Tuesday 25 June 2019

'I would recommend to anybody going through depression, that the best thing you can do is to speak about it'

Conor Clifford admits he was sucked into a bubble as a rising star at Chelsea before his career veered off course, eventually leaving the Dubliner serving a ban for a breach of betting rules. But with the support of his family, Clifford is feeling mentally and physically strong again and ready to fulfil his potential

Conor Clifford, in action for Dundalk last year, is prioritising a return to football now when his suspension ends on April 2. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Clifford, in action for Dundalk last year, is prioritising a return to football now when his suspension ends on April 2. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

FOR Conor Clifford, the road to realising that he needed help started with a visit from two worried friends.

With the sun setting on 2016, his old Chelsea colleagues Adam Coombes and Jacob Mellis, close pals that still speak every day, dropped by. They sensed something was up with the Dubliner and those fears were confirmed.

Conor Clifford lifts the FA Youth Cup after their Chelsea’s final win in 2010. Photo: Getty Images
Conor Clifford lifts the FA Youth Cup after their Chelsea’s final win in 2010. Photo: Getty Images

The door opened to a dark and messy apartment. Curtains drawn. Their friend, who was now playing for Boreham Wood in the National League (the old Conference) had started to skip training and could barely bring himself to get out of bed.

His relationship had broken down and he had fallen out of love with football to the extent where he was wondering where his life was going. But he hadn't been able to explain that lethargy to anybody, the complete absence of enthusiasm for anything. It changed on that day. "I literally just broke down in front of the lads and that was that," he says.

There was a time, Clifford admits, that he wondered if sportspeople speaking about their depression were using it as an excuse. 

"I would look at them and think 'What have you got to be depressed about," he said in a Dublin hotel last week, before pausing. "How stupid was I?"

Conor Clifford has been working on his fitness at St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin
Conor Clifford has been working on his fitness at St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin

Coombes sought guidance, calling the Professional Footballer's Association (PFA) to ask if Clifford could be provided with professional help. That led to an initial consultation about his mental health. But Clifford felt he needed to get back to Ireland, and to the family home in Palmerstown.

"I packed a bag, went to the airport and didn't tell anyone I was coming," he says, "I just turned up at the door in a state."

His parents Paul and Catherine, his biggest supporters, knew their son was going through a bad patch workwise. "But they didn't really know the half of it," he admits. There was a natural shield he put up, a defence mechanism, which is part of his personality. Professional football is an environment which can encourage individuals to strengthen that wall.

Clifford was the child star recruited to Chelsea on a long and lucrative contract. An FA Youth Cup winning captain at 18. Called into a senior Ireland squad at 19 on the strength of his reputation. The rapid slide down the ladder was always going to dent confidence but, from a distance, he was able to say that everything was all right.

Conor Clifford has been working on his fitness at St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin
Conor Clifford has been working on his fitness at St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin

He did sign for Dundalk, and said all the right things about getting his career back going. However, that process of finding a club had coincided with testing conversations at home which culminated in his parents bringing him to a psychologist qualified to deal with his problems.

"I felt so embarrassed telling them what was up because they didn't know how bad I was," he explains, "I didn't want them worrying about me. But I had to tell them, and they brought me to meet someone.

"It was harder than in England with my family in the room - my Dad stayed in because I wanted him to. But it was weird. Once I started talking, I couldn't shut up. I felt such a weight off my shoulders. It's not natural for me to talk like that, because I keep a lot of stuff inside. But it was a release. It's hard to explain.

The problem, ultimately, was the toll that the fall had taken on him and the niggling feeling that he could have prevented it, much his story is a tale of what ifs and if onlys.

Conor Clifford has been working on his fitness at St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin
Conor Clifford has been working on his fitness at St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin

"I was kinda the blue eyed boy," he says. "Everything was going great. I got caught in a bubble earning great money and I just thought it was going to last forever. So I took my foot off the pedal. I went from that high of everything going well to wondering how I had ended up in non-league, with no idea of where I was going or what I was doing.

