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Remembering the amazing career and life of Des McAleenan

The hugely-popular Dubliner made a name for himself as a world-class goalkeeping coach.

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IN SOME WAYS, Des McAleenan was another Covid victim.

The disease didn’t claim his life and, in actual fact, he gamely battled back after testing positive late last year.

But it was the unrelenting isolation and loneliness – a sapping by-product of the pandemic for so many in a vulnerable state – that seemed to finally tip him over the edge.

When he died – on February 26, at the age of just 53 – the culprit was that pernicious and parasitic and paralysing passenger that stalked him for much of his life: depression.

When the email came through with news of his passing, it got me right in the gut. We had chatted in October 2019 and Des was incredible company: a gifted storyteller, brash, gobby, opinionated, funny and unapologetic. No word was wasted.

He pored over questions and meticulously meandered his way through the answers. But during the interview – almost out of nowhere and completely unprompted – he went into detail about his mental health struggles. I remember thinking that it was especially brave of him. He was loud and vibrant, a forceful personality. A ball of big energy. And, at the time, at his professional peak as goalkeeping coach with the Colombian national team alongside manager Carlos Quieroz. Des was also from a particular generation of men who were taught to bury their emotions, societal norms dictating it was a sign of weakness. So, I was glad he opened up and when we finished our conversation, I got the distinct impression he was in a good place and enjoying life again.

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We kept in touch, intermittently. We became Facebook friends, we arranged to meet for a drink somewhere down the line – maybe in Toronto where I live, maybe in New York, maybe in Dublin. He even invited me to Hartford in Connecticut to hang out with him and his best friend, Johnny Vaughan. The last message I sent to him was on 28 October 2020 but I never heard back. And there was a good reason for that.     

At the beginning of December, Quieroz was sacked as Colombia boss after back-to-back World Cup qualifying defeats. His coaching staff, including Des, went with him. 

“His dream was to go to a senior World Cup and I think from the day he lost the job with Colombia, it set him off on this latest spiral,” says Dave Clarke, Head Coach of Women’s Soccer at Quinnipiac University and one of Des’ lifelong friends. 

“He belonged at that level. He had this habit where he’d call and say, ‘You’ll never guess who I’m with sitting with’. He’d be in Barcelona and it would be, ‘Lionel, say hello’ and Messi would chat down the phone or Pep. Last year, he gave me the tip-off about Carlo Ancelotti getting fired by Napoli because he was there the day (Gennarro) Gattuso took over. It was prior to a Champions League game and he’d been having lunch with Ancelotti because he was staying with David Ospina. That was him living the dream and I loved all those stories because he’d put in the work to get there.”     

In the days following his death, I re-read my interview with Des. One particular passage – where he eloquently explained his depression – stood out. 

“You know when a car gets stuck in the mud and the wheels start to spin and it can’t go anywhere? You just need a little bit of wood under the wheel. You need to catch a hold of something. You need something to make you believe things will change.” 

It was that penultimate sentence that struck me most. 

It’s always the responsibility of the sufferer to not only acknowledge their struggle but to act positively on it in an attempt to rehabilitate and recover. When they are so consumed by a constant, conniving and hectoring voice, they still have to be the one to not only seek out but, most importantly, accept a potential remedy.

By the end of the year, the walls were closing in and Des was disillusioned and broken. This time, he didn’t want to catch a hold of anything. He didn’t believe things could change.  

“He had amazing wit, he was so enthusiastic and anyone who met him over here would say, ‘This guy is one of a fucking kind’”, says Johnny Vaughan.   

“In football, the word ‘legend’ gets thrown around a lot. If you win five games in a row, you’re a legend. But Des was just a fucking force of nature. Unfortunately, on the flip side, I saw the downs and not just the ups. He was a manic depressive going back to the college days. He carried this with him for 30 odd years. The day before, I spoke to him and told him he had so much going for him and that he had so much more left in life. But he said to me, ‘Johnny, the fucking demons are killing me. My head is tortured’”. 

