Footballers' Lives with Joe Gormley: 'I was a 12-year-old kid left crying with a broken heart when my dad passed away. Now all I want to do is to make my mum proud of me.'
Cliftonville goal ace Joe Gormley on how his mother's guidance and the support of Crumlin Star helped him cope with pain of losing his dad.
Q Where did your football journey begin?
A I played for Ardoyne Youth Club teams and Celtic Boys after the Ardoyne team folded. I was with Cliftonville under-18s for a season but played very little, I don't even think I got a kit at times. I just wanted to play so I went back to Ardoyne Working Men's Club. My brother Ciaran joined Crumlin Star so I followed him there. Everything took off from then. I was probably one of the youngest players in the team when I first played for Cliftonville and now I'm one of the oldest and it's amazing.
Q You scored 61 goals in one season for Crumlin Star, how did you manage that?
A To be honest, I was playing with seriously good players. We had Sean and Paul Brown, Anto Braniff. I looked up to the lads and, from the day I signed for them, Sean Brown has been a massive influence in my career. I think of them as family. My dad Joe passed away when I was 12 and, while my mum's partner has been brilliant with me, within football Sean was the closest thing I had to a father or someone who would push me on. It wasn't until I moved to Crumlin Star that I realised I had potential and Sean helped me progress.
Q Was football something else to focus on at a tough time in your life?
A The club was a family in itself and a massive part of my life growing up. They believed in me and I started to believe in myself that I could go on and do bigger and better things. It worked out well for me.
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Q How did the move to Cliftonville happen?
A I had trained with Newry where Gerry Flynn is a distant relative of my mum Marguerite. Peter Murray was assistant manager and I also went to train with Crusaders and then Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin invited me to join them.
Q You had incredible times with the Reds, including back to back league titles and three consecutive League Cups. Did that surprise you?
A I could never have imagined it. Cliftonville hadn't won the league since 1998 and I was lucky to be around at a time when we had so many good players. They were incredible times and Bressy gave me my chance.
Q Did you always have faith in your own ability?
A I never thought I was good enough. I'm my own worst critic when things aren't going well. I'm probably too hard on myself. When I started scoring goals at Amateur League and Irish League level, that gives you confidence. Someone said 'the goals don't move' and that's the way I look at it.
Q In 2015 you got a move to Peterborough. What was that time like for you?
A When I was scoring, I heard all the rumours linking me with clubs and I just had to keep my head down. I started to believe I had a chance to play at a higher level. It's every kid's dream and the chance arrived for me. It was something I'll never forget and I must thank Dave Robertson and Grant McCann for making it happen, it's something I'll always cherish.
Q Of course, you got the horrible knee injury which must have been devastating?
A People said to me 'would you have stayed if you hadn't had the injury?' but I was missing home too. I hadn't settled in and never really got the chance to. Some things are meant to be and it just wasn't meant to be for me. I had never had a bad injury before and then the worst thing happened. It was a massive setback. I was lying in bed in Peterborough when family, including my girlfriend Aoife, visited me and it was tough going. My mum always says 'if it's for you, it's for you and if it's not, it's not'. It just wasn't meant to be.
Q Was there any homesickness?
A I was enjoying pre-season and playing in friendlies, scoring goals. I had to give it a go. I was in my 20s and felt I had to take the chance. I had to undergo the rehabilitation and it was always going to be tough coming back from it.
Q As you went across at the age of 25, do you feel you would have had a better shot at the professional game had you left as a teenager?
A I probably would have stayed longer. I've been in the same house for 29 years and yet it would have been a very different experience had I been 15. You are going to school and living with the boys you're playing with. I was on my own when I went over. I lived with Grant (McCann) for a few weeks and Marcus Maddison until I got my own place. I had never been away from home and it was time to grow up.
Q Did you miss your family?
A Every day I had plenty of time after training so I was facetiming my mates, girlfriend and mum. My cousin is a DJ and I watched him in action! It was a great experience but I don't look back. I'm playing football today and loving it.
