Sunday 15 December 2019

Paul Kimmage meets Richie Sadlier: Navigating the storms on a voyage to recovery

Having survived child abuse, a truncated football career, alcoholism and self-doubt as a TV pundit, Sadlier has found peace helping others on the way to recovery

Richie Sadlier
Richie Sadlier
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Thirty years ago, on the morning of November 15, 1989, a 10-year-old boy called Richie Sadlier travelled from his home in Dublin with his mother, Mary, and older brother, Jamie, to a rehab centre in Wexford. He remembers the date, not because it was the moment he discovered his father, John, was being treated for alcoholism, but because of a game that afternoon.

Ireland were playing Malta in a World Cup qualifier.

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Six months had passed since he had first watched them play at Lansdowne Road when a Kevin Moran goal had lit a fire in him. But nothing would compare to the excitement in Wexford that afternoon. John Aldridge scored twice. Ireland were on the way to the World Cup finals for the first time ever.

The kid reached for a ball, bolted for the garden and did not look back for the next 20 years.

He'll be in the RTE studio with Liam Brady and Didi Hamann for the game against Denmark tomorrow night, which was as good a reason as any to sit down with him last week. He made his Ireland debut, after all, on a Mick McCarthy team and has always been one of the game's sharpest thinkers. So that was the plan: the game, the team, the manager, the future.

But Recovering, his just-published memoir, got in the way.

1 Everest

He (Sadlier) gives everything of himself here. His description of his father, another man who gave up alcohol in his 30s, and their relationship with all its complexity and twists, is particularly moving. His mother and siblings are also proper three-dimensional characters, fleshed out here in a way few sporting autobiographies achieve. Perhaps the most arresting relationship though in reading this book is reconciling your previous public image of Sadlier with the character whose career and life is unravelling beyond control.

Kieran Shannon,
Irish Examiner

Paul Kimmage: I guess the obvious place to start, Richie, is how are you?

Richie Sadlier: Good. I'm very relaxed.

PK: You look good.

RS: I'm on the back of the lightest month I've had in God knows how long. I thought October would be heavy and emotional, and that I'd be getting loads of heavy phone calls from friends and relatives: "Ahh, we didn't know." So I cleared all of the optional work presuming I was going to need it (space). Fiona (his wife) even booked a Tommy Tiernan gig thinking: 'We're going to need a laugh.'

PK: (Laughs)

RS: I thought I'd have my head in my hands going, 'Why did I do it?' or 'I didn't see this coming' but honestly, it's been a walk in the park. I haven't had one negative message; not anyone having a go for what's written in the book, or how it was written, or why I wrote it.

PK: Would that worry you?

RS: It did in the build-up because it was completely unknown. It's not like getting called-up over some column you've written - the book is about me. And it's stuff that wasn't known, stuff I haven't written before, so there were a lot of 'what if?' nights before it was released. You've all these questions: Is this wise? Will I always be the 'abuse' guy? The 'alcoholic' guy? Will people stop listening to me?

PK: That's interesting.

RS: For years in my head, the sexual abuse was the defining thing about me, and the thing I wanted no one to know about. And then there was the drink - nobody could know about that either because I would then be 'Recovering-Alcoholic Richie', and everyone would treat me differently. Now I could obviously have written the book and left those things out, but by putting everything in I had no control anymore.

PK: When did you first get the notion to write the book?

RS: I was aware for years that I didn't want to write one. I remember starting with the Sunday Independent and getting an email once from a literary agent and then, over the next six or seven years, a publisher would get in touch and I'd meet them. I was a footballer who didn't play football any more - that was the book. They didn't know any of the stuff that's in it now.

PK: And you weren't going to tell them?

RS: I was in my late 20s and drinking away like a bastard. In my early 30s I was trying to get off it. I was starting to work on the (RTE) panel, and starting to see clients and thought, 'The ground is too shaky underneath me. It (a book) will rock the boat'. Then, in the summer of '17, I met a publisher and got as far as trying to write a chapter and it was just tortuous.

PK: What was the chapter?

RS: It was about the comeback at Sunderland and it just consumed me. I had no experience at writing a book. I wrote 800-word columns or occasional interviews of 3,000 words. I went over every sentence again and again and thought, 'Well, if this is what it's going to be like . . .'

PK: You didn't consult Dion (his ghostwriter, Dion Fanning) about it?