***

The story begins in and around Artane, on Dublin’s northside, sometime in the late-1970s. It picks up again in Central Connecticut State University about a decade later.   

“It goes back over 40 years for me,” says Dave Clarke. 

“I first met him when we were about 10 or 12, going back to the old Community Games. He always stood out because he had that dark colouring and we thought he was either black or Pakistani. He lived around the corner from my aunt and he’ll say his address was Artane, which is technically correct, but the other side of the street is Coolock. We had run-ins when we played against each other but properly became friendly in the mid-1980s. I vividly remember that I left for America on August 24, 1987 because I was up at his house with another mate called Dave Nolan. Des was supposed to be cutting the grass and his Ma came out and basically dragged him in by the ear. But the three of us headed to America within 24 hours of each other and ended up at Central together”.   

While Des was in college, he met with two people who came to define his life: one made him, the other saved him. Firstly, he was introduced to revolutionary goalkeeper coach Dan Gaspar, who gave him a taste of a certain type of education: an intense, methodical and elite approach to a niche craft. Des described Gaspar as a ‘real clinician’ and, immediately, he was hooked. And although he had a brief flirtation with a pro playing career, Gaspar made Des a full-time employee at his Star Goalkeeping Academy. Quickly, he developed a reputation within the US coaching fraternity as an intuitive, intelligent and engaging figure. 

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“He studied goalkeeping like Picasso studied painting,” Gaspar noted recently.

And then there was Johnny.   

“I went to the US on a soccer scholarship – my first ever time on a plane,” Vaughan remembers.  

“I sat beside Des on the flight and he’d already been over here for a year or two at that stage. We played alongside each other in college and then at Connecticut Wolves and we had a spell in Albany, in upstate New York, with the Alley Cats too. But Des got the coaching bug – mainly from doing those camps with Dan and with SGA. He took the bull by the horns and went all over the US and really loved coaching kids, in particular. He put everything into it. It’s what he loved to do. He didn’t drop his standards because you were U12 or U14 – he just pushed and pushed and pushed.” 

It was a good time. Heady days. There was a close-knit group of transplanted Irish boys – all with similar backstories – now progressing in their lives and careers. In 1999, Clarke got married and wanted Des as part of his wedding party. 

“My wife – who knew him from the time she met me – was apprehensive because of which Dessie would show up on the day,” Clarke recalls, chuckling at the memory. 

“He was begging me, ’Davy, I don’t want to do it – I just want to sit down with all the lads and not have to be at the head table or walking people down the aisle.’ So, in the end, he bleached his hair. He was like something from Bros or Bronski Beat in the ‘80s. And that’s what got him out of doing it. My wife was like, ‘Thank God’. And they never stopped that night. The guitars were out and I think it was 6 o’clock in the morning when everything wrapped up.”

The Big Leagues

In 2001, when Gaspar was approached by Octavio Zambrano – then boss of Major League Soccer side NY/NJ Metrostars (now New York Red Bulls) – and revealed he was looking for a new goalkeeping coach, it took just 10 minutes of a guest session for Des to get the gig. He stayed for a decade, and while a litany of high-profile managers left with a whimper – Zambrano, Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Juan Carlos Osorio among them – Des was a rare consistent presence. His time there saw him work closely with Tony Meola and then Tim Howard, two iconic US goalkeeping figures, and he played a crucial role in the latter’s high-profile transfer to Manchester United in 2003. 

He lived in Maplewood in New Jersey and the entire package seemed a perfect fit. Manhattan – with its boundless energy and size and personality – was only a half hour away and there were regular trips there for various concerts and live performances. He was, after all, a music obsessive and lived vicariously through his favourite artists.

“You could almost relate the music to his football career and him being a fan of guys reinventing themselves or the guys who went back to their roots,” says Vaughan.  

