Belfast Telegraph

Insightful, poignant and filled with emotion... a glance back at how the biggest names in our local game opened up on the highs and lows of their personal journeys

The best of our exclusive series on life on and off the pitch in Irish League football... riveting, must not miss reading in the players' own words every Friday in the Belfast Telegraph

Our brilliant Footballers' Lives series, which has given us a remarkable insight into the players' lives, has been a huge hit with Belfast Telegraph readers. The players have shared many joyous and sad moments, rekindling special and poignant memories. Here's an end of year reminder of what the players have told us so far...

Linfield striker Andy Waterworth (right) kicked off the series by revealing that the sudden death of his former manager at Glentoran, Alan McDonald, hit him hard. The former Northern Ireland captain passed away at the age of 48 in 2012.

"That hit me hard," said Andy (below with wife Lisa). "I was close to him, he worked with me in the Northern Ireland Under-21 side and brought me to the Glens. He was thought of as a no-nonsense centre-half but he was a lovely man. I felt very guilty that I couldn't give him and the team more.

"Glentoran won the title but I didn't really perform until my last season there. The day Alan died, I was playing in a seven-a-side game in Dromore with others including Sean Ward and Elliott Morris and, when the news came through, everyone was stunned.

"There were about 200 people there and it just went silent through shock."

Crusaders favourite Paul Heatley spoke of the trauma he suffered as a youngster when a serious infection left him fighting for his life in hospital.

The Glengormley man fought a serious illness when he was only five-years-old and his condition was so severe a priest was brought in to give him the last rites.

"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," said the Crues winger.

"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.

"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 it 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 the Sega Megadrive and playing Italia 90 at that time. It was certainly a strange experience."

Dungannon Swifts goalkeeper Andy Coleman said he felt lucky to be alive after battling a serious illness.

"I was playing for Newry and we had started the season against Dungannon," said Andy. "We won 4-0 and had a game the following week. I had been in training on the Thursday night and worked my socks off, feeling great.

"I was standing in work on the Friday and I felt this pain in my abdomen. It was the worst pain I have felt and it took my breath away, I couldn't get away from it.

"I ended up in Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry with a perforated ulcer between my stomach and my bowel. The ulcer explodes and you poison yourself. There was poison going into my stomach. I ended up being rushed in for a last-minute operation. The medical experts told me I could have died if I didn't have a quick operation."

In an emotional interview, Ards midfielder Nathan Hanley said his proudest moment in football was scoring for Crusaders against Linfield the day after his father's funeral.

"My proudest moment was probably the day after my dad's funeral in April 2014," recalled Nathan.

"I was playing for Crusaders against Linfield at Seaview and I can remember being given the black armbands before the game, there was a minute's silence and the flags were at half mast.

"After six minutes we got a free-kick 20 yards out and I scored. I think the average person would say it was a big call to make to play in the game but if you ask any footballer in a similar situation about losing someone close to them, they might say that person would have wanted them to play.

"My dad would have wanted me to play football on the day, especially as it was a big game. I remember Stephen Baxter (Crusaders manager) ringing me through the week and checking if I was okay to play, I had no doubt.

"I was more sure to play in that game than any other. We lost 3-2 and we ended up with nine men.

"I scored one and made one but behind the goal there were about 15 of my family and I could see them as I was taking the free-kick.

"The day before was the funeral at my dad's house in Carrick. Crusaders chaplain Rev Ken White offered to do the funeral service, Stephen (Baxter) and Jeff Spiers attended as well as around 10 of the first-team squad."

Ballymena United captain Jim Ervin spoke of his relief after his father Jim beat cancer.

"My dad went through a tough time about seven years ago when he had bowel cancer," said Jim.

"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.

"He's doing fantastic now, there are things he can and can't do but we have helped him and he has managed to come through the other side."

Former Northern Ireland and Linfield goalkeeper Alan Blayney, now at Ballyclare Comrades, revealed that a serious illness picked up after a physically demanding training session left him fighting for his life.

"I actually nearly died during one of our holidays in Spain," admitted Alan (right with wife Laura and kids Phoenix and Kingston). "It happened during pre-season at one club I was at. Someone was brought in, from outside the club, to oversee a training session but for some reason my body reacted very badly to it.

