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'I'm very thankful for all the help' - The Rossies and a football passion after battling cancer

Cian Smith will be cheering on his brothers Enda and Donie in Croke Park tomorrow.

Cian Smith 4 Enda, Cian and Donie Smith at Cian's testimonial in 2014. Source: BoyleToday.com

THE RAIN WAS teeming down in Pearse Stadium three weeks ago but it couldn’t dampen the celebrations.

As Cian Smith made his way through the raucous crowd of Roscommon supporters, he thought of the different days at the Salthill venue last summer.

A Connacht final draw that preceded a hammering in the replay at the hands of Galway. Then Clare shunted Roscommon towards the exit door in the qualifiers. This breakout win addressed the record.

Amidst the chaos he located his two younger brothers. 22-year-old Enda would later win the man-of-the-match award for his towering efforts at midfield. 24-year-old Donal was sprung from the bench to supply vital guile and a scoring touch in the final quarter. A pair of Connacht senior medals were heading to the Smith family home in Boyle.

“I met the boys just briefly, got a hug with them and said well done. I spoke to Mam and Dad, they were delighted. My other brother Ronan was there somewhere in the crowd.

“We were all delighted but the main thing was we were proud. We knew they were so disappointed after last year so we were relieved for the boys and the team.

“They’ve had some big defeats in the league and there’s been a lot of rubbish talked. When you’ve family members involved, you know what goes into it. So when they win, there’s great satisfaction first of all for Enda and Donal, and for all the lads.”

Enda Smith and Donal Smith celebrate with supporters in the crowd after the game Enda and Donal Smith celebrating the Connacht senior final win. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

In a football mad family, it was a triumph to savour. Cian was the first to fly the family flag with Roscommon football sides back in 2006. By the end of that season he was an All-Ireland minor champion.

That magical replay win over Kerry was the only occasion he didn’t see game time but the experience of the giddy chaos in Ennis that September afternoon and having a front-row seat for a unique journey, created memories that won’t diminish.

“My own highlight that year was probably winning the Connacht final. We beat Mayo in the old MacHale Park with the old rickety stand.

“I remember coming on that day and it was an absolute scorcher. At U16 we’d played Sligo and Leitrim in Connacht but Galway and Mayo were split in two. We were getting beaten by half Galway or half Mayo.

“Then we came to minor and we beat the Galway and Mayo county sides. We did a lap of honour afterwards and in the dressing-room afterwards I just remember the complete satisfaction that we’d won a Connacht championship.”

On a Saturday afternoon Roscommon became All-Ireland minor kingpins and on the Sunday morning, Cian was on the train from Boyle to Dublin. As his county was erupting in celebration, he’d the carriage to himself and his only companions when the train pulled into Connolly were American golf fans in Ireland for the Ryder Cup.

Roscommon squad 23/9/2006 Cian is pictured in the back row, second from the right, before Roscommon's 2006 All-Ireland final replay win over Kerry. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

He had sat his Leaving Cert in 2005, a boarding student at St Jarlath’s in Tuam. He toyed with the idea of college but was just short of his preferred course and found himself starting a job with Permanent TSB in Dublin, the Monday after that minor success. They spent the winter being toasted at home.

“Dermot Early senior presented us with the All-Ireland medals. He would have spoken to us a good bit during that campaign.

“A seriously inspirational man and a very positive influence on us all. He always had a good word to say to us.”

He had an ambition and passion to kick on. At the start of 2007, he was on the fringes of a Roscommon U21 squad managed by John Maughan. He didn’t nail down a squad place but didn’t expect to and there was the promise of further seasons in that grade.

But then life threw him a curveball off the pitch. In October 2007, he found out he had throat cancer. For a young, healthy man immersed in sport, the news left him reeling.

There was an odd chain of events that prompted the diagnosis.

“It was a fluke really. I would have had a sore throat when I yawned, breathed heavily or swallowed but nothing to keep me off work. I was never sick.

“My dad’s an auctioneer. He sold a house to an A&E consultant in Sligo, who used to call by the house.

“I happened to go in the back door of the house one day when he was there. I don’t know why because I normally go in the front.

“He was there and I was talking to him and he noticed I was very hoarse. He wanted to bring me for a check up but I thought I was grand. An hour after he left I said to my dad, ‘Not a chance, I’m not going to hospital’.

