UTD Unscripted: How United helped me
Phillip and I were typical brothers growing up.
We were less than a year apart in age. We did all the usual brotherly things like playing football and loads of other sports together. Because there wasn’t much of an age gap, we were usually playing football, Gaelic football and other sports in the same team. We’d kick about in the garden or anywhere. It was just non-stop sport. Don’t get me wrong, we fought a lot of the time as well – we were brothers – but we had a great childhood growing up.
Football was important to us, and personally I was desperate to make a career in the game. I didn’t care who for. Whether it was Manchester United or Accrington Stanley, I just wanted to play football for a living. My father always used to tell me:
“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
I did well enough at an early age. I was playing locally, and at about 15 or 16 I was invited over to Portadown in the Irish league. I was on the fringes of the Northern Irish youth team but was considered a little small at that stage. I remember trying out for the Victory Shield team to face England and not quite making it, but I went to the game anyway and Giggsy was captaining England – he was Ryan Wilson at that stage.
My dad was a great mentor and he kept my confidence up. It was only after that, at 17 or 18, that everything took off. I grew five inches in a short space of time, suddenly I was six feet two and my confidence grew along with the fact that I had a bit of ability and a natural work rate. I’d work harder than the majority of the lads around. At 18, I captained the Portadown youth team in the youth cup over here and was on the fringes of the first team. I played a reserve team match and was called into the office after the game. Eddie Coulter, United’s scout over here, was there and he invited over to Manchester to take part in a week-long trial.
I thought I was going over to play in an A or B team game, but Sir Alex threw me straight into a Reserve team game against Aston Villa. I was marking Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson, God bless him, so it was a baptism of fire! But I did quite well and they offered for me to come back for a three week trial that summer. The gaffer was really smart and always gave life lessons as well. I did well in the three weeks I was over and I’ll always remember one day after training at the Cliff, we were getting ready to get changed and he brought me out along with Dion Dublin. I’m big, but Dion’s bigger than me! He made me do one-v-ones with Dion, who was just about to sign for the club as well, and they ran us into the ground. After that he called me up and told me they were going to offer me a three-year deal.
I moved over in August 1992. The following March, I was back home in Lurgan and went to the local park with Phillip, just kicking the ball around. The two of us, 18 or 19, playing like normal lads. It didn’t matter that I was a Manchester United player back home for just a few days; we were just best friends kicking the ball around the field.
The next month, Phillip was gone.
That’s a day I won’t forget.
I was training as normal and at that stage I was staying in digs under a landlady called Brenda Gosling, who was terrific with me. I came back from training and she asked me to sit down.
She said she’d received a phone call saying that Phillip had taken his own life.
After that, they arranged for me to get home. Going from the digs back to Lurgan was surreal. It was like I was in a nightmare. I then had to go through the funeral and the wake.
The gaffer was terrific. When you look at it now, when we talk about mental health and the issues surrounding self-harm and suicide, those things weren’t spoken about. The education wasn’t there and I had to deal with it without that, but the gaffer saw it as very personal, which I totally understand. The family appreciated that. He just said:
“Look, take as much time as you need and only come back when you’re ready to come back.”
In all honesty, and I think this was hugely important, I went back quite soon after the funeral because my mates had all moved away to university, making their own lives, and I just loved football so much that it just became my outlet. I say now that I couldn’t have been at United at a better time and I just loved my time at the club. My reaction to everything was to throw myself into making a career.
It was very, very difficult, of course. Especially in that first year. I hadn’t been at United long and was still getting over the homesickness anyway. It’s a big ask for a kid at that age. I was probably luckier that I went over to Manchester as a first-year pro, so I had a couple of years’ extra maturity, I suppose.
I got on without really speaking about Phillip to anybody. Looking back, I just parked the bus and moved on and focused on my football. I moved up the ranks and, early in the 1995/96 season, was in the squad to go to Rotor Volgograd for a UEFA Cup tie. Me and Pilks – Kevin Pilkington – were rooming together. I remember getting to the hotel, looking around and going: right, this isn’t great? We were told that we’d brought our own chefs and we’d brought baked beans and that, so we knew it wasn’t first class in a five-star hotel! I just remember getting into bed and my feet hanging out of the bed. I’m lay there thinking: I wonder how Pally’s feeling with this?
I didn’t get on in Russia, but I heard I was playing in the League Cup game against York City soon afterwards. Obviously there were nerves. There were changes made to the team, and even though there were top players playing for us, I’d never played alongside Pally and I think centre-halves perform at their best in settled partnerships. Paul Barnes scored for York with a really good strike from outside the box in the first half, but we were still well in the game going into the second half.
Then the penalty happened.
We tried to play offside and didn’t get it right. If Steve Bruce had been playing alongside Pally, they’d have gotten it right. You have split seconds to decide. My decision-making process was to take the lad down outside the box, which it was and everybody could see that it was, but the referee and linesman got it wrong, so I was sent off and, instead of a free-kick, it was a penalty, which York scored. A couple of minutes later they got another and it finished 3-0.
Of course, the gaffer afterwards gave me a rollicking, as he did everybody, and that was fine, but I’ll always remember the next day going into the Cliff and doing our warm-down. He called me up to see him before training.
“Well, how are you, son?”
“It wasn’t how I wanted the game to go, but I have to get on with it.”
