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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 19 July, 2019

'I still have really, really bad days now. There are days when I cry. And I'm not ashamed of it'

Andy Reid has been through a painful few years. He speaks to Eoin O’Callaghan about loss, life and what’s next.

ANDY REID HAS been looking back.

It’s twenty years since he was part of Brian Kerr’s Under-16 Republic of Ireland side that memorably won the European Championships in Scotland with victory over a star-studded Italy. Inevitably, given the anniversary, some old photos have been doing the rounds in various group chats.

“We’ve all been in touch and had plenty of banter about them,” he says.

“Basically, we’ve just been looking at them and cringing a bit. ‘Really, did we have those clothes from Penneys on? Really? And those haircuts?’ It’s kinda cringe but funny as well. It brings back some great memories and it was just a fantastic time of our lives.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 15.28.54

Although he was the baby of the squad, Reid enjoyed himself at that tournament and scored against Finland in the group stage. But underage football is a strange thing, particularly a successful team. A photograph hammers that home more than anything. Some players soar and it’s the first stop in a glittering career. For others, it remains the peak, the pinnacle before the handbrake gets pulled.

Against the Azzurri, the winning goal came courtesy of David McMahon, who was a prolific striker and the side’s top-scorer. But he was effectively retired at 25 and went back to university. The Irish captain was defender Shaun Byrne, then at West Ham. But he eventually fell away from football in 2009 having last lined out for Slough Town.

At that age, the pathway is still so precarious, unforgiving and largely uncontrollable. An injury, a loss of form, a new coach and the career becomes almost unsalvageable.

“The one I can relate to the most is Keith Foy, who was at Nottingham Forest with me,” Reid says.

“He scored that unbelievable free-kick in the final and I saw first-hand the ability he had but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out for him. Graham Barrett is another who I’d still be in touch with now. He had incredible ability and really threatened to kick on in his career but it never quite happened as much as he would’ve liked. I mean, he was in that unreal Arsenal first team of the late-1990s when the club was winning trophies.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 15.58.04 Andy Reid pictured ahead of the Under-16 European Championships in 1998.

“But, when I look back on those photos, the overriding feeling is that, yes, there were immensely talented players but that the group of lads was so good. It was fantastic to be part of it – for the football and everything we achieved but also for the fun and the camaraderie we had at the time.”

They were a bunch of mid-teens enjoying themselves before all the complicated stuff started. For a footballer, that’s a brief window. In 1998, nine of the squad were in England and had just signed their first professional contract. The relentless grind hadn’t quite began yet. There was still time to be young and feel it.

“Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly were fantastic at creating that relaxed atmosphere and giving us the licence to express ourselves more than probably at a lot of our clubs,” Reid says.

“There was a sense of freedom. Now you look back and say, ‘Those were some of the best days of our lives’ but at the time you don’t think that. We knew we loved meeting up and enjoyed being together but didn’t realise how special it was until, probably, the final whistle went and we were champions.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 16.00.41 Under-16 captain Shaun Byrne celebrates in 1998 with Brian Kerr and Noel O'Reilly.

They’re bittersweet memories too.

Reid is midway through delivering a line about mementoes when his voice begins to crack a little and he needs to take a beat and settle himself.

“I’ve got one of the Under-16 shirts somewhere and I’ve got the medal too because I gave them to my parents,” he says.

I lost my Mum and Dad in the last couple of years. My Dad died six months ago so I took the Under-16 medal back and brought it home with me and gave it to my little boy so he’s got it in his bedroom now. That was the main keepsake and my father cherished it. It was kind of his pride and joy.”

There’s a brief silence before Reid composes himself and continues.

“Him and my Mum were over watching me in the final and the medal went to the family home back in Dublin. So, that’s the memento that brings it all back. The 20-year thing crept up on all of us and made us think about it. We met in Dublin for a reunion in January which was fantastic but when I was leaving Nottingham my little lad was asking me where I was going. So I had to explain to him that we’d won the European Championships and we’d done something that was very special.”

Andy Reid celebrates scoring Reid celebrates with Liam Miller after scoring against Bulgaria in August 2004. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

It was the summer of 2017 when Reid’s mother Dinah passed on suddenly. In March of this year, his father Bill slipped away too.

And in between, there was another tragedy to come to terms with.

“With Liam…it’s really, really hard to put into words,” he says.

