Brendan Crossan: Football, love, life, loss and those who taught a man to breathe

Stuart Buick lauds Cancer Lifeline as the ‘Game for Michelle’ is ready for kick-off

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

Stuart Buick
A Game for Michelle - organised by Stuart Buick and friends to raise money for Cancer Lifeline

I GOT to know Stuart Buick at pitch-side. We were simply two parents bound by our sons being born in the same year: 2016.

They play for St Malachy’s Youth OB Football Club in north Belfast. We gaze through the wrought iron fence at the back of my old school every Wednesday night for an hour watching them play.

Dozens of parents do the same. During those 60 minutes, parents press pause and breathe.

I’m glad I got to know Stuart over the last year. I gravitate to him because he’s someone full of positive energy, he’s a good listener too and we both coach at underage level.

I like our conversations because they can go in any direction. We often compare notes about coaching kids. Their progress. The different personalities. The problems you encounter. The parents. The energy-sappers. The energy-givers.

Thankfully, it’s mostly the latter. Generally, we talk about the ups and downs of our shared hobby.

Behind the wrought-iron fence every Wednesday, the hour flies by - as Stuart keeps an eye on his twin boys, Charlie and Ryan, and me on Shea.

We talk as candidly about football at the weekend as we do about a family illness.

Stuart sometimes talks about Michelle – his late wife who passed away from cancer on August 13 last year. She was 46-years-old.

The next day would have been their 14th wedding anniversary.

Stuart Buick
Stuart Buick with his wife Michelle who passed away last August

Stuart, Michelle and their four boys’ world [Harry, Ethan, Ryan and Charlie] was turned upside when she was told of her cancer diagnosis in March 2021.

One night, soon after her devastating news, Stuart and Michelle drove to the Loughshore.

“There was a full moon up in the sky and Michelle said to me: ‘Stuart, we’re going to beat this.’ Her drive, her determination, she was always so positive… So, we threw everything at it to see what we could do. What gave me strength was Michelle’s belief she would get through it.”

For the last number of months, there has been one date occupying Stuart’s head: Saturday June 8.

At Seaview tomorrow at 3pm, Man United fans and Leeds United fans will assemble and take part in a charity match to celebrate the life of “a very special lady”.

‘Brendan, would you be able to write a wee article to publicise the charity match? It’s a ‘Game for Michelle’ and all proceeds are going to Cancer Lifeline.’

Initially, Stuart couldn’t understand why he would need the support of a charity. He didn’t want to be a drain on their resources when Michelle was the one who was sick.

“We didn’t even know such a service existed,” Stuart says. “Obviously, Michelle wanted me to get support. I didn’t want the support, but they had a very different outlook on that. They said: ‘No, you’re as much part of this as Michelle is. You’ve four young boys at home.’

“It took me a while to come around to it... They kept saying that I needed support so I could support Michelle.

“They give you tools to kind of cope, really – even things like breathing techniques because I never knew what anxiety was until Michelle got sick. You think you know these things, but you don’t...”

Life rushes by so fast. Work. Kids. School pick-ups. Making dinner. Homeworks. Football runs. Bills to pay. We’re all passing ships.

Sometimes we don’t take time to breathe. Tomorrow at Seaview is one of those occasions that beseeches us to do exactly that.

Stuart doesn’t know how he’ll feel when the charity match kicks off. He’ll probably write down a list of the people he must thank afterwards.

Sport has been Stuart and his sons’ salvation. Stuart coaches Newington U13s where Harry plays while the three other boys are learning their craft at St Malachy’s.

The twins are coached under the watchful eye of Mickey Meehan, who also works for TAMHI, a mental health support charity.

When their mummy died, Mickey sent the twins a video message, just to let them know that the coaches would look after them.

A few months later, Mickey lost his mother.

Upon hearing the sad news, Charlie and Ryan asked their daddy could they send their coach a video message of support, just like he did for them.

“Mickey has shown Charlie and Ryan great support – now, he didn’t suffocate them or anything, but he gave them encouragement, they cried a lot after Michelle died, but we persevered because I knew that football would be the making of them. And it has proved that.

“It’s the same for Ethan and Harry. Sport has definitely helped us because it keeps us busy too.”

Throughout this interview, Stuart insists that he doesn’t want it to be about him – and that the focus must be on the cancer charity that helped him navigate a way through the last couple of years but particularly since Michelle died.

He knows that so many families have been devastated in the same way – but his message is one of hope.

When his feet hit the floor at 6.30 every morning to get his four sons ready for school, there are days he doesn’t feel he can.

“But you find a way,” he says. “My message is to let people know that you can cope, especially with the support I’ve received from my family and friends and charities like Cancer Lifeline.”

Like everyone else who has suffered similar loss, the grief can tap him on the shoulder at any time of the day.

He remembers standing coaching the Newington U13s and drawing a blank. Sometimes it comes at work. At night. First thing in the morning. In the middle of the day.

“You think you’re living in a parallel universe,” he says. “I dream about her. The dreams are so vivid that I think Michelle is beside me.”

There will be plenty of laughs and sore hamstrings at Seaview tomorrow afternoon, all in the name of a good cause.

Because, when you boil everything down to its core, tomorrow’s charity match at Seaview is a love letter to Michelle.

It’s a love letter to Stuart’s four sons.

And it’s a love letter to a special charity that in dark times taught him how to breathe. Literally.