“His tastes were anything from U2 and Van Morrison to Leonard Cohen and Frank Sinatra. He loved Damien Dempsey and was very fond of Bruce Springsteen. He very much had a social conscience and was concerned with equality, minimum wage, justice for the working class and how America was so fucked up. He was a bleeding heart liberal and knew a hundred times more than your average American when it came to US politics.”  

“He loved lyrics and he’d always quote from songs, quote from Morrissey, quote from The Smiths,” says Clarke. 

“It goes back to his ability to be articulate. I was in the UK in the early ‘90s and I kept all the letters he wrote to me. He was such a vivid writer. He could’ve been a poet.”

des4 McAleenan had been part of Tab Ramos' US U20's staff.

But, while he was in New Jersey, Des fell down a hole on two separate occasions. Both times, Johnny was there to pull him out. 

“I had to go down to Maplewood one time,” he says.  

“It was a Monday and I got a call from the Red Bulls to say he hadn’t come into training. I went down that evening and found him in the bathtub and he just couldn’t get out. There was another time I ended up in the hospital with him in Jersey because he tried it (suicide) before. They kept him in there for three days because they have a duty to do so. He did really suffer with this, especially lately.” 

“At the end, I think he missed the structure. When Colombia finished, there was no more getting picked up, no more training, no more video analysis, no more weight rooms. Everything ended with a bang. And he was just lost. When he got Covid, he ended up staying in a hotel room for two weeks. He was a mess. He couldn’t shower. He was biting his nails. He was very nervous. We had spoken about how fickle the football business is. If you start losing you get fired. That’s the nature of pro sports at that level. And he was weary of that.

“Carlos (Quieroz) took a real shine to him. He was this worldly man with big stories who took interest in people and life and was a deep figure and he said to Des, ‘I’ve got one more fight in me and I’ll take you wherever I go next – stay strong and don’t let it get to you’. Carlos had some good talks with him but Des couldn’t see a way out of this. I spoke to him in the days leading up to it and his mind was tortured. He said it was like a maze. Most of us have bad days – with work, with the wife, with the kids and we say, ‘Fuck it’ and close the door and bounce back. But in the end, he couldn’t come back around again. He told me about the demons in his head: ‘Sometimes I think they’re mice and they know I’m weak and they tell their friends to come around because this guy is easy’. It was just so sad listening to him in the end.”

Last summer, during some downtime from the Colombia job, Des returned to Ireland for a stint. Another former team-mate and close ally, Mick McDermott, was overseeing Glentoran’s run towards the Irish Cup final and he gladly slipped in behind the scenes to offer some counsel. In between videos of Echo and the Bunnymen, George Best, Radiohead and Garrincha, his Facebook page carried an abundance of photographs documenting his time back home: celebrating his beloved Mam’s birthday, golfing outings with his many pals and – following a 2-1 extra-time victory over Ballymena at Windsor Park – a special breakfast the next morning: alongside Mick and the trophy. 

Des and Mick Des and Mick McDermott at The Oval. Source: Glentoran

There was also a common trend: snaps of the relentless running routes Des would take every morning. Sometimes it was Howth Head. Sometimes it was Rush. Sometimes it was Santry Woods. Sometimes it was Malahide. 

And then all the photos stopped. 

“There were the highs of being involved in one of the top-ten football countries in the world and a World Cup qualifying campaign and when they all got fired, he ended up having to go back to the northside of Dublin and the pandemic and the cold,” says Vaughan. 

“He got so depressed through November and December and he’d let himself go. You looked at the guy: early 50s, in great nick, he always took care of himself. He’d be out at 8am running along the reservoir where I live here, then he’d go to the gym, then he’d kick ball – he was a fucking beast when it came to staying in shape. When he went home, he stopped everything. The demons got to him.” 

“He’d come into the bar here (Vaughan’s Public House) and you’d think, ‘This guy is fucking DisneyLand’. People were drawn to him, he was magnetic. They’d come up and just sit around him just to hear his craic and banter. He just had a funny way of telling his life story. He’d say things like, ‘You and me, kemosabe – we came to America and we’re writing our own book over here’. He was a kind soul. But deep and troubled”. 

