Footballers' Lives with Stephen Garrett: Gemma and I used to compete to see who had more Twitter followers but she's way ahead now
Cliftonville ace Stephen Garrett on life with a celebrity sister, how he surprised many by joining Reds, just missing out on the full-time game and why he wants to start a family.
Q. Have you always wanted to be a footballer?
A. I started playing for Dungoyne Boys in east Belfast where I spent my childhood, and I probably grew up as a Glentoran fan. I know a lot of people used to think I was a Linfield supporter, but I used to follow the Glens and go to games with my dad, Stephen.
I made my debut for Linfield as a teenager back in the 'Clean Sweep' days of 2005/06, and I was playing as a striker then. I had Peter Thompson, Glenn Ferguson, Tommy Stewart, Mark Dickson and Timmy Adamson all ahead of me, and I knew it just wasn't going to happen for me, so I ended up playing only about 10 games or so. I scored a couple of goals but went to Newry on loan quite soon afterwards, where Gerry Flynn was managing at the time.
He was brilliant for me, very supportive, and helped me balance being a footballer and a student well. Newry were known to be throwing a few pounds around so it was nice to be a student with a little disposable income, especially having paid to play football before.
Q. Tell me how your career evolved from there, and the interest from Scottish clubs.
A. I went on trial at St Johnstone a couple of years later, aged 21 or 22, and I was all set to sign my first full-time contract with Greenock Morton on transfer deadline day. Being on trial in the Scottish Premier League was great, and even though the club I was joining were in the division below, they were offering a handsome enough package.
I was convinced it was all going to happen but the Newry chairman at the time asked for too much money and the whole deal collapsed. It fell through at the last hour, which was so disappointing. The following summer, the interest resurfaced, but then the manager, James Grady, was sacked, so the move fell through again. I had to go and look at my options then and work out my next move.
Q. What options were on the table?
A. I hadn't broken through at Linfield. Glentoran were a strong side which I did consider, but then I got speaking with Eddie Patterson and felt Cliftonville was the right move.
Having come from east Belfast, from a Protestant background and with lots of friends who supported Glentoran, it did turn a few heads. But I knew from when I met with Gerard Lawlor, Eddie and Tommy Breslin, it was the best move for all concerned.
Q. Has it turned out that way for you?
A. I've been with the club for eight seasons now, and I have loads of good memories and a good helping of bad ones when managers left, but I feel very settled.
Going back to the days when my dad would take me to The Oval reminds me of what an exciting league it can be. I remember Liam Coyle being the talisman then and thinking, 'I'd love to do that', so even though I never became a full-time professional, I know I am playing at a good level which I enjoy.
Q. How do you feel now about having spent your career in the Irish League?
A. Moving to Scotland would have been a great move, and I feel as if I have attributes as a player and a person which could have taken me quite far. I remember seeing Niall McGinn get his move from Derry City to Celtic and having such an admiration for him because it takes a lot to get noticed. It wasn't to be though, and I certainly don't have any regrets. Having never got my move into full-time football, you do look back and think 'what if', but had I not stayed in the Irish League I'd never have met my wife.
Stephanie and I married last year, we met through friends here. Stephanie comes from a sporting family, her dad is Steven Cull, the motorcyclist. Steve is well known, he has won Isle of Man TTs, so the family is very much into bikes, but I've managed to get them to take more of an interest in football now.
Q. Your own family has attracted its share of the limelight, especially as you have a former Sunday Life columnist and ex-Miss Great Britain for a sister.
A. Yes! I have two older sisters, Gemma and Lisa, but Gemma and I used to have little games of who had the most Twitter followers or who was more famous, and unsurprisingly she always won. I was leading at one stage, but she's since eclipsed me. (The current score is 4876 to 2985 in Gemma's favour.)
She's great, she has forged a fantastic career for herself and always comes across very well on television and in the papers, so fair play to her. She deserves every chance she gets in whatever she wants to do.
Q. What was it like to be the younger brother to two girls?
A. Being the youngest always means you get pretty tortured. I had my hair pulled a lot, I remember. But I was just football mad from the age of about three. My dad has always been a massive Manchester United fan and had played the game to an amateur level, so we were very close. Whenever I had a ball at my feet, I just wanted to play.
Q. How much of a support have your parents been throughout your career?
A. A fantastic support. My dad still goes week in, week out even if he knows I am probably not going to start. It's a good comfort to have if you've not had a great game and it's better if you've had a good one and scored a couple of goals. My mum, Margaret, would still come to about 10 games a year, the bigger ones. When your son has been playing Irish League for 12 years, you're entitled to pick and choose the matches you attend.
Q. Is that because she's busier attending red carpet events with Gemma?
A. If she gets invited! There's a bit of a joke about how my mum is a bit of a stalker. She prowls social media to make sure she knows what Gemma and I are doing. Even at my age I get texts saying 'Son, I heard you're going out tonight, be careful'. She loves us to bits and still sees me as a 13-year-old boy, I think.
Q. Despite how your mother sees you, you're one of the more experienced players in the league and a household name at Solitude. Did you ever think you would be at the club for so long?
A. Did I think I'd be here this long? It's difficult for any player to answer that because football is so fickle. You could have a great season and the manager transfer lists you because he doesn't like you, or you could struggle season after season and stay around. At the time I joined, the Reds were on the edge of real success and the next big step was to take on Linfield and Glentoran. I think I saw Cliftonville as the team which could bridge that gap, with some cracking players. It was more about winning trophies, which is really what I wanted to do.