“About two weeks later, a letter came with an appointment. Dad told me just to go anyway so I went for the check up, kind of begrudgingly. He found red spots and he referred me to a specialist in Dublin. That was it. Throat cancer.

“It was a big shock. I’d surgery the 31st of October, they’d to remove half my voicebox. They told me I wouldn’t be out of hospital for Christmas but I walked out of Vincent’s the 1st of December.

“Every target they gave me I was going to beat it, whether it was stubborness or whatever. It was just to get through it.

“Then I had radiotherapy until February 2008. The surgery had been tough but the end of the radiotherapy was torture. You weren’t eating, you were sick. It was very tough at the time.”

There was a good network of people around him to lean upon.

“The big thing was the support of people around you. I got married to Michelle last October, we’ve been going out since 2005, so she’s been through it all, good and bad.

“The support around me was incredible. Michelle, my family, my friends as well, I couldn’t ask for better.

“Permanent TBS, where I still work, were so good to me, still are. I couldn’t say enough about them.

“John O’Leary, the ex Dublin captain, was my area manager at the time and my manager was Mick Moran, a very good Mayo man. They were both very good to me.”

John O'Leary 1993 Former Dublin football goalkeeper John O'Leary Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He battled on with football always a target to aim for and 2008 would deliver an unexpected comeback.

“When I got out, I recovered in Boyle and was told I wouldn’t play football for the year. But I was back training by May with the club and then coming on in games. It was just great to be back involved.”

“I came on in the county intermediate final just short of a year after the throat cancer. I scored a goal to level the game against Kilbride but we were beaten in the replay. Still it was a big milestone for me.”

That focus to help Boyle up to the senior ranks in Roscommon football never wavered. In 2013 they finally broke through that barrier. The team had a strong Smith flavour with Enda midfield, Cian centre-forward and Donal full-forward.

They went on to contest a Connacht final before being bettered by Mayo’s Kiltane but after graduating to the senior ranks, Cian knew how difficult it was for him to keep playing.

The radiotherapy had reduced the size of his windpipe and though he battled on in matches, it was becoming difficult to stay going in matches.

“The amount of games that I’d make a run, I’d stop then and the ball would go down the other end of the pitch and I’d be completely out of breath.

“My marker would be wondering was I okay, did i need an inhaler. I just couldn’t get the oxygen in.

“Looking back I probably shouldn’t have played and I don’t know how I did. I kind of knew then, my breathing was getting worse and I couldn’t play on.

“My doctor Aonghus Curran, Lord of Mercy on him, he’s died since, he did my operations. He was a great, great man. He would have always said to be careful if I got a bang and lost consciousness.

“I just had to make sure the physio of the team knew the situation and understood. I decided to go out at the top as it were winning the intermediate.”

In 2014 he had a spell in goal for Boyle’s senior team, blessed with a decent kickout and a strong ability in the air. But by the close of that season, more assistance was needed to help his breathing and he had to call a halt.

A charity testimonial game for him that year raised €10,000.

Source: BoyleToday.com

Cian Smith 3 Source: BoyleToday.com

“By the end of 2014, they decided they’d put in the tracheostomy tube. Obviously with a tube in my neck, I couldn’t play. That was it.

“The tube is a necessary evil. I don’t like having it, I don’t like the look of it. I’d be pretty conscious of it. But my quality of life has gone way up. When I look back at pictures before, I didn’t realise that I looked very yellow in the face and was tired all the time.

“I wasn’t sleeping great because I couldn’t get oxygen in. Then the minute I had the operation, everyone would say the colour is back in my face. I don’t like it but I’d be lost without it.

“The only thing is I can’t run really. I can but with the impact, it moves around and there could be bleeding. If I’m climbing stairs or steep inclines, I’d be out of breath.

“Then small things like having a shower, I need a waterproof bib because basically the hole is into my lungs so I can’t get water down it.

“Every six weeks, I go back to Vincent’s, they remove the tube, put in a new tube, tidy up the scar and around the hole in my neck.

“Work are brilliant about it, they’re very understanding. I’m very thankful for all the help. It has to be done.”

Cian still plays golf regularly and the involvement for football has brought him down the coaching path. If he’s outside and caught in rain, he needs a snood with him to protect the tube but otherwise the role in both sports can be carried out unhindered.

That enthusiasm for football, fostered in his youth in Boyle and in later years in boarding school in St Jarlath’s in Tuam, still shines brightly.

