Tuesday 20 March 2018

Footballing legend John Devine on the moment he was told his daughter was in a coma after J1 accident

Footballing legend John Devine and his youngest daughter Natasha live thousands of miles apart but remain the best of pals

John Devine and his daughter Natasha Rocca Devine share a great sense of humour. Photo: Tony Gavin
John Devine and his daughter Natasha Rocca Devine share a great sense of humour. Photo: Tony Gavin
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

John Devine clearly remembers getting the terrible phone call that every parent dreads, telling him that his daughter had been seriously injured in a car crash. Natasha Rocca Devine was on a J1 in San Francisco at the time, and the incident left the 19-year-old UCD student in a coma, suffering from a brain haemorrhage and jaw and hip injuries.

"Michelle and I went out the next day and it was a scary time, but Natasha is gritty and a real fighter," says John. "Once we knew she would make a full recovery, we could cope with anything else."

Natasha's recovery took a few years and she had to repeat a year of her economics and politics degree. Now 33, she says the experience gave her a great perspective on life. "I went from being very active to having memory loss and collapsing 20 to 30 times per day," she says.

"I remember Dad saying that your darkest hour only lasts 60 minutes, and if anything, the accident made me more determined. Looking back, it's the best thing that happened to me because it made me sit there with myself and grow up fast."

Natasha is the younger of John's daughters with Michelle Rocca. He met the former Miss Ireland in 1978 in Sloopy's nightclub on Fleet Street, when he was signed to Arsenal and was on a trip home to play for the Irish youth team. Aside from her obvious beauty, he admired that Michelle was "a very intelligent girl who speaks different languages".

They were married in 1982 and their daughter Danielle was born in 1983, the year he joined Norwich City, so the family moved there and that's where Natasha was born. Becoming a father was "a joy" for John, but his relationship with Michelle didn't last and they separated when Natasha was four.

Read More: 'Mom was modelling and Dad was playing for Ireland, it was an exciting time' - Michelle Rocca's daughter on the photo she'd hate to lose

"It was difficult for Michelle as I was always travelling to Europe for matches," he says. "I encouraged her to go back to Ireland for a break as she still had a career there, and there was nobody to give her a hand in Norwich with the kids. We just gradually drifted apart, because it became impossible to keep the relationship up as we were focusing on our careers in different countries. There was no animosity between us and we split as friends, and we're still great friends today and are always there for each other."

John's footballing prowess was spotted at an early age when he played for St Michan's, and he became captain of the Ireland under 15s team. Football scouts had their eye on him from the age of 11, and when he left school at 14 in 1972 he went to Arsenal as an apprentice. He ultimately became the team's regular right-back, but leaving home at such a young age was difficult as he was very close to his family. "It was hard," he says. "Homesickness played a big part in it, but it was so worth it."

After Arsenal and Norwich City, John moved to Stoke City in 1985 and Norwegian club Start in 1988. He then returned to Ireland and played for Shamrock Rovers from 1989 to 1992. He was capped for the Ireland team at every level, winning 30 caps in all, making his senior debut in 1979 against Czechoslovakia.

This was one of the highlights of his career, especially as his dad, who missed an opportunity to play football himself, was watching proudly from the stand. "Once you play for your country, nobody can take that away from you," says John. "Playing for Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup Final was also a highlight for me."

John adores his girls and says Danielle and Natasha are both fantastic. Danielle is also mum to his beloved 16-year-old granddaughter Alanna. He and Natasha are impeccably dressed when we meet and both are being equally stylish. They're clearly the best of pals and John loves teasing his beautiful daughter. "She has me grey," he jokes, adding that while he didn't interfere when it came to his girls' lives, he may have felt a tad protective when it came to boyfriends.

"My boyfriends always loved chatting to him, and when your mum and dad are cooler than you, there's a problem," Natasha smiles. "I saw Dad as a man of authority, even if I challenged it at times, and he was always someone I felt safe with. He's the protector of our family. Mum was a model and TV presenter, and she presented the Eurovision, which was hugely prestigious at the time. She was like the Princess Diana of Ireland or a Jackie O personality. When we were out, sports fans would come up to chat to Dad and fashion fans to Mum, and they were always very friendly to people."