Eddie signed me, he was very good, then Tommy Breslin took over, then Gerard Lyttle and now Barry Gray, so I've had four managers in that time. I must be doing something right to have stayed.
Q. You took the unusual route of working for the club as well as playing. Did the job you took on in facilities management help you to settle, or was it too intense?
A. There was a job which came up about six months after I started playing and, without being big-headed, I think it was testament to how much the club liked me and trusted me to take on the role.
In my first season I cleaned up in terms of player of the year awards, and then the following season I took a dip. I think it had something to do with the job. I was in the club seven days a week, the first to open and last to lock up.
It was a big honour to work for the club, but I think I needed the break. I went into consultancy after, then joined the Irish FA. I look after the Education and Heritage Centre which charts the history of Northern Irish football from 1880 until now, and it's fun. It's basically the museum part of the stadium tour for fans.
Q. Many local players find juggling full-time work with semi-professional football can be a fine balancing act, do you have time for yourself and Stephanie?
A. Not as much as we should, to be honest. I'll be out on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and if we have an event on at work sometimes I'll be late home on a Wednesday as well. Friday nights are my quiet nights in the house as I almost always have a game on Saturday, so we can be ships in the night sometimes. Stephanie is a nurse, so her shift patterns can be very demanding. Then again, football is a short career so it won't last forever, and it's a nice problem to have! What could be better than being paid to play football?
Q. Some may say after 12 years in the Irish League the novelty wears off quite quickly, given how it's such a demand on your time. Do you find that?
A. No, not at all. I've been guilty of, especially when it's cold and wet, thinking, 'I'd much rather stay in the house tonight'. But then you play in a cup final, with an enormous crowd behind you, and you quickly fall back in love with it. I've had two serious knee injuries in my time at Cliftonville, which remind me how painful it is to be on the sidelines. Even when you're going through a bad spell, being on the bench is better than being in the stands. I'm good mates with Diarmuid O'Carroll, who retired when he was 29, and every time I see him I say I can't understand his decision. Why would someone who is so talented and so young pack it in? I want to play as long as possible.
Q. What do you remember about your injuries and how you dealt with the depression of being out of action?
A. It's quite hard. I remember at first you just feel plenty of self-pity and question why it happened - why me, was it my fault, what is the point of being a footballer for this to happen? Then you refocus and tackle the recovery. But as that lasts weeks and months, you feel so helpless. It got to a point where the team were struggling and I could do nothing to change that. You're going into the changing room and seeing miserable faces and feeling bad. I did my rehab 100 per cent by the book, and I had excellent consultants as well as private cover, so it all went my way. I was lucky.
In a few years from now I'll probably have some aching joints.
Q. It helps to be married to a nurse, then?
A. Yes! Stephanie is great and she's absolutely everything you expect a nurse to be; born to care. She's the most caring person in the world but also the biggest worrier too, rather like my mum. If I'm out with the boys it'll be, 'hope you've not had too much to drink', and not in a nagging way because she knows what the effects are. That caring attitude and nature are her all over. If she's seen anything she didn't want to see at work she might bring that deflation home. She would never disclose personal details but I can always tell when it's getting on top of her. Just as she picks me up after a defeat, we are very supportive of one another.
Q. How close were you to an international career?
A. I played in the Irish League Under-23 select squad and the Northern Ireland Under-20 side. I was picked for the Under-21s once but injury ruled me out. I don't think I was ever going to see much beyond that, but even representing your country at under-age level is a big source of pride. I still have the caps in the house, it'll be nice to show them to family down the line.
Q. Are children part of the future plan?
A. Yes. As you get older, time creeps up on you, I have to remind myself I am 30 even though I feel 21. I think we are at that stage in our lives now, and I've always said I would love to have kids who knew me as a footballer. Even at three or four-years-old, it would be nice for them to see me play. I love the idea of having a little girl with an interest in football.
Q. Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A. When I'm training hard week in, week out and I get the chance to enjoy myself, I make sure I do. A Saturday night beer or two is very good. My diet is also something everyone slaughters me for… I love my fast food. I know that's hard to believe. They call me a freak in work because I can eat whatever I want and it doesn't really affect my physique. I was out for eight months with my knee and I neither gained or lost any weight. We are weighed at Cliftonville and I can remember three years in a row I was 72.8kg, exactly the same. One day I'll end up like the Nutty Professor - at the moment I'm Buddy Love but Professor Klump is on his way!
Q. Where's your ideal holiday destination?
A Las Vegas was amazing. We spent our honeymoon in Vegas, LA and San Francisco. I wasn't that fussed on LA but I loved Vegas and San Francisco. I like active holidays where you're doing something, even if it's just walking around and people watching, but Stephanie just likes to lie in the sun. Some would say, not me I add, that I've something of a ginger tinge to my hair so maybe that's why I don't like to go in the sun. Football can be a confined lifestyle so it's great to get out on trips away.
Q. Do you have any hobbies to relax?
A. Golf, snooker… Anything sports related, either watching or playing. I am pretty bad at golf, with rare flashes of brilliance, but I am quite good at snooker. The ones I am least likely to get injured with, I think!
Date of birth: 13 April 1987
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Linfield, Newry City
Cliftonville record: 51 goals in 283 appearances