Mark Farren steps into his car on the driveway of his home at Moville, Co Donegal, to set off for Belfast City Hospital. The journey, a round trip of 290km, is becoming more trying by the day.
At 31, Farren, Derry City's record goalscorer, has been forced to retire from football for the second time and is now entering the fourth week of a six-week preventative radiotherapy course on a grade 2 brain tumour that was initially diagnosed in 2008.
When Farren – on the books of Irish League club Glenavon – went for a routine six-monthly check-up in August, he found that his worst fears had been realised.
Informed by doctors that he required an operation, four years after undergoing surgery, Farren took the decision to hang up the boots again and went under the knife in December.
“It didn't go to plan,” he explains softly. “They took away a wee bit to test things out and they were confident that it was still the same.
“Unfortunately, it didn't come back the way we'd wanted. It was hard to deal with, but you have to learn to be positive and think of the good things in life.”
The radiotherapy is starting to take a toll, emotionally and physically. “They expect it to get a lot tougher from now on. I'll be starting to feel more tired now and the headaches will be starting, so we can stay in Belfast if we need to. I just have to get on with it – that's all I can do. It's so much easier in Belfast. At least this way I get back to a bit of home comfort every day.”
Farren, who scored 113 goals for Derry City – beating Liam Coyle's record with a hat-trick in a 7-1 FAI Cup win over Mervue United at the Brandywell in September 2012 – thinks back to how the narrative began and it all seems so innocent now.
A clash of heads with Neal Horgan during a Setanta Cup game against Cork City at Turner's Cross in October 2008 left Farren concussed. Three days later he was back on his feet and hit the winner in a 1-0 win over league champions Bohemians at Dalymount Park.
While on a holiday in Florida, Terri, now his wife, noticed that his speech just wasn't right and on their return Farren consulted Derry's team doctor, Joe McEvoy, who sent him for a scan at a private clinic in Belfast. On Christmas Eve, the haunting news was relayed to the player, at the time only 26.
“Although they told us what it was, we didn't quite realise the exact extent of it,” says Farren who, remarkably, played on through the 2009 campaign for City, at a time when only Terri and Derry manager Stephen Kenny knew of his illness.
“I was still getting speech attacks and epileptic fits, sometimes actually during matches. Sometimes the ball would come to me and I couldn't control it, couldn't do anything. It seemed to happen a lot in the warm-up, I don't know why.”
That winter, he wed Terri, but he stepped away from football towards the end of 2010.
His final act that season saw him score the winner in Monaghan as Derry – demoted because of financial irregularities – claimed the First Division title and promotion into the Premier Division on a night when the Donegal native was captain. Surgery in Liverpool in December 2010 was successful and Farren couldn't help but wonder, ‘can I play again?'
“I had mixed reactions from doctors,” he says. “One was telling me I could go back to play, but the doctors in Liverpool were telling me, ‘No chance'. I loved football so much, I couldn't give it up.”
He returned to action during a league game against Sligo Rovers in September 2011. When the board went up to show the entry of Derry's No 18, the Showgrounds erupted, home and away fans acclaiming the return of the prolific striker.
Now adorned with a skull cap – ‘the helmet' – Farren found it difficult initially: “When I was wearing it, I'd jump for a header and God knows where the ball would go.
“It all affected my confidence, but I managed to not wear the helmet and football got a lot easier then.”
A year later, Farren netted a hat-trick against Mervue to see him leap-frog Liam Coyle at the top of City's all-time goalscoring charts.
He equalled the record in the 60th minute and, barely 60 seconds later, netted again to move on to the magical
total of 113. “To beat Liam Coyle was ... wow, unreal,” he says.
“He's one of the best players ever to have played in the League of Ireland. Not even his goals, but his general play was so good.
“I'd have stayed at Derry only for certain people making me leave ... but that's for a different story.
“I was basically told I wasn't wanted. I thought I'd stay and get the goals. I only got limited chances, but I managed to get the goals, which was fantastic.”
Kenny, now Dundalk's manager, keeps in close contact and Farren treasures that support.
He retains a brave face, but the future is full of uncertainties as he chases his most important goal yet. “I get a lot of headaches, nausea. I don't feel like eating at all, but I force myself to eat,” he says.
“Long term, after the radiotherapy, they just don't know. They don't give any indication, if it's going well, or if it's not going well.
“It's just week by week now.
“The form's okay, at times. You have to be positive to keep you up. If you weren't, you'd just be sitting all the time thinking the worst.”
A fundraising 5k walk/run will be held next Saturday, February 8, by Finn Harps captain Kevin McHugh, in aid of Mark Farren. The event takes place in Killea, Co Donegal. To pre-register, participants are asked to email email@example.com and to include their name, age and club. Donations can also be made via PayPal using firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHANCE SWITCH TOOK FARREN FROM BACK TO FRONT
Mark Farren has revealed how he only became a striker by chance.
He was playing as a left-back with Derry City's reserves in 2003 when their manager, Paul 'Oxo' McLaughlin found himself with a lack of striking options.
"I had a go – and scored a hat-trick three games running," Farren said.
"At the time the Derry first team was struggling for goals and I came in just before the play-offs."
Farren netted against his former club Finn Harps as Derry survived the drop in the play-off and he never returned to his favoured sentry again.
He said: "Everyone thought, 'this boy has been a striker all of his life 'and it was difficult for me because I played as a left-back until I was 22.
"I was always a more comfortable left-back. I didn't enjoy playing up front as much.
"I always wonder if I'd stayed at left-back, could I have made it?
"It was tough playing with your back to goal. People watching didn't know that I was a left-back and my touch was all over the place at times."