Sport Soccer

Saturday 21 October 2017

'I didn't want to die on the street' - Former League of Ireland star on battling back from horrific crash

Christy McElligott
Christy McElligott
Ger Keville

Ger Keville

It's often the fear of something happening that can numb the human mind more than the actual event itself.

Imagine taking away an artist's ability to use his hands, a poet's tongue or a footballer's legs?

It's natural for human beings to wonder how they will ever cope if their worst fears are realised but sometimes life-changing events can summon strength you never knew existed. 

Christy McElligott has been there. 

In one moment, just weeks after the defining day in his football career, his life changed forever.

It's 4am on a summer's morning and McElligott set off on a road he had travelled hundreds of times.

He drove the same truck and followed the same morning routine as headed for Wexford town. The plan was to get on the road early, finish early and get back to Dublin in time for a pre-season match for Ballymun United.

Life revolved around football.

Six weeks before hand, McElligott became the first Ballymun United captain to lift the prestigious FAI Junior Cup and with that, a wave of refreshing positivity and unity permeated through the north Dublin suburb.

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Ballymun United committee members and fans

The community of Ballymun united like never before. There was an open-top bus and a CD that was "bought by every person in the area".

David Gray's Babylon was adopted and choruses of 'Ballymun' echoed from the Towers right down to Tolka Park, where they produced a masterclass to sweep aside St Kevin's Boys 3-0 courtesy of a Davy Kane 20-minute hat-trick.

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Ballymun celebrate beating St Kevin's in the FAI Junior Cup final in 2001

Despite having a League of Ireland league winners medal from 1995 in the trophy cabinet, the Junior Cup was, by his own admission, the pinnacle of a football career that saw McElligott play with Pat's and Monaghan United.

He was 30 years old at the time but he never got to play that pre-season friendly.

McElligott was heading from Bunclody to Enniscorthy when a truck turned a corner ahead of him, jack-knifed and came crashing into the side of his vehicle. The side of Christy's truck was torn off and with it his right leg, clean from the knee. 

His football career was over in an instant and he would never have the use of his right leg again but he has managed to rebuild his life to a point where he now manages the Irish amputee team and will complete his coaching A license this summer.

"We were doing pre season and Noel (Synnott - then Ballymun manager) had arranged a friendly. I wanted to get back early (from work) so I could relax and get myself together and head to the match," he tells Independent.ie.

"I left for work here at 4am and I ended up in Bunclody. I took that road where you shave off 30 minutes of the journey heading in from Bunclody to Enniscorthy and then into Wexford. 

"A truck came around the corner, jack-knifed and hit me head on. I remember everything. He came around the corner and jack-knifed and I hit the left hand side of the road, tight into the bushes.

"I was going uphill and he was coming around a bend and lost control. I saw it coming towards me and I thought he would just hit the mirror because I was so tight to the left hand side.

"I just turned my body to the left on impact, I was nearly stopped at this stage. The side of his trailer took the whole right hand side of the truck off and took my leg with it from below the knee."

McElligott was always a no-nonsense battler on the pitch and his survival mode kicked in as his truck threatened to burst into flames.

"I tried to get out of the passenger door with the leg gone and it (the door) was blocked by the ditch. I had to kick the windscreen out with one leg. 

"I think it was the fear and adrenaline. I didn't want to stay there and burn and die. 

"When I kicked the windscreen out, I threw my whole body out onto the ground. I hopped for a couple of feet and then I just hit the deck and started to move backwards on my backside. 

"I remember somebody who had hit the back of your man's truck coming and picking me up and trying to move backwards with me. He moved me a couple of yards and then got sick.

"I remember him disappearing and going back to his car. He must have rang the ambulance but I never heard from the chap or seen him again.

"When it happened I was a bit embarrassed because remember back in the day there was the adidas tracksuit bottoms that buttoned up at the side? I was wearing a pair of them and they ripped straight off me so I was in my jocks. Embarrassed in my jocks. 

"After crawling a couple of feet, the two trucks were on fire, there is not a scratch on the other driver. I am sitting on the ground and the first thing I said to myself, I am shitting myself, and the first thing I thought was 'Please don't let me die in the country'. It was nothing to do with the country. It was more to do with the fact I didn't know anyone around me. 

"I just wanted somebody who I knew beside me to tell me that everything was going to be ok.

"Eventually all I know is that I was starting to doze off, I didn't (doze off). I didn't feel a thing. Didn't feel any pain whatsoever. Next of all I see this yellow jacket and it is somebody from the ambulance service."

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McElligott pictured for Operation Transformation assessment day

He is currently involved in RTE's Operation Transformation but at the time McElligott was "as fit as he had ever been" and this played a crucial role in his escape from the truck as it threatened to burst into flames. 

"I was the fittest I had ever been at that stage. If I was any way heavier or if I wasn't fit I could be dead. They brought me to Limerick and then moved me to Waterford where they had to amputate above the knee. 

"I didn't wait around to look for the leg. The doctors told me if I still had the leg they still would not have saved it. 

"I am sure it (the leg) stayed in the truck and probably burned. My femur bone came straight out of my leg. I spent 13 days in Waterford and was then shipped up to Cappagh for half a day where I was fitted with a cast and that was that."

It took McElligott time to pick up the pieces but he never wallowed in his own grief. 

Finding work after the accident was a tough ask. Insurance costs for a truck driver with an artificial leg were not sustainable for any employer to take him on.

Step by step he rebuilt his life and even returned to his old job who supplied a modified truck but they went bust one-and-a-half years later and McElligott was back to square one.

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Christy McElligott in action during training for amputee team

A lucky break arrived when he bumped into an old friend and McElligott was soon not only back working, but back involved in football. 

For the past four years he has been working with the Football Association of Ireland in their Football For All campaign, manages the Irish amputee team and, quite amazingly, is set to complete is UEFA A coaching badge.

The years away from football did not hurt as much as he feared, however.

"It didn't bother me at all really about the football. Eventually, 36, 37, 38 I would have to retire from football. But that was made for me with the amputation so I was finished football at 30," adds McElligott.

"Mentally and physically was I annoyed, was I angry. I think I was but I don't think I let people know and I l didn't say it to people. I think my missus probably experienced the brunt of my disappointment after the accident.

"I love football, it is everything to me so having to deal with not playing the game anymore was heartbreaking but it was a decision that was made for me. You get over it. I am lucky I am not a drinker or a smoker because if I was I would probably have ended up sitting at some bar." 

As for that Ballymun team? The quadruple in 2001 kick-started a trophy-laden era for the then-Athletic Union League side who transcended junior football.

"Davy Kane, Paul Kane was there, Stephen Hanna, Gary Burdock. Gary Burdock, I have to say and you can quote me on this. Gary Burdock was the most talented striker I have ever had the pleasure of playing football with," added McElligott.

"Himself and Davy (Kane). Gary Burdock in particular was just, inside the box, made time stand still when he had the ball. He was gifted. I don't know how he didn't make it in England.

"You had the likes of Ray Duffy who had played with plenty of League of Ireland teams. Davy Condon in goal, Casey McQuillan beside myself, Derek Moore. Mark Kelly, loads of household names. Noel Synnott brought this team together. 

"Probably the fittest I ever was and probably the most enjoyment I ever got out of the game."

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