Belfast DJ Rigsy hopes his new novel might help give wing to women's football
Belfast DJ and radio broadcaster David ‘Rigsy' O'Reilly chats to Jenny Lee about women's football, fatherhood and writing his first novel
YOU may associate Radio Ulster broadcaster and popular DJ David ‘Rigsy’ O’Reilly more with music, than sport or literature, but over the past couple of years the 41-year-old has not only founded his own football team but also penned his debut novel.
Lottie The Raven tells the story of an accident-prone and socially awkward 14-year-old girl from Belfast who is too distracted by teenage life and an annoying dad to realise just how good she is at football.
The book is inspired by the Belfast Ravens ladies football team O'Reilly co-founded with his wife Lisa, his own teenage years and changes in his personal and professional life.
O'Reilly presented Irish music programme Across The Line (ATL) on Radio Ulster for 19 years, before being replaced by singer-songwriter Gemma Bradley last year. At around the same time, with a new baby on the way, he decided to cut back on his DJ-ing and gave up his Sketchy Club residency at Belfast’s Limelight and his club nights at Dublin’s Academy.
Add to this home renovation – which left the family living without electricity – and a pregnant wife who was ill with chickenpox, O'Reilly admits he “thought he was going to have a breakdown”.
Taking time out from his stresses, he returned to his family home in Newcastle, Co Down last summer and distracted himself by putting pen to paper. The result was Lottie The Raven – originally called Lisa The Raven but renamed after the birth of his little daughter Lottie in February.
O'Reilly doesn’t like to think of the past year or so as a mid-life crisis, rather he calls it “a weird period” of his life.
“I had absolutely no issue with leaving ATL; the reason I hadn’t left sooner was complete stubbornness and I'm so grateful for all the experiences the programme gave me," he says.
“But being a club promoter and presenting my own music show was a big part of who I was and it was difficult to get my head around the fact that I was no longer doing either of those things anymore. I was basically shedding a skin, about to become a dad, living in a house which was basically a building site and I found myself in a sink-or-swim situation.”
Thankful to find a creative project to distract him, O'Reilly wrote the entire first draught of Lottie in just four days.
“As I was writing the book I wasn't thinking about people buying it; rather, I was thinking ‘if I stop writing this book I am going to lose my mind’. It was very therapeutic and thankfully I kept writing,” he recalls.
Although he always enjoyed writing, O'Reilly admits he “never had a good enough story”, until he had the idea of a young female footballer from Belfast who had an extraordinary talent.
In his novel, aimed at nine-to-14 year-olds and illustrated by Belfast artist Danielle Gowdy, O'Reilly explores first love, friendship, bullying, pushy parents and, to a lesser extent, alcoholism and sexual identity.
He admits that, just like Lottie the Raven, he too was a socially awkward teen who found himself getting into various scrapes on and off the pitch.
“Those dodgy things that happened to Lottie in the book – like sliding through the dog poo on the pitch and kissing someone with make-up and then getting caught with it on their face – all happened to me.
“I was a very tall, gangly, awkward, sensitive teenager; too much of a thinker and quite creative, yet I didn't know how to channel that.”
Unlike his heroine, O'Reilly, who still plays football for south Belfast team Newtown Forest, admits he wasn’t that skilful on the pitch.
“I loved football but I wasn't that good at it and always seemed to get myself into situations. I would try to stand up to bullies but in the worst possible way. Like, instead of telling this guy in my class, who was three times my size, that he was a bully and to pick on someone his own size, I told him I could fight him,” laughs the Glentoran fan.
The Belfast Ravens began as a glorified kick-about between his wife Lisa and her mates. Their initial aim was getting together a ladies team to take part in O'Reilly’s annual charity football tournament Roccer, which brings together an array of Northern Ireland’s musical talent to perform on the pitch instead of the stage.
But, driven by O'Reilly’s enthusiasm and love of the game at grassroots, it quickly grew –with two teams from the club now playing in the main NIWFA Northern Irish Women’s League and currently over 100 people on the waiting list to join.
“Like everything I get involved in, the Ravens just blew it all out of proportion,” laughs O'Reilly, who has since acquired his IFA coaching badge.
“The quality of ladies football at that level is incredible, but there's a massive gap between people who have been playing all their lives and girls like ours, who had never played before and want to play on a casual basis.
“There’s all sorts of levels in men’s football. I’m not the greatest footballer but I can just rock up at a five-a-side or park kick-about.”
O'Reilly hopes in the future the club will provide coaching for young girls and get them interest in “kicking a ball, rather than catching it”.
And would he like the real-life Lottie to play football when she grows up?
“Lottie is class; I just love being a dad. Yes, of course I would love her to play football, but I'm going to try so hard not to be a pushy dad like the dad in Lottie The Raven and project her into a particular kind of music or sport.”??Women’s football is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and David hopes the book will propel the game even further in Northern Ireland.
“The perception is changing," he says. "Because there is not so much of a spotlight shone upon women’s football, some have an assumption that it is never going to be as entertaining [as men's football].
“But among guys who play the game, they appreciate that while the women’s game is different, it’s arguably more skilful.
“There’s a lot of positive things happening. BBC Radio 5 Live have started to cover the top flight of English women’s football and Manchester United have finally got a women's team.”
And will we see his interests fuse in the future into a career in sports reporting?
“I have produced Nikki Gregg’s Sportsound Extra Time magazine show in the past, but I would be a terrible sports reporter or commentator. I have a really bad memory for names and faces and would be going, 'Then your woman scored a goal',” he laughs.
:: You can purchase Lottie The Raven as well as accompanying merchandise at Lottietheraven.com. It will be available in bookshops later this month.