Ryan McMinn: 'Dad was so humble and wouldn't have talked about all the things he'd done through football... I'm glad I got the chance to tell him how proud I was of him'
Ryan McMinn, son of Irish League legend Bertie, tells Claire O'Boyle how the care his dying father received at the Northern Ireland Hospice helped them to make precious memories together
He was one of the Irish League's best-loved legends and among the most gifted players of his generation - but to Ryan McMinn, Bertie was just his dad.
Bertie McMinn died in October last year aged just 60, leading to a huge outpouring of public grief and wonderful messages of support that comforted his family through the darkest days of their lives.
And now, with Christmas just days away, his son Ryan opens up about the man he loved so much and about the amazing role the Northern Ireland Hospice played in making his death bearable, not just for the family, but for Bertie himself.
"People have asked me so many times about whether I feel angry or cheated that I lost my daddy when he was only 60," Ryan says.
"But my daddy was brilliant. We were in the hospice one night not long before he died and we heard a noise outside. There was a ball bouncing about in the communal gardens, and we went out to see what was going on.
"There was a fella out there probably around my age, out playing with his child. My daddy looked at them and said, 'You see, there's always somebody worse off'. He said, 'There's a wee boy playing football with his dad, and that might well be for the last time so don't be angry'. He said, 'I'm not'.
"That's what he was like. He must have thought about it a lot in the months before he died, because he knew he wasn't going to get better and he really wasn't angry.
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"He wasn't scared either. He knew seeing that man, that at least he'd got to see his children grow up. That was good enough."
Widely seen as one of the top Irish League players of the 1970s and 1980s, Bertie made his name playing with Distillery, appearing more than 500 times for the club and scoring 105 goals.
He played at different stages, too, for Glenavon, Ards, Dungannon Swifts and Moyola Park, where he ended his career at 38.
"I don't really remember seeing my daddy play," says Ryan (32). "I would have been 11 or 12 when he stopped, but I can't remember seeing him, I'm not lucky enough. My older sister Kerry remembers though, which is brilliant. I wish I could."
Bertie, who also coached Shankill United in the Amateur League in later years, was diagnosed with cancer in May 2018. It was a huge blow for the family.
"Daddy had been suffering for a while with back pain," says Ryan. "They thought for a good while it was sciatica, but in the end when all the tests were done they realised he had cancer."
By the time it was diagnosed, the disease - which had started in Bertie's bowel - had travelled to his bones.
"That's what the pain in his back was," says Ryan.
"It had gone from his bowel into his spine so he must have been in agony. And even though it might sound crazy, it's as if his suffering was done before his diagnosis, and certainly before he went into the hospice.
"As soon as he was diagnosed he got all the proper medication, he got the right stuff for the house. He got a wheelchair so the pressure was off his back.
"It was a relief for him just finding out what it was."
But Ryan says the prognosis wasn't good from the start, although just how short a time he had left, the family didn't know.
"He found out the timescale on it himself, but we didn't know," says Ryan. "He didn't want us to know. We saw such a different side of him when he got sick, it's like he became this really strong character and his spirit was just great.
"He'd always been sort of quiet and witty, he loved the football on a Saturday and he'd always come down and watch the wee team I play in on a Saturday.
"But he was always so humble and he wouldn't have talked about all the things he'd done through football, or the really amazing people we knew."
It was when the visitors started to arrive in their dozens, and letters from around the world to wish Bertie well landed on the doorstep that Ryan started to grasp just how successful his father had been in his footballing heyday.
"Daddy had worked in Caterpillar for years before he died," says Ryan. "That's where I work too, as an engineer. We've always been close, we'd have a beer with the football at the weekend and we always got on brilliantly.
"But if I'm honest, I always just thought of him as my daddy, my own hero with the football. I knew he was good and he encouraged me to play.
"I just never got to grips with how good he was."
Immediately after his diagnosis, grandfather-of-three Bertie spent time at the Cancer Centre in the City Hospital, before returning home with his wife, Ryan's mum, Sharon.
