WHERE TO START? You’ve probably never heard of Nathan Gartside, and even if you have come across the promising young goalkeeper, it’s unlikely you’ll have heard the eye-opening and frightening story of his brush with mortality, or how the onset of illness very nearly robbed him of the thing he has always wanted and always worked for.
Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this tale, but it could have been so different. And that’s the scary part. A haunting reminder of the fragility of life, a story, essentially, about what’s given, what’s earned and the suddenness and cruelty in which everything can be taken away.
Gartside possesses a remarkably positive attitude and outlook, and even throughout his searingly honest account of a traumatic two years, he never once raises the question of why him, or what if a life-threatening condition had not intruded on his young life without any prior warning.
In opening up about an unspeakably difficult experience for him and his family, the 20-year-old is not seeking sympathy, nor does he lament the hand he has been dealt. In his eyes, it simply is what it is. Carpe diem on the good days, everything in stark perspective on the other days.
As for Gartside, life has always revolved around football. He has only ever harboured ambitions of being a professional footballer, of fulfilling his extraordinary talent and living all his dreams in the game he grew up playing, worshiping and loving.
When Watford offered him a chance to move over to their academy at the age of 16, he had no hesitation in leaving family and friends in Maydown, Co Derry to move to London and chase that dream. He’s never wanted to do anything else, and with considerable reason.
From the moment he moved into goal after a brief, and unsuccessful, spell outfield with Institute Football Club, Gartside’s potential was so prodigious that he was almost instantly called up to Northern Ireland youth squads, and it wasn’t long before he was producing standout performances in the prestigious Victory Shield competition.
His development was as rapid as it was exciting, and Watford were quick to identify a young teenager from Derry as a goalkeeping prodigy they could nurture and develop into a star of their first-team.
Gartside settled into life at London Colney with all the confidence and assurance required to succeed and stand out in a cut-throat environment such as a Premier League academy, and he progressed through the ranks at remarkable haste, emerging as a key figure in the club’s U18, U21 and U23 sides.
And not only were his performances the talk of the underage set-up, but further recognition came during the 2015/16 season when Quique Sánchez Flores, the then Watford manager, called Gartside up to travel with the first-team squad as third-choice goalkeeper behind Heurelho Gomes and Costel Pantilimon.
“There was no experience like it,” he smiles.
Gartside had the world at his feet. He was on the verge of a major breakthrough at a top-flight club who had enjoyed a brilliant season under Flores, and his stock was soaring as he lived the dream of so many teenagers in this country. And then his world came crashing down. Just like that.
26 April 2016. A day after Gartside had lined out for Watford U21s in their final game of the season and two days after he had warmed-up on the Wembley pitch ahead of the Hornets’ FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace.
It was a routine Tuesday morning, just like any other. Watford’s U21s were in the gym for a recovery session. They had been beaten 2-0 by Birmingham City the previous night in the concluding outing of a difficult campaign but on a personal level, Gartside had had a good year.
Big things were expected of him, and his future at Vicarage Road was incredibly bright having just signed a new two-year professional contract.
That’s what makes what followed incredibly hard to comprehend, not because illness has no consideration for age, but because it has an unforgiving power to change everything inexplicably.
Gartside reported for training that Tuesday morning completely unaware that a few hours later he would be fighting for his life in intensive care in nearby Watford General Hospital with an illness he had never heard of before.
“It was a sudden problem, there was no explanation,” he tells The42. “I was at Wembley two days before and now I was in a hospital bed wondering if I was going to die. There’s no explaining that.”
The then 18-year-old had been in the gym for a stretching session when he suddenly found himself out of breath and gasping for air. His condition deteriorated rapidly. His chest started to close up, and a sharp stabbing pain ran down his left side. He staggered for help, barely able to hold himself upright.
Gartside’s first thoughts were of his father and the heart attack he had suffered, but this was something different. One of the Watford physios immediately hooked him up to oxygen to assist his breathing, and within minutes he was being rushed to hospital.
“It just hit me,” he recalls. “All my health checks… We got regular health checks from Watford, and everything was clear. I had felt fine and then… Then I just deteriorated. Like there was no explanation, I can’t tell you why.”
Upon his arrival to hospital, Gartside’s condition had initially stabilised and after doctors at the specialist heart unit in Harefield had performed the necessary checks, it was likely he would be discharged the following morning. But as the evening progressed, he deteriorated further, and was rushed for an emergency biopsy.
Gartside had started to vomit violently and his heart-rate ‘went through the roof’, forcing doctors to admit him to intensive care, where he would spend the next six days having contracted a virus that effectively killed off the left side of his heart.
The results of the biopsy showed his condition as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle which has contributed up to 20% cases of sudden death syndrome in young people. He was lucky to be alive.
