'Football can be a lonely world, but fatherhood has changed me. When you have a child your eyes are opened to the responsibility and your life changes completely'
Glenavon keeper Jonny Tuffey on starting his career at Man United, players’ battles with addiction and mental health issues, and why he loves being a dad.
Q. What do you remember about beginning your career at Manchester United at such a young age?
A. It was all a bit surreal, being at the Manchester United academy and flying back and forth every second weekend. It was a treat to be taken down there to see the first team train, and when they moved to Carrington they were directly beside the academy, so for a kid of 12 years of age to be walking past superstars, it was mind-boggling, it was completely unreal.
By the time I saw the local kids were being offered contracts, I wanted that kind of recognition too. Manchester United wanted things to stay as they were but I had ambition, even then. Coventry invited me to come and look at the club when I was 14, which was just sensational. I could move from Northern Ireland, finish my education there and get to work with first-team players around me every day.
Q. What do you remember about your move to the Ricoh Arena?
A. It happened very quickly. Here, you go to school, do exams, decide whether you're going to tech or university, wherever. There, while education was still a very important part of your life, everything was geared to becoming the star of tomorrow. All I wanted to do was be at the club to train, and you wanted that part of your life to progress a lot quicker than anything else. I was lucky, I started to train with the senior team when I was just 16, but there was a bigger culture of having role models at Coventry. That was all I wanted to do, to make it in the game with a long career ahead.
Q. Do you mean Manchester United would give youngsters occasional glimpses of first-team players as carrots on sticks, whereas there was greater integration at Coventry?
A. Yes, I think so, but maybe that's because I was a bit older. At United these were massive names and you'd be starry-eyed, whereas at Coventry you'd train with them, eat with them in the canteen and have the chance to get to know them more. They never distanced themselves from the younger players, the chat was always great and you didn't feel a big gap between the academy and first team, there was never any segregation.
On the flip side, you would also be given chores - cleaning boots, the communal areas, the dressing rooms, blowing the balls up, lots of things. You don't get treated like a senior pro until you've earned that but it's a great grounding and keeps you focused. I think it was tougher than I expected, but it kept you hungry.
Q. Many people within the industry say football is a tough world for some…
A. Football is a fantastic life and a fantastic world to be part of, but there is another side to it, and in such a high-octane world it can be really crushing for some people. I saw players develop addictions, initially just through boredom. It's a very lonely existence if you don't have the right people around you. Even if you do, it's easy to fall into bad habits, which end up being totally destructive.
There is another side to it which people don't see. It can start because of football too. If a new manager comes in who doesn't fancy you, or you've suffered an injury and you're isolated from the team, it can be a lonely world to be part of.
Addictions and mental health problems can develop very quickly, and it's good that there's now more of a dialogue, but so much more needs to be done to give support to players. We're hearing about it more and more. Kyle Lafferty came out to talk about his gambling problems and said the weight had lifted off his shoulders. I think it's very admirable and takes a lot of guts, but talking about it is also the fastest and probably the only real way to get help.
Q. Have you ever suffered from isolation or loneliness?
A. I suppose I am one of the lucky ones, but anyone can put on a brave face. The camaraderie in the dressing room can help get you through from day to day but if you're going home to an empty apartment without anyone to talk to, suddenly the lifestyle doesn't seem so forgiving. I've felt that kind of loneliness, I guess, but having been at the academy from an early age, I was used to being in different environments and being out of my comfort zone.
At Coventry I was very, very well looked after, we all were, and I'm sure that made the difference to me and many other lads.
Q. You moved to Partick Thistle after that, was it any harder in Scotland?
A. Not overly because I was almost 20 then, so I'd been doing it for about four years then. I'd bought my own property and was living on my own, and had made friends outside of the club which also helped. I had other interests because they weren't necessarily interested in football. Moving to Glasgow was great, I bought a house there and settled very quickly and loved it there.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. I play golf - badly! I enjoy golf, it takes you out of the bubble that is football and it's something you can wind down with, but still has a competitive edge. I think that's why a lot of footballers enjoy it. One of my favourite things to do is sit and spend hours in coffee shops to be honest! I know that sounds dull, but I like it.
Simple things which get you away from the hype are enjoyable, like a good coffee when you've nowhere to be. It's like meditation!
I think it's important to take time out. It goes back to what I was saying about how you can get caught up in low periods, or addictions, and as a footballer you end up attracting negative headlines, whether you're in an amateur league or the Champions League. People don't see footballers behind closed doors, the problems they're having with their families or their health, you can't believe everything you read.
Q. Which athletes do you admire?
A. Jonny Evans has always impressed me. He was with me at the academy before he went to Antwerp and was head and shoulders above everyone there. He read the game brilliantly and was so comfortable, there was never a doubt he would go on and play at the highest level.
To have played your senior international debut against Spain then go on to just achieve so much more is amazing. He was with us in the Under-21 set-up at the time he was called to the seniors, I remember him just being such a great lad and player then.
