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'I'm not afraid to say that I have been through bad days and I have contemplated suicide'

Bohemians and Ireland U21 player Ross Tierney on emerging from ‘a dark place’.

Ross Tierney pictured at a PFAI event earlier this week.
Ross Tierney pictured at a PFAI event earlier this week.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

‘RESILIENCE’ IS one word that springs to mind after talking to Bohemians midfielder Ross Tierney.

At St Kevin’s Boys, he was one of the few promising players not to get a move to Britain.

Despite his obvious talent and obsession with football, Tierney also regularly missed out on call-ups to Ireland underage squads.

“I have that determination,” he says. “It was probably instilled in me because I grew up in Ballymun. I owe a lot of credit to Caffo, Alan Caffrey, who’s with Shels now. He was probably my mentor at Kevin’s and then I owe a lot of credit to [Bohemians boss] Keith Long, he gave me my debut.

“Growing up, we were in a quality team and then I didn’t get into squads, DDSL squads, Ireland squads, because of my height, because I was too light and it was like: ‘Why are people always judging me on that and not my quality?’ 

“Keith was one of the managers who always just looked at my quality. I was in a team where a lot of players went away. I was saying to Caffo: ‘What was the point in me playing? People are telling me I’m a great player, this and that, but I’m not getting a chance to get away.’ He said: ‘Don’t worry, just keep going.’”

He continues: “I just used to love running around the flats in Ballymun after my friends and playing football. Keith calls me and Bucko [Keith Buckley] street footballers. We grew up working for everything and didn’t get anything handed to us and that’s benefited me with a determination of getting knocked down, or not getting picked and I feel like I have a point to prove.”

Football worked out well for Tierney ultimately. Long’s faith in the youngster was rewarded. He broke into the Bohemians’ starting XI as a teenager and has largely stayed there since.

The promising attacking midfielder, who registered seven goals in the Premier Division this season, is preparing to compete in the FAI Cup final on Sunday against St Patrick’s Athletic. He is also coming off the back of a PFAI Young Player of the Year nomination in recognition of his superb performances.

While nearly all of his St Kevin’s Boys teammates that went away are now back home, Tierney is finally set to get that long-awaited move to Britain, having agreed on a three-year deal to join Scottish club Motherwell after the cup final.

Yet the challenges Tierney has had to overcome on the pitch pale into insignificance when compared with what he has had to deal with in his personal life of late.

keith-long Tierney credits Keith Long with helping him get through dark times. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

While footballers are often reluctant to discuss such matters, Tierney is determined to publicly address his mental health struggles, in the hope that others can benefit from learning of his story.

“I had a tough 18-24 months,” he says. “My son who is two and a half, he had to get three or four life-threatening surgeries, he went through all that with a smile on his face and put a smile on my face.

“In March [2020], I lost my brother, I call him my brother but he was my best friend, Aaron, I lost him to suicide. Football was a short season with Covid. I had football as a break-away, you could go onto the pitch feeling down and come off feeling high. In November we didn’t have football, the season finished and it hit me in December. I went into a dark place, depression, it started to get really, really tough, I ended up in St Vincent’s Mental Hospital for three days.

“I had Keith and Bohs, who I can’t thank enough for what they did for me, they got me into counselling, I still have my bad days but the good days are worth living. At the start of the season, I was thinking of going out on loan. Keith said no, he didn’t want me to.

“I knew he’d signed Bastien Hery, an unbelievable player and another player I had to fight for my position. I thought a loan was best but Keith said to stay and fight for my position and that gave me confidence. I got in the team for the first game, against Finn Harps, and thankfully I stayed in, I owe the lads a lot, especially Georgie [Kelly] as I feel we have a great connection.”

On the darker days, Tierney admits there were doubts as to whether he would ever get back playing at a high level again.

“I am thinking, this is my career over, how am I in this situation? I am a footballer, I get paid to do what I love, why am I feeling like this? Why do I blame myself for Aaron’s loss? Why am I not happy? I understood it was not my fault, there was nothing I could do. I am here for a reason, God put me on the earth for a reason, I have a great family, with a great club, and I wanted to pay back and show people what I can do, that you can come from nothing and be in a dark place and keep getting knocked down. Once you get back up and fight you get the rewards and thankfully, I am getting the rewards now.”

ross-tierney-with-his-son-leon Ross Tierney with his son Leon after a recent Ireland U21 game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The decision to get counselling, the Dubliner adds, was an important part of his recovery.

“This time last year, sitting here I wouldn’t be able to speak about anything, especially not my mental health. Men’s mental health doesn’t get spoken about enough, especially with footballers and lads that come back from England and think they have failed. It’s a horrible place. Fortunately, I haven’t been through that and hopefully, I don’t go through it.