“I was seeing people on their death beds in there and I was lucky to have made it,” Gartside continues. “I remember them [the doctors] coming in to tell me I could have died, that it was life-threatening.
“They told me if I had been any longer [getting to hospital] or if I wasn’t at the training ground with oxygen and access to emergency personnel it would have been a whole different situation for me. 10 minutes more and I could have died. That’s difficult to hear. I was just in denial… I just kept thinking ‘this isn’t happening to me, this isn’t happening to me.’”
But it was, and suddenly the triviality of football, and performances, and results were put in perspective. Suddenly, at the age of 18, there were questions over mortality, and, scarily, questions with no answers.
“Most of the time I didn’t know what was wrong, I just felt ill. I obviously wasn’t thinking about football or playing because I just wanted to get better and when the Watford coaching staff came in to visit, it kind of hit me how serious it was.”
Gartside spent a week in intensive care and two weeks in total under the watchful eye and expertise of doctors and heart specialists in Harefield, as his family and girlfriend spent every hour by his bedside praying for enough improvement in his condition for this nightmare to end.
While football was the furthest thing from his mind, there was the very real possibility that he would never play again but, in that frightening fortnight, Gartside was fortunate a sports cardiologist ruled that he didn’t require heart stents, which would have ended his burgeoning career.
As it was, he left hospital under strict instruction not to do any exercise for a period of at least 10 weeks, and any physical work he did could only be performed at a maximum heart-rate of 60%.
“There were only a few weeks left in the season so Watford said just go home and have an extended summer break and we’ll see how you are for pre-season,” Gartside recalls. “I came home to Derry for about nine weeks, just watching TV and resting.
“With the heavy medication I was on and obvious lack of activity, I was putting on the pounds and that was tough. I always had my mind set on getting back to football but it was hard. You’re thinking about it every day, but physically can’t. To get your head around that is difficult.”
After a summer of rest and a process of slowly building his heart-rate back up in 10% increments, Gartside returned to London in July 2016 — three months after that fateful morning — to start all over again. It was like everything had reset to zero.
“My family, friends and girlfriend, and the Watford staff, were all in and unbelievable with me,” he continues. “They kept me focused on getting better, on staying positive. And once I got out, I had to be positive for the recovery period and then into the rehab. I had to keep my head straight because it would have been easy to just give up.
“I remember going back to Watford and just staring at the four walls of a gym, knowing this was me now for the next few months. I had been playing regularly, the first-team were managing my game time and I was feeling good.
“And for something like that to happen… I could get my fitness back, but it was the mindset. It had changed everything. It was hard to get my head around why it happened and why did it have to happen to me. That was the mindset I found myself in and it doesn’t matter how positive you are, there are always those questions in your head.”
As he watched his team-mates escape the purgatory of pre-season and return to competitive football, whether it was in the Premier League or at U23 level, the nature of Gartside’s rehabilitation meant progress was gradual rather than pronounced and required huge patience and diligence.
It was an undeniably tough time for the Northern Ireland underage international because so often the mental anguish of a lay-off can be more troublesome than the physical work, and in Gartside’s case the gravity of the situation demanded vigilance.
For months, the young goalkeeper was restricted to repetitive gym work under close attention from a club medic as he attempted to build up his match fitness again and ensure beyond considerable doubt there was no danger of a relapse.
“You just find yourself so isolated, away from everyone else,” he explains. “That’s the difficult part.
“That was the bit that bothered me the most, the fact that I was flying at the time. It’s hard to get your rhythm back and that was the main issue. You go from loving the game, being involved and going to Old Trafford with the first team and that’s what you’re in the game for.
“But then to be staring at the same four walls and weights and treadmills, and you’re staring at that for 10/11 months. That’s the bit for me anyway, that’s what I struggled with massively. It’s not anything like, ‘I should be out there with the first team’ but you lose your love for it and wonder when it’s going to change.”
The road to recovery was a long and winding one, and while Gartside understood the need to focus on incremental improvements across the range of weekly tests he was subject to, there was a further setback waiting down the tracks.
Six months after he was released from hospital, Gartside had made enough progress to at least extend his training programme to include some light handling drills with Watford’s then goalkeeping coach, Alec Chamberlain. He was still some way away from a return to full training, but it was a step in the right direction.
Only for his world to be rocked again with the news he and his family had so desperately feared, as a chesty cough and sore throat prompted Gartside to be admitted for another MRI scan and biopsy, which would show the condition had spread to his lung.
“I had that same feeling as before [the incident in the gym],” he remembers. “I was probably pushing myself too hard to get fit. I was desperate to get back and it didn’t help.
“When that happened, it was tough. I was more angry that it happened to me again. It got pretty glum.”
