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Dublin: 14 °C Friday 19 October, 2018
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'The sexual abuse was the underlying, emotional trigger': John Leonard on surviving

The former goalkeeper with the Dublin senior footballers has battled drink and drugs and lived dangerously close to the edge.

Leonard at the Setanta Sports Book of the Year awards ceremony.
Leonard at the Setanta Sports Book of the Year awards ceremony.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

EDITOR’S NOTE: We caught up with former Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard in October to talk about his extraordinary story of abuse, addiction and Gaelic football. Since then his book Dub Sub Confidential has won the inaugural Setanta Sports Book of the Year and we feel his tale bears repeating.

WE’RE SITTING ON some steps, gazing out across Dublin Bay. It’s late morning and the sun glistens on the water, casting shadows.

John Leonard knows this place well. But it’s complicated. His family home is a five-minute walk away. But high up into the clouds, in the opposite direction, is the imposing spire of St Fintan’s Church. And it was there where Leonard’s childhood was destroyed, his adulthood subsequently descending into a cocktail of wild drug abuse and alcoholism.

He was nine when the prolific paedophile priest Fr. Ivan Payne first sexually abused him. It was years later when Leonard told his parents and his life became engulfed by chaos and self-sabotage.

“I was on a mission of wanting destruction”, he says.

But there was a slight issue.

Leonard became a relatively high-profile athlete – a reserve goalkeeper for the Dublin senior footballers. Balancing the drugs, the drink and the sex with relentless training, recovery sessions and games was a struggle. But somehow, he managed it. Somehow, through bleary eyes and a heavy head, through the paranoia and the hallucinations, Leonard was part of a Dublin squad that reached an All-Ireland semi-final in 2007.

His autobiography, ‘Dub Sub Confidential: A Goalkeeper’s Life with – and without – the Dubs’ is remarkable. It details the pills and the thrills, the moments where Leonard stared into an abyss and didn’t seem to care whether he lived or died. Written by himself, it’s a stark and searingly honest memoir – a crucial final stop on his journey to recovery.

“I was desperate to stop that old life and own up to myself and stop running away. That period – six years ago, more or less – where I really started to face myself, I was desperate. I had to change. I didn’t want to be resigned to living a life I didn’t create, the life I was just following and flowing along with. I had to stop it and publicly declaring things really helped me to get out there and face up, to be honest, to be responsible. You can run away, you can take things easy. You can accept things and say ‘Ah, sure fuck it. That’s the way it is.’ Personally, I had to stop that. That was a life that I didn’t feel responsible for any more.”

LeonardDubs John Leonard in action for Dublin in February 2008. Source: Caroline Quinn/SPORTSFILE

The book forced him to pick away at his past. To dig deep into where his problems began. And it made him face the trauma of what happened when he was a child.

“The links became so apparent to me then. When I was trying to understand myself, I started to make those realisations. It’s hard to express when you feel that kind of embarrassment of having been abused as a kid. It was a public thing because it all came out. It damaged my view of myself. Then I went to Australia for a few years and I was so happy to get away because everything disappeared and I could reinvent myself. I didn’t play football for two and a half years. I didn’t do anything. I just went on an absolute mad one.

I was running away from the reality of what had happened here and the revelations that had come out about Ivan Payne. I ran away from that and that part of me. That compounded things and got worse and worse and I never dealt with it and that’s why it resurfaced. I came back to Ireland and couldn’t settle here and went to Greece and India. And in Greece in particular, I was a heavy, heavy alcoholic and living this artistic, weird life and completely oblivious to the realities of  what the abuse had done to me.”

The book details how Leonard launched himself into partying and hard drugs soon after admitting his abuse to his mother and father. But he never quite admitted it to himself. The excesses became a neat way of avoiding things. Numbing emotions seemed a good idea. In Dublin, he immersed himself in the acid-house scene, guzzling pills and sweating, stumbling through various club nights.

