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Footballers' Lives: Former Northern Ireland international Pat McGibbon talks about impact of brother's suicide

'I didn't grieve properly when my brother Phillip took his own life but his memory is driving force behind my mental health work.'

By Graham Luney

Former Northern Ireland international Pat McGibbon opens up on the loss of his best friend and his dedication to providing better mental health awareness.

Q. What are your early football memories?

A. My first competitive game was as an 11-year old at Lurgan United, as well as with St Paul's School, but I played gaelic and also did cross country running and athletics. Neil Lennon, who is now Hibernian boss, was a couple of years older than me and he went to St Michael's. He played in the same team as my brother Phillip who has passed away. When I was 16 at Lurgan United, Portadown manager Ronnie McFall came to my house and he brought a few of us over to the Ports' youth team. I was quite small back then but things took off, I played for Northern Ireland Schools' under-18s and captained Portadown's youth team, winning the Harry Cavan Youth Cup and Youth League. Pat McShane was left back and we had good teams with the likes of Peter Kennedy, Gary McKinstry and Trevor Williamson. Gerard McMahon was a team-mate of mine at Lurgan United but he went on to Glenavon, scoring the winner in an Irish Cup Final. We moved over to England in the same month in 1992, he went to Spurs and I went to Manchester United. We both made the squads when the two sides faced each other on New Year's Day in 1995 and, looking back now, they were big achievements.

Q. How did the United move come about and what were those times like?

A. I was 18 and the scout Eddie Coulter had been sent to watch me. United asked me to go over for a week's trial and it was an unexpected opportunity because, a month before, Ronnie was helping me get a move to Port Vale but that didn't materialise. I thought I would play a youth team game at United but I was stuck into a reserve match against Aston Villa and ended up marking Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson in my first game. They invited me back that summer and, after three weeks, the gaffer, Sir Alex Ferguson, gave me a three-year contract around the same time that Dion Dublin signed. I was nervous and excited but it was my dream. I wasn't a particularly confident person in that environment but I would grow into things. Sir Alex's door was always open, you had to be prepared to knock it. I got the hairdryer treatment after I got sent off on my debut against York City but it's a tough game and sometimes you have to man up. The day after that game, it was all banter from Steve Bruce and the lads, taking the mickey out of me. I was gutted but if you fall off the bike you get back on it. Phillip's death, which happened about eight months after I went across, put things in perspective.

Q. How did you deal with the devastating news that your brother had taken his own life?

A. You're already dealing with issues like homesickness but then my landlady in Manchester got the phone call about Phillip. I had to go home and the club were really good about it. At that stage suicide and mental health issues were a very personal thing and the club understood that. They sent flowers and supported me privately. The gaffer gave me all the time I needed to grieve but most of my friends were at university and if I had stayed home for long I might not have returned to England. It would have been easy for me to say that's it. Phillip died on April 13 and I played the last few games of that 1993 season. I had Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage living in digs with me and all the players were great but even now people are uncomfortable when I bring up my brother's suicide. I prefer to talk about it than not talk about it. At the time, I talked to the United chaplain Ken Bowyer. I understood Phillip's problems and what led to him taking his own life. I would not say I got over it but I parked it somewhere in my mind and I didn't grieve properly. Football was an outlet for me and I just wanted to get paid for doing something I loved. I had 11 years of doing that in England but when I came home I realised the impact Phillip's death had on the family. My mum Geraldine and dad Pat are great people, great role models, and they couldn't have done any more for Phillip. When I got the news he passed away, it was the worst day of my life. Although we fought like brothers do, he was still my best friend and we grew up together. He was 20 and I was 19.

Q. Was Bernadette, who is now your wife, very supportive during those difficult times?

A. She has been terrific. She came out of teaching recently and has been a great support. We met at school and have been through a lot together. When the children came along, we had so many other issues to address, but working in mental health has been inspiring for me in many ways and made me more self-aware. I've always had strong character and am a great believer in educating myself.

Q. Your father in law Noel, who has passed away, battled Alzheimer's. How difficult was that time?

A. In my final year at Wigan, Bernadette's dad Noel came over quite often with my mum and dad to watch games. In his late 50s he started to develop Alzheimer's and later he came to live with us in our home. I had just finished my physio degree and my contract was up at Wigan Athletic and we felt it was better for us to go home so I could start a physio business and Bernadette could be closer to Noel.

Q Your charity Train To Be Smart (TTBS) promotes mental health through sport. How is it going and is Phillip's memory its driving force?

