Richie Sadlier: ‘Stopping drinking made my life a lot simpler’

The former footballer on sport and drinking, abuse and therapy, consent and reinvention

There's very little the former Millwall and Republic of Ireland footballer Richie Sadlier won't talk about. As well as being a sports pundit he has a psychotherapy practice. He's involved with the sexual health education platform Share and delivers programmes on self-development and consent to young people in schools.

He has also written a moving autobiography, Recovering, that revealed his experience of sexual abuse in his teens as well as his issues with alcohol and mental health. He's currently an ambassador for a Viatris (the people who make Viagra Connect) campaign, 'Don't Settle. Talk ED', in which he's encouraging men to talk with medical professionals about erectile dysfunction. (Research conducted for the campaign found 38 per cent of men would be embarrassed to seek medical help for ED, but that it is treatable in most cases and is not something that men should just put up with.)

He’s evangelical about the power of opening up, he says, partly because he kept things in for so long.

When he was younger he was monomaniacally focused on football. “I would have dismissed anyone who had the view that football wasn’t of fundamental importance and the most meaningful thing that you could do with your time,” he says. “Whatever money I had when I was a smallie went on Shoot magazine. I’d cut pictures out and make scrapbooks of different teams and different players. I’d record the goals and highlights shows and watch them over and over again and learn off the commentary.”


Between 17 to 24 years of age, years of real influence on a young person, I was in the Millwall dressingroom where there was a pretty narrow framework to work with

Why was it so important to him? “I suppose non-footballing stuff was really impacting me and the family,” he says. “My dad was an alcoholic and went into recovery when I was around 10. And so his drinking days, or his early recovery days, obviously had a massive impact on the household, and I had my own kind of traumas when I was sexually abused in my early teens. Maybe that’s why I was so obsessively into football, because one of the things sport does is it can just take you to a place which seems a million miles away from the reality of your life the rest of the week.” He laughs. “It’s also really fun.”

He can list off the things that just weren’t spoken of in his own life. “As a kid, you were told, ‘Listen, what your dad is going through, that’s not for your friends to know about.’ And what I went through as a teenager, I didn’t talk about that for years.

"And when I went to England to play football and I was really homesick, I didn't talk about it all that much. When I was terrified of going out and playing for Millwall because the whole crowd hated me, I didn't open up to anyone about how difficult I found that."

Football was not a place where people could have open discussions about their feelings. “Between 17 to 24 years of age, years of real influence on a young person, I was in the Millwall dressingroom where there was a pretty narrow framework to work with. It’s small things; The stories of a former player that carried on with a broken arm during a match . . . Toughness and resilience, just being a hard f**ker, those were the most respectful things to say about someone: ‘He’s proper Millwall, he kept playing with a broken arm’ . . .

“I really bought into this idea that this is the way we’ve all got to be. ‘We’ being Millwall footballers but probably ‘blokes’.”

For footballers, he says, David Beckham wearing a sarong was controversial. So thorny discussions of mental health just didn't happen. "Stan Collymore was one of the first players I can remember who spoke publicly about having mental health difficulties . . . John Gregory, who was the Aston Villa manager, did a really quite infamous press conference where he said, 'He's under pressure. He's depressed. Try working in a factory with three kids.'... That was the culture."

So I was either drunk or hungover most days, which adds loads of additional layers of difficulty onto anything you're going through

Then there was the suicide of Gary Speed in 2011. "He was one of the most well known, widely loved footballers, had all the things that you would expect would lead to being happy and satisfied and content," says Sadlier. "He was married. He had a family. He had a wonderful career to look back on. He was managing Wales who were doing really well. He was working in the media. I never heard one person say a bad thing about him, and he died by suicide.

“That rocked the whole world of football into realising that there was a person beneath every football jersey . . . Way more stuff is being done now at academy level with teenagers to prepare them for non-footballing life or to support their non-footballing development.”

Sadlier’s own retirement came at the age of 24 after suffering a serious hip injury. “I didn’t want to talk about it,” he says. “Talking about it probably meant, at some point, expressing some kind of emotion and so my way of handling it was I kept it as private as I could. I did all the interviews saying the usual cliched crap about being grateful that I had the chance and being excited about the next adventure . . . but I was crying loads in private and I was in a really sh**ty mood all the time . . . I was drinking all the time.

“So I was either drunk or hungover most days, which adds loads of additional layers of difficulty onto anything you’re going through.” He stopped drinking in 2011 and considers it one of the best things he’s ever done: “It made my life a lot simpler.”

