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Footballers' Lives with Ciaran Caldwell: I was given perfect Christmas gift with Holly's arrival, but my family has also been rocked by suicide

 

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Lean on me: Ciaran Caldwell is aiming high as manager of Crumlin United

Lean on me: Ciaran Caldwell is aiming high as manager of Crumlin United

Festive surprise: Niamh, Ciaran Caldwell, his son Ciaran and new arrival Holly last Christmas

Festive surprise: Niamh, Ciaran Caldwell, his son Ciaran and new arrival Holly last Christmas

Conor Kane

Conor Kane

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Lean on me: Ciaran Caldwell is aiming high as manager of Crumlin United

Ex-Cliftonville ace Ciaran Caldwell on his joy at special delivery this time last year, sad losses and his mission as a manager.

Q. How did your football career begin?

A. I played for Newhill at the top of Whiterock with players including Crusaders' Billy Joe Burns and we were very successful. I'm surprised Billy didn't get a move across the water but he seems to be getting better with age. I trained with Glentoran a few times but I played Gaelic football as well and eventually decided to go to Donegal Celtic, where I made my Irish League debut at the age of 17 against Larne. DC were relegated and it was sad to see the club in decline. I'm from the Glen Road in west Belfast and Cliftonville were always the team I supported. My relatives Barry Johnston and Pat Wall played for the Reds and there always seemed to be a relation of mine involved. My uncle Brendan played there before he retired.

Q. You come from a big sporting family, tell us about that.

A. My grandfather, John Caldwell, was a world champion boxer and it wasn't a road I was going to go down. He went to the Olympics and became world champion in 1961, a real boxing legend. I took the football genes from my mother Maria and her link with Charlie Tully, who played for Celtic and Belfast Celtic. Charlie was my mother's uncle, my great uncle. Most of us are half decent players but Charlie was a wonder player. My dad Johnnie never missed a game growing up and when you're younger you take that support for granted. Barry Johnston's brother Gavin played a few times for Cliftonville. My mother is the Tully side. Barry's mother and Pat Wall's mother are sisters so we are first cousins. I remember when Pat went to Linfield he got some stick at Solitude but as he was our cousin he was let off lightly. My uncle Brendan played for Portadown, Glenavon and Cliftonville. For me it was special to have success with Janty (Barry Johnston) at Cliftonville and also Liam Boyce, who I went to school with at St Mary's on the Glen Road. I won the Irish League with friends and family and that's a nice feeling, especially since I've been moving around a bit in my career.

Q. Was it a huge honour for you to play for Cliftonville?

A. I can remember the DC boss then, Packie McAllister, thinking I was too good for the Championship and Eddie Patterson took the chance on me at the Reds. I can remember going to watch Cliftonville in a CIS Cup final with my late cousin Conor Kane and they beat Larne where I continued my playing career. I will always be grateful to Eddie for giving me a chance and his strong work ethic helped me improve as a player. Tommy Breslin was a different character, more laid-back but it was a privilege for me to score a winning goal in Europe and play with guys I admired. It will always be my club and part of me regrets leaving and, looking back, it was maybe the wrong decision.

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Q. Tell us about the special delivery that arrived on Christmas Day last year.

A. Our daughter, Holly, was born on Christmas Day so it was a hectic time but life has settled down again. The timing of the birth was a complete surprise. My fiancée Niamh said around Easter time she was pregnant and around September I joked it was going to arrive on Christmas Day. I can remember pacing the corridors at the Royal Victoria Hospital and Holly was born at 2.38am on Christmas morning. I dropped Niamh's mum Laura home to Crumlin and returned with my son Ciaran to play Santa for his sister. It was a hectic period but it's brilliant to have one son and one daughter. My parents went to Lanzarote at Christmas and I was constantly on the phone updating them. My sister Julie, who was an Irish dancer when younger, and her family invited me to their house for Christmas dinner and it was nice to have that little bit of normality on Christmas Day. But you forget about Christmas trees and presents... for the hospital staff it was another working day for them. As Christmas presents go, I don't think I can top that one. Ciaran was born on April Fool's Day so he wasn't so lucky!

