The Kieran Shannon Interview: ‘Football is something you do, not something you are’

This is a story of a Cork schoolboy, though not the one we’ll begin with.

The Kieran Shannon Interview: ‘Football is something you do, not something you are’

This is a story of a Cork schoolboy, though not the one we’ll begin with. When I was in fifth and sixth class in St Columba’s National School, Douglas, we had a brilliant teacher called Billy Madden. He’d nurture a love of reading, expose us to a range of sports beyond a GAA about to celebrate its centenary, and calmly guide us through that cold transition from sums to maths. To help us with the even more challenging Gaeilge, he’d proffer a number of templates that were likely to come up as an essay in an entrance exam. What is your favourite pastime? What do you want to be when you’re older? He knew his students well enough to gauge that football was a favourite pastime and a topic which would engage them, but he also knew the harsh ways of the world enough to suggest to us that the odds were against any of us ever playing for Ireland or a team in England. And so, he’d coolly wipe the chalk off his hands and bring us through what he’d just put on the board.

‘Nuair a bhí me níos óige, bhí me ag iarraidh bheith I mó pheileadóir…’ When I was younger, I aspired to being a footballer…

‘When I was younger…’

Already we were dispensing with the folly of being nine or 10 and awakening to the reality that settling for something like being a pilot or a journalist was a far more attainable occupation. For not only was football hard to get into, it was even harder to stay in. You could spend a lot of time being injured. Gortaithe. Football could continue to be a favourite pastime, an caitheamh aimsir is fear liom, but it wasn’t going to be a livelihood.

Over 20 years later Brian Lenihan would sit in that same classroom. He too would respond to Madden’s serene, genial manner, and light up when he’d bring them outside at the hint of summer to play football while other classes looked out in envy. Except, for Lenihan, football was more than a favourite pastime. When he successfully sat for his entrance exam into Presentation College, he didn’t pretend he was going to be anything else but a professional footballer when he was older.

Brian Lenihan.
Brian Lenihan.

And what’s more, he became one. He made it into that rarefied air where not even pilots dare. He was one of the tiny fraction who’d go on to play in England, with a top-flight club. He’d even be called up to the Ireland senior squad, though he would never get to actually play for them. Why didn’t he? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t the talent or desire. Because what Mr Madden wrote on that old schoolboard contained more than a grain of truth. The harsh reality of professional football is that you can spend quite some time being injured. In Leinihan’s case, an awful amount of time gortaithe. A depressing amount of time, literally. And so by December 15, 2017, at just 23 years of age, he decided he didn’t want to be a footballer anymore. More, he’d decided he didn’t want to live anymore. He was ready to end his life.

Thursday lunchtime in his hometown of Cork, and as Brian Lenihan surveys the touring national football exhibition which has stopped off in the now secular cathedral of St Peter’s on North Main Street, he’s as drawn to a display of photographs and memorabilia celebrating the local football scene as the various shrines to the national team and European game.

Plunkett Carter’s black and white and occasional sepia-tinged snaps are a reminder of the rich heritage the game has in the city: Hibs in 1957 playing Transport in a League of Ireland Shield game down in the Mardyke; some daring souls taking up a spot on the roof of the old pavilion of the old Flower Lodge to catch a view of non-league Cobh Ramblers’ trailblazing run to the FAI Cup semi-finals in 1983; an aerial shot of the old Turner’s Cross hosting a fledgling Cork City soon after they were founded in 1984, a landmark which their club crest on display here perpetually commemorates. Lenihan was only born that year but reeling in his own years and the memories of playing in that arena himself for that crest and elsewhere around the city as a youngster brings a smile to his face.

“It was just brilliant. I have only the best of memories.” Even when Leeds AFC from Ballyvolane had the edge on his College Corinthians in the early juvenile ranks.

“They’d bully us,” he says with characteristic openness, but, he’ll immediately add, he and his Corinthian colleagues would outlast them; by U14 Ringmahon Rangers had assumed the position of their nearest challengers as supreme rulers of all of Cork. Growing up in the hilly Douglas estate of Donnybrook, the game consumed him. “I never had a PlayStation. I wasn’t deprived, I just didn’t want it. I never had Lego. The only toys I had were probably a couple of cap guns because my dad was in the army and I wanted to be like him. Other than that, all I wanted or needed was a ball.”

He’d rearrange the furniture in his parents’ living room so he could practise how to receive the ball and open up, just as his hero and fellow Corkman Roy Keane masterfully could. Outside, kicking with both feet, he’d imagine Alex Ferguson was peeping over the fence, ready to sign the best player his age in the world. If it came to it, he’d have signed for someone else. He grins at the memory of going over on the boat with the Corinthians U10s to a tournament in Liverpool. “I felt I was a proper footballer because it was in England.”

Only, when they got there, he saw and overheard a Blackburn scout approach the parent of one of his buddies.

I was absolutely raging, though he was my best friend! Even then that inner hunger was there. It was something I’d never lose.

