‘I was gone’ – The Irish Premier League footballer, the depression and the inspirational road to recovery
Former Wimbledon Crazy Gang member Paul McGee is loving life once again
“I was gone. Without a shadow of a doubt. I had no fear, there was nothing there. It was just blank. I couldn’t even see.”
Times have changed dramatically for Paul McGee. Six years ago, he wanted to end his life. Now, he knows he will “never go back there because life is too good”.
He has the look of a man who has achieved everything in life. With a purposeful stride, relaxed demeanour and radiant smile he takes his place in a small cafe.
“Life is good to you right now?”
“It certainly is,” is the answer with a noticeable, forthright tone.
And why wouldn’t it be? Paul McGee has achieved everything in life. He has achieved life itself.
A whole 20 years since he kicked his last ball in the Premier League, McGee is playing the best football of his life and enjoying it as much as he ever did.
In between, he has bravely and emphatically bounced back from hell. He stared death right in the face, was a prisoner in his own mind for years and, in his own words, just “didn’t want to be here”. So acute was his crippling depression that he had a rope bought and tied up around a wooden beam in his attic. He freely admits that he would not be here today if his concerned mate hadn’t followed him home from the pub and knocked on the door.
Things have changed.
He now wears a permanent smile and oozes positivity, is scoring goals for his country and picking up numerous awards in the process. At the weekends, he watches his 10-year-old son Evan play for Tolka Rovers and he is also in contact with his other son, Ryan (19), who is in university and playing football with his local team.
The beautiful game has made life beautiful once again for Paul McGee.
Paul McGee celebrating a goal for Wimbledon
“It’s all about living life, loving life,” says McGee.
McGee’s story is an inspirational one, one that will echo through the minds of many people of Ireland and one that should be a great source of hope and positivity.
A marauding winger plucked from Bohemians by Colchester in 1989 as a young 19-year-old after playing just 18 months in the League of Ireland – where he began his career with EMFA – McGee made an immediate impression.
Just three short weeks after signing for Colchester, McGee was sat opposite then Wimbledon boss Bobby Gould and a contract was speedily agreed.
His debut in the top flight of English football came against Arsenal in Highbury on May 17. It was his 21st birthday.
“Here’s Fashanu. Wimbledon coming back again with Joseph. He’s done well here. Fashanu on the far post and he has looked for him. The ball drops and in it comes from McGee was it? YES. The youngster’s scored on his league debut. Amazing, and Wimbledon are back level again.
“You would think it is Wimbledon who were in the hunt for the League championship the way they reacted to that goal but certainly you can understand the joy of Paul McGee.”
Avid Liverpool fan McGee celebrated his 21st birthday with a debut goal against Arsenal at Highbury. The result meant Liverpool and Arsenal sat top of the First Division table with Liverpool having played a game more. McGee went to bed that night knowing that his goal had given his boyhood heroes a real chance of securing another title with just two games to go.
Arsenal ultimately bagged the trophy in the most dramatic of ways when Michael Thomas popped up in the final moments to dink the ball over Liverpool’s Bruce Grobbelaar at Anfield in the final match of the season. But for Paul McGee, the future looked bright.
"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." - Helen Keller
It’s often said that bad news comes in threes and McGee’s professional career in England came to a halt as quickly as it had began in 24 chaotic hours in 1992.
He arrived for Wimbledon training to applause and hugs from his team-mates. He was leaving the Crazy Gang for Coventry in a big-money deal after Bobby Gould agreed to pay a, at the time, massive £2.5million for the Dubliner.
McGee rose to challenge keeper Neil Sullivan. They came together, McGee hit the deck and Sullivan came crashing down on top. McGee broke his ankle and tore ligaments.
The following day, as he came to terms with a devastating long-term injury that ended any hope of a move to Coventry, a letter arrived from Jack Charlton. McGee was picked to represent his country in the forthcoming Ireland international, Kevin Moran’s Testimonial, and the first-ever under lights at Lansdowne Road.
There was no move to Coventry. There was no international cap.
McGee pinpoints this time as his “experience of trial and suffering”.
“I was two years out of the game,” explains McGee.
“Whatever way the operation went and the plaster paris went on my leg, it condensed the nerve in my ankle which triggered the hamstring, which triggered the back and they didn’t know what it was.
“It was 18 months before I got back playing. The Premier League had just been established. I played a few games in the Premier League and then went on loan to Peterborough.
“I wasn’t right. I think that’s when my head started to go a small bit. I was on the crest of a wave, I was doing well and then...that was the trauma in my life that I didn’t have as a kid.
