Footballers' Lives with Paul Heatley: 'The priest gave me the Last Rites'
Our exclusive series about life on and off the pitch in Irish League football continues with Crusaders ace Paul Heatley on his eventful journey to the top.
Q What is your earliest football memory?
A Probably with St. Mary's, my local team in Glengormley. I remember joining them when they started. I was there in their first year and played with them until I was 14. The club is still going strong and I coach their under-11 team. I do it as my 10-year-old son Cailan plays for the team. They are only nine-a-side so it's a development squad. It's good fun, the kids get plenty of playing time. Cailan is a (Claude) Makelele, he will sit in midfield and not run too much! He's probably a better passer than me in fairness after that Coleraine game last weekend.
Q You are enjoying life now with wife Laura, children Cailan and Eva, but tell us about the very traumatic experience you had as a child.
A I can remember when I was five-years-old I hit the papers for having this extremely rare condition which they never really diagnosed. I was in the Royal Victoria Hospital for quite a while and the priest came in and gave me the Last Rites, expecting me to die. I was very poorly. My eyelids wouldn't open, I had complete dryness throughout my body. It was an unreal experience. I can remember the priest coming in and only my mum Celine was allowed in the room as my body was so depleted.
Q How did this serious illness happen?
A It came completely out of the blue, just a serious infection. The closest thing they diagnosed it to was Stevens-Johnson syndrome disease, a rare serious disorder of the skin and membranes. It wasn't that, but one of the doctors suggested we try a certain treatment and it was a miracle turnaround. I was very blessed that it worked. I had constant injections into the bloodstream. I always remember the butterfly injections - it took about six nurses and doctors to hold me down every time, it was tough going. I remember having a Sega Megadrive and playing Italia 90 at that time. It was certainly a strange experience.
Q How did your family cope as your condition worsened?
A I can remember my mum constantly crying, but at that age you don't fully grasp everything, you don't realise the seriousness of it. At five years old you want to get on with life and you don't process things much. It was a life or death matter and my family knew that. Thankfully, I managed to pull through. There has been no recurrence, it was completely random. My parents (Celine and Stephen) just explained to me I was gone. I couldn't pass urine or drink, my eyelids had to be pulled up. I do remember having my own TV and balcony in the hospital, a small silver lining!
Q After what happened to you, do you get nervous regarding the health of your son Cailan and daughter Eva?
A To be honest, I was too young to process it and never really let it impact me. Naturally as a parent if your kids are sick you have to do something. When Cailan was 10 months old he was rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis and he stayed in for a week, but he was okay.
Q How supportive have your family been in your career?
A It's a funny one because I remember leaving Cliftonville when I was 19 and going to study after we had our first child, Cailan. I didn't kick a ball for four years and then went to the Collingwood Cup with University of Ulster and that reignited my love for the game and I joined a few friends at Brantwood. It was a relaxed environment, you enjoyed your football and had a laugh afterwards. Then, six months down the line, Carrick came calling and things developed rapidly. I remember being called up to the first team at Cliftonville and my girlfriend was pregnant, it felt like a make or break decision and I had to put family first. It was take the contract with Cliftonville or step away. I live in Glengormley, around the corner from my mum and dad. My sister Orla and brother Stephen live close by while another brother, Connor, is in Dundalk. My dad would be into Gaelic and rugby rather than football, but he's always followed football because my mum brought me everywhere, to Coventry Youth and Leicester Youth and local academies. To be honest, I've always felt uncomfortable with family and friends watching me. At youth level I remember cracking up at my mum and sister watching me. I lost the rag one day, stopped a game and shouted at them! I don't know how I got away with it. Ever since, mum has sneaked in. I've calmed down now but my mum has been hugely instrumental.
Q How do you reflect on you and Laura being so young when Cailan was born?
A There's 20 years between myself and Cailan, who is 10. He's June 28 and I'm June 30, it's quite a nice number, I like it. Laura had turned 21. Setting aside the finances, you experience every emotion under the sun. It can be a challenging time for anyone to have a baby, especially when you aren't married. As long as you commit yourself things can work out, as they can in other areas of life. You try and you'll be alright. We met at Belfast Met, in the same class, though it took a few months to get chatting. I think she made the first move and rang me out of the blue!
Q You got married during the 2015 title run-in and missed a defeat to Portadown. Did your manager at Crusaders, Stephen Baxter, have an opinion on that!?
A That's right, I got married just before we won the title. I got shouted at by the gaffer, he wasn't amused, but I made up for it against Cliftonville in the next game, scoring the winner.
Q How did the wedding and honeymoon go?
A It was in St. Colmcille's Parish in east Belfast on April 7, 2015, Easter Tuesday. We honeymooned in Paris for about four to five days, it couldn't be too long. It was an amazing day, everyone gets so nervous and you are an emotional wreck but once it starts you get caught up in the moment and say 'I can't believe how nervous I was'. It goes smoothly and it was a dream come true, brilliant weather and a brilliant memory. Cailan carried the rings up, he didn't lose them, thank goodness! It was important to have him involved, he has been obviously a huge part of our lives. The wedding had to involve him as much as us and it was a magical moment. There's nine years between the children but it's not difficult, it's easier. He can provide help to us and we trust him in the room with Eva and he can look after her and make her laugh. He's the only one in the family who can make her giggle at any time. She's taken a huge shine to him and him to her. Eva is fantastic, starting to sleep better in her own room, she's starting to walk a bit and crawls like a speed demon.
