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'How I fought back from cancer to have a successful football career'

Everton legend Alan Stubbs also told TheScore.ie why Martin O’Neill would be a better choice than Roy Keane as Ireland manager.

Alan Stubbs is now a coach at Everton.
Alan Stubbs is now a coach at Everton.

PICTURE THE SCENE: you have just competed in the biggest game in your life amid one of the most simultaneously hostile and electric atmospheres the football world has to offer.

Initial feelings of excitement and nerves have been quelled by the heartbreak of defeat against your bitter rivals. You think life couldn’t get any worse.

For Alan Stubbs however, life after Celtic’s 1999 Scottish Cup final loss to Rangers was about to get far worse.

“As I was walking up the pitch, I was pulled to one side and told I’d been selected for a random drug test,” the former player recalls, speaking to TheScore.ie. “Obviously, I was angry because we’d been beaten and suddenly, having to go and do a drug test and be away from my teammates.  I wasn’t a happy man at the time, but I honestly believe that that did save my life.”

While Stubbs was perturbed to have to undergo this ordeal at such an awkward moment, he reluctantly went through with the testing and thought little of it for a while thereafter.

However, a  few weeks later, he received the phone call that would change his life irrevocably.

“When I got the news, I was playing golf, so I’d finished for the summer. When I got the call from our club doctor, [I heard that] my drug test had come back positive, which I thought had to be a mistake, because I don’t do drugs.

“I was intrigued as to why it was positive, so that’s when the doctor started to explain that I was producing a hormone which, when found in men, is linked to cancer. That’s when he said — have you felt anything different and I said ‘no, I feel great,’ and that’s when I had an ultrasound on my testicles and it showed that I had testicular cancer.

“My first thoughts were all about football. From speaking to the doctors initially, without knowing the results of the operation, they were trying to portray a confidence by telling me I had a really good chance of pulling through. I probably went 100% on their word at the time.

“Was I confident in coming through it? I’d have to say yes. Was I 100% right? No, I just totally went with what they said. And I just tried to not to think of it becoming really serious or about the prospects of dying.”

While having cancer was always an extremely difficult experience, Stubbs found it manageable initially and recovered relatively quickly after a successful operation. However, 18 months later, the disease came back and became worse than ever.

“It was the second time I did that, when I had the relapse and they found a tumour down my spine. That was the more serious time, where I actually did think: ‘I could die this time’. That was the one that took me to the darker places. That was the harder one to try and stay positive on.”

image(Dejected Celtic players — left to right — Tommy Johnson, Phil O’Donnell and Alan Stubbs, after losing to Glasgow Rangers in the 1999 Scottish Cup Final — David Cheskin/PA Archive/Press Association Images)

The 41-year-old also explains how he was taken aback by the support he received during this difficult time, particularly within the footballing coommunity.

“It’s hard to single out one person. Martin O’Neill was what I expected — a brilliant man in dealing with everything and sometimes when you’re a manager, there’s just a football element, but he had a human element too, which was really appreciated. He’s a brilliant bloke anyway, but he went up in my estimation even more then.

“Peter Reid was one of the first to wish me good luck. As an Everton fan, he was one of my idols as a boy growing up, and to get a phone call from Peter was special. The nurses were fantastic. I’ll be indebted to them from now until the day I die — family, friends, the list goes on.”

Stubbs had been reluctant to tell his story initially, but has now released a book documenting his experiences — How Football Saved My Life — a little over ten years after his recovery:

“I’d been approached on a couple of occasions to write a book because of how my episode came about and for one reason or another, I just didn’t think the time was right,” he explains. “It just didn’t sit right with me. And then, over the last 18 months, I thought — ‘yeah, I’m ready to talk about it now’. My children are at an age now where they understand and I just wanted to share my story and what I went through, and hopefully, it can help and inspire people.”

After being given the all clear for a second time, Stubbs has since gone on to have a successful career at Everton — initially as a footballer and more recently, as a coach.

The club has experienced much upheaval of late with long-term manager David Moyes departing to become coach of Manchester United, and former Wigan boss Roberto Martinez coming in in his place.

“When we knew Moyes was leaving, it was a strange feeling,” he says. “It was a bit subdued. You know someone’s gone, but they’re still the manager of your club. The whole atmosphere was different. Since Roberto’s come in, he’s shown a different man-management style. He’s a lot calmer. He wants to try to introduce a more patient build-up style where the team keep the ball more, which obviously won’t happen overnight.

“The one thing he hasn’t done is try to change it too quickly, which can be dangerous at times. But we’re starting to see slowly the way Roberto wants the team to play. And we’ve got a few new additions, so that will take time.

“But the result last weekend [against Chelsea] was a big plus and it puts a totally different outlook on the start of our season now. We’re unbeaten — we’ve won one, drawn three [this interview was conducted before the West Ham game], but we’re right in there with all the teams, so I think everyone’s happy with the way the start has gone.”

image(Stubbs with Wayne Rooney, who he says is the best player he ever played with, in addition to Paul Gascoigne — John Walton/EMPICS Sport)

In his new book, Stubbs also recalls the abundance of mercurial footballers he played alongside over the course of his career.

“The most eccentric and the most outgoing was definitely Gazza followed by Paolo [Di Canio],” he says. “But Paolo was more about himself and how much he loved himself, and it was actually quite funny to be honest, whereas Gazza was just a practical joker every day. His mind was running wild with what he could do to wind someone up or play a joke. He was a great bloke, an unbelievable footballer and a laugh a minute.”

He describes Gazza, along with Wayne Rooney, as “the best player I’ve ever played with”. And of the latter, Stubbs explains that there was no doubt in his mind that the then-16-year-old would go on to achieve footballing superstardom.

“Wayne was always going to be a world-class player. From the day he walked in the door at 16, you knew he was special. He did things that he shouldn’t have been doing at that age and you knew that it was going to be a meteoric rise for him.”

The former Bolton defender also assesses the various managers he worked under as a player and feels there is one key characteristic that the most successful coaches have in common: an ability to connect with the players on an emotional level, which is why he believes Martin O’Neill is a stronger candidate for the Ireland job than Roy Keane.

“John Barnes — because of what he did as a player — you’re guaranteed a certain amount of respect straight away,” he explains. “But as a manager and as a person, you have to earn that respect from them, and he didn’t do that. When you don’t trust the players, then it becomes very difficult. You need to have a relationship in some capacity with the players. If they’ve got a problem, they need to be able to come speak to the manager.

“If they don’t feel comfortable talking to the manager, then it becomes very difficult. A big part of modern-day football is about man management. Speaking to players, talking about the game and how they can get better. If you’ve got a manager that the player thinks really cares about them and is trying to help them, then I think that’s half the battle. Players’ quality will always shine through, but the extra 10% will come from the manager — that’s the bit that is very hard to get but it can be quite easy with a little bit of care and a little bit of thought.

“Emotionally, they can’t connect with players. It can be said about Roy Keane. He’s been a top player but a lot of people have questioned his man management and the way he speaks to players. He was one of the best midfield players we’ve seen, but it just hasn’t happened for him. And there’s a reason why it hasn’t happened — it can’t always be bad luck.”

How Football Saved My Life’ by Alan Stubbs is available to buy now. More details here.

‘Everton are a better side when Darron Gibson’s in the team’ – Alan Stubbs>

Everton legend and cancer survivor Alan Stubbs shows support for Drogheda’s Gary O’Neill>

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Paul Fennessy

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