Dessie Loughery: I wasn't allowed to play football at all in school... that was how they punished you
Dessie Loughery made his name with Ballymena United prior to stints as a soccer and GAA referee. Behind the scenes, though, life was taking its toll. In the first of a two-part interview, the all-action ex-Irish League winger tells Neil Loughran about a journey to the edge and back…
IT is a dream that has recurred throughout his adult life and still now, five or six times a month, Dessie Loughery is jolted from his sleep, eyes widened, heart thumping. It is so familiar to him that logic tells you it should no longer draw the same breathless reaction, but it does, and it probably always will.
He is standing on top of Binevenagh Mountain, perched on the edge of one of the many rugged cliffs that spread out across over six miles of Derry’s north-west skyline.
From the ground he can point you to the general area; jump in his van and he’ll take you to the exact spot. There’s Magilligan Point at the mouth of Lough Foyle, the hills of Inishowen in neighbouring Donegal a little further across. On a clear day, the Scottish coastline comes into view.
In his dream, Dessie Loughery sees none of this. All he sees is the end. It’s more of a feeling, in fact – looking down, stepping over and… whoooosh. Relief. Complete and utter relief.
Hundreds of times he has been up there, as if his conscious mind was attempting to comprehend why he was unconsciously drawn to this place so often.
But no answers were forthcoming until one day he found himself standing on the Foyle Bridge, his van abandoned a couple of hundred yards away.
Looking down at the icy waters below, motorists bumped their horns, some shouting out through the window. They barely registered. He just yearned for that feeling.
Relief. Complete and utter relief.
Except this time, there would be no waking up lashing with sweat. No reassuring words from wife Annemarie and then back to bed. No next time.
In that moment he realised all that he had to lose – a loving wife he adores, four children, five grandchildren and everything else he has to be thankful for.
That was only enough to take him off the bridge; the hardest part was piecing together all the parts of the puzzle that brought him to the brink - the troubled childhood that shaped and scarred him, the bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed until his mid-40s, the trauma of caring for a mother with a form of epilepsy so violent that reinforced windows had to be installed in their house.
Day by day, week by week, the stress and strain had pushed and pushed until there was nowhere left to go.
But in life, the same as on the football field where he made his name, Dessie Loughery simply didn’t know how, or when, to give in. There was no quit in him.
That wasn’t about to change now.
KETTLE. Sink. Fridge. Phone. Back to the kettle, then the sink, and so on. “Do you want one of those things there? What about those, you’ll take one of them sure…” he says, pointing at the lower rung of seemingly endless white boxes that cover the table.
Pastries, cakes, buns, scones - the local baker must have danced a merry jig before pulling down the shutters for the day after this morning’s visit.
In the kitchen of his Limavady home, Dessie Loughery is perpetual motion. Indeed, it is a full 25 minutes before he finally pulls up a chair and sits down, those piercing blue eyes still alive with restless energy.
If this is him at 51, it is hard not to spare a thought for the poor midfielders or full-backs charged with keeping tabs on Ballymena United’s wing whippet in his playing pomp.
“I think I ended up with 111 goals from the right side of midfield - that wasn’t bad on crap pitches, and the league was really strong at that time. There was no protection, it was just brutality at times, but I was happy enough…”
Standing just 5”7 tall, with dodgy knees inherited from his mother’s side and skinny bandy legs that earned him the moniker ‘Chicken’, the odds of succeeding in the unforgiving world of late 1980s/early ’90s Irish League football weren’t exactly stacked in Dessie Loughery’s favour.
But then they never have been. Physical limitations aside, it is a miracle he ended up playing the beautiful game at all, never mind reaching a level that saw him coveted by some of the top clubs in Ireland.
Most footballers who make the grade have already caught the eye by the time they leave school. Dessie Loughery walked out through the gates of St Mary’s High School in Limavady at 16 having hardly kicked a ball.
Not because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, but because he wasn’t allowed to. A hyperactive child with no idea how to control his impulses, some of his teachers, in turn, had no idea how to control him.
“I was really poor at school, and then I had this problem [bipolar disorder] which was never picked up in those days. They didn’t know what was wrong with you, I didn’t know myself, so you were just battered.
“I wasn’t allowed to play in the school football team or do PE because I was disruptive. I didn’t play football at all in school, which is hard to believe when you think of it. That was how they punished you.
“I was chucked out a couple of times, I struck a teacher once... there’s no sense in telling lies; I was no angel. But see when I look back, my school life was really violent.
“They’d have punched you in the face, banged your head against the wall, strapped ye, thumped ye, hit ye, pulled ye, lifted you by the hair.
“I was in a real bad class too… out of my class, I think nearly everybody has been in jail except for me. You had to stick up for yourself, and the only two things I was good at in life was playing football and fighting, because you had to fight in that class to survive.”
Now a maintenance man working for the Western Education and Library Board, one of the schools he looks after is his old stomping ground down the road.
Over three decades on, it is a completely different place with a completely different environment. Nobody knows that better than him.
“It’s funny, I’ve a good rapport now with teachers or principals who knew me in them days.
“I mind speaking to my English teacher years on and she said she used to cry herself to sleep every night because I was coming… I felt really crap then; to think I had made that woman feel like that because my wife’s a school teacher and I would never want her to feel like that.
“But then, that was my problem - I thought my behaviour was normal. I couldn’t control it. I’m not academic, I have no exams… Annemarie says I’m a visual learner. There’s nothing I can’t drive, and there’s nearly nothing I can’t do, but I have to see it.
