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How Bray's local hero fell in love with football again

One year on from having to pay for his own knee operation, Hugh Douglas is thriving.

Hugh Douglas has been at Bray for the last five seasons.
Hugh Douglas has been at Bray for the last five seasons.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A LITTLE OVER a year has elapsed since what was surely the darkest moment in Hugh Douglas’s career.

Within the space of just a few months, Bray Wanderers had gone from being one of the top sides in the League of Ireland to a laughing stock of a club, whose unconventional press releases contained bizarre allusions to North Korea.

The serious problems affecting the side first truly became apparent in 2017. The team began the season extremely promisingly. They signed a number of top players and found themselves third in the top flight before the extent of their financial woes were made public and then-chairman Denis O’Connor released an infamous statement asking: “What is the point?”

As a result, a number of top players left, while well-regarded manager Harry Kenny also departed at the end of the 2017 campaign, after their excellent early-season form tapered off badly and they finished sixth.

The problems only got worse the following season. Consequently, in the summer of 2018, with the club struggling at the bottom of the league, players voted for strike action having gone seven weeks without pay.

The extent of the club’s issues were highlighted by their treatment of one of the squad’s most popular and loyal figures — Douglas, who was their vice-captain, and has been there since December 2014, having previously spent four seasons in UCD’s first team.

Whereas others had jumped ship, the Bray native stuck around amid all the turmoil. Instead of showing appreciation for their accomplished centre-back though, the Seagulls basically did the opposite.

In a statement on Twitter, a disillusioned Douglas outlined how as well as not being paid his wages, the defender also had to fund his own treatment on a cruciate ligament injury.

I’m extremely proud to be a Bray man playing for his local club, I have stuck with Bray through thick and thin over the past number of seasons but when I needed them the most, they let me down,” he wrote at the time.

“Having to seek my own medical treatment for my knee injury such as surgery and physiotherapy has been extremely stressful period combined with no income for the past 7 weeks.

“It has been a horrible and disgraceful situation for myself and the rest of the squad to be in.

“Unlike our English counterparts, we don’t earn huge amounts of money.

“We earn enough to get by each week to pay for bills and provide for our families. Hopefully, this matter is resolved as soon as possible.”

Bray were promptly relegated to the First Division, picking up just 18 points as they finished bottom the table in 2018.

harry-kenny Harry Kenny and a number of key players left Bray amid a turbulent 2017 campaign. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Douglas might have been forgiven for wanting nothing to do with the club or football in general ever again owing to how poorly he had been dealt with, nonetheless the 26-year-old defender persevered.

“I suppose it’s about trying to keep your head in the correct space,” he tells The42. “Trying to reinforce a positive outlook on things regarding setting goals, trying to look at the bigger picture, [whereas if you're] saying ‘I’m not playing, this is really bad,’ you might be down in the dumps.

“If you set yourself small goals along the way, it makes it easier when you get back from it. Especially as well having the correct network around you regarding coaches and the medical team and your family, it makes life a lot easier.”

He continues: “I was confident that I was going to give my rehabilitation training and my effort 100%. I knew if I was [struggling with it], it wasn’t because of lack of effort or I wasn’t doing the actual training sessions that were prescribed to me.

“You might do [the rehabilitation] perfectly on protocol and you hit every single number and every day by the book. You go back and something happens, it really is luck, you just hope that everything settles right after the operation.

“I like to think every player that does the rehabilitation and the training does go back and plays. But I think the majority of us that do go through the process do have some doubts whether they will go back to the same level again.”

Yet a little over a year on from his injury and few would disagree that Douglas is back to his best. What has helped is the improving fortunes of the club.

Not long after the player-strike debacle, Niall O’Driscoll was appointed as the club’s new owner and a sense of morale and pride have since been restored to the set-up.

“Last year, it was well documented I had to pay for my own operation and more or less the physiotherapy for a long period of time.

The new regime that came in, the O’Driscoll brothers, they’ve really supported the players in every aspect of it.

“The support structures now in the club are much better than the previous couple of years. Everything in that sense has been brilliant and the players are really well looked after now.

“The players knew the background of the current owners. They come from St Joseph’s Boys — a well-run club in all aspects with the schoolboy section there. As soon as they came in, they had nothing to do with the previous regime, so only trust could be built from thereon, as long as they showed us it could be built for the right reasons. [If they lived up to their promises] regarding wages or any other treatment the players needed, then the players would show it back tenfold regarding trust and a relationship being built.

“So I can only speak highly regarding the current owners and the management team themselves. It’s been a great set-up this year off the pitch.”

gary-cronin Bray finished fifth under manager Gary Cronin this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Unsurprisingly, the club’s healthier state has coincided with improved performances on the pitch and the type of positivity that was conspicuous by its absence for much of last year.

