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'My career coming to a premature halt is not the reason I'm an alcoholic'

In a wide-ranging conversation, former Ireland U21 international Kieron Brady discusses his life before and after football.

Kieron Brady is a former Sunderland and Ireland U21 player.
Kieron Brady is a former Sunderland and Ireland U21 player.
Image: EMPICS Sport

KIERON BRADY IS better placed than most to give advice to parents of young aspiring footballers.

As a teenager, he looked destined for a long career at the top of the game.

Sunderland legend Michael Gray described him as the best youngster he ever came across.

A highly gifted winger, some people even saw him as the Black Cats’ answer to Gazza.

These days, the 48-year-old remains a cult figure at Sunderland, for whom he made 40 appearances. Supporters who were around at the time still fondly recall a spectacular overhead kick he scored in a 4-3 victory over West Ham in 1990.

There were high hopes for his Ireland career as well. Brady had been born and bred in Glasgow, but his Donegal background prompted him to declare for the Boys in Green.

He was even considered by some an outside bet to make Jack Charlton’s squad for Italia ’90.

Yet the talented starlet would soon encounter problems. Then-Sunderland boss Malcolm Crosby took issue with his weight and ill-discipline, with Brady missing out on his side’s appearance in the 1992 FA Cup final as a result.

A successful loan spell at third division side Doncaster followed, but by the age of 21, in 1992, Brady was forced to retire, owing to a rare blood condition. The years after his retirement would prove immensely difficult, as he struggled to deal with life as an ex-footballer.

Having struggled with alcoholism, Brady is in a much better place these days. On 14 December, the former player will be back in Ireland for an Irish Football Parents Conference taking place at Dublin City University.

The42 recently caught up with him for a chat about his career and dealing with its premature end…

You’re speaking at the upcoming Irish Football Parents Conference. What are your own memories of football parents growing up?

Well I was certainly influenced not only by my mum but my wider family about what would be my first destination and what we would hope was going to be a long footballing career. My decision, if you want to term it that, to come to Sunderland, was based on various factors, not all of which were exclusive to football. It was just felt from my family that Sunderland as a place had much more common features with Coatbridge, Glasgow and the west of Scotland where I grew up, as opposed to Chelsea and London, which would have been one of my other potential destinations.

So the advice I would always give to people who are trying to make their way in the professional game, especially at a young age, is to keep onboard a whole host of factors, not just the glamour that might be attached to one particular football club or the profile that a manager has.

Source: David Bell/YouTube

Looking back, is there anything the people around you could have done differently, or that you would have preferred them to have done differently?

In retrospect, I don’t think anyone could say they get every single decision correct. Ultimately, as much as they would have had an input and some form of influence, any major decision would have been mine and mine alone.

So I don’t think there’s anything that they could have done differently. People in any walk of life would do their best and as a result, I would always be appreciative of it, with different dynamics involved when somebody moves away from home. And although Glasgow to Sunderland is only 150-160 miles, it was still enough of a distance that I had to centre myself. I was always minded to go to England if the possibility arose. It did and I was given the choice between Sunderland and Chelsea.

My mum and uncle Eddie were impressed by Sunderland Football Club. Sunderland were very active in trying to persuade my mum to have as much influence on me to make sure that I came to Sunderland. So they brought my mum down, they put her up in a very nice hotel. They came up to Coatbridge and took us out for dinner. They really tried to put the charm on to make sure that I would sign for Sunderland. Of course, what tends to happen is once you put pen to paper, you’re in many ways another number. You then become susceptible to the rigours of being a professional footballer, some of which may include a tough-love approach, or if you want to put it in other terms, bullying. I’m sure that that approach is still used by clubs today, because they’re very impressionable at such a young age.

But all things considered, I’ve lived in Sunderland for 30 years. So at a purely human level, I don’t have any regrets at all about coming here and subsequently making it my home.

Yet, throughout my brief career, I have little doubt that what I was forced to experience at times would constitute bullying in anyone’s language and by any standards. Even making allowances for a tough-love approach that may have been much more evident in football then than in the here and now. There may have been certain conduct that could be argued as being for the benefit of my professional development. But there would certainly be other examples that would not have any foundation in being conducive to making someone mentally resilient, or a better footballer.

PA-44330 Brady worked under Malcolm Crosby at Sunderland. Source: EMPICS Sport

You’re not the first former footballer to make complaints of that nature regarding bullying. Would you be confident that that sort of behaviour has been stamped out of the game now?

Players are much more empowered in the here and now. That, certainly in some respects, is a good thing. I do think, however, that we’re still at a stage where football in many ways is completely distinct from what may be the norm in other forms of industry. For example, professional footballers do not get sacked for misconduct in the same way in a factory or office or elsewhere.

Professional footballers are quite often bullied or mistreated in their working environment, and for the most part, will allow it to slide, simply because in the back of their mind, they’re always aware that they are in a very privileged position. I certainly think that as regards my own experiences, the latter was applicable.

Something that will be interest to parents also will be your early retirement from playing football and how you dealt with it. What age were you?

21. My injury first came to the fore when I was 20, very possibly 19, but when I started to experience it in a discomforting manner I was 20. 

You really struggled in the immediate aftermath of your retirement. What did you take from this experience?

