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'Aren’t you that weirdo who walked out of football?’ I always had that stigma to me'

Once an exciting prospect, Thomas Butler played just twice for Ireland and fell out of love with football. Here he talks of how he bounced back and came to terms with his bad decisions.

AS THE IRISH team bus was extruded from Lansdowne Road’s West Stand on a fraught October night in 2002, one fan angrily gave chase.

Catching up when the bus had to stop, he glimpsed Mick McCarthy and spat into a plastic megaphone, “Fuck off home you English c**t.”

mick-mccarthy-16102002-digital Mick McCarthy reacts to Switzerland's late winner at Lansdowne Road in 2002. Source: INPHO

Ireland had just been beaten 2-1 at home by Switzerland – a last-minute goal by Fabio Celestini after Ireland had forced a relatively late equaliser of their own – and so McCarthy’s future just about the only thing more precarious than Euro 2004 qualification.

The manager was booed from a rancorous Lansdowne Road at full-time, with public opinion and reason contorted and disfigured by the psychedelic lens of Saipan.

Once the bus travelled a few miles further down the road, McCarthy rose and turned to face his subdued players.

“Look, lads, the wolves are at the gate, and they’re coming for me.”

It would be another 5,952 days before McCarthy managed Ireland again.

Thomas Butler didn’t know it at the time, but McCarthy wasn’t the only person making that bus trip for the final time.

Butler had played the game’s final eight minutes, his competitive debut having started a friendly with Finland a few weeks earlier. A senior international bow at 21 seemed, at the time, just another trademark of his precocity.

Breaking through with Belvedere, Butler was Ireland’s U15 Player of the Year in 1997. He played at every youth level with Ireland, and bagged a professional contract with Sunderland at 18.

He impressed as a substitute on his Premier League debut, and started the following week. He was Man of the Match as Sunderland secured their Premier League status with a draw against Derby County. 

“When you’re that age and green you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here and I’m playing’”, Butler tells The42.

“Three years ago I was in school not knowing what I’d do, and now I’m at Lansdowne Road playing in the last few minutes of a big, big game. It was a huge honour and I felt very privileged.

“I probably didn’t feel it at the time, but down the line you think, ‘Wow, I played in a team with Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and all of these players I used to watch on Match of the Day.”

thomas-butler-16102002-digital Butler leaves the field after the Swiss defeat. Source: INPHO

He didn’t play in that team again.

Butler’s career at Sunderland curdled, and by the time he was reunited with McCarthy in the north-east, things had gone too far.

Dogged by injury, Butler fell out of love with football and left Sunderland to return home.

It ended with a public dispute between player and club when, after taking a break from the game, Butler found a measure of rejuvenation on trial with Dunfermline. He needed Sunderland to release his player registration, however, which they were initially reluctant to do.  The dispute was resolved in 2005, before it went to tribunal.

What happened? 

“I was injured all the time. I’d play six or seven times and then I’d be out with an injury, and take two or three months and come back. That took its toll on me from a mental point of view. I was going in every day in pain, training every day in pain. I was waking up every day and taking 200mg of paracetamol, and 200mg of anti-inflammatories, just to get through training.

That was it for me, I stopped enjoying football. I won’t say I was severely depressed but I was in some kind of depressed state. I was going in every day and not looking forward to it. I said, ‘I need time off here to have a think about what I’m doing’. In all fairness I should have just gone on loan or to another team. Sunderland were paying my wages and were saying, ‘Thomas, we’re paying you to play football but you’re not here for us, so we’re not paying you anymore.’ So that’s where the legal came in. They said I just went mad and left, but that was easy for them to say.

“That’s what happened. For me, something had to give in the end. Today there is a lot of awareness about mental health, and that’s what probably what was happening to me but there wasn’t a lot of information about it at the time; people probably just thought that ‘this guy’s nuts’.

“You wouldn’t have had anyone to speak to, to say, ‘My head’s gone, I’m in pain all the time’. If I did that, I worried about others thinking I was weak mentally.

“For me, I was trying to protect myself and I said that I needed to recharge for a few months. If that happened now, there are so many things in place, clubs have psychologists and a lot of managers have degrees in psychology now.

“Things have changed so much in a short space of time, but it is probably 12 or 14 years too late for me.

