When your high becomes your low: Life as a young footballer


By Rory Kelly (for alustforlife.com)

I sat in the empty changing room. My kit was soaked through, boots and all. My body was aching like never before and there was a dull pain in my head. Exhausted, I tried to drag myself into the shower just so it would speed up the process of leaving. My session had lasted just 20 minutes, before my shattered body and mind entered the ‘no-go’ zone. That was it.

Signing for Derry City in 2010, I realised the start of what I had hoped would go on to be a fruitful career in the game. Admittedly, there were a few nerves, but being asked by Stephen Kenny, arguably the best manager in the country, to be a part of his squad was extremely exciting and an endorsement of my ability. I went from training twice a week to being virtually full-time and was working with some of the best players in Ireland, day-in, day-out.

Most of my nerves surrounded the social aspect of the dressing-room. I have always been quiet enough by nature, enjoying doing my own thing and having a life away from football. At the same time, I would characterise myself as someone who holds good values and morals. I found that having these attributes doesn’t necessarily stand up to being ‘good banter’. Rather than throwing myself into the customs of this environment, I remained out of it. Players at this level were highly driven and ultracompetitive, but having played senior football from a young age meant that getting a rollicking from older players never really bothered me. You had a job to do, and it was your responsibility to do it.

Though the team was winning, my self-belief began to disappear as I was left out of squads on a weekly basis. Instead of getting my head down and working hard to get into the team, I began to carry these negative feelings into each day. We won the league that season, and after a memorable night in Monaghan where Mark Farren, a hero of mine, secured the title, so exiled had I made myself, that rather than joining the squad, staff and fans in the celebrations, I went home.

By this point, the tribulations in my head had annoyed me to the point where the tiniest of errors would have a significant impact on how the rest of my session went. I ended up dreading walking out on to pitch in the morning. My norm became trying to judge how long it was until home-time; pretending to be sore so I could sit out; and not sitting out when I was actually sore.

I committed to another year, hoping things would be better and that I would be revitalized after a few months off. But upon my return, I became afraid of further diminishing any form of reputation I may have had among my team-mates and these worries floated throughout my head on a daily basis.

“He thinks I’m shite.” – “I don’t want to be playing against him.” – “The manager doesn’t even rate me.”

Trying to maintain a part-time job, a Journalism diploma and full-time training contributed to not only being physically exhausted, but mentally drained. My mood had gone from being laid-back and cheerful, to being impatient and aggravated. Training became a chore. I had accepted that although I

was a first-team squad member, I was irrelevant. There was no wage. There was no game-time. And yet, I kept showing up, hoping – praying – that it would somehow benefit my situation at the club, whilst believing all the while, it wouldn’t.

This is when things went drastically downhill.

Afraid of allowing anyone to see where I was slipping to mentally, I confided in no-one. In these environments, a ‘macho-man’ bravado is required, and despite thinking I could switch one on on-demand, I was unable to do so. It is perfectly acceptable to be experiencing a patch of bad form on the pitch. But when it comes to off the pitch, it is a different story. It’s as if you must leave you baggage at the door, come in and perform, and collect it on your way back out.

It was a Tuesday morning, and while the rest of the team were enjoying their beds on their day off, extra-training was on my agenda. With every dive and save, my body was punctured of air. The ‘no-go’ zone – a trigger-like instance that would leave my body contorted with pressure on my chest, a struggle for breath and a violent stomach pain – crept up on me. I had never felt anything like it. Being excused by the coach, I left – knowing that like my mind and heart before it, my body had finally given up on this dream.

In the squad, I had a few friends, and one close friend in particular recognised the signs, and asked me about things that evening. I would lie and say I’m fine, just to avoid discussion, but looking back, I am disappointed I didn’t try to open up to him.

The following day, the manager called me aside and asked me to come to his office. My stomach turned and the nerves set in so badly, I sat outside in a cold sweat, waiting on his call. Speaking first about what my plans were for education in line with my football, he set a relaxed tone with me and instantly calmed me down. I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me. “You can dispose of a reserve player in a heartbeat” – I kept telling myself. And then he got to the point…

“Are you ok? You seem very disillusioned and frustrated?”

“Shit…” I thought. “He knows.”

I mumbled something about being tired and struggling to manage everything at once, and rather than look down on me, he told me to take a week off and recuperate, physically and mentally. For this, I will forever be grateful to Stephen. Not only did he notice, but he gave me what I needed – time to re-evaluate things.

During this time, I began looking at things which had taken a backseat during this quest for a career in football. My family. My relationship. My future. I was affording none of these enough time or thought, and because of this, was being tangled up in a world where this ‘dream’ career was taking over my existence. The realization that change was needed dawned soon, and my mind was made up. Football was no longer my ‘be-all’ and ‘end-all’. I needed a life away from the training pitch where I could be mentally content, and begin to plan my next steps in adulthood.

You need a certain mind-frame to become a footballer. As bad as I wanted it, I didn’t have it and that hurt me. My high had become my low.

Bottling up is dangerous, but it is the mandatory thing to do when your everyday environment is a testosterone-filled, egocentric setting. Show no weakness, and laugh with the rest of them. Say nothing and get on with it. It’s a dangerous game when you do that. It’s even worse when you do it for long periods of time.

I opted to leave the club that September, and pursue a degree in Journalism in Liverpool. Though my love for the playing side was ruptured, I maintained a sincere affection for the game – with a view to a career off-field, which I currently have, working for a company which manages young players. As a player, this year I experienced my best season at any level, in a dressing-room full of players whom I will happily acknowledge as friends.

I found that a high can become a low very quickly. Sometimes it’s better to let things go, be it a dream, a person, a job.