Footballers' Lives with Jim Ervin: We all pulled together when my dad was told he had cancer
In the latest of our Footballers' Lives series, Ballymena United skipper Jim Ervin speaks about the role family has played in shaping his career and why he has no regrets over a tough call to leave his boyhood club Linfield
Q What is your earliest football memory?
A Playing for my school football team, Fern Hill, now it's called Harmony Primary in the Glencairn estate. There was me and a goalkeeper called Gary Kincaid who was the nephew of Joe Kincaid, who was affiliated with St Andrew's. Joe spotted us and brought us into the St Andrew's set-up. I can remember Joe showing us Johan Cruyff videos - what coaches are doing now, he was doing 20 or 30 years ago. We joined the 92nd Boys' Brigade company along with Ryan and Chris McKeown from Ballysillan and we played on Saturday mornings. I have great memories of playing on the Grove pitches. It's all changed now, my son attends the 92nd BB and they don't have a team now as the boys' clubs start early.
Q Who has been the biggest influence on you in football and in life?
A My father Jim. A lot of people might say that, my dad was a big football man and, looking back at photographs, he was a die-hard Rangers and Linfield supporter. He had me at Windsor Park and Ibrox when I was in nappies and we had many great times. It's good to look at the photographs and now I go to Rangers matches when I can and take my son (Brody) to share that experience as my dad did with me. My dad had a job when he was up at 4am in the morning and not finishing to 5pm. He came home from work, had no dinner and we were straight into the van and off to the Valley Leisure Centre or other training venues. He was my taxi driver and while I was training he was probably getting an hour's sleep in the van. He saw me doing something that I enjoyed and loved. My mum (Joan) and dad were happy if I was. Everything I achieved at Linfield was a bit of payback to them, especially with my dad and our friends being Linfield fans. My dad was there every step of the way. He always said footballing decisions were down to me but he might have spoken to me if I joined Glentoran! I think I would still get back in the house. He's had wise words for me and let me make my own decisions.
Q Your father has battled cancer, how is he doing now?
A My dad went through a tough time about seven years ago when he had bowel cancer. It was rough in terms of operations and going back and forward to hospital. There were complications during the operation and it has left him with a disability in terms of day to day life. He can do bits and pieces but he has been affected. It was a tough time for all of us but we are such a close-knit family. He has seven sisters and we all pulled together and were there for him. Thankfully, he's still here today, still with us and he will be 58 next month.
Q Give us an insight into your family life.
A I've been married to Louise for eight years. She's not into football but she's very supportive and she knows a lot about it. It was perhaps a good thing as we did our own thing at times but she was great in coming to games with my parents during the clean sweep year with Linfield (2005-2006). She is another big influence in terms of what I have achieved in football. Without her backing and support, it probably wouldn't have happened. She's a classroom assistant for special needs children at Harberton Special School. We have two wonderful kids, Brody who is seven at Christmas, and Freya who has just turned three. Brody is getting into football but he's quite confused as he supports both Linfield and Ballymena United! He'll have a Linfield top on one minute and Ballymena the next. He's at the age where he has started coming to games and enjoys being around the boys. It's great for me as a father to see how he is treated in the changing room. Ballymena United are so family orientated, there's Brody and Johnny Flynn's young lad Jonathan who go to the games. Brody came to the games with my father and then myself. He's enjoying playing and that's the main thing for me. I've a youngster sister Chloe too.
Q Where did you and Louise meet?
A An old classic - we met at the old M Club in Belfast. We were both out with groups of friends and a friend of mine was dating Louise's sister. We had known each other from a few nights out.
Q How was your wedding?
A It was fantastic. I was at Linfield at the time so quite a few players made it. Peter Thompson was my groomsman, I'm good friends with him and our families are close and meet regularly. The reception was in the Ramada, Shaw's Bridge after the Holy Trinity, Oldpark Road, service. It was one of my proudest moments and then we went on honeymoon to the Dominican Republic.
Q Do your football commitments mean you lose precious family time?
A Definitely and I must give my wife plenty of credit. I thank her every day for it. She does a lot with the kids and we try to spend as much family time as we can but it's mainly a Sunday. Sunday mornings are now spent watching Match of the Day with Brody.
Q How did the move to Nottingham Forest as a teenager come about?
