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Kennedy consoled by the prospect of a more secure future after retiring at 23

Mikhail Kennedy, who was 19 when he played in the English Championship, quit professional football last year.

HIS CAREER AS a first-team footballer was only three minutes old, but Mikhail Kennedy was already basking in the warm glow of his first goal as a professional.

There was a game still to be won, yet for a brief moment he couldn’t stop himself from picturing the scenes in the living rooms of friends and family back home in Derry.

Imagine the expressions on their faces when the ticker at the bottom of the screen on Sky Sports News revealed that there had been a breakthrough in the League Cup second-round fixture at the Abax Stadium.

GOAL: Peterborough United 0 Charlton Athletic 1 – Mikhail Kennedy (3)

“Just after the goal there was a break in play and I remember standing there, thinking: this is actually it,” Kennedy recalls. “You’ve just done what you’ve dreamt of doing since you were a kid. Jeff Stelling is going to be calling out your name on the telly.” 

soccer-capital-one-cup-second-round-peterborough-united-v-charlton-athletic-london-road Mikhail Kennedy is congratulated by team-mates following his debut goal for Charlton Athletic. Source: Stephen Pond

Kennedy, who had celebrated his 19th birthday only a week earlier, was soon rewarded with a league debut in a Championship fixture away to Blackburn Rovers. One of the defenders tasked with keeping him quiet that day was fellow Derry native Shane Duffy. 

“The teamsheet went up in the dressing room before the game and I was starting, which I couldn’t believe,” he says. “Ewood Park got a lot bigger all of a sudden!

“Alou Diarra, who played for France, played for us then. He could tell I was a bag of nerves so he just came over, put his arm around me and said: ‘Listen, we believe in you, don’t be nervous.’

“Hearing that from him, a man who played in the World Cup saying he believed in me, was an incredible feeling. It’s the kind of memory that reminds me I achieved something special.”

It hasn’t always run smoothly, but his adjustment to life as a former professional footballer has been eased by an understanding of the importance of appreciating the good days, rather than lamenting the lost ones.

As a youth international for Northern Ireland, he came up against future Champions League and World Cup winners in Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez and Corentin Tolisso.

His graduation from Charlton Athletic’s academy occurred in tandem with several players who now earn a living in the Premier League, including Joe Gomez (Liverpool), Ademola Lookman (Fulham), Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa) and Karlan Grant (West Bromwich Albion).

While many of his former peers continue to enjoy careers at the highest level of the game, life has taken Kennedy in a very different direction. The decision to make a change at 23 was announced in May of last year.

His pursuit of long-term prosperity once correlated with his determination to succeed in professional football. When the paths that led to those two objectives diverged, Kennedy’s prudent assessment of his future belied his age. 

Suffering two anterior cruciate knee ligament ruptures in the space of two years had considerably harmed his prospects, but he wasn’t forced out of the game by the injuries. Their impact merely helped him to gain a better view of the bigger picture.

soccer-sky-bet-championship-cardiff-city-v-charlton-athletic-cardiff-city-stadium Kennedy under pressure from Joe Ralls while playing for Charlton Athletic against Cardiff City. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Retiring has given me closure,” he says. “I’m also a better person since I made the decision, which is what’s really important. 

“I can play football again if that’s something I want to do, but this has allowed me to go out, start working and stop pretending that I’m still something that I used to be.

“Making the decision to retire was something I was reluctant to do at first, but there has been amazing healing from it. I have a good job now, I feel settled and there’s some security. The security is a big thing because there’s not a lot of it in football.”

The need to give care and attention to one’s mental health was an alien concept to Mikhail Kennedy until he sustained his first knee injury, which was the result of an awkward landing in a training session.

A setback during his rehabilitation required him to undergo a second surgery. He didn’t play a game for 15 months, and Charlton Athletic’s physio, Joe Ranson, recognised the toll it was taking. 

“He told me one day that the club had a psychologist and he thought I should go up and speak to him,” Kennedy explains. “I had been doing gym sessions for so long instead of being out on the pitch playing games, I just felt so under-motivated. I didn’t want to do it anymore.

“I was very reluctant to go up and speak to him at first, but I’ll always remember the first conversation we had. It was the most powerful thing I had ever experienced.