Q. Did all go well with the birth?

A. It was quite a scary experience because Niamh had an emergency C-section. It's not a nice thing to see - you feel helpless. The child was getting distressed and it was a difficult birth. Thank God, they are both doing really well. It was naturally an emotional time and coming at Christmas made it more special. When you have children you reassess your life and I like to think I've a wiser head on my shoulders. If I can help younger players I will. I enjoyed nights out when I was younger but my life has changed. There's a time to relax and enjoy yourself and a time to be serious. Niamh has been a massive factor in realising the times to be serious and become wiser in recent years. Ciaran is a bit of a character but he's doing well in school and hopefully takes up sport of any kind. I thought he might get upset with a lack of attention after Holly's arrival but he's been great. I'm trying to get him outside to play football but he likes his computer games like many kids these days. My parents did the best for me and I just want to be a good father to my kids.

Q. In sharp contrast, you have also experienced tragic loss in your life. What are your memories of those hard times?

A. I've been through some difficult times with suicides in my family - my cousin Conor Kane and his sister Ashling. I was close to Conor and the boys in our family were tight knit. He was a character who used to play in the Sunday League and was a brilliant player, but got sent off sometimes. He brought me places when I was younger including to a League Cup final featuring Cliftonville. It was a Sunday night and I was going out to the old Beach Club in the Odyssey in May 2011 when I got a call saying he had taken his own life. That really hurt me and I regularly go down to visit his grave. He was a big Cliftonville man and the morning after we won the Irish League title, I went down to see him and it was poignant and sad. He can look down at me and guide me. He was a massive Celtic fan too and he would have been delighted for me. The boys in our family enjoy having a laugh and no one expected this, it shocked the family. I was relatively young and couldn't comprehend why he did it and he left children behind too. Barry Johnston was a very good friend of Conor and seeing him and my uncles so upset hurt me. Being able to win an Irish League title with Barry makes me more grateful. You hear the odd thing about suicide but when I was growing up I never expected that to come to my door. For it to happen to a brother and sister would shock any family, especially a close knit one. I remember my mum falling to her knees when she told me about Ashling. There are a lot of organisations doing great work and I know we all feel down at times but the football gave me a release. I'd like to believe everything is fixable.

Q. You have two children now. Have you found it difficult to balance family and football commitments?

A. Niamh has been very supportive, especially with me being out longer hours with the managerial role but we seem to have a great balance as a family, although I would like to take credit it's really all down to her. When I was 21, I went out on a Saturday without a care in the world and I didn't have much to worry about but a fiancée and two great kids puts it all in perspective. I work for Century Electrical Wholesale, dealing with electricians. My branch manager is the brother-in-law of George McMullan.

Q. When are you getting married?

A. In 2021, possibly in Fermanagh although I'm pushing for Spain. As long as she turns up I'll be happy. We are living in Crumlin and I used to annoy her from our schooldays. I've shown tremendous perseverance! Niamh works in Kingsbridge Private Hospital as a cross-border consultant for surgeries. She is busy with work and being a mum.

Q. What has been the best moment of your career?

A. It was a fantastic time when Cliftonville won the league and were then drawn to play Celtic in the Champions League. As a massive Celtic fan, it was a real joy to face players like Scott Brown, James Forrest and Georgios Samaras. I used to criticise Samaras when I watched him playing on TV but after I played against him I said that I wouldn't be hard on a professional footballer again. I'm sure I was hard to watch on some Saturdays! I got shirts from Efe Ambrose and Forrest. Barry's parents and my mum and dad were at the game which made it more special. I've been back to Celtic Park a few times since then and it's always strange sitting there and thinking, 'I've actually played here'.

Q. How upsetting was the Irish Cup final loss to Glentoran at the end of that 2013 season?

A. The league title celebrations had gone on too long and we missed out on that medal. You aspire to be like players such as William Murphy, who has won everything. Cliftonville had never done the treble and we were out on our feet. I got sent off during the game with Glentoran's Richard Clarke and the Irish Cup eluded me. It still hurts when people say you cost Cliftonville the Cup but I think a few of our players were struggling physically after the partying. Seamus and Tiernan Lynch enjoyed reminding me they got it tactically right at Glentoran. Joe Gormley missed a good chance to make it 2-0 and the Glens fought back and deserved to win.

