GAA Football

Learning to live without football

Oran Sludden was one of the most talented young footballers in Tyrone, an underage captain in Dromore, but at the age of 20 has already had three cruciate repair operations on his knee. The after-effects of being isolated from football sent his life into a spiral of drinking, gambling and depression. He tells Cahair O'Kane how he's learning to live without football…

Oran Sludden pictured in the clubhouse of his native Dromore St Dympna's GAC. Picture by Mark Marlow

NOTHING about the Belfast Knee Clinic suggests that it is what it is. Tucked up a residential side street just off the Lisburn Road, its red brick exterior and bright red door blend in with the houses either side.

Oran Sludden is fed up looking at its inside. Two months ago, on January 14, the former Tyrone minor and Dromore senior footballer slid through and climbed to shake hands with Chris Connolly.

Ulster’s foremost knee surgeon is not a man you want to be on first name terms with. But Sludden is coming in for his third cruciate knee ligament operation.

It’s the second on his right leg, having first done his left in 2016 at the age of 17.

The youngest brother of Tyrone senior star Niall, Oran was a championship winning captain at U16 level with Dromore, and on the Tyrone minor squad a year early, coming off the bench that year in Celtic Park.

Injury struck and he was only just back when he came on against Derry again the following summer.

He was back establishing himself in Dromore’s senior setup and the club’s under-21s were just embarking on an adventure that would see them become the club’s first ever adult Ulster club champions.

Training on a Friday night two weeks before Christmas, the hard work is already done for the evening. The game at the end of the session on their 3G pitch is in full flow when Sludden comes to collect a ball. Turns to go and pop.

“The pain was horrific. My first one, I played on, so I knew this was serious. I remember roaring and screeching until you took a couple of breaths and calmed down.”

Conciliatory tones fall on deaf ears. He knows himself what it is. Within days, the same balloon of swelling has grown over the top of his knee. The scan is only a formality.

If it was only a knee problem that began that night, he could have coped. But over the next 12 months, the absence of football sees Sludden’s life spiral down the plughole.

Without sport’s structure, drinking and gambling co-exist. The light starts to get shut out, the walls close in and in the space of six weeks between Halloween and early December 2019, Oran Sludden attempts suicide twice.

He’s adamant there will be no third time.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FROM ‘the chieftains’, as he calls them, Kevin and Colette (neé McAnenly from Glencull), through sister Cara (29) and brothers Niall (27), Ruairi (25), Tiarnan (22) to 20-year-old Oran himself, to famous former refereeing uncle Martin, there’s an entangled connection with the GAA, both club and county.

Every evening, every weekend, his social circle, his holidays, his girlfriend, every conversation, it was all football.

For as long as it loved him, he loved it.

But with that twist of the knee in late 2018, the relationship became fractured.

The timing was particularly bad. It had been nine months since Dromore won the Tyrone U21 title. While his team-mates are just after beating Magherafelt and earning their place in the Ulster final, he’s preparing to hop on to the hospital bed for surgery.

That night, they go off on a bus to celebrate in Belfast and try to persuade him to go too, but he heads home to Dromore instead.

“I went back down the road, and the power of social media, the lads get a few drinks and it starts flowing. You feel lost because you think it should be you too.”

He stopped going to training up until the Friday night before the final against Carryduff. Sludden and fellow knee victim Jack McShane travel on the bus with the team, they’re in the changing room, but they don’t go into the team photo before the game.

“It just didn’t feel right. Travelling on the bus didn’t feel right. Everything’s going past you, you’re nearly in a daydream. You’re happy for them but there’s that sense of hurt that you didn’t take part.”

That night the team goes back to Dromore to a heroes’ welcome. All Sludden can think of is putting enough drink into himself that he can slip away early.

He joins the team in Belfast for the week, where he’s studying Liberal Arts at St Mary’s, and returns home the following Wednesday barely fit to walk with his knee.

Days in the city played out behind another red door of another red brick building – 48 Damascus Street – where he lived with brother Tiarnan and another couple of Dromore lads.

He found himself going out during the week and then lying in bed the whole next day, missing class and sinking deeper into depression.

“I was making the excuse of not being hungover and not making class, but the real fact was I was depressed and I wasn’t able to get out of my bed.

“You just wanted to pull the blanket back over you. I was lying in bed until 3 or 4 o’clock in the day, getting up then, no breakfast, no lunch and going back down to the pub then.

“I knew there was something wrong but you couldn’t put your hand on it.”

He’d been diligent after his first cruciate but this was very different. The appetite to go at it again just isn’t there.

“There were days I was going to the gym, standing there for 40 minutes and walking out again.

“I missed that freedom of taking a bag of balls to the pitch for an hour and kicking about. To just kick the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

“I’d have been telling ones I was doing rehab but I was down here doing that.”

And yet he needs football. As with so many young players, it is a central pillar in his life. The drinking continues, and the gambling starts to get its claws into him.

What started with £10 on a few teams at the weekend grew as the wires of his connection to playing frayed.

Trips to the Irish Grand National and a student day at the May Day races at Down Royal both end up with him spending all his money on drink and horses.

That turned to sitting on his phone at night, adding random ice hockey or NFL or Brazilian soccer teams to a betslip that he’d know nothing more about until he checked his balance in the morning.

There was always some measure of control in that he never borrowed money to gamble, but when he was sitting alone at home in Dromore one sunny evening last June, it came to a head.

“There was a four-horse race in Sligo. I had £125 left in my bank account. The favourite was 6/5, the second favourite was 6/1. I knew nothing about it other than maybe Davy Russell was on it, but I put the whole £125 on it.

“The horse came last out of the four. I had 40p left in my bank. The only thing saved me was working wages coming in the next morning.”

