Footballers' Lives with Alan Blayney: 'Why I've been gripped by self-doubt and how I almost died after training'
Warrenpoint's Alan Blayney on how doctors were amazed he survived serious illness, his award-winning save to deny Alan Shearer and horror home debut for NI
In the latest of our popular series, Warrenpoint Town stopper Alan Blayney reveals all about his mental doubts and serious illness.
Q. What is your earliest football memory?
A. I played for a wee team called Northabbey (below), like a BB select team, the manager was Tommy Wallace and we played in the South Belfast Boys' League. We didn't lose a game in three years, we hammered some teams but looking back now it wasn't helping anyone. At the time I thought, 'This is great, we're brilliant'.
Q. You were a young teenager when you went to England, would you advise a young player not to take that leap of faith so soon?
A. I was 15 or 16 and had just left school, then I was away. I knew by the time I was 13 at Castle High I was going. I went on trial at Southampton and Blackburn, while Ipswich and Hearts were also showing some interest. I was at Southampton for a few weeks and I enjoyed it, obviously at that age money didn't matter. I got a better feeling for the place. It was very hard the first year. I got through it but homesickness kicked in during the second year. It was really bad. I actually left Southampton and came home for eight months and didn't play football. I couldn't care less about football. It disheartened me and I thought it wasn't for me. I was running around with my friends on the Shore Road. Southampton didn't have a goalkeeper for youth games and I used to fly back over for a game and come home. One night we got to the semi-finals of a competition and I decided to return and things kicked on from then. I wouldn't insist on young players giving the Irish League a shot straight away. The longer you play in it, the harder it is to get out of it. I would say to young players if you don't make it across the water you can always come home and pursue your career elsewhere. I ended up with a decent career in football.
Q. You won Sky Sports' Save of the Season after stopping an Alan Shearer header in May 2004 on your Premier League debut. What are your memories of that?
A. It was my best save and even playing in that match was a huge surprise. When I got to the ground it was the normal routine. I had been on the bench as the second choice keeper had an injury. I got to the game and Antti Niemi was sitting there looking very white as he wasn't well. He said to me, 'You're playing' and then I turned white! I was 22 and had never made a first-team appearance. I didn't have time to think about it but it went well. I can remember that match clearly, I loved it. I got to play two more Premier League games and that was great. My wife Laura made a scrapbook of my career and it's a nice memory.
Q. Is there any reason why you haven't been able to settle at clubs?
A. I know the exact reason. At Linfield I played the best I ever played. In the first three years I won three doubles and got into the Northern Ireland squad, playing five friendlies. My debut was in America against Romania under Lawrie Sanchez. I didn't get back into the squad until I was at Linfield and we were on the tour to America when we played Turkey and Chile. That was a nightmare, that trip, the travelling was a disaster. When you're on the pitch and training it was fine and a great experience but the travelling ruined it.
Q. Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
A. My wife Laura. She has been there for me throughout anything in my life that has gone wrong. With regard to football, I can't remember how many times I have wanted to pack it in and she has told me I'm not doing it. I've had that feeling to stop for a long time from when I came home from England but Laura drove me on and made sure my feet stayed on the ground. Everyone, including myself, needs someone like that. I would have struggled mentally. For some goalkeepers it's easy to forget about a mistake but I'm not one of those. If I've made an early mistake, I've struggled. If the first thing I do is take a good cross or make a good save then I'm fine for that game, even a training session is not good if I make a mistake. It's a confidence thing. If I didn't have that problem I would have enjoyed more success. I've always had that 'Am I good enough?' mentality. I'm very self-critical. I still love football. I'm 36 and don't feel as good as I did when I was 26 but I still have the appetite. There might be a few years left in me. Laura always wants to see me doing well so she will support and encourage me, she's always been that kind of person.
Q. What can you tell us about a serious illness you suffered earlier in your career?
A. I actually nearly died during one of our holidays in Spain. It happened during pre-season at one club I was at. Someone was brought in, from outside the club, to oversee a training session but for some reason my body reacted very badly to it. I didn't feel right, my arms were shaking and I couldn't lift my car keys to get into my car. When I got home I said to Laura, 'I don't feel right' but we were going on holiday the next day and I decided to sleep and see how I felt in the morning. I awoke earlier than usual and I couldn't move a muscle. There were big lumps coming up on my shoulders, I turned around and thought there was another head beside me! I went on holiday and my whole body blew up. I was drinking beer to take the pain away but I just got bigger. I looked like the Michelin Man. I knew something was badly wrong as I went to the toilet and my urine was black. When I got home I went to the hospital and told them what happened. The doctors looked at me and said, 'How are you still alive? Why did you not go to hospital?' They diagnosed me and wondered why I didn't die in the sun after drinking beer. I had a condition called rhabdomyolysis. If your muscles are overworked they shut down and the organs shut down, that explained the black urine. I drank six litres of water and my urine returned to normal. The doctor told me drinking that water saved my life and I'm lucky to be alive. I haven't felt physically right since then. I believe it has affected my game and I eventually moved on. But I didn't die! There's a 15 per cent mortality rate with it... it can kill you.