"I'd fallen out of love with the game, I hated it. I hated life. The more loans or moves that don't work out, the more you get knocked back, the more you get forgotten about and the more you get down on yourself.

"I am comfortable to say that it (depression) is what it was. I honestly didn't know what it was myself, why I was miserable going back to an apartment on my own and then didn't want to get up in the morning or open the curtains or go to training.

"I would recommend to anybody going through depression or feeling horrible, that the best thing you can do is speak because you feel 100 times better afterwards. I felt unbelievable when I did."

Talking really was therapy. "I left that room," Clifford says "And I just felt like I wanted to go out and run and keep running. It just gave me a kick up the backside to get me going again."

That new found strength would be tested again last autumn. He was called into the office at Dundalk one day to be told that the FA wanted to speak to them. They had discovered he had bet on football matches in his jurisdiction during the tail end of his time in England, those miserable lost days.

Clifford wasn't involved in any of the games himself but the rules breach was clear and a worldwide six month ban was handed down by FIFA. This meant engaging in any kind of official football activity was off limits. No training. No going to games. Not even coaching kids. With his contract expiring at Dundalk, it was a devastating blow.

The timing was especially poor because of the allegations going around the League of Ireland at that juncture related to betting. His name entered that storyline.

"There was a lot of stuff in the news about Athlone at the time," he said, "I didn't want people to think I was matchfixing, which I wasn't. I believe that any player that does that should never play again.

"I got a lot of stick on Twitter and that. Messages to my inbox. People calling me a cheat and this and that. And there was people in the local area that didn't have a clue about the story and saw betting and assumed whatever. I even had someone come up saying they'd heard I'd been betting thousands, that I'd put ten thousand on this game and that game. I was like 'What? That's ridiculous.'

"With my bets, I was bored because I was doing nothing. The account was two years old, a Skybet account, and it was just silly accumulators. I didn't really even know what I was doing. Fivers and tenners. Just for the interest in watching games that night; lads would be talking about it on the bus. The max bet I did was 15 quid and the total was around £800. I wasn't winning either. I did know I wasn't meant to be betting but I just felt it was so small and who was I?  A non-league player? How would they know?"

The news broke on the day of Ireland's World Cup qualifier with Moldova. "I was sitting with my family and I was devastated. It was embarrassing for me and embarrassing for them."

That punishment would test his wellbeing, especially as adapting to life at Dundalk was a work in progress. "Even though I was in and out of the team, I was enjoying being with that group," he continues, "I wasn't happy to not be playing, but I was happy in myself. Forget about football. I was in a better place, and that came as a kick in the nuts."

He went on a break to Thailand to get away from it all, and then learned the shocking news that his old Chelsea youth team coach Dermot Drummy had passed away suddenly, a tragedy that everybody who knew him is still struggling to comprehend. Drummy had spoken with Clifford about a reunion at Crawley Town in what proved to be his last job in football.

"He used to be a taxi man, a black cab driver," says Clifford, with a smile. "And every day in training, before he'd start, he would bring us in and say 'Listen lads, we've got the best job in the world. People are slogging away in factories, but look at these lovely pitches, this lovely gear, the bibs. He would bang on about how much he loved his job."

Clifford has tried to bring an enthusiastic mindset to his exile, and his support structure is invaluable. His new girlfriend, Laura, has become an important part of his life. He still lives at home, where his mother gets up at the same time every morning to cook a healthy meal to kick off his day, while his father has helped with some training runs.

The average day involves driving into town in the morning with his good pal and personal trainer Iano Farrell for a session in St Catherine's Community Centre in Dublin 8. In the afternoon, he goes to the Clayton Hotel in Liffey Valley to do lengths of the swimming pool. On a couple of evenings per week, he heads down to the St Matthews Club in Ballyfermot for a hour of intensive training with the gloves on.

