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Footballers' lives with Jaimie McGovern: My dad Dessie has been by my side through the highs and lows. When he had a heart attack it was a big scare and I feared the worst

 

Cliftonville ace Jaimie McGovern on thinking he had lost his dad, wanting to quit after stint at West Brom, and why he’s so hungry for Irish Cup glory.

Q. What are your early football memories?

A. I remember my dad Dessie was heavily involved in football and I played at Sandy Bay with Larne Youth. It was about Under-9 level and I kicked a ball back and forth with my dad. When I got a bit older, I broke his hand taking a shot at him so he brought that to a swift end! I went from Larne Youth to Greenisland with Craig Cathcart, Jonny and Corry Evans. When I was around 14 I had a trial at Manchester United as well but didn't get a deal. I ended up signing for West Brom at 15 and moved away at 16, staying for two and a half years before returning home to join Glentoran.

Q. What was the West Brom experience like?

A. Every player will tell you it's not as great as it sounds. I was still a wee boy and my parents came over with me in the first week. Coming from Larne, it was a massive culture shock to me. My parents stayed in a hotel while I was given digs and had to get two buses to training. I grew up overnight in a big city like Birmingham, did my own laundry and it was a steep learning curve. Homesickness played a part and affected my performances so I wasn't offered a new contract. I was just glad to get home.

Q. Do you feel if you were a bit older when you went to England, you might have enjoyed it more?

A. I think boys are going over too young. Look at Stuart Dallas who became a man in the Irish League, learning his trade with Crusaders before going over, and Paul Smyth is the latest one, going from Linfield to Queens Park Rangers. People criticise the Irish League but players coming back here can find it difficult to adapt. If you're good enough at 18 or 19 you can make that step up. I understand it's a dream kids have but it didn't have the gloss I thought it would have. It took a lot of work and effort, and at weekends the guys in England went home while I was the only Irish guy at the club with no friends outside football, so I had little to do. Craig Shakespeare was my Under-18 coach and Michael Appleton helped out too. Dan Ashworth was my Academy Director. Once I came home, I returned to Birmingham feeling a little down and they could see that. I've no regrets about the experience, it was a big part of my learning as a footballer and I had to mature at a young age. It's helped make me the person I am. It was still a pleasure to play with big personalities such as Zoltan Gera and Paul Robinson.

Q. How did you feel coming home from West Brom?

A. I was drained and didn't want to play football again. I had no job and wasn't playing football. My dad asked me, 'Jaimie, what are you going to do?' Larne and Linfield had approached me, as well as Alan McDonald at Glentoran. Alan offered me a bit more of a carrot than David Jeffrey at the Blues because he sold first-team football to me, and at a time when I was hurt and down I wanted to feel valued and Alan gave me that. At Linfield I knew it would be a fight to get into the team. Within three years of signing, we won the Irish League so the choice paid dividends.

Q. How do you reflect on your time at Glentoran?

A. We won the league, two League Cups and one County Antrim Shield. Talking about big personalties, compare that team to the current side and is it any wonder they are not as strong. We had Paul Leeman, Colin Nixon, Gary Hamilton, Dean Fitzgerald, Shane McCabe, Daryl Fordyce, Elliott Morris. That season we won the title I made my most appearances for the club so I can say I played my part.

Q. Alan McDonald's tragic passing in 2012 shocked all of us. How did you feel?

A. It affected a lot of people and I don't think anyone had a bad word to say about Al, he had a kind way about him but was also ruthless when he needed to be. Al gave me my chance in the Irish League and I've won medals from that so I will always be grateful to him. It was a massive shock to learn he passed away. He was highly thought of at QPR as well as in Northern Ireland and there was that cold feeling of numbness. He was a gentle giant. I witnessed the protests in the car park at The Oval near the end of his time in charge. Players must take responsibility for their performances but fans can play a huge part in helping you when the chips are down.

Q. How did your move to Cliftonville come about?

A. Eddie Patterson came on board and, while I had another year to run on my contract at the Glens and I knew I wasn't performing to my potential, a fresh start was needed. Eddie faced budget cuts and it suited both parties for me to move on. I had been approached by a few clubs and was close to joining Tim McCann at Lisburn Distillery when I got a call from Tommy Breslin, and after that conversation, and a meeting with him and the chairman (Gerard Lawlor), I was happy to sign. I took a significant pay cut to go to the Reds, and other clubs offered me more, but I knew as a visiting player the abuse you got from the 'understanders' at Cliftonville and I liked that togetherness and spirit they had.

Q. Could you see the success coming?

A. No, I remember Conor Devlin and Marc Smyth had signed and Tommy said, 'Jaimie, you're the final piece in our jigsaw to get us over the line'. Nine months later, we lifted the Gibson Cup. I wanted to believe it but I probably didn't think it would happen that way. In the end I was the wrong bit of the jigsaw as I ended up at centre-back with Marc instead of being a right-back, and once we clicked we never looked back. That was my second league title but I appreciated it more because it felt like it meant more to the club and supporters, and I was delighted for the experienced players who hadn't enjoyed that feeling.

