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Football club chaplains: The men who are more interested in saving souls than scoring goals

Chaplains Dario Leal, Ken White and Bill Lavery tell Graham Luney about the spiritual support they offer to players and fans of Cliftonville, Crusaders and Linfield

Published 26/11/2015

On the ball: from left, chaplains Dario Leal, Ken White and Bill Lavery
On the ball: from left, chaplains Dario Leal, Ken White and Bill Lavery
Linfield fan David Crozier, who died while at a match, with his wife Margaret
Roy and Alan McDonald. Alan tragically died at 48
Nathan Hanley, whose father died of cancer
Yes, Minister: Sir Alex Ferguson says clergy can be a help

Football managers, coaches and players are like everyone else. There are times in our lives when we need a listening ear, comfort and guidance.

Step forward the club chaplain whose goal is to be 'pastorally proactive but spiritually reactive'.

Eleven of the 12 Danske Bank Premiership teams in Northern Ireland have chaplains - Warrenpoint Town are the missing link to date - but you won't find ministers marching into dressing rooms with a Bible, ready to preach.

The chaplains provide a comforting presence to people of all faiths and at football clubs there is increasing awareness of their importance with 69 of the 92 clubs in the top four divisions in England accepting that the Church can be a natural partner during the highs and lows of our lives.

Among the Irish League chaplains are Rev Ken White at Crusaders, Rev Bill Lavery at Linfield and Cliftonville's Rev Dario Leal.

When personal tragedies and difficulties arise it's important to know that someone cares.

Methodist minister Rev Bill Lavery, at 16 years the longest serving Irish League chaplain, says: "We had a terrible tragedy some years ago when a youth player drowned when going in after his dog.

"A large number of us travelled in buses, including the youth team and (then manager) David Jeffrey, to the service which was in a field and it would have brought tears from a stone.

"I'm a confidential friend of the club. I'm not an evangelist. There are needs at a football club that others can't deal with, such as marriage breakdown, illness, bereavement, that's where we come in. We don't pray for results, we pray for the players on the field.

"We are more interested in a goalkeeper's young child who is ill in hospital than that keeper making five saves on a Saturday."

Rev Ken White, who has been with the Crues for 15 seasons, adds: "Your role is to be available at times such as children's christenings, weddings, funeral services for ex-players or spreading the ashes of fans.

"A former player's wife died tragically and I remember Stephen Baxter (the club's manager) brought the players together and there were a number of questions asked during a traumatic time.

"When Nathan Hanley was with us, his father died of cancer, while Alain Emerson's wife died tragically. We had a lock in with Stephen after the funeral and the players just wanted to talk about it. Roy McDonald also lost his brother Alan and that was a difficult time."

Rev Dario Leal, a Presbyterian minister, was born in Chile but has lived in Northern Ireland for 20 years and his position on the board of governors at Cliftonville Integrated Primary School opened a door to becoming the Red Army's Christian soldier.

"For me it's like being a silent witness and being there for players who need support when they aren't playing," says Rev Leal, who has been part of the Solitude team for four years.

"It's all about trust and that is earned when it's understood you have no agenda other than to help, listen and offer support.

"Last season we had so many injuries and that was hard. One tackle was so bad I was with the physio and there for the player. The club has trained medical staff but it's important the players and their families know our presence is there.

"The long term injuries are tough to deal with, but I try to be sensitive and while accepting the painful realities, we should also talk about how we can keep going and I will pray for them. Every player is different but I've told the guys I'm here for them if they want to talk."

Sports Chaplaincy UK report that more sporting organisations are embracing chaplains. Ulster Rugby have Rev Andrew Thompson and former Linfield and Glentoran midfielder Philip Mitchell, together with his brother Keith, are co-chaplaincy support directors for Northern Ireland Sport. Manchester United's most successful manager Sir Alex Ferguson has said: "Chaplains can be of help to all sorts of people involved with sport when crisis, need or difficulty comes."

While former British and Irish Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan added: "Chaplaincy brings a personal touch - people feel they can be listened to as individuals."

Irish League chaplains provide a pastoral safety net and offer support when personal tragedies or difficulties occur.

Rev Lavery, who conducted services in memory of Linfield legend Tommy Dickson and the club's former chairman David Crawford, recalls: "When the supporter David Crozier died at our match a few weeks ago it was great to see the football family coming together.

"Glentoran put a notice in the paper and players shared their condolences on Twitter.

"I had never seen an ambulance with a blue light on going behind a goal in my life before.

"If someone has to go to A&E on a Saturday, I go with them. A player came to me and said he was feeling very down as he felt he was being overlooked by the manager.

"I told him to play in the second team, play your best and an injury could create an opening for you. I always try to encourage the players."

Rev White, who also joins the Crues team on their European adventures, adds: "Mostly it's confidential chats with players about life. It's about being there for the players including on match days.

"People will ask for prayers and advice.

"Confidentiality is important and there's no telling tales to the manager regardless of how friendly you are.

"Sometimes you will pick up things that the manager hasn't had time to or heard a family issue and it can be sensitively dealt with.

"You wish you could do more for the club but being a full-time minister you are limited in the time you can devote to the role."

Rev Leal is grateful for the support of Reds chairman Gerard Lawlor and he's hoping the relationships he's established at the north Belfast club continue to grow.

"I approached Gerard (Lawlor) and asked would the club be interested in having a chaplain and the board said 'yes'. I've a great relationship now with the players, staff and board," he says.

"The club will also probably look to appoint someone to work with the younger players as well as those teenagers who hope to make the first team one day and need support. Some of them might come from tough backgrounds but they will have our support.

"But we are here to celebrate the great moments as well and be here when we are winning. There's a time to celebrate and be joyful.

"I've been blessed with a great relationship with Gerard and from doing something small we can also do something big."

But the bad news for Linfield supporters is that Christmas could be cancelled this season.

Rev Lavery adds: "I introduced a carol service about 14 years ago but health and safety won't allow it this year as Windsor Park is being rebuilt. I would love to have a joint Linfield and Glentoran carol service with supporters there."

Peace breaking out between Linfield and Glentoran?... at least until Boxing Day.

Long after the crowd noise fades, though, the chaplains will quietly go about their business of keeping our football families together.

Belfast Telegraph

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