Belfast Telegraph

Ex-Manchester United player McGibbon says Alex Ferguson helped him through trauma of brother's suicide

Pat McGibbon persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to speak at a mental health event in Craigavon on Monday. The Lurgan man talks about losing his brother to suicide - and how his former boss helped him through the trauma

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland footballer Pat McGibbon suffered heartbreak as a teenager when his brother Phillip took his own life. For Pat and his family, it was the toughest time of their lives. But out of the dark has come light thanks to the charity Train To Be Smart (TTBS), founded by McGibbon to promote mental health through sport.

It was launched four years ago in tribute to Phillip and is now helping and educating more than 200 boys and girls, from the ages of six to 15, in Mid Ulster.

Ex-Manchester United defender McGibbon (43), from Lurgan, makes no secret of the fact his brother's loss drives him on to make a success of the programme, which offers youngsters fun on the field and guidance with matters of the mind.

Last year former United and Republic of Ireland skipper Roy Keane attended an event in Armagh organised by McGibbon to raise awareness and funds for the project.

And on Monday, legendary Old Trafford manager Sir Alex Ferguson was at the Civic Centre in Craigavon to do the same.

Three years previously Ferguson had agreed to a request to help his old player and was true to his word. That came as no surprise to McGibbon, who was just 19 when news reached him that his brother had taken his own life. In the midst of that traumatic time, Ferguson was both compassionate and supportive.

"In those days, suicide would not have been spoken about the same as it is today, so what Sir Alex did was help by keeping things very personal when the tragedy happened," said former Portadown boss McGibbon.

"He made sure that it was up to me how much time I spent back at home in terms of getting over it and the family getting over it," he explained.

"It was the fact that Sir Alex gave me ownership over the time that it took for me to come back to football which really helped me then. He didn't dictate when I had to come back. It was the personal touch that meant a lot.

"Manchester United and Sir Alex were great with me at what was the most difficult time for me and my family. He showed real compassion, and I'll never forget that.

"It was fantastic that he, and Roy before him, came over to offer support to what we are doing. Because the tragedy happened during his time as boss, when I was at United, he understands the drive that I have to keep pursuing it and improving the awareness of mental health.

"What I found was that when I was home for a couple of weeks after Phillip's death, going back to Manchester and playing football provided an outlet for me, though everything was in perspective after what happened to Phillip."

While the memory of Phillip never fades for the McGibbon family, there is a sense of pride that from the devastation of that April day 24 years ago, hope is now being provided for others who may be facing similar issues.

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

"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.

"I do think of Phillip and I remember all the good times and us growing up together. And every time I think of Phillip, I feel that he is looking down on me.

"It is still tough on my parents. My dad is like myself, he is very laidback and doesn't say too much, and my mum is such a quiet person. After Phillip's death she had a really hard time, but I think they are proud of what we are doing in Phillip's memory, trying to increase awareness of mental health issues.

"My drive is all about bringing something positive from what was a tragic situation. It might sound corny, but I think it found me rather than I found it."

Married to childhood sweetheart Bernadette, who has been with Pat every step of the way since he was a youngster at United, they have three children: Alisha (18), Calum (14) and Shay (10).

The former Northern Ireland star, who won seven caps and enjoyed a fine career at Wigan after leaving Old Trafford in 1997, jokes that after bringing over Keane and Ferguson, he may have to fly in Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo next to top the previous events.

On a more serious note, he is determined to continue his vital work.

"I see people struggling with mental health all the time and it's important that we continue to get the message across that the more awareness out there, the better," he stated.

"Kids do find it difficult, especially in today's world, where it all seems to be so image-conscious.

"What we are trying to do as coaches is to get know the person and to help them through any difficulties they may be having. It's basically pressing their buttons to ensure there is self-growth, and that's what Sir Alex was so good at.

"The big thing for me now is that we need ownership of a pitch. We need a multi-sports help and well-being facility. We have over 200 kids in our programme at the moment, but we could have 400 if we could upskill the coaches and had our own facility."

To that end, he is hoping local politicians can help. Having the influence of Ferguson behind him did no harm on Monday.

McGibbon admitted that in the presence of Ferguson, he was taken back to his days at United, when everyone knew who was boss - and was informed who was boss if they didn't.

"At United's old training ground at the Cliff, in the foyer there were steps up to the canteen, and in my early days at the club I was walking up those steps and the gaffer was coming down the steps with two parents and an apprentice," McGibbon recalled.

"As I was walking up and we crossed paths, he said to me: 'All right son'. And I replied: 'All right Alex'. I was just a boy and didn't know that you called him 'boss' or 'gaffer' but he just turned and said: 'Did you go to school with me?'. I replied 'no', and then he said: 'Well, don't call me Alex, call me gaffer'.

"The reason he was called the gaffer was because he was the boss. You need to know your own value and he was always hard, but fair. He was the gaffer who managed the club's affairs and did it brilliantly.

"On Monday, during the interval at the event, Sir Alex did a question and answer with some of the kids in our programme. There was myself, David Healy (Linfield manager and Northern Ireland's record goalscorer) and Roy Carroll (Linfield and Northern Ireland goalkeeper), who played for him at United, and Anthony Tohill (Derry GAA great), who had been a trialist at United, standing there scared to go into the room in case we disturbed the interviews and Sir Alex. Even now, all these years on, all of us had this great respect for him.

"I learned so much from Sir Alex and am trying to put some of it into practice with TTBS to help youngsters in Northern Ireland.

"The whole ideal of TTBS is understanding your ability, having a good attitude and work ethic and the application, which is listening to successful people and learning from them. That produces accountability and productivity and then you get results."

McGibbon added: "I started this in tribute to my brother Phillip, and I want to keep working at it and making the best of it for him, my family and anyone who needs help with mental health issues. That's what it is about for me."

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