We weren't expecting him to play as he'd just been called up, but there he was at left-back, the match looking like it was a walk in the park to him. I was really surprised that Manchester United let him go but maybe it's been the best thing for him, he's been exceptional at West Brom and also for Northern Ireland.
He always has time to speak, even to my family. He would always chat with my mum and dad and you just know there's a fantastic young man who deserves everything he's got.
Q. How have your parents supported you in your career?
A. They've been everything to me, without them I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have. It might not have been much compared to other players but it was my career and I loved it. They were there every step of the way and there was the bad and the ugly, too. I can't remember them missing a game. These days they bring my son to the matches, which is great.
When I first bought my house in Coventry my dad came to live with me for a couple of months and helped do it up, so I suppose being handy around the house is another of my interests!
I'm an only child, so it was a very difficult time for them to let me go at 14 for the first time, but they knew it was what I wanted to do. I can't thank them enough, they're terrific.
Q. Has fatherhood changed you?
A. Immensely, and totally for the better. Carter (7) plays for the academy and the enjoyment I get from watching him is probably greater than I get from playing sometimes! Plus he knows everything, he's watched me have a nightmare in nets and will tell me when I've had a bad match.
I don't think it matters if you were a quieter type or loved to party, when you have a child your eyes are wide open to the responsibility and your life changes completely. It helps that he enjoys football though, because he understands that I can't be there at home all the time if I have a training session.
I do like having a young son, it's great. I played with lads who had girls and heard about them doing their hair for school, and I just laugh. I couldn't plait or use bobble things to save my life!
Q. Glenavon are again proving to be an exciting side to watch, are you enjoying your football?
A. I had a difficult two seasons at Linfield, and I think going from full-time football to semi-professional is the difference. Everything's turned upside down. You get back to work and that keeps you busy in the day, and that keeps you occupied until you go to training. But it wasn't working out at the Blues. Warren (Feeney) decided to let me go and that's football really. He's someone I played with and always had a lot of respect for, so I wasn't going to take it personally, and you never should.
Gary (Hamilton) then came out of nowhere and offered to sign me, and in doing so kick-started my career again. We had a dream first season, finishing in a European spot and winning the Irish Cup were amazing. It's a very family-orientated club and they're very grounded with their expectations.
The numbers we got at games at the end of last season were fantastic, they appreciate what Gary and the board have done in five years or so, winning two Irish Cups out of three for instance. I don't think Gary gets enough credit for his knowledge of the game, and his knowledge of players - when you sit and have a chat with him about football he's exceptionally clued in.
The emergence of young talent is frightening, it's so good for the future, and the kids here must be thinking the sky's the limit, with a track to the Under-21s too.
Q. Is Glenavon a club which coaches are looking at as an example of how to blood youth?
A. I think so. The starting XI over the past few games, there are only a handful over 27 and fewer over 30. You look at Rhys Marshall, Andy McGrory, James Singleton… they've all played over 100 games at the age of 21 or 22. We have kids of 15 playing in the reserve team, which is quite common in the Irish League, but it's great to have that youth and vitality. They always want to learn here, I'm an older player now and I was talking to Sammy Clingan about this, when we were younger we always wanted to learn and now it's great to help others. Sitting and listening, picking up little habits or ideas is all part of your education.
The dressing room is a really, really good place to be and great to be part of. The days of the young, nervous kids walking in are gone, they're striding in here, demanding a shirt and wanting to play. I think it's fantastic.
Q. I remember you giving very eloquent interviews in Northern Ireland and club mixed zones as a younger player, which always seemed quite philosophical. Would you say you're a scholar of the game?
A. I think so. I used to read endlessly, I don't have as much time for reading now unfortunately, but when I was younger I'd always have a manager's biography with me for the coach journeys. It was just to try and pick up bits of advice which could work for me, and I looked at what I could adapt or draw on when I needed them. You'd have read about someone in a similar situation and then you'd try to apply it for guidance.
Q. What are your guilty pleasures?
A. Netflix! I have been watching so many different series, and I'm halfway through so many different programmes. I'm enjoying Shooter, and Power, so they're my recommendations. I enjoy golf too. I spend a lot of time on the sofa, though, more than ever. Carter keeps me active when I'm feeling lazy, he loves going to the park and there are little communities for parents so, again, birthday parties and days out can be a welcoming distraction if performances on the pitch have taken a dip.
He's a sidekick, really. He's my son but it's like having a mate who just wants to be involved in everything, so I try to do that. Being an only child, I always had friends round to the house and he doesn't have any siblings so I try to give him the amazing childhood I had.
Q. Where's your ideal holiday destination?
A. I went to Orlando with my parents and friends when I was younger. I remember going to Egypt for a family holiday which was great, plus I still have good memories of lads' holidays in Marbella, obviously just for a relaxing glass of wine!