Sunday 22 July 2018

'He had over 100 tumours, but he stayed positive'

Cyrus Christie has put his late uncle's slogan - 'no retreat, no surrender' - to good use this season

Cyrus Christie in action against Moldova. Photo: Sportsfile
Cyrus Christie in action against Moldova. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

'I grew up seeing my parents spat at, being treated like dirt. People would make monkey noises and call us n*****s and c***s. Skinheads used to chase me down the street. I was kicked, punched, shoved to the floor and I was constantly fighting to protect myself. It was a very hostile environment and it was only when I came to London, where all sorts of people lived, that I started to realise it didn't have to be us versus them all the time.'

'No Place To Hide'

Errol Christie autobiography, 2010

Errol Christie was one of the best British boxers of his generation. He will forever hold the Guinness world record for winning all 10 amateur titles. It earned him a photo shoot with Muhammad Ali. He was captain of England's amateur boxing team, he sparred with Thomas Hearns, fought Michael Watson and lost to Mark Kaylor in an infamous, racially-charged middleweight eliminator for the British title at Wembley Arena in 1985. Injury prevented him from furthering his professional career and he became a trainer, film boxing choreographer, market trader and volunteer youth worker. He died in June aged 53 after a two-year fight against lung cancer. Barry McGuigan, Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank and Carl Frampton were among those to pay their tributes via Twitter.

And so did a heartbroken Cyrus Christie. Errol was his uncle but he was more than a relative. He was the Middlesbrough and Ireland defender's mentor and inspiration - just as he was to so many young men and women in London and the Midlands. "I tried boxing," Christie says. "I was quite good to be fair." You would expect nothing else.

"But the two clashed and I wanted to play football more. I think I made the right decision. He always said I had. He'd tell stories about skinheads and racists abusing them growing up and when he used to play football but he enjoyed the fights more than the actual game itself."

Errol Christie was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2015 and lost the biggest fight of his life in June. Cyrus helped this giant in his life move into a hospice. He said his final words to the young man before he met up with his Ireland team-mates and flew to New York to play against Mexico. And Cyrus didn't say a word. "I just carried on and got on with it. After Cork, we had a few days off so I went to the hospice with him and we found out just before the Mexico game he didn't have long. I was getting updates regularly but I didn't mention it. I didn't want to put it on anyone, I just wanted to get on with things and my family wanted me to do that as well.

"They didn't want anyone else to worry about it and I just wanted to keep my concentration and do well. I didn't want to put that onus on someone else."

The United States trip was followed by the friendly against Uruguay and World Cup qualifier against Austria in Dublin. He was Seamus Coleman's stand-in and played in all three games. The updates continued. After the draw against Austria, he was told that Errol had died during the game.

Christie said: "After lunch, we were having a rest and I got a phonecall to say he was not having a great day and he could be gone in a few hours.

"I had to keep my head and my concentration but obviously it was a tough one because everyone was close to him but it happens in life. You have to move on. He taught the principles that he would have wanted me to play with in that type of game and not feel sorry for him or for myself. I never considered pulling out of any of them.

"It was tough going into it knowing he would pass away but my family told me to carry on and play and not worry about it. Then after the game they rang... I was fine at first but it hit home when I joined up with the family and everyone was getting upset and people are kind of leaning on you. That was tough to take.

"My dad was in the room when he passed away. It was not a nice sight and he was in a lot of pain and to see a man of his strength and character (in that condition) was tough for my dad. But he was a strong and powerful man who carried that right through the whole thing.

"When I saw him, before we took him to the hospice, he said, 'I'm on my last legs' and that he couldn't fight anymore. That was hard to hear from someone who has fought all his life. But he had over 100 tumours in his body and they were pushing through him and it was severe. Yet he always remained positive.

"He spoke to us all and told us what we need to carry on doing and he wanted me to have a positive life and inspire others and broke it down into how I achieve those things. He was always very keen that I follow my dream to play for Ireland. He inspired his family, but a lot of people outside the family too, and I think that was shown at his funeral. We could have filled Coventry Cathedral, but the family just wanted a quiet family service, and then hundreds came to the cemetery.

"He had a slogan; 'no retreat, no surrender' and he lived by that until his last breath. A lot of the family say it now. I want to make him proud, all the family do. I would like to think he is looking down and he is proud."

* * * * *

That stubborn but determined streak will come as no surprise to Martin O'Neill or Garry Monk, who are witnessing Christie's development into a very handy attacking right-back.

He has been an assured deputy for Coleman and started impressively at Middlesbrough since a summer move from Derby .