After a short time he was home again, and before long, told his family he wanted to go to the NI Hospice for care.
"When you hear the word hospice, it's really scary," says Ryan. "You hear it and you think of death, and I know because that's exactly what I did. But the first time he went in, he was only there for a while.
"I'd asked him, 'What are you going in there for?' He said, 'If it's going to make me better Ryan, then I'm going in'. And he loved it. It was so comfortable for him and in that time it really changed his life."
Initially, Bertie opted to go home again, hoping to live out his days in the familiar surroundings of his Belfast home. But in the end he wanted to go back to the hospice.
"At home it was hard," he says. "Pride was getting in the way of him accepting the care he needed and I think that would be the same for a lot of people.
"The care workers would come round and he'd say to them, 'Go on ahead, don't be waiting here with me', because he knew they had such busy days.
"My partner Nichola has done care work in the past but he didn't want to put her out either. In the end he took sick one night at 4am and said he wanted to go back to the hospice. We called, and luckily, there was space."
Ryan says his final days couldn't have been more peaceful and contented.
"In there they had everything he needed," adds Ryan, who is supporting Northern Ireland Hospice's Lights to Remember Appeal. "He could get morphine when he needed it, rather than waiting for people to come out to the house to get it for him.
"He had people who would sit with him and hold his hand through the night if he needed the company, which I know they did. You'd genuinely run out of words to describe how good they are."
In the months before he died, the Fifa World Cup was on in Russia and Bertie and his son were able to enjoy it in the comfort of Bertie's room.
"I was even able to bring him in a bottle of beer to watch the football, which was just brilliant," says Ryan.
"He was comfortable there and he felt safe and when you're going through so much, there's a lot to be said for that.
"I used to say to him it was like a fancy hotel with medication. Everything about it was designed to make things easy for him and for the family.
"Even the chairs were the most comfortable things you ever sat in, and my daddy had a special chair because of the pain in his back. There was the communal garden and sometimes we'd come to see him and he'd be out there with his friends.
"Sometimes he could have 40 people in visiting him in a day. That was mind-blowing for us, and there were people who flew home from all over the place to see him, one from New Zealand and another from Spain.
"He had letters from Michael O'Neill and loads of the Irish League men. That helped a lot, to know people were thinking of him, even people he hadn't seen for a long time.
"Daddy wasn't lonely. That was something we'd have hated for him.
"As sad as the whole thing was, all the warmth towards him and the hospice ended up being just beautiful for him, if that makes sense. It's something that's definitely touched us a lot as a family."
While Ryan is still grieving for his father, and preparing for another Christmas without him, he says he's thankful for the months the family had before his death.
"We had time to make memories," he says.
"It might have just been getting a Chinese or watching the football together, but we knew those were precious weeks and months.
"We didn't know the timescale, but he knew, and all of us were taking every day as it came.
"I'm glad I knew how important those days were because I asked my mum one night for two minutes on my own with him - probably the only two minutes I had with him in those few months.
"But I was able to tell him I was proud of him and that he should let himself give up the fight. By the end we knew he was struggling so much, and with the family there he wanted to keep on fighting, but he was in pain and we wanted him to be in peace.
"In the months before he died, he'd found God again, and he wasn't scared of dying. He just didn't want to leave us.
"Daddy died around 1.30am on October 4 last year, and hundreds of people turned out to say goodbye. It was a huge support for us. Knowing there was such warmth towards him helped us then and it still helps us now. We're so proud of him."
Now entering its 25th year, the Northern Ireland Hospice's Lights to Remember Appeal provides an opportunity for families to remember those loved ones, friends and family who are no longer with us and to dedicate a light to the memory of their special loved one during the festive period. For further information please visit: https://www.nihospice.org/light-to-remember-dedication. This will allow you to add a message to your tag which will be placed onto the hospice's Christmas tree and make a donation to the Northern Ireland Hospice.