A I played with St Andrew's until under-15 level and then I got the move to Forest. I was spotted by a guy called Michael Whitley who was the Forest scout and he ran a football development centre at the Valley Leisure Centre on a Wednesday evening. I went over for a week at Easter time and then attended Forest's school of excellence for a few years. In fifth form we had a careers class and everyone said they wanted to be tilers, electricians or car mechanics but I wanted to be a footballer. I had no other interest. I played football on the street but you don't see kids playing outside now and I think that's a shame. I spent three years at Forest but didn't get a breakthrough. Only two or three boys were kept on and later released. I was gutted, I was living like a professional footballer, it was the life. It wasn't just football, they had an education centre and we had cleaning and training duties. I went to a few trials with clubs in England including Bournemouth, where Warren Feeney looked after me. I tore my ankle ligaments and that soon ended.
Q After that experience you returned home and Ballymena United and Linfield were interested in signing you. As a boyhood Blues fan, was the choice an obvious one?
A I didn't rule anything out, I trained with both clubs in pre-season while I was in the Northern Ireland Milk Cup squad. I had to make a decision, they made me the same offer but I got a job in Belfast to 5pm and it was easier to stay closer to home. There were more factors involved other than support for the club. I don't regret it obviously but my first season wasn't one of the best. I got an injury and needed a rest. Competition was fierce and Steven Douglas earned his place. I came back fit and there was no turning back as we won the Clean Sweep.
Q You played for Northern Ireland Under-21s but not the senior side. Other Irish League players have earned caps, are you envious of them?
A Not at all, I think the Irish League players have fully deserved their caps. For our game it's great to see, it gives boys an inspiration to play. Some players returning home might think they will only experience the Irish League but through the years boys have got moves like Gareth McAuley and Stuart Dallas while Paul Smyth is the latest, moving from the Blues to Queens Park Rangers.
Q Your career has been badly disrupted by horrendous injuries, are they very dark memories?
A I've been very unlucky as I've done two cruciates in both my knees - I'm not looking forward to the arthritis kicking in when I'm older! One was playing for Linfield against Glentoran and had we won, we would have won the league. Sean Ward made a run for the Glens, I went to close him down, my leg went one way and my body went the other. I have never felt pain like it in my life, I thought my leg was broken. I can remember lying on the turf thinking it couldn't have happened at a worse time, against your biggest rivals with a title on the line. Windsor was packed that day and my pride was hurt. When I opened my eyes Gary Hamilton was holding my hand. I was squealing and he was reassuring me, telling me to breathe and calm down. Since that day I've got to know Gary and I've a lot of respect for him. He kept in touch with me. (Physio) Terry Hayes was also reassuring me but I couldn't think. It was my worst experience in football. It was nine months without football. We beat Glenavon the week after at Mourneview to win the league. I wasn't involved that day and I missed the celebrations at Seaview due to an operation. We beat Coleraine in the 2008 Irish Cup Final and I had to sit it out. The Irish Cup Final injury with Ballymena United in 2014 was tough as we were confident against Glenavon. There was no tackle, I stretched and felt the pain but it wasn't as horrific as the first one.
Q Do you feel like you are in a very lonely place with such injuries?
A It's probably the worst experience of your life but you still have the determination and willpower to play on. Football always came first with me and my wife will back me up on that. Linfield were superb with me in the recovery, offered me financial support to train and I needed time to come back stronger. For my second injury at United, Gordy McCartney got me fit again and he was physio for the reserves at Linfield when I got my first injury so it was a similar rehab programme.
Q In your darkest moments do you fear your career could be over?
A It's natural to have that fear. I was a big Paul Gascoigne fan and he was never the same after his injury. You have these thoughts 'will I play again, or at the level I want? Will I go in for the same tackles?' My first game back for Linfield was for the Swifts and I went in for a tackle without any thoughts. People said afterwards they closed their eyes and thought I shouldn't have gone for it. Now I can pass on encouragement to other players it happens to.
Q What was the best moment in your career?
A Winning my first league championship with Linfield, we then won the Clean Sweep and beating the Glens in the Irish Cup Final to do it was special. We beat them in the League Cup Final, league and Irish Cup, very proud moments.
Q The six doubles in seven seasons under David Jeffrey was a phenomenal achievement. Do you believe it will ever be done again?
A I don't think so. We just had a never say die attitude and togetherness. Davy (Jeffrey) was ruthless and he always had the best squad and best players. If you had one bad game you were out and you might not get back in again for months.
Q From supporter to ballboy, then successful player for more than nine years, leaving Linfield must have been an emotional time for you. How did that feel?