“He’s a psychologist but I probably used him as a counsellor. His empathy and the way he just listened to what I had to say… I mean, I ended up going to him every Thursday for a year and a half and I couldn’t wait for it every week. Anything that had happened that week, just to get it all out and deal with it that way was something I found so powerful.

“I didn’t get to a point where there was a breakdown, but there definitely would have been if I just kept stuffing things away to the back of my mind. If you continue to bottle up your feelings, eventually it’s all going to explode. Thankfully I dealt with things before it got to that point.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Kennedy can recognise that the seeds of his mental health struggles were sown when he left home at 16 to chase the dream.

soccer-uefa-euro-under-21-championships-qualifying-group-three-northern-ireland-v-scotland-mourneview-park Celebrating after scoring for Northern Ireland U21s against Scotland. Source: Niall Carson

“I was a rabbit in the headlights,” he says of his move to Charlton Athletic. “From what I was used to it felt like a different planet. I had never even been on a train before I went to London. Where I come from in Derry, everyone knows each other and they’re friendly. London is completely different.

“I found the homesickness to be awful. I always say about the young Irish players who go over to England: the footballer isn’t made during a game on a Saturday or on the training ground from Monday to Friday, he’s made on a Tuesday night when he’s lying in his bedroom by himself, staring at the walls. That’s what’ll make or break you.”

Although there were days when he was tempted to call it quits, Kennedy persevered for long enough to earn a professional contract when he turned 18, which afforded him the means to move into his own apartment.

Nevertheless, time isn’t always a healer. His younger brother, Calvin, was also signed by Charlton as an apprentice. He stuck it out for six months before deciding to return home.

“How you survive the loneliness of living in digs is the toughest part of making it over there, not the football. As a teenager away from your friends and family it’s really hard,” Mikhail Kennedy adds.

“I found that if I’d had a bad training session there was no release from it. You’d go back to your digs and lie there thinking about it on your own for the rest of the day. There’s no escape.

“You’d say to yourself: I’m only here to play football, I have nothing else. There’s no opportunity to switch off and get away from it, which is really unhealthy. You’re existing, but you’re not living. You’d be counting down the days to get home for Christmas.

“After I had the first surgery I got really ill with food poisoning. It was a Thursday and I was sent home from training and told not to come back to the club until Monday.

“So I was at home on my own for a long weekend on crutches and in a knee brace. Then my TV broke, but no one could come out to fix it until the Monday.

“I was sitting there on the Saturday, I hadn’t left the house or spoken to anyone in a couple of days, and I just felt like I was at rock bottom, going: what is this the point of me actually being here?

soccer-sky-bet-championship-cardiff-city-v-charlton-athletic-cardiff-city-stadium Signing an autograph for a young Charlton Athletic fan. Source: EMPICS Sport

“That was the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life. It was so, so awful. I remember saying to myself after that: Mikhail, there’s something really wrong here and it needs to be dealt with.

“I was actually feeling ridiculous for even thinking that I was struggling, because how can you be struggling when you’re a professional footballer who’s apparently living the life he always wanted?

“I felt as if I wasn’t worthy of feeling like I was struggling because of the privileged position I was in. Even when I’d come home to Derry, people would be like, ‘you’re living the dream, playing football and being paid a fortune, I wish I was in your shoes’. Little did they know that I was feeling miserable about the whole thing.

“When I was injured I felt like I was stealing a living. You look around and see real poverty in the world, people properly struggling to make it through each day, and there I was getting paid a very good wage and I wasn’t even earning it. I thought I was being paid for doing nothing, which didn’t do me any good with how I was doing mentally.”

By the time Kennedy was fit enough for selection, “the other strikers were flying” as Charlton were coming down the home straight of a bid for promotion back to the Championship that would ultimately yield success.

With so much at stake for Lee Bowyer’s team, it wasn’t a time for taking a chance on a player who had spent over a year recovering from a serious injury. Amid a precarious financial situation at the club, his contract wasn’t extended at the end of the 2018-19 season.

“I was heartbroken,” Kennedy says. “The first thing you’re thinking is to make sure you can pay your bills, but for me, coming back to Derry and being judged as a failure was a big thing.

