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Footballers' Lives with Richard Clarke: There were tears after cancer diagnosis but I'm still going strong for my family

 

By Graham Luney ·

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Richard Clarke at home in Castlederg with his wife Karen and children, Abbey, Emily, Seth and Jacob. Pic by Peter Morrison

In the latest in our popular series, ex-Portadown star Richard Clarke discusses shock of finding a lump on his testicle, relief after getting all clear, and going public with his experience.

Q. How did your football  career start?

A. Castlederg is a border town in County Tyrone and there is no real Irish League football there, though Omagh Town came a bit later. I lived beside a school football pitch and went out there to play before moving on to junior teams Killen Rangers and Dergview.

My brothers Gary and Andrew play for Killen in the Fermanagh and Western League and I've decided to join them. It's not football at the highest level but it's good exercise for this 39-year-old! As a youngster I was selected for Northern Ireland schoolboy trials at the Blanchflower Stadium.

Paul Kirk's son Andy, who was born on the same day as me, invited me to play for Dungoyne Boys. I stayed with Paul and Andy on Friday nights and went to games on a Saturday. Bob Nesbitt, one of the coaches with the Under-15s, was the assistant manager to Ronnie McFall at Portadown and he asked me to go there. Andy went to Glentoran and I went to Portadown. I played for the Dergview and Portadown youth teams.

The Ports were enjoying a successful period with players like Garry Haylock and Philip Major but when that came to an end I made the first team as a teenager. Experienced guys like Mickey Keenan, Brian Strain, Greg Davidson, Philip Major and Robbie Casey helped me progress.

They had a great camaraderie at that time whereas later on in my career the Portadown teams lost a bit of that.

Alfie Stewart was another big help when I was breaking through.

Q. Having enjoyed great success with Portadown in your career, was it sad to see the club fall into the Championship?

A. It definitely was. We were relegated one time because the application to join the league was too late. That was unprofessional but we had a decent squad which Ronnie McFall managed to keep together and we fought back.

I texted Matthew Tipton after he got the Ports job and told him the potential there is huge. If he can get it right the club, with its big support, can get out of the doldrums. Hopefully he can replicate the success he enjoyed with Warrenpoint.

Q. What is your best moment in football?

A. The most euphoric moment was when we beat Skonto Riga at their place. A few years before that they had given Liverpool a tough game and we gave it everything with Kevin Braniff and Richard Leckey outstanding.

The heat made it more difficult but as a one-off game that is a highlight. I've been fortunate to win a few Mid-Ulster Cups, made it to five Irish Cup finals with two winner's medals and in 2002 we won the league title.

I played in four Irish Cup finals but the other one was called off due to the Simon Gribben eligibility case. That was a disappointment as it was early in my career, I was playing well, scored in the semi-finals but then the final against Cliftonville was called off.

Q. Was there an opportunity for you to further your career in England?

A. Around the time the Irish Cup final was called off I had won the Football Writers' Young Player of the Year award and went to trials in England. The Cup final could have been a showcase game where I could have got noticed. In my younger days I was at Manchester United twice and Chelsea.

After I moved to Portadown, Stoke City and Port Vale expressed interest. Port Vale and Aberdeen both put bids in but Portadown knocked them back. Maybe I should have been more forthright in demanding to be released but the club would have needed money to replace me and I trusted them. I haven't really regretted it.

You wonder 'what if' but I was happy in my family and football life and loved every minute of my time at Portadown. With the players we had like Gary Hamilton and Vinny Arkins I feel we should have won more.

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In action: Richard playing for Ports

Q. You stepped down as Dergview boss. When did management appeal to you and will you return to the sidelines?

A. Ronnie encouraged us to do the coaching badges. We felt it would be good planning for the future. I was usually quiet in the dressing room and although I would study things I wouldn't call people out much.

A. Ronnie encouraged us to do the coaching badges. We felt it would be good planning for the future. I was usually quiet in the dressing room and although I would study things I wouldn't call people out much.

