Footballers' Lives with Denver Gage: My relief when my name was cleared of sectarian slur and delight when our baby won her fight for life
Footballers Lives: Denver Gage
Fighting against false accusation, family life, the house built with his own hands and a marriage proposal set in stone... Carrick’s Denver Gage talks us through his own story
Q What is your earliest football memory?
A Joining Cullybackey Blues Soccer School for seven to nine-year-olds where we played every Saturday. This was a great way to meet a lot of friends outside of school. After a couple of years that progressed into playing in the Down and Connor League at Under-12 level. My three older brothers (Ian, Steven, David) also played for the older years so my dad Robert always watched 15 minutes of each game to keep everyone happy. Some parents thought he just came to the Mallusk Playing Fields every Saturday to do laps around the pitches.
Q In 2011 when you were at Ballymena United you were at the centre of an inquiry into the singing of sectarian songs at a Northern Ireland match in Dublin, but after an Irish FA probe you were cleared of the allegations. How did you and your family cope during that time?
A It was difficult, particularly for my family who knew I was not that kind of man. Some people who knew me were able to laugh it off but it was no laughing matter for my mum Rhonda, dad and my church-going family. I felt I had let them down even though I had done nothing wrong. I had gone to the Carling Nations Cup game between Northern Ireland and Scotland in Dublin with my brothers and was close to a group of people, where there was some singing. I can remember meeting the IFA with my solicitor at the time and my name was cleared. It was a huge relief to me and my family.
Q Was the media attention around that time difficult to deal with?
A I had been to the game and thought nothing more of it. When this story emerged it was a big shock. A week or two after the game journalists from Sunday newspapers were knocking on my door. The boys at United kept me going. I still get remarks about it today like an opposing fan saying ‘Denver, give us a song’ but that just motivates me to play even better. When there was a bit of slander and gossip, journalists with Sunday newspapers wanted to know me, but when my name was cleared only the local papers wanted to hear my story.
Q Are three girls keeping you on your toes at your home near Clough?
A I have been married to Eva for over two years. We have two daughters, Nancy is 20 months and Florrie is four months. The three girls always keep me on my toes. Eva is a great mother, and if truth be told doesn’t get enough help from me due to all my commitments, but she lives for the two girls. She is very supportive of me and I’m very proud of her. Eva is an air hostess for Flybe based in George Best City Airport. She just loves her job as she is a bubbly character. I think the job just suits her perfectly as she gets a bit of gossip with all the pilots and other girls. All her flights are short haul within the UK which means she gets home every night. She is still on maternity leave at the moment and isn’t due back until next summer. With the two girls Eva is talking about going back to work part-time.
Q Florrie is doing well now but you and Eva went through a traumatic time after she was born. How worrying was that?
A We didn’t bring Florrie home until 10 days after she was born as she had picked up an infection the day she was born and was rushed into the Neonatal Unit at Antrim Area Hospital. It was a very worrying time. The care there is unbelievable and thankfully she got stronger every day. It was a Group B Strep infection, her temperature was dropping and blood tests were needed. Eva refused to leave her side for the 10 days and it was a very anxious wait. She was nearly three and a half weeks premature and was five pounds 11oz. There were six or seven babies in the unit at that time and other parents were waiting on updates. I can remember one set of parents coming out of an update with tears in their eyes, their baby was not going to pull through and I can still see those tears, it was a horrible sight, they were naturally devastated. The staff there are all so passionate about their jobs and we were just so grateful we were able to bring Florrie home but you don’t stop worrying as she was very small compared to Nancy, who was nearly eight pounds when she was born. It was a scary time but thankfully Florrie got stronger.
Q You’ve a big family, was sport always at the heart of it?
A I come from a very large family. I have two sisters (Louise, Michelle) and three brothers. We were all very sporty from a young age. The four boys played for Cullybackey Blues and the girls played netball. I don’t know how my mother coped. She just taxied everyone to training every night of the week and never complained. She’s a miracle woman. My dad never misses a game. He works hard all week on the farm and just lives for Saturday football. No matter what crops up you could never stop him coming along to support me. Two of my brothers still play for my local village team. My oldest brother Ian got a bad injury when he was 18 and had to stop playing. He was the only brother to play in both Milk Cups for Co Antrim and for Northern Ireland Schoolboys. It’s sad because I believe he would have been a top Irish League player. My brother in law Steven Colgan is captain of the Ballymena cricket team. So sport is a big part of my family circle.
Q That’s a horrible twist of fate for Ian, how did he cope?
A It was hard for him to come to terms with and it’s not something the family really talks about. He went to university in Dundee and is now working in business and finance. He was five years older than me when it happened, I was 13 and Ian was playing for Ballymena under Nigel Best. He had been called into the first-team squad for a match at Windsor Park and I can remember him having to pull out of a trip to Australia with the schoolboys. He still has lower back pains and footballers know injury can happen to anyone. He was a big influence on me and what happened was terrible. I missed two seasons through injury in my mid-20s when I had to go to Yorkshire for a groin operation. It was hard to come back from that. Glenn Ferguson had taken over from Roy Walker at Ballymena.
Q Your first date with Eva is legendary, how did you keep the romance alive?
A Eva and I met when we were 15. I built up the courage to ask her to my school formal at Dunclug College. I couldn’t have made much of an impression because I didn’t hear from her for another seven years. In 2011 we met again in Galgorm Manor on a night out. I took her out the next day and the rest is history. We will be together seven years in January. I remember on our first date I took Eva out for a meal. I was trying to tell her what position I played so I shuffled the salt and pepper shakers into a 4-4-2 formation. I even had to go to two other tables to make up the numbers. I was very surprised I got a second date after that. We have become very close over the years and are the very best of friends.