He wouldn’t get picked up by an English club in his teenage years; they invariably felt he was too small at the time. But it was actually for the better. He’d get his Leaving Cert and get to play for Cork City. In front of the Shed, a packed home crowd, in his hometown — even now when he takes in an occasional game in Turner’s Cross, his spine tingles at how special an experience and privilege that is. In their first season under John Caulfield they were top of the tale after 11 games, enough to trigger a bonus.

“It wasn’t a lot of money but I remember thinking I was a millionaire!” he smiles. And what did he buy? Something you discover over a conversation with him would be in keeping with his nature — a first iPhone for his dad, Dave.

Before the end of that 2014 season someone wanted to buy him. It wasn’t the voyeuristic Alex Ferguson or Manchester United but a former captain of United in Steve Bruce, who was willing to fork out €200,000 to bring him over to Hull City. Within a few weeks the 20-year-old right back was holding his own with some of the steadiest pros in the Premier League. The likes of Steve Harper in goal, Michael Dawson and Curtis Davies as centre halves, Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone in midfield, along with fellow Irishmen Paul McShane, David Meyler, and Robbie Brady, and a promising couple of fellow young defenders called Andrew Robertson and Harry Maguire.

“I loved it. Whenever the body was fit and my body felt good and when I was training well, it was really enjoyable. But for the majority of my time there, it was not enjoyable. Dealing with injuries. And I suppose, not meeting my own expectations. I felt like a prisoner in my own body. My body couldn’t do what my mind and what my heart wanted to do.”

It started to go wrong just as things had never been better. That October of 2014 he was called up to the Irish senior squad after his Hull clubmate Robbie Brady had raved to Martin O’Neill about how the Douglas lad practically slept at their club grounds. While he didn’t get to play or even keep a personalised jersey from his time in that camp, it had given him a taste of something he wanted even more. But then after a couple of impressive performances during a one-month loan at Blackpool, he injured his knee and was basically out for the rest of the season.

Looking back, he lacked a bit of perspective and more so, the necessary social support. The physios were great to him, not least from all the time they spent in each other’s company, and there were some senior respected pros like Meyler and Shaun Maloney who his reserved nature would gravitate towards. But by his own admission they were the exception to the rule. With nothing like a sport psychologist — “someone like that would have helped a lot” — around to act as some form of sounding board or liaison with management, he fell between the gaps, leaving him by himself.

“There were some great characters at the club and I’d enjoy watching all the messing and joking from a distance. But I wasn’t really comfortable in the dressing room. The only time I felt comfortable there was after doing well in training. I didn’t feel I deserved to be there unless I could show it on the training pitch. I couldn’t show my worth. So when I couldn’t train, I went more and more into myself.”

There was the occasional glimpse of light. Towards the end of the 2015-16 season, he was back playing well for the U21s and with the senior side already assured of a Championship play-off spot, Bruce called him up to the starting line-up for their penultimate league game, away to Bolton. David Meyler flew over both his dad and cousin, a gesture Lenihan didn’t know about beforehand but still treasures to this day. Hull lost 1-0 but Lenihan impressed, not least his manager.

“It’s not been an easy 18 months for Brian with injuries but he’s come back,” Bruce told reporters afterwards. “He’s big, quick and aggressive, a typical Irish lad, as tough as they come. He’s going to be a very good player, he’s got a bright future in the game.”

Two days later he played in an FA U21 semi-final against West Ham. Hurt his knee in the first half but not bad enough to stop him playing on and scoring a penalty in a shootout, albeit one Hull would lose. The next morning he woke up and a knee that had just felt “funny, not sore” had ballooned overnight. “Just after I’d showed the manager that I could cut it at that level, I couldn’t believe it was after happening again.”

Yet that debut at Bolton was the very thing that sustained him. Over the next year he reckons he must have watched it 100 times back on Sky+ and figures his dad must have watched it at least 50 times as well.

“I remember coming home not long afterwards and before going to bed I called into the sitting room to say goodnight to Dad and he was watching it. I knew they felt proud of me. Only for [that debut], the injury would have broken me. But I’d got a taste of it [the top level]. I felt so comfortable there. That was my drug and I’d do everything in my power to get back there.”

By the following February he was back. Too late to be included among the designated foreign players for Marco Silva’s Premier League squad but good enough to train with them and impress. That summer the club extended his contract by a further season.

“All my Christmases had come together. I was so primed and ready that this was going to be my year.”

Even when Silva moved on to Watford, his replacement Leonid Slutsky effusively praised him in a text, conveying how he would be a big part of the Russian’s plans. Yet after one pre-season game, Lenihan found he was effectively out of them.

Republic of Ireland's Brian Lenihan is watched by Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, in action during squad training ahead of their UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer, Group D, game against Gibraltar on Saturday. Republic of Ireland Squad Training, Gannon Park, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland's Brian Lenihan is watched by Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, in action during squad training ahead of their UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer, Group D, game against Gibraltar on Saturday. Republic of Ireland Squad Training, Gannon Park, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

“I was very upset about it and eventually after a few months when Hull told me I could leave, I thought, ‘Great.’ I went up to train with Rotherham, injured my shin again, then trained one day with Scunthorpe. But in the car back, I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ I’d just had enough. Of life. Not just football. Because at the time it was life or death for me. I’d poured so much into trying to be successful and make my family proud and it just wasn’t working out. My career. Life. It was the one and the same to me. I wanted to end my football career. And as a consequence, my life too.”

