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Footballers' Lives with Nathan Hanley: 'Scoring against Linfield the day after my dad's funeral is my proudest moment'


By Graham Luney

In the latest of our Footballers' Lives series, Ards ace Nathan Hanley talks about playing after his father’s death, finding comfort in his faith, his time at Hull and winning the league with both Linfield and Crusaders.

Q. Your Irish League career has featured spells with Linfield, Crusaders, Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and your current club Ards, but you started at Hull City. How did that move come about?

A. When I was eight-years old I started as a goalkeeper at Carrick Rangers, played one game and conceded nine. It was an under-11 side and it would have taken about four boys my size to hit the bar. Thankfully the Irish FA have introduced small sided games and it's better for the kids. I was playing for Carrick in a tournament at the Odyssey and a scout for Rangers, Joe Kincaid, brought me to St Andrew's Boys Club.

Out of the Northern Ireland side that started against the Czech Republic, there could be as many as seven old St Andrew's boys there. I can remember playing in Europe with Linfield and there were about seven of us. A guy called Stefan Seaton was my manager and he was the Hull scout. He's also the County Antrim Milk Cup manager who won the Junior Section. Hull were looking for a left-sided player.

I didn't make a first-team appearance after moving over at the age of 16 but I couldn't turn down the opportunity and I loved it. No-one can ever take it away from me. Maybe there is a better way like playing in front of crowds and going to England like Stuart Dallas has done. I was gutted coming home but never disillusioned.

Q. Were your parents, Agnes and Charles, very supportive around that time?

A. One hundred per cent yes. Dad never drove, mum drove me everywhere from a young age. I was never going to come back due to homesickness, but when I did come back a few boys at Linfield, Michael Carvill and Gary Browne, were doing degrees in sports coaching so I contacted the University of Ulster and I'm at the last hurdle of that.

I want to play as long as I can but I want coaching badges too. I cancelled my B Licence this year only because I was getting married to Rebecca. As a football person, I want to be involved in the game as long as possible.

Nathan Hanley poses for a picture with his mother Agnes on his wedding day.

Q. What has been your proudest moment in football?

A. My proudest moment was probably the day after my dad's funeral in April 2014. I was playing for Crusaders against Linfield at Seaview and I can remember being given the black armbands before the game, there was a minute's silence and the flags were at half mast.

After six minutes, we got a free-kick 20 yards out and I scored. I think the average person would say it was a big call to make to play in the game but if you ask any footballer in a similar situation about losing someone close to them they might say that person would have wanted them to play. My dad would have wanted me to play football on the day, especially as it was a big game.

I remember (Crusaders manager) Stephen Baxter ringing me through the week and checking if I was okay to play - I had no doubt. I was more sure to play in that game than any other. We lost 3-2 and we ended up with nine men. I scored one and made one but behind the goal there were about 15 of my family and I could see them as I was taking the free-kick.

The day before was the funeral at my dad's house in Carrick. Crusaders chaplain Reverend Ken White offered to do the funeral service, Stephen (Baxter) and Jeff Spiers attended as well as around 10 of the first-team squad.

Q. How did you find the whole experience, I am sure it was an emotional occasion?

A. It was, but it was 90 minutes of a football game and that's how I deal with it, then you consider the emotional aspect afterwards. Crusaders were very helpful to me.

I'm a Christian and I came to faith around that time, two months before my dad passed away. My dad came to faith just after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2013. He died the following April. He came to faith then but my mum had been a Christian for 25 years. It was surreal, we were watching Christian sermons and listening to music.

Q. Did your Christian faith help bring you some comfort?

A. If it wasn't for my faith and my family I don't know where I would have been. It certainly helped me. Through my faith I ended up going to church, meeting a girl and marrying her!

We met two months before my dad died but he was so unwell Rebecca never met him. She knew what I was going through and if it wasn't for meeting Rebecca at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road, I'm not sure how I would have coped.

Nathan and Rebecca at their home

Q. As time has gone on, how has the bereavement process been?

A. It's been really tough. People say time is a healer, and it is to an extent. It's like waves, you will be okay, everything is fine, you go about your daily business and then something reminds you of that person. In my case it could be watching Manchester United or just before a game my dad would say, 'Good luck' or 'Get stuck in'.

I was working part-time with the Irish FA and going to university but I stopped. I just went to football, and with my dad at home in his final months I wanted to be there for him. It was my way of thanking him for looking after me.

I knew what the end goal was and I wasn't going to see him in four months. For myself and my older brother, Warren, we decided with my mum to look after him as best we could. We shaved and washed him, did things you never imagined you would do. At that time I looked forward to football and it was a release, even now I would find that.

My dad was willing to undergo chemotherapy but the specialist said it would merely affect his quality of life in a negative way. He would have suffered more. He was 61 when he passed away, very young. I had a second cousin who had ovarian cancer at the age of 11 and died three days after her 17th birthday, a girl called Michelle Peacock. There's now a Michelle Peacock Foundation which distributes money to charities.

Q. How is your mum doing?

A. She's good but still has her moments. She's a workaholic and keeps herself busy. She's a caretaker at Eden Primary School in Carrick.