Q How did the wedding celebrations go?
A Eva and I got married in July 2015. The service was held in Eva’s home church in her local village of Kells and Connor. The service was very special as Eva’s sister Emma is the organist in the church and played during the service as well as doing chief bridesmaids’ duties. My three brothers were my groomsmen which made it a great family day. Mum gets very proud of us four boys cleaned up, dressed and together. The reception was held in Lissanoure Castle in Ballymena, it was a great day, one we wont forget. It’s just great having your friends and family all in one room. Our honeymoon was our first holiday together. We went to Majorca for a week and after day three we started getting homesick. We haven’t been on holiday since. Eva’s the only air hostess I know that doesn’t like holidays. We prefer just being at home.
Q How are you adapting to parenthood?
A We always wanted children immediately after we got married. It has certainly been a change of lifestyle. Eva often wonders why she needed so much sleep years ago. We wanted the two children close together so that they would grow up with each other. It’s very hard work, particularly for Eva, but we wouldn’t change a thing. Eva sometimes tells me she’s a single parent and threatens to pack her bags on a weekly basis but I somehow get her talked round and tell her the football will only last a few more years. Eva says I’ll never stop playing!
Q What is your farming background in Clough and what memories do you have growing up there?
A I was very fortunate to grow up in the countryside and on a farm. It’s just outside Clough village, 10 miles from Ballymena. The farm has been in the family for a few generations. We have a dairy farm and milk cows. There was always plenty of work to be done, my mum, dad and brother David live and work on the farm. I just live down the road and help out when needed. We all meet up in the farm house on Sundays where my mum puts on a roast for the family and her 11 grandchildren. Being a big family we are very well known in our local community. The six of us at one stage all played in the Clough flute band. We made up two rows and the majority of the band. All my brothers and sisters now live with their own families no more than four miles from the farm, which shows how good a childhood we had as none of us strayed too far.
Q What motivated you to become a stonemason and how challenging is it?
A When I left school, I knew I wanted to go straight into work. I liked the idea of earning my own money. I built a shed for my uncle over the summer I left school, and then joined the Northern Regional College for two years to start an apprenticeship in trowel occupations. Becoming a stonemason is something I’m very proud of and it can be very rewarding when you complete a project and the client gets their dream home or entrance. Sometimes I’m playing an Irish League match midweek and thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what the striker I’m marking was doing today, probably not lifting stones or picking building stones at a quarry face’. I think it gives me that bit of an aggressive edge. I have completed five years at the Northern Regional College in building and the construction environment, two years when leaving school and three more part-time years in my early 20s. This qualified me to be able to apply to teach at the college and I have been called in a few times, which I really enjoyed. This is something I would love to be doing full-time later in my life.
Q What projects have you been involved in and where are you working at the moment?
One that comes to mind would have been in 2010 to 2013 when I was involved in the restoration of Antrim Castle Gardens. I got a lot of satisfaction working on all the old walls, the castle tower and bridges. There were also a lot of public visitors and they were interested in learning about the gardens and the stonemason trade. My proudest project is building my own home, which took me five years.
Before I asked Eva to marry me I carved the big question on a stone and it was placed into a wall around the house. We have moved in over a year. I didn’t worry about how long it took as I knew we were going to live there for life, so I wanted it to be everything we dreamed of. I’m now working on a public sector project in Moira. It should last a year so that helps me plan for football when I’m working on the same site for a long period.
Q You must be busy, how do you fit the football in?
A With Florrie being just four months old it is a struggle. I would leave the house on the third night in the week for training or a match, not even time to eat dinner. I feel so guilty leaving Eva alone another night to bath and put the two girls to bed. It can be a very selfish sport. On the other hand Eva is very supportive and loves to see me do well. My dad, brothers and sisters never miss a game along with my mother and father in law. So many come and support me I’d say Carrick Rangers make a profit by the time they all pay in. That really drives me.
Q Who was your favourite footballer growing up?
A My family are big Manchester United fans and I would say Roy Keane. He had a passion for winning and knowing what it takes. He drove his team on as a leader, an honest player and man.
Q Who is your toughest opponent and best player played with?
A Toughest opponent would be Glenn Ferguson in his later years. You realise how clever and strong he was. It was very hard to get the ball off him. Best player would be my former Ballymena team-mate Albert Watson, who is now playing in Canada. He has a fantastic winning mentality and he trained the way he played. We are close and he supported me.
Q Which sporting event, other than football, would you like to see?
A Perhaps a big rugby final as when I’ve had the time I’ve enjoyed watching Ulster. Myself and Eva used to enjoy the Friday night games and when I was younger I was always encouraged to go to Eaton Park (home of Ballymena Rugby Club) and play rugby.
Q Do you have a favourite book, film or musical artist?
A I don’t have the patience or time to read books, if I did I would think I am doing something wrong though I have read some sporting autobiographies on Paul Gascoigne, Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson. I like the Jason Bourne films while Braveheart is another good watch. I’m not into concerts, more comedy shows such as Jimmy Carr or Peter Kay.
Q What advice would you give to a young footballer?
A Work hard and enjoy the game. Sometimes when I watch youngsters, the parents and coaches put them under pressure and I feel we are losing the enjoyment. You’ve got to enjoy the game.
Date of birth: May 3, 1987
Place of birth: Ballymena
Previous clubs: Ballymena United, Ards, Ballyclare Comrades, Ballymoney United
Carrick Rangers record: 10 appearances, no goals