GAA Football

Kilcoo stalwart Caelan McEvoy comes through battle with illness to inspire Down champions in Ulster decider

A family affair. Caelan (left) with brother Ryan and their dad Richard McAvoy
Andy Watters

CHAMPIONSHIP time. A summer evening in 2010 and Caelan McEvoy packs his boots, grabs his bag and hits the road for Kilcoo’s U16 clash with rivals Downpatrick.

Like generations of McEvoys before him, the talented corner-forward just lived for the black and white jersey of the famous ‘Magpies’. Up in their Mourne Mountains enclave, youngsters are bred to play with art and heart and to win and young Caelan thought only of the runs he’d make and the scores he’d take as the minutes counted down before the throw-in.

Little did he know that he wouldn’t play in the game and that his life was about to change.

He says he didn’t feel that anything was wrong but, luckily for him, his manager Conor Laverty noticed quickly that all was not well.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Laverty.

“Nothing. Why?” Caelan shot back, surprised and almost affronted by the suggestion that he isn’t 100 per cent fit to play.

Laverty persists: “You’re wild looking. Are you not well?”

Desperate to play, Caelan continues to argue with Laverty who, again luckily for him, is having none of it.

“You’re not well,” he says. “I’m going to get your ma.”

“Me and Conor fell out over it because he wouldn’t play me,” Caelan recalls nine years later.

“I refused to go home from the match but if I had have played that night I probably wouldn’t be here today and it’s mad that one person can spot something.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Conor. He was amazing throughout everything. He knew that the way I was going on was completely out of character for me. I have the utmost respect for him.”

The condition Laverty had instinctively spotted quickly deteriorated and Caelan was taken to hospital the following day after being ill throughout the night. Between then and now, he has come through two liver transplants, 13 life-threatening surgeries, multiple blood transfusions and multiple, multiple setbacks. But he is still smiling.

“They told me I had some sort of kidney infection but I went through another couple of days of constantly being sick and then, on the 22nd of June, Daisy Hill rang and told us they had my blood tests back and that my liver function results have sky-rocketed, they were over 1000 and they should have been around 90,” he explains.

“I was rushed to Daisy Hill and they did numerous tests but, to be honest, I don’t remember what they did. When I woke-up the next morning they told me they were going to take me to Birmingham and I was air-lifted there.

“I was on a super-urgent list for a liver transplant and they told me that if I didn’t get a liver within six hours that I would die. I got a liver within four, I was in theatre within the six hours and I went through a 15-hour operation.

“I came out of it and I was fine. I spent a couple of days recovering and then I was discharged back home to Kilcoo.”

Thanks to the foresight and selfless humanity of an organ donor, he pulled through. At first there were weekly trips across to Birmingham for bloods and when he had recovered sufficiently his treatment switched to Belfast. Then came the bombshell from concerned doctors that he would never play football again.

“I just point-blank refused,” says Caelan.

“I told them there was no way I wouldn’t be playing football again.”

He set off determined to prove the medics wrong and once again Conor Laverty made a difference. The Kilcoo stalwart was a regular with Down at that stage but he found the time to personally train with and encourage the eager youngster. Gradually Caelan rediscovered his fitness and, before long, he had confounded the doctors.

“I worked with Conor over the winter period of 2010 for four or five months and I was back playing within seven months of my operation,” says Caelan.

“I was playing seconds football under my uncle Barry and then Paul McIver brought me onto the senior panel three years ago.”

Derry native McIver won a hat-trick of Down championships with the Magpies before taking his leave at the end of last season. He left with the trophy cabinet packed with silverware, a thousand fond memories of the club and lasting admiration for the tireless efforts of Caelan and the McEvoy family.

“Caelan is from an absolutely brilliant family that is the backbone of that club,” said McIver.

“His dad Richie is the best kitman I’ve ever worked with. Even when Caelan wasn’t well he was down giving his best for the club.

“Kilcoo is at the bottom of the mountain and it’s a cold place at times but those boys are always there – first on the pitch and last off it.

“Richie was ill himself some years ago and when Caelan became ill the club couldn’t do enough for them because they couldn’t do enough for the club.”

When McIver brought Caelan into his panel, the youngster threw himself into training and every second of senior action.

“We tried to bring through the younger boys and give them the opportunity to represent Kilcoo,” said McIver.

“It was always about trying to get things right for the championship and when you’re doing that the Down league is absolutely relentless. You have 22 league games, it’s week-in, week-out and every player is needed.