RS: God! Did I even tell him? I'm not sure. Anyway, I decided 'not now.' Then, in the summer of last year, I met with two publishers again. The ground was starting to feel a bit more solid so I thought, 'Now might be the time.' So myself and Fiona went around to Dion's one night and I remember saying it to him as we were coming out: "I think I'm going to do this book. Would you be on for that?" And he said okay.

PK: The question I'd have asked is why?

RS: Years earlier, after a meeting with one of the publishers, I remember calling Declan Lynch. He said, "To be honest, the best reason to write a book is if you want to write a book. Forget the outcomes. Don't do it to make money or to be famous or settle scores." But what a fucking task to take on. I mean you sit down and open the laptop and there's this blank screen with nothing there. And the target is to have this (he picks up the book) by the end of it. It was like climbing a mountain.

PK: Everest.

RS: Yeah, because it was a book about me. But I had a sense that the feeling at the end would be worth it, and that the process of going through it would be something I'd get something from. And I'd spoken about a lot of the stuff at length, over and over again, in therapy.

PK: But this is different?

RS: Yeah.

PK: You're not telling it to a therapist?

RS: No, you're writing it down and expressing it in an entirely different way and to a very different audience.

PK: What did Dion know?

RS: He would have been aware of the abuse.

PK: So he knew a lot?

RS: Only that I was abused as a kid. But he knew me, and I knew him, and I trusted him.

PK: And that connection is important.

RS: It was important for me.

PK: Where did you start?

RS: The abuse. I met with Dion and said: "Listen, do you mind if this is the first thing I write? We can work out later where it goes."

PK: So this was just for you.

RS: It was purely for me. I needed to move it from my head to the laptop because it was going to obstruct everything until I did. So that's how the process started, and it was the most difficult . . . we have a dog, a St Bernard - she's huge - and it wasn't always practical to write from home so I'd go down to the Café du Journal in Monkstown. I was writing this really upsetting stuff for the first time and was crying on and off for two or three hours. Then I'd try to finish it at home and the same thing would happen there.

Richie Sadlier

PK: When are we talking about?

RS: October, 2018.

PK: Who are you leaning on?

RS: My therapist - every Wednesday at five o'clock.

PK: You were still getting therapy?

RS: Every week. And the more difficult it was to write, the more I appreciated that hour.

PK: What about Fiona?

RS: I was telling her along the way. It was probably November when I told her about the abuse.

PK: How long was that after you met?

RS: We met in October '17, so a little over a year. I don't know how you're meant to react but she was great. The more I told her, the more I thought of her, and the closer we got. So it kind of accelerated the relationship. I was trusting her more and more, and it just kept getting better . . . (pause) . . . There was one night when I was writing about the abuse and . . . she saw that I was crying but did not interrupt. She came over and put a cup of tea beside me and kissed the back of my head. So that was the lovely part of it. There was loads of really brilliant stuff with Fiona, and I had the therapist there. And Dion was great too.

PK: There are a lot of good stories in the book. You could easily have avoided the 'dark' stuff.

RS: What would be the point of that? What would be the point of spending a year of my time, and countless hours of not sleeping, to produce a book about the goals I scored, the injuries, and a few RTE stories.

PK: (Laughs) That's what most of them are.

RS: No.

PK: What about the title?

RS: I think 'Recovery' was the first one but I thought 'No, get that off the table.' I liked 'Recovering' because it's an ongoing process. There's no claim that the work is done.

PK: Your publishing date was October 4. I called you about ten days before and you were headed to Kerry for a few days with Fiona.

RS: (Laughs) The calm before the storm. We went to a hotel in Kenmare and it was lovely. We were almost looking at each other: 'Let's just savour this because it's never going to be like this again.' The Late Late was the big thing. I'd been on earlier in the year about a sexual-health thing but this was going to be different.

PK: It was obvious that you were feeling it.

RS: I can't think of anything that compares. What I was about to do would have been unthinkable at one stage, unimaginable, and the build-up was . . . I'm on the RTE panel. I'm a therapist. I go to schools. I write columns. Is it okay for someone who has all those roles to cry? Is it something I can come back from? So I had all those worst-case scenarios bouncing around my head but Ryan (Tubridy) was great with me, and I went out and there was just this . . . natural exchange. But I balled as soon as I came off . . .

PK: Yeah, I read that.

