difficult at school at first, but after three or four months I was flying.
“For my parents, things were a little more difficult. They had to attend evening classes after work, which was hard on them. But that’s only part of the process.
“Now it feels like home. My girlfriend is from here, all my friends are from here and I even have a Portadown accent.
“I now live in Belfast with my girlfriend and have a job in sales. I love life here.
Maciulaitis also enjoys life on the pitch.
Loughgall leads the Lough 41 Championship, with an unbeaten record. In September he scored five goals and on Tuesday night helped the Villagers knock Glenavon out of the BetMcLean League Cup.
He said: “It’s a nice feeling to be named player of the month. It’s good to be recognized in this way because it feels like your hard work is finally paying off.
“At the same time, it’s a team prize because I couldn’t win it without the help of my teammates. Any Loughgall player could be here to collect this trophy.
“But we remain anchored. Promotion is our end goal, but we’re not too excited yet. There are almost 30 games left to play.
Maciulaitis would love another shot at the Danske Bank Premiership. He secured a high-profile transfer to Coleraine after a successful spell at Armagh City but struggled to earn a place in the Bannsiders first team.
He said: “I had a chance in the Premiership with Coleraine but it didn’t really work out.
“Part of the problem was that I came to the end of the transfer window at which I was already cup-tied. The cup matches that I might have had a chance at, I was ineligible. And I was up against guys like James McLaughlin and Eoin Bradley for a spot on the team, which are just class acts.
“So it was difficult to get a starter shirt. Now that I’m a bit older I want another chance and I want it to be with Loughgall.
Tomorrow, the Villagers travel to Ballyclare Comrades with the aim of extending their unbeaten run to 12 games in all competitions.
Maciulaitis said: “We might have to fight Ballyclare because they have improved a lot. But we’re in good form, so we’ll go out there looking for three more points.