Q Is there any advice you'd give to a young player hoping to make it as a professional?
A I had a bad experience with my injury but if anyone's looking advice they should speak to Liam Boyce, Gavin Whyte, Stuart Dallas or Mark Sykes. They would know more than me but if a chance comes your way, it can be worth taking. The Irish League has real quality and it's getting better. When we played Linfield in the County Antrim Shield, they brought on two 15-year-olds. The number of talented young players in the league is fantastic.
Q Is there anything in your career you would have done differently?
A No, everything happens for a reason. I'm back home, healthy, fit and playing football so I'm not beating myself up. The main thing is getting enjoyment from the game and I'm getting that.
Q I'm guessing that Cliftonville are in your heart and that's why you are still there?
A Whenever I was there for the first time, it was some of the best times of my life, winning leagues and Cups. When I came back the second time, I knew a few players but it was a completely different team. You had the likes of Levi Ives who was a teenager. I had to get to know the team again but hopefully I can have more great times with the club.
Q Following the horrible injury you sustained, in your lowest moment did you think about quitting the game or was that never an option?
A There were times at Peterborough when I thought that's it, I just assumed I couldn't play. I was told different things about my knee like 'you can't play on 3G pitches'. I have to give myself credit because I did the rehab and worked hard. The medical treatment and advice I got at Peterborough really helped me.
Q You're Cliftonville's record goalscorer, how proud does that make you feel?
A I don't think that'll hit me until I retire but it's a great achievement, especially for the club I love so much. It was nice to get past the 300 games and 200 goals mark. Personal records are nice but I'd rather have the three points, any day!
Q How pleased are you to see Liam Boyce shine at Ross County, then Burton and Northern Ireland?
A Liam's incredible. If any kid wants to look up to an Irish League player it should be Liam. He went away to Werder Bremen, came back and went away again to become, in my biased opinion, Northern Ireland's best striker. He wanted it more than anyone and he's proved how good he is. Boycie had everything, all we had to do was give him the ball. He's a strong, skilful and great goalscorer.
Q Who was your toughest opponent?
A I can remember playing against West Ham's Winston Reid and James Collins, guys I would normally watch on Match of the Day. But I must mention Scott Brown as well, as I'm a massive Celtic fan.
Q I'm sure you were devastated to learn of Tommy Breslin's passing. How did you find out the news?
A That was heartbreaking. Our kitman Brian Campbell told us the news and when I was in a group chat someone mentioned it and it was a 'please tell me it's not true moment'. It broke my heart, it really hurt me and I shed tears. I'm relaxing with my girlfriend and she had to ask if I was okay as I was upset. Tommy meant so much to me. He gave me a chance when others probably wouldn't have. Anything I achieve at Cliftonville will honour his memory. Tommy and Peter Murray were fantastic with the players.
Q Tommy was clearly a brilliant manager. What sort of a man was he?
A When things weren't going well, there was pressure on the team but Tommy was great at lifting that pressure off the players. He wanted the players to play without any fear. He got the best out of myself and all the players and his achievements prove that. When I was in England I sought his advice as well and he helped me a lot. The one moment that sticks in my head was when I was on the bench at Ballinamallard and someone had asked him 'why's Joe Gormley on the bench?' Tommy said; 'Joe doesn't travel well, so we have to leave him out.' That was Tommy the joker having a laugh but I came on and scored the winner that day! It's just sad he's not with us anymore, he's sadly missed by everyone, especially his family.
Q What do you do when you're not scoring goals?
A I work in an after schools club in Ardoyne where the kids are 4 to 10. I also train with Bam Neeson three days a week extra. I love the work and it's similar to the time I spent at an after school club in Divis before I went to England.
Q Has Aoife been a huge support to you?