He went on a lads’ holiday to Greek island Kavos soon after and spilled his guts about the gambling to his friends. When he came home, he headed straight for Dunlewey Addiction Services.

It’s been largely under control since then, and he still visits once a month.

But when the rest of his life started to slip again in early October, he found himself sneaking out of St Mary’s to run down to the bookies and throw money he didn’t have on a horse he didn’t know.

By that stage, it had become a symptom rather than a cause. His demons were getting the better of him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

AUGUST 24 was the date for the comeback. He’d played a half against Clonoe reserves the week before, and then came off the bench against Carrickmore for his first senior game back.

It was just six months after surgery and he knew the work wasn’t near done, but everything behind closed doors was eating so far through him that he had to try anyway.

He scored three points from play, but within 10 minutes, he’d planted his right foot to push off and felt the wobble in the knee. Another 10 minutes passed before he had to give in and come off, already dreading what was inevitably to follow.

The following week, it was confirmed that he’d wrecked the right knee again. Dromore was gone, Tyrone was gone, Sigerson with St Mary’s was gone.

For Halloween, he went back to Belfast. Out on the Sunday night. In bed until 3pm on Monday, up and straight back to the pub, drinking doubles.

He and girlfriend Tara returned to the house to get ready for the evening and as she was doing her make-up in a bedroom upstairs, Oran paced the kitchen.

“I walked to the drawer, pulled it open and lifted out a big knife for cutting bread. I pinched it to my stomach and it wasn’t gonna do any harm, so I put it back.

“The only other thing I could see was a small chopping knife. I took it out, pinched it to my stomach and knew it would go through.”

All he remembers from there is the sound of the ambulance coming, and then being in a haze, screaming at the top of his lungs on a hospital operating table.

In stabbing himself in the stomach, he missed all his major organs and arteries. Within 10 days the stitches were out, but more crucially, within 24 hours he had given him the all-clear to go home.

“I don’t blame anybody for it but the mental health team came to assess me and they just made me feel like it was normal teenager behaviour.

“I probably didn’t release as much emotion as I could have, and they maybe just felt it was an impulsive thing that happened and that it’d go away with a wee bit of counselling.”

Inside, he was desperate for help. After the club’s gala dinner two weeks later, where there were 500 people in the function room of the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran who all knew what had happened, Sludden confessed to Tara that he wanted to end his life.

“I went back to the room and completely broke down.”

On December 8, they went to Sally’s nightclub in Omagh.

That morning, he and Tara had been due to do the Rudolph 10k run in Eskra but he pulled out, instead heading to Castle Archdale and embarking on his own jog to try and clear the mind.

“I ran for 35 minutes and when I got back in the car, nothing had changed.”

Come midnight, he’s telling Tara he’s going home, but she instinctively knows. By the time she catches up, he’s hanging over the railings of the Sacred Heart Bridge, which runs over the Omagh-Derry bypass.

“That state of mind is black, total devastation.

“There were tears. I just felt at that stage it was the right thing to do, to just end it all there. Ones were ringing and texting in a panic. I text my Mum and Dad and said ‘I love you all’. That sent them into a complete panic.

“I climbed the rail with tears flooding out of me. I couldn’t see any way out. I was hanging to the rails, a couple of people came, Tara came and they’re trying to talk you out.

“I let go and you’re just in freefall. I remember hitting the ground and that was it until I woke up in Altnagelvin the next morning.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

THE dam busts. For three days in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, Oran Sludden cried.

The physical pain was remarkably minor. Having come down on his feet, the 30-foot drop on to a main road had resulted in just a couple of minor fractures in his foot and his hand.

Mentally, though, he’d taken all he could take.

He refused to leave until he’d been signed in somewhere that could properly deal with his mental health problems. After Altnagelvin’s assessment, they recommended he move across to Gransha Hospital.

The ambulance moved him just after midnight on December 10. He resolved to tell the professionals every single thing that came into his head.

Nothing was held back. Seven days later, the Sludden family got their boy back. There would be no empty chair at Christmas.

“Gransha will always be close to my heart for kick-starting my recovery,” he says, speaking with a composure and confidence that belies his incredibly tender years.

His knee injuries were the root cause of a depression that spiralled to depths that he kept hidden from view for almost a full year.

Not being able to fulfil his dreams of playing on big summer days for Dromore, perhaps even Tyrone, threatened to consume him.

He’d drank to cover the pain, gambled for the sensory deprivation caused by not playing. But in being able to recognise that in himself, and to remove himself from the “vicious” worlds Instagram and Snapchat, the first steps back to comfort and happiness were made.

Attending a cognitive behaviour therapist every week has changed his way of thinking.

“He’s taught me that mental health doesn’t define Oran Sludden, and not to dwell on the past. He also changed my outlook on the pressures of the GAA, which played with my head at the worst times.

“I’m a lot healthier now. I would have been an avid Tyrone fan, gone to every game. I haven’t watched a Tyrone game this year, haven’t gone to a game, and it doesn’t bother me.

“There was a time I could see nothing other than football. I’d have been planning everything around it.

“This year, if Dromore have a league game and there’s something else on, I’m gonna go and do it.

“I know I’ll be happier doing the other thing than going down to watch the football.

“My attachment to the GAA, compared to what it was, is day and night. I’ve completely changed my outlook on football.

“I’m happier.”

And so when he walked through that red door on Ulsterville Avenue two weeks ago, part of him almost wanted Chris Connolly to tell him it was over. And part was relieved when the surgeon said that, off the back of his third cruciate operation in January, it was salvageable if he really wanted.

Right now, he doesn’t. Time might change that.

It's not what's behind the red door that counts any more.

Every day is recovery of the mind, not just the knee.

A healthy, happy, rejuvenated Oran Sludden, hopping out of his bed in the morning again, is what matters.

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