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Dublin: 9 °C Sunday 7 June, 2020

'It's not easy to watch someone you love having to go through something like this'

Peter Cherrie is keen to raise awareness of the condition that has detrimentally impacted his wife Justine.

HAVING PLAYED — AND won — in a competitive game against a team containing Roy Keane, Peter Cherrie knows what it’s like to face the toughest opponents on the pitch.

Over the course of a long career in football, he has endured relegation battles and concerns over his livelihood as employers struggled to honour wage commitments.

Nevertheless, the Derry City goalkeeper is aware that no challenge he has confronted in the game could ever compare to the obstacles encountered by his wife over the past year.

Peter Cherrie Veteran goalkeeper Peter Cherrie. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Justine first experienced the effects of Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) in April 2018. At the time, Peter was 350 kilometres away, having signed for Cork City a few months earlier. The couple’s home is located just outside Dundalk.

“I got a phone call late at night — I think it was at about 11pm — from my wife’s cousin, who rang to tell me that Justine had been taken to hospital. They weren’t sure exactly what was going on, but obviously it was serious.”

Within minutes of abandoning his bed in a state of panic, Peter was in his car, heading north through the night on the M8. His desperation to reach the hospital was compounded by the fear of what might be waiting for him when he arrived.

“That was a tough trip, not knowing or not being able to make sense of what was happening,” he says. “Thankfully Justine had her family around her and they were trying to keep me calm, telling me things were okay, because they knew I had a long drive to get through before I got there.

“To cut a long story short, Justine had taken a seizure for 13 hours straight. She was shaking, she couldn’t speak. If she wanted to communicate, I had to hold my phone up and let her press the buttons for what she wanted to say, as if she was writing a text message.” 

Relatively little is known about FND, so eventually arriving at a diagnosis wasn’t straightforward for Justine. It’s an ongoing process for medical experts to definitively ascertain what causes the disorder and how it should be treated. Physical and occupational therapy are among the primary recommendations.

“It’s something that not many people really know about, including doctors,” Peter explains. “You can’t get a straight answer about what FND actually is. One minute Justine was being told she had MS (Multiple Sclerosis), the next minute they were saying she’d had a stroke. After that it was said that she had Parkinson’s. Then she was told that it was like a mixture of all of them. 

“That’s when FND was first mentioned. It basically means that her brain isn’t sending the proper signals to her limbs and other areas of her body. The effects can be very variable. She could wake up in the morning and just not be able to move. On another morning she could wake up and not be able to speak for a few hours.

3D187B30-C080-4423-9C96-E0D6222398A3 Peter and Justine Cherrie pictured recently. Source: Peter Cherrie

“She still takes seizures as well. It’s tough, especially as nobody is telling us ‘here’s how you treat this’, because there’s no medication. You get one story from one doctor and a different story altogether from another doctor. Some say it can go on for years, others tell you that she could be back walking in a couple of months. You don’t know whether to stick or twist.”

Peter first met Justine shortly after he left Scotland a decade ago to join Dundalk. At the end of his first full season at Oriel Park, he was named the club’s Player of the Year. When Dundalk’s current era of success began with a Premier Division title in 2014, Cherrie was between the posts for Stephen Kenny’s side.

A native of Bellshill near Glasgow, he moved on at the end of that campaign after the arrival of Gary Rogers. A brief spell north of the border with Cliftonville was followed by a return to the SSE Airtricity League with Bray Wanderers. Under Harry Kenny’s stewardship, the Seagulls were flying high during the first half of the 2017 season until financial problems derailed their bid for European qualification.

From there he joined then-champions Cork City to challenge veteran custodian Mark McNulty for the number one spot. Cherrie made 15 appearances across all competitions, two of which came in the Champions League qualifying round tie against Legia Warsaw.

After a year on Leeside, he joined Derry City ahead of the current season, with Candystripes manager Declan Devine describing the 35-year-old as a “dream” acquisition.

In spite of his wife’s plight, which requires him to balance football with his duties as a carer, Cherrie has continued to perform to the high standards expected of him. However, day-to-day life is unrecognisable for the couple from when they were married 15 months ago.

Justine, who often requires the use of crutches, is still a regular attendee at her husband’s games, yet that process is now more complicated than it once was. The Cherries are grateful for the invaluable support they have received in Derry. 

“When Justine comes to a game now, she has a rest beforehand — more for my peace of mind than anything else,” Peter explains. “If she does that, I’ll know that she’ll be okay during the game so I can keep my mind totally on football. 

Peter Cherrie Peter Cherrie joined Dundalk in 2009. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We’re lucky in that regard with Derry City. The club have welcomed us with open arms and they look after Justine so well. Anything she needs or wherever she needs to go, there’s someone there for her. They’ve been absolutely great.

