Thursday 18 January 2018

'The ups and downs of football helped me cope with my illness'

When Ireland hero Alan McLoughlin was diagnosed with cancer, he resolved to confront the disease with the positive attitude that characterised his playing career, writes Liam Kelly

Alan McLoughlin (centre) celebrates Ireland’s qualification to the 1994 World Cup with team-mates Denis Irwin and John Aldridge (left) after he scored the crucial equaliser against Northern Ireland in Windsor Park in 1993
Alan McLoughlin (centre) celebrates Ireland’s qualification to the 1994 World Cup with team-mates Denis Irwin and John Aldridge (left) after he scored the crucial equaliser against Northern Ireland in Windsor Park in 1993
Alan McLoughlin celebrates in Windsor Park in 1993
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

ALAN McLoughlin and that goal. The unforgettable moment the ball left his foot and ended up buried in the Northern Ireland net at Windsor Park, Belfast.

The goal proved to be the stamp on the passport that gained Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland side entry to World Cup 94 in the USA.

McLoughlin's name will forever live in the memory of Irish followers North and south because his skill and inner fortitude combined in the most dramatic fashion on the night of November 17, 1993.

That strength of character never left him, which is just as well because in the autumn of 2012, the Alan McLoughlin life story took a less welcome turn.

It all started in simple fashion. McLoughlin had brought the Portsmouth U-14s back to the club's academy after a match with AFC Wimbledon.

As you do, he felt the need for a pee, so off he went to the toilet and got on with his business.

Nothing happened. McLoughlin exerted some more effort and got a result – a bad one.

Out came urine and blood. Panic stations. A trip to the casualty department in Swindon.

The medics first thought it was a kidney infection or a kidney stone. After a scan came the awful news that it was cancer. He had to wait for a few weeks and then had a kidney removed, and then came the follow-up treatment.

By a bizarre coincidence, McLoughlin's cancer emerged shortly after his friend and fellow ex-Ireland international Kevin Sheedy had been diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Earlier in the summer of 2012, they had shared a car together in Ireland when they were part of a legends side playing some exhibition matches.

CHANCE

There they were, two scorers of famous Irish goals – Sheedy who struck the equaliser against England at Italia 90, and McLoughlin the man of the moment in Belfast three years later – enjoying the chance to kick a ball around for fun and relive some memories from their playing career.

Within a couple of months of that trip to Ireland, both men were undergoing cancer treatment. Surely that's not the way life is supposed to pan out for our sporting heroes?

Sheedy's left-foot drive past Peter Shilton in Cagliari and McLoughlin's volley – also a left-foot shot – hitting the Northern Irish net, are enduring images to be treasured.

That's fine, as far as it goes, but reality has a habit of rudely intruding on the dreams and plans of human beings no matter who they are, or what they have achieved.

Happily, McLoughlin and Sheedy are doing well and they keep regular contact with each other.

"We were actually together a few weeks before he found out about his cancer. We were in Ireland together playing in some exhibition games and we travelled around in the car together," recalls McLoughlin.

"After I heard about him falling ill, I had spoken to him and contacted him, and then I fell ill a couple of months later. It was ridiculous really. People think that if you're a former athlete you're not supposed to get ill, but life's not like that."

On April 20, the Manchester-born son of Irish parents will celebrate his 47th birthday with wife Debra and daughters Abby (22) and Megan (19) and he will enjoy the occasion with an extra sense of gratitude.

McLoughlin still takes medication and has regular scans to ensure all is well on the health front.

Other than that, over the past few weeks he has been doing his utmost as assistant manager to ensure Portsmouth FC stayed in Division Two of the English League – which they did by finishing 13th – a year after the club was saved from extinction by a supporters' trust.

Football is definitely not as important as life and death, but McLoughlin credits the game for giving him a pathway to recovery.

"The first thing I'd say is that football, particularly at the start of my career at Manchester United with a very famous coach, Eric Harrison, has taught me to deal with lots of disappointments and ups and downs," he says.

"As I say to young players, there's more downs than ups in football and you've got to cope with the downs and embrace the ups when they come along, so that has helped me.

"I'm a very driven and focused person, and always have been in my football world, and I think that's probably got a crossover into my private and personal life.

"I had a good grounding at home from my mum and dad, and my sister and how we still are with each other, and the love at home from my wife and two girls. That has helped me.

"It was a shock at first but you've got to dust yourself down and realise you've got to carry on. Of course, there have been some really, really low days, but going back to the club as soon as I could was my best medicine.

"There's no point in me moping around. I certainly don't want to be moping around at home. I've got two girls. The last thing they want to see is their dad doing that.

"When I go into work, the players don't want to see me being negative.

"It's important they see me sticking my chest out and getting on with it. That's how I was on the pitch. I didn't hide on the pitch. I don't like players that hide, that make a mistake and hide. I've not hidden from this. I've just battened down the hatches and got on with it."

McLoughlin was capped 42 times for the Republic from 1990-99. He made with over 550 league appearances in a career that began at United in 1985 and ended in 2003 at Forest Green.

He was elected to the hall of fame at Swindon and Portsmouth, and is a past winner of the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland 'International Player of the Year' award.

McLoughlin's life story will be told in full in a book which is to be written by Dr Bryce Evans, an Irish historian based at Liverpool Hope University.

"He's also a Portsmouth fan. That's where the connection is," explains McLoughlin. "We hope it will be published later in the autumn."

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