The Irish football team bonded by life with diabetes

Later this month, an Irish team, all living with diabetes, will travel to Ukraine to represent Ireland at the 2019 Diabetes Euro Futsal Championship. David Sneyd reports.

The Irish football team bonded by life with diabetes

Later this month, an Irish team, all living with diabetes, will travel to Ukraine to represent Ireland at the 2019 Diabetes Euro Futsal Championship. David Sneyd reports.

Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary at the sprawling National Sports Campus in west Dublin.

All eight of the public astro turf pitches are still in use as 9pm approaches on a Monday night. The sights and sounds are typical of every other facility similar to this one around the country.

These are football people; some old, some young, most doing their best to make amends for that poor first touch.

The struggle is real, the love too.

Balls continually smash off the wooden perimeters which separate the pitches. Shouts of ‘leave it’, ‘pass it’, ‘hit it’ and ‘fuck it’ fill the air. This is football; how most will know it. How they live it, endure it but can’t imagine life without it.

A short walk down the narrow pathway leads to the final pitch on the right hand side. It seems like every other, at first glance. There is the lad with a Liverpool jersey — Van Dijk printed on the back, naturally — a couple are in Ireland tops and one rogue character in GAA gear.

There’s the fancy dan in orange boots, the veteran with a pair of three-quarter lengths that have seen better days, but whose speed of thought more than makes up for the miles in the legs.

It only takes a few seconds peering through the bottle green railings to realise this is not just a carefree kickabout. Only one half of the pitch is being used and there is a player-coach dictating the repetitive passage of play: attack v defence.

The demand is for the forwards to move the ball quicker and the defenders to maintain a shape whilst also picking up spare men. “Pass and move, pass and move.” It is relentless.

And then there are the sprint circuits which follow at the end of the two-hour session. Some crumple to the floor, others sling their heads to the heavens and gasp for air.

Everyone gets a second wind for the penalty shootout which brings training to a close, although it is curious to see the width of the goal reduced by a couple of feet. The reason? This is Ireland’s first ever national diabetic futsal team, and they are preparing for this month’s European Championships in Kiev.

So, it may be a normal Monday night in west Dublin, but this group are working towards doing something unique. Those involved come from all over, not just the capital; Kildare, Westmeath, Roscommon, Galway, Tipperary and Cork are all represented.

While the 11 members of the squad share similar stories, they also have their own personal struggles. For 44-year-old Robert Treacy — “the most experienced player, not the oldest” — he was running his own construction company before being diagnosed two years ago.

I was putting my symptoms down to the pressure and stress of work. I ignored it for three or four months. My Dad is diabetic, I was up in his house and he got me to do blood tests. I was off the charts.

The youngest, 19-year-old Craig O’Shea from Clonmel, discovered he was Type 1 at the beginning of his teens, so the level of dedication he has maintained to make the weekly training sessions is par for the course.

“I’ll get the bus up to Dublin Airport and a taxi over here. I’ll get home around quarter past two in the morning. I’d do it every day if I had to. It’s always been a dream to play for Ireland so to get that chance, it means absolutely everything to me.”

Cathal Fleming, goalkeeper and manager, is the one who brought this band of brothers together. He is 39, from Blanchardstown, and was diagnosed three years ago. “It changes everything but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of what you can do with sport.”

He put the message out on Facebook a year ago and after plenty of interest — and trials — the squad was whittled down. “You would not believe the amount of messages I had from Brazilians. They just saw futsal written down and got in touch. I’d ask them if they were diabetic, none were, so then you have to explain they can’t play and they start giving out to you,” Fleming laughs.

There are no days off from diabetes. It is, in effect, a disease caused by a lack of insulin in a person’s body, leads to organs being attacked. Diabetes Ireland — the only national charity dedicated to the condition — estimates that 225,840 people live with it around the country, while a further 30,000 have gone undetected.

Injections of insulin everyday are a necessity so too blood tests which require a prick of the skin.