A When a player is released people assume there is a fallout but there wasn't a fallout with Davy. It was an emotional night going in to sign the papers. I couldn't go in and see the boys before I left, the emotion was too much for me. I got Davy to speak to the boys on my behalf and I sent them all texts. It was my decision and we knew how ruthless Davy was. There was soul-searching, it wasn't an easy decision but I love football and wanted to play. I was in and out of the team and Billy Joe Burns came in and did well. There was a period of six or seven weeks playing reserve football and it was hard to get motivated. You know when your time is up at a club, you get that feeling. I felt the best thing for me was to move on after nine and a half years at the club. The one thing I never did was give up, I always gave 110 percent in training and matches. Things went stale at the club for me and I needed a fresh challenge to get my motivation back. I've never looked back from that decision.
Q How did the move to Ballymena United come about?
A I got a call from a friend to say would I be interested in speaking to Ballymena United and I talked to Glenn Ferguson who I knew really well from my time at Linfield. I heard what his ambitions were and I was very interested to be part of that. I also met with Coleraine boss Oran Kearney and he knew it was a big commitment to come from Belfast, he did it as a player. I had a young family and it would have been tough spending all that time away from them. Then David got the Ballymena job and it was business as usual in terms of our relationship.
Q And you've had some great times with the Sky Blues, how are you enjoying it?
A In my first year we got to the Irish Cup Final. Coming back from injury, we played Cliftonville in the League Cup Final, came back from 2-0 down and lost 3-2. The year after that we played Linfield in the County Antrim Shield Final and I was captain. That was special to be back at Windsor. I remember my dad sent me a text and it didn't say 'good luck' on it. He said: 'I'm not going to wish you good luck because it's against Linfield but I want you to do well'. He was the first to text me afterwards and it was a special night. Linfield had beaten us in the Irish Cup on the Saturday before and we could have crumbled but we bounced back and won the trophy. It was my first trophy with Ballymena and last season the club won the League Cup for the first time and to be captain again was a special feeling.
Q Are you one of the more high profile examples of there being life after Linfield for players?
A That's true. Paul Leeman is another one I think of. He left Glentoran, his boyhood club, and went on to taste success with Crusaders. If you want something enough you will work hard and get the rewards. I've captained Ballymena United in Europe for the first time too. Looking back, I've no regrets and I think that's important for kids. Don't have them. All of us can say there are things we could have done better but hand on heart I've no regrets in footballing terms.
Q Who was your favourite footballer growing up?
A Ally McCoist. Being a Rangers man, what he achieved at the club was fantastic. I have played against Rangers several times, including at Ibrox and also when Ally was manager. To meet an all-time hero was incredible.
Q Toughest opponent and best player played with?
A Pat McCourt when he was at Derry City in the Setanta Cup, he played against us at Windsor and he was scary. Spike (Glenn Ferguson) and Peter Thompson must be included in the best player talk, then you had Mr Reliability at the back in Noel Bailie. Until you have played with him and against him you can't really appreciate what Noel did. His contribution on the pitch was incredible.
Q Would you like to see the Irish League embrace summer football?
A Yes, I appreciate our summer weather is as bad as the winter but you look at the achievements of the teams in the south and the crowds they attract. European preparations are easier for them. Look what Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have achieved, I believe it could work here.
Q What advice would you give to a young footballer?
A Work hard and try to be the best that you can be. Never think that you know it all. Too many people, when they get to a certain stage, think they know it all. I'm still learning and improving. Never think you've made it. It's not just about ability. If you think you are better than what you are you won't achieve what you should. Be dedicated and willing to learn.
Q You turned 32 in June. Are you worried about retirement?
A Yes but. touch wood, hopefully it's a long time away. Football has been my life and anyone you speak to says you're a long time retired. Paul Leeman told me 'try to play for as long as you can because once it's away from you it's hard'. I don't want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons!
Q Is coaching a road you want to go down?
A Football's in my blood and at the moment I've an interest in coaching, I've been involved with the County Antrim SuperCupNI set-up for a few years and that's given me good experience. I've enjoyed that and just done the first part of my Uefa B Licence which is something you need to have. I want to move into coaching and fingers crossed it will be a while yet as my playing days aren't over. Maybe management is something I will go into. I'm running a Halloween camp from October 30 in my local area for the kids, keeping them occupied over the break, hopefully they will develop their game and more importantly enjoy it. There is too much pressure put on kids to win, win, win. People forget the enjoyment side and that can drive them away. It's all about having fun and expressing yourself.
Date of birth: June 5, 1985
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Nottingham Forest, Linfield
Ballymena United record: 138 appearances, two goals
- Next week: Another Irish League star opens up