Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives: Incredible stories with tears of joy and sadness from class of 2019

In our brilliant 'Footballers' Lives' series, players have shared the highs and lows of their life journeys, on and off the pitch

Scott Irvine with his wife Janine and daughters Brooke and Georgia
Scott Irvine with his wife Janine and daughters Brooke and Georgia
Noel Bailie
Mark Glendinning
Gerry Armstrong
Matthew Snoddy
Billy Caskey with his grandchildren Sophie, Hayley, James, Abbie and Owen
Aoife Lennon

In 2019, we brought you many more brilliant interviews as part of our hugely popular Footballers' Lives series.

Legends and modern day heroes bravely shared their stories, highlighting how players have faced personal struggles like the rest of us.

The football community in Northern Ireland has helped guide players through dark periods in their lives and the players are grateful to have two families to rely on - their personal one and sporting one.

In 2020, we will bring you more fantastic interviews with some of the game's top names. Here's a reminder of some of the incredible life stories we featured this year.

At the beginning of the year, Crusaders legend Roy McDonald discussed personal tragedy, playing against Liverpool greats, his faith, and having the Football Centre at Seaview named after him.

Roy has lost three brothers, Ian, Northern Ireland legend Alan and Jim.

"It was all very sad, and now Alan is six years dead," reflected Roy. "My wife Heather and I were driving to Newcastle when I got a call from Alan's wife saying, 'Roy, Alan hasn't made it'. I said, 'What do you mean, is he dead?' Again, everything became a blur.

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"It was a horrible day, and the sad thing about it was that it was preventable. Ian's death was different as he collapsed in the bathroom and there was nothing we could have done. Billy Beggs, who was Alan's friend at QPR, passed away and Alan was organising the funeral with the help of the PFA.

"A bit earlier Alan was going through emotional torture while Glentoran manager. Supporters were on his back and his health wasn't good. Doctors had warned him about his blood pressure and more tests could have found the blocked arteries in his heart. That's why I feel his death was preventable."

Back in February, Crusaders midfielder Matthew Snoddy revealed how his family had experienced a spiritual awakening after a gambling addiction almost led to him taking his own life.

As his betting spiralled out of control, Snoddy raced up Carnmoney Hill in July 2016 with the intention of jumping over the edge and ending his life.

But seconds before he was about to jump, the phone in his pocket sounded, and when the Newtownabbey man looked at it, he saw an image of his son Jensen.

"I ran up the hill and looked over the edge," said Matthew.

"I thought about my whole life, the pain I had caused and how much a mess it had become. I was building up my courage to jump and knew if I did that I wouldn't survive.

"I stepped back 10 paces and got the stance ready to sprint.

"Then the phone went in my pocket and lit up with a picture of my son Jensen. Suddenly the guilt hit me… how could you be so selfish and leave your son without a father? Are you just going to give up? You've never done that in your life before, you're going to fight this.

"I wiped away the tears and I know it was God giving me the strength to pull through. That saved my life and I decided I wasn't going to live a lie anymore."

Also in February, Northern Ireland footballer and talented Gaelic player Aoife Lennon shared a moving account of her battle with anorexia, the painful loss of her father and why her mum Mary is one in a million.

"It was very difficult travelling with the Northern Ireland team because my anxiety was going through the roof," revealed Aoife.

"I would bring my own food because I was afraid of the hotel food. I didn't want to change my diet.

"I've learned you have to do what you feel is right for you and not worry what other people think. I'm taking care of myself now and not striving for perfection.

"I lost my dad John when I was 13 but I can't say that's the reason I developed an eating disorder.

"He suffered from depression for years and took his own life on March 21, 2006. I was 13 at the time and he was 52. He was my best friend, my absolute hero and we did everything together.

"My mum Mary is one in a million, an amazing woman. We are all just so blessed to have her in our lives.

"Anorexia had taken over my life for six years and now I control it. I've stepped up and realised my own self worth - that I'm loved and blessed."

In March, former Larne favourite Scott Irvine discussed battling back from the horrific collision that has left him fearful of someone meeting a worse fate.

In January 2015, Scott suffered a fractured skull after colliding with a pitch-side wall while playing for Larne against Carrick Rangers in an Irish Cup game at Inver Park.

