Gary Warwick: 'All I remember is walking down the stairs and then waking up as they put staples in my head in hospital'
Gary Warwick can't play football for a year after a serious assault, but the Ards man is now supporting a player badly hurt in a similar attack, says Stephanie Bell
A talented Northern Ireland football player who suffered a fractured skull and swelling on the brain after a vicious attack outside a Belfast nightclub has suffered another blow with the news that he has been banned from the game for a year.
Although now physically on the mend, Ards FC's Gary Warwick was devastated to be told by doctors that it is too dangerous for him to play football while he continues to heal because any further head injury could prove fatal.
Speaking for the first time about his ordeal, a gutted Gary reveals that he has been receiving counselling to come to terms with the trauma of the unprovoked attack on April 24.
While his injuries were severe, he says that the shock of the upheaval to his life proved harder to deal with.
"I was walking about very anxious when I first got out of hospital and I've been very down and depressed since," he adds.
"Everything was taken away from me and it was a shock to the system. I'm still not 100%, but I am a lot better than I was and more myself again. I have been getting counselling and going to mental health classes to help me cope with that.
"There has been a lot of good support, although I will really miss going to training and the games on a Saturday. It was such a big part of my life."
The 25-year-old, from north Belfast, also missed out on one of his club's biggest moments when, a week after he was attacked, his team won the Championship to gain promotion to the Irish Premiership.
In a measure of the esteem in which he is held by teammates, Ards dedicated their victory to Gary and celebrated with special T-shirts emblazoned with the message: "This One is for you Gary".
Ards FC chairman Brian Adams travelled to the Royal Victoria Hospital to present Gary with his Championship One winner's medal along with one of the T-shirts.
Describing the midfielder as "the team's free-kick specialist", Mr Adams said at the time: "We just wanted to recognise that he hasn't been forgotten. We have dedicated the title win to him - in fact, the whole end of the season has been dedicated to him."
Team manager Niall Curie says the team are still very much behind Gary as he continues to recover from the attack. "It is great to see he is doing well again and he is really missed around the place," he adds.
"It will be great to get him back, and as soon as he is ready, we will be here for him."
Gary was delighted to be finally able to return to his job in Tesco on Monday for the first time since the assault.
He had been enjoying a Saturday night out in Belfast city centre with some of his team-mates when they decided to leave a nightclub and head home around 1.30am.
Gary remembers nothing from the moment he walked down the stairs to leave the club until waking up hours later in hospital having staples put in his head.
Witnesses told him that as they walked down an alleyway from the club, a man appeared and punched him on the head, knocking him to the ground.
He sustained horrific injuries, which included a fractured skull, his nose was broken in two places and he had bleeding on the brain. Three days after the attack he suffered a seizure.
He spent two weeks in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
It is understood that the man responsible for the attack has now been identified, but not charged.
Gary says: "I had been out with a couple of fellas from the team and we ended up in a nightclub. We decided to leave about 1.30am and all I remember was walking down the stairs and, after that, the next thing was waking up in hospital getting staples in my head.
"I still don't really know all the details, but I've been told that as we were walking away from the club, this guy came out of nowhere and punched me in the head and I fell to the ground. He just ran off.
"I needed 13 staples in my head and my nose was broken in two places. It was a bit of a shock waking up in hospital.
"Then, three days later, I took a seizure. That was scary and I have been on medication for it until this week.
"It was hard when the team went on to win and I missed it, but at the same time it was good to see them doing it and celebrating it for me. That meant a lot."
The last few weeks have been a struggle for Gary as he comes to terms with his injuries. And now, just as his life is starting to get back to normal, he says the thought of not having his football will be hard to deal with.
"I've played football all my life," he adds. "I played for Cliftonville and Donegal Celtic and then joined Ards two years ago. This would have been my third season.
"The top doctor in the hospital told me that it was too much of a risk and if I got another head injury it could prove really dangerous.
"That has been the worst thing of the whole lot - knowing I can't play football for at least another year."
His family, friends and girlfriend of two-and-a-half years, Adele Blain (24), have been by his side during his long recovery and he says their support has helped him to get back to some normality.
Gary has since discovered the name of the person who attacked him, but he doesn't know the man. Naturally, he is hoping for justice. "I have heard who it is and he was arrested, but there have been no charges yet and I just think that's not fair," he says.
"My family and friends have been great and Adele has been my rock, helping me to get through it."
His thoughts now, however, are with another Irish League footballer, Niall Grace, who was left fighting for his life in a similar one-punch attack while on a night out in his native Londonderry two weeks ago.
Niall (23), who plays for Institute, also suffered serious head injuries and is still in hospital following an attack in Derry city centre in the early hours of September 11.
A man was later arrested and charged in connection with the assault.
Matthew McDermott (20), of Cornshell Fields, Derry, is accused of grievous bodily harm with intent and possession of the class A drug ecstasy.
Gary says: "I have been in contact with Niall's parents and offered to help him in any way I can. I can relate to what he is going through because it happened to me.
"It is shocking and I will be there to help him if he wants as I know what it is like, and it affects you not just physically, but mentally. If I can help, I will be glad to."