“The isolation was the last thing he needed. I spoke to him the day before – on the Thursday – for almost an hour and we talked of him coming back and working in the bar for Paddy’s Day. I said, ‘Look, people are drawn to you. We can take the dogs for walks along the reservoir, you can go to the gym, you can drop into the kitchen and talk Spanish and football to the guys – they love it when you chat with all that infectious passion’. A lot of the guys in the kitchens would support Peru or Uruguay or whatever and he’d always bring stuff back for them. And they adored him’. But I think a switch went off in his head. The messages I have from him when I look back…’Hey Johnny, can I call you? You’ve got to pull out your Shankly because I don’t know what the future holds for me. I look in a crystal ball and can’t see anything but dark clouds.’ I’d do anything to get another of those calls again”.   

brazil-carlos-queiroz-press-conference The Irishman reached his professional peak as goalkeeping coach with the Colombian national team alongside manager Carlos Quieroz. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Des was an internationally-renowned educator, who worked alongside the most elite figures within the game. He was involved with the United States U18s, U19s and U20s and went to the World Cup with the latter in 2019. He spent time with Middle Eastern heavyweights Al Hilal and Zob Ahan and worked alongside managers of the calibre of Thomas Doll, Antoine Kombouaré and Zlatko Dalic. But, in his native country, he was relatively unknown – as were his substantial accomplishments.  

“So many Irish coaches fall into that category: once we’re out of the country we don’t exist,” says Dave Clarke. 

“His lifelong ambition was to always work at the highest level and I was always pushing him. Two weeks ago, I was trying to get him to apply for the job at Watford. The night before he took his life, Mick (McDermott) was talking to him about another high-profile gig with a massive club in the UK. Carlos Quieroz said he would take him everywhere with him. With Colombia, he was playing in World Cup qualifiers, he was facing Brazil in Miami. That job meant so much to him. The fact he was wearing the team’s gear for the cremation probably gives you an idea of how proud he was”.   

Owing to conversations he had with Des, Vaughan began studying various literature about depression and mental health. To a degree, it worked and Des would turn to him for frequent guidance.  

“Over time, I started to understand the struggle a little bit,” Vaughan says. 

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“I self-educated because I wasn’t even sure if I was saying the right things. For us growing up, if you spoke about struggling or whatever, you’d get a kick up the arse. Or it would be, ‘Get another drink in you’. It was very taboo for us and a sign of weakness, certainly in the ‘90s or whatever. It wasn’t talked about and swept under the carpet instead. We’re not really wired to talk about our feelings or get emotional. They were dirty words, almost. But we broke it down and talked about everything, especially recently around Christmas: his feelings, how he was holding up, what he was gonna try to do”.

“I spent an hour on the phone with Tony Meola, a guy who rewrote football for us over here in the States and changed the face of it – and the impact Des had on him. He raved about Des and his enthusiasm and what he learned from him. He told me stories about hanging out with him and being so taken aback by his lust for life and intelligence and his hunger and passion. Tony said that he’d be with him at 2am and Des would say, ‘Crack open another bottle of wine – wait until you hear this one’. And Des would be up at 8am the following morning and be out running. Tony said he’d been thinking about bringing Des down to Florida to work as his goalkeeping coach in Florida. He was waiting until the following week to call him. But Des…did his thing…on Friday.” 

There’s a few moments during our conversation when Johnny swerves mentioning Des’ death, instead using some vague terminology to merely move ahead with his sentence. Admittedly, he hasn’t quite processed what’s happened and it will take him a while. The basement in his house – Des’ den for decades – is still shrouded in memories. He’ll get to it, just not yet.      

“Yesterday, there was some mail that came for him here and I broke down again”, he says. 