On a family holiday to Spain, he tried cocaine for the first time, snorting a few lines off a toilet-roll holder in a local bar. On the same trip, he smoked heroin and passed out in a strangers’ apartment.

But in among the drug tales and the high jinks, there’s a deep melancholy. The good moments – playing for the Dublin Under-21s, studying English and Philosophy at UCD, are quickly engulfed by tidal waves of sadness. The Ivan Payne trial started and Leonard blocked out the nightmares by increasing his drug diet. Quickly, he grew tired of Ireland and what it meant to him. He thought that moving elsewhere was the answer to his problems.

Sober-Paddy-thinking-on-it Leonard first began travelling in his late-teens in an effort to escape Dublin. Source: Sober Paddy

But it only seemed to push him into a darker, stranger place.

On his way to Australia, he and a friend stopped in Thailand. Staying in a skyscraper hotel in Bangkok, Leonard veered dangerously close to the edge – literally.

I went upstairs to get a pack of cigarettes. I put my beer down, started a bit of writing, listened to a bit of Bob Dylan and before I knew it, I’d opened the window and got out onto the window ledge. It was 30 floors up. I remember the emotion right now. I didn’t feel scared. I wasn’t unsure as to why I was there. I was just on a window ledge listening to music. It’s very hard to explain now. I honestly didn’t fear it. I was accepting of what I was doing. The amount of mad things I did when I was drinking, it almost became par for the course and it was almost as if you had to keep going further and further. I don’t know if I was looking for attention or whether I just had so much energy and anger and fear.”

His friend, Joxer, entered the room just in time. There was a brief, almost awkward, conversation as Leonard finally climbed back inside. This wasn’t just ‘Lenny’ acting the fool. This was serious. His friend asked if he was okay. Really okay.

“We did have that moment. And then we moved on – we went back out on the beer. He’s been great down through the years. He’s always understood I’ve had a few loose wires. But it’s tough. Men don’t want to talk about anything, really. Even my mates now, they don’t know a lot about the stuff that happened and why I was the way I was. You have this weird world where I’ve been so open and upfront about everything and people around me are still like, ‘Aghhhh, Jesus. I don’t know how to talk to you about stuff now because you’re so honest about things’. It’s not easy to talk about depression or anxiety or pain or insecurities as a man. And they exist for everyone. Every man, at some level, has something.

The male qualities that you perceive as being important are strength, vigour – things where you don’t show any weakness. But what I’ve tried to rationalise over the years of being sober is that being sober is cool and to talk about things and to be honest is cool. It’s strength. And to talk about your weaknesses is strength. So, for me, that’s the way I’ve reinvented it in my head. There are very few women that seem to have the issues. It seems to always be blokes that have the problems. There are going to be men who will always struggle, especially with emotions.”

The book contains a number of casual references to what was deeply worrying behaviour. While working on a Greek island, Leonard took to passing out in fields as he stumbled home from various bars. There was little regard for his safety. There was little regard for anything. Just like on the window ledge in Bangkok, Leonard couldn’t care less about what happened to him. Self-esteem was nil.

After a while, the far-flung places are hard to distinguish because each location descends into the same pattern. Everywhere, he sourced drugs. In India, he smoked opium and tried Ketamine in dive bars. He was 27 and lost. He drew up a list of three goals: to write a novel, to spend more time with his sick father and to play for Dublin. And then he went home.

He got a bar job. He turned out again for his local side St. Sylvester’s. He bought a battered car. And then in January 2006, he was called up to the senior Dublin panel by Paul Caffrey. He drove home immediately to tell his dad who was stricken with MS, having struggled with the illness for four decades. A devout Dub supporter, he was made up. Shortly after, as his son immersed himself in senior inter-county training and began to live his dream, Jim Leonard let go and slipped away.

