Footballers' lives: I struggled to accept father's cancer diagnosis, says Crusaders' Philip Lowry
Crusaders ace Philip Lowry reveals how he was helped through the toughest spell of his life, future plans with wife Elaine and if he’ll one day play alongside brother Stephen.
Q. What is your earliest football memory?
A. One of my close mates, Blain Morrison, his father used to run a soccer school every Saturday morning. He would put up samba nets and the kids would go there, it was £1.50 and you got a can of Coke too. Mum and dad (Clare and Ken) used to take me and my brother Stephen (who plays for Linfield) down to it along with a car load of cousins and friends and everyone loved it. I can also remember the Maiden City soccer scheme with John Cunningham and Paul Kee in Limavady every summer. We all had football on our brains in our house. With my brother being a similar age it was all we did in our spare time.
Q. You live in Belfast but do you consider Limavady your home as well?
A. All my family are still in Limavady; my parents, both their sides of the family, my brother who is married to Camilla and has a daughter Eve, and sister Gemma who is getting married to Paul next year. I'm the only one who has flown the nest as far as Belfast. Gemma was at university in Belfast like me but returned home. I live with my wife Elaine on the Ormeau Road. My mum is a dental nurse. Two of her brothers were Irish League players, Gerry Mullan and Pat, so we have a great family pedigree. I studied pharmacy at Queen's and it worked well at Linfield as I was studying and living here. I worked in a community pharmacy but Elaine got offered a job in London. She's a doctor and she was offered a consultant training contract. We both decided to go for it, and I got a job at KPMG at their healthcare and life sciences team. I got to see a bit of the world as I was in Hong Kong and New York. We were in London for two years, then we got engaged and thought about the future. Her family is from Cushendall. She was offered a transfer to Belfast and it worked out perfectly. We got married in July and she started her job in September. Everything fell into place. I now work for a company called Newmark, a membership body for independent pharmacies. Elaine works in the Royal Victoria Hospital as a radiology registrar, in her third year of training.
Q. How did you and Elaine meet?
A. It was actually at a Linfield Player of the Year function at the Ramada Hotel, Shaw's Bridge. She was working as a waitress and I got chatting to her at the bar. We took it from there, she was at university in Belfast and we bumped into each other a few times, then started going out six months later. Elaine is not interested in football, she used to be a champion Irish dancer and even after she met me she probably still doesn't have any interest in football! She does a bit of dancing at an exhibition or at a wedding, including our own, but you won't see me doing it. She watches football but has no real interest outside the Irish League.
Q. How did the wedding this summer go?
A. The Mass was in Glenariff, her neighbouring village, and we had a reception at Galgorm. It was a great day. Stephen was my best man but I had one up on him as I was his best man a few years earlier. He was returning the favour but he had plenty to brag about after the way last season ended with Linfield pipping us to the league title. He was grand. Elaine and I were living together for a few years so it was an almost seamless move. We are just thinking about a new house and children. I'm a proud uncle to Eve and hopefully we can add to our family.
Q. Your father Ken has battled cancer since he was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the appendix in January 2014. How is he now?
A. He's doing great, it's one of those things where it's like a bolt out of the blue one day. I can remember coming home from work one lunchtime and dad was in the kitchen. He said: "I don't know what to say but you need to know I've got cancer". I was numb at the start and it was hard to accept. You hear 'cancer' and you think the worst. I knew he had a niggling pain in his side but he had done a lot of exercise and I thought he had strained a muscle. He was an extremely fit man, he used to be a referee and linesman in the Irish League and he looked a picture of health. I can remember thinking, 'This can't be true'. I couldn't accept it for a few weeks, especially when he looked so healthy, but inside something wasn't right. He was a beacon of strength to everyone else in how well he dealt with it. Whenever you get news like that you realise how lucky you are to have a family who rally around and offer support. In these circumstances you see what your family is capable of and it brought us all much closer. He has come through surgery and he's doing well.