“A footballer will rarely admit that he’s been released – he’ll probably say that he fell out with the manager or that it was his own decision to leave – because it’s embarrassing to admit that you’re not wanted. That’s a very tough thing to accept.”

As he sought to revive his career, Kennedy had interest from Institute, of the Northern Irish Premiership, and Derry City, with whom he’d already had a loan spell during the 2017 SSE Airtricity League season.

While playing for Institute in a friendly between the two clubs, he was desperate to make an impression. However, before the ball even came his way, the knee gave out again.

mikhail-kennedy-and-michael-barker Playing for Derry City against St Patrick's Athletic in 2017. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

Kennedy underwent another operation to repair the damage, but in much bleaker circumstances this time. Post-recovery, he’d be an unemployed player who had been sidelined for the best part of three years. From there, it’s a long road back.

Looking himself in the mirror and no longer seeing a professional footballer was a painful reality to digest. It was a tough call, but simultaneously one that he knew made sense.

New ventures are now helping Kennedy come to terms with a life away from football. Since November, he has been in full-time employment with Seagate Technology, a US date storage company based in Derry.

He has also enrolled in a part-time counselling course at North West Regional College with the intention of helping others with their mental health. Crucially, he continues to actively tend to his own.

“The fact that I’m not a footballer anymore really hit me hard at first,” he says. “I’ve been on a process of letting go recently. A counsellor I’ve been speaking to basically told me that I was grieving.

“In general people think grief is about losing someone close to us. I suppose in this case it’s true too, because I lost myself and I hadn’t dealt with it. I looked up the stages of grief and I was going through every single one of them.

“There’s a lot of pain to go through, but it’s necessary. I’m going through that process and I’m just really glad now that I’m aware of what’s been going on for me.

“Identity is a big part of it. Loads of people still know me as the footballer who plays for Charlton. I was there for nearly eight years. That’s a massive part of your life. Even in work there recently, a fella shouted at me, ‘hey, this is some step-down for you’. I laughed it off but stuff like that is bound to hit you.

“You get so many people asking ‘what happened to you?’ so you have to tell the same story over and over again. Then you get all this sympathy that you don’t even want. I get fed up of talking about it because that’s not who I am now. I’m not the footballer anymore and I don’t want to be. I feel like I’m a better person without it.

“There were definitely times when I wouldn’t even want to go out because I didn’t want to have to bump into people and go over it all again, especially on days when you feel like you’re in a good place because it brings up all these emotions that you’d rather avoid.

soccer-sky-bet-championship-reading-v-charlton-athletic-madejski-stadium 'I'm just really glad now that I'm aware of what's been going on for me.' Source: EMPICS Sport

“At first I couldn’t even watch a game because it reminded me that I’m not a footballer anymore. But going through the process of letting go and finding my identity has helped me to understand that I can be happy with what I achieved.

“In football you’re taught that you’re only as good as your last game so you can never be content, because you should always want more, which is nonsense. I don’t have to think like that anymore. I can look back with a real sense of pride.

“Playing and scoring a goal as a professional footballer, I couldn’t tell you how many times I imagined that moment – and I did it in my debut. That moment alone, something I literally had dreams about, is worth every single bit of hard work I put in to get there. No one can ever take that away from me.

“The process of letting go of who I was and discovering who I am has been amazing. And if I ever do go back and play football at some level, it will be something I’ll do for fun and on my own terms.”

Kennedy maintains a connection with the game through a role with football agency Quorom Sports. He’s available to assist the young players they represent in coping with the same mental challenges that he encountered during his time in England.

Volunteering at the Northlands Addiction Treatment Centre has also been a hugely gratifying but eye-opening experience.

“I answered a phone call on one occasion from someone and just listened to the person for about 45 minutes,” he says. “The person told me their story and said they were feeling suicidal. I just listened and then told them a wee bit about me.

“A couple of days later the person rang back and said if they hadn’t spoken to me that night they didn’t know if they’d still be alive. There have been a few other similar situations like that as well. 

“For a footballer, scoring a goal is a great feeling, but it doesn’t compare to hearing something like that – something that really matters.

“I definitely believe that a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s normal to struggle, but it’s also normal to talk about it. If people feel like they can get something from my story, hopefully that’s the message they’ll take away.” 

* * *

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

  • Samaritans – 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • 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)

About the author:

Paul Dollery

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