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Hope for kids out of tragedy is driving force for Pat

By Steven Beacom

Published 23/01/2016

United he stands: Pat McGibbon in Lurgan
United he stands: Pat McGibbon in Lurgan

Pat McGibbon was living the dream. It was April 1993 and Manchester United were on their way to a first league title in 26 years. Eight months earlier the teenager from Lurgan had left his club Portadown to join the Old Trafford giants.

Playing in United's youth ranks alongside bright young things like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, and very much holding his own in that company, McGibbon was having a ball.

Then came a devastating call from home. Pat's brother Philip had committed suicide. Heartbreak for the tight knit family. Despair for Pat.

After returning to Northern Ireland to be with his loved ones, he found comfort from the pain of losing his brother by getting back to Manchester and playing football.

McGibbon may not have had the stardust sprinkled career he had hoped for at United, but he had perspective, and would go on to enjoy excellent times at Wigan.

Respected as a committed defender, seven international caps would come his way.

After Pat's father in law was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he left the professional ranks behind, aged 29, so that his wife Bernadette could assist with her dad's care.

He played for Portadown, where he is now the physio, and Glentoran, where he won the league title, before managerial stints with Lurgan Celtic and Newry City.

And all the while never a day went by without thoughts of Philip entering his head.

McGibbon, now 42, was determined to use his experience to help youngsters going through mental torment.

Three years ago he decided he could do it through football, setting up a project in Lurgan called Train To Be Smart (TTBS) with a youth coaching programme entitled S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed).

The aim is to educate boys and girls, for them to have fun, improve mental health through sport and offer guidance. The programme began with 26 kids and now has over 200.

"With Philip's death the mental and emotional side is as important to me as the physical and tactical skills you can teach," says McGibbon.

"What I find with suicide is that it is a very emotive subject, but if you can get people talking about it, it has a ripple effect and can get others talking when before they may not have been comfortable doing that. Talking helps.

"What happened to Philip is still very hard for our family, but it does inspire me to talk about it to benefit others.

"We are trying to show that disappointments and emotions are part and parcel of life and it is how you react that matters most and how you can move forward in any walk of life or environment.

"I do think of Philip. I am not a particularily religious person but I would say I am a very moralistic person and every time I think of Philip I remember all the good times and us growing up together.

"And every time I think of Philip I feel that's him looking down on me.

"After the experience with Philip it put life into perspective a lot more for me."

That's why McGibbon, an articulate individual with a degree in physiotherapy from the University of Salford, was able to cope with a terrible Manchester United debut - it turned out to be his only game for the Red Devils.

Confident in the potential of the kid from mid-Ulster, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson included McGibbon in the starting line-up alongside Gary Pallister in central defence for a home League Cup tie with York City in 1995.

A youthful Beckham, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin and Lee Sharpe also played. With United trailing 1-0, McGibbon brought down York's Paul Barnes when he was through on goal. Red card. York went on to win 3-0.

That night McGibbon's family tried to lift their spirits by going to a McDonald's on the way home. A disconsolate Beckham and his dad were already there. They had the same idea.

McGibbon would later go out on loan to Swansea and Wigan. At the former he suffered a bad injury and was out for five months.

At Wigan he liked what he saw and despite the offer of a new two year contract on the table at United, he opted to move to the Latics, where he became a big hit.

On his spell at United, McGibbon recalls: "I met some great characters and had some great experiences though obviously the game against York City was a big disappointment.

"When United offered me a two year contract I couldn't see myself breaking through and I wanted to go and play first team football. I have no regrets and in terms of my time at United I played and met with some really genuine lads.

"I look at the team photo from 1995 to 1997 and there were very few arrogant lads amongst them. They weren't as self obsessed as some players are now.

"There was a great team ethic amongst boys like Scholes, Beckham, the two Nevilles and the first team lads like Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane."

McGibbon says that his SMART coaching programme was set up with the brilliance of Scholes in mind.

The father of three states: "Scholesy was the best player I've ever seen.

"In training when we did sprints Scholesy would be last, if we did a 10 minute run he would be last because he was asthmatic but you give him a ball and he would always have a picture in his head.

"He was like a chess player. Smart."

If Scholes was the best McGibbon played with, Republic of Ireland assistant boss Keane was the most focused.

He's also generous. On February 4, Keane will be interviewed by Irish League pundit Liam Beckett at a charity gala night in the Armagh City Hotel to aid Train To Be Smart Juniors.

McGibbon hadn't spoken with his old United team-mate for many years but former Portadown pal Tom Mohan, now the Republic's under-17 coach, put the midfield great in touch and he instantly agreed to come over and lend a hand.

"Roy is a very genuine guy. I am delighted that he is taking time to be with us. It should be a good evening, helping us raise awareness for what we are trying to do," says Pat.

There are some tickets left costing £65 which will cover a drinks reception, three-course meal, question-and-answer session, guest speaker and live entertainment.

A charity auction will also feature on the night, with highly-regarded Watt Nicoll from Scotland the guest speaker before Beckett and Keane go head to head.

Contact Lurgan's Skelton Travel (028) 38 324741 for further information.

Belfast Telegraph

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