Friday 21 July 2017

Former Villa striker Drennan's comeback story should be an inspiration to all

Mikey gunning for Junior Cup glory and winning battle with depression, he tells Michael Verney

Michael Drennan (R) pictured with his Evergreen team-mate Neil Andrews after the FAI Junior Cup semi-final win over Boyle Celtic. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Michael Drennan (R) pictured with his Evergreen team-mate Neil Andrews after the FAI Junior Cup semi-final win over Boyle Celtic. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Twelve months after first picking up the phone to speak with Mikey Drennan about the battle with depression which nearly drove him over the edge, it's obvious that there's a different person at the other end of the line.

Professional football is the dream of so many, and the Kilkenny-born striker thought he had made it when leaving the hurling hotbed of St Kieran's College at 16 for greener pastures with Aston Villa and the bright lights of the Premier League.

Reality soon struck, however, and despite being second top scorer in the NextGen Series (Youths Champions League) which Villa secured in 2013, the walls soon came tumbling down off the pitch for Drennan.

Like many of his predecessors, homesickness scourged him and set off a range of emotions which saw him regularly pull the curtains and return to bed following morning training sessions or spend his day on the couch. There was a lot more darkness than light in his life and he soon slipped into gambling.

He dreaded the return flight to Birmingham after visiting family, and after making the move to Dublin to play with Shamrock Rovers, he thought these symptoms would disappear. If anything, they multiplied.

It all came to a head outside the away dressing-room at Dalymount Park last year. Rovers had just defeated Bohs and Drennan should have been on top of the world, but he was in tears.

A month later - May 19, 2016, a date etched in his memory - he took the brave step of severing ties with Rovers and beginning his personal battle by opening up on his mental illness, the first high-profile League of Ireland player to do so. It wasn't easy but it has changed his life.

"I'm in a much better place than I was, I'm happier and I think I'm a better person to be around. I was having mood swings; I didn't want to but I was in that zone and couldn't get out of it. You'd snap for absolutely no reason and it's not nice," Drennan tells the Irish Independent.

But I'm much better now. It's a massive weight off my shoulders because people don't realise, they think you're living the perfect life. You're playing football, you're getting paid for it, but it's far from perfect.

"I still have the bad days but it's all about progress.

"I think it'll always be that way but the biggest thing was to be around friends and family and be happy in myself back in familiar surroundings. I have a long way to go but I'm on the right track."

Medication and counselling have aided recovery but talking to those he trusts, especially his family, friends and girlfriend, is his best support system to ensure "your head doesn't feel like it's going to explode" and home is truly is where Drennan's heart is.

"It's great being back home and having my mother do the cooking and washing for me rather than doing it myself. There's a lot to be said for a mother's cooking," he says with a smile.

"It's good to just be living the normal life that I had when I was 15, just being myself, being normal. I'm not used to being constantly at home, however, and worrying about what people think of me and getting a job."

Working as a sales assistant with phone company Three in Kilkenny isn't what you'd expect from an ex-professional but he's loving life.

"I'm sure people were saying 'oh this lad is a failure, he came back, now he's working a nine to five job' but I got past that when I was talking to people and my counsellors, they allowed me see past that. Now, I'm happy."

With high-profile names like Ryan Giggs and Jason McAteer highlighting their mental battle off the pitch in recent weeks following revelations that Everton's Aaron Lennon is being treated for a stress-related illness, Drennan was bowled over by players seeking his advice and feels helping others helps himself.

"It gave other people the push needed to open up as well," he says. "It made me feel better that people read my story and it helped them to take the leap and get treatment. I've had a lot of people ringing me up asking me to do talks to groups.

difference

"It feels good that people feel I can make a difference to someone.

"If I can help other people while keeping myself on the right path then I definitely will. I've had footballers text me asking me what they should do; I tell them what I've done and how I help myself and they're doing better for it.

"All it is is a text but to talk to anyone is a relief. You don't realise how massive it is."

Drennan acknowledges that he added some "excess conditioning", enjoying the lighter side of life but shed the pounds in quick time as his love for the beautiful game was rekindled when returning to where it all began at U-6 level with his local side Evergreen.

For a player once tipped to be the next Robbie Keane it may seem like a fall from grace but having scored in the last two rounds, Drennan has helped bridge a 33-year gap by propelling the Kilkenny side to the FAI Junior Cup final.

And while he dreamed of playing at Lansdowne Road in Irish colours, the green and white of Evergreen is a nice consolation. Dublin side Sheriff YC await in today's final and it means the 23-year-old will be in the shop window again.

John Caulfield almost persuaded Drennan to reunite with his good friend Sean Maguire at League of Ireland leaders Cork City and, while he may yet end up at Turner's Cross, he won't be going into anything half-hearted and plans to "play it be ear".

"I had four or five clubs onto me in January but I wasn't 100pc so there was no point in going back - if I do go back I want to give it everything. If there was a chance to go back to England there's no point going half-arsed about it," the former Ireland U-21 international says.

A year is a long time so who knows where Drennan will end up, but the main thing is he's happy.

Irish Independent

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