Sunday 25 June 2017

Whelan steps up to tackle rare challenge

Ronnie Whelan is walking across Ireland to raise awareness and funds for a cause very close to his heart, as he tells Tommy Conlon

Ronnie Whelan played in the first live televised game of the Premier League era but his Liverpool career was winding down by then and two years later it was over.

It has therefore been said to him often that he missed the boat. And if you're talking about the money, he probably did; but if you're talking trophies, it was Liverpool's Premier League players who missed it.

Whelan was a month shy of his 31st birthday on that day in August 1992 when BSkyB launched their television revolution with a match at the City Ground that saw Nottingham Forest win with a Teddy Sheringham goal.

He was 19 when he made his Liverpool debut in April 1981. He scored that day and by January '82 had established himself in the first team. He stayed there for the rest of the 1980s, making 493 appearances, winning six league titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups and one European Cup. Far from missing the boat, Whelan filled his boots, becoming in the process one of the best and most decorated players ever to come out of Ireland.

His stats need reiterating however, given that the birth of the Premier League divided the history of the game in England into two distinct eras: before '92 and after '92. A new generation of football fans seems to be only vaguely aware that the Premier League was not a new beginning but a continuum, built on a tradition 100 years old. The league championship was still the venerable prize, but it was now old wine in a new skin. They changed its name, turned it into a consumer product and re-branded it as entertainment. They did it with such ruthless chutzpah that 1992 has become in hindsight something of a year zero, the date when football history officially began, overshadowing almost everything that came before it.

"You could see the change coming," says Whelan, "especially the way it was shown on TV with Sky and the hype that was around it. All the big fanfare for the new Premiership, the dancers on the pitch before the game, it was becoming more glitzy and glamorous."

The players lucky enough to be born at the right time joined the subsequent gold rush. They filled their boots too, albeit with money not medals. And good luck to them, Whelan says, because there's a downside to the modern era that his generation by and large escaped.

"They're celebrities. They're much more recognisable now but they haven't as much freedom. They have to be careful. But that's the price you've got to pay. If you want to be a professional footballer today, you've got to take the good with the bad and the bad is that you are recognised and you have to behave yourself. If you're going to nightclubs and messing about and getting yourself noticed with girls and things like that, they're going to get caught."

And the good? "The good is that you're getting paid thousands and thousands a week. It's a small price to pay really." Which is why he doesn't have much sympathy for them. "Don't have any sympathy for them at all! Especially if they go out and mess about -- they know they shouldn't do it. They play football for what, eight to ten years most of them, then they've got the rest of their lives to live. They can go to any pub or club they want then."

Like a lot of ex-players with the rest of his life to live, Whelan tried to stay in the game one way or another, finally severing his direct involvement after a four-year managerial stint in Cyprus ended in 2001. He still togs out for charity matches under the Liverpool Legends banner and has been increasing his media work in recent years.

The charity closest to his heart arose from an illness that came like a stranger into his home and with which he is now all too familiar. Six years ago, his eldest daughter Elizabeth was diagnosed with a rare disorder known as Myasthenia Gravis. It is a neuromuscular disease. The symptoms include slurred speech, drooping eyelids and general fatigue.

"They're usually the first signs. Elizabeth at times couldn't lift her arms to brush her hair and her mum had to brush her hair for her. It was only after she was diagnosed that she told us she'd fallen over many times in the street because the muscles weren't working."

Ronnie and his wife Elaine were initially shocked. Elizabeth was 18, all her friends were going off to university, "and she was basically left behind." Fortunately one of the few doctors in Britain familiar with the condition was based in Liverpool's Walton Centre, a hospital that specialises in neurosciences.

"Early diagnosis is very, very important and Elizabeth was found with it early enough that she could be treated. She had a procedure called a thymectomy where they take the thymus gland away. I don't know why but it works for some people, other people it doesn't. If it doesn't, they're on huge doses of steroids a day just to keep themselves going."

Elizabeth is now 24 and living a normal life. "She's down to one milligram of steroids a day, plus booster tablets as well if she feels her muscles are a little bit weak, she knows when to take them."

But the first year was an ordeal for the family, particularly in the period before diagnosis and surgery. "We were shocked, not knowing what's wrong with your daughter. And that's why we're trying to push the cause of Myasthenia Gravis because people still are not aware of what it is and there's probably people out there suffering with it and don't know. They probably feel they're tired or they've no strength in their muscles, and it could be that it's Myasthenia."

Some 400 people in this country have been diagnosed with the condition and Whelan is patron of the charity in Ireland. He has been campaigning to raise awareness in recent years and runs an annual golf day to generate funds. "But I still felt the word wasn't getting out there, I needed to do more, so I decided to walk across Ireland and make people more aware."

For a man who never stopped running during his playing career, he has been surprised to discover that he actually likes walking these days. Elaine and he spent a couple of days in the Lake District recently walking up mountains in preparation for a stint in the Slieve Blooms en route from Connemara to Dublin. He wants as many people as possible to join in so the walking stages will not be particularly arduous.

"There's an awful lot worse things in life than Myasthenia but it can be very debilitating and we'd like the medical profession, in particular, to become more aware of it. They've opened a place for Myasthenia in the Walton Centre and we'd love to push for something like that in Ireland too."

Ronnie Whelan begins his charity walk on April 29. For further details visit www.rockyroad.ie.

Sunday Independent

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