Footballers' Lives with Richard Brush: Michael O'Neill gave me a career lifeline and I loved playing for him
In the latest of our popular series, Ballinamallard ace Richard Brush discusses his nightmare wrist issues, starring for current NI boss Michael O'Neill in Europe, why he’s loving it at Ferney Park, and crucial life lessons.
Q. What's your earliest football memory?
A. I had an older brother, David, so my earliest memories are aged four or five standing against the wall with socks on my hands while he pelted me with balls, and that's when not only football but goalkeeping began for me. I suppose he moulded my goalkeeping career without realising it. By the time I was seven, I was put in nets - again by my brother, into his Under-9 team when his goalkeeper failed to show up. I remember tipping a shot onto the post and thinking it had gone in, and deciding to just lie down, thinking the worst. But it hadn't, because he went in to haul it off the line, I just hadn't noticed!
Q. When did your first break come and where did your career take you thereafter?
A. I joined Coventry City's U13s and was with the club until I was 20, playing as the second-choice keeper under Peter Reid during 2003-04. That was before I fractured my right wrist and was out for 12 months, having to undergo two operations. We were only three days into pre-season and we'd taken the unusual route of shooting practice early on. Neil Wood had just signed for us from Manchester United and struck one hard, catching the tiniest little bone in my wrist. Mickey Adams came in as manager and said I had a month to get back to full fitness.
Q. How did you cope with the injury, and essentially an ultimatum from a new manager?
A. The injury was horrific. I'd been there since I was 13 and had grown up there, lived in the training digs at Coventry. I remember making that walk to the manager's office, and even though I knew what was coming, it made it no easier. He said, 'I don't really know who you are, you were signed when I arrived', and I knew then I was in for a tough time. He didn't mince his words, which I appreciate looking back, but it was gut-wrenching at the time. I had to cope by getting fit and finding a new club. I joined Shrewsbury Town, where Joe Hart was No.1, and it was short-lived. Their second-choice was injured so I was called in to spend three months on the bench over the Christmas period. I then came to Ireland on trial at Sligo Rovers and ended up just staying there.
Q. Did it feel like a second shot at success?
A. It was a second shot at everything. My life changed enormously after that trial period, from 2005 to 2010. I settled down with my now wife Stacey, we had a little girl, Amélie, who turns nine in April and is named after the film. She was a beautiful baby, and it was a beautiful film. The colours in it are outrageous, they completely mesmerised me. The only colours in cinematography I've seen which come close are the ones in a TV series called Utopia.
Q. Despite having set up a new life in Sligo, the wrist nightmare came back to haunt you…
A. Yeah, it happened again. Another stop I made in training and this time it was my left wrist, in 2009. Amélie had been born just before I broke my wrist and I went on to miss three cup finals for Rovers; one League and two FAI Cups. That was really horrible, truly difficult to take. It was so depressing. It was the first League Cup one they'd got to in years and I was at the Showgrounds, sitting in the stands and watching it with loads of people I knew, everyone reminding me of how it could have been me out there. The second was in Tallaght Stadium, one of the coldest, wettest days imaginable. We were 1-0 up until late on, then Ciaran Kelly gave away a penalty and they scored after, so we lost 2-1. I had played in the earlier rounds, and then just sat there, helpless, watching them lose.
It crushed everyone, I don't think I've ever seen a dressing room at a lower point. I've never seen misery like it in football. The disappointment was overwhelming, in terms of not having been able to play but also the empathy for the lads who lost in a really dreadful way. The third I remember was much easier, we won, but when you don't feature you still feel slightly detached from the celebrations. Ciaran saved four penalties in that final, he read them superbly, and early. As for me, I found myself without a club for the first few months of 2011, still trying to get fit.
Q. Then Michael O'Neill gave you a lifeline.
A. He did. I remember pushing the pram around the estate we lived on and he called, inviting me for a trial. I thought it was the lads messing around, but his accent isn't the easiest to keep up so I twigged on that it was genuine. He told me Tim Dalton, the goalkeeping coach, had recommended me highly from our shared time at Sligo, and suggested he give me a call. I went to Shamrock Rovers and it was the light at the end of the tunnel that I needed.
Q. How did you get on under Michael?
A. Brilliantly, I really enjoyed playing for him. I ended up playing European football before I knew it. Alan Mannus was leaving for St Johnstone so he needed standing cover, and that's how the trial came about. I went to try and prove my ability at a time when they were top of the league, had beaten Flora Tallinn and I got to travel to Denmark for the first leg of the third qualifying round of the Champions League against FC Copenhagen, before playing Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League. It was amazing. My brother laughed about how a trio of places I played at in the space of a couple of weeks comprised of the Aviva, Copenhagen and as a centre-half in a field for his local team.
Q. Then Shamrock Rovers went on to make history by becoming the first Irish side to reach the Europa League's group stage. What do you remember about playing Spurs?