It’s hard to imagine what was going through Gartside’s head at that point, simply because it’s hard to ever imagine going through what he was going through. It’s impossible to put yourself in those shoes, simply because you never want to. His world had been turned upside down and there was no logical explanation for it, nothing he could do.
Prescribed with further medication, Gartside was left with no other option but to start the same monotonous process again. His weeks revolved around hitting certain markers on charts and spreadsheets, with no immediate promise of a return to the sport he loved.
He remained on the inside, but at arm’s length from what was happening on the pitch. He was still part of the club, but his moderated schedule meant he was without the enjoyement of training with friends and the substances of matches.
The weeks and months passed, and not a lot changed.
“It was the most difficult stage it will ever be for me,” he says. “With what I had before and everything I had worked for, it was a mental challenge. If I had a physical injury I could see what was wrong, you know how to deal with it and how to progress but at the time with what I had, I felt fine but obviously my condition wasn’t. All you want to do is get out there but the physios are saying, ‘No, no, not yet.’
Eventually, after nearly nine months, Gartside was given the green light to steadily increase his training workload again, and by January 2017 he was back taking part in team sessions with the U23 squad.
After everything he had been through, it was an incredibly significant juncture in his comeback, and allowed Gartside to return to some form of normality. To feel like a footballer again.
“Honestly getting back on the pitch was the happiest I’d been since being with the first team,” he smiles. “Football was enjoyable again for me because you get to do what you love and actually see progress in what you’re doing.
“I spent six weeks working hard on my match sharpness again, stuff like handling and skills you always have but just need to fine-tune after such a long period out. If I’m being honest, I was still a few pounds heavier than I should have been but that was something I could work on.
“By that stage, all the coaches just wanted me to play, to be given that chance to pull on the jersey again and just see where I was after 11 months out. The U23 coach one day came up to me after training and told me he wanted to started me in the game against Ipswich.
“It was a strange feeling but I was like, ‘Yeah of course.’ I had wanted to hear that for the last few months, I had been leading up to that day for months. When you’re in that gym with no light at the end of the tunnel, that is all I thought about.
“When I was told, I was so happy. I couldn’t have had a better bunch of lads in the dressing room at the time. They were so welcoming, and they helped me a lot.”
6 February 2017. Ipswich U23s v Watford U23s, Portman Road.
“I wouldn’t really get nervous before games, but this was different. I had found out three days before the game I was playing so I had time to think about it. A lot of things went through my head. There was the possibility 11 months ago that I was never going to be in this position again.”
The result was immaterial in the grand scheme of things but conceding eight goals in a heavy defeat was not what Gartside had in mind for his comeback, although there was little he could do about steadying Watford’s leaking ship during that U23 campaign.
As it was, and as clichéd and self-centred as it might be to say, all that mattered was Gartside was back on the pitch in full health. Everything else — the result, the performance — paled into insignificance.
“I’d never been embarrassed like that before and when goals four and five were flying in, I did wonder should I have come back,” he admits.
“Those doubts resurface again and I was thinking, ‘This is my fault, I shouldn’t have come back.’
“But after the game I realised all those thoughts were stupid because honestly nothing beats that feeling of being able to play again. There was a lot more meaning in that game for me elsewhere.
“My performance level wasn’t really a huge deal, I just wanted to be back. It was more the occasion. It was a good feeling. Probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in football, even though it was one of the worst defeats.”
If there was one thing to take from his first game back, Gartside knew he would need to put the head down to improve his fitness levels and the best thing to regain his confidence and conviction between the posts was building up match minutes again.
The problem was Watford had recruited a young goalkeeper from Aston Villa for their U23 side in his absence, and the jersey he had made his own now belonged to someone else. Through no fault of his own, Gartside had endured a maddening and slippery descent back to square one.
Watford, to their credit, received special dispensation to allow Gartside line out for the club in the U18 league as an overage player in a bid to get him back up to speed again, something he was extremely grateful for, and an exercise which helped restore some of his confidence which had been understandably dented.
By the end of that 2016/17 season, Gartside had played a dozen games between the U18 and U23 teams while Watford had organised a couple of friendly games for his benefit as everything was done to get the 20-year-old back to where he was.
“When you’re playing week in, week out you realise this is what you love doing. I didn’t realise how much I missed it until I got to pull on the jersey again. I couldn’t have been any more grateful to the Watford staff for the way they dealt with me during that difficult time.”
Gartside retained hope of having his contract renewed by the club at the end of last season but the reality was that he had lost so much ground in such a key stage of his development that Watford felt it was best if he sought first-team opportunities elsewhere.