"The loss of hearing in one ear and the mental aspect of it has been challenging," admitted Scott. "It's been a challenging time for my family. It's easy to feel low. Everyone has good and bad days and you just have to get on with life.

"People take things for granted, including their health. You could be one step away from something going dramatically wrong.

"And life always goes on. I got hurt on a Saturday and the following Saturday there's a game. People get on with their lives but your family and friends mean everything to you. I've seen sights in hospital that would break your heart."

Back in September, Linfield legend Noel Bailie discussed his glittering playing career and why receiving his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013 was a proud moment, tinged with sadness.

"It was a fantastic day with my dad, Lee and Claire," Noel recalled. "My mum Wilma had just passed away in the previous few months so that was sad, but my dad was very proud. It was a proud and emotional day.

"Mum died of cancer aged 65 and was at that period when she couldn't communicate. I had got the letter and told her. Hopefully she could hear it. I really hope so. I didn't tell the family about the letter because it didn't feel right to celebrate something when my mum was ill."

In October, Irish League legend Mark Glendinning reflected on the shattering loss of his wife Mandy to cancer and the joy of watching his sons Ross and Reece follow in his footsteps.

"I am proud of them, and their mum would be too," said Mark.

"They are two good lads who don't cause me problems, they are a credit to themselves and their mum. They do miss their mum, of course, but she would be very proud of them, as would my dad.

"I didn't know anyone with cancer, but then when she was diagnosed with breast cancer our lives changed.

"Mandy lived with the cancer for a year and a half from diagnosis. She was a brave woman who kept a lot of things from the boys, which was the right thing to do. It's not nice, I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

Last month, Cliftonville's record goalscorer Joe Gormley revealed how his mother's guidance and the support of Crumlin Star helped him cope with the pain of losing his dad.

The Reds hero was 12 when his father Joe passed away with cancer and now the 30-year-old wants to make his mum Marguerite proud.

"I could see my mum with my dad on the bed and I knew what was happening so I broke down in tears," said Joe.

"The day of his funeral in 2002, Ireland played Cameroon in the World Cup.

"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. You wouldn't wish an experience like that on your worst enemy."

Also in November, Glentoran legend Billy Caskey spoke about the emotional loss of his father Sammy, who saved the family by moving them away from the Shankill during the Troubles.

"My father died in June," reflected Billy, who helped Glentoran win 18 major honours.

"He was 89 but that didn't make it any easier. He was my mum's carer, so we had to put her in a home. She's 93.

"We moved to Millisle, away from the Troubles, in 1969. We lived very close to the Falls Road and the bullets used to bounce off the walls.

"Our dad got us out and we lived in a caravan in Millisle for three years. It was hard leaving our friends but it was the right thing to do. It saved us.

"He was in a hospital and we got him out, but as we took him out of the car at my house he stopped breathing and never came round. It was surreal being there, trying to give my father the kiss of life."

Another legend, Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup hero Gerry Armstrong, spoke about the heartbreaking loss of his mum Kathleen and losing twin babies when he was in his teenage years.

"Going back to my youth when I was only 19 and married to my first wife, Anne, we had twins who died within a few days," said Gerry. "They were born premature, Gerard Peter lived for a day and Jennifer Anne two days.

"That was hard, and getting away from Northern Ireland was another opportunity to make a fresh start. I was a teenager going down to the morgue to identify my two kids and they were the size of my hand, lying there.

"It was crazy, and a harsh lesson to learn at such a young age."

Earlier this month, Glentoran's Boxing Day hero Elvio van Overbeek reflected on how faith, family and football have helped him rebuild his life after losing his parents in a civil conflict in Angola when he was only seven.

Brought up by his sisters, he moved to Holland where he joined PSV Eindhoven and was adopted by a family there.

He's now heavily involved in church work in Belfast with his wife Eliana and passionate about helping young people, pointing to his own life as an example of overcoming dark times.

"Faith means everything to me, while my wife and my adopted parents in Holland have given me another life and I'm blessed," said the winger.

"Not anyone can do something like that, it was a special thing to do. Football won't last forever and you need support from your family. One of my main goals through the church is to help young people. I heard that the suicide rates are high and it shocks me to learn young people have suicidal thoughts. I want to invite other people to know God and have a relationship that can change their lives.

"I've been through a lot, but God has lifted me and I want to share my life experience. The church has a very active youth group and we will keep reaching out to young people."

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