When I got testicular cancer in 2012 the chemotherapy was hard on the lungs and becoming reserve team manager seemed a logical step as I wasn't feeling great physically. We had good young players who needed guided and I enjoyed it. I stepped down from Dergview as I had another health scare and it gave me a new perspective on life.

When I first found out I had testicular cancer my wife Karen was pregnant with Emily and then we got the shock of our lives in 2016 when we were expecting twins. They are two now and it wasn't easy keeping the football going. I didn't want to let people down and I wasn't doing the club justice. I had enough on my plate at home and couldn't give the club 100%.

I'm enjoying the break from football now after a 25-year slog. My kids are young and I don't want to miss them growing up. Looking back, it would have been nice to play for Portadown's first team for longer because of the support the club gave me.

Q. In 2012 you found out you had testicular cancer. What are your memories of that time and how are you now?

A. It was actually a game against Coleraine on Sky Sports and they even put the clip on Soccer AM of me being hit in that area. Their goalkeeper cleared the ball and it bounced up and hit me on the testicles. I felt pain during the game and said to a few boys in the dressing room afterwards, 'Have any of you found a lump?'

Over the next few weeks it got better but I didn't tell Karen. I went to see the doctor who sent me for a scan in Omagh and it was a tumour that needed to be removed. It was a shock at the time and things got worse when my medical notes hadn't been referred on between hospitals.

The chemotherapy was in the City Hospital and it gave me the shivers. My ears were ringing, my daughter was crying and I had to take myself away. After the second cycle I was feeling so bad I thought I couldn't take it any more but it was successful and I got the all clear.

One testicle was removed and because of the changing testosterone levels I had mood swings. Due to the chemotherapy my health has to be monitored and the doctor has warned me to take exercise and watch my cholesterol levels.

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Busy house: Richard Clarke with wife Karen, Emily, Abbey and twins Seth and Jacob

Q. In your experience was the early detection crucial?

A. It was. I could have left it and we have seen the damage that can be done. It's common in football as well with players taking knocks in that area.

Q. Tell us about the recent health scare.

A. I discovered another lump just below my testicle but it was an infection rather than being cancerous. It did scare the life out of me and the night before I resigned as Dergview boss I had to go and get scan results.

It was a huge relief to hear it wasn't cancer and it became clear to me that I needed to spend more time with my family.

Q. How did your wife Karen react to the worrying news?

A. I had waited a month but I did tell her and she rightly told me to go to the doctor straight away. Because of my cancer history they were quick to check on it. I'm feeling fine now, I just need to do more exercise. I'm 100% cancer free and just need to be vigilant.

Q. How hard was it for you and your family when you were first diagnosed?

A. It was a big shock, especially with Karen being pregnant and we were worried about her but our families were very supportive. When I found out it was testicular cancer that was the worst day of my life. I just remember going home and sitting in the house on my own and crying.

When the doctor said 'cancer' everything became a blur. Just two weeks earlier we had told our family a second child was on the way. My mum Rosemary is always a worrier and she burst out crying. Karen was in work, teaching at Strabane Primary School, and I phoned her. Naturally she was upset and came home.

The chemotherapy hits and then you fear the worst, thinking I'm not going to see my kids grow up. Then you move on from the shock and look to see how you can fight it. The football community got behind us too and the charity Checkemlads were very helpful, letting me know what to expect at different stages of the process.

Ronnie McFall came down to visit me and I really respected him for that. I've learned a lot from him, he's been a good mentor to me.

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Child’s play: Richard Clarke with his daughters Abbey and Emily and sons Seth and Jacob

Q. Some people with cancer deal with it privately whereas you have spoken publicly about your experience. Why is that?

A. I just felt it was important to say that men should go to the doctor as soon as possible if they spot any lumps or bumps. Testicular cancer can kill you and there's no reason to be embarrassed about it.

You've done nothing wrong. A few minutes of embarrassment in front of the doctor is nothing if it saves your life. A few people have either sought my advice or told me they have gone to the doctor and it's good to hear because if you're stupid enough to do nothing it could be too late.

