Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Morgan Treacy/INPHO Sean Russell left Limerick after suffering a career-threatening injury.
# Interview
'The club told me in front of a dressing room of players that they don't have to do anything for me'
Sean Russell on a difficult few months that has left him having to launch a fundraising campaign for his rehabilitation.

SEAN RUSSELL’S STORY is, in many ways, a cautionary tale.

He hopes, more than anything else, that by telling it, other footballers who might suffer similar misfortune in future can learn from it.

Mentally, there have been times where he has been at his lowest ebb. The Dubliner is starting to emerge from this dark period with a more positive outlook, but says he isn’t the same person as before.

It started with a career-threatening injury that he suffered while playing for Limerick against Athlone last March. He did his cruciate and knew it would be a long way back from there.

As the footballer prepared for a long period of rehabilitation, Barry Heffernan of the Limerick Sports Injury Clinic recommended he see Ray Moran – an orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in the treatment of knee injuries.

“[Barry] had asked for a favour for me to be seen ASAP by Ray Moran, because he was concerned by the injury. He said it was as bad as they come,” Russell tells The42.

With the injury requiring urgent treatment, Russell promptly booked an appointment with Moran.

“The night before I had contact with the club just to question how the payments would be made for my consultation. They just notified me, said ‘you can relax and we’ll look after that’.

I arrived in reception and there was an issue from the start there. They said the club hadn’t been in contact and I was about to lose my consultation because there was no payment, there was a queue of people who were coming in. My father had to make the payment for me, which was the upside of €500 for the consultation and the scan, which he did eventually get back after the clinic contacted the club a number of times. So that was the start for me. 

“The week after the consultation was my surgery. After hitting that speed bump, I thought I just want to get guarantees for when I go in for it. So I asked the club for proof of insurance, for guarantees for when I go in the morning of the surgery I’ll be okay.

“So the club wouldn’t give me the name of an insurance company, wouldn’t really give me any information. They just kept telling me that I’d ‘enough to do with the injuries — just relax, they’ll look after it again’”.

sean-russell Cathal Noonan / INPHO Russell has represented a number of League of Ireland clubs, including UCD. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

On 9 April, the day he was due to undergo surgery, Russell initially still had not heard anything back from the club. On his way to get treatment though, the young midfielder says he received a text message from Limerick chairman Pat O’Sullivan.

“He was saying: ‘Sorry Sean, we haven’t got the money to fund the operation, so it won’t be able to go ahead.’ It was my first serious operation. It was something that I was quite nervous about. Then to get that news beforehand was tough.

“I went and asked the clinic was there any possibility I could be seen and to be fair, they did go out of their way in the sports clinic to get me in the door. We rang the club chairman five or six times before I got through. I was ringing him off my own phone and my father was ringing him off his phone. Eventually, he said that he would send out some cheques to let me in.

“So they did let me in on his word, which I was grateful for, because that wasn’t something that the clinic did have to do. They did deal with the situation and they tried their best.

Then the cheques that did get sent down during my surgery had bounced the following day. They were paid via personal cheque, which meant that there mustn’t have been insurance in place, or else the insurance wasn’t paid for — I’m not 100% sure on that. I haven’t really got any information on that, but the main thing is it ended up being billed to me, because it was paid with a personal cheque. 

“That was more or less the early stages of it. It was kind of from the consultation on that the problems started to occur.”

Russell continues: “The surgeon didn’t even want to speak about football — he said first off it’s a bad one and he had major concerns that I was at risk of some blood clotting, because of the lack of movement in the leg. My well-being was his main concern. He had told me that it was going to be a long, tough road.

“The first [surgery] I did get done was massive for my well-being and the second one is the one that could stop me from playing again — the cruciate ligament.

“So [the issues were] hindering my own health at the time. The club were aware of it and in my opinion, it didn’t seem like they cared too much.”

a-view-of-fai-hq-in-abbotstown ©INPHO Russell was disappointed with the lack of support from the FAI. ©INPHO

Unsatisfied with Limerick’s conduct and unable to receive assistance from the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland due to his amateur status, Russell sought help from the Football Association of Ireland.

“Obviously, Limerick have had their [financial] issues, I think everyone’s aware of it, but I do think, if you do have any issues, the governing body should be there to maybe sanction the club and help you out and put an arm around you. That wasn’t the case with me. They just told me it was ‘between me and the club.’”

It was only through generous donation of €4,150 from Limerick supporters that he was able to pay for his first surgery and with seemingly no one inside football circles willing or able to help, Russell decided to go public with his problems. In an interview with Jamie Moore of Off The Ball, he expressed disappointment with the club and their perceived lack of support. Limerick consequently reacted to this move with a more aggressive approach.

“The club told me to my face in front of a dressing room of players that they don’t have to do anything for me,” he says. “So they won’t do anything for me. This was after the interview I did on 98FM [Off The Ball].

“They did announce it in front of a dressing room of players — they don’t have to help me by the rulebook. So that’s why they won’t help me — they don’t want to help me. I went back with this news to the FAI and again, their response was ‘it’s between you and the club’.

Looking back, it was probably bullying from the club — that’s how I felt at the time. I was probably at my most vulnerable stage mentally. It was the early stages of rehab, no plan in place. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was out of work. And it was disappointing that the FAI didn’t want to help.”

While giving the impression he was being punished for going public with these issues, Russell believes Limerick simply used the Off The Ball interview as a convenient excuse not to help him, when they would not have done so regardless.

“I don’t think at the start they were going to pay. There was an issue with insurance. The text message I received I thought was disrespectful. Not even to give me a call on the way to the surgery clinic.