“Depression is not nice. Everyone has their bad days and when I had bad days I thought I’d just get over it, then the bad days keep coming, keep coming and then you’re blaming yourself for things that you shouldn’t be blaming yourself for and beating yourself down for things you shouldn’t be beating yourself down for.

“The breakthrough was probably counselling. Counselling has been unbelievable for me. It probably wouldn’t work for some people, but there are things down there, like meditation, which help me a lot and thankfully with [Dublin footballer and Bohemians performance coach] Philly McMahon since he came into Bohs, we do a lot of mindfulness and meditation and it has helped me a lot and helped the lads a lot and the performances are showing that.”

While Tierney these days is in a better place than he was, it would be wrong to suggest he is fully ‘recovered’ or that he doesn’t still experience challenging moments concerning his mental health.

“I have my bad days but I’m in the best shape of my life and I know that life is not always plain sailing but when those bad days come around, I’m able to open up and speak about it and be confident speaking about it in front of people. I’m not afraid to say that I have been through bad days and I have contemplated suicide. But I’m happy now.

“I know that some days I won’t be happy and I’m fine with that. I know that when I get to that stage I will be happy to open up, that I have counselling to go back to and I have family, that I wouldn’t have opened to before.

“Even if it’s a stranger, people in this room, or I see them on the street, you try to notice the signs if there is anything wrong. A smile hides a lot.

“My friend Aaron was a quiet lad but always [seemingly] a happy lad. I was with him the day before he took his own life. There was nothing out of the ordinary. We spoke about everything we would normally speak about. Then the next day, your life is shattered and it’s where do I go from here? You start blaming yourself again. But I’m in a great place and days like Sunday [the FAI Cup final] are days where you want to live for.”

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ross-tierney-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Bohemians' Ross Tierney celebrates after the game against PAOK earlier this year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In addition to everything mentioned above, there was also one other traumatic moment for Tierney.

In December 2017, he was one of the young players on the pitch, representing St Kevin’s, during a Dublin and District Schoolboys League, when Shelbourne youngster Izzy Dezu collapsed suddenly. The 16-year-old’s death was later confirmed after being taken to the hospital. It was a moment in Tierney’s career that stood out for several reasons — it was the same day he tore his medial collateral ligament.

“It was my last-ever game for St Kevin’s Boys, in the AUL complex against Shelbourne, and there was a tragic incident where the lad Izzy Dezu died,” he recalls.

“I was in a tackle with him and tore my MCL. I was going away the next day for my second trial at Shrewsbury and I was doing well. I didn’t know I tore my MCL, thought it was just a clash of knees.

“I couldn’t get treatment because the medical staff were with Izzy and rightly so. I got the news that day that Izzy passed away and was probably overthinking due to my knee. I went to Shrewsbury and they sent me back to get an MRI and give us the results. I had a tear in my MCL and the specialist said I had a choice of going to get surgery, put screws in my knee or go in a brace for six weeks. It ended up being six months out. I was six weeks in a brace and it started healing. I recovered and was thankful for that.

“It was another motivation, having Izzy on my mind. He died right in front of me and when I was in my dark place, I blamed myself for that. I was thinking what if I hadn’t made that tackle. I blamed myself but it was a tragic incident. That is what depression does but thankfully I’m in a better place now.”

Tierney acknowledges that the guilt he felt over Dezu’s death had not been properly addressed until recently.

“People think it’s just a tragic incident, but in fairness, after the game, we had a group chat and we were offered counselling. Most of the Shels lads went to it. I was thinking: ‘Why do I need to go to that? I’m alright, it’s a tragic incident and I’ll forget about it.’ But every December 12, I always think about it.

“When I was going through my bad patch last November and December, it got on top of me. I probably shouldn’t have blamed myself but he was always on my mind.

“When it happened it was on Sky Sports News. It got talked about at the time but you never heard anything after a few months. There’s only one week of mental health awareness, putting up posts on social media but it’s forgotten about again. I don’t think that’s right.”

Tierney is now hoping to end his time at Bohs on a triumphant note this Sunday, before completing his transfer to Scotland.

Another big challenge awaits at Motherwell, where his partner and children will join him around February once he’s settled in and the new baby has received a passport.

But regardless of what happens in the UK, Tierney’s passion for football will remain, as the sport continues to provide him with immense joy and a sense of escape.

“Once I’m on the football pitch, I feel free. That’s probably why I’ve so much energy. I feel free running around. That’s my escape. Last November, I didn’t have that and it hit me.” 

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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