“That’s going to affect you. At the time there was no outside left playing for Ireland. Kevin Sheedy had retired, Tony Galvin retired so there was no natural outside left. Damien Duff was a few years later. Townsend and Ray (Houghton) filled in a bit.
“It knocks you back, it takes its toll. That’s all I knew. I am only 25/26, it was a traumatic time for me.
“Times were different then. You didn’t have a 22-man squad. The next person on the conveyor belt comes in. Wimbledon was a small club and they needed to sell players every year. John Scales, Terry Phelan, Denis Wise, Keith Curle. They sold players and I was next in line.”
Paul McGee with Stephen Hunt and Ray Houghton
A rocky road followed. McGee was forced to leave England in 1996 and return to Ireland where he had stints with Linfield, who paid a then Irish League record £60k for his services, St Pat’s under Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly, Athlone Town and Tolka Rovers. He stopped playing football altogether in 2003.
“I was very low. I was after putting on three-and-a-half stone. I had stopped playing football, eating the wrong foods and I was drinking, not heavily, but I was drinking,” adds McGee.
“I was looking at myself in the mirror..my self esteem was very low. I didn’t look well. I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me. Something took over me. I was just plodding along, no awareness and no-one will tell you.
“That’s when I wanted to kill myself, when I bought the rope and I bought everything. That was in 2010. I just wanted out. I didn’t seek any help in those years. I knew I was sick, I just hadn’t got the guts to seek help.
“My friend followed me home and I was just there. He grabbed me and said ‘that’s it, you are not going back to that’.
“I had been out having a drink and I was crying in the pub. He knew by looking at me that there was something wrong with me so he followed me home. I was going straight upstairs, straight to the attic, straight to end it all and he knocked on the door so I went back downstairs and he just grabbed me.
“He went up the stairs and he saw everything was sorted, everything was ready to go.
“I was gone. Without a shadow of a doubt. I had no fear, there was nothing there. It was just blank. I couldn’t even see.
“He grabbed me and brought me down to the doctors. My GP could see it in me straight away. He knew by looking at me. I was misty. I wasn’t even focused on him. Nothing. Even though I was talking, I wasn’t registering what I was saying.
“I was straight down to Blanchardstown and met Dr Kirrane and his team. I never looked back.”
The reasons McGee never looked back are, possibly, as complex as depression itself. He took medication and was an out-patient for almost three years.
But he is absolutely certain that being back playing football is the defining piece of the jigsaw.
Earlier this year, McGee scored the first-ever hat-trick for the Irish Masters team and won the Player of the Year award for both his club, Finglas United, and his country.
The international Masters team is the brain child of former Shamrock Rovers player Mark O’Neill and offers football for over 40-year-olds.
It has proven to be an inspired initiative and one that has kept the smile on Paul McGee’s face.
“I definitely think it is the Masters football. It is definitely, without a shadow of a doubt. Back playing the game that I love that’s been very good to me over the years,” enthuses McGee.
“I am a very positive person and the lads will tell you I am always laughing and joking. I am always full on and I am always ‘come on, let’s go, let’s do this’.
“But it has definitely been the Masters. Mark O’Neill and Mick Byrne, without a shadow of a doubt, getting that up and running. Has to be the Masters.
“Dave Hall, Derek O’Neill, Stephen McGuinness. They, and many more, are doing so much. We need to get that support for ex professionals falling out of the game.”
Misguided opinion will often question how those who seem to have everything can suffer from depression. Actual science tells us that depression does not discriminate. In fact, any life changing situation, good or bad, can wake up the ‘black dog’.
“There are ex-professionals out there. Ok, they have the money, the cars and the fancy houses,” says McGee.
“But where are their friends? Their friends are working because they are not millionaires. In a changing room you are close to your team-mates but when you finish your career your mates are actually builders, electricians. You are left thinking ‘what will I do today?’.
“You want interaction and that is why I am saying the Masters football is so important.
Stephen Hunt and Keith Andrews and Dominic Foley are all involved. Dominic Foley was a great player, hadn’t played for three years. They thought this was brilliant. Damien Duff is getting on board as well.”
Sport has an innate ability to transform one’s life. Football has done that for McGee. He warmly dedicates this piece to a very close friend who he calls ‘The Finest’ and signs off with an apt quote.
“You only get one chance in life, I have got two.”
If you have been affected by any issues raised in this article, please contact The Samaritans free helpline on 116 123.