It was a difficult thing to hear having not only grown as a player but as a person during four years at London Colney, where he made lifelong friends and shared incredible experiences with team-mates at some of the biggest football grounds in the country.
As had been the case throughout Gartside’s illness and subsequent rehab period, Watford showed admirable empathy and care for him and informed the goalkeeper of their decision to not extend his deal earlier than the other players who were being released.
He had a brief spell on loan at National League South side Chelmsford City towards the end of last season, but Gartside’s heart was set on coming home when Derry City manager Kenny Shiels showed interest in bringing him to the Brandywell.
“Watford were just honest with me and I appreciated that so much. They said they felt they’d be wasting another year of my career and development if they kept me and I knew if I wanted to get back to the place I was, it was probably going to be away from Watford.
“There are no bad feelings at all. I’m not going to say it was the wrong decision by them because it was what they felt. I just wanted to go somewhere to play games and be involved and I can’t thank Watford enough for everything they did for me.”
After a summer holiday with his girlfriend, Gartside returned home in July to spend a couple of weeks training with Derry, and when Shiels liked what he saw, the League of Ireland club were keen to tie him down on a long-term contract.
In announcing the signing of Gartside last month, Shiels said he wanted the club to give him a bit of direction again, and while he has yet to make his senior debut for the Candystripes, has settled in well by all accounts.
“There was talk of me going back to England but I didn’t want to drop down levels and Derry welcomed me with open arms,” he added.
“For me, the most important thing was getting back to enjoy the game again, because the last two years haven’t been that enjoyable. Kenny spoke to me and as someone who grew up close by, it was a no-brainer to join Derry.
“I know I could think about what might have been in England, but for me that’s negative thinking. I can only focus on the here and now and that’s just about getting my head down now and going somewhere.
“I’m only 20, goalkeepers have a lot of years. For this stage of my career I think this is the best move. I’ve no doubt if I perform to the best of my ability and do well with Derry, I will come to my future there and then. Either with Derry or back in England.
“I want to give Derry everything I’ve got because they gave me the chance to enjoy my football again. I need to repay them. Derry were the ones who gave me a chance, and my home town team, what better place to go back to enjoy your football.”
On Sunday, Derry will bid to win their first piece of silverware in six years when they face Cobh Ramblers in the EA Sports Cup final at the Brandywell. It’s a big day for a club which has endured its own grief in recent times — when a cup final is more than a cup final.
Gartside is unlikely to be involved in a playing capacity as he continues to settle in having only signed on the dotted line for the League of Ireland club three weeks ago, but that won’t detract from its significance for the kid who grew up in nearby Maydown and is now a Candystripe.
He would, of course, love to be in Shiels’ squad, not to mention between the posts in Ger Doherty’s jersey, but the disappointment of missing out on selection is all relative when balanced with a difficult two years, and the fact Gartside considers himself fortunate to still be here, even at his tender age.
“Being touch and go with life, you’ve got to enjoy your time with your family, and your time with your girlfriend. That’s what I look forward to and for me football still means everything, don’t get me wrong, but it puts everything in perspective.
“Football is the only career I’m thinking about now. I’m only at the start of my career, I’m nowhere near finished and I want to prove to everyone in the coming years the move I made was right.
“But when you’re younger everything you think about in your head is football. There’s no other thoughts, no other thoughts go to anything else. For me family is first, always has been, because family have been there during my good times and especially during my bad times.
“My family and girlfriend were there every day when I was in hospital and when I was struggling in my comeback from illness. They were the ones who kept me going, kept my head straight and kept me focused. Football means a lot, but I just appreciate everything else so much more now.”
Gartside has been getting valuable game-time under his belt for Derry City reserves in recent weeks and although he is chomping at the bit to get his chance before the end of the current Airtricity League Premier Division season, he has learned to be patient.
There were two ways he could have gone when his life trajectory was altered so dramatically, and Gartside showed huge determination to not let it get the better of him, mentally or physically. There was nothing he could do about an illness which had intruded on his life, so the only option was to get on with it.
There was never any question in his head over the last two years that football wasn’t what he wanted to do anymore, instead the setbacks focused his mind and only increased his drive to fulfil his lifelong dream.
“The simple thing about football is that there’s no hanging your head, there’s no feeling sorry for yourself,” he adds.
“I had the best opportunity to feel sorry for myself two years ago and if I had have felt sorry for myself this probably would have been a story about a young player falling by the wayside, falling out of love with football.
“But that’s not my personality and I don’t want to look back, or I don’t think I will look back, and think what happened was a bad thing for my career.
“Everything happens for a reason and now I’m back home in Derry playing for my home town club. I’m grateful for that.”
The story of Nathan Gartside’s life and career won’t be defined by that terrifying morning in the gym, rather what comes next. He’ll make sure of it.
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