How Venus Williams got Stephen McPhail back on track after autoimmune disease diagnosis

A two-and-a-half-hour pep talk from tennis superstar Venus Williams got Stephen McPhail back on track when he struggled to get out of bed due to his autoimmune disease.

How Venus Williams got Stephen McPhail back on track after autoimmune disease diagnosis

A two-and-a-half-hour pep talk from tennis superstar Venus Williams got Stephen McPhail back on track when he struggled to get out of bed due to his autoimmune disease.

The former Republic of Ireland midfielder - now sporting director at Shamrock Rovers - suffers with Sjogren's Syndrome, which causes the body to attack its own moisture-producing glands, such as the tear and salivary glands, and causes the joints to swell.

In this week’s A Footballer’s Life podcast, McPhail tells Graham Cummins about the role Williams, who also suffers with Sjogren's, played in helping him cope.

“I read at the time that she had the same autoimmune disease. And my agent said we’ll try and get in contact with her. She was playing, she seemed to be living an athlete’s life. So let’s see what she's doing.

“He got in contact with her agent and one day she rang the house in Cardiff. And I spoke to her for about two and a half hours. She was unbelievable, unreal. It was surreal. I just sat there in the kitchen speaking to Venus Williams about everything.

She had just been diagnosed within a year and a half so she was going through it. She had little tips on diet and stuff. She said she used to love drinking pints of Guinness but she had to cut the amount of pints.

“She was absolutely brilliant, top drawer, so honest. I stayed in contact with her a bit. Obviously she’s a huge superstar so I wasn’t annoying her. But it was great to be able to pick someone’s brains that was in my position as an athlete trying to live with something like that. It helped a lot.

“She spoke about trying to keep it real, about not giving up. That was a huge part of her talk with me. Because I had times when I thought, I can’t get out of bed here and I’ve to go training. I just felt fatigued and she was telling me the exact same story.

“She told me go and see this specialist in LA, I’ll book it, and within three days she did it. And I was over there. She set up the appointment and I spent four days with him. He said, this is the treatment you need and it helps me all the time to recover now when I have a flare-up.

“Her chat was, don’t lie down to this, you’ll be fine. She was really really positive about trying to keep a normal life as much as you can.”

Williams, who is still playing professional tennis at 39, reiterated that advice last year in an interview with prevention.com.

"Don’t be discouraged, because what [you're] going through is similar to other people," she said. "Talk to those people who understand you or have a similar condition, reach out, and build a [support] team. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t give up.”

McPhail, then a Cardiff City player, had already overcome a shattering setback in 2009 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, which was related to his autoimmune condition.

“The year I got ill, I was 29, and I was flying. I started 56 games that year. It was the fittest I’ve ever been, not missed a minute of the whole season nearly.

All of a sudden, I found a lump just under my jawline. It was only small, tiny like a pea, and I said it to the doc. And it was sort of humming and hawing, we think it’s just an infection. Got antibiotics but it never cleared, never went away. It wasn’t sore or anything so I wasn’t too bothered.

“But he brought me to see a specialist. And we had an international break coming up, a two-week break, so he said I’ll take it out. You won’t miss a game, you might miss a week’s training.

“Took it out, and I didn’t miss a game, but they told me when I came out of recovery it was a lot bigger. It was growing back the opposite way, but nothing to be worried about, stitched me back up, played away.

“Then two or three weeks later, I had a follow-up appointment and they told me it was a lymphoma. The whole world sort of stops. Then in the meeting room, honestly I just sort of asked what do I need to do, what treatment do I need, let’s do it, let’s crack on.

“I had my treatment, Cardiff were brilliant, they sent me back home. I had my treatment in the Mater, let me be around the family. So I had six to eight weeks back home going for my treatment every day. And I was actually training with Tony McCarthy at the time, to keep fit. It’s ironic Macca is here at Rovers now.

“Tough time, but I was so determined that it was not going to stop me. That I wanted to be back on the pitch as quick as possible.

“I went back in the middle of my treatment to watch a game and say hello, just for a weekend. The first four or five weeks on the treatment I was feeling fine, not feeling any different, but towards the end, I was getting quite ill.

“Obviously people are just rooting for you, all the players, all the fans. The fans were unbelievable, sung my name at every game. Little things keep you going. Even though you're not there, you feel part of it. You’re watching results, Soccer Saturday, see how they’re getting at. Ringing the lads after.

“The whole club was scarily good. And lucky enough within four months, I was back on the pitch. I feel quite blessed that it passed.

“I learned at the time about the autoimmune disease, that I still have. It’s incurable, it’s something I have to live with every day. I can deal with that now. I’m totally on track with it all. I have ups and downs, it’s just trying to stay on top of it as best you can, I just have to crack on with it.

“Quite a number of years after the lymphoma, I was breaking down all the time, getting sick, and then I’d bounce back and play, and break down again. They were trying to figure it all out, it was quite complicated.”

At least until that chat with Williams and a visit to Dr Daniel Wallace in Los Angeles.

“I went to LA and met the top surgeon in that field and he put him on treatment that I still have today.”

Although he continued his career, McPhail admits he never quite reached the same standards after his diagnosis.

“To be honest, I didn't get back to where I was. I played probably 100 games after that, from 30. I never felt bang at it all the time. I would be for a certain amount of time, then I’d break down again.

I was bang in my prime so it was frustrating. But I’m just happy to be still here. Because when you’re going through the treatment and you’re sitting beside kids who are sick and ill, it just gives you a whole perspective of what’s going on. It's heartbreaking seeing the treatment centres and people who are really really struggling.

“I had my first child a few months before I found the lump so I don't know how my wife coped. She was a huge rock. I always look to her more than myself. Because you just go into auto-drive and crack on through it.”

Graham Cummins describes Stephen McPhail as “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met”.
Graham Cummins describes Stephen McPhail as “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met”.

In a wide-ranging interview, McPhail, who Cummins describes as “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met”, discusses his early years at Leeds United, where he was first drilled with defensive instincts by George Graham and then became one of David O’Leary’s ‘babies’.

Harry Kewell was the first of those Leeds kids to make the breakthrough and McPhail recalls staying up at the end of roommate ‘H’s’ bed waiting on word from first-team trips to Anfield or Stamford Bridge.

He talks about the bond those youngsters built en route to a Champions League semi-final but also the swift demise and the heartbreak of relegation under club legend Eddie Gray.

He discusses rediscovering his love for the game at Barnsley and leading Cardiff out in an FA Cup final.

He refuses to blame anyone but himself for only winning 10 Ireland caps, hailing the no-nonsense man-management of Mick McCarthy.

And he talks about the joy of life back in Dublin at the club he supported “since I was a baby”.

Listen to A Footballer’s Life with Stephen McPhail here.

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