"I've been with my wife since I was a baby, probably 14 or 15 back in Rush [Co Dublin]," the former Leeds United, Cardiff City and Republic of Ireland soccer player Stephen McPhail says when I ask him about his life pre-fatherhood and any plans he had to be a dad.
"I moved over at 15 to England and Michelle followed me over probably at 18, I think she was, to start college and do her studies in Leeds."
When Stephen and Michelle got married, they hoped to have a baby in the same year.
“Luckily, it happened with no problems at all so we were blessed that way,” Stephen continues adding that while the timing wasn’t “much of a shock because we sort of had it in our heads”, the adjustment to parenthood is “a shock to any parent”.
Living in a different country to both families was “hard”, he admits.
“I think that’s the one that sticks out for me looking back. It was just me and Michelle in terms of not having your own mam and dad, and Michelle didn’t have her family around her. Just the little things, like a little bit of help, just taking the kids off you for an hour. We didn’t really have that. That’s obviously something that goes with living away.
“Obviously your life does change completely. I think in terms of training and playing, Michelle was great. She understood that I needed to be rested and I needed to be ready to be a professional footballer. You do need to be a bit selfish as well and that was just to try and keep on top of my profession. It was tougher on Michelle, I suspect, than me. She did the hard yards and I just tried to help.”
There were advantages however to the footballer’s schedule, Stephen says, even though he had to be away from home during the week frequently.
“Because we trained early in the morning you get a chance to be home in the afternoon and spend some time. It’s not like 9-5 jobs, it’s a bit more flexible. You still have your time with them.”
Stephen's children were both born in Wales (he played for Cardiff City from 2006 to 2013). Just after the birth of his second child, Joel, however, a small lump under Stephen's chin – which doctors originally believed was a cyst – turned out to be something more sinister.
“I just found a little lump under my chin which you couldn’t see, I just could feel it. A little hard lump and I flagged it with the club doctor. He just said ‘it looks like nothing, but let’s get it checked out with a specialist’. So I went to a specialist and he was fine. He just thought it might have been a little cyst and said to leave it, not to worry about it, we’re in the middle of the season at this stage.
“The club doctor still wanted to get a second opinion so we went to see another specialist and he said, ‘I think it’s fine. I think it’s some sort of cyst. I don’t think it’s anything to be worried about. We’ll take it out, we’ll just have a look at it’.
“We had an international break coming up where we had no game for two weeks so he said ‘you won’t miss any matches or anything. I’ll take it out and we’ll get it checked and you should be fine.’
“So that’s how it happened. I came out of the operation and the specialist said, ‘it’s a lot bigger than we thought – it was growing back towards inside so that’s why you couldn’t see it’.”
Stephen was reassured by doctors that they still didn’t believe there was anything to worry about and within a couple of weeks he was back at training.
However, at his follow up appointment he received bad news.
“They said it was lymphoma. They linked it to an autoimmune disease that I had, and that was just a link. I had a tough 18 months after that, getting treatment and just trying to get on top of my autoimmune disease. It turned my life upside down really for a couple of years and Joel was literally just born so it was all on top of us really.
“Joel was a baby, so I suppose looking back it was probably as difficult for Michelle as anything. She was just coming through having a baby and then my news on top of her. She was just unbelievable, a rock really to have stood with me and strong and let me crack on with my treatment and try to get better as quickly as I could.”
The couple and their children moved home to Rush while Stephen underwent treatment.
Stephen says one of the biggest challenges he finds in rearing children is social media
“I really took it a day at a time. Even going in for the treatment, I came back home to have my treatment in the Mater, in Dublin. The club were brilliant. They let me come home and get around our families. They gave me some proper time off to get through the treatment as best I could and that was a blessing really because Michelle had her family and my family in Rush.”
Stephen’s eldest child, Kari, was three at the time, but Stephen believes she remained oblivious to her father’s illness.
“I think we shielded her from it. I was lucky enough, I lost quite a bit of weight and hair around where the lump was, but nothing that would have said I was really looking sick, sick. It was around Christmas time as well so she had loads of distractions with that and getting spoiled rotten by her nannies and grandads bringing her here, there and everywhere. We definitely didn’t speak to her about it. We just wanted to get through it, and see how it was coming out the other side.”
Stephen returned to playing football but, he says, “in time the syndrome [Sjogren’s syndrome], my autoimmune disease, caught up with me and I was having breakdowns after that in terms of flare-ups.”
With a little help from the tennis superstar Venus Williams, who also has Sjogren’s syndrome, Stephen was put in touch with a specialist in Los Angeles, who he credits with helping him get back on the pitch.
“The first few years after they diagnosed me with the Sjogren’s, it frustrated the life out of me because I wasn’t used to not training and I wasn’t used to having to take time off, so I was all over the place in my head. I suppose, as an athlete, in general, the mood, how you perform, how you are in your career does definitely come home with you. Especially early on in my career I’d say I was a nightmare to be around if we got beat or if I wasn’t playing well or having a little dip in confidence.
“I was trying to be the best footballer and trying to keep my place and trying not to let anyone take my place, because that was always in the back of my mind. I think any footballer would tell you that. There’s always a younger version coming up behind you so you needed to be on your toes all the time. I don’t think that ever leaves you and that obviously does impact your personal life as well.”
These days a sporting director at Shamrock Rovers, as a father on the sidelines watching his children play GAA and soccer, Stephen prefers to take a more laidback approach.
“I watch my little boy play football and get frustrated, but I do keep my emotions to myself and I really try and stay away from it as much as possible. I don’t want to be the coach. I just want to be his dad, as best I can. I do try and give him little tips. He probably doesn’t listen to me,” he laughs.
“And the same with Kari when I watch her playing Gaelic. I just love watching them play. I’m not one to be shouting any instructions. I try and stay as quiet as possible. But deep down you want them to do their best. I try and keep it as being a dad and support as much as possible.”
In spite of his own background, though, Stephen says he’d never be one to push his children into sport or into a career in sport if it wasn’t for them.
“The soccer, I know how ruthless it is, so you need to be a certain type. You need to have a certain character definitely to be a football player at the top level. It’s a tough, tough business and it’s not for everyone.
“Once they’re happy in doing it and they make friends. I just know I’ve still friends to this day from playing the game I loved. I think it’s so important, the fitness element and the social element.”
Stephen says one of the biggest challenges he finds in rearing children is social media.
“Trying to stay on top of stuff like that, for me, is important. Especially with the girls, there’s a lot of social media stuff going on that you just need to keep an eye on. I don’t want that sort of taking over her side of things, and making her conscious of anything other than going and enjoying herself with her friends.”
And while Stephen says the current lockdown is really “tough”, having extra time with his children has featured in his personal parenting highs.
“I just love being around them,” he says. “I’ve loved just getting to know them as much as possible and trying to help them with their schoolwork and all that sort of stuff.”
His protective instinct kicks in when it comes to his own illness and he finds the effect of his condition on them hard.
“Even now when I get sick, they worry and that hurts me because I want to try and take that away from them. But it is what it is. When I do have a flare up or I do have to go to hospital, it’s tough on them. I can see the tears in their eyes and they’re wondering what’s going on again. So that’s the tough part for me, when they see I’m not well, but I know deep down I’m going to be okay. I try to keep them positive and not let them worry”.
Parenting in My Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O'Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill