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'It has become personal': Top coach Michael Dougherty says terrace abuse can and must stop when Irish League restarts


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Michael Dougherty

Michael Dougherty

Crucial education: Michael Dougherty has concerns

Crucial education: Michael Dougherty has concerns

Michael Dougherty

Irish League fans have been urged to stop hurling personal abuse at players when the game returns.

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked fears of a mental health crisis and there were several high profile disturbing incidents this season before football was suspended in March.

Goalkeepers Mark Byrne, Conor Devlin, Harry Doherty and Ger Doherty were all targeted by supporters and during Mental Health Awareness Week experienced stopper Michael Dougherty has urged fans to give all players a break.

"I think a lot of people will change their views," says former Glentoran and Crusaders shot stopper Dougherty, who was Larne goalkeeping coach when Devlin was taunted by Glens fans.

"When I was playing in the big games, I welcomed fans having a go at me. It was part of the game but now, due to social media, a lot of the criticism has become more aggressive and personal.

"It's directed at individuals and the sooner it stops, the better.

"I'm optimistic people will change their behaviour.

"I worked closely with Conor Devlin and I can honestly say I have never worked with a better goalkeeper and person in that environment.

"I've had a few conversations with Mark Byrne as well, a down to earth relaxed kid and you just think everyone has their breaking point.

"It must have been a horrendous amount of abuse for those guys to be affected in that way.

"Now during this break players are doing a lot of things for kids like running competitions and doing interviews. People will see the players as human beings and hopefully they will show them all greater respect."

In January, Larne goalkeeper Devlin was said to be inconsolable following a 2-1 win over Glentoran after being abused throughout. The late Jerry Thompson's family were guests at the game. The former Larne, Portadown and Carrick Rangers player took his own life in December.

Larne manager Tiernan Lynch said that it was "disgusting for any human being to get that abuse".

Thompson's death prompted three Glentoran fans who have struggled with their mental health to start a new Twitter account, Irish League Mental Health Awareness, encouraging others to share their stories and seek help.

In February, Warrenpoint goalkeeper Byrne was involved in an altercation with Ballymena United spectators during an Irish Cup clash and the stopper, who claimed he suffered verbal abuse, was hit with a six-month suspension, three of which were suspended for 18 months. He will be able to resume his career from next week.

A month later, Carrick Rangers boss Niall Currie and the club also highlighted verbal abuse from supporters following a game against Linfield.

Carrick stated: “We would call on all clubs and the NI Football League to take positive action to begin to stamp out what has become an endemic problem in our local game.”

Glentoran manager Mick McDermott has revealed his concerns for the mental health of football players during the pandemic, saying: “If you keep people locked up in this way for a long period of time, you do risk a mental health explosion.”

And the Northern Ireland Football League currently provides partnership programmes that support the mental well-being of clubs and their personnel during this difficult time.

At the end of January, NIFL said it was looking into ways of developing an education and awareness campaign to promote player welfare following what it described as an “increase of unacceptable behaviour” at matches.

“A big part of the modern game is mental health and we have very good tutors and counsellors who are affiliated with The Northern Ireland Football Academy programme,” added Dougherty, who is now between the sticks at Bangor.

“Students will take regular classes around that and unfortunately it’s becoming more necessary today. These young people need help on and off the pitch and we have a close relationship with them.

“It’s not a nine-to-five relationship, we are in regular contact with them and care about their mental wellbeing.

“I feel like I have my goalkeeping family at work and my other family at home.

“I’ve lost my goalkeeping family at the moment because of the virus but we’ve stayed in touch through zoom calls and I can still check on how they are doing.

“I’d like us all to be a lot kinder to each other when this pandemic passes.”

Belfast Telegraph