Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives with David Armstrong: I've lost close friends and was devastated by the tragic death of William Dunlop

 

David Armstrong celebrates last season's League Cup success with his wife Joanna and son Alfie.
David Armstrong celebrates last season's League Cup success with his wife Joanna and son Alfie.
Terrific trio: David Armstrong with his wife Joanna and son Alfie
Silver lining: Swifts star David Armstrong proudly shows off the League Cup alongside dad Winston and mum Dawn
Tragic losses: David Armstrong’s childhood friend Martin Bell who died at 14
David Armstrong’s tribute to the late William Dunlop

By Graham Luney

In the latest of our popular series, Dungannon Swifts ace David Armstrong discusses tough times, pondering retirement after injury, family support and having the name Maradona.

Q. The name's Maradona… Maradona Armstrong. You'll need to explain that one.

A. My name is David Trevor Maradona Armstrong. You can blame my dad for 'Maradona'. He was a bit of a rocket and he played in the Irish League, people know him as Winkie.

I was born just after the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and my dad obviously loved Diego Maradona. It's quite unusual and I still get stick about it. I never thought much about it until my teenage years and I don't mind it.

I actually have a son and I was determined to call him Messi after Lionel Messi but my wife Joanna was having none of it. It's probably a good thing as my son loves Cristiano Ronaldo (laughs).

It wouldn't have worked anyway. I can remember the boys at Raith Rovers loved it and they gave me the nickname Diego. It was good craic. I've got a Maradona tattoo on my arm.

Q. Did you start at Lisburn Youth?

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A. I always had a football around me and went to watch my dad play. Where I grew up in Ballymacash we had a group of 10 lads who played football after school until you were called in.

Lisburn Youth were brilliant and we had a great team. In my younger days I was a striker and went to Hearts as a forward.

I didn't move to centre-half until I was with Kenny Shiels' Northern Ireland Under-17 team and when we had a few injuries I dropped back and we beat Finland with myself named man of the match.

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Terrific trio: David Armstrong with his wife Joanna and son Alfie

Q. How did the move to Hearts come about?

A. I was only about 15. I had a few trials and Hearts were willing to give me a three-year deal. It was every kids' dream. I took it in my stride but when I got to Edinburgh it started to sink in, you're 16 and have to find your own way.

The first year was really hard. I got through it but it was tough being away from home. If a club comes in for you at the age of 16 it's hard to turn that down. You don't know if the opportunity will come again.

I suffered from homesickness and ended up going to Crusaders on loan. That helped me, toughened me up and I eventually got a professional deal with Hearts. There were managerial changes and I was on the fringes of the squad.

I suffered a back injury aged 20 and needed an operation. I didn't kick a ball for about a year and a half. You fear the worst and even think about retirement at such a young age.

It took a long time to diagnose the problem and I still have to manage my back. I'm 32 now and would never have believed I would still be playing this long after suffering that injury.

Q. You had loan spells at Crusaders, Cowdenbeath and Raith Rovers. Do you have any regrets about your time across the water?

A. I needed games but in two years at Hearts there were about six managers. I've no regrets. Everything happens for a reason and injuries are part of the game.

There was a time at Hearts when players weren't getting paid and it wasn't an easy time but I felt I worked hard. My wife was with me in Scotland and she lost her granny and maybe started to feel a bit homesick.

When Linfield offered me a two-year deal it was an opportunity to start a new life again. You just have to make the most of your life and the opportunities you get.

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David Armstrong and wife Joanna

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

A. I really enjoyed my first year and got a good run of games with Chris Casement at centre-half. We won the league but in the last game of the season I suffered an ankle ligament injury and missed the Irish Cup final. That was a low.

In the second and third years I was still involved but didn't play as often. The second Irish Cup final against Crusaders I wasn't picked and that was another low. If I don't get to an Irish Cup final and win it that will be a big regret.

Linfield had a great squad and I loved working under big Davy (Jeffrey). The time was right for another new challenge and I went to Ards for a year. No disrespect to Ards, who had just been relegated, but I can remember going home and saying to Joanna, 'I don't think I can do this anymore'.

I was 26 but I wasn't enjoying my football. I felt like walking away but Joanna encouraged me not to throw in the towel and to keep doing what I loved. If it wasn't for Darren Murphy calling me and offering me a year at Dungannon I honestly think I would have wrapped it up. I always say to Darren it's thanks to him I'm still playing.

That first year at Dungannon was brilliant, I had a real buzz and rediscovered my love for the game. It's the best club I've been at and I cannot see myself playing for another club. In football you can't predict the future but as long as my back holds up and I'm enjoying it I'll fight on. Our league has its doubters but it's entertaining, the fans get value for money.