RS: I was the last one on the show and walked off the set and out of view of the audience. I was with the researcher, Tessa, and she turned around to call my parents and I just started crying. "Are you okay?" she said. "You were great." And I think I said something like: "Fucking hell! I've just done that!" Even saying it now is emotional. It was a combination of disbelief and . . .

PK: Relief?

RS: Yeah. All of those worst-case scenarios had been avoided. I didn't crumble with my head in my hands. Ryan didn't have to stop the interview early. All the main things were achieved. And there was also a little (satisfaction): 'Nice one. You've just done something you never thought you could do.'

2 Good Will Hunting

My job varies depending on the situation each adolescent is facing, but there is one analogy that I always keep in mind when I meet those in the greatest distress. It helps to keep me focused on my role. I imagine they're in a small boat out at sea, completely lost, and completely alone. It's pitch dark and it's pouring rain. Waves are crashing all around them. They can't reach their oars, so they're just hanging on as best they can. With nobody in sight and no light on the horizon, they've little reason to believe things will improve. The scenario is as bleak as it gets.

Before I started this work, I had assumed my job was to save this kid straight away. After all, this is what I thought psychotherapy was before I began. If a daring rescue mission couldn't be completed, I thought my job was to fight back against all the elements. I'd have to calm the waves or stop the rain or replace the darkness with sunlight. It's asking a lot of myself, sure, but isn't that the job?

Now I see things differently.

Now I think the best thing I can do is jump into the boat alongside them. I let them know that, no matter how rough things get, I'm going nowhere. No matter how long things last, I won't jump ship. I don't show any fear, because I've been here myself before. I don't blame them for making the choices that got them here. I don't shame them for not being able to save themselves. If I can, I pick up the oars and try to steady things a little. If I can't, I hang on with them to ride out the storm together.

Richie Sadlier

PK: You make a point on the first page of the book: "I'm a football pundit, but I'm also a psychotherapist." In what order?

RS: Psychotherapist first.

PK: Really?

RS: Absolutely first.

PK: "A job which has given me more fulfilment than anything I've ever done."

RS: It's amazing, but hard to explain to someone who has never been a therapist. It's easy to explain the good days as a footballer; to be the guy on the pitch with your arms in the air when the crowd are singing. That feeling where you go, 'This is as good as it gets.' And I've had loads of those moments, but then I think about the people I've worked with at the clinic, lads in their early 20s, teenagers and their parents, and there's moments in the room when . . . (pauses) . . . It's hard to describe, but you'll get a moment when a parent will open up and allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of the teenager. Or a moment when the teenager will say something, so you are facilitating a scenario where a family get to learn a little bit more about what it's like to be in each other's shoes, because a therapy room provides that space. No one is on their phone or doing chores, and little things can happen and I just sit there and . . . sometimes you're just observing it, and sometimes you're prodding it along, but I don't get those moments sitting in the RTE studio.

PK: Sure.

RS: I've never come close! What's the highlights of your pundit career? The moments of fulfilment? There's none. It's not that kind of job. But there's loads in the other one (therapy). It's constant.

PK: And you're making a difference?

RS: I'm reluctant to even use a phrase like that. I just like the job.

PK: But that's what you're there for.

RS: You're supporting people who come to you, and I know from my own experience how difficult it is to take that step: "I, or we, need support here. We don't have all the answers." And they come in and sit down and you hope you can be that support. And in those moments when you're starting to see a bit of progress you go: 'I get paid for this!' And it's like how I used to feel on the best days in football.

PK: What about the stuff you hear that's upsetting? Or days when it doesn't go well?

RS: I underestimated that initially. When I started to work with adults, I found myself thinking a lot about them between sessions, but after a while I got better at it and it had less impact on me. Then I started to work with young people and was being impacted times ten. It's their vulnerability or helplessness and the fact that they are reliant on other people. I got a call last night about a child whose parents have just split up. That's all that was in my head this morning. This evening it will be something else.

PK: Talk to me about the path to psychotherapy. It started with a visit you made to a therapist in 2004.

RS: Yeah, that was post-retirement.

PK: It was your second time?

RS: Yeah.

PK: A woman?

RS: Yeah.

PK: This is what you say in the book: "I remember thinking her job satisfaction must be pretty high. She had brought me from a place where I thought my life was over to a place where I could see I had some options . . . I wondered whether her job was for me, but I quickly talked myself out of it. I had never heard of any footballers who had become therapists. On top of that, I figured being a bloke would go against me too. Women are just better at this than men.'