“I had a breakdown, not a massive breakdown, but I was mentally exhausted. As a player you are always worried.

“You come home from training and you assess yourself, ‘Did I do well, or not? If you think you’ve done terribly, you don’t sleep. You worry you’re not playing well, you worry you’re injured, you’re worried you’re letting people down, and that takes its toll.

“Especially at that age, when I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone because it might make things worse.

“That’s what it was. To be fair, Mick was brilliant. The damage was done with me by the stage he came in. If it was a year or two earlier I might have been okay, but by the time Mick came in I was in such a low state.”

liverpool-v-sunderland Butler is tackled by Steven Gerrard in a league game at Anfield in August, 2002. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Butler went back home and saw a sports psychologist and after a three-month break, he managed to get a six-month deal in Scotland with Dunfermline. He lived with Noel Hunt and Stephen Bradley and slowly recaptured his appetite for the game.

“As soon as I had those three months to recover, I was back at it. I was lucky, though. If it had been a little bit longer than that, I might never have been given a chance to get back. As ruthless as it is, football is a small world and managers and coaches speak to each other.

“‘Yeah you’re a good player, but aren’t you that weirdo who walked out of football?’ I always had that stigma to me, even though I wasn’t that person anymore.

I was a young kid, in an absolute world of pain mentally and physically, but that’s how cruel football can be. Even when you do recover, a lot of people will hold that stigma to you, so it comes down to trust. Can a manager trust a player to be on the pitch and ready to play Saturday-Tuesday, Saturday-Tuesday? If I was one who some thought that, ‘Fucking hell, this guy could have a breakdown, then no, we won’t take him.’

“A lot of doors were shut for me, but Dunfermline, fair play to them, they said ‘We don’t give a shit, he’s a good player.’

“Fair play to them, that gave me the platform to get back playing again.”

From there, Butler was signed by Martin Scott, a former Sunderland team-mate, for Hartlepool in League One.

Football’s vagaries were best summed up by a 2005 clash between his new club and Sheffield Wednesday, where Butler shared a midfield with Graham Barrett.

Three years earlier, the pair had been promoted from the U21s to join McCarthy’s senior Irish squad for that fateful game with the Swiss. 

Hartlepool were relegated but Butler stayed in England’s third tier, signing for Swansea. Having initially struggled under Kenny Jackett, “everything changed” when Roberto Martinez took over.

“If I had Roberto at 18 or 19, I definitely think my life would have been completely different” says Butler. Martinez did things differently – he would force Butler to take holidays after an intense run of games, knowing his proclivity for picking up muscle injuries.

He played 40-odd games in the season Martinez led Swansea to the League One title, a season Butler describes as his happiest in football. “I remember thinking: I’d run through walls for this man. He actively took an interest in me; I always felt valuable to him.”

soccer-fa-cup-third-round-sheffield-united-v-swansea-city-bramall-lane Butler celebrates a goal against Sheffield United in the FA Cup in January, 2007. Source: EMPICS Sport

Martinez was succeeded by Paolo Sousa, before Swansea’s ascension continued further under Brendan Rodgers. Butler left the club midway through their debut Premier League season, denied an appearance by a chronic thigh injury.

“Rodgers: he was on a different planet”, says Butler. “I can’t imagine Brendan sitting watching a film, he is 24-hour football.” At Swansea, players were given 30-page booklets analysing their opponents, and Rodgers would quiz players at random to make sure they’d done their homework.

“Some players wouldn’t have read it and would guess it. But it was, ‘If you can’t be bothered to read all these stats we’ve taken time to do, it lets your mate down and it shows bad character. We all have to buy into the same philosophy.’

“I was finished then. I had a rupture in my thigh, and every time I kicked a ball it would snap. So I spent two years injured, coming back, and then it would recur. So I stood around and watched him train, and you could see the amount of work and organisation he put in.

“He’d be in at 7am and leave at 6pm. Every day. He’d meet with the physios first, and then the U23s coaches and ask what sessions they had planned and why they had planned them, what outcomes they wanted. 

“I was sitting there looking at this, thinking, ‘This is the future.’

“It was scary seeing what Brendan was doing then, imagine how advanced he is now?That’s the level now, and it’s why he has managed at the top.

“He gets stick at Liverpool because he didn’t win the league. That’s what you’re dealing with people out there, it’s incredible.”