Q. Do you accept you should have gone to see a doctor earlier?
A. Yes, I should have seen a doctor but I wanted to go on holiday. But I was miserable on the holiday so it made no difference. Laura didn't know what was wrong with me and at first she was like, 'Man up, your muscles are sore'. I would have said that too, you don't know how serious these things can be. It was so strange not being able to lift my arms, or not being able to walk properly.
Q. You work with Laura in your flower selling business, how is that going?
A. Laura's a florist in our company business, Abbey Florists in Doagh Road, Newtownabbey. It's open to the public but we also have funeral contracts if families need flowers for a particular funeral. We will take the order and deliver. I've been doing it for nearly eight years. When it's going well and there are no arguments it's great! The family also know that football is my life, too, and it comes first. At the minute I find it hard to balance commitments as our wee one Kingston is very young and I'm travelling to Warrenpoint.
Q. When did you get married?
A. It was June 2013 at Jennymount Church, Shore Road with the reception at the Culloden Hotel. It was awesome, a great day. We went to Dubai for our honeymoon for a week, it was quiet and very relaxing.
Q. How are your children doing?
A. Phoenix is now six and Kingston is 11 weeks. Phoenix plays for Linfield's youth team, he's quite tall and a goalkeeper. He loves it. Phoenix is crazy, he's the opposite of me, he's full of confidence. When he goes to the matches he just wants to have fun and he's not worried about mistakes. He's full of life and towering over his friends. The wee one likes to sleep and eat, as you can imagine. When you're going to Asda now you have to bring half the house with you including bags and nappies.
Q. What has been the best day in your life?
A. The two best days are my kids being born. The day we won the Irish Cup against Crusaders was also special because Phoenix came into the changing room afterwards and was celebrating with the boys and the trophy, it was a brilliant day.
Q. Have your parents been supportive in your career?
A. Gloria and Alan live in Belfast. One of the worst days of my life was seeing Laura when her father, Ricky, died. I wasn't particularly close to him as I lived in England but when I came home I saw how it affected Laura and her family - it was very hard to watch. He was only 53 and died of a heart attack. It was a terrible time. It took her years to get over that. Laura comes to all the matches but my parents have never been into that. My dad is still very proud of me because I've heard about him taking newspaper clippings to the pub to show his friends but he wouldn't tell you that.
Q. Do you have any regrets in your career?
A. I do regret going out and drinking in my later career in England when I was at Doncaster. I was getting injuries and was a bit disillusioned with the game. I regret it because people had opinions of me at that club which is not the real me. They only saw me behave like that for a few months. Any other clubs, like Brighton or Bournemouth, I enjoyed them on loan from Southampton until the club decided to sell me. I was home for a summer break when a phone call came through. It was Sir Clive Woodward, the former Lions coach who was a technical support director at the club, who said, 'We have sold you to Doncaster for £50,000'. My response was, 'Do I not have any say in this?' He said the deal was done but I didn't want to live in Doncaster. I loved it in Southampton. I didn't settle in Doncaster, they gave me an apartment but it was a tip. If I was getting those wages now I would bite your arm off but then it felt I wasn't getting much and it was a terrible time.
Q. What was your best and worst moment in football?
A. My best was probably when I was Linfield captain and I lifted the Irish Cup after beating Crusaders in the final. My worst moment was my home debut for Northern Ireland against Morocco in a friendly. I came on at half-time for Jonny Tuffey but took a terrible touch and Marouane Chamakh came in to challenge me, I kicked the ball off him and it went into the net. Everybody had welcomed me onto the pitch and you don't forget moments like that. You aren't used to playing against players who are as quick as that, I looked up and he was there. I wanted the ground to swallow me up but earlier that same day Phoenix was born. It was a bittersweet day.
Q. Who has been your toughest opponent and best player played with?
A. I'd say Glentoran striker Curtis Allen. Even in training he always scored past me. The best player would be Southampton's Matt Le Tissier. In training one time he put me in nets and said, 'For every penalty you save I'll give you £10'. I thought, 'Happy days, I'll jump in here'. He scored all five and I didn't get near them. He was unbelievable and a great guy as well. Matt apparently scored 48 out of his 49 penalties for the Saints.
Q. What is the craziest thing you have seen in a dressing room?
A. After we won the Irish Cup at Linfield, the boys were all in the changing room getting dressed when Steven Douglas stripped naked and placed the Irish Cup on his shoulder. At the old Windsor you had that narrow corridor outside the changing room and Dougie, naked with the Cup on his shoulder, marched up and down it for about 10 minutes. All the Crusaders players and officials were there watching him!
Q. Where do you holiday?
A. We always go to Spain, the same place every year. It's a place called La Zenia on the Costa Blanca, Alicante. We love it there, it's great for the kids.
Q. Do you now put mistakes behind you or are you still haunted by them?
A. That doesn't interest me at all any more. If I make a mistake it's not the end of the world as I'm still going home to my wife and my two kids. Earlier in my career, football was my world, there was football and nothing else. Now I have got a wife and kids and when I arrive back home it's family that matters more to me.
Date of birth: October 9, 1981
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Southampton, Stockport County, Bournemouth, Rushden & Diamonds, Brighton, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic, Bohemians, Ballymena United, Linfield, Ards, Glenavon, Dundela.
International record: Five Northern Ireland appearances
Warrenpoint Town record: Six appearances