"You're a footballer who can't play football. You're of no value. And it's not long before you start to see yourself as that." – Richie Sadlier.
His career ended on a Tuesday night in Stoke. No joke. Richie Sadlier came off the bench for the last 20 minutes as Millwall dug out the sort of early-season 0-0 that made for a happy, back-slappy dressing-room afterwards. But he was an imposter sitting there. The hip injury that had first flared up 18 months previously had done him in and he knew it was over. He retired the following week, aged 24.
Over the course of the seven years he spent at Millwall, Sadlier was injured for three of them, give or take. A hernia that was supposed to keep him out for six weeks left him on the sidelines for 11 months. A broken arm was another three. You could say the hip was a year and a half or you could say it was forever.
“All you want is a date,” Sadlier says. “Because then you can go look at a fixture list and pick out a game that you can aim at. Even if it’s only a reserve game or something, it’s there, it’s concrete and you can aim at it. But when you’re not really sure when you’re going to come back, then you’re alone with your thoughts and that becomes a scary place.”
Everything gets fixed. You get hurt and you recover and you go on. People ask all sorts of questions but they’re really only asking one. How’s the hip? Tick-tock. When are you back? Tick-tock. Any day now? Tick-tock, tick-tock.
In sport, we know timescales by heart. We think of injuries in terms of numbers. Cruciate, nine months. Broken leg, four. Hamstring, three weeks at best, 12 if it’s a shocker. And then we shovel a pile of dirt over the injured party and pay them no attention until the green buds poke up through the soil again when their time is up.
We never ask about the head though. No timescales sought, none given. These are people and this is the thing they’re best at and now it isn’t there, replaced by a soup of raw fear that it might be gone. Bones fix easier than brains, too. Sadlier had no end of time to think about what he thought of it all. None of it was good.
“God forbid you would let anyone know that you were finding it hard. The absolute fear was that you confide in somebody that you were struggling and they turn around and say, ‘Well, maybe you just don’t have what it takes to be a footballer.’ The first time I got injured, I had a year of a contract left and my line of thinking was, ‘Why the hell would I give another fella an advantage over me by explaining how difficult I was finding life?’
“There probably was someone I could talk to at the club, maybe a physio or someone. But at the time, you’re just thinking, ‘What if they go and repeat it to someone else? What if it got back to the manager?’ You’re never quite sure where everyone’s loyalties lie. In a football club, everything is funnelled up to the manager. He has to know everything that’s going on. So you’re afraid, basically.”
An injured footballer is a pariah. A nothing. The mascot contributes more to the club than a crocked striker. And if you go over your time, you get a name. Doesn’t want it enough. Won’t play through the pain. Weak. You’re struggling? We’re all struggling, mate.
“You are no longer part of a squad,” Sadlier says. “You have a specific, solo training programme. Even the other lads who are injured, everyone has a different knock and they’re at different stages of recovery. So you’re going in every day doing something different to everyone else in the club. I found it really hard in the morning to go from the changing room into the physio room while everybody else was going out onto the training pitch.
“All the planning and conversations in a football club are about the game on the weekend. Who are you rooming with? What’s the story with your suit if it’s an away game? And then all the talk about the game itself – who have they got? What way are they playing? You’re excluded from all of that. You’re just an outsider. You may as well be a fan in the stand.”
So you internalise. You shrink. You knuckle down and work the body harder than ever. And if you give it any thought at all, you presume the mind is grand, riding along in the sidecar without having much to do.
Sadlier overcame his first real injury and made his way. Got noticed, got an Ireland cap, was looking like maybe being a Niall Quinn back twinge away from the World Cup squad. And then the hip went. Barnsley, March 2002. Beginning of the end.
“After getting up from the surgery, I said to the surgeon, ‘When am I back?’ And he said, ‘Best case, 12 weeks.’ So I said, ‘As a matter of interest, what’s the worst case?’ and he said, ‘Worst case is you won’t play again.’ And I went, ‘Jaysus, nobody said anything to me about that being a possibility. What are the chances of that?’ And he said, ‘About 25 per cent.’
“I didn’t tell anyone about that conversation. Not one person. I didn’t even tell the Millwall physio. I don’t know why I thought the surgeon wouldn’t have given the same report to the club as he gave to me but I was adamant that it wouldn’t come from me. Because this was a whole other thing now. This wasn’t me getting my game, or getting back among the goals or getting a transfer or another cap. This was about staying in the fecking game.”
From experience, he knew he had to occupy his mind. He got a dog. He enrolled in a sports science course. It all helped to a certain extent but it was like he was scanning a cancer diagnosis for spelling mistakes. He was trying to take his mind off something his mind was welded to.
“That fear that I wouldn’t make a full return was growing all the time. I tried to ignore it. I went on the piss as much as I could. I didn’t talk about it. I studied for college. I did as much as I could that didn’t involve expressing the thing that was in my head the most.
“I did it once. I once said to my agent, ‘Listen, I’m struggling here to be honest. All the dates the surgeon has given me, I’ve missed them all. He said 12 months ago that my hip would be good as you could get it in four months and now it’s the worst it’s ever been. I’m really struggling here.’
"My agent told the chairman, Theo Paphitis, the Dragon's Den guy. Theo rang the manager Mark McGhee and told him about the conversation. The following day, McGhee pulled me in the corridor and gave me a pep talk. It was a little bit of a dressing down, actually. He said, 'Listen, you're not going to get fit by talking that way.'