Natasha had a very exciting childhood, and recalls the thrill of going to Ireland matches when her dad was playing, and attending fashion shows her mum hosted. She says that even though she and Danielle got to do some fantastic things because their parents were high-profile, Michelle and John were strict around them working hard at school too.

While John never remarried or had other children, Michelle had a daughter Claudia (26), with the late Cathal Ryan, and Aibhe (11) and Fionn (10) with singer Van Morrison. John says it didn't bother him in the slightest that his daughters had other "dads" around them growing up, and he has always had a great relationship with their younger siblings. That's true says Natasha, who can be out with her dad and one of her younger siblings will call him for a chat. "Everyone is friends and it's all very chilled," she says, adding that she has always had a great relationship with Van Morrison.

They're a very happy blended family, agrees John, who has taken all of the children away on holidays and brings them on outings when he's home. "I'm very liberal because life is too short and as long as the kids are happy, that's all that matters. I'd phone Michelle and say I'm taking Alanna to Dun Laoghaire for ice cream and can the other kids come as well, and there's no problem there. Michelle is an incredible mother and I admire her so much. We talk all the time and meet up when I'm home. We're very lucky and blessed."

While Michelle and Van Morrison were extremely private, their relationship was very high-profile and there was a huge media and public interest in it. John says that while the interest was also high when he was with Michelle, there was a great respect there and more of a distance. "Media has changed and I didn't envy Michelle and Van around that," he says. "You've got social media everywhere and everyone's looking to have a choke of you and it must have been very hard for them."

Given that facets of her family's personal business have attracted public interest over the years, was that something that Natasha found hard to deal with? "I was lucky because I have really good friends who protected me," she says. "We're also very close as a family. I know I could call Dad at any time of the day or night and say that I needed him and he'd be on the next flight. Mum and I are best friends and very close as well, and she's so maternal and caring. She's always studying and challenging herself and is a very passionate person who always wants to do everything right. She's a very traditional Irish-Italian, and her number one focus is her family. She stepped aside from her own career to give us opportunities over the years."

Seeing the pressures her parents experienced in the public arena affected Natasha's decisions around her own career however, and made her knuckle down to her own studies and develop her skills. She felt it was important that if she was going to be in the public eye, it would be a by-product of something she had created rather than doing something just to be famous.

"When you see the pressure you're under in the press, you really want to be there for the right reasons," she says. "I did a bit of modelling and presenting, and once or twice when I was in the press, I would get a bit overwhelmed. Mum and Dad were very good at mentoring me through it. It's intense and a lot of pressure to always be "on" and be perfect, and it can send people over the edge. I will never complain or focus on the negatives though, because it definitely also gave me opportunities."

Natasha has written two books, The Industry, a novel, and a self-help guidebook, Awareness: Creating Your Own Balance In Life. Having worked in real estate in LA for three years, she returned six months ago and has now launched an interior design business. It's probably in her blood, she says, as her great-grandfather, Egidio Rocca, founded Rocca Tiles, and she enjoys working on commercial projects in particular, where you can design a whole concept. She holds master's degrees in journalism and interior design, and has married the two to launch her new business. Calling herself "The Interiors NRD", she has an online magazine and YouTube channel where she interviews people, gives tips and recently launched a virtual Dublin tour, where she shows people notable architecture and interiors in the capital. "I definitely want to partner with Irish brands and maybe launch my own collection," she says. "When you're in the influencer world, it's all very open, which is very exciting. I love lighting in particular - that's my thing."

After hanging up his football boots, John became a coach, and is now based in San Jose, California. He works for Global Premier Soccer which is affiliated to Bayern Munich. As technical director, he's responsible for coach education and designing training programmes for coaches and players. He loves the job and has just signed up for another five years. He is also launching his own company, Devine Academy, next month, where he will offer his own training programmes.

John travels a lot and misses his girls and family, but says he's a very lucky man and has had an exciting life. During the interview, he was keen to mention that he and Natasha are both "single and available", much to his poor daughter's mortification.

"We share the same sense of humour, but it's not good when your dad is selling you off," Natasha groans. Happily, since our chat, Natasha has started dating a lovely Dubliner, so John is the only one of this delightful pair up for grabs.


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