Q. As the cancer was spreading he had to go for an operation in Basingstoke, how worrying was that time?
A. He went to England for about a month and a half, including the rehab. I can remember going in after his surgery and it was real shock and horror. I was thinking how is he ever going to recover as he lay there with tubes everywhere. I was thinking, 'This is really serious' and it put everything into perspective. I was about 25 and you feel invincible about your health. You don't think about these things as the rest of our family is fit and well. But he has come out the other side and is retired from work.
Q. Did some of the cancer cells appear to return?
A. I think he has something in there but he gets scanned every six months and he's been told everything is under control. He has a full-time job looking after his granddaughter and will go to Windsor or Seaview when he can. He turns 60 on November 6 and also does volunteering.
Q. Did your father's illness have an impact on your personal life or football?
A. At the time, coming from a small town, you heard rumours and some were afraid to approach us about it. There would be whispers but you put that to one side. I was down in the dumps for a while but family rallied around and you accept these things for what they are and work around it. You get so much help from different support networks but it is difficult because you are so close to your father and through the football as well. He was always there for us and then you come in one day, he tells you that and you're knocked for six. But all my friends are top men and you are blown away by people offering you support in football. Opposition players and managers have wished us well. Northern Ireland people are a friendly bunch and they rally around you. You have bad days in work and in football but this put everything in perspective. We get passionate about football but that conversation with my dad was one of my worst days. And yet you come out stronger from it, as other families will testify.
Q. Was your Linfield manager, David Jeffrey, a big support to you during that time?
A. When I signed as a young player I was scared to approach him but he was a great man manager. He was someone you could go to with an issue on or off the pitch. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, he was a real rock and I could approach him. If I needed time off training I didn't need to ask. My other managers have been like that, some are a bit more stand-offish, some are hands-on, but all equally as impressive. In a league like here in Northern Ireland the players know each other and socialise together sometimes. There is banter but myself and Stephen will say we have met so many friends through football and it has opened up a world of avenues for me.
Q. Who was your favourite footballer growing up?
A. My family are Arsenal fans so I had no choice. Dennis Bergkamp was probably my favourite, a real classy player who revolutionised Arsenal when he arrived. Thierry Henry got the plaudits but for me Bergkamp was probably the best player to ever play in the Premier League.
Q. What advice would you give to a young player?
A. A lot of young people seem to get caught up on appearance and what others are thinking about them, but if you want to be successful in the Irish League before going anywhere further it has to be about hard work. Coaches are more educated now and it's important to take on board their advice. I had some coaches who might not have known if a ball was blown up or stuffed. Even if I had doubts, I worked hard and gave it 100 per cent. You will get out what you put in.
Q. Looking back on your career, would you have done anything differently?
A. I reached a crossroads when I was about 18. I had just finished my A-levels,I went to a few clubs in England and it was time to decide - university or commit to a club. I came close to going, Leicester City were showing interest, I could have won the Premier League with them! But I had an older head on my shoulders and my parents were keeping me grounded. I weighed everything up and I don't regret it because I have seen players go over and come back disillusioned. Some of the boys going to England can get big contracts but lose their hunger. In the Irish League you join a first team with better players who can help you.
Q. You played for Derry City, so how do you feel about the Irish League embracing summer football?
A. There's pros and cons. It worked so well in the League of Ireland as it's a full-time set-up and everyone looked forward to a Friday night game. I'd be more of a traditionalist and prefer Saturday afternoons. I think moving the Irish League to the summer would not be as easy as some think. It would take a lot of planning.
Q. What has been the highlight of your career to date?
A. On paper, it would have to be scoring in the Irish Cup final for Linfield against Portadown in 2010. We won three doubles on the trot and it was a real golden period for me I went to the Blues as an Under-21 international but no one really gave me a chance of breaking into that team, the midfield was really strong with Robert Garrett, Jamie Mulgrew and Michael Gault in their prime. In saying that, the elation lasts a day or two and it's gone. Linfield were a machine, you win something then you turn up in pre-season like a new signing, what you achieved is history.
