'You can't come home angry when you have young kids' - Irish star puts false allegations behind him
Pain of wrongful accusations stalled Dubliner’s career
Try telling Stephen Dawson that the FA Cup doesn't matter. For the 30-year-old Dubliner, captain of the Scunthorpe side which takes on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, the opportunity offered by the competition means everything.
It's his chance to start off 2016 on the right foot, an excuse to bring the family over from home for a delayed Christmas gathering. League One is generally devoid of glamour so, for every member of the Scunthorpe dressing room, these days are a dreamy escape from the graft of an uncertain existence. They inhabit an environment where shorter contracts are increasingly the norm, particularly for those in the thirtysomething bracket.
In Dawson's case, the significance goes way beyond that. He is attempting to move on from two years of pain, both mental and physical, with the trauma of being wrongly accused of involvement in a spot-fixing scandal - the charge was taking bribes for getting booked - followed by the agony of an injury that prevented him from getting back on the pitch and restoring his damaged reputation.
The distress still lingers. He is used to telling the story of a fraught morning in April 2014 when a dawn operation saw ten police officers enter his home and take control of his phone, laptop and other possessions for an investigation that was driven by the National Crime Agency.
Dawson was arrested, taken to the station and asked about three games for his former club Barnsley where he was booked. The allegation was that the cautions were deliberate and that he was involved in a conspiracy to commit acts of bribery, conspiracy to cheat and part of an arrangement to launder criminal proceeds related to match-fixing.
He was the only Barnsley player affected by a series of raids that culminated with six members of the Preston squad going through the same ordeal but, while they were all named and shamed, the case went nowhere. The sorry episode sent an angry Dawson in search of answers; to this day he has no idea how his name was dragged into the affair. A newspaper sting propelled the story in the public eye and he's in a group that has instigated proceedings to sue two English publications for defamation and breach of privacy.
"I'm just relieved that I can finally put it to bed," he says. "My name was cleared but it was dragged into it and that's when a lot of people say, 'Well, he must be guilty.' But I'd never jeopardise the career that I've worked so hard for. This is something I love doing, something that I'm blessed to do."
There was a point where he realised that the rage had to subside. For the sake of his partner, Stacey, and his daughters Alexis and Kyrah, he needed to keep the spirits up as the scandal hung over a solitary season at Rochdale. He was told that higher profile outfits would not touch him because of his association with the probe and had to accept a large pay cut which tested his temper.
"You can be angry but I had to snap out of that," he says. "Yes, there were days when I felt sorry for myself. Where I was thinking: 'Why me? What have I done to deserve this?' It happened, but if I went around angry all the time then I wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything. I couldn't afford to do that.
"And you can't come home angry when you've got young kids. They don't understand what you're going through, so you've got to put on a brave face. If you come in the door after having a bad day, and they run to you and shout 'Dad' and give you a kiss, it means much more than somebody accusing me of something which wasn't true. When you've a family that love you, both in England and back at home, then that can get you through anything. That whole experience made me stronger."
He is thankful for the managers that stood by him. Keith Hill gave him that lifeline at Rochdale and then, last summer, Mark Robins came calling at Scunthorpe with an offer that included the captaincy.
Dawson has plenty of experience of wearing the armband, but this vindication of his character meant a lot. "I wanted to repay him," he says.
That desire was complicated by a medial ligament issue that hung over from his stay at Rochdale. A different kind of struggle loomed as it became clear that an initial operation hadn't solved it. When pre-season stepped up a gear, he sensed trouble lay ahead. Walking up the stairs was a chore. Lifting one of his girls up was a strain. "I was at a new club that had brought me in as captain and I didn't want to let them down," he sighs.
He toiled through the first three games of this season and, by his own admission, the new recruit was absolutely hopeless. The nadir was a drubbing at Wigan.
"The fans were probably wondering what they had signed," he recalls. "I was embarrassed. I couldn't run and turn and I'd say they were thinking, 'Who is this player?' and it was justified. They cheered when I was taken off. I've had bad games in the past, but I'd never had that and it hurt me. I was ashamed of my performance. I was the worst player on the pitch."
The combative performer, with over 350 Football League appearances across the three divisions on his CV, was getting pushed off the ball with ease. Robins rang him the next day to figure out what was up. Dawson admitted that he was really suffering and that set the ball rolling towards a second operation.
He made his comeback on St Stephen's Day at Doncaster, describing it as the ideal Christmas present. Last weekend, he came through 90 minutes of the return with Wigan, a game which delivered immense satisfaction. "I managed to put it right, the old demons in the head," he explains, "I felt like I'd been paid for five or six months without doing anything. I've always classed myself as an honest player and I needed to do something for the manager, the chairman and the medical staff."
There's a sincerity in his words. Growing up as the eldest of four football-mad brothers, he has always embraced responsibility. The sport consumed them. His father Brendan Snr, a handy amateur player, is to blame for the addiction as his mother Dolores still can't get her head around the obsession. Keith and Brendan Jnr were talented too and the youngest, Kevin, followed in his brother's footsteps by making it to England via the League of Ireland. After a rollercoaster ride to the Championship at Yeovil alongside his best mate Paddy Madden - who, ironically, is now a key player for Scunthorpe - Kevin has experienced the downside of the trade with back-to-back relegations and a year on the sidelines introducing him to despair.
"He's had a horrible year, but he's finally on the mend," continues Stephen. "The family have had to put up with me being down and miserable and he's had a hard time too. He'll be at the Chelsea game with the rest of them and that's great."
With the noise of his children audible in the background, he quips that his younger brothers never listened to his wise words and says that his own kids are following the tradition. He adds that, growing up, he was the worrier and the personality trait perhaps explains why the stress of the unexpected fight to clear his name took its toll.
When it comes to matters on the pitch, however, the Roy Keane fan considers any kind of fear to be a weakness and that's the mindset he will be taking into the Chelsea encounter. Five years ago, he was part of a Leyton Orient team which took Arsenal to a replay. Bradford's shock triumph at Stamford Bridge 12 months ago has fuelled the belief that tomorrow can be much more than a day out.
"We mightn't be in the same league or enjoy the same lifestyle or earn the same money but we've still got pride," he asserts. "We are classed as footballers and we want to prove that we can play against the best in the world. Nobody will give us a chance and that's fine. 99pc of people will not give us a hope. A lot of people said that about Bradford.
"I don't want this to just be one of those games where you get the hype for the week and then put in a performance which isn't good enough. I don't feel like I've been handed anything in life and we want to fight for this. This is the reward for everything, for being away from home, for the good moves and the bad moves and all the ups and downs."
For the heavyweights, the magic of the cup may be a thing of the past but for Dawson, a man who has earned a break, this old competition can be a medicine.