Richie Sadlier memoir: ‘the abnormal, especially when it came to sex, was normal'

Colin Healy, Richie Sadlier and Roy Keane at Ireland training in 2002. Photo: Tom Honan

I had no idea what was involved in hosting a housewarming. I had just bought a townhouse, a three-storey terraced home half a mile from Millwall’s training ground in Bromley. It had four bedrooms and the plan from the first time I saw it was to fill those rooms with visitors from Dublin. I was delighted with it. I’d saved for the deposit and secured the mortgage myself by the age of nineteen. It needed work, but there would be plenty of time for that.

I didn’t know much about home ownership, I just knew you threw a party when you bought one. I figured that, once there was enough alcohol and some decent CDs, my job was done. We were short of glasses so my mates from Dublin went to the pub to nick some. There was no place for Champagne or charcuterie boards at this party. We were all set with crates of Stella and the odd bag of peanuts.

Apart from my Irish mates, most people there were older than me. And since most of my mates in London were Millwall players themselves, a lot of the squad were at the house that night. Once the pubs closed, the house all of a sudden became packed. There were plenty of people there I had never met before, but that didn’t matter to me in the slightest. A party is nothing without guests, so the more the merrier.

I walked up the stairs and saw a couple of lads outside the toilet. ‘Alright, lads, everything OK?’

‘Yeah, Sads, great party, mate.’

‘Cheers. How long have you been waiting to get in there?’ ‘We can wait all night, mate.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Seb is in there with a girl. She told us it’s our turn next. She’s up for it.’

I nodded as if this was nothing I hadn’t experienced before, even if it was nothing like anything I’d experienced before.

Was this an English thing? A football thing? Or was the party now out of control?

I thought it might be a combination of all three. Certainly, I felt the difference between Ireland and England may well have been as vast as the difference between the real world and the football world. Especially as I had no experience of the real world.

As the night went on, the stories kept coming about what various men and this woman were doing together. It was like keeping track of contestants’ behaviour over a series of Love Island, except it was all playing out in one night, in my home. Every hour or so, a new name would be mentioned.

‘She’s in a room with Lefty now.’

‘I think Alec was involved in some way.’

‘I just shagged Jeff in your bedroom, Sads. Hope you don’t mind.’

From a distance of twenty years and with a new perspective, I’m not going to wag my finger at the people involved, or even at my younger self. England was a very different place from Ireland. If sex was something people were ashamed of in Ireland – and we’ve seen how well that worked out – in England men and women were more comfortable in saying what they wanted. The woman at my housewarming party was entirely happy and comfortable with how the night unfolded.

I wasn’t brought up with any education in this area, nor were any of my Irish mates. Sex was rarely discussed, and when it was, the idea that a woman could enjoy sex or speak about it comfortably would have been used against her. Women taking agency in this area wasn’t presented as a positive. In most cases, it would be cited as a reason to keep your distance. As far as we were led to believe in Ireland in the ‘90s, a woman who enjoyed sex had baggage, whereas arguably, she may have had less baggage than the rest of us put together.

Sadlier while playing for Millwall in 1999. Photo: Phil Cole/Allsport
Sadlier while playing for Millwall in 1999. Photo: Phil Cole/Allsport

In the classes I have taught on sexual health in the last few years, one of my primary tasks is to remove shame from the equation at the outset. I grew up in a world that said guilt and regret should follow almost any sexual encounter. If we are going to have honest conversations about what sex and consent involve, we’ll have to embrace the idea that men and women both enjoy sex. The shame we bring to these conversations is useful to nobody.

But during that housewarming party, I genuinely didn’t have a clue what I was meant to think.

Everyone left the house having had a good time, but it did feel like throwing a party while your parents were away and realising pretty quickly you weren’t the one in charge. If this had happened in a house in Dublin, I’m sure I would have considered it extreme, but in my new environment, nothing seemed off limits. The abnormal, especially when it came to sex, was entirely normal.

