Footballers' lives: From the ultimate highs to personal heartbreak, how Irish League names allowed us into their lives in 2018
Players, managers and officials have opened up on remarkable stories and memories on and off pitch
Our Footballers' Lives series, offering a rare insight into the lives of Irish League figures, remains a big hit with supporters. Top figures have shared moments of personal joy and heartbreak as they reflect on their lives on and off the pitch. Expect many more remarkable stories in 2019.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter kicked off this season's series, revealing how his father George fought for his life during the club's title-winning campaign.
Baxter guided the north Belfast club to a third Danske Bank Premiership title in four years but behind the scenes he suffered a personal hell.
George (78) was on kidney dialysis and needed to undergo a triple heart bypass operation.
While in the Ulster Hospital he contracted the flu virus, sparking fresh fears surrounding his health.
"My parents George and Lydia sacrificed a lot to help me and my dad, who never missed the matches since I was 11, is my biggest fan," said Stephen.
"He's doing rightly but he still has a long way to go. He has kidney dialysis problems. His kidneys don't function and he is now on full blood dialysis but it puts the heart under pressure.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"The heart wasn't going to survive so a triple bypass was required and they've the problem of marrying them together. We've nearly lost him three times within a year to various things.
"When you get a phone call to come to the hospital it's very tough. People don't see any of that. We played Ballymena United at Seaview the Friday before Christmas and I left the game and went straight to hospital because dad was in intensive care.
"He got out of the Royal Victoria Hospital about six to eight weeks after his operation and the exciting talk was he'd be home for Christmas. He got out about a week and a half before Christmas but collapsed and was rushed back in. He was like a skeleton, he had lost so much weight.
"We were training on the Wednesday and I got a phone call from my mum saying the ambulance was there and could I come. He had to go to hospital and we had the game that Friday. I didn't think he would make it but he got through. That Christmas was tough with the football going on behind the scenes. It's been an incredibly tough year with dad but the joy was my daughter Hannah having a baby boy, Harry."
One of the most emotive interviews was with top-flight referee Lee Tavinder, who spoke bravely about his battle with anxiety - a personal struggle that almost led to him taking his own life.
Lee admitted: "I've had mental health issues since I was 13-years-old. I didn't disclose them to anybody until I was 33. I suffered from anxiety which led to depression and I still take medication. In 2015 I tried to take my own life. I was refereeing in the Premier League and working at the Irish FA but no one knew I had any issues, not even my wife Selena or close family.
"I remember being really bad in 2015 and I was doing a referees' development course and not one of the 20 people there would have thought I had an issue. On the drive home I knew I had come to a point where I couldn't cope. I could go from being completely fine to fearing the worst.
"I'd hear about a car crash on the radio and instantly start to think someone in my family had been killed. If my daughter was late home from school I'd start to believe she had been kidnapped or murdered. Initially this would happen once a month to the point it was happening in a cycle every 15 minutes. I know that they were massively irrational thoughts and when I snapped out of it I knew it didn't make sense but I still returned to the same point.
"When I tried to take my own life I was just at the stage where I didn't know how to stop the cycle. I was 100% sure when I got home and locked the door. I just didn't have the energy to carry on. Why didn't I tell anyone? I think a large part of it is shame because I thought I should be able to cope."
Former Glentoran and Ballymena United midfielder Stephen McAlorum revealed how the murder of his teenage sister Megan rocked the family.
The 16-year-old schoolgirl was murdered by Thomas Purcell in west Belfast in April 2004.
Stephen's mum Margaret, who campaigned tirelessly for justice to be served, passed away in November last year after a battle with PBC (primary biliary cholangitis), a rare auto-immune condition.
"My wee sister Megan was 16 when she was murdered," said Stephen. "I was just about to turn 18. That's normally a big celebration but since then I don't really celebrate birthdays.
"That 18th birthday feeling or the anger never really leaves you. It was one of the reasons why I left Glenavon because I wanted to be closer to my family.
"It all happened in 2004 and afterwards I found it hard to come back into football. As we were nearly the same age, we were very close and had our teenage disagreements. It was very hard to take."
Stephen also revealed how his two-year-old daughter Fiadh is battling cystic fibrosis.
