Brendan Crossan: Hoping young footballer Jerry Thompson's life won't be become another statistic

Floral tributes left on the gates of Carrick Rangers Football Grounds following the sudden death of player Jerry Thompson, aged 24. He joined the team in August having previously played for teams such as Cliftonville, Larne and Portadown.
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

AT the bottom of Ardoyne Avenue there is an inspiring piece of art work on a gable wall that shows the backs of three young people.

One of them is injured and is being assisted by the other two.

On the left-hand side of the wall, it reads: ‘I believe that the basic attribute to mankind is to look after each other…’

And on the other side, it urges: ‘Be strong enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it.’

A stone’s throw away sits Holy Cross Boys Primary School.

Throw a stone in the opposite direction and you’ll meet the gates of Sacred Heart Boys Primary School.

As a parent on the look-out for a primary school for my son, I attended their open days.

In both schools they are doing things you would never have imagined 10 years ago.

In Holy Cross Boys, the kids are taught about mindfulness and relaxation techniques, while it was an absolute joy to watch them play all sorts of instruments during music class.

Over in Sacred Heart, the school is using breathing practices to improve learning and behaviour which has had a positive impact on the children’s stress levels. Every inch of space of the school grounds is utilized to its absolute maximum where new ideas abound.

Not far away from these two schools is Our Lady's Deanby Nursery where my son attends.

With years of hard work and a nurturing hand, the modest-sized building is a wonderful utopia for three-and-a-half year-olds.

Everything runs like clockwork there.

The pastoral care in all three schools is second to none.

This is north Belfast, one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in western Europe.

Outside each of the school gates you don't have to travel far to see the ravaging effects of neglect.

Not far from Sacred Heart and Holy Cross, the late Jerry Thompson lived.

“He was just a nice kid, a good looking kid," said former Ards team-mate Brian Neeson, "loads of energy, happy, always joking. His partner and him just had a wee baby earlier this year and it seemed like he had the world at his feet.

“He would come into the gym, he’d do his weights and he’d finish off with a 5km run. He was always trying to beat the time he did before. He had a good mindset."

Jerry shared many car journeys with Neeson to Ards FC before moving to Carrick Rangers a month or so into the new season.

There, under the brilliant leadership of first team manager Niall Currie, Jerry really found his feet as an Irish Premiership player.

He was man-of-the-match in his last game and made the team-of-the-week.

Jerry Thompson was well on his way to being the best that he could be.

On Tuesday night, he was selected to start against Glenavon at Mourneview Park.

The Carrick Rangers FC Twitter page had him in the team but a few minutes before kick-off Neale Reece was drafted in to replace Jerry.

Jerry was a no-show. It only emerged afterwards that the 24-year-old north Belfast man had died suddenly.

The entire Irish Football League community was in shock at the terrible news.

Here was a kid, with a seven-month-old child, a loving partner and successful football career - all gone in an instant.

The outpouring of grief on social media was staggering.

Chris Kerr is a remarkable individual. A hugely successful goalkeeper with Antrim senior footballers and St Gall's, Chris had his own mental health issues, prompted by the loss his father to cancer in February 2013.

After keeping his turmoil well hidden, Chris finally contacted a counselling service within the GAA to access help.

Lifting the phone was the start of his healing process.

There were bumps along the way but through counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy he emerged into the light.

Over the past 18 months, Chris has ceaselessly campaigned on mental health issues by visiting schools, sports clubs, community groups and youth groups while posting constant reminders on social media to those who may be in a dark place that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m from west Belfast and I have a lot of links to north Belfast and it does seem to be those areas that are badly affected," he says.

"You’ve the Falls Road, Andersonstown, Twinbrook, Poleglass, Ardoyne, New Lodge, the Shankill, Ballysillan, Sandy Row. And you don’t hear about half of the suicides.

“Jerry was a high-profile footballer in the Irish League but there were four others over the last few days.”

The suicide rates in these deprived areas has reached epidemic proportions.

“There are groups trying to get counsellors in GP surgeries because between 50-70 per cent of people who attend their GP are for a mental health issue," Chris explains.

“It’s no fault of the GPs or anyone in those services because they’re only trying to do their best, but they’re under-staffed and under-funded. On average, you have 10-12 minutes with your GP and you can’t get to the bottom of a person’s problem in that time.

“That’s why this needs to come from the top. I’m not blaming all of the politicians but it does have to come from the top.”

Some communities are beyond breaking point. You only have to observe the deep, indelible traces of devastation left by suicide.

And yet, when you step into the nursery and primary schools of north Belfast, you can almost touch the hope and dreams of the kids in each classroom.

It would do your heart good.

But there has to be the same light, the same vision for them when they leave the school gates for the last time and ponder adolescence and adulthood that life can still be the way they always dreamed it.

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