It was in this world that I would learn about sex and, more important, relationships, which wasn’t always healthy. Sex was transactional, approached by women and men with the same disconnection. The culture was one of instant gratification. You didn’t work on relationships, building trust over time before being intimate. Within hours of meeting one another, sex was on the cards. And women, just as much as men, were the ones proposing it. Safe sex or monogamy didn’t seem important to many people either. I have no trouble understanding now why I became so cynical and untrusting about relationships, or why I became adamant I would never be so foolish as to ever get married.

***

The dressing room was a strange place. There were teenagers mixing with men in their thirties. By the time you’re twenty-seven, you’re expected to have a maturity - at least on the football pitch - that you wouldn’t expect from someone of that age in any other walk of life. Within the dressing room everything is accelerated, but outside it you can easily remain the adolescent who first walked in.

There were other elements which made it a little different, too. It wasn’t unusual for two or three lads to be knowingly sleeping with the same woman. If she spent one night with me, she might spend another with a teammate. Sometimes there might be more than two consenting adults involved, which I had never even heard of in Dublin.

My life was fun and this all seemed harmless. Nightclub bouncers would usher us past queues, straight into VIP areas. When I left Dublin, I had never even seen a VIP area, let alone been in one. I would take the favours when they were handed out, but I would never go up to bouncers and tell them I was a Millwall player, even when mates would ask me to.

I didn’t venture into London much so I went to the same pubs, the same clubs, with the same mates all the time. And then I slept with the same girls.

If you’d asked me if being a professional footballer had changed me, I’d have argued that it hadn’t. The world around me had altered and the way the world responded to me had altered too, which was the most important change of all. I was still the same bloke, but everyone treated me differently. Of course, I was changing; I can see that now. I became more guarded around people, less trusting of their motives. And when it came to relationships with women, I kept them all at arm’s length. I wasn’t particularly sure why I was doing it, but I knew I was. Empty, emotionless one-night stands were on offer and they suited me because nobody would ever want to get close.

I had always tried to fit in. I was hyper-sensitive about not making a fuss, so I wouldn’t make any demands. But if the world wanted to treat me differently, I was going to go along with that too. It was what I’d always done and I wasn’t going to change now, when going along with things was so much fun.

Sadlier is congratulated by Colin Healy after scoring for Ireland during the under-20 World Cup in 1999. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Sadlier is congratulated by Colin Healy after scoring for Ireland during the under-20 World Cup in 1999. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

It quickly became routine to me. It was only when friends from Dublin came over and pointed out how different it was that I’d take notice, but only briefly.

But even then there were times when my own behaviour shocked me. These moments couldn’t be laughed off so readily. I would get a glimpse of another person and wonder if that was really me. Inevitably, this would happen when there was drink involved.

I was beginning to discover I blacked out very easily. Nobody could tell because I’d be talking away as normal. I could be having a chat about anything, about the big issues of the day or the latest episode of Friends and you’d think I was making sense, but the next day I wouldn’t remember a word of it.

I could wake up in bed beside a girl with no memory of anything that had happened. In that drunken haze of the morning after, we would often try to piece it together and laugh about how little I recalled.

One night I was talking to a girl in a bar. She was very friendly so we were chatting away and, as I was ordering a drink, I asked her if she wanted one too.

‘Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself, Richie’s my name.’ I leaned over to shake her hand. She didn’t take it. ‘You’re fucking joking me,’ she said.

‘What do you mean?’ ‘We met last week.’

‘Ah, I’m sorry. Here listen, my memory goes when I’m drinking.

This happens all the time. Really sorry.’ ‘You don’t remember?’

‘No,’ I said, still quite breezy about the whole thing. ‘We went back to your house.’

‘Ah, right.... ‘ I said, but still nothing registered. Lots of people came back to my house, nothing unusual in that. ‘We had sex.’