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

A. Jonny Evans has to stand out with the Northern Ireland Under-17s. Jonny was two years younger than us and he still stood out, strolling through games. He could play anywhere and you just knew he would be a top player. Maybe he didn't know himself but I'm not surprised what has happened in his career.

Toughest opponent in the Irish League I'd say Crusaders' Jordan Owens because of the physical challenge. Paul Heatley is a smashing player too.

Q. Who has helped you a lot in your career?

A. My mum Dawn and dad Winston have always been there for me. My dad worked long hours and took me out on cold nights to places like Ballyclare when I was with the Coventry or West Ham School of Excellence.

They watch me most Saturdays and I owe a lot to them. My wife Joanna has also been a constant support. I met her when I was 18, she's from Lisburn too where we went to school together.

When I got the pro contract at Hearts I didn't expect her to wait for me but she told me she was coming with me. She got a transfer with Thomas Cook and it was a big commitment on her part.

We got engaged at 20 and married aged 22. We have a five-year-old son Alfie who is football mad. He has joined Lisburn Youth and I couldn't send him to any other club. I don't force football on him. My dad was the same.

I can remember being a six-year-old ball boy once at Windsor when my dad scored the winner for Lisburn Distillery in a Gold Cup final against Bangor. I thought it was amazing.

Life can be a bit hectic but I still have the hunger and desire to win games. It's a short career, time flies and you have family commitments too. But myself and Joanna are strong together and long may it continue.

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Silver lining: Swifts star David Armstrong proudly shows off the League Cup alongside dad Winston and mum Dawn

Q. Have you been through tough times in your family life?

A. I can remember being across the water and getting the call to say my granny Hazel had passed away. That was tough even though she had been ill. We were close and it was harder because I was away from home.

Another time when I was a kid playing in Lisburn I got the news one of my friends who played for Lisburn Youth had suffered a heart attack and passed away.

Martin Bell was on the books of Manchester United at the time and he was 14. I had played football with him every day and I can remember going to his funeral.

Looking back as a father, it feels even more horrendous. He had an enlarged heart which no one knew about. His parents have since passed away.

Another friend of mine, Ashley Arnott, who I was at primary school and high school with, died in a car accident outside Tobermore at the age of 18. It was a big shock to lose someone so young.

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David Armstrong with his granny Hazel and granda Trevor

Q. What interests do you have outside football?

A. I'm a fond golfer, I play off eight but my full passion is road racing. I absolutely love motorbikes. I never miss the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix.

I've been to Joey Dunlop's bar and am in touch with his son Gary. I've got a William Dunlop tattoo on my arm, with his signature. I can remember the day William died. I came home on the Saturday night and I saw my mum and dad standing at the door. I knew something wasn't right and I've never seen my dad cry apart from his father's funeral.

He couldn't even get the words out because he knew how much I loved racing and the Dunlop story. My mum had to tell me William had been killed and I couldn't take it in.

You don't know the guys personally but you are around the paddock and you have the sense you do know them. You end up grieving for someone you don't know personally but unless you follow road racing you won't understand that. William was the one rider you never thought it would happen to.

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David Armstrong’s tribute to the late William Dunlop

Q. Is your passion for road racing still as strong given the tragedies and how do you feel about the argument that road racing should be banned?

A. To be honest, it wouldn't be as strong. I still love the sport and I'll support any rider who throws his leg over a bike. But it will never be the same.

Without William going around and maybe Michael if he stops racing, it's not the same. I can understand why people hold those views on road racing but these guys love doing it.

I guess the danger adds to the thrill. It's probably costing them money to do it too. Do we have a right to tell people what they should and shouldn't do? I'll still go along and try to enjoy it.

Q. Was the League Cup success in February your career highlight?

A. It has to be. Some footballers don't win anything but this win meant a lot to a small club like Dungannon. It was historic and I'll always cherish the reaction of the fans and everyone associated with the club.

There's relief because despite retirement thoughts it's moments like that that make training and hard work worthwhile.

But looking back, it was also a real thrill qualifying for the Under-17 European finals with Northern Ireland. Kenny Shiels took us and we were huge underdogs against players like Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique.

After seeing how those guys progressed you start to think we did punch above our weight. It was a great achievement, but of course they didn't know they were playing against Maradona!

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Silver lining: Swifts star David Armstrong proudly shows off the League Cup alongside dad Winston and mum Dawn

Snapshot

Date of birth: January 23, 1987

Place of birth: Lisburn

Previous clubs: Hearts, Crusaders (loan), Cowdenbeath (loan), Raith Rovers (loan), Linfield, Ards, Dungannon Swifts

Swifts record: 152 appearances, six goals.

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