In 2012 he started out coaching with the Boyle U21’s and then the season after he finished playing he was with the senior side. Last year that coaching role was greater and Boyle got to the county senior semi-final where they lost out to St Brigid’s.

There have been opposition analysis roles with the Roscommon minors under Fergal O’Donnell and the U21’s under Mark O’Dowd in recent years as well. Last year he was roped in as a selector with the DIT Sigerson team as well.

“I’d always have been mad into it. It was always a role he was going to go down but it just came around earlier. I miss playing but at least I can influence things through coaching. I can still kick a ball or solo, I can do everything but run.

“I’d still always kick around before training. I played centre-forward and I was just mad into kick passing, turn and deliver. I used to love watching players like Maurice Fitzgerald, Ciaran McDonald and Padraig Joyce.

“The lads used to slag me about gym work, it has to be done but I wouldn’t have been a big fan of it. There’s no goalposts in the gym! All I wanted to do was play football.”

He’s watched with pride the progress his two brothers have made through the ranks to their current status as key elements of Kevin McStay’s project in Roscommon.

In their early years they made waves in soccer. Boyle has always been a hotbed for the sport. Cian played in the national Kennedy Cup tournament in Limerick when he was younger, Enda and Donie followed suit.

For a couple of years Enda pounded the road to Dublin after being recruited by Belvedere Boys. Current Blackburn Rovers player Darragh Lenihan was on that team. Another time he played in a tournament in Barcelona and played alongside Dublin forward Paul Mannion.

Darragh Lenihan with Aleksander Cavric Darragh Lenihan in action for the Ireland U21 soccer team. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“It’s funny he just stopped, not that he didn’t like it but that he decided not to bother keep going,” says Cian.

“Enda was just a finisher, Donie was a centre midfielder and a tackler. Both of them played Boyle Celtic the whole way up then. They were always mad into sport, Ronan then has always been more into music.”

Gaelic football soon became a dominating aspect in their lives and there was a steady flow of underage success. In 2011 they won Connacht minor medals together and kicked a combined haul of 0-5 in the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Tipperary.

In 2012 Enda won a provincial minor final against Mayo and Donie was a Connacht U21 winner, before shooting 0-4 in an All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin.

In 2013 they both played in a Connacht U21 final loss to Galway but came back the year after to win provincial U21 medals and contest that year’s All-Ireland final against a star-studded Dublin team.

In 2015 Enda claimed another Connacht U21 medal and now they have the senior honours to complete the set.

Journeying around the country back in 2006 to watch a successful Roscommon minor squad that their brother was part of, helped capture their imagination. Cian’s illness a year later was a tough experience for the family to go through but a shared interest in football has helped maintain a strong bond since.

“We’ve never really talked about it but I suppose it was difficult for them,” reflects Cian.

“When I was in hospital Dublin, they were still in school, Enda, Donie and Ronan. I was in Dublin, Mam and Dad were up and down, so they basically had one parent at home most of the time.

“They just got on with life. At that age they probably didn’t understand it. Enda was playing with Belvedere at the time, on a Saturday he’d play match and Mam and Dad would come into the hospital with him on a Saturday evening.

“It must have been strange for him to see me in a bed when I couldn’t talk with my neck split open and seven or eight tubes coming out of me.”

“Obviously you’d be very proud of them. Ever since they were 16, I would go to all the games.

“When they were younger, I would have been telling them you should have done this or you should have done that, but now to be honest they’re their own men. I’m delighted for them and their success.”

Enda Smith celebrates after the game Enda Smith celebrates after the Connacht final victory Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

He’ll take his seat tomorrow with the rest of the Smith family to watch Roscommon and Mayo duel. It will be a milestone with the two brothers featuring together in the senior championship arena at Croke Park for the first time.

They arrive on the stage as Connacht kingpins with confidence soaring yet their 29-year-old brother still has one over them with that All-Ireland medal from 2006.

“There’s a running joke at home with the neighbours about that,” laughs Cian.

“There’d be a bit of slagging when we’d meet up that I’m number one because of that with football opinions. I’d be slagging that they don’t know what they’re on about. The odd time they’d bite. It’s all good craic.

“The thing about the lads and all these Roscommon lads in general, they’re very grounded.

“They’re not happy with winning a Connacht championship, they want to have a go and see what happens. I’m really looking forward to it.”

A decade on and life and football continue to roll along.

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