He was doing a degree in sports science when he encountered the idea of going to therapy. “I was at a sports psychology lecture about how a sports psychologist would support an elite athlete facing premature retirement as a result of injury. [The lecturer talked about] promoting transferable skills and supporting someone through those stages of grief and really acknowledging how appropriate it is to be grieving and angry and feeling lost. And then the word ‘acceptance’ was written there somewhere, [and I thought] ‘How the f**k do you accept this?’”

After the class Sadlier approached the lecturer and said, “I feel like s**t. And I never used to always feel like this. But I always feel like it now. Any chance we can book a session?’”

Therapy was hugely beneficial for him, he says. “It was really in that room that I started to get an opportunity to practise what it was like to be honest without the macho bulls**t that I completely signed up to as a male footballer . . . ‘Hey, this is what it’s like to talk honestly.’ And it helped.”

Eventually he decided he wanted to see what it was like in the therapist's chair and undertook a master's in psychotherapy at Dublin Business School. After he finished, former Olympian David Gillick told him about running modules in cooking at their old school St Benildus in south Dublin and he went to the principal to suggest a module on mental health. "It was about creating a space where they could just talk."

The reality was that for the majority of young people online porn is a big, big feature of their worlds. In the absence of any meaningful sex education, they're going to learn about sex from porn performers

Soon after this, he began delivering classes on consent that he devised with his colleague Elaine Byrnes. "The more I spoke [with teenagers] things like online porn would get a mention, or dating, or dick pics…

“Around about the same time, Asking For It by Louise O’Neill [a novel centred on sexual violence] came out and I had a few clients in my therapy practice . . . who’d gone through really distressing experiences . . . I remember just going into the school and saying, ‘Is there something here?’ and at the very same time the year-head had read Asking For It and asked, ‘Is there something we can do with consent?’ . . . The more we did it, the more we realised that it was needed . . . Their thirst for information is really high at that age.

“And the reality was that for the majority of young people online porn is a big, big feature of their worlds. In the absence of any meaningful sex education, they’re going to learn about sex from porn performers.”

For some, usually people who don’t like sexual education in general, consent classes are controversial. “There are conversations about consent with lots of finger-pointing,” says Sadlier. “But that’s not what this classroom is. We’re here to work out what the hell consent is. How do we think it’s relevant? How do we think it can be achieved? How can we spot when it’s not there between ourselves and our partner? What do we do about it?

“But ultimately the message is, if you get consent right, the experience is going to be better, it’s going to be healthier, it’s going to be more enjoyable. Teenagers hear that and think, ‘Okay, this is how I learn to have better sex.’ Every teenager wants to know how to have good sex . . .

“I love being in a classroom with a load of teenagers who feel comfortable to say what they think or ask a question that they want answered. And I really love being in my therapy practice when you’re just sitting with a young person where they have permission just to talk openly and they don’t feel judged, and they don’t feel ashamed.”

Did the experience of doing those classes influence his decision to write about his own experience of sexual abuse? “I suppose I’d been doing the classes for a few years at that point, and I’d written a few columns where I’d spoken about going to therapy, or some of my own emotional difficulties over the years.”

He would frequently get asked about writing a book, he says. What stopped him was that he knew he wanted to be as honest as he could be but he had spoken to very few people about being sexually abused. “Not even my own family members, not my dad, my best friends. When I started writing the book, my wife [Fiona] didn’t know . . .

“So if I’m going to put it in the book, there’s going to be a series of conversations required to prepare people for what they’re going to read.”

Those conversations, he says, ended up being really positive. “People got to say lovely things in return, or they opened about up about stuff that they hadn’t spoken about for years. And then since the book came out, the number of messages I’ve had where people tell me that they’ve gone through the same thing. They were sexually abused themselves and they’ve been carrying around this trauma for years in their own way.

“And then you get to the point where two people who’ve gone through similar s**t start talking and you get to talk to someone about, ‘Well, this is what I did: I drank like a bastard for years and that actually didn’t help. I did a load of cocaine for ages; that actually didn’t help. I went to therapy and talked about and it was really difficult but I think that helped.’”

He was booked on the Late Late Show on the night of the book’s launch. Few people had had a chance to read it by then. “I’d had very few texts from anyone to say, ‘I read your book,’ which is another way of saying, ‘I know you’ve been sexually abused.’ I think I was the last guest on the show.