A. The weather! The first leg at White Hart Lane was ridiculously warm. The home leg in Dublin was freezing! It was the week before Christmas and it was very cold. Some reports say I made excellent saves but to be honest, they were more just blocks. I watched them back and therefore the highlights are clearer 'memories' because I don't really recall much about the games. I met Carlo Cudicini after, and our little goalkeepers' alliance is my favourite picture from football. Plus I'm wearing Puma Kings, not seen at a top division ground since Gary Mabbutt, and not seen since. He said, 'Well played', and that was about it. He did give me his shirt, and it's the only jersey I've ever taken. My dad has it, along with most of my mementoes.
Q. These days things are quite different at Ballinamallard, with survival the clear objective. How are you finding things?
A. I enjoy being at the club. Considering where we are in the table, things are very good. We are in trouble, we know that, but there's still a good atmosphere. We're trying to remain positive because when you let the head drop it's much harder. From the outside looking in, we could be accused of not caring because we are upbeat, but we care immensely. I don't have any intentions of leaving if the worst happens. It's not my decision if I stay or go, but I really love being there. The enjoyment is the most important thing. Some goalkeepers play until they're 40, and I get so much from it.
Q. What's life like now outside football?
A. I've got a very relaxed lifestyle in Sligo, where my family and our home are concerned, but I work in a care home in Strandhill, which is in a beautiful setting but far from relaxing. I often put in 12-hour shifts, which fly in as it's non-stop, but it's good. You have to get some kind of enjoyment from it. I left Sligo Rovers in 2015 and studied healthcare support through our social welfare providers in the Republic of Ireland, who were offering the course. We have older residents, whose needs are hugely varied and whose conditions range from those such as Alzheimer's, to physical and sensory disabilities. Every day you're building rapport, giving residents security and comfort and doing everything for them. There are a few who are Rovers fans, who have supported the team and would remember a lot of matches, goals and details, and it's great to share that with them.
Q. Going from full-time football to working in a care home is an interesting switch. Has it changed you?
A. It does make you think about your own mortality. Football keeps you young and actually makes you take life for granted a bit, but working in a care home holds a mirror up to you, in the sense you see where you could end up, and that makes you aware of your own mortality. You don't dwell on it too much but it does put you into a totally different mindset and it opens your eyes. Up until only two or three years ago, I'd have never thought about the future. I never believed the football dream would last forever but, as a player, you definitely do switch off from reality.
Q. Do you build close relationships with residents, or can becoming too emotionally invested be difficult to handle?
A. I have to keep my guard up when I'm with them. If you get too close to someone who is in the very late stage of their life it can be heartbreaking, so I have to try to keep a step back. I chat with residents every day and it's a great atmosphere to work in, but you have to keep a kind of distance. It's a job, and it's a profession, but one which demands so much more from you and would be easy to take home with you. You have to go in with a full heart and full dedication to the job, but with a certain distance. I suppose I try to keep things relatively upbeat, and be personal, but you don't want to trigger something which may upset them. It's known as surface personal life, friendly chit-chat.
Q. I'd be interested to hear what kind of a unique life education you get there, what can older people teach us?
A. I've learned a lot from the residents, taking life for granted is one of the key lessons, but also not worrying so much. Sometimes I'll have a Sunday shift beginning at 8am and after a defeat, of which there have been plenty lately, I'll almost be grateful for it because I know I'll be reminded what's important in life fairly quickly. Everything is so immediate in our society, so easy to put your hands on. They've amazing stories about how basic tasks were so onerous, and always say how it's better to stay busy instead of sitting and rotting away. Fix things, achieve things. I sometimes wonder what our generation will be able to offer when we're that age, or if we'll only be able to say we sat on our phones a lot.
Q. Is that something you think we can change?
A. I try to bring it into fatherhood. Amélie does gymnastics and even though I could find myself rolling my eyes about dropping her down to training, I know I ought to do it and enjoy it. I trained three times a week half an hour down the road when I was young and my parents jumped at the chance to take me to football. The effort they made was enormous. It's hard to juggle full-time work, football and parenting but if I don't find a way of doing it, I'll look back and wish I'd made more of an effort.
Q. You must find time for yourself, however! What do you do to relax?
A. Music is my big love, I love metal and heavy rock. I am the one who's always got their headphones on while travelling to and from games. I think I'm the only one who does; I don't look up to check to be honest. I wouldn't say I'm introverted, I get on with everyone, but I like my own company best.
Q. What's your favourite holiday destination?
A. I think I'll say Mexico, as Stacey and I married in Playa del Carmen. I couldn't get my head around an Irish wedding, the idea of dozens of people I'd probably never met arriving to 'celebrate', so we went as far away as possible!
Q. What's the best advice you've ever been given as a footballer?
A. From the age of about 10, my mum always used to say, 'Don't hesitate'. It's not advice as much as an instruction! She stopped a couple of years ago and I haven't ever asked why, but she did call me after the Glentoran game which I was sent off in after coming off my line and said, 'You probably should have hesitated then!'
Date of birth: November 26, 1984
Place of birth: Birmingham
Previous clubs: Coventry City, Tamworth (loan), Stafford Rangers, Hednesford Town, Shrewsbury Town, Nuneaton Borough, Sligo Rovers, Shamrock Rovers, Finn Harps
Honours: League of Ireland (2), FAI Cup, League of Ireland Cup (2), Setanta Sports Cup (2)