At that particular time, despite the suggestion from my mum that I should go and speak with a professional with regards to how I was feeling and what emotions I was experiencing, I decided against that. This wasn’t a time when mental health and everything that goes with it was as well known as it may be now.

Over the ensuing year, if I was going to opt for anything to help bring some solace, it would have been alcohol. I’m an alcoholic, but my career coming to a premature halt is not the reason I’m an alcoholic. I was predisposed to being an alcoholic from the moment I was born. What life events may do is contribute to when an individual and alcoholism come into collision. I was drinking far too much. I patently realise now it was my alcoholism that was prompting that more than the individual trauma, as bad as it was.

It does take some time to get over because, with the greatest will in the world, losing a professional career as a sportsperson has different connotations to someone possibly losing their job. That’s not in anyway to be dismissive about it, but the profundity of the hurt that is caused is completely different.

In many ways, a professional athlete who has to retire early, particularly if they haven’t been fortunate enough to amass financial security, is then going to have to face up to the everyday responsibilities and priorities that the majority of people have. To that end, I had to go and seek out what may be termed mainstream gainful employment.

It’s easy now for me to say, at the age I am and the way I feel, but it certainly can create resilience within you. But, of course, at the time when you’re having to endure it, and I would use that term consciously, it’s very difficult.

Was there a key moment where you thought ‘the drinking has to stop’?

When you realise you’re going to lose either your mind or your life and that there’s a very good chance it’s going to happen imminently, certainly windows open for you that allow for the clarity to realise that your relationship with alcohol isn’t what it once was, or what you would hope it to be, and the only solution is complete abstinence, or what we term in recovery sobriety.

I had tried on a couple of occasions to stop drinking. I felt I hadn’t given it the effort that is necessary. Thankfully, on 12 June 2009, I had what I always hope will be my last drink. 

For the last decade, I have been tasked with guiding people through recovery from alcoholism. As much as it was wonderful to entertain people on a Saturday afternoon, it is incomparable to affecting someone’s life on an ongoing basis. I’m presented with the opportunity to not only help save people’s lives, but to give them life in a manner they could probably never envisage when they were within the insanity that is alcoholism.

ipswich-town-v-blackpool-sky-bet-league-one-portman-road Rainbow Laces corner flags at Portman Road. Source: EMPICS Sport

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On another note, you’re a patron of gay pride. You wore an ANC top to training when you were a footballer at Sunderland. Would you like to see more footballers use their influence for good and get involved in these types of causes?

Not if it’s going to be undertaken in the way that it has become. I became very disillusioned with anti-discrimination [groups] within football. As much as it will always be my passion and I will always hold egalitarian values, I do not have any desire whatsoever to operate within that particular industry.

Footballers, of course, across a whole range of issues can use their profile to try to address various injustices and inequalities, including prejudice and discrimination. But there is something insincere also attached to it. You’ve got a lot of footballers turning up to these events because they’re told to, not because they want to.

Going back to what we were discussing earlier, in relation to support systems for former footballers, would it be fair to say they were highly inadequate in the early ’90s when you retired? And have they improved since?

I was destined for alcoholism regardless, so even if I managed to have a prolonged career to the age of 35 or 36, alcoholism and me would still have come into collision at some point.

But I think to give credit to the broad footballing fraternity, there are much better measures in place now that allow for players who are experiencing any mental or emotional lows to try to seek help.

The Sporting Chance clinic was there for me when I decided I was going to stop drinking. I didn’t actually reside there for the 28 days that many others do, but that option was open to me, and I’ll always be appreciative of that and the PFA, who helped fund that.

The problem often is getting someone to first of all acknowledge that there may be some issue, whether it’s with alcoholism, or gambling, or mental health in a much more traditional sense. But I would like to think the wider conversation taking place around mental health in men will engender confidence, trust and faith within the people who are susceptible to it.

I know from my own experiences, when you’re in the darkness of depression or you’re in active alcoholism, you do not take any comfort from the fact that you were once a professional sportsperson. You in those moments are just someone who suffers from depression, or someone who is descending further and further into the mid or late stages of alcoholism.

You don’t consider counting what caps you have, or looking at your medals or trophies, or reminiscing about the goals you scored. You’re just praying for five minutes respite from the demon that is occupying you at that moment in time.

Source: SunderlandAFCTV/YouTube

More generally, what lessons can a young footballer take from your story?

I don’t really know if there’s anything in specific terms. Certainly, when I go to address the conference, I’ll be trying to hammer home to the parents or guardians who are present that they have to see beyond the affluence or global profile that one particular club who are making overture towards their children may have.

95% of the players that have played professional football in the last 25 years never even managed to get to 23 or 25. They may be content and they can convey to their children or grandchildren that once upon a time, they were a professional footballer. But, they might not have been in the best position to build a longstanding career that allows them much greater financial security. Hopefully these are the types of things I can speak to the parents about.

If players who have been aspiring to be a professional footballer since the age of six become a professional footballer at the age of 17, it’s taken them 11 years to realise that goal. Sadly, what many don’t do is set new objectives. It’s always worthwhile to set new goals so that you can continue to strive towards whatever it is that’s freshest. A lot of guys will walk into a professional environment and think; ‘Well, this is it until I’m 35.’ Sadly for many, there’s a rude awakening that’s not so far away.

You can find out more info on the Irish Football Parents Conference here.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication

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)

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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