“If I had to copy something down off the blackboard, no chance. Homework was never done. I couldn’t concentrate during class. I don’t class myself stupid, I just never had the chance. That’s not the fault of St Mary’s – if I had been in any school in them days, it would’ve been the exact same.
“Out of everything though, taking football away was the worst thing they could do to me.”
But Dessie wasn’t to be denied. Brave, quick and surprisingly strong given his small frame, it wasn’t long before he was shining in the local leagues - and that’s when he first came to the attention of Ballymena boss Alec McKee.
After signing forms at the Showgrounds, the 19-year-old thumbed a lift from Limavady three times a week, taking home the princely sum of £12 for his endeavours.
And while his concentration would regularly go AWOL inside the four walls of the classroom, there was little he had to learn between the white lines of the football field.
Once there, the raw energy and gift for agitation that cost him an education were his greatest assets.
“When I played football, I could run the same in the first minute as the last minute. I was so fit it was unreal.
“At the end of the game, I was f**ked because I’d given everything. Many a time I had a bad game but I ran myself into the ground.”
Ex-team-mates will tell you Loughery might have lapped them 10 times during one running session. It got to the point where they could only laugh while this Forrest Gump-like figure charged on regardless.
A pickpocket supreme with a turbo-charged engine, he was a nightmare to play against. You could never rest easy when Dessie was about.
By May 1989, less than 12 months after starting life at the Sky Blues, he had an Irish Cup medal in his back pocket – the last time the Braidmen lifted the famous trophy.
The silverware may have dried up but Loughery continued to excel, receiving admiring glances from Cliftonville, Linfield and League of Ireland outfit Sligo Rovers.
He even met Ronnie McFall in Craigavon and the Portadown boss “offered me the world” but, considering this interest came in the mid-’90s, Loughery had a novel reason for not fancying a switch to Shamrock Park.
“A few people had said to me that I looked like Billy Wright, the loyalist, so it probably wasn’t the best idea for me to be in Portadown at that time...”
Instead he opted for a controversial move to Ballymena United’s biggest rivals, the club for whom he had been the scourge in so many derby games through the years: Coleraine.
However, despite the fanfare that surrounded his arrival, two injury-hit seasons was all he mustered with the Bannsiders before calling time at 32.
Typically though, Loughery barely paused for breath. Before hanging up his boots he had already become a qualified referee and, in a game crying out for ex-players willing to put their heads above the parapet, he soon moved through the ranks.
“I thought I’d be good at it, and the type of person I am with this thing that I have, anything I’ve ever done in life, I always tried to be the best at it. If I do something, it’s 100 per cent. So when I played, it was 100 per cent, it’s the same with my job, same if I’m cleaning the car or cutting the grass…
“So when I took up refereeing, I wanted to be the best, and I climbed the ladder really quick. I went from junior referee to senior referee in four seasons.
“The thing that stood to me was that people knew me, so there was a respect there from playing. That was a big thing. My language is colourful at the best of times, and on the pitch my language would be colourful to the players; there’s a difference between f**k you and f**k off.
“The present day referee knows the laws but he doesn’t know the game. I knew the laws, and I knew the game. In all my assessments I was told ‘you talk too much’ but I actually felt that was what made me a good referee.”
Those skills would later prove transferable to the world of Gaelic football where, despite not having played, he was a natural.
Inside a short space of time Loughery was considered one of the best referees in Derry, and was the man in the middle for the 2011 senior county final between Ballinderry and Kilrea.
“He’d have been very personable,” recalls Glenullin’s former Derry star Gerard O’Kane
“That’s just the type of character he is, and he got to know the players. It’d be nearly to the extent where he was trying to direct you through the game; if you had a shot and missed he’d be saying ‘ah Jesus, poor shot selection’.
“It was just second nature to him, because he played soccer and he was used to coaching on the field. People would’ve come off saying ‘he’s quite opinionated for a referee’ or ‘who does he think he is?’ but I thought it broke down barriers because he was trying to get to know players. It never bothered me at all.
“He also knew when a player acted out of frustration rather than malice or bad intent. Even though he had never played Gaelic, he had obviously been around it enough and involved in other sports so he knew when boys were maybe just getting frustrated.
“He had that bit of common sense you’re looking for.”
“I did it to keep fit mainly,” says Loughery.
“I’d never played but I knew the rules. I’m a players’ person. I wanted to try and improve refereeing in Derry but, in the end, I probably went as far as I could with it.”
When that door closed, the wheels began to come off at an alarming rate.
In reality though, they had been threatening to veer from the track for a long time; ever since the day his mother Bernadette had suffered a brain haemorrhage when he was at school.
Aged just 37 at the time, she survived but was never the same, left with a form of epilepsy that tormented her until the day she died 30 years later.
With dad Dessie senior working long hours to make ends meet, the eldest son found himself cast in the role of carer-in-chief for their sick mother and, alongside sister Theresa, de facto head of the Loughery household to their three younger siblings, all under the age of eight.
It was a huge weight to carry for a 16-year-old who was hardly without his own troubles to seek. Eventually, inevitably, something had to give.
IN TOMORROW’S IRISH NEWS
“I forgot where I was going… just clean forgot. I could’ve pulled the f**king steering wheel off the van. The frustration, that feeling was built up inside me… I was having that feeling all the time and I couldn’t control it. And when I’m not in control, I’m in bother...”
From the depths of despair to finding light behind the lens, don’t miss part two of Neil Loughran’s interview with Dessie Loughery