“And it was well-meaning. McGhee was brilliant for me when he was my manager and his reasoning was, ‘You’ve got to be positive here.’ I made a mental note – ‘Right, that’s the last time I do that.’”
When the end came, he told nobody. Not his parents, not his girlfriend, not his mates back home, not the lads in that dressing-room in Stoke. He went into the club and told the physio and doc the truth about how his body had been feeling, then he told McGhee.
As he got up to go, Archie Knox, McGhee’s assistant asked where he was going now and Sadlier replied he was away to the pub to feel sorry for himself. “Go on ahead, son, you deserve it,” Knox said. And so began months, years even, of genuine grief.
“You’re really, really heartbroken. You’re despondent to the core. You’re just thinking that I will constantly have this feeling of grieving this great loss. And you’ll never get over it. No one’s going to feel as bad about anything as you feel about this. And no one’s going to possibly understand what you’re going through. There’s no point talking about it so you don’t talk about it. That’s what it felt like.
“You spend a lot of time in despair. Could I have handled my rehab better? Could I have got on it sooner? If I had told them the pain I was feeling and been more up-front about it, would that have helped? I shouldn’t have played that game. I shouldn’t have pushed myself in that training session. Why did I have to act the big man? Why couldn’t I have been more honest?”
The road back started with the psychology lecturer in his sports science course.
“I approached her after a class one day. I didn’t give her a big long speech but I basically said, ‘I’m fucked here, can you help? I never used to be like this and I don’t like being like this.’ I went to weekly sessions with her, sometimes twice-weekly. And that started the recovery process really, which went on and on and on for years in loads of different ways.”
Surgeons leave more scars than they know.
"The main thing is to be doing things so that you're not thinking about what you're missing. Or that you're not thinking about how much that Grade One was worth." – Bryan Cooper
Jockeys don’t get injured. They get broke up. That’s the phrase they use. After they leave the weigh room, an ambulance driver turns his key in the ignition and follows them until they return safe. Then he goes back to his starting position and gets ready to do it again half an hour later. In that world, everyone’s mind is conditioned to deal with the worst so they don’t talk around it. You’re going to fall. You’re going to get broke up.
Bryan Cooper has been on the scene just over seven years and the stats on the Irish Racing website say he's been out for 101 weeks. Count the ways. Right leg broken twice, right lung punctured twice, lacerated liver, broken collarbone, broken fingers, dislocated thumb, broken arm, broken wrist and currently, a fractured pelvis. He won't put a date on it but Cheltenham is six weeks away and he's not missing that.
He spends much of his time in Santry, working with Enda King of the Sports Clinic. It's helping the body, yes. Occupying the mind too though.
“Getting up in the morning and going there is like getting up to go to work. Basically getting you out of bed as much as anything else. I found it was good for my head. You’re out of bed, out of the house. It was getting you motivated as much as anything else. Because you could be very easily sitting around on your arse otherwise.
“I wouldn’t go racing if I was injured. I would do something else. If you go into the weigh room when you’re injured, it’s not like you’re in the way but you’re definitely not part of it. I don’t enjoy being there and standing around. You’re nearly not sure where to stand. You’re very aware that you’re not a part of this. So I try to stay away and go and do other things.”
When Cooper broke his leg at Cheltenham in 2014, the Turf Club’s chief medical officer Adrian McGoldrick called it “the worst fracture I’ve ever seen in a lower limb”. It took eight and a half months for him to return. He didn’t need a sports psychologist; he had Michael O’Leary.
“I was only in the job with Gigginstown three months. They were saying it’s going to be eight months to a year before I’m back and when you hear that, you do worry. But it just shows that Michael O’Leary is loyal. I was only employed three months – he could have gone off and given the job to somebody else.
“But he said to me from day one that the job was here for me as soon as I came back. To me, that showed real loyalty when he didn’t have to. That was a big help. He rang me every week I was off to see who I was and how I was coming through. And at the end of every phonecall, he said the same thing – ‘Look, don’t worry, the horses will be there for you when you come back.’”
In a team game, you worry about getting your place back but your wages keep coming whether you’re playing or not. A jockey is a sole trader and injury generally means the money tap slows to a drip. Cooper is O’Leary’s retained rider so he has a salary but if he misses a big race, he misses a big purse. That hurts. No point pretending it doesn’t.
“Definitely. Like, this is by far my worst season in terms of winners going back the last three years or so. I’ve had three injuries since August and it has just left me on the sidelines for so long. From September to April is where I generally have my winners and where I make money. This year, you just come to realise that yeah, it’s great, we have the Injured Jockeys’ Fund and it keeps you going – but it’s a hell of a lot different to what you’re used to and what your normal income is coming in at the end of every month.
“I’m getting older and I’ve learned to deal with it better than I would have a few years ago. I see people writing shite in the papers every day of the week about Jack Kennedy being after my job. People forget that I’m retained. I laugh at the whole lot of it.
“They’re writing it because maybe they expect that because Michael gave Davy Russell the sack a few years ago he’s just going to turn around and do the same to me. I find it kind of funny really.”
On Monday, Ciara Mageean and Ciara O’Sullivan talk about the mental scarring of long spells on the sidelines