RS: Yeah.

PK: I'm interested in the sense that it was something you might want to do.

RS: I did an aptitude test in school once and one of the categories was social sciences or working with people. And I remember the teacher, Tom Kirrane - Mister Kirrane - pointing out that the results were kind of striking. "You're low single digits in each other topic," he said, "but high eighty-something-per-cent in working with people." At the time my mind was set. "Thanks for your input Tom but I'm going to be a footballer." But I kind of always had that leaning in my head. Do you know when you talk to someone and they tell you what they're going through?

PK: Yeah.

RS: I was always comfortable in those scenarios and then, over the years, I'd find reasons I wasn't suitable and think of things that would go against me . . . my gender, my background in sport, my role as a pundit… I mean, let's face it, if you're going to google somebody about who to tell your most personal stuff, you won't go to the guy on TV giving-out about free kicks, or debating with Liam Brady about the manager of Ireland.

PK: (Laughs)

RS: I had left the job (chief executive) in St Pat's and wasn't really doing anything, and I remember talking to my sisters one night and they said "You've loads of free time. Why don't you do a course?"

PK: This was the school of business?

RS: Dublin Business School - a Counselling and Psychotherapy Higher Diploma. I had done a Sports Science degree at the tail-end of my Millwall career, which got me into the H-Dip.

PK: One of Gay Byrne's regular guests over the years was Anthony Clare, who was best known for a radio series called In the Psychiatrist's Chair. Did you ever listen to any of those? Or watch any of those shows that feature therapy like The Sopranos?

RS: I've never seen The Sopranos. I believe it's brilliant - particularly that therapist/client relationship.

PK: Gabriel Byrne (In Treatment) did one as well?

RS: Yeah, brilliant. I watched that while I was training to be a therapist. But the film that I still consider to be my favourite is Good Will Hunting. The main theme is the development of the relationship between Matt Damon and Robin Williams and the abuse Damon has suffered as a kid. I loved it. That scene where he (Williams) says "It's not your fault" is so powerful . . . every single time I watched it, it would get me.

PK: When Damon breaks down.

RS: Yeah, I identified with that character . . . difficult childhood . . . keeping people at arm's length . . . skilled at concealing stuff . . . none of his friends knowing anything he had gone through. Over time, I suppose, I've moved from being Matt Damon to Robin Williams and tried to put myself into a position to support people who are still trying to make sense of what they've gone through. I've made the six-foot journey from one chair to the other which is very short, but monumentally far as well.

PK: Talk me through that journey and the timeline. You started the course in . . . 2010?

RS: Yeah, I did the H-Dip from September 2010 to July 2012, and a Masters from September 2012 to July 2014; then I stopped studying for two years until 2016 when I did an Adolescent Psychotherapy Course.

PK: And it's a condition of the H-Dip course that you have to do therapy - to have therapy?

RS: Yeah, and that was a surprise because I would have gone in with the assumption that you were trained-up on observation skills and clever words or interpretive stuff; that it was about spotting things in other people and knowing how to respond, and that you just sat there like this calm little figure who had everything worked out, but a lot of the training is focused on you.

PK: Why is that?

RS: Let's say you're working with somebody who's had a relationship break-up, and you've had a break-up yourself that you haven't resolved, you can be pretty sure that everything you say or do is going to be clouded by what you've gone through. That's a basic example.

PK: No, it's a good example.

RS: So if you still hate women, for example, because your wife cheated on you with your best friend that's going to contaminate the room.

PK: That makes absolute sense.

RS: And that's just the stuff around adult relationships. What do you think being a man involves? What do you think being a woman involves? And then if you go back to childhood stuff: Have you grown up in a house where French people are arseholes because your parents have always told you that? And that's a silly example, but that kind of thing. Everyone grows up in a house where the culture is created by what mummy and daddy think. And a lot of the things you're told by parents who were brought up in the '50s, won't work well in a therapy room in 2019.

PK: (Laughs) Sure.

RS: So there's a kind of cleaning out process and that involves going to therapy, which means turning the spotlight on yourself, which was the thing I had successfully managed to avoid for so long.

PK: But you got through it?

RS: I liked the course, and liked the people on the course, but there were times when . . . we used to do this fishbowl exercise. Role play. 'Paul, you're the client and I'm the therapist.' There were 15 people, trainee therapists, in the classroom observing you and fuck being 18 at Millwall or a pundit on TV, this was unbelievably nerve-wracking. You're sitting there: 'Paul, welcome, good to see you. Why are we here today?' And then you're assessed on how you respond.