“All his stuff is there: his balls, his iPad, his clothes are laid out, his runners are in the corner, his jerseys are hanging up, the pennants from the U20 World Cup are all down there. Basically, his life was here. We were best pals and closer than that, to be honest. We could finish each other’s sentences. I accepted Des for what he was and vice versa and that makes it easier to have a healthy relationship. In many ways, we were kids and didn’t want to grow up. We were just at ease with where we were. We’d be out a lot over the Christmas period, particularly, but usually for Christmas Eve, Christmas night and Stephen’s night, we’d sit here, order Chinese food and watch Spanish football. He’d do commentary in Spanish and I’d raise the stakes and do it as gaeilge. Other times he’d come in, kick the door down and say, ‘Let’s go, Fatso – let’s liven up this place downtown. I’ve got money in my pocket. Jump in the shower, get the tunes on, we’ll get down there and shake things up: they won’t know what hit them. He had great energy for that. People always say, ‘There will never be another’ but architects or engineers couldn’t build a Des. It’s a testimony to his character. What you saw was what you’d get. He never conformed to normality. He actually gave it two fingers. He was 100% rascal with great banter and edgy clothes and funny comments and putting the boot in on people. I’ll have to get back to that, because I know that’s what he’d want – to crack on and not be held back by it.

“But I’ve had a million questions lately of what I could have done. I’ve talked to a girl here who used to go out with Des years ago and she’s a double Psychology major. She told me, ‘When it comes to suicide, it’s not that Des wanted to die. It’s that he didn’t want to live with what he had’. I hope – eventually – the good stuff will come back and I’ll start to think about it but right now it’s very raw.”    

For Dave Clarke, it’s something similar. 

I ask him how he’ll remember Des. 

There’s a long pause as he catches the lump in his throat and takes some time to compose himself. 

“There are the bigger pieces, like photographs”, he begins.  

“We took one together the last time I saw him in late-2019. But really it’s the stupid little stories. Him and my Dad having a drink together at my wedding. Driving him to Giants Stadium to watch Ireland play. Picking him up at 5am because he’s crying at the side of the road after crashing his car. Training with each other: crossing/finishing, crossing/finishing. He’d always take the piss outta me: he’d take the piss out of my face, the fact I didn’t drink, that I blessed myself going onto a field. In many ways, I should’ve fallen out with him. But he didn’t suffer fools. A huge personality in many ways. The life of the party. A complicated character. There was a very soft side to him, a lonely side to him.

“People got to know him as Red Bulls, Tim Howard, larger-than-life. But I’ve been in some dark spots with him. This wasn’t the first go-around with what he did. And it was always my fear. My wife asked three weeks ago, ‘Why do you always answer the call?’ And I said, ‘Because the day I don’t is the day I’ll regret it’. Because it was always a matter of when, not if”. 

“Ever since he passed, all I’ve been playing is Sally McLennane by The Pogues. The first CD he took off me was Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and when we were together at Central – probably 1989/1990 – I just vividly remember him belting it out. I vividly remember the album. I vividly remember the cassette tapes in his dorm room. I liked The Pogues but I didn’t really love them – and now I love them. I must have played it about 50 times in the last few days and at full throttle. And some of the words really resonate. He was a friend, he was a good friend. He knew he could always pick up the phone and talk to me. We were in the same school, the same career. He was really good at what he did. I was extremely proud of what he became.”     

Now Jimmy didn’t like his place in this world of ours

Where the elephant man broke strong men’s necks

When he’d had too many Powers

So sad to see the grieving of the people that I’m leaving

And he took the road for God knows in the morning

We walked him to the station in the rain

We kissed him as we put him on the train

And we sang him a song of times long gone

Though we knew that we’d be seeing him again

Sad to say I must be on my way

So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)

I’d like to think of me returning when I can

To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

If you are affected by any part of this story, or if you are experiencing problems and wish to seek help the following helplines may be of use:

  • Console  1800 247 247, or text Help to 51444 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Aware 1890 303 302 (depression, anxiety)

  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie - (suicide, self-harm)

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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