“Before he passed, the first thing that happened to our group of players that really affected us was probably Noel O’Reilly. He was such a massive part of that squad and such a massive part of the lads who got into the senior squad with Brian as well. He was a great guy and a real mentor to a lot of us. His death really, really affected us and I know it affected Brian as well.

“But with Liam, we have a group chat going with the lads and when it all happened there was just disbelief. Everyone was like, ‘This has happened to one of us’. It was so difficult to fathom. I played with him at Sunderland and at every level with Ireland. Three young kids and a wife…It’s just a complete and utter tragedy. So, so sad. And it’s hard to comprehend and get your head around it.”

Liam Miller prepares to take a corner Liam Miller in action for the Republic of Ireland. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“You do tend to lose sight and worry about the small things,” Reid continues.

“I’ve got a young family myself – a one-year-old, a six-year-old and a grown-up daughter who’s 19 now. You don’t like to think about this kind of stuff but it could just as easily have been me. It’s such a shame, the whole thing and you can say it’s sad and how terrible it is but that’s not really doing it justice.”

I found Liam very, very witty but very dry. There was a real Cork sense of humour with him. Liam was a typical Cork person and extremely funny. But people who didn’t really know him particularly well wouldn’t have seen that side of him. There’s a sense of excitement about the tribute match, certainly going by the ticket sales. And I think there’s a sense of wanting to celebrate Liam’s life as much as commemorate it. To try and put on a good show. It’s going to be an emotional day for everybody, none more so than his family and close friends. But I think everyone wants to do their best by Liam.”

Reid has endured an incredibly challenging and traumatic two years. There have been the litany of bereavements but also his enforced retirement in July 2016 owing to a persistent groin injury.

Soccer - Sky Bet Football League Championship - Wigan Athletic v Nottingham Forest - DW Stadium Reid was in excellent form throughout the 2013/14 season and was crowned Nottingham Forest's Player of the Year. Source: Dave Thompson

He was in his second spell at Forest, having returned there in 2011, and had just enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his career. He made 36 appearances and scored ten times in the 2013/14 campaign. His form was so good that he was welcomed back into the Irish senior setup under interim boss Noel King after an infamous five-year exile imposed by Giovanni Trapattoni. He was crowned Forest’s Player of the Year at season’s end – ten years after he first picked up the same accolade and named in the Championship’s Team of the Season.

Then, just six games into the new season, he went down shortly before half-time in a game against Derby and had to come off.

For the next two years, he always seemed on the verge of a comeback. But he never played again.

“I had operations – about five of them – to try and get it better,” he says.

Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany with Andy Reid of Irelannd Reid holds off the challenge of Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger in a European Championship qualifier in 2007. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I got to between 65% – 70% but I couldn’t get that final bit I needed to make it back to first-team level. My groin just wasn’t up to it. I tried everything, even going to America to have a final operation. The surgeon said to me, ‘Look, if this doesn’t work you’re going to have to retire’. And it was tough. It’s a tough thing to take – being told you can’t do the thing you’ve done every day since you were 14. It’s really difficult but it’s part of life. You’ve got to move on. It’s not a nice thing, not by any stretch of the imagination. But plenty of players have to go through it and you have to find a way of dealing with it.

It’s been a tough couple of years for me. Having to retire – walking away from what’s been my life, something I’d done day-in, day-out since I was in my mid-teens – and then I lost my Mum and then my Dad and it’s been tough. I still have really, really bad days now. It’s hard to get your head around it and you miss them every day. But I have my own family now and I have to look after them and provide for them and be the best man I can be for them, like my parents were for me. There’s no brave, stiff upper lip. There are days when I cry. And I’m not ashamed of it.”

Reid was already deeply immersed in his coaching badges by the time he stepped away and it’s a career path he had ear-marked from his mid-twenties. He’s spent some time on the coaching staff with Forest prior to retiring, he’s doing some scouting and he’s an assistant to Jim Crawford with the Irish Under-18s.

“It was always in my mind,” he says.

“I’ve been taking notes on managers that I’ve played under for a long time – on sessions, how they’re planned, how managers manage, how clubs are run – I’d done that for a long time. I felt it was a direction I wanted to go.”

Hull City v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship - KC Stadium Reid spent some time coaching at Nottingham Forest in 2016, prior to his enforced retirement. Source: Richard Sellers

“All managers offer their own good things of note and some managers offer bad things too. And it’s important you take both. It’s important to get both ends of the spectrum and that’s what helps you becoming the coach you want to be.”