PK: To Paul?

RS: Yeah, and at the end there's a discussion on how you did.

PK: Wow.

RS: It puts a lot of people off, or draws them in, and it really drew me in. I thought: 'Imagine doing this with Paul as a real person. And it's not a made-up story. And there's just two of you in the room.' So that was the H-Dip and then, for the Masters, you have to do something like 200 hours of client work, dealing with real people in counselling centres talking about the real stuff.

PK: What happens when it's for real? Do you remember your first client?

RS: That was 2013, a female, late teens, actively suicidal, ongoing self-harm, new to therapy, very, very vulnerable. She specifically asked for a male therapist.

PK: Yeah, you wrote about her in the book.

RS: Her family moved away about five weeks into the session so it ended abruptly, but she has come into my head so many times (since), and dozens of others too. We could have a chat and you might say something and out of nowhere it will trigger . . .

PK: Some memory?

RS: Yeah.

PK: Someone who has been to see you?

RS: Yeah.

PK: Why would she ask for a male therapist?

RS: We only got five sessions. It's one of those things you make a note of, and hold onto, until it's appropriate to bring up. It's what you're always doing in therapy, trying to pace the work so that you don't overwhelm the person initially.

PK: You've got a fantastically fulfilling and absorbing job that you're juggling with a very different job on TV. And I don't know how you're going to take this but I watched you the other night when you were on with . . .

RS: Liam and (David) Meyler?

PK: Yeah. Meyler was doing this long piece of analysis on some player who was out of position and after about ten minutes I thought: 'Christ! Life's too short for this.' And switched you off.

RS: (Smiles) The area of punditry which is of least interest to me, and this is not a commentary on David or what his views were, is explaining why the full back should be ten yards closer or further from the goal. Now a lot of people like that - they like some technical information - but I'm with you, and try to stay away from that, because I don't think I'm any good at it to be honest.

PK: Let me tell you what you are good at.

3 Analyse this.

The very notion of Roy Keane having a problem with a player speaking frankly in public is laughable, hypocritical and non-sensical. There are countless examples throughout his career when he spoke up and said what many may have been thinking, but few were prepared to say. From the interview which led to the Saipan fiasco, to the MUTV programme which ended his Manchester United career, Keane has shown little or no care for the reputations of others.

Richie Sadlier,
Sunday Independent, April 20 2008

PK: There's a passage in the book about Roy Keane when he takes the job at Sunderland, and you're listening from the back of the room when he introduces himself to the players: "It wasn't just Keane's reputation that held people back. From one day to the next, you'd have no idea how he was going to be or how he would respond to any situation . . . The players didn't know what to make of him, which was possibly his intention, but you can't impress your manager if he keeps changing his mind about what he wants from you."

RS: (Nods)

PK: That's what I want from a pundit: "You can't impress your manager if he keeps changing his mind about what he wants from you."

RS: And that's the stuff I like trying to work out. See, these are people, right? And you might have a view on what their style of management is, or their personality or playing career, or the financial motives of the owners, or the motives of the players, or the mood of the fans - but they're all fucking people. And I love picking apart how their behaviour impacts on other people, or the stuff that's interesting about their approach. How does a manager motivate, discipline, or challenge players while keeping them all together? All that stuff which is impossible to explain on a machine that has arrows and squiggles.

PK: (Laughs)

RS: A graphics machine won't help with that, but it's way more interesting.

PK: Agreed, but here's another question: your 'real' job is analysing people and working them out. How do you turn that off?

RS: (Smiles) I don't.

PK: So you find yourself analysing everyone you meet?

RS: It's something I do a lot: 'Why is this person the way they are? Why are they (stuck) in this behavioural pattern?' I just have a . . . curiosity. I don't go around annoying the hell out of people or giving them my hot takes - I never do that - but I do find myself (thinking) a lot. But I would say that's common to a lot of therapists.

Roy Keane, left, working as a TV pundit

PK: What do you make of Keane?

RS: Roy?

PK: The most interesting man in Irish football, or at least the most talked about.

RS: I don't find him interesting.

PK: You don't?

RS: No.

PK: Really?

RS: No.

PK: Go on.