“I wasn’t really given any hope, so I don’t think initially that it would have been paid for. After five weeks of not getting a response from my own club, I had no other option than to do the interview. They felt it painted them in a bad light and they told me how frustrated they were.

“Then they just continued to tell me: ‘In the rules, you’re only an amateur, we don’t have to do anything for you, so we won’t be doing anything for you.’”

martin-russell Bryan Keane / INPHO Russell's father, Martin, has managed a number of League of Ireland clubs. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Russell therefore still needs funds for his second surgery, as the 25-year-old bids to resurrect his career.

A friend has set up a GoFundMe campaign on his behalf that aims to raise €10,000 for the surgery. 

“It’s not necessarily my injury and my fees that are the big issue. The big issue is that it can happen next week and it can happen to someone else again. There’s a grey area in the rules and regulations that amateurs and pros are valued differently. It’s something that’s the biggest thing I want to highlight and address. I don’t want to just have my situation paid for by GoFundMe and next season it happens to someone else. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone again.

“The response [to the campaign] has been so positive. I’ve had ex-team-mates reach out to me. I’ve had fans from previous clubs in America, people I haven’t talked to in a while have offered me support. It’s been incredible seeing that people do care. 

“In regards to getting the finances together, hopefully, we can raise the funds as quick as possible. The sooner I do raise the funds, the sooner I’ll end up getting the surgery, because it’s going to be up for me to pay for it myself.”

Russell has now left Limerick and it has been months since he has had contact with the club, whom he has represented for three seasons over the course of separate spells.

Financially, when you look at the stories in the newspapers, a lot of it is quite negative. It’s another reason why I did have to leave — mentally, it wasn’t the right environment for me. I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in Limerick resolving the issue and that’s why I’ve taken the action of doing it myself. I kind of half-hoped [they would offer to pay] for four or five months, but it’s not the case anymore. I need to just get on with it myself.”

The delays resulting from the lack of financial support offered to Russell have subsequently affected his recovery, both from a mental and physical viewpoint.

“I’ve spoken to players in the past that have been in professional clubs in England. And they’ve said it’s tough with the best of care and a massive support team around you, physios and doctors, whereas I haven’t had any of that. I haven’t had a time-frame. I haven’t been able to set small goals. I haven’t been able to do proper rehab and it just makes it very hard mentally, because obviously I miss football a lot.

“I’d love to be back playing in the league, but realistically at the moment, that’s miles away. To get back to that level would be amazing, but it’s probably six to nine months rehab from the surgery.

“I could be four to five months into that rehab by now and could be looking at coming back into a club at pre-season if I had proper care, but now I’m in a position where I may not be back playing football until the end of next season.

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“But that’s miles down the road for now. My main focus is getting the surgery and once I get the surgery, it gives me at least a fighting chance of getting back playing.”

pat-osullivan Donall Farmer / INPHO Russell says Limerick chairman Pat O'Sullivan, pictured above, told him via text message that the club could not pay for his surgery. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

He adds: “I did find myself mentally the most negative I’ve ever been during the summer. I gave up a lot of hope and lacked a lot of motivation. I had a physio reach out to me, David Clancy, who is quite a positive character, a really good physio and he’s offered me help and shaped me up mentally. 

“Obviously, along with that, I’ve had financial backing from my parents at home. My girlfriend’s been very supportive. And they’ve picked me up when I’ve been down. 

“To get me back on the horse and my knee strengthened up has been the major factors of picking me up. I’m still miles away from the person I was before I got the injury, but I know I’m on the right road and with that support system I have around me.

“But I would fear for a young player, or even an older player, if they didn’t have the support system I have — the lack of care I was given from my club and the governing body, it could be dangerous and it would be horrible to see and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone again.

Hopefully if anything good does come from it, there is some sort of [clarification] there between amateurs and pros. If you take amateurs out of the league, you probably don’t have the league, which is the reality. I’d say probably 75% of the First Division is amateur and a lot of Premier Division players would be amateur as well.”

The Lucan native explains that the injury also impacted on his work outside of football.

“I had a full-time job in Limerick and I had to leave that job because I was on a probation period. I started it on pre-season at the club. You do your six months’ probation and I was out for two months. So I lost out on two months’ pay.

“When I went back to work, I was in a knee brace and on crutches. I was two months behind on finances, because I didn’t receive any money during that time. I was paying rent with my girlfriend, trying to stock the house with food. Financially, it was a stress, and then obviously, the mental stuff starts to kick in.

“I ended up moving back to Dublin just to be around my family, the financial support from my parents and at the moment, I’m training to be a barber. That’s been amazing for me. I just decided that once I got my head sorted out, it was important to pick up a new skill and new source of training.

“I’m really enjoying it. I’m working part-time on that course at the moment and I’m really busy. It’s been a big distraction, but there are times when you feel like you could be doing work with the knee. You put your football career on hold, it can be tough some evenings, but I do feel I’m mentally on the up.”

Limerick FC and the FAI had not responded to official requests for comment at the time of publication.

Manager Tommy Barrett, however, did describe the situation as an “embarrassment” when speaking to The42.

It’s a source of embarrassment for me personally. It’s embarrassing for everyone. It shouldn’t have happened,” he said.

“I am very strong on it. It should never happen to a football player at any level, especially in League of Ireland — the highest level you can play at in the country. It’s not acceptable.

“I’ve tried to come up with solutions and get everyone involved internally. Hopefully it gets sorted.”

You can donate to Sean Russell’s GoFundMe campaign here.

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