The injury that caused Butler to leave Swansea ultimately finished his career. He made a brief appearance at non-league level in 2015, but injuries effectively ended his career in his early thirties.

Butler retired with just eight minutes of competitive action for his country at senior level; eight of the most tumultuous and acrimonious minutes in the side’s modern history.

In his retirement, does he find himself cradling any regrets?

“I won the League One title with Roberto at Swansea and played 40 games: if that was now I’d probably have played 15 or 20 times for Ireland. That’s no disrespect to the players today, but I think Ireland are in transition right now and the standard now isn’t what it was then.

“It’s always a regret, you wish you could play 50 or 100 games. My career could have been a lot better if I made better decisions.

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“For every bad decision I made, I paid the maximum price.

“I never got away with anything.”

What were those bad decisions?

“I went out with the lads after a match and had a few drinks. It’s probably the worst thing you can do after a match, put alcohol in your body. It’s toxic, and it messes up your muscles. It’s probably why I got so many hamstring injuries.

“I only know this now, but it was the culture at the time. If you weren’t in the pub after a match, others are thinking, ‘That guy’s a weirdo, he’s at home in a pool doing a pool session.’

“I would say I was an average player, but I could have been in the top one percent if I had sacrificed more. I still wanted to go out with my mates, I’d have a KFC every now and again and I’d eat normally, as my mates would have.

As a professional, you have to give up the good things. You have to be really dedicated and driven, and looking back, I don’t think I was dedicated enough to stay consistently at the highest level. I played in the Premier League, I was Man of the Match a few times, so I was there, like, I had an opportunity. But the reason I couldn’t sustain it was because of my lifestyle. I didn’t get enough sleep, I wasn’t eating the right foods or doing the right recovery.

“Off-season, was I doing the right exercises? No, probably not, I wasn’t doing enough. Then I’d come back and pull a hamstring in pre-season, and ask ‘Why is this happening? I’m so unlucky.’

“Well, not really. What did you put in your body? Were you stretching? Were you in the pool? Were you doing core work? Then you think, ‘Actually, no’, so you only have yourself to blame.

“It’s harsh, but you only learn this stuff when you get older and toward the end of your career.

“Now you speak to sports scientists and you think, ‘Wow, what the hell was I doing at that age?”

“I had lots of talent, I would have had a really good Premier League career and lots of caps with Ireland. I just didn’t live right.

“I didn’t dedicate myself as much as others did. It didn’t mean I wasn’t as good as them, it meant they were willing to sacrifice more than me.”

This isn’t to say Butler is entirely unhappy with his career – he says he is proud to play in the Premier League and for Ireland, “so from a box-ticking point of view, if you asked most young lads growing up would they take it knowing they’ll go through all of this, every single one of them would say yeah, I’ll take it.”

There are a few lines that jut out from this interview.

“Things have changed so much in a short space of time, but it is probably 12 or 14 years too late for me.

“To be fair, Mick was brilliant. The damage was done with me by the stage he came in, if it was a year or two earlier, I might have been okay.

“If I had got Roberto at 18 or 19 I definitely think my life would have been completely different.

“You only learn this stuff when you get older.”

Butler struggled with a stigma attached to mental health issues that is slowly being scrubbed away, his body suffered amid an off-field culture clubs now uniformly treat as archaic and he thrived under progressive and empathetic managers like Martinez and Rodgers, who are no longer the outliers they were a decade ago.

You get the sense Butler was born a generation too soon, and played football in its last benighted era.

Football is callous and fickle and cruel, but it retains its capacity to redeem: it’s why Mick McCarthy will coach an Irish team against Switzerland at Lansdowne Road next Thursday.

Butler doesn’t get another football career, so he is righting the errors of his playing days vicariously.

“I work on the dark side now, I’m one of the most hated men on Earth!”, he laughs.

Butler is working with a football agency, Code4Sports, whose clients include Joe Allen and James Tarkowski.

“I’m alright now. I’m retired seven or eight years now, and for me it’s now about helping younger players. My job is to give advice to players, to tell them: listen, everything single little thing you are going through now, be it injury, or if they are down or depressed, I can give them advice to help them make decisions.

“Everyone makes bad decisions, but I can lessen the impact of those decisions.”

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Gavin Cooney

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