Playing at the Maracanã with Kaka: Luke Boden on life after Sheffield Wednesday
Luke Boden was relaxing in the plush surroundings of the Garrison Hotel when his phone buzzed for a call that would changed his life forever.
The Sheffield Wednesday man, by then 21 and growing restless in a career that had stuttered since his Paul Sturrock-granted debut as a 17-year-old, almost let it ring through. Thankfully, he didn’t.
“Luke, it’s Adrian Heath,” a South Yorkshire accent said from a number as foreign as could be. “I wondered if you might want to have a chat about an opportunity I would like to offer you.”
It had been a happy but turbulent few years, a panting and red-faced Boden tells The Star fresh from a jog in the Floridian sunshine, and the call came at the ideal time.
His contract at the club he’d grown up at was dwindling and new boss Alan Irvine had made it clear he didn’t fancy him. One way or another, he thought, it was time for a change.
A four-year experience with the senior Owls had been interspersed with loans at Chesterfield, Rushden & Diamonds and Northampton, and it had given him the itch. A talented passer of the ball, Boden wanted to get out and make his way.
“I just wanted to play and if I wasn't going to play for Sheffield Wednesday's first team I wanted to go and get some playing experience somewhere else,” he said, breath now safely caught as he sits back on a sun-drenched porch.
“Ultimately I always wanted to come back and play for Sheffield Wednesday, but that wasn’t going to happen. So I made the decision. And it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
It was a bold move brought about in part by former Owls pair James O’Connor and Sean McAuley, both early influences in Boden’s career that has set themselves up Stateside. O’Connor, an ambitious future manager of Orlando City with contacts out there, would follow the youngster to the US club shortly afterwards.
Boden moved to the Florida outfit in 2011 to be managed by Heath, a former Sheffield United boss. Then a USL side with lofty ambitions, a hugely successful five-year spell with the club would see them become one of the major forces in American soccer.
Three years later the face of the club, and Boden’s career, changed forever. Orlando had just joined the MLS and the club’s general manager Paul McDonough, now sporting director at David Beckham’s soon-to-be-launched Inter Miami franchise, pulled Boden to one side.
“He just said to me one day, ‘How would you like to play with Kaka?’,” the Sheffield-born now 31-year-old remembers, laughing. “And it happened. The World Cup-winning, Ballon D’or-winning Kaka. Unbelievable.
“He was an incredible player, very, very humble for someone that has won as much as he has and for such a talented individual.
“You can get some players back home that have an incredibly opinion of themselves and truthfully, they've done nothing in the game. That was something that stuck out. He just didn't have that attitude or mentality.
“He spent time with the young lads, he was the first in the gym and the last one out. A proper example to the young players at the club at the time. He was a quiet lad and kept himself to himself. We'd have a laugh and a joke with him but outside of football we rarely saw him.
“He'd go and spend time with his family and he was just a regular guy who was really, really good at football. You think of these guys living these fancy lives but he just enjoyed spending time with his kids and was a very good person.”
Kaka wasn’t the only world-class player Boden shared a field with during his time with Orlando. His time in the MLS overlapped with that of players such as Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, he faced up against Francesco Totti in a pre-season friendly with AS Roma and lead by his new teammate toured Brazil, playing against Flamengo at a packed Maracanã.
He left Orlando in 2016 and after a short spell at Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he played with Joe Cole, he is now focusing on the next stage of his life; studying hard and coaching at college level.
Boden is the assistant coach at Rollins College, one of the more prestigious schools in America.
“I've played against great players, some great teams,” smiles Boden, “and I wouldn't have had those experiences if I has stayed in England.
“There's always that 'what if?', I guess. I'm still very good friends with Tommy Spurr and Mark Beevers and Richard O'Donnell now, they've all had very successful careers in England. We've spoken about that before and they've told me I should have stuck it out or gone somewhere else or come back.
“But I got into the first team at 17 and then got to a stalemate at 21 and I was sick of it, coming off the bench for 10 minutes, travelling to away games and not getting on. That's not why I wanted to play the game.
“I'd be lying if I said I didn't have any regrets over maybe having a better career in England. But ultimately coming out here is the best thing I ever did. It's been amazing and ultimately I wouldn't change a thing.
“I'm married and I've got a little boy, I've got a little girl on the way, she gets here in October. I'm an Englishman living in Orlando, I'm settled with my family with a job I love and I couldn't be happier.”