Football gave me a public profile but I would never judge anyone who prefers to keep things private.

Q. Did your cancer battle affect your family life?

A. You take stock and realise what is important, how precious your wife and children are. Since the twins came along it has been complete madness in our house but great fun.

We were advised there was a risk we wouldn't have more children but Karen wanted more and when she called me I thought she had lost the child because she was crying.

She said, 'You're not going to believe this, the doctor says we are having twins'. I couldn't believe it and after we looked at the scans we were shaking with a mixture of joy and disbelief. Karen's cousins have had twins but at that time it was a huge shock to us.

Q. Is there an important lesson you have learned from your cancer fight?

A. I'm a fairly laidback person but you can't be laidback with your health. I would always encourage anyone who is feeling unwell to seek advice. You've got to enjoy life and not stress over trivial things.

Q. When did you meet Karen?

A. In Strabane Grammar, she was a year below me. We got married in Sion Mills in 2002 and went to the Dominican Republic for our honeymoon. Abbey is nine, Emily was born on Boxing Day in 2012.

The boys, Seth and Jacob, are two. All the kids are laidback and have a great sense of humour. Abbey remembers me being in hospital and asking, 'Is daddy going to be alright?' She will ask questions about cancer and football.

My parents Rosemary and Jim were always very supportive, with Jim taking me across the country. I've an older sister Olivia as well as two brothers. They all visited me in the hospital and kept me positive. It's tough dealing with cancer but it can make you mentally stronger.

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Richard Clarke at home in Castlederg with his wife Karen. Pic by Peter Morrison

Q. Where do you work?

A. I'm a payroll manager in the Education Authority in Omagh but I've done a fair bit of travelling. Portadown played a few matches in our area and Ronnie must have realised the amount of travelling I was doing!

Q. How saddened were you to learn of the passing of Portadown's legendary kit man Geordie Richardson?

A. I was very close to him and always kept in contact with him. I saw him the day he passed away in hospital. He was brilliant in the dressing room and if you were a guy coming to the club from Belfast and throwing your kit around Geordie would keep them in line.

You had to show the same respect to the club as everyone else and he got that message across. Everyone in the backroom team had their roles to play and I've great respect for someone who looked after everyone and wanted the players to perform well.

Q. Can you give us an amusing story from your career?

A. I remember one trip to Sweden the boys were allowed out for a few drinks. Everyone came back to the hotel but the drinking didn't stop even though Ronnie McFall wanted it to.

A few of us were sitting in the hotel room, myself, Gary Hamilton, Kyle Neill, Cullen Feeney among others when Ronnie came in and had a go at us, going round everyone individually saying things like, 'You're living on your past glories.'

Just before he came in someone had flicked a cigarette behind the bed where Kyle was and the next thing smoke came rising up from the back of the bed when Ronnie was in the room.

Kyle realised the smoke was emerging and tried to get rid of it as Ronnie left debating whether to send us home! The minute he left we all burst out laughing because of the smoke.

Snapshot

Date of birth: May 29, 1979

Place of birth: Omagh

Portadown record: 530 appearances, 50 goals

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Richard Clarke at home in Castlederg with his wife Karen and children, Abbey, Emily, Seth and Jacob. Pic by Peter Morrison
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Busy house: Richard Clarke with wife Karen, Emily, Abbey and twins Seth and Jacob
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Child’s play: Richard Clarke with his daughters Abbey and Emily and sons Seth and Jacob
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Family fortunes: (from left) brother Gary, Richard, dad Jim, mum Rosemary, sister Olivia and brother Andrew
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In action: Richard playing for Ports
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In action: Richard playing for Ports
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Busy house: Richard Clarke with wife Karen, Emily, Abbey and twins Seth and Jacob
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Child’s play: Richard Clarke with his daughters Abbey and Emily and sons Seth and Jacob
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Richard Clarke at home in Castlederg with his wife Karen. Pic by Peter Morrison