RS: I'm reluctant to appraise him as a pundit but I watch him and he's had so many experiences and memories and insights - standing in tunnels, standing in dressing rooms, training, press conferences, flights to matches. We're talking massive, massive moments in football - Manchester United's history, Ireland's history - and when I listen to him I always go: 'Give us a glimpse, draw on that.' But he rarely does. He'll slag someone the way a teenager at the back of the class slags the fellah who sits at the front, and I sit there going: Is that it?

PK: But that's what I find interesting.

RS: I don't find it particularly interesting or noteworthy that somebody, 18 years after Saipan, is still hanging on to the same interpretations he had. I think that's the easiest thing in the world to do.

PK: Yeah but . . .

RS: To have the capacity to see a bigger picture and to look at yourself: 'Maybe I need to reflect on my own behaviour here.' I love when I hear people doing that.

PK: But why can't he?

RS: He doesn't. I'm not saying I have a specific answer to what drove his behaviour but when he did that thing with Off The Ball recently where he had a go at Jon Walters, I mean . . . if a Dublin player today made a swipe about how many trophies he had compared to the lads in Mayo, what would you think of him? You'd think 'What a classless moron!' I work with teenagers, teenagers do that, they mock each other and pull each other down. But we're talking here about a 48-year-old man!

PK: What if it's a façade? What if he's holding on to some of the stuff that you held onto and is trying to keep us out: 'This is the face I'll present to people. They're not getting to see the real me."

RS: It could well be. I'm hesitating because I know he has spoken publicly about the fact that he used to drink but now doesn't, and I know, from my own experience, there's more to that process than just putting the pint away - it often involves really deep stuff. There are reasons you drank the way you did, and a whole range of difficulties. Now I don't know if any of those things are experiences we have shared but . . .

PK: You share a love of dogs.

RS: (Laughs) I certainly love dogs, yeah.

PK: I asked him once: 'Why dogs?' Loyal, he said. Dogs never let you down.

RS: That's true. I've two dogs now, and no matter how long I'm out of the house or how late I am some days to feed them, every single time they greet me it's impossible not to feel better about yourself. So we certainly share a love of dogs.

PK: Brady fascinates me. He's different.

RS: Liam?

PK: Yeah.

RS: For someone I've worked with for so long, I know virtually nothing about him.

PK: That's what interests me.

RS: I don't think we've ever had a phone call, have we? I can't recall anytime we've rung each other. We've never socialised together or even asked about it. We've never had any interaction other than sitting next to each other (in the studio).

PK: Do you find him interesting?

RS: I found him really intimidating initially. His playing career is as far removed from my playing career as is possible. He won Serie As with Juventus. I have a runners-up medal in the Auto Windscreen Shield with Millwall!

PK: (Laughs)

RS: There's an aura about Liam, a presence. I remember sitting next to him early on (and being taunted by) the voices in my head: 'Why are you on the same platform?' He had a slow speech but would command the room, and it sometimes didn't matter what he said because he said it with authority, and I'm not like that at all. We clashed early on when Trapattoni was the battleground and that probably added to the distance between us. It was never a relationship where I'd go to him for a steer or he'd advise me how to be better.

PK: Has he said anything about your book?

RS: No.

PK: Not a word?

RS: No.

PK: Has anybody? Did David (Meyler) say anything the other night? Darragh (Maloney)?

RS: Dave mentioned it: "You need to sign a copy and I'll read it." Duffer (Damien Duff) sent me a lovely text after The Late Late [Show], and Darragh, I'd talk to a good bit anyway. I was mindful, particularly in that chapter (his time at RTE), of the impact on other people. I still work with Liam, and our working relationship is better than it has ever been.

PK: Analyse Dunphy.

RS: I'd rather not.

PK: (Laughs)

RS: I'm not particularly drawn to the inner workings of Eamon's mind.

PK: Do it for me.

RS: I found that by the end of our time together, I was always waiting for Darragh to go: "Sorry folks, we've run out of time. Thanks to Eamon and Liam and Richie for being here."

PK: He's a gifted man in so many ways, a brilliant mind, and you absolutely fillet him in the book. Or rather, by his actions, he fillets himself. How can someone so brilliant act so small?

RS: I don't know. I tried not to give too many interpretations of him, to just portray what it was like between us. It was tiresome being around him. Just petty. He would whisper his comments rather than share them during a match and I'd sit there going: 'What's that about?' Or we would go outside for a smoke and stand five yards apart. There was no interaction between programmes and it was minimal during the show, but it's the same in any job.