Q. What was your worst moment in football?

A. That happened four weeks later, it was the Irish Cup final against Glentoran in 2013. We let ourselves down. There was a little bit of arrogance from us and we took our eye off the ball. We lost a little bit of sharpness, physically and mentally.

Q. Because Cliftonville haven't won the Irish Cup since 1979, is that weight of expectation a burden to the players?

A. It can be an excuse from a fans' point of view. Some of them have followed the club for decades. I wasn't born in 1979 so I don't think we can be held accountable for having that burden on our shoulders. We are a team still in transition and we have players who haven't won trophies. This is new to them. The fans have every right to feel the way they do, but from a players' perspective we need to show how much we want to win this trophy. It's the only medal I don't have and that's a big incentive for me along with European football.

Q. What are your thoughts on this year's final?

A. Coleraine will be hurting massively from last year. They will feel they didn't turn up and they have young, hungry players. I think we have just as good a team and the frontmen, Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly, are starting to fire. This is Joe's first season back in the Irish League and he told me in pre-season he was just looking to hit 20 goals. He's faced criticism and been dropped like all of us but he's shown his class.

Q. Your manager Barry Gray isn't afraid of criticising the players in public when he feels that's necessary. What's he like?

A. Barry is passionate and a completely different character to Bressy (Tommy Breslin). It's probably taken the players a bit of time to become accustomed to that. He's brought new players to the club and it was going to take time for the team to gel. The title-winning team is gone and now Barry is looking for hunger and desire in this group.

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

A. It has to be Liam Boyce, a player who was such a big part of our success. Other teams were so afraid of him our other players could exploit that. Look at what he's achieving now, firing on all cylinders and an international striker. For toughest opponent I'd probably go back to when I was a right-back at Glentoran. Coleraine's Stephen Carson was one of the most gifted players I have faced and Glenn Ferguson, even at the later stage of his career, was quality.

Q. Has your dad, Dessie, been a huge influence in your career?

A. Without a doubt. He wasn't pushy, he was probably my biggest critic. Looking back, as a kid I didn't appreciate what he did for me. I was playing all over the country and he was my taxi driver. Now I have kids of my own, I can appreciate my father working long hours and then supporting me. I'm guessing he got enjoyment out of it too and he coached our Larne Youth Under-12 team as we won the league. His advice has got me where I am today. The only games my dad has missed in my Irish League career are the European games. Every other match, including the Setanta Cup ones, he was front of the queue ready to hurl abuse at the opposition! I'd like to think that in the good days he was the first person I put my arm around because I owe him so much. He grew up as a Crusaders fan but he's swapped allegiance. My mum Teresa picks and chooses her games to attend and I've two sisters, Laura and Kerry, and one brother, Paul.

Q. Are you busy now with two children?

A. It's a hectic lifestyle but thankfully my working hours are flexible and I just need to hit targets. Sometimes because of work and training there are days when I don't see the girls or my wife Colette. Freya is one and Miya is coming six in June. It's difficult to get that happy balance. I've only another four years of football left so I'm blessed to be in a nice house. We were both 21 when we found out Colette was pregnant, she was living in Dundalk and I was in Larne. We quickly had to set up home in Belfast and we now live in the Antrim Road area. Miya came home with a leaflet showing kids standing in front of a McDonald's banner and that convinced her she wanted to join St Malachy's Old Boys' Youth team. She's quite quiet and laidback and I felt a bit of team sport would be good for her. She's been there 10 months and really come out of her shell. She is a lot more confident and forward in her approach with adults and other kids. Miya will never be pushed, she will do what she wants.

Q How did you and Colette meet?

A It was just over eight years ago, Colette had come up to Belfast for her birthday night out and I was out with the Glentoran team. Myself and Neal Gawley were talking to the girls from Dundalk and Colette was having none of my banter, but the opportunity for more chat happened and then we connected through Facebook. It took us two months to get a date organised but it's been the best eight years of my life and long may it continue. We aren't married but as a young father things happened quickly. I was a mature 21-year-old and we had a lot of help from both our parents. Miya is a kind, gentle, happy child and I'd like to think we have brought her up in the right way. Colette is a laser hair removal therapist close to City Hall. I work with a sports teamwear provider, ClubSportNI.

Q. What has been the worst day of your life?

A. You associate that with death but I'm fortunate to have my close family around me. When my granny Mary passed away, it felt like the world had ended but she had battled illness. Looking back, the day my dad had a heart attack about two years ago was terrible. I thought the worst. My sister called me when I was in work and said, 'Jaimie, your dad's had a heart attack'. You automatically think he's not going to make it through. They were on a break in Donegal and he ended up in Antrim Hospital. I walked in expecting him to be unconscious but he was sitting up in a chair, right as rain with a few wires in him, saying, 'I'm grand'. That was a big scare for me. To think you are going to lose your dad is one of the hardest things you can experience. We will cherish every moment we have together.

Snapshot

Date of birth: May 29, 1989

Place of birth: Larne

Previous clubs: West Brom, Glentoran

Cliftonville record: 239 appearances, one goal

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