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‘I was literally trying to get through the next hour without having a drink’

Ex-Ireland international Keith Treacy on how various addictions severely impacted his football career and caused him to seek help.

A 21-year-old Keith Treacy pictured on his Ireland debut against Argentina.
A 21-year-old Keith Treacy pictured on his Ireland debut against Argentina.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

LIFE FOR Keith Treacy is simple enough these days.

In addition to a role as a pundit with RTÉ and Virgin Media among others that he started last August and coaching St Patrick’s Athletic’s U17s team, three days a week, the former Ireland international works as a landscape gardener.

The riches he earned from his years as a footballer may be gone, though regardless, he is in a good place both figuratively and literally.

“I love doing the bit of gardening,” he tells The42. “I wouldn’t say it keeps me grounded. I don’t live a very extravagant lifestyle anymore.

“But it gives me a headspace. It’s only out in Dollymount, it’s a Jesuit retreat. So most of the people that are out there are actually on a silent retreat. There’s very little interaction. I go off and I maintain the plants and I cut the grass. Although you’re still in Dublin, you wouldn’t realise if you were to be dropped into this place. It’s just lovely open fields, trees and squirrels, badgers, foxes running around, it’s a little bit of heaven for me and I get to go out there and maintain the place.”

Treacy’s career encompassed a short stint as a Premier League player as well as over 100 Championship appearances. 

He also won six Ireland caps. They were, in chronological order: a 1-0 loss to an Argentina team that included Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria among other famous names, a 3-2 defeat by Uruguay, respective 5-0 and 1-0 wins over Northern Ireland and Scotland in the short-lived Nations Cup, a 2-0 victory over then-world champions Italy and a 0-0 draw with Croatia.

It’s just over 11 years since Treacy helped Ireland beat Scotland, coming on as an 83rd-minute substitute for Robbie Keane, and he will be back at the Aviva Stadium this weekend to see the Boys in Green play the same opponents in his role as a pundit.

“Scott Brown played in midfield for them. I got shot off and I think he left a bit of an elbow in my back and I just remember thinking, that’s exactly what I expected from him.

“I don’t remember a lot. If you know my history, there’s an awful lot of alcohol between then and now, so the memory has been ever so slightly affected.

“But we were a lot stronger than we are now. And I think maybe the roles are reversed at the minute. The Scots are slightly stronger than us.”

Source: sp1873/YouTube

The Northern Ireland match, which took place five days before the Scottish clash, was Treacy’s only start for Ireland, but he cites the Argentina fixture as the highlight.

“The biggest thing for me was being able to take the jersey off my back [from the Argentina game] and give it to me granddad, it was more of a personal thing. At the time, you think you’re going to be a footballer forever. I was extremely young and naive. I didn’t realise then it was probably the pinnacle of my career. And in hindsight, I wish I took it in and enjoyed it a little bit more.”

Treacy feels he should have won more Ireland caps, but for a variety of reasons, had to settle for six.

“I don’t want to come across as big-headed, but I believe that the talent was there. I had a lot of issues off the pitch that ultimately finished me. At the time, I was playing for Preston and I became a really important player during a relegation battle. I was 20-21. Managers were dictating to me: ‘You looked tired in the last game, maybe you shouldn’t go with Ireland. That groin doesn’t look right, your hamstring, you said it was sore. I let a lot of managers dictate to me and tell me I wasn’t going to meet up with the Irish team.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But I wish I would have been a bit stronger and told certain managers that I am going to go and just pushed a little bit more and maybe I could have [reached] that 10-20 cap mark.”

robbie-keane-and-lionel-messi Ireland's Robbie Keane and Lionel Messi of Argentina during the 2010 friendly at the Aviva. Source: Lorraine O'Sullvian/INPHO

Treacy was just 26 when he returned to Ireland to sign for Drogheda United. It felt like a dramatic fall for a player frequently touted as one of the country’s top prospects at underage level. The fact that he was a young Irish winger playing at Blackburn rendered Damien Duff comparisons inevitable, but his talent was such that for a while, they did not seem entirely far-fetched.

Yet off the pitch, Treacy’s life was gradually unravelling and he has spoken of playing games drunk at times. 

12 top-flight appearances for Blackburn during the 2008-09 season were as good as it got at club level. There were also short loan stints at Stockport as well as Sheffields United and Wednesday, and further spells at Preston, Burnley and Barnsley.

For all the obvious benefits that go with it, Treacy says the life of a footballer can be a lonely one.

“I was a professional footballer for 12 years, and I probably have one friend in football that I would still talk to – Ross Wallace [who I met] at Burnley.

“We use this term in football: when another player comes in, it’s just a ship in the night. You don’t know if they’re going to be there tomorrow if a new manager comes in and doesn’t like them, or they get a bad injury. Although you’re nice to each other’s face, you’re in competition with these people so there’s never really that much of a friendship.

