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'Every day is a battle for Christians all over the world ... I believe without faith we would crash and burn'

By Claire McNeilly

Veteran Irish League footballer Nathan McConnell (34) talks about how, as a committed Christian, he copes in a sport riddled with cheating, bad language and blasphemy, why his father remains his biggest hero... and what it's like having Northern Ireland star Jonny Evans as a brother-in-law.

Q. Tell us about yourself.

A.  I just got married to RE teacher Lynsey (28) in Carrickfergus this summer. We had our reception in Ballygally Castle and spent 10 days on honeymoon in New York. We live in Dundonald. If it's God's will we'll have children one day.

Q. You're well known as a footballer, but what's your day job?

A. I teach religious and physical education at Ashfield Boys High School in east Belfast. I've been there nine years since I graduated in 2008. I studied PE at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown.

Q. Who was your hero growing up... another footballer, or someone from a different walk of life?

A. My dad, Kenneth (now 64). He has had a big influence in my life. He's a retired Presbyterian minister.

The way he lives his life is very admirable. He was a very good father to myself and my sisters Jenny (38) and Helen (29), and my brother Aaron (33).

My mum Diane (58) manages the Meningitis Research Centre for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

My dad introduced me to football and he and mum spent a lot of time taking me to matches. As I've got older I've probably looked up to my dad even more.

Q. Some people think you're Pastor McConnell's son; how do you feel about that?

A. Lots of people have asked me, but that's fine. It's just this country. It's a small world. Any name gets linked with any other name.

Q. When did you first realise you were a man of strong faith and beliefs? Did you have a calling as such?

A. I grew up in a Christian family because my dad was a minister, so I was always in church. But when I was 16 I realised that I needed to make a change in my life.

I remember having an argument with my brother and feeling awful guilt about it and I knew that wasn't the way I wanted to live and I remember letting Jesus into my heart.

From 16 I remember making a commitment, but I was 19 when I started to take faith seriously.

Q. I looked you up on social media but didn't really find anything. Presumably you don't get too involved in it?

A. No, I was off Twitter for a long time there. I've actually gone back on it because I like to check the Irish League results. I just read it but I don't comment on it - that's my philosophy.

Q. Some Christians believe social media can be a useful tool for spreading their message but others prefer to stay away. Where do you stand?

A. God can work through anything and God does work through social media. But, for me, it's not something that I have ever used to talk about God.

Q. You're coming towards the end of your football career. Has it been a rewarding experience?

A. Yes, sadly. I don't want to give up. You only have to give up when you don't have anyone to sign you.

I'm with Rathfriland Rangers at the minute. It's a very good, well run club.

In our country you can probably play until you're 40 or 45. There's leagues that allow you to play when you can hardly run.

I've enjoyed absolutely every minute of it, met a lot of good friends in football.

The Irish League sometimes gets negative press, but it's a very tough competitive league - and a good league.

Q. Are there many Christians playing football and do they communicate with each other; have some sort of fellowship?

A. Over the years there's been many in Northern Ireland - Michael Halliday, who played for Glentoran, was a very vocal Christian and a good example to a lot of us young players. We also looked up to Stuart Elliot when he was playing for Northern Ireland.

There was an organisation for many years called Athletes in Action. We used to meet once a month. It grew over the years and we ended up doing tours together, so I went to Africa, Russia and Germany to do sports ministry with all those guys. Lots of different players from different teams.

Rugby guys were also involved in it - Ulster players Paul Marshall and Andrew Trimble. It did a lot of good work, but I don't think it's going any more.

That one, and Christians in Sport, were the two big ones here over the last 20 years.

Q. What's your view on the recent poppy furore surrounding international football teams? Was Fifa right to ban the wearing of them?

A. From a personal perspective I don't think wearing a poppy and showing your respect to many countrymen who died is a problem.

I think it's something Fifa could have bypassed.

I understand they have a law that you're not allowed to have emblems or anything of a religious nature, because their stance is that if you have it for a small side it will open doors to other things.

Fifa always have the last say, but I don't think it should be a problem for anyone to wear a poppy.

Q. The feeling from outsiders is that it must be difficult for a Christian to put up with all the offensive language and blasphemy in football. Do you just close your ears?

A. Sometimes I do, but sometimes I could find myself saying something.

If there was a discussion in the changing rooms I would definitely challenge opinions - not in a rude way but in a respectful way. I find myself doing it more with children in school.

If they're using bad or blasphemous language, quite often I say "Boys, there's no need to say that."

It's maybe a bit more difficult to instil that in adults. I wouldn't want to force my opinion on adults, but I think kids do respect that there are some teachers with faith in Northern Ireland schools.

Q. Feigning injury, taking a dive, claiming for a corner or a throw-in when you know it's for the other team; surely a God-fearing man like yourself wouldn't get involved in such things?

A. No, I try to play the right way; play by the rules and play in a way that honours God.

If that means claiming for a throw-in that's not mine, for me that's not a way that honours God and that's important.

At the end of the day, people are watching you and if you're saying you're a Christian and then you're cheating on the pitch then your example is ruined. I don't think I have ever taken a dive on a pitch.

Q. Have you ever tried to convert a team-mate to your way of thinking?

A. I believe God is the one who does the converting, but I'm always prepared to give an answer if people want to ask me about my faith and if that means bringing them along to church or a meeting I'll do that.

Over the years in the football changing room there have been lots of unbelievable conversations.

That may be surprising because it's portrayed as a man's world, but you get close to your team mates and you have great friendships.

I'm a member of Woodlands Presbyterian, where my wife's dad, Leslie Addis, is the minister. His son Jonny plays for Glentoran. I met Lynsey at her church.

Q. Your sister Helen is now the wife of a Premier League player (Jonny Evans, whom she met while he was at Manchester United and she was working for MUTV); what's it like being related to football royalty?

A. Jonny is a fantastic guy, an absolute gentleman and a top footballer. I'm one of his biggest fans and I now support West Brom because he moved from United to play for them.

Jonny and my sister are very happy together.

All my life I've been thinking about football and then she goes and marries a professional footballer!

But these people are just normal people. They're put on a pedestal by some and often get a hard time, but in most cases they're just normal guys.

Q. A lot of Man United fans believe the club was wrong to let Jonny go... what's your feeling?

A. Jonny's performances in the Euros proved what a top-class footballer he is and the reviews he got underline that. He's West Brom's gain.

Q. Do you ever feel a twinge of regret that you didn't reach those heady heights in football?

A. When I was younger I might have. I dreamt of being a professional footballer. I was a big fan of David Beckham and Alan Shearer.

But God had other plans, a different path, and later on in my teen years I was happy to go down that path, so no regrets, no.

Q. What's your view on the American evangelists' methods; do you empathise with the likes of Billy Graham and Ray Comfort in the way they try to get their message across?

A. I really love Billy Graham and when I was eight I remember my dad taking me to a church in Bangor where they were screening a Billy Graham event. I thought he was a fantastic speaker.

I still watch some of his sermons on Youtube. He's a fantastic evangelist.

Q. Can you think of a time when your faith was severely tested?

A. Faith is a daily challenge. It's not easy being a Christian, especially in today's society, because it's a very disciplined walk and you want to do your best and you have to understand you're not always going to do what's right when you want to do what's right.

Every day is a battle for all Christians all over the world. I believe that, without faith, we'd crash and burn.

Q. You were unwittingly thrust into the media spotlight for the wrong sort of reasons five years ago (Nathan's ex-wife Lisa is convicted killer Hazel Stewart's daughter)... how did you cope with that?

A. I don't want to talk about that.

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