Sport Soccer

Monday 11 December 2017

O'Neill keeps fighting in biggest battle of his career

Drogheda's Gary O'Neill in action against Simon Thern of Malmo in the European League earlier this year
Drogheda's Gary O'Neill in action against Simon Thern of Malmo in the European League earlier this year

Garry Doyle

Gary O'Neill admits that his playing career may soon be over but feels his life is really only beginning.

As his fight against testicular cancer enters its fourth month, and the possibility of chemotherapy raises its ugly head, the prospect of the Drogheda United striker ever re-entering the sporting arena is decreasing by the day.

He could be worried and should be bitter. But he's not. As football's oldest and most inappropriate cliché circulates around his head, he knows that this very personal battle IS a matter of life and death.

Yet as he reflected on his cancer and his treatment yesterday, it was with ease and comfort. Having received reassurance from his surgeon, he has learned how testicular cancer is one of the more treatable forms of the disease.

"If you're going to get diagnosed, then get this type," the 31-year-old says. "The percentages of recovery are good. Whether it will be good enough for me to play again, I don't know.

"But if it's bad news in that regard, I can cope with that. And I don't say that lightly because I love the game. It's a passion first and then a profession. But there are more important things to consider -- there's life itself."

Earlier this year, that life could hardly have been any better. His wife had given birth to their second child and his career -- one which had brought him three League of Ireland titles and Champions League football -- was providing him with a last hurrah, a trip to one cup final and the prospect of two more.

SIGNIFICANT

Then September came and he noticed a lump 'down there' but thought nothing more of it until one Saturday morning when he came across a television programme where Alan Stubbs, the former Celtic and Everton defender, opened up about his cancer battle. All of a sudden, the lump became a lot more significant.

Within days, he was diagnosed. "Very quickly they used the word 'sinister'," O'Neill says. "I thought -- sinister? What does sinister mean?' Immediately, you fear the worst. I'm a father of two. All I could think of was -- 'What are they going do, if...?' I broke down in tears. Floods.

"Anyone who is a parent will know what I was thinking. Within the space of two hours, my life had been turned upside down. You never think this would happen to you."

And it is easy to understand why. Athletes are supposed to be the healthiest members of the population. But cancer does not co-operate with stereotypes. It shows no discrimination and no mercy.

So the cup finals were pushed to one side. Surgery was required, then radiotherapy, a process which kills good and bad blood cells, thereby draining the type of energy a top-class footballer needs in order to function at professional level.

"What else was I going to do, though?" O'Neill says. "I've a wife and two young kids that I love. I want to be there for them."

While he was sorting out his priorities, a few of the men he had soldiered around the League of Ireland with were dealing with his financial future.

All told, more than €45,000 has been raised under the umbrella of the PFAI for O'Neill, who, at least, can lie in bed at night knowing his mortgage and bills will be paid for the next 12 months.

"One day, I sat down and thought about what people had done for me and it was just overwhelming," O'Neill says. "It was too much to take."

Yet people simply wanted to give, not just because a close fraternity exists within the League of Ireland, not just because people realised it could just as easily have been them who had received the news but also because O'Neill has long been regarded as one of life's good people. Surely this was why one player, James Chambers, gave up work for six weeks to lead the fundraising drive.

Yet it was the work of another ex-player -- Roy Keane -- which really took O'Neill by surprise. First a €5,000 cheque from the Ireland assistant manager arrived through the letterbox. Then, a week later, it was Keane himself who walked through O'Neill's front door.

"Growing up he was my hero," says O'Neill, "and they say you should never meet your heroes because they'll disappoint you. Well, I've had the opposite experience. Roy is, quite simply, a special human being. The level of care he went to, just to offer support, blew me away. The day he was in my house, having a cup of tea with me, was surreal.

"This was a fella whose fight and will to win inspired me when I was a kid. And then here he was, when I've my own fight to go through, inspiring me in a different way, a really personal way. He's kept in touch since, regularly sending text messages. He's an easy man to admire."

And so, clearly, is O'Neill. All around the league solidarity was shown, the Sligo players organising a whip-round to show their support -- even though it was Sligo who O'Neill's Drogheda team faced in the FAI Cup final. Rivalry, though, was parked as players, managers and referees all identified with this young man with a young family whose future was up in the air.

"In a way you expect friends to support you. But strangers? It has been incredible how many have sacrificed things for me. Yet I'd like to think that this is just typical of the League of Ireland and the same thing would have happened to anyone else. There are good people out there," says O'Neill.

Stephen McGuinness, the PFAI's secretary, is among the best of them. He has stayed with O'Neill every step of the journey and last Wednesday was there when O'Neill kicked a ball again for the first time in four months.

Feeling the fresh air hit his lungs again reminded O'Neill of all he'd missed. For that hour of training, all the mental anguish, all the physical sickness, disappeared. "It came back to me how much I love this game."

Soon, the game may belong to his past, another pill he'll have to swallow. But with further blood tests up ahead and the worst -- he believes -- behind, there was an energy about him yesterday as he finished off his Christmas shopping, all the while knowing that the only present he and his family really need this year is the gift of life.

Irish Independent

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