Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives with Chris Hegarty: I've had difficult days in football and at Rangers but toughest times were waiting to hear from my brother in Iraq and Afghanistan

 

By Graham Luney

Dungannon Swifts defender Chris Hegarty talks us through turbulence at Ibrox and how he's had to readjust to life back home on the part-time football scene.

Q. What is your earliest football memory?

A. Probably following my brother Mark, he played with Niall McGinn in a youth team with another player, Mickey Cochrane, who played for Sunderland. I followed my brother quite a bit and Dixie Robinson was the manager. Dixie became my manager at Dungannon United Youth. My memory is wanting to grow up like my brother. Dixie was a very respected coach in Dungannon and we were a good group of lads. Seanan Clucas and Paul McElroy came through the same youth set-up. We used to live in Fermanagh and we travelled up to train on the gravel hockey pitch in White City, Dungannon. My dad went to see family after Joe McAree had us in the back of his van with the Coke tins.

Q. What's your career highlight?

A. Either scoring at Ibrox for Rangers or going there to support the Help For Heroes day. My brother Barry went to Iraq and Afghanistan with the army and I have huge respect for those guys who are risking their lives. Probably the toughest time for me was when my brother was a Royal Engineer serving there. It's not an easy place to be and we can only imagine the challenges, both mental and physical, someone can face but Barry's a very strong boy. You're waiting on the call when he's there to see how he's getting on and that was difficult. I've no doubt his experiences there put anything I do in perspective.

Q. And your lowest moment?

A. Getting my ankle injury coming home while still believing I could have done well with Linfield. Also picking up a bad groin injury and being out for about two years without playing much football. I said to Rod (Rodney McAree, Dungannon Swifts manager) I want to get back to playing football again and now I am doing that and enjoying myself. Touch wood, I've never had any serious illnesses but from my 21st birthday the injuries have returned. I look after myself and we get great medical support.

Q. Has your family been supportive?

A. My dad Alwyn used to do nightshift and drive to training a few nights a week. He would travel to places like Coleraine or Belfast after a day's work. I have to thank him for that while my mum Dorothy always made sure I was well fed and I had everything I needed in my bag. I've three older brothers, Barry, Mark and Glen and younger sister Karen. It wasn't easy living in London while at Millwall and earning £55 a week, so I needed their financial support too.

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Chris Hegarty with his mum Dorothy

Q. Who has been the biggest influence on you in your career?

A. From a young age I wanted to be like my brother Mark because he was a good footballer, respected around Dungannon but my dad has helped me the most with the advice and travelling.

Q. Any interests outside football?

A. I work in a clothes shop called Cuba Clothing in Dungannon and 15 of us from the club went down to the Curragh. I dressed about eight of the boys and they had a great day out.

Q. How did you get a move to Millwall?

A. I played for Northern Ireland Under-16s against Belgium and the Millwall scout said he wanted me to sign and I did. It was a great move for me. The managers Richard Shaw and Scott Fitzgerald were both centre-halves in the Premier League, Richard with Coventry and Scott with Wimbledon. It was old school and I loved it. Pick up the cones, clean boots and the lads were on £55 a week. It was your bog standard apprenticeship in England I suppose. I captained Millwall youth team and reserves and we won the Youth League for the first time in about 11 years. But I picked up an injury and, as a 16-year-old, it was tough at times.

Q. How did your move to Rangers come about?

A. Millwall were in League One but they said they had no money to develop players. That's fair enough but I didn't take it too well as I loved the place. Wayne Drummond played for Ballymena United, he got a move to Rangers and the scout Phil Kerr said 'I've another one here'. I was on trial at Hibernian, then Rangers and when Hibs offered me a contract so did Rangers. I played every game in the Youth League that year and earned a contract.

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Living the dream: boyhood Rangers fan Chris scored at a packed Ibrox

Q. Rangers were sinking into a financial crisis with the players facing huge pay cuts, what was that time like?

A. I knuckled down and worked hard but then, of course, other developments happened at the club. I was there through the tough times. I got my opportunity through that. It was a great experience training with the likes of Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Davy Weir, Sasa Papic, Nikica Jelavic, Steven Naismith, Allan McGregor. But players didn't know whether they were getting paid or not, they didn't know what was happening. If you are a man providing for your family you'd have concerns too. People say they earn a lot of money but everyone has their expenses and the more money you have the more expenses you have, it seems to be. They had to look after themselves and their families. They were club men, who loved the club but there was going to be a nervous feeling if you're taking a pay cut whether you're on £300 a week or £20,000. If you're taking a 50 per cent pay cut you have to balance your books. I was fortunate as there was a category pay role and they took so much off you depending on your pay bracket. I wasn't on that much so I escaped that and I was with the youth team. It didn't affect me too much.