Q. Who have been the biggest influences in your career?

A. My parents have been hugely supportive. My dad used to go to Mallusk to watch me play in the rain, hail or snow and it's not until you become a father that you really appreciate these things. Winning the league with both my parents there was a very proud moment for me and one I won't forget.

Q. Are you pleased with how your old school pal Liam Boyce's career has panned out?

A. I'm just absolutely delighted for him. He was written off after coming home from Werder Bremen and he struggled a bit at Ross County and suffered a bad injury but he's got real bouncebackability. He's flying at Burton Albion and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. He's an outstanding player, the best I have played with in the Irish League.

Q. What is your biggest regret?

A. I didn't fully grasp the opportunities I had at Glenavon and Glentoran and was perhaps living off past glories of winning leagues with Cliftonville. I struggled later in my career and at the Glens I didn't apply myself enough. I've learned the hard way that you need to be professional for every club you play for. We lost a European play-off game against Cliftonville and you are left feeling you'd love to go back to that game to prove a point.

Q. What do you make of all the changes at Larne?

A. After meeting Tiernan Lynch and owner Kenny Bruce, I was excited to hear their plans. It does hurt when people call you a money grabber or a mercenary because I have never been that type of player. I've heard opposition players say that to try and rattle you and a few years ago I might have reacted to something like that. It's a club trying to go places. Guys like Tiernan and Tim McCann aren't going to accept people who have the wrong motivations. The expectations and demands are good and it's a long-term project.

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

A. Gary Hamilton was great but Liam Boyce is a freak. Toughest opponent? I'll say Celtic's Scott Brown, it was like running into a brick wall. He was a player I looked up to.

Q. What motivated you to leave Larne and take on the Crumlin United managerial job, and how are you enjoying it?

A. Even before I joined Larne, I started to feel the game was a chore. I thought it would be wrong to sit and collect money off Larne without giving 100 per cent after the conversation I had with Crumlin United. It was a fresh challenge and it excited me. The chairman has been very helpful since I took over. We have seen steady progress and it is very pleasing as the manager. All the foundations are in place for the club to really kick on within the next few years and hopefully I'll be the man that can bring success to the club. There is a great bunch of players there in their early 20s and key to this will be keeping them together. I stress regularly to them that they are playing three divisions below the Irish League and their aim as individuals is to get to that league, be it with Crumlin or someone else. You must strive to get the most out of your careers and not sit with regrets down the line.

Q. When you look back at your career, what makes you laugh?

A. Once at Cliftonville, Liam Boyce was trying to get in shape and he brought his bike to training. By the time we were off the training pitch, there was a player naked on the bike in the showers. He got it back covered in shower gel. I can also remember being in Magaluf with Tommy Breslin, who was wearing a pair of sandals at a foam party... you don't forget a sight like that. Marty Donnelly also had a bet with me to get 'Don't sell the Boyce' tattooed on my foot. I was so drunk I did it and got a red balloon tattoo as well. Sometimes people ask me what's all that about on holiday and you try to avoid that conversation! The worst thing about all that is that Cliftonville didn't sell Liam, they released him at the end of his contract! It's probably the worst tattoo in history but I'm not alone, quite a few of the lads got the balloon tattoo. They were mad moments but good times. I've been fortunate to have good friends in football like Stephen McAlorum and Fra McCaffrey. 'Maccers' was at Donegal Celtic when I was there and his advice helped me at Glentoran as well. Medals come and go but it's nice to have friends for life.

If you, or anyone close to you, is affected by any issues in this article, please contact the Samaritans free on 116123 or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000.

Snapshot

Date of birth: October 10, 1989

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: Donegal Celtic, Cliftonville, Glenavon, Glentoran, Larne

Current position: Crumlin United manager


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