What becomes clear is that while diabetes is a life sentence, it is not a death sentence, even if the consequences can be grave.

The Ireland Diabetic Futsal team’s Richie Grimes and keeper Cathal Fleming in training at the National Indoor Arena. Picture: Paul Nicholls
The Ireland Diabetic Futsal team’s Richie Grimes and keeper Cathal Fleming in training at the National Indoor Arena. Picture: Paul Nicholls

“My body broke down last year,” Mark Bradford, 25, begins. “I was constantly vomiting blood, the lining of my stomach, the bile, it was there. It’s like a fit, I couldn’t stop shaking. I was in hospital for a week and a half, on drips left right and centre.

“That’s the worst it has got for me because I wasn’t in control of it.”

Treacy adds: “You feel dazed and confused, you get dizzy, spaced out and look drunk. That’s how you feel, and not in a good way.”

Former Tottenham Hotspur captain Gary Mabbutt is one of the most high-profile figures to enjoy a top-level career in the game with the condition.

Alan Kernaghan, the ex-Republic of Ireland international, is another, while last year Real Madrid’s Nacho became the first player with diabetes to score at a World Cup when he found the net for Spain.

Constant fatigue, ravenous hunger, memory loss and an unquenchable thirst are just some of the symptoms. It also affects the feet, particularly the soles, leading to a crumpled, numb sensation.

“When I was diagnosed, I gave up football completely,” Richie Grimes, the team captain, explains. “I was afraid to play. I thought I’d go on the pitch and die. There was no one thing that changed that, the doctor who treated me in Beamount even said I should continue playing, but it was an internal thing I felt.

I found it difficult telling people; I found it hard telling my manager with St Paul’s Artane. I left for a year, came back and didn’t give a reason why. I didn’t want to been as weak or as if I couldn’t do what I did before.

Grimes is 33 and was diagnosed soon after celebrating his 30th birthday. Mike Lynch, now 41, was living and working in Boston when his life turned upside down in 2004. “I was home a few months later and ever since it has been about controlling the injections and the dosage.”

Twenty-year-old Eoin Devitt saw his weight drop to 49 kilograms when he was diagnosed in the build up to his Junior Cert. A GAA man throughout his life, he never thought of playing football — futsal in this instance — until he was doing some work in Fleming’s house.

“Now it’s an opportunity to make the most of,” he beams.

These are men in different points of their lives who have all ended up going down a path they never envisaged. The disease took hold but it does not suffocate.

The last few months have helped developed a bond among them, men who have already showed strength of character off the pitch and will now get the opportunity to display that same resolve on it for their country.

Shane Murphy, 26, has already seen close up the dedication needed. His sister Leanne was captain of the Irish Junior Boxing team which claimed bronze at last year’s Euro Championships.

“Every morning I get up for work at 5am and she does the same, going on a run before school. We couldn’t be prouder of her. We went over to Russia with her last year. The atmosphere was incredible. When she came home and the reception she got, it sent shivers down my spine, it was class.

“She is an inspiration, she works so hard, puts everything into what she does and has been telling me to do the same.”

Murphy’s childhood was like so many others in this country. He played Gaelic football, hurling and soccer growing up in Cork city. Even after his diagnosis when he was 11, that dedication to sport never wavered.

“My mam was on the ball, she helped me through,” he explains. “There are some nights now when I just can’t sleep, it’s tough. What always helped me was playing sport. If someone told me I couldn’t play sport, that would ruin my life. So to be so close to playing for Ireland, it’s just a dream to be honest.”

The FAI’s Football For All programme provided initial guidance, so too Sport Ireland, but financial support has been left to the squad to source.

“Look, it would make it easier if we had the money from the FAI but it was made clear very early on that it wouldn’t be possible, so we’ve dealt with it and are doing it ourselves,” Fleming adds.

Another struggle for this band of brothers to overcome before making history for their country.

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