John Leonard and Stephen Cluxton  27/1/2008 John Leonard, left, alongside Stephen Cluxton in 2008. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

There were a couple of seasons of high-octane involvement with Dublin but because of Stephen Cluxton’s undisputed status as first-choice goalkeeper, Leonard cut an increasingly frustrated figure as he waited for a chance that never came. Still, he worked hard on the field. He played hard off it too.

The drink and drugs never stopped. It was controlled but there was always time for a blow-up. And when Pat Gilroy replaced Caffrey as Dublin boss, Leonard was cut from the panel. Soon, the temporary control was gone. The demons began to gather in his mind. The drug use spiralled and he was a mess. He looked to Australia again as a solution. At the airport, he had just popped some pills when he realised he’d forgotten his passport.

Inevitably, things didn’t improve. As he entered his thirties, he was barely holding things together. In one passage, Leonard wakes up in a Sydney back-alley with no idea how he got there.

“It was semi-suicidal”, he says.

“I was putting myself in these crazy situations and just didn’t care what happened. I woke up in Sydney and I was behind a dumpster. My t-shirt was over my head, I had about a hundred mosquito bites, my face felt bruised like I’d been punched, I had no wallet, no phone and I didn’t know where I was. I thought to myself ‘I’m thirty-something now – I can’t be doing this anymore. This isn’t cool.’

As I went through my teens and entered my twenties, I had this romantic idea of being this kind of vagabond wanderer. I had this weird fantasy about being homeless and being this person that lived on the edge of society. I had this weird idea and it existed and I was a bit messed up. The kind of situations I got into…it was reckless stuff.”

Leonard never sought therapy, despite being acutely aware of the depth of his problems. If he had the time over again, he admits he would’ve spoken to a professional.

“I’d like to think I’ve figured it out myself and while I do have all the scars – mentally and physically – the only reason I was able to do it was because I got sober. And not blaming and not playing the victim and not reacting. I used alcohol and drugs as a release and that compounded the problems. But when I stepped back and got sober, I was able to analyse. I’ve studied psychology and philosophies and the way the brain works so I was able to understand it at a superficial level or an intellectual level. But then you put that into practice and I was sober and I was being accountable and my behaviour changed and I was far more at peace with myself.

But if I was to go and chat to ‘young me’ now, I’d say ‘Look, go see a psycho-therapist and talk about this stuff because the emotions you’re going to go through over the next ten years are going to mess with your brain. You were abused as a kid – Christ! It wasn’t something that didn’t matter too much, it was a fundamental part of your make-up. It affected you psychologically, psycho-sexually. And you need to talk to somebody or otherwise you’re going to put yourself through ten-to-fifteen years of heavy drink and drug abuse in order to come out the other end and you’re going to waste opportunities’.

I think the simple act of talking about it to somebody who knows how to respond to you makes a massive difference and that took me years to understand. I was able to figure it out myself but it took me fifteen years. I know other people who suffered sexual abuse as a kid and they’re still actively getting over it. So it does depend. But speaking about it is the only solution. You’ve got to get good advice. You’ve got to get people who are experienced in knowing how to tell you what to do.”

When he met his now-wife, Leonard had already begun trying to change. He had to. Sleeping on the floor of a friend’s office, he was functioning but just about. With no money and no visa, he gambled away what was left of his savings after a friend gave him a tip on a horse that came in fourth. He drank away his last one hundred dollars in a local pub.

And then Serena entered his life.

“Everything came together at the right time with the right person in the right situation. If I had met her five years or ten years beforehand, it would never have worked out. I needed to change. I needed to be with someone who was of her mind. And she needed somebody like me – whatever I was at the time. And who knows where I’d be if she hadn’t come into my life at that moment. Honestly. At the time, I knew I had problems. I was trying to cut down. I had no visa, I was drinking and doing drugs and gambling. I was living on a friend’s office floor. When you’re doing that you’re like, ‘Things aren’t great’.