“Well, look. The more I think about it, the more I think I should have played Brucey alongside you because he talks more than Pally.”
Don’t get me wrong, he’d given me a rollicking the night before, but he then tried to take the pressure off me, telling me I was still a young lad, removing some of the blame, and I thought that was terrific to do.
As footballers we have good moments and bad moments, but the truth of the matter is that it’s how you react to them that’s important. When your brother, your best friend, takes his own life, it puts everything in perspective, even when something disastrous like that happens to you at a massive club like Manchester United.
It’s just football. You know that then.
Obviously things didn’t work out the way that I would have loved them to at United, and the York game ended up being my only appearance for the first team, but I got a great grounding and I’ll forever be indebted to Sir Alex and the club.
I moved on to Wigan and something else that my dad had said just stuck with me:
“Your education will follow you.” I’d already done my A-levels before I went to United, so when I went to Wigan, even though I was only 24 and playing professionally, I did my physio degree and not too many players would do that. I kept on studying and took a diploma in mental health, which is the area I work in now.
The coverage of mental health in football has never been great, but it’s certainly improving, simply because people are talking about it more. It’s only when I started speaking about Phillip that things started to lift off my shoulders.
If you watched Harry’s Heroes, a TV show that aired a couple of months ago, it had so many emotions going on. It was funny at times, but there were experienced professionals like Paul Merson and Lee Hendrie breaking down over their struggles, Razor Ruddock’s situation rang true with me. He wasn’t able to fully take part because of his condition, and I went through a period of eating and drinking too much during a period of instability at home. I went up to 16 stone when my playing weight was 13-and-a-half, and it makes you feel slower in your mind. I’m back down to almost my playing weight now , thankfully, but seeing all those physical, mental and emotional symptoms and all that pain in those famous players, I suppose gives everyone the perspective that they played at the very top level, but are also just people going through issues at a personal level. They’re people, not targets. We don’t see what’s going on behind closed doors at times, so I think that seeing the person is hugely important.
Footballers who are playing at a very high level now understand the importance of it and also let other people see it from their perspective. You could be right up there as a top footballer one minute, but you could go home and be struggling, and you still have to go out and perform. To perform to your best, you need to have the most clarity in your mind, so that’s important to be mindful of your mental health.
As footballers, especially at the level of Manchester United, you’re put out there in the public domain and the media will scrutinise you and justify that by saying you’re a public figure, but people like myself and others don’t necessarily go into it for the publicity - it’s more for the love of football. I think a more tailored approach is needed. Less volatile language can be used because underneath that footballer is still a person. We’ve had big steps from that perspective as long as people take it on board. Education is a great platform and it’s the same with the football and any sport: it has the ability to divide, but it also has the ability to pull people together and that’s what we’re trying to achieve in Train 2B Smart, the charity I’ve founded. Within the name is the acronym Sharing My Anxieties Relieves Tension, so it’s a mental and emotional message that we’re sharing.
We have around 200 kids playing football from 5 up to 17 and I’m constantly trying to get more exposure for the work we do. Thankfully, I’ve had personal favours with a couple of really influential people.
The gaffer came over and went to see our kids playing, then did a talk around mental health. He came over and did it for nothing. The last time I’d spoken to the gaffer was while I was manager at Newry City and he actually wrote my players a motivational letter which was passed among the squad. This is Sir Alex Ferguson, who has earned the right to charge whatever he wants for his time, and he came over and did this talk to the kids for free.
Roy Keane, too. He came over in 2016 and was absolutely terrific. I’d not seen Roy for years. I’d only been back to the club once, when I was at Wigan – my first visit to Carrington – and watched a training session, after which I was walking back to my car when Roy and Ole came over to me to see how I was doing at Wigan. That was terrific. No need to do that. This was in 2000, so I hadn’t seen Roy again until 2016, when I approached him through my friend Tom Mohan, one the Republic of Ireland’s coaching staff. Roy told me to give him a ring, I did and he said:
“Yeah, I’ll do it for you.”
Once he was there, he was fantastic. I always remember his quote to the kids:
“Get off the iPads; start climbing trees.” Typical Roy!
The thrust of what he was saying, and what the gaffer was saying, was all about old fashioned values. A lot of it was about work ethic. Roy actually said to the kids:
“Pat will tell you that training was harder than the matches themselves. You were training with top players all the time and no quarter was given or asked for.” Too right! I remember a behind-closed-doors game we played at the Cliff, not long after I’d come over, and I was marking Sparky. In one incident, we were chasing the ball, I got there first and Sparky didn’t so much tackle me as cause Actual Bodily Harm! I’m lay there waiting for the whistle but they just played on with it. Those moments stick with you! The culture was all about keeping standards high and preparing you for going into hostile environments.
It’s a great grounding to be training with Roy, Giggsy and all of those lads. I didn’t say much in those sessions but I took it all on board. All those old values of getting on with it, and watching people be successful while doing that, was a big lesson to take away with me in my life.
I’ve no embarrassment about not impacting more on the first team when I was competing with Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Ronny Johnsen, David May and players like that. I’ve got no qualms with my career and I love what I’m doing now. I see it as absolutely crucial that we get more people talking about how they feel and keeping on top of their mental health.
That’s how I remember my brother. That’s how I honour Phillip every day.