He is speaking at the Middlesbrough Foundation's indoor centre near the town centre in Eston after spending a couple of hours messing around playing football and frisbee with groups of willing former Steel workers, refugees, unemployed teenagers and a special needs class.

The foundation is at the heart of the town and the club and its close relationship with the players has helped reaffirm Christie's love for the game.

I've seen many players who can't wait to scarper when these events are over, but Christie is very much at home and happy to talk about his rise into Ireland's reliable back four who will be reunited in Copenhagen on Saturday.

A very different back four in his Irish life - Patrick Malone, Mary Redmond, Lee Carsley and Steve Guppy - were the key protagonists in his decision to confirm his availability to Martin O'Neill, after years of insistence.

Malone played for Shamrock Rovers in the 1920s and his daughter, Mary Redmond, had been determined that her grandson pledge allegiance to the Irish cause.

Christie said: "I was close to my nan and that side of my family. Funnily enough, she's from Sheriff Street, and we're close to Wes's (Hoolahan) family which I didn't realise until we met - and she always said it would make her proud seeing me play for Ireland.

"I know Ireland really well, the country, its beliefs, how proud they are and it is something I believe in.

"There is a lot of heritage in my family but English is a major one so the family always talked about playing for Ireland. My great-grandad played for Shamrock Rovers, part of a league-winning team and it was always in the back of my mind and something I wanted to do but it didn't quite work out with the younger teams.

"It eventually came through Steve Guppy, because his wife knows my cousin, they found out I was interested in playing for Ireland, saw the actual documentation and it went from there.

"When I joined Derby they watched a few games, I spoke to Martin (O'Neill), he told me what he thought I was capable of, that he wanted me on board. It was fantastic for me, a really proud moment.

"On my first trip I managed to make my debut, played really well and from there I have not looked back. It has been a great journey and I am very proud to represent my country."

* * * * *

And so to Carsley. A Midlander himself and another proud Irishman. Under-appreciated by many fans, but dogged to the end, the former Birmingham and Everton midfielder has evolved into one of the most sought-after youth coaches in England.

He cut his teeth at Coventry where, among his many tasks, he oversaw an academy including Christie, who was signed as a striker. He was reluctantly switched to full-back, with an emphasis on his attacking strengths, which he is fulfilling to the maximum this season. When O'Neill made the call, Christie called Carsley for reassurance.

He said: "Lee Carsley had a big effect on my career at Coventry. He told me to go for it, because I would love it and I would love the fans. He helped me a lot, did a lot of extra sessions with me. He would watch dvds of games and tell me to come round his house, watch the clips with me, give feedback on how I could improve and put a plan together on those improvements.

"You could approach to ask him advice, text or ring him any time of day or night and he would be more than willing to help you, on and off the pitch. He is just a great guy and I went from strength to strength under him. It was fantastic time for me. Speak to (Bournemouth striker) Callum Wilson, he would say the same.

"He has been there and done it. Sometimes you can meet older pros and they forget they were in a similar situation to you when they were playing but I don't think that Lee does.

"He knows the meaning of hard work and he will tell you how hard he worked to get to where he was and that he could not have had the career he achieved without it. He is always willing to work with you to make you a better player if you are prepared to work."

* * * * *

Like team-mate Darren Randolph, Christie is one of the few to be ever-present at their club since the Wales victory. Today he will be face-to-face with Aiden McGeady in the Tees-Wear derby between ambitious hefty-spenders Middlesbrough and rudderless, penniless Sunderland. John O'Shea, Marc Wilson and Darron Gibson are also among the Black Cats players who got Simon Grayson the sack 16 minutes after a draw with Bolton on Tuesday.

At the time of asking, the euphoria of Cardiff was still buzzing through Christie. And some of the squad which congregates in Dublin this week will be fresh, if not match-fit, but they will all take the memories of that night with them to Copenhagen.

Christie said: "It was a fantastic feeling to come away with a win and that performance. It is a game you will remember for your rest of your life and career but now we want to make it even more memorable by winning the play-offs and we have some momentum.

"But it is only half a job. We still have an even harder job to play Denmark, who are going to be a tough team to play against. If we play how we know we can play and do what we are capable of, I can see us going to Russia.

"You look back on some of the games, Germany, Italy in the Euros, Wales, we rise to the challenge and we are a tough team to play against. I don't think people enjoy playing against us. We have quite a good record and hopefully we can continue that.

"You look around the lads are buzzing, because we have had a good few years. People do seem to write us off a bit and don't think we are capable of certain stuff but we keep them proving wrong, and we want to keep going.

"You can see the spirit and just with the whole country behind us, it is driving us on."

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