Niall Bruton kicks again off that final bend of adversity
Top miler’s world was shattered when he was told to give up running because of severe osteoarthritis in his hip, but like all athletes he dug deep
Niall Bruton celebrates as he wins the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in 2002.
Where is he now? “Well, Niall, how are you?” he’s asked, as he shows me into the Directors’ Box at Old Trafford.
“Well, Niall, hope you enjoy the game” he’s told, as we sit down as guests for a pre-match meal, including a serving of Concha y Toro wine specifically produced for Manchester United.
Then he sees a familiar face at the next table, and nods a little hello towards Sir Alex Ferguson, before we all walk out and take our seats, just as the home team finish their own little pleasantries with Bayern Munich.
This is where Niall Bruton is now, Champions League night at Old Trafford, Nike club business manager for Manchester United, a hand in two of the biggest, richest and most successful brands in the entire global sporting market, playing it like a perfectly normal role he was made for.
How he got there, from Niall Bruton the runner, Ireland’s youngest sub-four minute miler, our most successful ever exponent of the American scholarship, 1996 Olympian and two-time winner of the Wanamaker Mile, is not a straightforward journey.
It saw his once buoyant running career come to a painfully-grinding halt, and with that a loss not just of identity but of purpose – before the slow and deliberate reinvention of himself as Niall Bruton the former runner, comfortable in his own skin again, not for who he was but who he is. It also involved the traumatic confrontation of the arthritic right hip which wasn’t properly diagnosed for years.
“Making that transition was very, very difficult,” he says. “And I think it is still a bit of a taboo subject, how athletes and players struggle when their career ends, no matter what the sport. I’m in a positive place now, loving what I do, but feel like sharing the experience, possibly help other athletes, because I know exactly how hard it can be to make that transition.
“I felt I’d gone from being one of the best runners in the world, to being nobody, nothing. I was done at 27, 28, told I had to retire, and I just wasn’t ready. The hardest thing, really, was that it didn’t end on my own terms. So I refused to accept I was finished. Running had defined me. It was what I was good at, what made me happy. And there was no Plan B. So I was in denial, yes, for a few years.”
From the beginning Niall Bruton had been that runner, and known little or nothing else. He wasn’t born in Kenya, but he did run to and from school, chasing the bus from Larkhill National School to his home in Santry, north Dublin. “It was probably about two miles, he says. “In those days you either walked or cycled. Or else gave someone a crossbar. But I ran, racing the bus home. My ma used to think I was chased home. But for me, running was a way to get from A to B.
“I did have some visions of being a footballer, because I was quite good at that, too. But I used to clean up at school sports, win everything, and if I’m honest it did come easy, felt very natural. Then at 15 or 16 I joined Clonliffe Harriers, a real conscious decision. Then it was all systems go with running. I started doing a few morning runs, really getting my focus together, with my coach and schoolteacher Peter McDermott being a big influence on that too.”
The big statement of that intent came in his last year at St Aidan’s CBS, when he produced a brilliant schools’ record over 1,500 metres, just over an hour after also winning the 800m (and I know that because I finished somewhere behind him). Around the same time the American scholarship offers began to drop in the door, and when Frank O’Mara and Dave Taylor personally called his house – two famous Irish graduates from the University of Arkansas – Bruton’s mind was made up.
“I always saw America as a great opportunity. I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great Irish milers, like Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan. And going to America was the way of following that path. I suppose I had the confidence I could do it. I know the American system gets a tough wrap some time, but it was 100 per cent successful for me. It was also 100 per cent tunnel vision for me, because by then, I was going to be a runner.”
That tunnel vision was perfectly shared by John McDonnell, the Mayo-born coach who turned Arkansas into one of the most successful athletics programmes in American collegiate history. McDonnell has described Bruton as the most talented Irish athlete he’d ever coached, and Bruton didn’t disappoint: his performances on the track and cross country helped Arkansas win 11 out of a possible 12 NCAA team titles during his four years on scholarship, and Bruton also won two individual indoor mile titles.
“I’d never met John before. I remember he collected me at Tulsa airport, then took me straight to the dorms. An hour later we met the team for an eight-mile run, out on the trails, in a crazy thunderstorm.
“I really felt like I’d been thrown in at the deep end, and wasn’t sure if I could keep up the pace, on that very first run. But this was it, sink or swim. And I got to love it. Loved the hard training, loved the camaraderie, and loved the competition. It was a brilliant period of my life, and I massively, massively miss it. There were some tough times, too, but I never once got injured, and still feel I owe a lot to John and Arkansas.”
Indeed for four years it went swimmingly well. Bruton came home for the summer after his first year at Arkansas and ran a sub-four minute mile at the Cork City Sports, then a few weeks later won the World Student Games 1,500m, in Sheffield, about 20 minutes after Sonia O’Sullivan had won the 3,000m. During his final year in Arkansas he also won his first Wanamaker Mile, at the 1994 Millrose Games, running 3:58.1 on the old Madison Square Garden track, beating several of his heroes in the process, including Marcus O’Sullivan.
“John McDonnell was great for me. I always remember going into his office one day, telling him I thought I could run sub-four minute mile. He just said, ‘kid, get out of my office, and come back when you know you can break four minutes . . . Because I know you can’. That was the mentality, the positive reinforcement. The closest thing I’ve seen to that since is with Alex Ferguson. People wanted to run for John, believed in him, and he believed in you, as long as you worked hard, and that hard work is also a talent. I always perceived it to be the same with Alex Ferguson when he was with Man Utd.”