“And in my career, I ended up going on loan and moving around to a few different clubs. So you think you have friends in the dressing room, and then you go on loan, and you don’t hear from people, you don’t see them for six months. You quickly realise that the relationship wasn’t as strong as maybe you thought it was and I found that out quite a few times in my career.

“I don’t know if it was a type of shield to keep people out or whatever it was, but I developed this type of ego around football that really wasn’t right for me, and it brought so much more with it.

“I don’t think a lot of people wanted to keep in contact with me. And I think it was probably best for me to steer clear of that type of world. And it’s nothing against footballers per se, it’s more the glitz and the glamour around it that can bring me down.”

Treacy has not played since 2016, having briefly lined out with St Patrick’s Athletic after his year in Drogheda.

Still only 33, the Irish star had hoped to make a return to football until relatively recently but is officially retired now.

“I had surgery in 2019 to fix a disc in my back and afterwards, the surgeon told me the disc on top of the disc they had operated on, I don’t know the technical term, but it was knackered. I had no symptoms so he said: ‘Listen, you could break down tomorrow or you could go on for the rest of your life and never feel it. It’s wear and tear, so you might be okay and you might not.’

“Not being associated with a club anymore, if I was to break down as I go through the rungs of the ladder to get fit, you’re talking thousands for another back operation, and it’s not money I have at my disposal anymore — life and family get in the way.”

file-photo-dated-22-01-2022-of-newcastle-boss-eddie-howe-who-has-insisted-he-never-doubted-newcastle-could-dig-themselves-out-of-the-relegation-mire-after-taking-on-the-challenge-of-securing-the-stri Eddie Howe was one of those who encouraged Treacy to seek help. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

It has changed to a degree since Treacy’s time as a player, with more athletes speaking out about issues relating to mental health, but he was of an era where such problems were seldom discussed. The recurring fear of many footballers was that seeking help would be perceived as weakness in this habitually macho, male environment.

“That’s exactly what players think. And I’ve had managers in the past — in particular, Eddie Howe, the Newcastle coach now, he came to me when we were at Burnley together and asked me to go to Tony Adams’ clinic down in the south of England. It’s called ‘Sporting Chance.’ He wanted me to go down there for gambling as well, but mainly for alcohol.

“I wasn’t in a place [to do it]. I thought if I go and get help for this, I’m admitting I have a problem. And if I admit I have a problem, then the left-winger who’s next in line will play ahead of me.

“So you keep things in your head and you don’t want to let them out. It’s really difficult if you’re a current player to come out and say these things because with the likes of social media as well, very rarely do people pull any punches. You get these keyboard warriors who will say whatever they want to whoever they want.

“But you’ve just got to worry about yourself and getting yourself right, and the main thing is just getting it out and talking about it.”

In many cases, elite footballers’ struggles tend to intensify after they retire. However, in a sense, the opposite was the case for Treacy.

“I’m quite unique,” he explains. “I needed to get away from football with the heavy drinking I was doing in England and everything else that was happening to me in life at the time. I was going to therapy and coming away from football actually helped me.

“And I was in a place where I wasn’t thinking too far ahead because I was literally trying to get through the next hour without having a drink and stuff like that.

“I was working on fixing myself and dealing with my addictions at the time. So I got through with my head down and didn’t realise what I was doing and then all of a sudden… I’ll be six years sober this November.

“It just sort of happened and for me, with the drinking and being in a football environment, you develop a bit of an ego and a really thick skin. You don’t listen to a lot of people because of all the outside noise.

“I was in such a dark place and I just managed to somehow get through it with my head down.”

keith-treacy-blackburn-rovers-fc-ewood-park-blackburn-england-04-october-2008 Treacy joined Blackburn at 15 and spent six years on the books there. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Statistics have suggested as many as one in three former footballers will suffer a mental illness. 

And Treacy believes elite athletes are particularly prone to issues such as addiction and depression.

“I can only talk about my own experiences. I don’t believe I was born addicted to porn, sex or gambling, or any of that sort of stuff. I believe the money I was earning, the low hours of work I was doing per day, and being alone in England an awful lot with all of my family being in Dublin [were contributing factors].

“So I think a little cocktail was made in and around me, and it was just the perfect storm. From the age of 17, I was earning £1200 a week. And I had a Range Rover. If you pluck any young lad out of Dublin at 15… I went over at 15 and at 17, I had my own apartment. You’re going to work from 10am to 12pm most of the time, and you’re going to have so much downtime. I think the majority of people will get into trouble.

“I got bored and ended up in Paddy Power bookmakers making a silly amount of bets, but it’s all relative. I was betting money that I had, so it didn’t seem like much of a problem. When you look back, it’s really alarming. 

“And it’s so easy to place a bet now on the phone, with no money actually physically leaving your hand, it’s very hard to grasp how much you’re actually betting, especially when you’re earning £10,000 a week, or whatever it might be.