He cringes now thinking how deceitful and secretive he was. Not telling his parents how he was really feeling. His girlfriend Bailey asleep beside him while he was looking up car crash test videos on his phone. At the time he couldn’t distinguish between Brian Lenihan the footballer and Brian Lenihan the person, or recognise that Bailey could, that she didn’t care if he was a footballer or a pilot or a carpenter. And so one morning he drove to his local church to say a prayer, returned to his car and gobbled down what he calculated would be enough tablets to end his life. About 15 hours later he awoke in a hospital to find Bailey in tears by his bedside, along with David Meyler and one of the club physios. From there he would be sent to the Priory clinic in Altrincham where another Corkman who lived five minutes away would be there to offer support. Some of Lenihan’s three-month treatment there has been documented. How, after a couple of months into his time there, he underwent a course of 12 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy, essentially triggering him to have a seizure. He vows that it was far more advanced and less barbaric than it appears in the films.

I think it hit the reset button in my brain. I had some memory loss and headaches afterwards but they were only minor short-term effects.

He also underwent extensive cognitive behavioural therapy — “The ECT was very much secondary to the CBT,” he stresses. What he hasn’t spoken about before though was just how good Roy Keane was to him in his time there. It wasn’t something he was going to volunteer as it’s not the kind of thing Roy himself would volunteer; it’s just when you heard him first tell his story to 96FM’s Trevor Welch and he referred to Roy Keane as a “very good man”, you sensed there was something deeper as to why. And so, yeah, he’ll tell you, how Roy Keane is an even better man than he was the footballer he adored.

“Roy would call to see me in the hospital. Regularly. For three months. He’d text me. He still texts me. He really gave me a lift. I used walk his dogs around the golf course. It was surreal for me, being like that with my childhood hero, but he’s just so down to earth. You could talk to him about anything and everything. Football. Cork. GAA. I have so much respect for that man.”

He’s stayed in the Manchester area after he got out of hospital. It was too soon to return to Cork and he was still too concerned what the neighbours might think. But over time he’d start to think less like that. And to start to discover who he is, and what he’d become.

“I needed to go back to basics as a person. I’d changed a massive amount. I was so deceitful, hiding how I was feeling. Now if I’m having a bad day and Mum or Dad pick up on it and ask, I can explain it to them and they’ll reassure me everything is fine. If I had just opened up earlier to them, it would have made things a lot easier. I just feel so lucky that I have a second chance. I do feel a lot of guilt because of what I did to my parents and Bailey especially, but at the same time I can repair it.”

Instead of taking his own life, he has given life; eight weeks ago, Bailey, now his fiancée, gave birth to little Roman. “Right through the pregnancy, it was such a reason for me to step up. I wanted to be to him like my dad was for me. I’m in awe of him.”

Now that he knows and likes himself a lot better, he’s ready to do something. Not something to define him like it did, just something to enhance him, occupy him, but not consume him. He might go back to college. He might not. He may well return to Cork. He may not, but now it’s not because he’s worried about what the neighbours might think. If anything he’s learned from telling his story that it has inspired or helped neighbours and anyone else who has suffered in silence. You don’t have to tell everyone but tell someone. The one thing he knows he won’t return to is football. Well, until maybe Roman wants to play it.

“I’m not bitter towards it. Myself and Bailey often watch Super Sunday and I might make a comment about what someone could have done and next thing the commentator mentions it and Bailey looks at me: How did you know? But as for playing? Nah. I went to train one night with a Sunday League team shortly after I finished up in the Priory. I was a bit overweight from the medication but there were a lot of lads more overweight on that team than me. But I’d say I didn’t move outside a 10-metre diameter. Just got the ball, laid it off. I was like, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ I shocked myself. I literally have no love for it.”

So, final question. That 11-year-old in Billy Madden’s classroom. That kid who’d move his parents’ furniture around the living room, who’d picture Alex Ferguson peering over the fence. Was he wrong to chase a dream, to want be a footballer? He smiles, shaking the head. Not a chance. That kid was dead right. He’ll always have and remember College Corinthians. The Shed in full voice urging on City. That day in Bolton. Rubbing shoulders with Robbie and Roy. He just should have realised football is something you do, not something you are.

“When someone commented on my weight that time, I said to them, ‘Look, I’ve had a six pack. I’ve been there, I’ve done it, I’ve got paid for it. It’s over-rated.’ And a bit of it still holds true. I’ve come to realise that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve experienced things in my life that other people don’t get to realise. I think that is the biggest thing I’ve done since I’ve come out of hospital. That and just to bring my own expectation levels down to a normal level.”

The National Football Exhibition is still open all this weekend at St Peter’s on North Main Street, Cork. It is the second of seven countrywide stops on the road to Dublin hosting four Uefa European Championship Finals games in June 2020.

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