I’m ultimately aiming towards a management role. I do want that one day but you’ve got to earn your stripes. And that’s why I’m concentrating on the coaching at the moment and you just wait and see what develops before you hopefully get the opportunity to become a manager.”

On the field, Reid always had the creative spark, always looking for an opening to exploit. He had plenty of flair and never seemed to score easy goals. It’s hard to think of him as a new-wave manager, intensely controlling training sessions with precise details and furious finger-pointing.

“My style of play won’t always necessarily reflect how I manage,” he says.

“You can’t send 11 players out on the pitch to be creative. I’d like my teams to play attacking, expansive football but I also want my teams to play winning football. So, it might take different things at different times. Although I was a creative player, you need to broaden your horizons in coaching and management. You have be a lot more rounded. You can’t just work with the creative players.”

Two years ago, one of Reid’s former team-mates, Richard Dunne, sat down with The42 and bemoaned a recent trip he’d taken to Manchester City’s Etihad training complex. He painted a picture of an almost-joyless environment where nothing was off-the-cuff and kids had no freedom to express themselves.

“Everything is an academy,” Dunne said.

“Everything is about ‘Well, it worked for Barcelona so it has to work for the rest of us’. You can see the kids training there and they’re just individuals. Everyone is an individual and then, presumably, once they get older, they’ll build a team. But it’s all about the individual – can they move right, can they kick the ball, juggle the ball? It’s a factory. You’re trying to find one. And you might find one every four or five years if you’re lucky. The amount of money that must’ve gone into it is crazy.”

Reid – like Dunne and so many of Ireland’s best-known players – grew up playing football on the streets with his friends. He learned how to take care of himself, how to keep possession, how to improvise, how to improve. But now he finds himself at the beginning of a coaching career in the UK where there’s an uncomfortable reality.

Speaking to The42 last year, Michael Calvin, author of the excellent No Hunger In Paradise which centres on the system of youth football in England, offered up a startling anecdote.

“What is happening is that there is a race to the bottom in football,” he said.

“There is a pre-academy stage between six and nine, but now it’s getting even below that. So for instance, it’s now becoming common for me to hear that three-year-old boys are being approached by scouts.”

Reid – who was so expressive and independent as a player – says there are so many contrasting voices within the game that it’s hard for any one particular strategy to be implemented.

“It’s so opinion-based,” he says.

Ruud Dokter with Andy Reid Reid pictured with the FAI's High Performance Director Ruud Dokter earlier this year. Source: Andrew Fosker; ©INPHO/Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“I have my own thoughts on how it’s best to develop players but you speak to another coach and he’ll have his. That’s not to say he’s wrong and I’m right – everyone has their own way. But I’m a firm believer in allowing kids express themselves at a young age. From maybe between 7 – 12 years of age, I think kids should be left alone a little bit more. They’re being brought in and coached a bit too much and maybe becoming a bit too robotic at those ages, especially in England. At that age, get them in and point them in the right direction but let them express themselves a bit more. Now, you’ll talk to another coach and he might say, ‘No, we need to get them going with what we believe from an early age’. So the proof is when players get in the first team and if they’re ready and if they’ve developed in the right way and if they’ve been given the opportunity to be the best player they can be.”

Reid is still based in Nottingham but he is open to the possibility of a League of Ireland management job, should the right one come along.

“I’d be open to speaking with anyone and I’ve always said that,” he says.

“If I felt the opportunity was right after speaking to those people then I would consider it. I’d never rule anything out and I think it’d be narrow-minded to do that. I would definitely see it as an option. Would it be something that I’d actively pursue? Probably not. But if somebody pursued me and it felt like the right thing to do then I wouldn’t hesitate speaking to somebody.”

As we wind things down, we go back to the start. Two decades. Anything he would’ve changed? Anything he would’ve kept the same?

“I think everyone who has retired will probably say they would’ve liked to have done a bit more,” he says.

You’d have liked to have won a trophy or played in more games but I’m proud, my family are proud and I’m proud of the person I’ve become and the family I’ve got and the family I’ve raised. Looking back over that 20-year period and all the things that have happened, I’m just proud. I’ve got three lovely kids, I’ve got a missus who’s great and brilliant to me and I’ve got a good family behind me back in Ireland. When you dig deep, everyone would have liked to have done a bit more.”

“But I’m proud of what I achieved.”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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