“Life went from going full-steam-ahead to everything just being stopped. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s the way it has been. If you had known my wife beforehand, she was on the go 24 hours a day. I couldn’t get her to sit down. I’d always be asking her to take a few minutes to relax and take a break.

“Since the day I met her, nothing would ever get her down. She was driving the length and breadth of the country to go to the games. She never missed one. She’s now in a position where she can’t really do anything. She can’t drive and she’s not allowed to drive. It’s impossible to plan ahead for anything because you’re taking everything day-by-day.

“When you’re watching your wife maybe not being able to walk, that’s not nice, to say the least. It’s not easy to watch someone you love having to go through something like this.

“A few days ago up in Derry, she couldn’t even put her seatbelt on in the car. I had to do it for her. By the time we got home I had to physically take her out of the car and lift her into the house. That’s hard. Really hard. 

“But of course it’s much harder on Justine. She’s always asking me ‘are you okay?’ and I’m wondering how she can be worried about me when she’s going through this. It’s a tough situation, but we’re getting there.”

With the help of Derry City FC, the Cherries were involved in the production of a video this week to highlight FND Awareness Day in the UK, which took place on 25 March. 

The ambiguity attached to FND creates uncertainty over what lies ahead for Justine Cherrie, but she has remained admirably resilient in the face of such hardship.

Peter Cherrie dejected in the closing stages of the game Peter Cherrie playing for Cork City against Legia Warsaw. Source: Tomasz Jastrzebowski/INPHO

“She’s taking it all on the chin and getting on with it, but it’s hard,” says Peter. “She wants her own independence. She wants to live her life and do her own stuff like she has always done.

“I’m sure you’d expect her to have down days where she’s feeling sorry for herself, but she’s always saying to me, ‘Peter, I’m not going to be like that, I’m going to fight this and I’m going to beat it’. It’s unreal for me to hear that. Her mindset about it is fantastic.

“She’s dealing with it well and making her own recovery, if that makes sense. She’s been told so many different things by doctors that she has just said, ‘I’ll take on board what you’re all saying but I’ll also do what I feel is working best for my recovery’. When the information from doctors is so varying, I think that’s the best way to handle it.”

Peter admits that when Justine initially developed FND, it took time to adapt after their lives were subjected to such significant upheaval. However, Justine is adamant that her husband won’t be cutting his football career short on her behalf. 

Peter, who turns 36 in October, says: “She always told me that football comes first. Last year that changed, without question. She has to come first always now. But she wants me to play on for as long as possible. If she’s happy for me to do that, then I will as long as my body holds up, and at the moment I feel better than I’ve done in a long time.

“She loves football and she has always been 100% behind me. When Cork City contacted me last year, I wasn’t sure whether to go or not. Justine was the one who convinced me to sign there. I missed out on the chance to play in the Champions League when I left Dundalk and she didn’t want that to happen again.

“Since I’ve gone to Derry, every day has been brilliant. It’s a great place to be and a great place to work. I’m really enjoying my football there and I want that to continue.”

When Peter Cherrie eventually decides to bring the curtain down on his playing career, a particularly cherished memory he’ll reflect on is from a January afternoon 13 years ago.  

Roy Keane of Celtic tackles Clyde's Peter Cherrie 'I've got a picture of me and Roy Keane going for a ball and it looks like he's trying to kick my head off...' Source: Jeff J Mitchell

As a 22-year-old novice, he played for second-tier outfit Clyde as they hosted the club he supported throughout his childhood in the third round of the Scottish Cup. Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld isn’t often a focal point for the eyes of the football world, but Roy Keane’s first game as a Celtic player made this a notable exception.

Cherrie and his team-mates were merely extras in the story of the debut of one of the truly great players of his generation. The game was billed as an easy introduction to life in Scotland for the veteran midfielder, whose captaincy of Manchester United came to a controversially abrupt halt six weeks earlier. But Clyde hadn’t read the script.

“That was an unbelievable day,” Cherrie says, recalling Clyde’s shock 2-1 victory, during which he denied Keane a debut goal by making a fine save when the Corkman got his head to a Shunsuke Nakamura free-kick.

“I’ve got a picture of me and Roy Keane going for a ball and it looks like he’s trying to kick my head off,” he laughs. “To be able to look back on something like that is massive. It was a huge career highlight for me, especially as a Celtic fan.

“The pitch was frozen that day and I remember thinking I’d be absolutely gutted if the game was called off. All of a sudden you’re walking out of the tunnel beside Roy Keane, Neil Lennon, John Hartson, Artur Boruc… absolutely incredible.

“I’ve had some good times over the years, but I’d like to think there’ll be a few more yet. I know that’s what Justine wants and it’s certainly what I want too.” 

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Paul Dollery

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