A Yes it is because you are going back to my core values, family and sport. The idea to do something in mental health came to me later in life. As I did my physio work, I saw plenty of illness behaviour and then we had to deal with the stresses of moving home, retiring from football, Noel's deterioration and Phillip's death. I didn't know enough about the human mind when Phillip passed away. Sir Alex and Roy Keane have supported the charity and they have been really helpful. We have close to 200 kids but could double that if we had more coaches. We wanted quality rather than quantity. We are trying to develop leaders by improving education. We look at character traits and look for those who show leadership and empathy. It's becoming more difficult for our lads to make it in England so it's important they develop transferable skills. I can remember our County Armagh side coming up against Right to Dream in the Milk Cup and, even though we managed to hold them 0-0, those kids had been well schooled in Ghana from four years of age. I also think it comes down to 'want'. Kids need to put in the hard graft. Changing rooms can be harsh environments and you do need to have mental toughness. A lot of kids need to be self-aware and find where they fit in at a football club. We are leasing indoor pitches in Lurgan and we are pushing for a multi-purpose outdoor facility. TTBS needs to be a community hub and it has given me a new lease of life.

Q. Hibs boss Neil Lennon has spoken about his battles with depression. Does it help others when people open up about mental health issues?

A. Lenny has done his bit and, while I wasn't in his year in school, he inspired me, and as you heard about him playing for Glenavon's first team you wanted to follow in his footsteps. But no-one is infallible and I found that out with my stresses. Looking back, I probably had mild depression after I came home from a professional career in England. People think footballers are confident but it can go quickly. You have to face fear and then get back on the bike. Professional football is a tough game with constant scrutiny. You are constantly being judged but we are still human and criticism, when it's very harsh, can hurt. I saw it grind down a good man, the late Alan McDonald, when he was Glentoran manager. We all feel pressure at times and it's great that there are so many mental health services now advising.

Q. Who were the big influences in your career?

A. As a younger player, Dessie 'Bunker' McGuinness at Lurgan United. He made everyone feel important but once lads got beyond 15, that was enough for him. I had Barry McCullough at Portadown who was tough with me but I needed that as a grounding going to England. At United, Eric Harrison, who brought through the class of '92, was brilliant - tough but very straight. Just before I signed my second deal, Eric said he spoke to Ron Atkinson about me and said: 'I told him you've got a chance.' I thought it was a great saying because these days young lads who are learning the game are given everything and have agents. What Eric was saying is you've still got a lot to learn. My parents were also a major influence and not in an overpowering way. My dad was measured in his praise and not too harsh with his criticism. Obviously Bernadette as well, she has been a football widow at times.

Q. How much did you enjoy playing for Wigan after your spell at United?

A. I really enjoyed United and Wigan. With Wigan I played at Wembley twice and won a league title. United offered me a deal but, while on loan with Wigan, I scored the goal that got them promoted and I enjoyed playing first team football. In my final year at United, I got a bad injury and needed operations while they had outstanding players like Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce, Ronny Johnsen and David May. Roberto Martinez was at Wigan and we had a great few years. We should have made the Championship but lost to Gillingham in a play-off final. It's fine margins in football. I found the chairman Dave Whelan ruthless with his managers but he was straight up and honest with me and I like that in people.

Q. Did you find it difficult coming home to Portadown in 2002?

A. Psychologically it can knock you because you are used to training full-time. It was a difficult adjustment. I've had six house moves since I've come back to Northern Ireland. We now live beside the family home where I grew up in Lurgan. We have three children, Alicia (19), Callum (15) and Shay (11). Alicia plays a bit of gaelic sport, Callum is very sporty, maybe not as keen on the academic studies! Shay and Callum play for our youth teams at Train To Be Smart.

Q. How do you reflect on your seven Northern Ireland caps?

A. I enjoyed my time there but I felt the team should have achieved more. It was a huge honour playing with guys like Alan McDonald, Mal Donaghy and Nigel Worthington. I got on really well with Billy Bingham too but the international team was going through difficult times. I felt I could have got more caps but I'm still proud of the seven I have.

Q. Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?

A. Paul Scholes is the best player I have seen. His vision, as well as his touch, is special. He can see the whole picture. I played against Alan Shearer in a reserve match when I was at United and we beat Blackburn 1-0 but, with five minutes to go, he swivelled, turned and nearly broke the crossbar from about 30 yards. He was tough, but Dwight Yorke and Chris Sutton were good too. Jonathan Walters played for Bolton against us and he was a cracking player.

Q. Do you miss anything about the game?

A. Not at the moment as I have some great people around me as I co-ordinate TTBS. Everyone understands the ethos and there's great camaraderie there. I loved my time at Newry City where the money was in short supply but the players had a love for the game. Management doesn't appeal to me at the moment but I wouldn't say never, I would be more selective in the future about opportunities. It wasn't until I took on the Portadown job that I realised what it would entail and I felt more of a general manager at a time when I wanted to focus on performances, the players and tactics.

Q. What are your hopes for the charity?

A. In 2013 I set myself 10 years to create facilities for the community that everyone can use and be proud of. We are going into partnership with Tullygally Primary School and want to further develop mental health related programmes and have an education centre for health and wealth being. The world out there can be dangerous and I want to see kids playing football in a safe environment and away from the abuses.

Snapshot

Date of birth: September 6, 1973

Place of birth: Lurgan

Previous clubs: Manchester United, Swansea City (loan), Wigan, Scunthorpe (loan), Tranmere Rovers, Portadown, Glentoran

Career record: 20 goals in 338 appearances

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