“The crowds coming down for games this year are on the up. The relationship between the community, local businesses and charities has been built. The last game against Drogheda meant nothing, in theory, regarding pushing for the play-offs. But we still got over 1,000 fans coming down for the last game of the season that didn’t mean anything. It shows that people are starting to buy into it.

“So if we can tap into that big population in Bray, the people that live in the town actually coming down to the game, I can honestly say Bray is a sleeping giant. It can come back to the Premier Division if people start coming to the games and we start building up the atmosphere again and the relationships [with fans].”

Despite their rejuvenation, there is a slight sense of regret about the 2019 campaign. Bray ultimately came fifth, four points off the First Division play-off spots. They finished strongly, going unbeaten in their last eight league games, though sub-par form earlier in the season ultimately proved costly.

There was some consolation for Douglas though. When not playing football, he works as a PE teacher and Dean of Students at a boarding school in Bray, and while accompanying pupils on a school trip to Paris recently, he received unexpected news that he had just been named the club’s Player of the Year.

My phone started going off,” he recalls. “I completely forgot the awards night was on. I was there having a cup of coffee and realised I got Player of the Year. I was quite shellshocked to say the least when I got the text message coming through.

“I’m delighted and humbled to get the award. I look at the trophy and see all the names that have won it over the years. Especially after the year I’ve had with injuries, people think when you get the operation, it’s a straight road regarding A to B — you’ll be back playing in nine months to a year and there’ll be no problems.

“But there are so many up-and-down days. You question yourself. Are you going to be back to what you were like beforehand? You have plenty of days where you ask that. Are things healing correctly? Then when you do get back playing, you’re playing to the same capabilities. 

“Balancing the trying to play at the elite level in Ireland regarding training, looking after nutrition and sleep, on top of that, having an injury to deal with last year, it was tough. But to be rewarded and be recognised for your efforts by the supporters, it means a lot. I got plenty of messages off people congratulating me and saying it was well deserved. It does make those days last year where you think ‘Jesus, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel’ worthwhile.”

sean-russell Like Douglas, Sean Russell recently had to fund his own injury rehabilitation after being let down by Limerick. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Douglas is not the first nor the last player to be in the unfortunate position of having to fund his own rehabilitation. Sean Russell, whose situation the Bray man describes as a “disgrace,” has spoken of similar issues at Limerick.

Such predicaments illustrate the precariousness of life as a footballer and the importance of having a back-up plan, such as teaching, particularly given the League of Ireland’s lengthy off-season period, where most players go a long time without pay from their clubs.

“It’s difficult in the sense that you’re losing out on your income for the guts of three months. With us this year in the First Division, the season’s shorter, so you feel the pinch in that sense — you have to put money away, plan for the Christmas period. It’s quite expensive for most families and most people, that period itself. Then it’s just basically trying to keep yourself fit and keep yourself healthy, do your own training sessions by yourself. I know a lot of players go off and train and play in the LSL [Leinster Senior League].

“But it’s just to try to keep the weight down, keep yourself fit, and then see what the future holds regarding offers.

“If offers don’t come, then the PFAI [Professional Footballers' Association of Ireland] hold their out-of-contract camp, so they’re great, and in that sense, they help the players, so it’s more or less keeping yourself fit and healthy for next year if an opportunity arises.”

While it’s not perfect, nor is it in anyway comparable to the glamour of football in the Premier League or other top European divisions, Douglas remains happy with the path he has chosen, even if it will inevitably be shrouded in almost constant uncertainty.

“My contract’s currently up with Bray and I think everyone knows that I have that affinity being from Bray, playing for my hometown team and I take great pride from that. 

I’m sure in the next couple of weeks, things will be sorted between myself and Bray and we can look forward to next year together. And if something in the future doesn’t go to plan, I’m sure I’ll put the work in and hopefully get an offer somewhere else.

“But wherever my future lies, I know I’m going into my 10th season in the League of Ireland and I take great pride in that, wherever it might be. If you told me in 2011 that I’d play 10 years in the league, I would have thought you were crazy, so I take great pride in that. It’s a league with great history and prestige.

“I think it’s just about remaining loyal to your own values regarding not letting money speak for itself. There’s not a lot of money in the league anyway, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time, regardless of the situation with my injury and payment of my surgery last year. 

“Once you find a place that you’re happy and enjoying your football, you’ve a great team and a great culture in the dressing room, it’s very hard to leave that. If someone comes in for you with an offer, and the offer is purely money based, I think if you stay loyal to a club, you receive that tenfold throughout your career over a long space of time.”

Originally published at 07.30

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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