Football/Soccer

Former Cliftonville goalkeeper John Connolly opens up on the loss of his father

John Connolly pictured with his father, Sean, who was buried on his 83rd birthday in April

FORMER Cliftonville and Derry City goalkeeper John Connolly has been “overwhelmed” by the hundreds of messages of support he received after revealing on social media his difficulty in coping with his father’s death three months ago.

Last Friday, the 41-year-old posted this message on his Twitter account: ‘Think I'm ready to open up about the way I'm feeling. I hope it doesn’t show a sign of weakness. April 30th I lost my Da and since then I've been struggling mentally to cope with this. Each day is a mental barrier to try get over. I miss you so much Da.’

Following his message were two broken heart symbols with the hash-tag: ‘It’s okay not to be okay.’

Earlier this year, Antrim GAA goalkeeper Chris Kerr wrote a blog revealing the bouts of depression he’d suffered following the loss of his father five years go.

Like Connolly, Kerr was touched by the volume of the messages of support he received following its publication in The Irish News and the Gaelic Players Association website.

After reading Connolly’s message, Kerr replied: ‘Not all heroes wear capes. Proud of you JC.’

Connolly, who signed for Championship outfit Ballinamallard United in the close season, said he had thought long and hard about putting a message out revealing his mental struggles since his father, Sean, passed away.

“The reason I said I would put something out was the fact that I’d lost my mum three years ago and I bottled that up.

“I never spoke to anybody about it; I probably hit out at people as well, people close to me who were asking me was I okay, and I was probably in a dark place where I didn’t want to speak.

“I didn’t want people asking me about it and I was pushing them away. The reason behind the tweet, it was just to open up and let people know: ‘Do you know what, I may look as if I’m okay but I'm not alright and I do struggle with it.'”

Connolly says the messages of support and subsequent conversations he’s had on social media with friends and total strangers about coping with the loss of a loved one has helped him.

“Do you know what I’ve got out of it is the amount of people who have actually thanked me. They are either going through the same thing or have gone through it,” explained the Dublin native.

“Some of them have said they’ve never opened up about it and they’ve thanked me for putting it out. That is amazing - people that I don’t even know.

“If it helps one person to open up and speak to somebody, somebody that finds themselves in that dark place, then it’s been worth it.

“Even it’s only that one person who can tell someone: ‘Look, I’m struggling here.’ And maybe they can get the help that they need.”

He added: “I’ll be totally honest, I didn’t expect the response that I’ve got from it. I’d no idea. I thought a few people might have seen it and maybe respond to it. But the messages I’ve received have been unbelievable.”

Connolly’s father suffered a fall at home, suffering a fractured hip, and never recovered from the accident.

He was buried on his 83rd birthday.

“After my mum passed away I looked after my dad. He never went back to the family home.

“I wanted to make sure he was alright... But you know, he was probably looking after me over the last three years without me realising.”

Connolly believes being able to openly discuss his grief has been a hugely positive step for him.

“I don’t look too far ahead in what people call a grieving process,” he said.

“I take it day by day. You can be grand and all of a sudden something just clicks and takes you back to it.

“I’ve got a good family around me and I’ve so many positive memories, happy memories of my mum and my dad. That’s what I’m looking at and getting me through.”

His father was his biggest supporter throughout a playing career that has taken him from Newry, Derry City, Institute, Glenavon, Larne, Armagh, Portadown and now Ballinamallard United.

Since his loss, Connolly keeps a small bottle of holy water his father owned in a small pouch of his kit-bag.

“It was actually my mum’s and my dad took it when my mum passed away. It was in his bedside cabinet and I’ve got it in a little pocket in my kit-bag and touch it every time before training or a game.”

Connolly's commute from his Newry home to Ballinamallard is roughly 90 minutes.

“The drive is good thinking time, it’s my own bit of space and that has been a blessing.”

Still being involved in football has helped him over the last few months too.

Connolly had virtually decided to retire from football after suffering a badly ruptured Achilles during a training session with Portadown last November.

“I felt I’d finish playing after the injury. I got in touch with a physio [Frank Quinn from The Physio Group] who has taken me through rehab before and his first question was: ‘When do you want to be back?’

“As soon as he said that, I said: ‘Right, okay. What about pre-season?’ So that’s what we worked off. He worked his magic right up to the start of pre-season.

“Touch wood, it feels great. I’ve done all pre-season… Whatever the physios told me throughout my career I did; I didn’t slip any corners. I’ve always been disciplined in that sense.”

To date, Connolly has played two 45 minutes and an hour of pre-season football for the ‘Mallards and hopes to be fit for the club’s first league game of the season against Limavady United on August 11.

Connolly was Cliftonville’s first choice goalkeeper during Eddie Patterson’s time in charge at Solitude where he won three Co Antrim Shields and became a firm favourite of the Reds faithful.

Despite celebrating his 41st birthday, Connolly feels he’s a better ‘keeper now than in his younger days.

Asked what's the best thing about being a goalkeeper, Connolly said: “When you have one of those days when you just feel unbeatable, when you make an early save or an early catch. And that feeling coming off the field and you’ve won 1-0 and you’ve made four or five saves… It’s hard to explain that feeling coming off a pitch.”

As he prepares for his next venture at Ferney Park, Connolly says he will miss his "biggest fan" not being on the sidelines - but is convinced "he’ll be looking down on me every game, I'm sure of that."

Cruse Bereavement Care: Somewhere to turn when someone dies www.cruse.org.uk/northern-ireland

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