He's a passionate boxing fan - and took a trip to Manchester last month to take in the George Groves and Chris Eubank Jnr fight with his old Crumlin United colleague Andy Boyle and their respective other halves - and he has come to appreciate the work ethic that a solo operator must have.

At St Catherine's, a council facility, some of the workers have a kickabout in the indoor hall and he joins in sporadically to practice his ballwork. On other days, he does drills on his own.

But his competitive streak is exercised in a completely different code - he's entered a few snooker tournaments at a club in Celbridge and tasted a bit of success too, a legacy from a stint at Yeovil where there was little else to do.

His schedule is a long removed from his teenage days in the leafy surrounds of Cobham, Chelsea's base, which is situated into an area caked in wealth.

When Carlo Ancelotti was in charge, he sensed a breakthrough was imminent. An injury scuppered a League Cup outing and managers came and went as loan moves stacked up. After his release, he embarked on a whistle stop tour of the lower leagues.

As a blue chip teenage talent, he hired a blue chip agent and that may not have aided him when he was priced out of a loan move to Leicester due to wage demands from his camp that he only heard about afterwards.

"I think it gave me a bad name," he suggests, "With people thinking I was money hungry. I'm not that type of person but I think it was a view that stopped me from going to other clubs. Nigel Pearson was keen to sign me."

He wasn't prepared for life after Chelsea. "In Cobham, every car that goes past is a Ferrari or a Range Rover or something like that. There'd even be lads who hadn't played a league game coming in with a Range Rover or a BMW. Leaving Chelsea, it hits you like a ton of bricks when you're not getting that money.

"Did I get sucked into it? I had a nice car, maybe not compared to the other lads as my dad wouldn't let me.  But in terms of going out and spending thousands on clothes and going to the best restaurants and all of that. Yeah, I did get sucked into that, definitely."

The solitude of the ban has allowed the 26-year-old to fully make the transition from looking back to properly looking ahead. His focus now is on creating new memories. Managers have called to check on his status and he is confident about what he could achieve in the right environment.

"I feel once I get a run of games I can be the best midfielder in the country, without a doubt," he asserts, "I'm not being big headed, it's how I really feel.

"I haven't fulfilled my potential whatosoever and have so much to prove. Not only to myself, but to other people that have written me off and seen me come home to Dundalk and have a difficult year and not set the world alight. I've had to work hard in this break and keep going because if I don't, I will be forgotten about."

He does feel strong and healthy, both physically and mentally. There was no return visit to his psychologist; there has been phone contact yet he does genuinely believe that the initial release was all that he needed. "I wish I'd spoken to someone a lot sooner," he says, "I really do feel like a new man."

Getting back into football is the priority now with his exclusion formally ending on April 2. He is thinking of starting the badges soon because he left home at 15 with only a Junior Cert to speak of.

What does appeal is the idea of educating youngsters that are now in the position that he once was.

"I'd love to coach kids and talk to them," he says, "There's a lot of parents out there getting approached by a fella wearing a jacket with a crest and he's promising them the sun, the moon, the stars and everything.

"They are letting kids go over for buttons, when they would be much better off staying here, doing their exams, get cracking in the League of Ireland and go from there. You can bypass going to League One or League Two and go straight to the Championship like the lads from here have done."

As Clifford had a posse of top clubs seriously chasing him, he was actually one of the luckier ones in terms of security so he is speaking broadly. What he's saying is that teenage dreams are no guarantee of anything. Nor does he want his own high profile experience to define the rest of his life either.

The words 'ex-Chelsea' tend to precede his name in any introductory sentence and he's keen to park that now. "People always talk to me about that," he says, "But I'm sick of talking about it. I want to make a new story."

As a kid, he was embarrassed by the huge family entourage that turned up for his matches. Now, he is counting down the days until they can come and watch him again.

Like any boxing fan, he knows that a few heavy blows can leave a man on the ropes and he's no longer afraid to admit there was pain. But he's ready to come back stronger.

Irish Independent

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