Ex-Northern Ireland player Stuart Elliott on his life as a pastor
Ex-Northern Ireland winger Stuart Elliott on why he lives for his work as a pastor and how his strong faith won him respect in dressing rooms.
Stuart Elliott was a hero for clubs in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England and produced some memorable moments at international level for his country.
He can recall many glorious days but while the former Glentoran, Motherwell and Hull City star admits there are times when he misses the thrill of scoring a goal, he is not one of those ex-footballers who have found it difficult to adapt to life when they stopped playing and the floodlights faded out.
Instead the 38-year-old from east Belfast will tell you he is happier than he has ever been and has never felt more fulfilled in his role as an evangelical minister teaching the word of God.
“I am an Evangelist and speak at different churches all over the country,” says the ex-Northern Ireland winger with a great sense of pride.
“I’m a bit of a free spirit in that I can go into different churches and speak to different denominations.
“I’m ordained as a pastor so a lot of my work is with One Goal Ministeries, which I set up. That’s my main passion.
“I’m really contented and have never been happier in my life. People ask me if I miss the game and I do miss the thrill of being out on the pitch and scoring goals, but at the same time what I’m doing now is really fulfilling for me.”
There are endless stories around the globe of sports stars finding it difficult to come to terms with not being out in the various fields they compete in. Big names such as swimmer Ian Thorpe, athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, cricketer Andrew Flintoff and footballer Paul Gascoigne have spoken openly and honestly about struggling with retirement.
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard once said that “nothing could satisfy me outside the ring” while in America there is serious concern about the number of NFL players who have committed suicide or suffer from depression or mental health issues after quitting the sport.
Elliott believes more should be done to help athletes faced with this problem.
“It is something that hasn’t been the dealt with properly over the years in terms of the impact and what hits sports stars when they step away from the game and the public eye,” he says.
“There have been different cases when people fall into depression and all sorts of problems because they have nothing to fill the void.
“They struggle to deal with the situation and I think there should be more thought about how we can support these people. Thankfully more football associations and sporting bodies are getting to realise that something should be done after footballers or other sports stars finish so that they can have a sense of worth.”
Elliott adds: “It’s important that after players finish playing football or for those involved in any sport that they find something that can fulfil them.
“My Christian faith was driving me throughout my football career and now that I’m finished my desire is to go out and share the Gospel with as many young and old people as I can.
“I have been quite vocal over the years that it is my Christian life that fulfills me. Even when I was playing football and much as I loved the game, football was always second to the walk that I had with Christ.”
As a Christian in football, Elliott, who started his career as a teenager at Glentoran and ended it at the same club in 2013 with successful stints in Scotland and England in between, was considered a rare breed when he was racing up the flank or scoring headers from inside the box.
He says: “I go to different men’s groups at churches and one of the questions I’m asked most is how difficult was it to be a Christian in football. I never found it difficult for the simple fact that I was always strong in my faith and never ashamed of Jesus Christ.
“So was it tough going against the tide? No. What I found was that there are some professing Christians in sport but their life doesn’t add up and in the changing rooms there would always be banter, but the people I was with at various clubs saw that I was consistent over the years with what I believed and that I was resolute and steadfast.
“I think they learned to respect me for what I believed in and had many opportunities to share my faith with them in different settings. I found that the boys in the changing room were actually very respectful to my Christian views and beliefs.”
One of Elliott’s old international team-mates Philip Mulryne was ordained as a deacon in the Catholic Church last month.
Mulryne, 38, is a member of the Dominican Order and is expected to be ordained as a priest next year.
“I remember Phil in his playing days. He was a good footballer and a nice guy and I wish him all the best in his life in general,” said Elliott.
“I know from my own perspective it is of vital importance to me to share the Gospel with young and old and long may that continue.”
Away from his evangelical work Stuart, who won 38 caps and netted four goals for Northern Ireland, is involved in property development and recently set up what is described as the country’s first premium chocolate and dessert cafe with his wife Laura-Lee in Ballymena.
Just four months after opening ‘Chocoa’ has been shortlisted for a Ballymena best small business award.
“We had this idea for a number of years but I was never settled in one place because of the football so I said when we came home we would look for the right location,” explained Elliott, who has two children Nathan (18) and Hannah (13).
“With the footfall so good in Ballymena and a unit becoming available we decided to go down the route of a luxury patisserie with chocolate desserts, loose leaf teas, coffees, macaroons, individual chocolates and a range of different items.
“My wife runs it and it has been very, very successful. We have actually been shortlisted for Ballymena small business of the Year and we are only open a few months. People seem to be enjoying it which is great.”
Elliott was at one of his old stomping grounds, Windsor Park last night, working as a pundit for BBC Radio Ulster for their coverage of Northern Ireland’s friendly against Croatia.
Saturday’s World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan, won 4-0 by the home side, brought back many happy memories to the winger who was such a favourite with Motherwell and Hull City.
Back in 2005 just a few days before David Healy’s goal famously defeated England in Belfast, Elliott scored a stunning free-kick in a 2-0 victory over Azerbaijan in a World Cup clash.
“It was a warm day and there was great excitement in the stadium because it was the game before the England match,” recalls Elliott.
“The manager at the time Lawrie Sanchez told us it was a big match and we needed to win it to give us momentum going into the England game. What stands out for me is that it was myself and Warren Feeney who scored on the day. We were both Ashfield boys, two east Belfast lads and it was great to be part of that story.
“I remember standing over the free-kick and David Healy and Damien Johnson were there too. I said to the boys that I fancied it and there was no greater feeling in football than seeing the ball end up in the top corner and watching the Kop behind the goal go crazy.”
While delighted by the progress Northern Ireland have made in the last couple of years, Elliott admits to a feeling of sadness about the difficult times on and off the pitch encountered by Glentoran.
The Oval outfit will always be his club. Before he played for the Glens, winning numerous trophies, Elliott cheered them on from the terraces.
He clings on the hope that the Glens will be title challengers in the future and has a strong message for the club and the supporters abut how they should go about it.
“It is sad what has happened to Glentoran in recent years,” he states.
“I know people say Cliftonville and Crusaders have been the dominant teams in the Irish League lately but as far as I’m concerned the Big Two will always be Glentoran and Linfield.
“And as a Glentoran supporter I hope and believe they can come back and challenge for league titles again.
“What I want to see them do is strongly invest in their youth system. I understand that it may take four or five years to bring through a new crop of talented local youngsters and that’s where the fans come in by being patient.
“You need a good balance of youth and experience, just as we had when I was playing for the Glens. I remember players like Andy Kirk, Paul Leeman and myself coming through with Paul Kirk doing all the grassroots stuff behind the scenes. All his work came to fruition under Tommy Cassidy when we got into the team and then Roy Coyle and when we went on to win many trophies.
“I think Glentoran need to go back to basics and focus on their youth system and the supporters would need to be patient and remember it is a long term plan.”