Q. Are there many Christians in the Irish League?

A. There's a few. Howard Beverland at Crusaders is one, Richard Gibson, Andrew Ferguson. I would meet up with guys from Christians In Sport, a guy called Russell Bowers who is involved with Dundela. Michael Halliday is another one and Conor Downey. Matthew Snoddy at Crusaders has just come to faith.

It's good to have that network of people who believe in the same thing you believe in. Football is an emotional sport and I am representing Jesus out there, but I'm human like everyone else, I'm not an angel. I'm saved through him and if I come across differently I hope that's the reason why.

Q. Where do you work?

A. I'm a retail sales manager of a shoe shop in Carrick called Robinson's Shoes, we sell high end products and 95 per cent of the business would be online but I manage the retail side. We are official suppliers to the Ulster Rugby team.

Q. So you're the sharpest dresser in the changing room?

A. Some people might say I've a dodgy taste in gear but I'm really enjoying it. It's left field compared to football!

Q. How did your wedding to Rebecca go in June?

A. It was a brilliant day. It went from 7am to 11pm and we got married at Whitewell, the reception was at Galgorm. We went to Thailand for our honeymoon, Bangkok and Koh Samui, and it was fantastic.

It was great to switch off but I had to hit the gym over there as it was pre-season. I'm very fortunate, my wife has been to the games this season and she's a convert. She understands the offside rule which is probably more than most of our referees! (laughs)

Nathan was all smiles on the big day with wife Rebecca

Q. Was your stag do good?

A. Yes, we went to watch Linfield v Coleraine in the Irish Cup final. We were in the Billy Bingham suite. My cousin is the North West 200 rider Glenn Irwin, he was one of my groomsmen. The Irwin brothers are my cousins and if you ever want to see a competitive edge, play them in a game of Fifa. I've watched Glenn at the Ulster Grand Prix but those guys have a different mentality.

Q. Of course the wedding was tinged with sadness as your father wasn't there.

A. Yes, there was one person missing at the top table. All through the speeches we all mentioned him but he was there in spirit. You deal with it but it was tinged with sadness. I lost my grandmother in 2011 but losing a father is close to home. Cancer seems to be now one in two rather than one in three, there's a 50 per cent chance we will have it.

My dad was a roofer and would have looked relatively healthy but you never know. Ross (Glendinning) was at my wedding, we are good mates. SAS (Mark Glendinning), Ross and Reece were at my dad's graveside. Two weeks later I was at Mandy's funeral, their much loved wife and mother who had cancer.

Myself and Ross went through the same thing at the same time. Belonging to a football club helped as it's a family. Stephen (Baxter) was great, he said 'Bro, if you need time off just say'. Everyone, to be fair, was great, including Paul Leeman and the players. You are talking about unconditional love, you love someone no matter what. You put your father on a pedestal and he's your hero. I'll deal with things the way he does.

Q. Who was your favourite footballer growing up?

A. I liked Roy Keane as a player. His will to win was great and he was under-rated the way he went about the game but I also thought Paul Scholes was a little genius.

Q. Toughest opponent and best player played with?

A. I would say Andy Waterworth. I've never been up against him as a centre-half but I admire his pace and power and he knows where the net is. On a bigger pitch like Windsor he can give Linfield a new dimension when he plays.

Best player, I will name three - Billy Joe Burns who went to a different level at Crusaders; Paul Heatley, a little magician, you are thinking 'Don't shoot' and then he scores. The third one would be Robert Garrett. He showed his class for Linfield and Portadown, he wants the ball and has so much energy.

Q. What advice would you give a young player hoping to make it in the game?

A. Listen to your coach and have a good attitude. Combine those with a strong work ethic.

Q. Which sporting event, other than football, would you like to attend?

A. The Wimbledon tennis final would be special, looking over at the Royal Box, it's the prestige of the whole thing.

Q How do you reflect on your time at Linfield?

A. I was part of league-winning squads but had a few injuries and suffered from a lack of confidence at times.

I started off well, scoring within five minutes of my debut against Dungannon, but I lost my place and got injured. The club is very professional, as close as you will get to full-time football, and I shared a changing room with Irish League legends like Noel Bailie, Winkie Murphy and Peter Thompson.

Looking back I nearly went there too early, I was 20 and maybe I could have stayed with Ballymena and got more experience. It was a privilege to play for the club but you sign to play, you don't sign just to get a tracksuit.

Hanley signed for Linfield in 2011.

Q. Winning the league title with Crusaders must have been special. I'm sure you didn't celebrate in the same reserved manner as Sean O'Neill and Declan Caddell!?

A. (laughs) Yes, they were something else. My time at Crusaders was great but if I've one regret, I signed my own release form.

Ballymena United boss Glenn Ferguson came in for me but I regret leaving the Crues. I left to get more game time and I'm just someone who wants to play in every game.

There was a great camaraderie at Crusaders making it a unique changing room with wonderful players.

Q. How excited are you about your new challenge with Ards?

A. I need to be playing every week and prove to myself that I can play well every week.

We lost the first four games but the club finished strongly last season and Colin Nixon is rebuilding the club. I'm happy to be part of it and Colin has been first class since I met him in February. I like him and he will be good to me.

You want to win things. Ards might not win the league but we will go out to win every game.

In action: Nathan Hanley

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