A We've been together for five years and she's been a massive part of my life. She travelled over a lot to see me at Peterborough and there were plans for her to move over but the injury and my loan move to St Johnstone stopped that. Aoife is from the Antrim Road and she goes to nearly all the games. I really enjoy the time we spend together and her mum has been amazing to me as well. Before every home game I'll look up to where my family are in the stand and give them a wave. My mum makes the games when she's not working. She's getting married to her partner Martin in May.
Q Your mum Marguerite is obviously your biggest fan. How does that make you feel?
A I've always tried to make her proud on and off the pitch. If I score she'll be on social media calling me 'Joe The Goal' and if I score I'll hear her shout first in her own unique way.
I've a wee three-year-old nephew Padraig who is Joe Gormley on the brain. I'm playing football with him and I tell him: 'I'm Joe Gorrmley' and he says: 'no, you be Chris Curran, I'm Joe Gormley!' He just joined a football team and he's obsessed with me. He could have picked Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but he wants to be me!
Q Does that make you realise how much young fans look up to Irish league players?
A The older I get, the more I realise how passionate fans are about the clubs they support. It's their team and when you speak to them you understand their dedication.
Q Is your relationship with your mum a special one, since she had to guide you after your dad's passing?
A It is really special, no-one can compare to her. We grew up without our father for a long time and she had to bring up the three of us - myself, my older brother Ciaran and sister Naomi. When you hear people say you're a nice family, you appreciate how much of that is down to mum's support. She has looked after us all very well.
Q Have you many memories of your father?
A Not many, I can remember him watching me play schools' football. My dad used to play as well, though I can't remember watching him. He was a tough player like my brother, the opposite to me! I was only 12 when he died of cancer. I knew my cousin's aunt had been able to fight cancer and I can remember asking Ciaran: 'is my dad going to die?' But cancer claimed his life very quickly.
I was playing in my mate's house when I saw my dad's best friend fly past in the car, my aunt got me and I can remember going up the stairs, looking through the bannister and I could see my mum with my dad on the bed and I knew what was happening so I broke down in tears. The day of his funeral in 2002, Ireland played Cameroon in the World Cup.
Q How did you process everything as a 12-year-old?
A I can remember lying in bed every night for at least two years missing my dad and my heart was breaking. I was crying because I missed him. I was a 12-year-old boy who missed his father. It was hard for my brother too as he was doing his GCSEs at the time. You wouldn't wish an experience like that on your worst enemy.
Q How did your mum deal with the heartbreaking situation?
A She's been brilliant by bringing us up on her own and she deserves massive credit. It was tough for all of us but she had to be strong despite losing her husband. I'm sure she had her own tough quiet moments like all of us.
Q Would you talk about that traumatic time in you life much?
A I don't really mention it much because people either don't know my family history, or don't want to bring it up. I would speak about it if I felt it could help someone. Friends of mine have lost loved ones and I'm here for them. I think you need that support through bereavement. Our family is very close and you have to be strong. You can't forget the past but you have to move on at the same time. Whenever my dad was ill he told my mum to keep enjoying her life. Mum is moving on with her life and if she's happy, I'm happy.
Q There was a disgusting incident at Seaview when a moron spat on you and made a sick reference to your father. He got the ban he deserved but how did that make you feel?
A That could have been heat of the moment stuff but it wasn't nice. I'm just a normal guy who will take stick and sometimes give it back but people don't know me as they haven't spoken to me. If I'm getting stick, I'm doing something right! I wasn't going to say much about it until I read on Facebook, someone said: 'Joe Gormley was offering people fights at Seaview today.' I was just making it obvious that someone had said something about my father, something which I would never do to someone. I was actually more annoyed at being spat at than the comment as that's one of the lowest things you can do.
Q Looking forward, are you feeling good about Cliftonville's future?
A We've been good this season but we must keep our feet on the ground, we will never get ahead of ourselves. We will see where we are at the end of the season. I've never really thought about coaching but I could play for Crumlin Star again before the end of my career.