Dylan McCready was seven-years-old when he was diagnosed with autism. Mum Julianne recalls how her son was non-verbal and didn’t like anyone looking at him or speaking to him.
Now 28, Dylan is the star goalkeeper for Linfield’s Disability side and confidently stepped forward on Monday night in front of a crowded room to accept his Disability Player of the Year prize at the Ulster Footballer of the Year Awards, then conducted a composed interview with the Belfast Telegraph, revealing that football had changed his life.
Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey presented Dylan with his trophy at Audi Belfast having told his inspirational story to an audience which included Olympic gold medal winners Lady Mary Peters and Jimmy Kirkwood and some of the most powerful people in Northern Ireland football.
Dylan, a nephew of former Glentoran, Motherwell, Hull and Northern Ireland winger Stuart Elliott, started participating in football at the age of 15 with Belvoir Blades Disability Football Club in Belfast.
Prior to that he struggled with communication and socially found it tough to cope in large gatherings, suffering anxiety as a result. Dad Colin had been searching for something to help with his son’s self-esteem, social skills and general fitness which would also enable him to meet new people outside of his own bubble and thought football might be worth a try.
It wasn’t easy at the start but as time wore on, with the encouragement of coaches and team-mates, his enjoyment and confidence grew, leading him to play in the Irish FA Disability League and Cup competitions for Belvoir Blades.
When Glentoran started a disability team and took over Belvoir Blades, McCready starred for the Oval outfit, inspiring them to win the George Best Community Cup Premiership trophy, heroically saving the final penalty in a shoot-out to help lift the sought after prize.
More recently, following a move to Linfield, he has been successful with the Blues, winning the Premiership trophy in the IFA Foundation/USEL Disability League and on Monday night he did himself proud again with ex-Blues boss Jeffrey greeting him warmly to hand over more silverware.
Dylan said: “Football has changed my life. From I was very young I never thought that I would play football with my anxiety and nervousness but when I heard there was a local disability team I thought I would try and join a football club. I joined Belvoir Blades and gave goalkeeping a go because goalkeeper is my favourite position.
“For Belvoir Blades I played in competitions and did well. Then Glentoran took over the club and in my first season with Glentoran we played the George Best Community Cup and I saved the winning penalty in the final which was a wonderful feeling.
“I didn’t think I would ever win any trophies because of my nervousness and anxiety. I said to myself that I was going to fight my anxiety and whenever we got to the Cup final I was determined to give it my best and when we won the trophy that boosted my confidence levels.”
Dylan added: “Since then I moved to Linfield and I’m really happy to be playing and associated with them because they are my favourite Irish League club. We won the league last Saturday and hopefully in the future we can gain more trophies.”
Parents Colin and Julianne both looked as proud as punch as their son picked up his latest honour at the Ulster Footballer of the Year bash.
“My mum and dad have been with me every step of the way helping me through anxious moments. I can’t thank them enough for all they have done for me. It was dad that got me into football,” said Dylan.
“I’m so pleased to have won this award and want to thank everyone who has helped me in football and to the organisers of the Ulster Footballer of the Year Awards. I’m really appreciative of this.”
Mum Julianne said: “Going from being non-verbal and not letting anyone look at him or speak to him or even eat if anyone was looking at him to football where now he can attend dinners and speak to people, it is absolutely amazing.
“Dylan found out what he loved and it has encouraged him and he has now done things that the doctors didn’t think he could do.
“It shows that for kids with autism when they have a passion they will go wholeheartedly at it if it’s what they enjoy.
“Sometimes it takes something like that to bring it out of them and that’s what football has done for Dylan. He is happy and it is no exaggeration to say that football has changed his life.
“That’s 100% true in every way, not only physically but more so socially and mentally because even the whole way through school Dylan wouldn’t speak to people or teachers. Now he is not the same person.
“It’s been so amazing for us as a family, it’s been life changing for us as well.”
Julianne says that she and husband Colin were relieved when Dylan received an early autism diagnosis. Today, waiting times for an autism assessment in some areas in Northern Ireland can take up to three years.
“It was important for us to have a diagnosis,” said Dylan’s mother.
“We are going back 20-odd years ago now and at that time autism wasn’t as well known then for whatever reason. We were relieved but we were not in the same situation as people now who are waiting a long time.”
Dylan says having a diagnosis at an early age helped him. Now, this inspirational man has a message for others with the same condition.
He stated: “I would tell people to have belief in yourselves and give whatever you do your best shot and enjoy what you do. If you are joining a football team, like I did, try to be calm and try to relax, as people with autism can be very nervous, and everything will be fine.”