GAA Football

Donegal All-Ireland winning coach Pat Shovelin opens up on his battle with cancer

At 40 years of age, Donegal's All-Ireland winning goalkeeping coach Pat Shovelin was diagnosed with liver cancer. In part one of a candid two-part interview, the father-of-two speaks to Andy Watters about how he's focusing on taking one day at a time...

Pat Shovelin (centre) with Donegal U21 goalkeepers Danny Rodgers and Paddy Byrne after the Ulster U21 final win over Derry
Andy Watters

"Pat was with me from day one as goalkeeping coach. His loyalty is boundless and he is very funny. He has this laugh that can make a room laugh. That was important to us."

Jim McGuinness ‘Until Victory Always – A Memoir’

PAT Shovelin had been out running the roads until late last year.

A tee-totaller since a brief flirtation with alcohol in his early 20s, he was fit and healthy and life had been about sport and his young family until February’s bombshell that he had cancer in his liver turned it upside down.

There had been denial, then disbelief, then anger and now acceptance and a grim determination to remain positive and find a way to beat the disease.

As a goalkeeper Pat (40) won Donegal championships with Ardara in 2000 and 2004 and as a visionary goalkeeping coach he played a vital role in his county’s triumphs at Ulster and All-Ireland level and produced a double Allstar winner in Paul Durcan.

He’d been a part of the Tir Chonaill management set-up since his cousin and close friend Jim McGuinness took charge of the U21s in 2010.

That team came within the width of a crossbar of winning the All-Ireland and later that year McGuinness took Pat with him when he progressed to the senior ranks. They went on to win Ulster titles in 2011, ’12 and ’14 and of course that All-Ireland in 2012.

What a day that September Sunday was.

In the morning, Pat’s wife Chrissy came home from hospital with their baby boy, in the afternoon Donegal beat Mayo to clinch the Sam Maguire.

Baby Ethan had been born on the Wednesday prior to the game and as dawn broke on the day after it, Pat held his son in his arms in the house he had built for his family and gave thanks.

It was just over four years later that the picture changed.

He and McGuinness had stepped down after defeat in the 2014 All-Ireland decider and after a spell out of the county scene Pat was drafted in to coach the U21 goalkeepers.

Last November he did a spell in goal during shooting practice at a training session. He went home with a pain in his left side but, as men tend to do, he put it down to a pulled muscle. All through Christmas the pain gnawed away at him and the New Year brought no relief.

“I was finding it hard to get to sleep at night with it,” Pat explained when we met in Letterkenny’s Mount Errigal Hotel.

“If there’s one message I want to get out there it’s this: I thought my illness was a pulled muscle and it turned out to be far more serious. Men, especially young men, sometimes avoid GPs, but if you feel anything at all you should get it checked out.

“We’re not immune to illness, go and talk to somebody… You have to be cute and clever and look about yourself because your health is your wealth.

“You hear that all the time, but how true it is. It means everything to you.”

Tests at Letterkenny Hospital showed that his bloods were normal and for a time doctors even thought the cancer results might be “a red herring” but a CT scan confirmed the cancer in his liver.

In February, Dr Charlie McManus organised a consultation with Dr Gerry McEntee, the former Meath All-Ireland winner who is the top liver specialist in the country at Dublin’s Mater Hospital.

The appointment was scheduled for 7am on a Monday morning and at 6.55am Pat’s phone rang. It was Jim McGuinness.

Where are you?

I’m just across the road from Gerry McEntee’s office

That’s grand, I’m here waiting on you.

McGuinness, now at Celtic, had flown from Glasgow to be at his side just as Pat had stood by his when the Donegal team bus stopped on the way home from the All-Ireland win in 2012 for a moment of quiet reflection at the spot where his brother Mark had died tragically in a car crash in 1998.

McEntee did a scan to determine whether the cancer had spread.

“If it’s not in the Pancreas, we’re in a good place,” he said.

The scan came back clear meaning surgery and a complete recovery was on the table.

“I came out of Dublin positive because I knew I was in safe hands under Gerry,” said Pat.

He had a precautionary head-to-toe scan to eliminate the possibility that the Cancer had spread on the Thursday, but when McEntee rang the following Monday morning his tone had changed…

“I knew that there was something up,” said Pat.

“I met him on Wednesday and he was a changed man, he threw himself back on the seat and he told me that unfortunately it had gone outside my liver into the lymph nodes. He told me it was rare that they respond to treatment so surgery was off the table…”

Since that meeting Pat has begun chemotherapy in Letterkenny. If the treatment is successful then surgery may be an option once more. If not then there is a harsh truth to face – he may only have months to live.

“I have a scan coming up at the end of May and that will determine whether or not the chemotherapy is working,” he explains.

“If it is I’m in a very good place and surgery may come back on the table again but on the flipside, if it’s not working then I’m going down a different road. I’ll have to face up to what I’m facing…”

He’s had steadfast support from family and friends, from colleagues at Letterkenny University Hospital, where he worked as supervising manager of the medical records department, from the church and from the GAA family.

Throughout his treatment working with the talented Donegal U21 side has been a welcome distraction. He says the call from manager Declan Bonner came at just the right time for him and goalkeepers Danny Rodgers and Paddy Byrne have benefited enormously from the experience he stockpiled while looking after double Allstar Durcan and his understudy Michael Boyle.

The Tir Chonaill youngsters looked the best side in Ulster by a distance and beat Derry convincingly in the final, but a five-day turnaround meant they came up short in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin nine days ago.

After the Ulster title had been captured, Bonner dedicated the win to him.

“This one was for Pat,” he said. After the game Pat travelled home on the team bus from Armagh. It took him back to the real world and he reported at Letterkenny Hospital too tired for treatment the following morning.

“You ask ‘why me’?” he said.

“You’re very angry and bitter and there are days you could scream and shout and I’ve done my roaring and screaming.

“But that’s all done now, it’s over. I have to park it and try and stay focussed on what’s ahead of me. My oncologist spoke to me about prioritising my time and making memories for the family to have.

“Fr McHugh said to me that we should all live every day as if it’s our last because we don’t know what’s round the corner. We all get wrapped up in our daily lives…

“I always thought I could hardly take a day off from work. Now I’m out of the hospital three months and my job has been replaced… Life moves on.”

There are lessons there for all of us about taking time to enjoy life and never losing sight of what really matters.

“It’s tough to know what the future holds for me,” he said.

“I just have to trust in the treatment I’m getting and trust in God.

“I had a good talk with Fr McHugh and he put my mind at ease and gave me the strength to carry on.

“Jim would be on the phone every day to me and he’s a good character to be around, he’s always very positive and upbeat. From a psychological point of view it’s good to have that because your head can run away with you and you think about worse case scenarios.

“We have two boys in the house (Ethan 4 and 16-month-old Tom) and Ethan knows daddy is sick, but he doesn’t know the severity of it.

“He asks plenty of questions and some days you can laugh at them and others it brings you back and you could cry.

“It’s tough. When you close the door at night the illness is still in the house, it never goes away. It’s tough on my wife, but Chrissy has been very strong. There’s days I can’t do what I should be doing with the boys, like go out to the garden and kick a football around with them… You miss that.”

We hope and pray that May brings good news and that Pat will be there to kick football with his boys for many years to come and with their boys too.

Part two: Pat Shovelin recalls the day Donegal boss Jim McGuinness cracked the Dublin code

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