Wednesday 21 February 2018

Roy Carroll living the dream after battling addiction and depression

Carroll: Returning home Photo: Sportsfile / Oliver McVeigh
Carroll: Returning home Photo: Sportsfile / Oliver McVeigh

Jonathan Liew

Like most kids, the young Roy Carroll was a dreamer. He dreamed of moving to England, playing for a big club. He dreamed of representing his country.

Most of all, he dreamed of following his idol, Pat Jennings, by going to a major tournament with Northern Ireland. Though the first two objectives came soon enough, the third always seemed just out of reach. But he kept hoping.

Now, finally, it is happening. It may sound strange for a man who has won the Premier League, won the FA Cup, played in five countries and been to rehab, but Carroll's defining hour could be yet to come. Euro 2016 will be his first international tournament, at the age of 38. "Still young for a keeper," he jokes.

Then again, maybe there is a certain oblique truth to that. After leaving Manchester United in 2005, Carroll drifted to the peripheries of the game.

He drank too much, thought too much, played too little. And so, if it seems strange that he is not only still playing but preparing to face the likes of Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, then it is only because people have been prematurely writing him off for the best part of a decade.

Addiction, depression and chronic injury may have robbed him of his peak years, but they also left plenty of petrol in the tank. There is an energy to Carroll now as he talks about what still drives him: going to France, opening a goalkeeping school in Northern Ireland, possibly even playing into his 40s.

It is clear that the hunger and curiosity are still as keen as they were when he first strode through the gates of Ballinamallard United as a wide-eyed child.

"Growing up as a young kid in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s was a troubling time," he says. "Football was the next best thing, and everybody just wanted to play for the country. I remember watching Northern Ireland playing in the 1986 World Cup.

"Now everyone's watching us. Everyone's just talking about France. People come up to you and say, 'Good luck for the Euros'. You walk down the street in Northern Ireland and you're a hero. That's the best thing. You're a hero."

For Carroll, there is a redemptive quality to this story. Despite making his debut aged 19 in a friendly against Thailand in 1997, Carroll has won only 44 caps. It is a legacy of those lost years between 2006 and 2012, when he struggled with his form, his fitness, his issues.

"Six years, I never got in the team," he sighs. "But it's football. You take as many games as you can."

The search for games took him off the beaten track. After spells with West Ham, Rangers and Derby failed to work out, Carroll went abroad: first to Odense in Denmark, then to Greek sides OFI Crete and Olympiakos. He cleaned up his act and played some of the best football of his career.

Going to Greece, he says, "changed my life. Not on the pitch, because I'm still a madman. But off the pitch I've changed my lifestyle a lot".

By the time Carroll returned to England in 2014, signing a deal with Notts County, he had been welcomed back into the international fold by new manager Michael O'Neill. Carroll has nothing but praise for the man who has taken Northern Ireland to their first finals in 30 years and their highest world ranking of No 26.

"Michael 's changed everything around," Carroll says. "He's brought in good coaches, he knows how to speak to the players, and we've all got an understanding of what he wants. He had a hard first campaign, and the IFA (Irish Football Association) stuck by him. That's the thing. You can't keep swapping managers every time you have a bad campaign."

So, how have they done it? Carroll picks out belief and unity as key factors.

"When you're away for 10 days, it's a long, long time," he explains. "Years before, you'd probably have four or five boys sitting in a room talking. Now you've got all 23 lads sitting in one big room, together.

"After a game, we have a few drinks and relax, and every single one of us goes out, not just five or six. Instead of just sitting in your room, you're together as a team, and that helps when you're on the pitch."

As the tournament approaches, Carroll is still not sure of his starting place, with Hamilton's Michael McGovern his main rival but, whatever happens, afterwards, Carroll is going home.

He has signed a deal to join Linfield, his 13th club, returning to Northern Ireland 21 years after he left for England.

"I'm thinking of opening a goalkeeping school," he says. "I want to give something back to the Northern Ireland people, and I want to give young kids a chance to get a good start in life. Not just goalkeeping, but mental toughness."

But, even though he could easily slink away into retirement, he wants to keep playing as long as he can. Perhaps he is making up for those lost years. And besides, 38 is young for a keeper.

"I'm still going because I love the game," he says. "There's thousands of kids out there who want to be professional footballers, and I'm fortunate that I am one. No matter what team I play for, I've got butterflies in my stomach. It could be the reserve team or a friendly match."

By a circuitous route, we return to the theme of time, a subject to which Carroll has clearly devoted quite a bit of thought. I ask him what advice he would give his younger self.

"I would say football doesn't last for ever," he says. "When you're 21, people think you've got 10 years in front of you. But you don't, trust me. It just flies by. The biggest thing about being a football player is that everything is a dream. And you realise that you have to take it with both hands. France will come, and it will go as quickly as it came."

That may be true, but often in sport the glory is in the waiting. And there is not much waiting left for Northern Ireland, a country who have produced some of the greatest footballers of all time, yet who have spent a generation wondering whether they would ever relive the glory days. Thirty years of hollow promise. Thirty years of disappointment. Thirty years of hope.

"It's been a long, long time," Carroll says, and he should know.

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