PK: How do you mean?

RS: When you go into any job with people who have been there a long time you pay your dues. It's not quite "Yes sir, No sir" but in a way it is. Liam and John [Giles] and Eamon did it to a level for years. I was encroaching on their terrain but knew that if I played the nodding dog, and agreed with them all the time, I'd have been gone within a month. Because you can get away with being a nodding dog when you've won a couple of Champions Leagues but if you haven't . . .

PK: Sure.

RS: So it was about trying to find the right moment if I was going to challenge or disagree with them. If I got it wrong or couldn't back (my argument) up, they'd swallow me up and spit me out, so I was always mindful of that. It was one of the trickiest parts of the job.

PK: What about your relationship with the game?

RS: In the reporting of the book, football is being framed as the thing that got me away from the bad thoughts and yes, it was an escape, but it was also a love. It gave me a sense of purpose, this possibility that I could really be someone, but it was also just brilliant crack playing a sport that you were good at with all your mates in a field. You don't have to analyse that.

PK: Sure.

RS: It gave me everything. If I had money in my pocket I'd buy a Shoot magazine. Do you remember Elton Welsby used to host the highlights programme with all the goals from the weekend? I used to run out to the field and aim for the tree with the commentators voice in my head. And then, when I moved to England, there were days when it was hard to love. I was getting paid to do it at a certain level, and people were invested in you doing it to a certain level, and when you didn't they fucking told you. So it got kind of messy for a while, and there were times when I wondered: 'Do I enjoy this?'

PK: Sure.

RS: When I finished I found it hard to watch. One of the reasons I stepped away from writing a column here [Sunday Independent] was because I was prioritising other things - college and family and work stuff. I wondered: 'Do I love watching this?' Because the experience of watching it is so different from the experience of playing it - they're worlds apart.

PK: And now?

RS: I like discussing it and analysing it but love? No, get that off the table. Watching football isn't anything like as fulfilling as playing it.

PK: But anyone who has played would say that?

RS: Yeah, but I get the sense that some people love watching it. . . . Declan Lynch: 'You should never not watch a game of football.' It's a great line, but there's loads of other things to do in the world than watch football.

PK: Like a swim in the Forty Foot?

RS: Yeah, fuck yourself into the Forty Foot!

PK: How did that start?

RS: Fiona. She starts every day doing something really positive - yoga or bar class or a run - and she is always energetic and smiley and upbeat. She promoted this idea of the Forty Foot, so I said I'd go one morning. There's a little community down there, and they all have the thing I described in Fiona - this energy about them. I remember standing there the first time and feeling hesitant, and this lady, who was half my height and twice my age, politely asked me to step aside. She had no hesitation about jumping in. She just had this fucking life about her.

PK: When are we talking about?

RS: That was August, I think, of last year. They have these challenges where you do 30 days in a row, or once-a-month through the year so I thought: 'I'll do at least once a month.' My head is in a really good place but there are always complications. I get overwhelmed sometimes by the work I do with young people - the burden of responsibility can be really heavy - but every time I jump into the sea I'll come out feeling better. And different. It's an instant hit.

PK: You turned 40 last January?

RS: Yeah.

PK: And celebrated with a swim?

RS: Yeah.

PK: Are you insane? That must have been freezing!

RS: It was Baltic, but when you get out your skin is just hopping, and you're on a completely different frequency than when you got in. I was meant to do it this morning but we live in a country where the sewage falls into Dublin Bay when it floods, so rather than literally swimming in shit, I gave myself an extra hour in bed.

Richie Sadlier celebrating his fortieth birthday with Fiona and his dad

PK: (Laughs.)

RS: But it should be okay in a day or two.

PK: And you got this from Fiona?

RS: Yeah, we got engaged at the Forty Foot on Christmas Eve. Then my dad, myself and Fiona went back for a swim on my birthday a few weeks later.

PK: Malachy Clerkin made an interesting point about you recently in The Irish Times: "In a way, the best thing that could have happened to the author Richie Sadlier was one of the worst things that happened to the footballer Richie Sadlier. He made it and then he didn't." At the time you were 'the unlucky one' but ultimately . . .

RS: Yeah, I feel so lucky today in my life. So grateful. So privileged. And it's lovely to be able to sit here now and say that. There's a lot I can't change. I can't selectively remove things from my past, or add-in things that didn't happen, but if today is the result of the journey, then the journey was worth it.

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