“Before the ad breaks, [Ryan Tubridy’s] way of reminding people about what’s coming up was to say, ‘And Richie Sadlier is going to be on to talk about a secret he’s been carrying around for years.’ And I heard him say this two or three times earlier on in the show . . . I’d been visualising that for about four, maybe six weeks beforehand. I kept visualising that moment where you’re standing behind the set, because I’d been on The Late Late [before] to talk about sexual health work in schools . . . And I had my family with me and a couple of friends and Fiona was there. I just felt ready, ready to say it.”

What was he frightened would happen initially? "How are people going to be with me? Are they going to be different with me? Will it impact how people see me as a therapist? Or if I'm talking on RTÉ about my opinions on the match, where people only look at me as the fellow who went through what I went through?

“I don’t know why I feared people’s reactions. They were really supportive and loving. All the judgment and the shame and the negativity was in my own head. That’s the stuff I carried around for years.”

Later we end up talking a bit about how a lot of people’s issues can be linked to having too narrow a sense of their own identity. “It’s worthwhile where you have a conversation where the person at the end of it sees that they’ve more options than they had before the chat . . .

“Whether they’re a sportsperson or not, no matter what age they are, whether they’re male or female, it kind of doesn’t matter. For a long, long time, I think, I linked a lot of the things that I thought were acceptable dos and don’ts in my world to being a bloke.”

When he first retired as a footballer, he says, his big fear was that he would forever be remembered for the things he did in his early 20s. “I’m going to be 45 or 50 and people are going to point to me at the end of the bar going, ‘He used to play years ago.”

I'm hoping that by the summer, I'll be pain-free for the first time since childhood

I tell him about Panenka, a novel by Rónán Hession, about an ageing football player haunted by his past. “I’m on the hunt for book recommendations,” he says. “I’m due to have spinal fusion surgery . . . I’ve had problems with my back since I’m a teenager. This is obviously the last resort. I’ve gone through all the checklist of all the things you would do to try and alleviate or manage or get rid of back pain and none of them have been successful. So I’ve to bite the bullet now and have surgery on the last day of the month. I’m running around trying to get my affairs in order, because I can’t work for three months.”

He has been in significant pain for decades, he says, unable to reliably enjoy walks or long stints sitting as a football panellist. He knows the healing process will be challenging – he will be lying down for several months – but he’s optimistic. “I’m hoping that by the summer, I’ll be pain-free for the first time since childhood. Also my back injury was the thing that brought me to the physio, the person who sexually abused me . . .

“The book was a significant step in healing from that. This is finally getting rid of the physical symptoms, which are a constant reminder. Is this the last little piece of the jigsaw? I don’t know, but I’m really looking forward to the prospect of getting up every morning and being able to pull my shoes on myself and not having to ask Fiona to help.”

Like Brexit or Covid or any other ideological position that people are really entrenched in online, he's [Kenny] just become the latest topic that people are forming fairly entrenched camps over

Has being a psychotherapist changed him? “I’m doing this 10 years or so now and I would hope most people change a lot from the age of 32 to 42. I’ve a real interest in people. [As a psychotherapist] you’re not only reacting appropriately to what’s being said but you’re very aware of what’s not being said. Or you’re curious to see what’s behind what’s being said . . . I’m just really fascinated in that whole area and I love to do a job where I can tap into all that.”

This outlook is also in his sports punditry, he thinks. “At half-time, my first thought isn’t what substitution is the manager going to make to address the problems he created in the first half. My thought is, ‘I wonder how they’re dealing with this collectively? Are they turning on each other and blaming each other? Are they looking for shared solutions? Is their confidence rocked? Are they full of self-belief?’”

The issue of whether Stephen Kenny should be kept on as Republic of Ireland manager, for example, is almost less interesting to him than contemplating what it's like to be Kenny.

“Like Brexit or Covid or any other ideological position that people are really entrenched in online, he’s just become the latest topic that people are forming fairly entrenched camps over . . . What’s it like to be him in the middle of all this? How does it impact on his decisions in the job? Does it impact how he is with his mates and how he is at home?”

Does he think that outspoken figures such as Marcus Rashford signal the start of an era when footballers are more involved with social issues? "It was once infantilising to be a footballer. I knew agents who paid . . . the domestic bills and processed everything, booked the flights, booked the family holidays for footballers. The thinking was, 'The less we let this fella do, the more he'll be able to focus' . . . That's a strategy which really lets people down when they're at the age of 36 and they realise they've never paid a bill . . .

“There are times when issues infiltrate the dressingroom like the thing with taking the knee last year. There are certain moments when they have an opportunity to take a stance on things. I think it’s really good that footballers are now encouraged or are supported to have a voice about things other than football. Footballers are just people who happen to be good at football. They’re people.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times