“What separates Kilcoo (from the rest) is that everybody in the parish wants to play football and Caelan is no different. He trained really hard for the seniors and he was very, very able and came in and did a brilliant job for the team.

“The love he has for Kilcoo! As soon as he was out of hospital he was down at the pitch. I can’t speak highly enough of the McEvoys and especially Caelan and Richie. They’ve had it tough and they get on with it.”

With younger brother Ryan also rolling off the Kilcoo production line, Caelan was looking forward to nailing down a place in the senior side this year. Unfortunately, illness struck again as he was establishing himself.

“Just when I was finding my feet, I took ill again,” he explains.

“It was a massive setback and only for it I would have been in the middle of it (the senior squad) now. Maybe not in the team, maybe not up to the standard some of the boys are setting, but I would definitely have been on the panel.

“I had a couple of complications with illnesses and in November 2018 they diagnosed me with Auto Immune hepatitis and put me back on the transplant list.

“I got my second liver transplant on the 22nd of November, 2018 and I have been in and out of hospital since. I have had multiple open wounds, multiple infections… There’s a constant risk of infection all the time and I still have an open wound that I have to get dressed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

He surrounds himself with positive people, “the right people” and never lets anyone tell him what he can’t achieve. Underpinning everything is the club. Football is his release and Kilcoo’s run to this year’s Ulster decider has been a very welcome distraction.

“I don’t really let anything get to me,” says Caelan.

“Football in Kilcoo means everything, it’s a massive outlet and not just for me, for mummy and daddy as well.

“I go down for two or three hours every night to get involved, volunteer, do a bit of coaching… I help out with the seniors with daddy and Barry all the time.

“We get the food ready for the boys, ice baths… whatever they need. It’s a complete outlet, nobody ever talks about me being sick or anything, when you’re there you’re one of the boys.

“They are brilliant. Terry O’Hanlon (Kilcoo chairman) in particular, any time I was in London for treatment, he used to work in London and he would visit and brought clothes over or anything we needed brought over he was magic throughout the whole lot of it, he was brilliant.”

Like Paul McIver said, the McEvoy family is the backbone of the Eoghan Rua club. His dad Richard and uncle Barry bought the familiar ‘tactical support team’ van out of their own money. Caelan’s mum and his aunties can regularly be found serving tea in the club and of course his younger brother Ryan has become a valuable and versatile free-taking/sweeper/midfielder in Mickey Moran’s side.

Tomorrow the Down champion’s take their third crack at an Ulster final. In 2012, Crossmaglen saw off Jim McCorry’s side by 3-9 to 1-9 and, four years’ later and with McIver now the manager, Derry’s Slaughtneil won the provincial decider by three points. Winning tomorrow will mean everything.

“It will be massive, massive for this club if we get over the line on Sunday,” said Caelan.

“My granda was a proud Kilcoo man, he’ll be looking down and I’m sure he’d love to be there. Kilcoo were his pride and joy and it would have meant the world to him.

“Everyone has been doubting us for years and nobody ever has anything nice to say, it’s always negative – ‘Kilcoo win this and Kilcoo win that…’ There is a lot of hatred out there and to get over the line would just prove to everybody that we are one of the best in Ulster.”

Even the haters would have to admit that Kilcoo already stand among the leading clubs in Ulster.

Caelan had a setback last week and spent two days in hospital but he will be in Healy Park tomorrow cheering on his brother and his team-mates.

“I got a couple of units of blood into me and a unit of iron so there’s no stopping me now,” he said.

“There is talk of a third transplant if this one doesn’t work out but at the minute, the liver function tests are working well and there are no scheduled operations in the near future so hopefully everything should be fine.

“It mightn’t be smooth sailing and it will take time but I do hope to get back to full health soon.”

After the second transplant Caelan was advised again that his football days were over. Do you think that will stop him? Of course not.

“It has been mad this year, especially because I was really looking forward to getting to play with Ryan,” he said.

“It has just been complication after complication. But I go down to the club and there’s no talking about illness, there’s no: ‘Oh, here’s the wee sick boy…’ You go down there and you’re a normal person.

“They’ve said to me that after the second transplant I’ll never, ever play again but I don’t think I will let it deter me.

“I’ve started rehab, I’ve been out walking, trying to get my fitness built-up. I’m only 22 so there’s still a lot of years to go yet and it’s my intention to play again. I’ll prove them wrong.”

If Kilcoo match his spirit tomorrow you could not back against them. Championship time.

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