“I’m doing this interview over the phone, but this is actually my wife’s phone. I don’t have a phone myself, I don’t have any social media. I feel it’s better just for my own mental well-being. And with so many addictions, it’s so easy to place a bet these days, so I find it’s better for me just to stay away from it completely.”

The height of the lockdown was a tough time for everyone but the boredom and the constant hours at home were a challenge in particular for addicts. Treacy says he managed to cope relatively well under the circumstances.

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“I had my little boy, Teddy, just before lockdown. And my life became so mundane. As I said I don’t have a phone, so where I’m supposed to be, I am supposed to be, and I very rarely deviate. I leave here, I go to work, I come back to do a bit of analysis or I might watch a bit of football. So my life day to day didn’t really change. I just stayed at home with the kids and concentrated on myself. It wasn’t too bad.

“I was lucky because I was training with Sligo at the time. I was going back and forth as an essential worker to try and get myself fit. So I got little pockets of a break during the lockdown. And with me being a gardener as well, I was working outside. So I managed to still work every now and then.”

keith-treacy Treacy pictured during his 2016 spell at St Patrick's Athletic, the last club he played for. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Nonetheless, for all his recent success in managing these issues, Treacy understands there is no room for complacency.

“I still wake up in the morning an alcoholic and I wake up with the same addictions I had years ago. So although I’m doing well, you can never get too carried away with yourself. Because disaster for me is only ever a pint away.

“You need to keep level and grounded with it, just take things day by day, as they say, and try to not look too far forward.”

Family and the decision to open up to his wife Leanne in particular played a key role in Treacy’s recovery.

“I’ve got three little girls and a little boy, but having a sex addiction and gambling addiction, and the nature of the stuff I was doing, I couldn’t really open up to the kids too much.

“But my wife was outstanding, she really is a diamond. And a big part of it was all the stuff that was inside me and the voices in my head, these things that were bogging me down. I thought: ‘I can never tell anybody these things because they’ll think I’m some sort of lunatic, a monster.’ And when I managed to actually physically bring the words out and voice them to my wife, she didn’t recoil and she understood. And she suggested we get some help.

“It just made me feel human again. The way she dealt with it was just brilliant. And anybody struggling with any sort of mental health issues or addictions, the number one thing to do is to get it out and talk to somebody about it. Let them know how you’re feeling and then the helping can happen.

“When you start developing these things, and they manifest inside, you start thinking that you’re unique, and nobody has ever gone through these problems. Nobody’s ever been an alcoholic before. Nobody’s ever woken up and wanted to go straight to the pub and couldn’t leave the pub unless they were blind drunk.

“Yet, the more people talk about it, I wouldn’t say it normalises it, but it just makes the person who is affected by it feel like there are other people out here and people have gone through this before.

“Not seeing an awful lot of light at the end of the tunnel, and then all of a sudden, somebody pats you on the back and says: ‘I’ve been there, and look where I am now, I’m through it.’

“It just makes you feel there’s a bit of hope here and I’m not the monster that I’m building myself up to be in my head. Sometimes in life, you just need that little bit of hope, and people talking about it can give it to you.”

football-celtic-v-kilmarnock-bank-of-scotland-premier-league-celtic-park-0506-14106-ross-wallace-celtic-in-action-against-kilmarnock-mandatory-credit-action-images-brandon-malone Treacy has just one friend left from his football days, the former Celtic winger Ross Wallace. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Treacy has publicly discussed his issues on several occasions already, as he seeks to help others suffering from similar problems.

“I do enjoy talking about it. It is therapeutic. But it took me a long time to get here. It was just over four years of therapy. And it’s still almost two years past that now. So it took a long time to get me to a place where I was happy to talk about it.

“I just hate the feeling that somebody might be in the same way of thinking that I was so many years ago, in a dark place and thinking: ‘Nobody’s been here and come out of it.’ So if anybody in any walk of life looks at this and thinks: ‘Jesus, if he can pick himself up from where he was and move forward with his life, maybe I can do that.’ And even that gives me hope as well, thinking maybe I could help somebody in the future.”

And does he have a message for people who are currently struggling?

“The first thing I would say is if they want to have some sort of one-to-one, I’m sure they could get in touch with yourselves and we could arrange for my contact details to be given across.

“If there’s anybody who feels they would like to talk to me and really get down to the nitty-gritty of things, it’s therapeutic for me, and if they want to unload some stuff onto me and I can help them in any way possible, that would make me feel great.

“It’s not all about them coming to me, I get a lot out of the interaction as well. So if anybody wants to talk to me, I’m open to that. If you’re not ready, and not in a place where you feel you can talk, just know that there is light at the end of the tunnel and you will get into a place where things will get easier. You just need to hang on until they do.

“But I would urge people to talk to somebody close to them even if it’s not me or your doctor, just unload to a friend or to somebody and things will start getting better.”

You can watch live coverage of England v Italy on Virgin Media Three tonight from 7pm, as well as Nations League highlights from 10pm.

Need help? Support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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