Bruton studied public relations at Arkansas, yet never had the need or intention to put that degree to work: instead, he made the smoothest possible transition from the college stage to the international one. “I signed a deal with Asics, in the US, with Brad Hunt as my agent, who had other big athletes like Michael Johnson and Mike Powell. The Government grants kicked in around that time too, which were massively appreciated, and I really felt like I had become a professional athlete, that the hard work was starting to pay off. So I really felt I was on my way, and it was time to step up.”
Which he did: in his first year out of Arkansas, Bruton made the 1,500m final at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, also running a lifetime best of 3:35.67 that season. He also finished fourth at the 1995 World Indoors, and feels he should have won a medal. In 1996 he won his second Wanamker Mile, then outdoors ran a 3:53.93 mile in Oslo, and also qualified for the Atlanta Olympics. After that, a little disappointed at only making the semi-finals, things began to slowly unravel.
“Thinking back now, it was around Atlanta that my hip was starting to bother me. Not massively, but something was going on there. In 1997 it started to feel weaker again, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I still made the semi-final at the World Championships, in Athens, but the hip started to click a bit, my balance was a little off, and I just felt I wasn’t running on all six cylinders.”
So, at the end of the 1997 season he went for a hip scan, for the first time in his life: nothing, or no one, had prepared him for the news that followed. “I was told to retire, just like that,” he says. “The physio took one look at the scan, said I had arthritis in my hip, and needed to retire, that very day. He really was that blunt, as if it was an easy decision. But there was no way I was going to believe that. I was a professional athlete.”
Further scans confirmed quite severe osteoarthritis in his hip, although it was over a decade later before the problem was traced back to a slipped femoral epiphysis, probably sustained during early adolescence, which had been eating away at Bruton’s right hip, gradually limiting motion, throughout his running career. If he knew then what he knows now things might have worked out a little differently, but instead Bruton kept running against the grain, because running was all he’d ever known.
“It was the first time in my life being injured. You try to remain positive, but it was getting progressively weaker. Things really started to crumble. I’d gone from the safe, bubble of Arkansas, to basically being on my own. I continued to run, until 2000, only because I refused to accept I was finished. And I never officially retired. I just stopped. And I felt embarrassed, just wanted to hide away. I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere in the circle of athletics.
“It was only then I started thinking about a Plan B. I got an internship in an ad agency, literally making coffee. I’d go for job interviews, and when they asked about experience, I would tell them I’d run in the Olympics. They would say, ‘well, that’s nice to know’, but from a work point of view, they didn’t think I had any experience. Which was true.”
So, sink or swim time again, and just when it seemed Bruton was sinking fast, he was thrown a lifeline – or rather spotted an ad for a Nike technical sales rep, based in Dublin. He figured it must have something to do with running so applied for the job on the spot.
“I heard nothing back, for weeks, and eventually they offered me a job in Manchester. And I grabbed it, with both hands. It sounds a bit silly, but getting away was exactly what I needed. And I put my heart and soul into the job. It took a while, but I found the work ethic of being an athlete, the desire to do well, could be transferred to other work. And I did take some of the skills I had as athlete, the belief, the application, and transferred that to the job. That’s the key, really, trying to convince an employer that the skills you have as a runner or athlete are transferrable.”
Bit by bit Bruton worked his way up the Nike ranks, spending some time as a running speciality sales rep in the England and Scotland, before transferring to football sales, about four years ago. He looked after a range of club shops, including Celtic, then got the job as Nike club business manager for both Manchester United and Arsenal. Then the Nike role evolved again, with his focus now solely on Manchester United. Not since his old running days had he felt more comfortable in a role, his own running past also making him perfectly comfortable on stage when introducing some of the biggest names in world football.
“Essentially my job is to maximise the Nike partnership with Man Utd. There is a sexy side to it, like going on tour with the team to China or Australia, and leveraging players in key commercial activities. It’s not something I’d ever imagined I’d be doing, but I love it. And I’ve done a lot of activation work with professional footballers, and I think there’s been a mutual respect there, and in ways can relate to their mindset.
“Still for years I was angry, sad, upset, at how my running career ended. And that’s not me. Because I’ve always been a people’s person. But I really struggled with identity after my running ended. That affected my relationship at the time, too. Now I feel hugely privileged to be involved with the two great brands. Nike, first of all, and also Manchester United. I think it is a fantastic club. I’ve seen the fan base, globally, the way the players are received, the professionalism of the club, the way they’re respected, and it is incredible.”
There was one last ghost from his running past that Bruton had to confront, emotionally and physically: so last May, on the advice of an old running colleague, Dr John Rogers, he underwent a double operation on his right hip, which included a surgical dislocation in order to correct the slipped femoral epiphysis. “Right before the operation, I still wasn’t sure if I could go through with it, because I still had some attachment with being a runner. But I just had to let go. A year later the hip is starting to come good, and I now feel as fit as I’ve been in a long time.”
It’s becoming increasingly frequent these days to hear how even professional footballers struggle with an identity once their career ends, and for individual athletes that transition can be even more difficult.
“I’m not saying Athletics Ireland needs to look after every athlete that retires, but there are older athletes who can give something back, not just as coaches, but in this whole circle of a sports person’s life, whether it’s simple life mentoring, or just asking athletes are they alright. I think there’s a need now, in all sports, to be more holistic in dealing with athletes, and with my experience I believe I can help in this area.
“I still miss competing and running for Ireland, but I love what I do now, love watching Man Utd, players getting ready to perform. And I loved that, loved controlling the nerves, loved getting to ready to race. I still relate to that feeling of anticipation, watching Man Utd, but I always think I would much rather be out on the pitch. Because it doesn’t beat the feeling of being an athlete. I don’t think it ever will. Because a part of me would love to hear that bell sound for one more lap, that feeling of being poised to kick again.”