On Sunday week, Stephen McPhail will make his fourth trip to Wembley in four years, his latest excursion towards unexpected glory. And while Cardiff City’s return to another major Cup final is a timely reminder of how football can never lose its capacity to surprise, within the overall story of a romantic Carling Cup showdown between David and Goliath is a more interesting sub-plot.
Seven months ago, McPhail sat alone on the edge of the Welsh coast and watched the dying rays of a summer sun disappear over the horizon. In the fading light of that July day, he was coming to terms with the fading light of his professional career – because earlier that afternoon a doctor had told him he should consider retiring for the sake of his health.
By then, McPhail had been hardened by bad news. He’d first achieved celebrity as the creative force in an Irish midfield which shocked all of Europe by winning the Under 18 Uefa Championships in 1998. Later that year, he made his debut for Leeds United and soon enough he was one of David O’Leary’s babies, an integral element of a side who reached Uefa Cup and Champions League semi-finals with a team whose average age was just 23.
If overnight fame was uncomfortable for a person whose natural shyness saw him repeatedly seek refuge in the close-knit community of his home-town, Rush, in north county Dublin – then that emotional hardship hardly compared to the physical torture he’d soon suffer.
A series of Achilles injuries wiped out the best part of 2001 and 2002 and by the time his body recovered, Leeds were succeeding only in building a reputation as a lawless enterprise, where their finances were a mess and their players disillusioned with O’Leary. Soon manager, chairman and the bulk of the players would leave and the Leeds of 2004 bore no resemblance to the team of three years previously.
It was then that McPhail became part of the exodus. A spell at Barnsley proved rehabilitative but frustrating. League One, in football terms, was a backwater rarely visited by either Ireland’s management or Premier League scouts and was certainly no place for a playmaking midfielder. “But those years proved crucial,” McPhail says. “I got better at the stuff I was supposedly weak at, the hustling and harrying. My all-round game developed.”
Cardiff noticed and in the summer of 2007 he and his wife, Michelle, moved from Yorkshire to the Welsh capital, intrigued by the possibilities of a change of scenery. Initially, it proved a dream. Shortly after their arrival, they had their first child and by the start of 2008, McPhail was handed the captain’s armband, as Cardiff negotiated their way to their first FA Cup final in 91 years.
“Looking back now at the fact I was one of a select number of Irishmen to captain a team on FA Cup final day [Roy Keane, Ronnie Whelan, Pat Rice, Johnny Carey, Noel Cantwell and Billy Gillespie were the others] is a massive high,” says McPhail. “Most of the game, I’ve forgotten about but leading the team out will stay with me forever.”
And so too will the events of November 2009. That month, he’d been feeling unusually tired. His throat pained him. A visit to the club doctor prompted a referral to hospital. There he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphoma yet he refused to panic, playing twice within the week he was awaiting results to see if the cancer had spread from his throat to other parts of his body. “I won’t pretend it wasn’t a bombshell because those seven days waiting the results were, by far, the worst,” he says.
By the time good news arrived, everything afterwards seemed bearable, even the 25 sessions of radiotherapy, the hair, weight, and energy loss.
Rush, where he and Michelle grew up, was where he returned for the treatment. And in between sessions of radiotherapy, he worked with Tony McCarthy, the Bohemians physio, to strengthen his body. Self-pity was not on the agenda. “I’ve two kids and wanted to be there for them. Why did I act that way? I don’t know. Looking back, I think anyone would do the same. The more people I have spoken to, who’ve had similar news to me, have also reacted strongly. Their, and my, attitude from day one was not to lie down and take it but to get the treatment done and hopefully get out the other side smiling.”
By March 2010, McPhail was smiling broadly. His career, remarkably, had resumed. Overwhelmed by letters he received from fellow cancer victims, from rival fans, from former players and old friends, he not only recovered his place in the team but played the best football of his career. Promotion would elude them yet again – as it would the following season – but McPhail could live with that. After all, he had memories of the mouth blisters, the survival on a milkshake or two per day, the feeling of utter exhaustion.
McPhail says: “I knew the cancer would be the biggest changing point in my whole life. When the kids were born that changed me as a person but this sort of woke me up to enjoy every last training session, every game, every day with the kids.
“Before this, I would go to training and maybe get annoyed by a little thing or two. Now, I can see events for what they are. Some things in life are important. Some are meaningless.
“Every day now, you keep thanking God for being able to enjoy being with Michelle and the kids, for being able to play football for a living. I never took my good fortune for granted in the past. And I certainly never will now.”
He couldn’t. Last summer came the latest tough chapter of his life story, a one-to-one meeting with a specialist who assessed the side effects of McPhail’s syndrome and suggested retirement. Colleagues of the specialist agreed with his decision and for a while, the end of a career seemed possible.
And yet, something nagged at McPhail to keep seeking a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth. He learnt that with the right medication, he could continue playing. Training may have to be curtailed to a couple of days a week but Malky MacKay, Cardiff’s new manager, was able to differentiate between a chancer and a trier and could see a genuine guy who was desperate to continue playing.
“Football is all I have ever known since I was a kid,” says McPhail. “I never wanted to quit and once I could get by with a certain amount of training, I was prepared to give that a go. Joint problems and fatigue plague me from time to time. But the manager has been absolutely top class. He’s like a friend to me, reassuring me that I am part of his plans and that looking after my health is the most important thing of all.
“So, I’ve had my ups and downs – but winning the semi-final was just a massive up. To get to Wembley again is amazing. And to be handed the armband for the semi just made me feel 10 feet tall.”
Given the quality of opposition Cardiff face in the final – McPhail may feel Malky Mackay’s side could do with a few 10-footers in their ranks – and despite being massive underdogs against Liverpool for the February 26 showdown, the former Irish international is in a positive frame of mind.
“We lost big players at the end of last season,” he says, “but the manager has replaced them cleverly, picking up the right characters at knock-down prices. And the fans have responded to us. They know that we will all give 100 per cent week after week, that we will chase every ball.
“We are a stronger bunch than we were last season. There is a bit more of a work ethic about us too and we’ll need that against Liverpool because they are top class.
“We are simply going to have to come up with a brilliant game-plan and then trust ourselves to carry it out. Liverpool are justifiably big favourites but we have overcome setbacks before.”
No-one more so than him.