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Playing through the pain

 

By Garry Doyle

 

How do players cope with the death of a teammate? Garry Doyle talks to Mickey Harte and Nevin Spence’s Ulster comrades

 

 

It was three o’clock in the afternoon when Mark Anscombe called Neil Doak. The night before, Ulster had beaten Munster by a point, continuing their perfect start to their season, and with a trip to Italy on the agenda, Anscombe was contemplating a promotion for their young centre, Nevin Spence. “Zebre seemed the perfect place to give Nev his shot,” said Anscombe. “The plan was to introduce him there.”

 

If only.

 

Instead, three hours later, Anscombe got the kind of call no coach ever wants. “Nevin’s had an accident,” he was told, “…at home, on his farm… he… has died.”

 

A month later, the shock is still there. So is Ulster rugby. They’ve swept all before them to lead the Pro 12, running on adrenaline since the news of Spence’s passing, dealing with the loss of a brother, a teammate, a friend, as best they can. But how does a team deal with something like this? How do they pick themselves up and get on with their season and their lives? How can any Ulster player coldly differentiate between the emotions of death and the conflicting passions of sport?

 

“It certainly isn’t easy,” said Johann Muller, their South African captain, “because there are broken individuals in our dressing room — men who have had their hearts torn out and we have had to change our programme to accommodate the guys to get over this. We have really drawn strength from being around each other in the team environment, in memory of the great mate we have lost. On a personal level,my faith in God has got me through. Plus meeting Nev’s mum and his sisters at Ravenhill, and seeing how strong they are, was a big plus too. They really wanted us to get back on the field to start playing again and it was wonderful to see… something I get my strength from.” Faith is where Mickey Harte draws his strength from too. Under the shadow of tragedies, the Ulster rugby and Tyrone football teams have formed an unlikely alliance — because before Spence, there was Paul McGirr and Cormac McAnallen.

 

The death of cormac McAnallen is just one of several tragedies a generation of Tyrone footballers have had to contend with.

 

And then came the shocking murder in January last year of Harte’s daughter, Michaela. “I loved Michaela’s smile,” said Harte last week in Croke Park at the launch of a fundraiser for the foundation set up in his daughter’s name. “She’d walk into a room and light it up. When there’d be tough days, that smile would lift me.” It is her memory that lifts him now. Somehow, he has kept on keeping on. In interviews, he remains as polite and as generous as ever, although he is reluctant to speak to the Irish Daily Mirror, who published an offensive article about Michaela a year ago. Opening up isn’t a problem to Harte. Publicly or privately, he can articulate his emotions. And the sport he loves, that he understands better than any other inter-county manager, keeps him going. “The energy I got last summer from working with young people at Michaela’s Foundation was fantastic,” he said. “And the football has always been a passion. The GAA is often knocked as an organisation and I’m not saying it doesn’t have its flaws but the support and togetherness it gives people in times like what I went through is tremendous. Sport gives great things to people.”

 

So does Harte. Before his arrival, Tyrone had never won an All-Ireland. Now they have three. Yet while winning, they have been suffering. McGirr, McAnallen and Michaela have all been on the journey and have all been prematurely taken away from it. For Harte, hardened by five decades of life, these things may never be understood. Yet, remarkably, he copes.

 

Perspective is a gift few people have. Four years ago, I interviewed Harte before the start of the 2008 Championship, at a time when Stephen O’Neill had retired, and when pressure was mounting on the manager’s shoulders. “Stephen is still with us,” Harte said. “He is alive and well.We shouldn’t take lightly how important that is.” Taking things lightly was something Harte could never do — not after McGirr’s death following an accidental collision in an Ulster minor match in 1997, nor after McAnallen’s passing seven years later. Each time the burden weighed him down.

 

“At times it was close to being very difficult for me. But I’m an optimist and a great believer. I have a great faith handed on by my parents and I just believe there is always good around each corner. I feel that if things are bad then there is always a way of turning it around and we have had to learn that as we go along. From adversity you can find something of value and, even from extreme adversity, there is a great good that can come out of it. That is what happened with Paul and Cormac. “When Paul died, young players had to grow up pretty fast. Those players learnt there is a family behind every player who have experienced hurt and loss. Those players became more aware of the feelings of other people. And on the field they then turned that adversity into a positive, not by a crusade but by doing the best they could as individuals.

 

“Then, years later, came Cormac’s death which was a huge setback. But their awareness of Paul’s situation helped them cope. And they became aware of the family situation and realised again that some good can come out of Cormac’s passing.” Now it is Michaela, their manager’s daughter, who binds them. “Within days of Michaela’s death we had a scheduled game in the McKenna Cup and word came out that the match was going ahead and Mickey was going to be there on the line,” said Sean Cavanagh. “If Mickey can show that sort of strength to us as players we are blessed. Mickey is a spiritual man and his strength of personality got us all our success.”

 

Strength of faith, strength of personality is what Ulster need now. Last year, they had the most dramatic of seasons. Only a long-shot bet for the Heineken Cup, they started quickly and, led by players like Muller, established themselves as the coming men. Then, in the final, they collapsed completely, lost lineouts, scrums, the match — and the dream. It’s now October. A dream has turned to a nightmare. Spence has gone. “Each individual is going to deal with this tragedy differently but we are trying to get everything back to normal again. That’s a challenge for us,” says Muller. “Even with all the experience in the world, you can’t plan for things like this and I certainly don’t have the answers for how to deal with it. “The only thing we know is to play rugby, to train hard and just do it with a smile on your face, knowing it is a privilege to be alive and able to play rugby.” Their capacity to retain any sort of focus and remain successful has been incredible. But when you go back through time, you recall how similar stories from different teams have had similar consequences.

 

The Busby Babes lost eight players in Munich. Two more were so badly injured they never played again. Yet they reached the FA Cup final three months after the disaster. “I’d rather have been anywhere but there,” said Bill Foulkes, a survivor of the crash. Fast forward to Tyrone. McAnallen died in 2004. Tyrone didn’t win again until 2005. Closer to home, the Kilburn Gaels lost Cathal Forde in April. A couple of weeks ago they lost a county final. Sport, like life, doesn’t provide storybook endings.

 

“All we can do is get on with our lives as best we can,” said Muller. “There is no alternative.” And no guarantee of trophies to commemorate anyone’s passing. Staying together is their true success.

 

 

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