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'The depths of despair that come from a career-ending injury need to be looked at, it certainly affected me'

 

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Kieron Brady in action for Sunderland v Dnipro in 1990

Kieron Brady in action for Sunderland v Dnipro in 1990

Kieron Brady in action for Sunderland v Dnipro in 1990

As Irish football plays out a blame game, one body who rarely get a voice or a look-in will come under the spotlight in Dublin on Saturday. Blame the parents? Not necessarily but the mams and dads and guardians of prospective professional footballers will get to hear some home truths.

Just as it took a body independent of the FAI, the PFAI, to work on behalf of those who need a hand (in this case out-of-contract League of Ireland players) by organising a trial game in England earlier this week, on Saturday a group, largely led by former journalist and one-time FAI employee Stephen Finn, have organised a conference in Dublin aimed at parents of young footballers. Current and former players, academics and experts in sports science will try and open some minds, debunk a few myths.

Kieron Brady has enough on his CV to entitle him to a sob story: incredible early talent with Sunderland and the Ireland underage teams but injury ended his career at the age of 21, before he'd played 40 games, and he would go on to battle with alcoholism.

Now 47, he's kept busy by a five-year-old son and work such as punditry duties at Sunderland and some public speaking and is not looking for sympathy even though his career was near-misses, like being denied an FA Cup final appearance in 1992 and not getting that Ireland cap which he seemed destined for.

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Ex-Sunderland footballer Kieron Brady

Ex-Sunderland footballer Kieron Brady

Ex-Sunderland footballer Kieron Brady
 

"I'd be very confident from the conversations I had with Jack Charlton at the time that it wouldn't have been that long for me to make the breakthrough," he says.

Injury stopped his progress and he will stress to parents on Saturday that they need to be prepared no just for the immediate, football-related effects of injury but the psychological trauma.

"I don't think any young footballer envisages a football career as far as the age of 21. When you dream about it, imagine it, you see it as prolonged and as successful as possible, and in the early stages of my career it seemed to be going reasonably or very well. But then you have to deal with the aftermath of having to retire prematurely, even though you were conscious it could happen and on a human level it was difficult to address. In my youthful naivety I wasn't prepared to enter into any conversations or counselling about the emotional rollercoaster which came later," Brady says.

"I don't think you need to impress on parents or guardians the potential of a career-ending injury, but the depths of despair that come from it need to be looked at, it certainly affected me and I wasn't willing to volunteer that information to my family, I didn't want them to worry about my mental state. I am glad now I feel as content as I ever did in my adult life and those experiences, that adversity, helped shape that and created a greater resilience.

"I had to retire when I was 21. I was still an immature young man, it was traumatic even if I wasn't willing to conform to that at the time but I am still very grateful for what I managed to do and achieve."

Aine McNamara has spent much of her career researching sport and she has a strong message to parents, that the role the play in their child's early career is vital.

"The message we give to parents is that their support for kids on the pathway is very important but we talk about what we call the rocky road on the way to success," McNamara says.

"You want to do everything you can for your up and coming kid, you want to give them all the resources and help you can, and almost snowplough any challenges out of the way.

"But we'd suggest that if you look at the people who make it in sport, or any field, they talk about the rocky road where they have to overcome challenges, big and small, along the way.

"If a young player hasn't had to deal with that along the way, how can they develop the skills they need to be at the top in their sport? We look at the psychological characteristics of excellence - grit, resilience -  which makes them reach their potential. We recognise that parents want to do the most for their kids, they want to get the kids there quickly but we caution against snowploughing the challenges out of the way."

She points to research into what was defined as three groups of footballers: super-champions, champions and almosts. The super-champions were elite footballers who won multiple caps at senior level, the almosts were the one who were tipped to make it as kids but never did.

"The almosts had a smooth, easy ride, they were lauded, they were the best player at U13 level and had a good upwards trajectory until they experienced a big challenge, and more often than not they never bounced back from that," she says.

"The super-champions were slow burners, they had lots of ups and downs along the way, lots of challenges but with high expectations for themselves. When we asked them about their parents, the almosts has parents who were really involved, always at the sideline, did everything for the kid, was on the phone to the coach asking why their boy wasn't getting more game time.

"The parents of the super-champions were also enthusiastic and supportive, but they were separated from the young athlete more likely to ask 'how did you get on today, did you score, did you play well? Now, have your dinner and do your homework.'

"Their identity was not as Johnny The Footballer's parent it was Johnny's parent. So we'd caution against thinking of yourself as the parent of the Next Big Thing. We'd say to be enthusiastic but to also see the long-term nature of it and giving the young players the chance to develop their skills for the future, not just to be good right now. Parents have to have an eye for the future."

Brady's case is not, on the face of it, typical of the concerns faced by parents at the conference because he wasn't sent away from Ireland at 16 and spent his club career in the UK. But his move, from his native Glasgow to Sunderland, was as difficult.

"As a young person leaving home at 16, you have to cope with the same fragility regardless of where you are coming from and going to. Having a common language makes it easier but there are still cultural difference and people can find it hard to acclimatise, you are away from family and the positive, productive influence they can have on you and that can be detrimental to you. That was the case in my own experiences," he says.

Brady became an acloholic but he stresses that was not simply caused by his injury but was a by-product. "I would have been an alcoholic regardless of what happened in my football career, I firmly believe that I and others who are afflicted by alcoholism are pre-disposed to it from the moment they are born. What these events can do is prompt you to use alcohol and in a situation like mine, there is comfort to be taken as you feel the people around you will understand why you are using alcohol as coping mechanism," he says.

"There is a world of difference between someone drinking heavily and someone being afflicted by alcoholism. And I fall into the latter category. It may well be that my football career having to stop so suddenly allowed me to use alcohol which in turn brought me and alcoholism into collision. But I would have been an alcoholic regardless. 

"I didn't ask to have the poisonous thinking which comes before the toxic drinking. But I do have a moral responsibility for my recovery, given the knowledge I have about what alcohol does to me and the people around me. Even if I had sustained a career to the age of 35, I would  have still come into collision with alcohol at some point.

"I have been sober for over 10 years now and so much of what I do now is guiding people through the recovery programme from alcoholism. And that's way beyond anything I achieved in football, it's the most rewarding thing I have ever done."

Kieron Brady, Aine McNamara, Aine O'Gorman and Gareth Farrelly are among the speakers at Saturday's conference in Dublin.

The Irish Football Parents Conference runs in DCU on Saturday, 10am-5pm. Tickets (€25) from Ticketbrite.

https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/irish-football-parents-conference-tickets-79517524055

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