But meeting her was fundamental to helping me get a grip on myself. I realised simpler things could be enjoyed. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it on my own. It’s very hard to do it on your own – to get your life together – unless you’ve got a professional or someone close who’s very mentally developed.”

work-and-play-2 Leonard has set up a couple of websites in recent years. One, fivepointfive.org, is travel-orientated and documents his time spent in various places. Source: Sober Paddy

His therapy has been the last six years.

He started a website, SoberPaddy.com – where he shared his sobriety story, encouraging others to do the same. He got clean. He has seen the world with Serena, conceiving and developing a travel website called FivePointFive.

And he’s talking now, openly and in-depth, about his problems and where they came from and why they weren’t his fault.

As we sit and sip coffee just a short walk from where he was sexually abused by a priest, Leonard owns his past. He doesn’t hide from it anymore.

“The sexual abuse was the underlying, emotional trigger”, he says.

We used to walk up here to the church. It was our life. We were from that real Catholic background and we loved it. And that’s the tragedy of it all. These priests and others abused physically and sexually, obviously, but they also abused this country morally. We were such innocent people here. So many families were happy to be obedient.  And all of that has just been ripped apart.

But it’s very hard to be candid and up-front about it when there’s so much shame and embarrassment attached. My mother, even now, we’ve only talked a little bit about it. It’s still hard to talk about it. My sister doesn’t want to read the book because she doesn’t want to get into it. I’m not the only person who has suffered at the hands of a priest but what I wanted to do was to get it out there. I wanted people to talk about it. Like what I wanted to do with SoberPaddy – it’s cool to be sober and you don’t need to be a fucking pisshead, acting the maggot. You can have a great life without the drink. And you can be an abused victim but you’re not a victim any more. You can have a great life. You don’t need it to damage the rest of your life. And you can talk about it.  I needed to have it in there for the fucking people who have suffered.”

Leonard is a different breed for a sports figure. Throughout his career, he painted and wrote his thoughts in a journal in an effort to take his mind off things. He studied philosophy in college. And he was a goalkeeper – the eternal outsider. Is there a deeper reason why he dreamed of being a vagabond?  Was ‘Lenny’ – the party boy, the alcoholic, the drug abuser – a role? Has he always been on the edge?

“Maybe that’s why being a goalkeeper kind of suited me but I don’t think I was ever consciously thinking about it or anything”, he says.

“Maybe I was just a bit of an asshole or a bit eccentric or a bit more of a seeker of attention.

I think I’ve always had a bit of a split-personality. One part of me was always really creative and into writing and reading and painting and philosophy. I can go into a dressing-room and be one of the lads but I know I could go into an art gallery and talk in highfalutin’ terminology because I like that as well. Maybe it would’ve been better for me if I was just one, y’know? ‘Okay, John – you’re a goalkeeper and you’re going to play football and train hard and it’s going to be great’. I never actively sought out to be different. It’s just the way you’re made up. I was reading an extract from Brendan Cummin’s autobiography and I have a few more books here – Henry Shefflin’s and Peter Stringer’s – and theirs are different because they excelled. Their lives have always been about their sports, y’know? I always had a shitload of things and lost myself.”

As we finish up, it’s hard not to be taken by the view in front of us. It’s a nice metaphor.

“I’m happy”, says Leonard.

“Happy to be alive, really. I was in Easons’ the other day and my book is above Stevie G’s so I took a photo of that. In another shop it was beside Packie Bonner’s – a hero of mine when I was growing up. I had this moment when I thought ‘I exist in the other world’. I remember when Eric Cantona did that interview after the kung-fu attack. And he did the twisted metaphor of the seagulls following the fishing trawler. And the press asked him about all the reports in the paper and he said ‘It means I exist’. It’s funny to see yourself exist in that kind of world – it’s a tangible something.”

Dub Sub Confidential: A Goalkeeper’s Life with – and without – the Dubs’ is published by Penguin. 

You can follow John on Twitter, read about his and others battle with sobriety at SoberPaddy.com and follow his travel exploits at fivepointfive.org

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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