Q. Who was your toughest opponent and the best player you have played with?
A. While with the Under-21s, I saw a photograph of the Germany team and I must have faced six of the World Cup-winning team including Mesut Ozil, (Max) Kruse, (Sami) Khedira and Mats Hummels. They beat us 3-0 in Germany so we must have played well! In the Irish League, when I started at Linfield as a right winger, Ronan Scannell at Cliftonville was a top, top player. In midfield, playing against Stephen is difficult while Jamie Mulgrew and Michael Gault were great players. Anyone who likes to attack is a threat and Aaron Burns would be in that category.
Q. Was last season's title disappointment with Crusaders a bitter pill to swallow?
A. The season was just one thing after another. When I signed I knew it would be difficult to get into the team. When I got in we started winning games towards the end of the season but then what I thought was a broken finger turned into a broken hand and I needed surgery while being out for 12 weeks. It was a big disappointment for other players more than me because I was out of the team for longer. The boys just ran out of steam towards the end.
Q. Did you ever fear your future at Crusaders could be in doubt?
A. Not really, I'm confident in my own ability and I couldn't do anything about the injuries. I had another year on my contract and I had a good chat with Stephen (Baxter) in the summer. I think clubs were making enquiries but I wanted to see where my position was with Crusaders and once I told Stephen I was coming home from London there were no issues. It's been a new beginning for me and it feels different, I'm enjoying being part of the squad.
Q. Have you been on the end of a few hairdryer blasts from managers?
A. There was one time I got caught playing in a summer tournament in Limavady when I was at Linfield and David Jeffrey was not happy as I shouldn't have played. I was hit with a substantial fine and dropped down the pecking order in pre-season. I got a rap on the knuckles and was left out for the first few games. You see some funny things, it's the Irish League after all. I can remember Liam Beckett when he was Institute boss clashing with a supporter. Liam was a character and a winner, and you got used to some bizarre sights in the Big Two derbies as well. The fans were shouting everything at you and I got hit with a 50 pence coin at The Oval one time above my eye. There was no cut but the good thing about the Irish League is that there are no prima donnas who will make a meal of it. We were just happy to win that day and I was 50 pence richer!
Q. You're both talented footballers, but do you and Stephen have different personalities?
A. We are quite similar in all aspects but growing up he was probably a bit of a wild child and always in trouble in school and was messing about. People were phoning the house and saying he was up to no good in school while I was the opposite, a model pupil! He might even admit that himself, he was a bad boy at times but now he's settled down and sensible. We all grew up with the same circle of friends and we are close-knit.
Q. Stephen arrived at Linfield just a few days after you left for Derry City. Is it a shame you haven't played together?
A. It's one of the things we have talked about. The season before I left he came close to joining Linfield and was close to agreeing terms, he was all set to go but he didn't feel it was right which is fair enough. I left and Stephen was signed to replace me. We have come close a few times, like when I nearly went to Coleraine, and he's talked to Derry City or Linfield and it can't be ruled out in the future. I'm sure our family would be proud if it did happen.
Q. How do you reflect on your time at Portadown?
A. I would never say I regretted it. At the time it was what I wanted and I can remember scoring a winner against Linfield and scoring a good goal against Coleraine, but after that Ronnie (McFall) left and it got sour pretty quickly. We lost to Lurgan Celtic in the Irish Cup which was a disaster, there was supporter unrest and shenanigans about payments. I wouldn't be in a position to comment about the ins and outs of it, but I wish them every success in getting back up where they belong, the Irish League needs them in the top flight. I'm grateful to Portadown as they gave me a ticket back into the Irish League when I wasn't playing. I was training on my own in the gym. A surprise call came through from Ronnie and he was the only boy I would have come back for. I wish the club every success.
Q. Have you any coaching aspirations?
A. I love the game and would love to stay in it in some capacity as a manager or coach but that could be 10 years down the line from now. It seems managers have a glorified baby-sitting job with some players but like any player who takes it seriously, I love talking about and watching football. Steven Douglas has just turned 40 and is still playing away, I want to look after my body and play for as long as I can.
Date of birth: July 15, 1989
Place of birth: Limavady
Previous clubs: Institute, Linfield, Derry City, Portadown
Crusaders record: 41 appearances, six goals