Q. Are you pleased Rangers have re-emerged from the wilderness?

A. They are back where they belong, there's no doubt about that. Everyone missed the Old Firm matches and they deserve to be in Scotland's Premier League. They have a lot of work to do but these things don't happen overnight. When you go down that far it takes time to come back. Look at Manchester United in the Premier League, there's no instant fix. Celtic are relishing being top dogs in Scotland but it's a rebuilding process for Rangers. Ally McCoist said that from day one and they are still building. I wish them all the best and I hope they do get back to the top and win titles again. The club will always be in my heart, I spent four great years there.

Q. How do you reflect on your time at Rangers on the pitch?

A. We went down and I played a few games but suffered an injury. But I scored at Ibrox in front of a full house and no-one can take that memory away from me. It's in the past now and I'm focused on the future but I have that great memory of scoring in front of about 52,000 at Ibrox against Brechin. The goal came after two minutes and the roof lifted off, what a buzz! I also scored for Rangers against Linfield at Windsor Park. Great experiences and I've played with a player of the calibre of Steven Davis.

Q. Do you have any regrets?

A. Maybe coming home from Scotland but I would also say I'm the happiest now I have ever been. At the time, I was suffering horrific injuries and just wanted to get back playing football. An opportunity came up and my agent at the time said it mightn't be a bad idea and I went with the advice I was given. Off the pitch, I'm still coming to terms with being at home, working and playing football. I'm balancing work and football better and just want to establish myself. Football wise, I just want to enjoy it and, unless you are a player like Paul Smyth who can move to Queens Park Rangers, we are all at the same level for a reason. If you are a superstar you wouldn't be here. I think Paul has done it the right way. They are more experienced and grown up and Paul has followed in the footsteps of Gareth McAuley and Stuart Dallas. We are all winners, it's about getting the balance right. The first year back is hard, you can be disillusioned if you're not mentally strong enough. For me it's an achievement coming home and readjusting. I was at Rangers, one of the biggest clubs in Scotland and it's a drop down from that feeling. I think you hit lows but I relish challenges like that. I've aches and pains for sure. When I pass away, this body is going to be well used! Tough times make you stronger. On the plus side I'm at a good club with a great manager in Rodney McAree.

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Fine form: Hegarty is starring for Dungannon now that he’s fully fit

Q. Who was your favourite footballer growing up?

A. John Terry, I just love the way he got about his business as a centre-half. Nemanja Vidic was similar. I enjoy that aggression of players putting their heads where other men wouldn't put a shovel.

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

A. Best player has to be Steven Davis. Oliver Norwood and Steven Naismith were always great too. Toughest would include Noel Hunt and Scott Sinclair. I'm not great with names and I don't really focus on other players.

Q. What is the best advice you have received?

A. Something Paul Kee said always stuck in my mind - 'You're good but you can always be better'. I always remember that.

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

A. A lot of negatives, I didn't do well but I think I've stepped up to the plate now. I had injuries, it had nothing to do with my commitment. I'm a fully committed player and I show that when I play.

Q. Do you have a favourite film or musical artist?

A. The Shawshank Redemption is a classic but I don't listen to a lot of music, I'd rather be active, doing something.

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Looking sharp: Dungannon Swifts’ Chris Hegarty at his place of work, Cuba Clothing in Dungannon

Q. Tell us something about yourself we don't know.

A. I was arrested in Glasgow one night. I was just drunk while celebrating a birthday. We got beat by Dundee in the Cup. It never hit the papers thanks to my agent. It was all over nothing, the policeman wanted me to take my hands out of my trousers but it was freezing and I was keeping my hands warm! The policeman must have been a Celtic fan!

Snapshot

Date of birth: August 13, 1992

Place of birth: Dungannon

Previous clubs: Dungannon United Youth, Millwall, Rangers, Linfield.

Dungannon Swifts record: 56 appearances, eight goals

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