Q Do Irish League footballers have to make sacrifices and can it affect family life?
A With European football you do sacrifice a lot and many people don't realise the commitment involved. You are playing until the first week of May and back in the middle of June, it's a very short break. With my football and coaching commitments, I can only really delegate Friday night or Sunday to proper family time. I work for Ulster Bank while Laura is a special educational needs teacher. She is working with kids who have Down's Syndrome or autism and it is challenging as the kids need constant attention, but it works well as she works in the same school as Cailan, St. Joseph's Primary in Ballyhackamore, and is part-time. I have a lot of respect for her and she flourishes in that challenging environment.
Q Who was your favourite footballer growing up?
A Steven Gerrard, along with Michael Owen. Stevie G was always there in big games, scoring goal after goal in vital moments such as Olympiacos in the Champions League. I know he slipped against Chelsea in a big league game but he's forgiven, it shows he's human!
Q What advice would you give to a young footballer?
A Work and show respect. I think there are a lot of young players coming through with huge attitudes and brass necks. Particularly in the Irish League there are young players coming through with arrogance and I feel it's important to show respect to your elders, your club, your management and the staff. They are giving you an opportunity so go back to basics and understand your roots and commit yourself rather than showing arrogance. I always say to people, no-one in the Irish League is entitled to say they have hit the big time and think they are amazing. It can be a great foundation but it's always important to show respect.
Q Favourite film and book?
A Maybe John Q with Denzel Washington, an old school one but fantastic. I used to read a lot as a kid but not these days, maybe autobiographies such as Roy Keane's.
Q Highlight of your career and biggest disappointment?
A Winning the league title back-to-back. The first one was special as the club had waited so long for it (18 years). It was nice to win Player of the Year that season as well. Biggest disappointment was the end of last season. We had three (titles) in a row in our hands for a long time. It hurt the players but no-one is grieving it now. What happens in the past stays in the past.
Q What changes do you feel could make the Irish League a better product?
A More development at youth level to bring through more talent. The national team is doing their part and it would be nice to see more young players get an opportunity across the water. Summer football is a tough one, you don't know what it would be like until you try it. As a player, I will focus on my job and let others deliberate over it, it's not really my business. I do feel the standard of refereeing could improve.
Q What sporting event, other than football, would you like to attend?
A I'm diverse, from playing squash, tennis, badminton and golf. I enjoy watching tennis so perhaps a major tennis final.
Q Toughest opponent and best player you have played with?
A Cristian Gamboa of Rosenborg who went on to West Brom and is now at Celtic. He is an absolute flying machine, built like a tank, very small but so fast. In the Irish League I would say Billy Joe Burns when he was at Linfield. He says sometimes I got the better of him but he was always a huge challenge. The best I have played with is probably Gary McCutcheon, the amount of assists he gave me at Crusaders was remarkable. His touch and vision was unbelievable. I certainly benefited playing alongside him.
Q What other sports stars do you admire?
A I've quite a huge appreciation for any sport. Rory McIlroy is fantastic at what he does. I grew up watching Tiger Woods at his best and would love to see him get back to that level. In tennis, I would be a big fan of Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, they were phenomenal. I even enjoyed watching the snooker including Paul Hunter, Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry, brilliant players. I enjoy a game of snooker, it's relaxing with friends, about 54 is my maximum break.
Q Many people have said you were good enough to play across the water. Do you regret not making that move?
A Leaving football at 19 and deciding to study and look after my family, I think that diminished any opportunity for me as you need to stay in the game at a young age. I returned to play when I was 23 and I was unknown, the opportunity had passed. I'm not regretful, things have worked out in my family and football life. I can't complain about winning two Irish League titles. I'm blessed to play here, it's a privilege. Crusaders is a great family unit, so close knit and the club looks after you if you have any problems, football related or not. They have stepped in and helped me on occasions. All I can do is repay them for that. If players leave here they want to come back and that tells you what the club is like.
Q Some have accused you of going down easily when challenged, or diving. How do you respond to that criticism?
A I hear that constantly but I don't give a monkey's. You hear that from other supporters and players but the Irish League is full of people wanting players disciplined and booked for all sorts of things. It's part of the game. If you are fouled you will go down, but when you are kicked 100 times you might want to avoid that challenge because you don't want to get your leg broken. Yes, I maybe have gone down easily in the past but I've been using the angles not to get hurt. I need to protect myself. This is a very physical game and players don't pull out of challenges.
Q What are your hopes for the future, on and off the pitch?
A On the pitch, I want to win everything with Crusaders but it's very difficult in a challenging league. It would be great to reach a third qualifying round in Europe, even the Champions League, you just need a favourable draw. Off the pitch, if we have more children as a family we would be blessed but I'll have that discussion with Laura! I just want my family to stay healthy and happy.
Date of birth: June 30, 1987
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Cliftonville, Brantwood, Carrick Rangers
Crusaders record: 218 appearances, 111 goals.