"I didn't feel right, my arms were shaking and I couldn't lift my car keys to get into my car. When I got home I said to Laura, 'I don't feel right' but we were going on holiday the next day and I decided to sleep and see how I felt in the morning.

"I awoke earlier than usual and I couldn't move a muscle. There were big lumps coming up on my shoulders, I turned around and thought there was another head beside me!

"I went on holiday and my whole body blew up. I was drinking beer to take the pain away but I just got bigger. I looked like the Michelin Man.

"I knew something was badly wrong as I went to the toilet and my urine was black.

"When I got home I went to the hospital and told them what happened. The doctors looked at me and said, 'How are you still alive? Why did you not go to hospital?' They diagnosed me and wondered why I didn't die in the sun after drinking beer. I had a condition called rhabdomyolysis. If your muscles are overworked they shut down and the organs shut down, that explained the black urine. I drank six litres of water and my urine returned to normal. The doctor told me drinking that water saved my life and I'm lucky to be alive. I haven't felt physically right since then. I believe it has affected my game and I eventually moved on. But I didn't die! There's a 15 per cent mortality rate with it... it can kill you."

Crusaders midfielder Philip Lowry revealed how he found it difficult to accept his father Ken's cancer diagnosis. Ken has battled cancer since he was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the appendix in January 2014.

"He's doing great, it's one of those things where it's like a bolt out of the blue one day," said Philip. "I can remember coming home from work one lunchtime and dad was waiting for me in the kitchen. He said, 'I don't know what to say but you need to know I've got cancer'. I was numb at the start and it was hard to accept.

"You hear 'cancer' and you think the worst, of people dying. I knew he had a niggling pain in his side but he had done a lot of exercise and I thought he had strained a muscle with no other symptoms.

"He was an extremely fit man, he used to be a referee and linesman in the Irish League and he looked a picture of health. I can just remember sitting down and thinking, 'This can't be true'. I couldn't accept it for a few weeks, especially when he looked so healthy but inside something wasn't right.

"To be fair, he was a beacon of strength to everyone else in how well he dealt with it.

"Whenever you get news like that you realise how lucky you are to have a family who rally around and offer support. In these circumstances you see what your family is capable of and it brought us all much closer. He has come through surgery and he's doing well."

Ballymena United goalkeeper Ross Glendinning lost his mum Mandy to cancer when she was just 51 in 2014. In another emotional interview, Ross said he still can't accept the loss of his mother at such a young age.

"It was breast cancer that spread to her liver and she was probably suffering for a year and a half from the diagnosis," said Ross.

"Even though I knew she was going to die, when she took that last breath you're still in shock.

"I've found it harder as time goes on and you come to points in your life when you can't ask your mum for advice.

"My mum never got to meet my fiancée Sophie or her son Oliver and that will always hurt me.

"Myself and Reece are always trying to make her proud. It's not so much a bereavement thing now, it's knowing she is happy for us. My mum was just so young and I was 20 when it happened. You just can't work out how it can happen."

Glentoran captain Marcus Kane spoke of his fears after his uncle Philip suffered a horrifying neck injury.

"I got a phone call from my uncle Darren who said my other uncle Philip had been in an accident," said Marcus.

"I heard on the news there had been an explosion in Edenderry Lofts, Crumlin Road. He was cutting into an oil drum with a saw but it exploded.

"The saw went into his jugular. It was a freak accident but the doctor still can't believe he survived.

"When he got knocked down he discovered his neck was wide open but his friend Dean Moore who was outside when the explosion happened lifted Philip, got him into the van and drove him to the Mater Hospital. People thought it was a joke but he was rushed into emergency surgery with the doctor applying pressure on the wound.

"My uncle said he should be dead so it was very traumatic. His neck was stitched all the way across and the doctor said it was probably the biggest stitch they did across a jugular.

"He must have lost about three pints of blood. Dean was a family friend and we are very thankful to him.

"Over one year on, Philip is speaking again and he is a Christian now who attends Whitewell Church. He will share his testimony in churches and it's an inspiring story I was lucky to hear one night in a church on the Shankill. He believes God was looking after him. I'm not a Christian but I have respect for those who have faith and those who have the strength to share it with others."

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