Belfast Telegraph

Former Glens ace Robert Craig determined to highlight rare illness that has left him confined to wheelchair

By Adrian Rutherford

Robert Craig lived the dream of every young footballer who grew up on the streets of east Belfast, in the shadow of Glentoran FC.

A rising star in the 1980s, he was part of one of the great Glens teams of the modern era. But seven years ago life dealt Robert a devastating blow.

The former winger (47) is now confined to a wheelchair after being struck down with ataxia - a rare and degenerative neurological condition that is so uncommon it affects only 289 people in Northern Ireland.

But just as he never shirked a challenge on the football field, Robert has vowed it won't stop him making the most of life.

"You have a choice, you either get on with life or you just sit there feeling sorry for yourself," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "If you want to restrict yourself that's up to you. I try not to."

Robert, who now lives in Australia, is back in Northern Ireland on holiday.

A charity game, featuring a Glentoran Legends XI and a side made up of Robert's friends, will take place tomorrow afternoon at Dundela FC's Wilgar Park ground at 1.30pm.

Robert, a huge Glens fan, played for the club for seven years. He signed when he was 16 and was part of a squad that included the likes of Jim Cleary, Billy Caskey, Barney Bowers and Johnny Jameson.

"I'd have played for nothing," Robert said. "It was a great team. I was very lucky."

After seven seasons at The Oval, he signed for Ballymena United. Later, he was part of the Loughgall squad that won the old B Division in the 1994/95 season.

Soon afterwards Robert moved to Australia after marrying his wife Gillian.

Originally from Northern Ireland, she had relocated Down Under but was back home on holiday when they met. They set up home in a rural area about 45 minutes from Sydney, and Robert got a job installing air conditioning.

But he began to notice signs that something was badly wrong. "You'd get little twinges. It's a neurological thing so it was little things like your writing and so on - the things you take for granted," he explained.

It led to Robert being diagnosed with idiopathic cerebellar ataxia in 2008. It is one of the more aggressive forms of ataxia, a devastating disorder that affects co-ordination, balance and speech. Any part of the body can be affected, but people with ataxia often have difficulties with balance, walking and speaking - things we all take for granted.

In Robert's case of idiopathic cerebellar ataxia, the brain is progressively damaged over time for reasons that are still unknown.

"When I was diagnosed I was devastated," Robert added. "My mother-in-law had just passed away two weeks before that. It changed everything. I eventually had to give up work. Your life is suddenly, dramatically, changed. But I don't think your personality changes. I don't think I've changed."

Robert admits he struggled to cope in the days and weeks after his diagnosis.

"It was difficult for a long period of time. To be honest I went through depression - verything," he added. "You get up in the morning and think 'why me? What have I done wrong?' But basically you can either get up and confront it or you can sit there and wallow in self-pity.

"It's still going to be there the next day and the day after that and so on. I'm lucky because I have great people around me. I've a great wife and some great friends."

Robert had been returning to Northern Ireland every two years before he was diagnosed.

But he was unsure how people would react, so he stopped coming home. This is his first visit in seven years - but he has been heartened by the reaction and support shown by his friends.

"It was the stigma of this here; I didn't know what way people were going to treat me," he added.

"Then one day I just decided that if people are going to treat me differently they are not real friends.

"But my friends here have treated me no differently whatsoever."

The condition is degenerative, and there is no treatment currently available. Robert now wants to highlight the little-known condition and raise cash so that a cure might one day be found.

"It won't come in my lifetime, but hopefully someone, somewhere can benefit in the future," he added.

He remains a devoted Glens fan, and has been at every game since he returned earlier this month. This afternoon he will be at The Oval to see his former club play Warrenpoint Town.

What is ataxia?

Ataxia is the name given to a group of neurological disorders which affect balance, co-ordination and speech. There are many different types of ataxia that can affect people in different ways. Anyone of any age can get ataxia, but certain types are more common in certain age groups. A rare condition, some forms of ataxia are treatable, but in most cases there is still no cure.

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