"It's been a tough time," he added. "The genetic disease affects her organs. Her pancreas doesn't work so myself and my wife Orlagh have to do half an hour physio twice a day. She is on tablets but it's like an invisible disease because if she was sitting here you would think she was a normal girl with no issues.
"It's a life-limiting disease with the average age for survival as low as 20 in 1980 but now it's close to the 40 mark. In the past few decades they have done a lot for the CF community. Fingers crossed, we can treat the disease as well as possible.
"No one in our family had this before. When Fiadh was born I had left Orlagh at about 10pm and went home but then got a call from the Royal Victoria Hospital saying she had been rushed into intensive care. She was there for two weeks and we didn't know what was happening.
"A month later we got the diagnosis and it was a hard time for us trying to get our heads around it. We've been through a lot but she's a real fighter. She's doing really well."
Former Portadown favourite Richard Clarke admitted he feared he wouldn't see his children grow up after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
The Castlederg man, who scored 50 goals in 530 appearances for Portadown, was devastated when he discovered the shocking news in 2012.
Richard's wife Karen was pregnant when the diagnosis was confirmed and Emily was born on Boxing Day that year.
The couple's other daughter Abbie is now nine-years-old and after Richard went through gruelling chemotherapy and had an operation to remove a tumour, there was a pleasant surprise when twin boys Seth and Jacob arrived two years ago.
Richard, who won a league title and two Irish Cups with Portadown, had a spell as Dergview manager until January this year but left after a new health scare.
"I stepped down from Dergview as I had another health scare and it gave me a new perspective on life," he explained.
"I discovered another lump just below my testicle but it was an infection rather than being cancerous. It did scare the life out of me and the night before I resigned as Dergview boss I had to go and get scan results. It was a huge relief to hear it wasn't cancer and it became clear to me that I needed to spend more time with my family.
"Because of my cancer history they were quick to check. I'm feeling fine now, I just need to do more exercise. I'm 100% cancer free and just need to be vigilant.
"When I first found out I had testicular cancer my wife Karen was pregnant with Emily and then we got the shock of our lives in 2016 when we were expecting twins. They are two now and it wasn't easy keeping the football going.
"When I found out it was testicular cancer that was the worst day of my life. I just remember going home and sitting in the house on my own and crying.
"When the doctor said 'cancer' everything became a blur. Just two weeks earlier we had told our family a second child was on the way. My mum Rosemary is always a worrier and she burst out crying. Karen was in work, teaching at Strabane Primary School, and I phoned her.
"Naturally she was upset and came home. The chemotherapy hits and then you fear the worst, thinking I'm not going to see my kids grow up. You move on from the shock and see how you can fight it."
Linfield winger Kirk Millar spoke of his pride at how his dad Steven turned his life around after struggling to deal with the death of his brother Laurence.
"The worst day for me would be losing my uncle Laurence, my dad's brother," said Kirk. "He lost his life when he was very young… in his 20s. It hit me hard and my dad went off the rails a bit. Something like that can affect the whole family.
"I had just started secondary school and my dad attempted to take his own life. He struggled to accept what happened but now he's happy to share his story because he has turned his life around and we are all proud of him. He can help other people now and he is committed to helping with the fight against drug and addiction abuse.
"He's doing really well and never went back to the bad days. I nearly didn't go to England because of how it affected my mum (Janice). My dad would still come to some matches and the good thing is he is on a steady path and much happier. It's nice to see someone can turn their life around that much, we are proud. Someone has saved him and we are glad. We've a close knit family."
Former Glentoran hero Michael Halliday reflected on how his Christian faith is challenged in the football environment.
"People were looking at how you conducted yourself and you were always conscious that you couldn't just go over and hit someone," said Michael, who plays for Bangor. "The first Sunday game when the Glens played Bangor created a lot of interest and in fairness the club wanted to know my thoughts.
"Alan McDonald asked me if I was okay to play and it didn't affect me going to church in the morning or that night so I joined the squad.
"I was at Beersbridge Elim Church and also conscious that I had a contract to honour with the club.
"There were protests but that gave me an opportunity to share my views as well and I came on as a sub. A lot of people work on a Sunday but I also accept people have their own views on it.
"At the 1982 World Cup Johnny Jameson refused to play against France and made a stand. I don't have a problem with people making the decision they feel is right for them but for me being a Christian isn't simply going to Church on a Sunday."