My breeziness disappeared. My heart raced. I had never seen her before. I had no memory of any of this. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

She looked at me with contempt and walked away without saying another word. My mates confirmed the girl was telling the truth. They remembered meeting her and said she was lovely. My mates found it all hilarious. ‘Jesus, Sads, what are you like?’

It was becoming a running joke that I forgot everything.

But in the minutes between her telling me we’d had sex and me joining in the joke with the lads, I had a moment of realisation that scared me. It wasn’t profound and it wasn’t anything that was going to make me reconsider my attitude to drink or sex, but I didn’t like it. That was all I knew.

I didn’t like myself if this was the sort of thing that happened when I was in blackout. I felt like a complete prick, even though I also felt that anything that happened was out of my control. Again, I was passive, a spectator trying to piece together the events in my own life. But that didn’t really matter. You are what you do, defined by how you act. To the girl I’d slept with the week before, I was the person who had done this. I was the prick.

***

When real life did intervene, my method of dealing with it was simple: stay quiet as long as you can and hope the problem would be taken care of.

‘Don’t you know why I’m here?’ she asked.

I had no idea, as she had never called to me on a Sunday morning before, but I knew there must be a reason for the unannounced visit. Thankfully, I wasn’t hungover as we had a game on Tuesday.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Come on in. What’s up?’ ‘You’ve no idea? Really?’

We had been hanging out in the same group for a few months. Her mates and my mates regularly ended up at the same parties, which were usually in my house on Saturday nights.

‘No, go on,’ I said, but something was starting to register. I remembered being in my bedroom with her the previous month but I couldn’t remember the specifics. I knew my memory wasn’t a reliable source for my weekend behaviour. If I wanted to know my exact movements on a night out, I had to rely on the accounts of whoever happened to be in my company.

Then it came. ‘I’m pregnant.’ ‘Jesus. Really?’

I’m not sure what I said after that. She didn’t want to stay long as she had a friend sitting outside in the car. She told me she wasn’t sure what reception she would get so she wanted the moral support. I was a little insulted that she thought I would react badly, but I understood. These aren’t situations anyone prepares you for.

We agreed that she would call back on Wednesday night to discuss it properly. My old Belvedere manager Gerry and his wife were staying with me for the weekend and were due to return any minute. I was keen to avoid any questions from them so I was happy to postpone the conversation.

Richie Sadlier challenges Viktor Onopko of Russia for the ball during an international. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho
Richie Sadlier challenges Viktor Onopko of Russia for the ball during an international. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

I didn’t really know what to do. Who could I tell? How could I explain it? Even though I was used to it by now, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t recall my own behaviour on a night out. Jesus, I was going to be a father and I didn’t even know the woman’s surname.

I had no trouble concealing my emotions when Gerry and his wife returned. That bit was easy, as not showing my feelings was my specialist subject. I didn’t mention it to them or anyone else and stored it away in the part of my mind I’d wilfully ignore. I’d had years of practice at that.

The following evening, the phone rang. It was the friend who had waited outside.

‘She’s in hospital, they think she’s having a miscarriage.’

‘Jesus. Eh, thanks for letting me know. Is there anything I can do?’ ‘Not really.’

A couple of hours later, she rang again to confirm it.

She called over as planned a couple of nights later. I was on crutches, having badly injured my ankle in the game on Tuesday. We spoke about it all for about three hours, with neither of us really knowing what to say. We didn’t try to romanticise our relationship or catastrophise the miscarriage. We were both a little in shock, realising that our drunken antics could have made us parents, and both relieved that we were looking back on a miscarriage rather than ahead to parenthood. We both said that if the miscarriage hadn’t happened we would have fumbled our way into being parents and done our best. We wondered what kind of job we would have done bringing up a child together. But, like a lot of young people who find themselves in a situation like this, we both saw it as a bullet we had successfully dodged.

Recovering by Richie Sadlier with Dion Fanning (Gill Books, €24.99)