BY MARK GODFREY
When I was a lad, I was a half decent footballer - you wouldn't think so to look at me now, and my knees would certainly betray me if you asked me to prove it in a kickabout. I was lucky enough to be picked up by Sunderland (although dumped again when they realised I wasn't up to the required standard) and while there, I witnessed some fabulously gifted individuals. One such talent was five or six years older than me and had just broken into the first team as they fought to get back into the top tier of English football. He was charismatic and popular, and represented Roker Park's greatest hope for the future. His name is Kieron Brady.
Mention his name on Wearside to people of a certain age and they'll go all misty-eyed; he's remembered fondly for possessing a cracking left foot and superb dribbling skills. He was seemingly destined for a career at the very top, both domestically and with the Republic of Ireland at international level. That was until a rare medical condition stopped him in his tracks and ended his playing days at just 21 years old.
Life after football can be tough, and Kieron's life became blighted by alcoholism. But now, having battled his addiction and been sober for a number of years, he is a passionate campaigner for equality across all aspects of society as he actively seeks to raise awareness and acceptance for issues such as homophobia, racism and sexism. We caught up with Kieron to discuss his sadly shortened time in football and the work and philosophy he holds so dear now.
How did a teenage boy from Coatbridge on the eastern fringes of Glasgow end up at Sunderland aged 16?
It was within my thoughts to come to England assuming there was a desire from a club, or clubs. Sunderland came late in the day, as it were, but after visiting the area I realised I would rather come here than go to Chelsea and London. I was indifferent to signing for clubs in Scotland despite interest and better terms than what Sunderland were offering.
Did you struggle to settle in the area, being away from home in a new environment and among new people?
In the first year there were problems to that end. I was homesick for a period but once I turned professional this was no longer an issue.
You were part of quite a decent youth set up at Roker Park at that time. Who were the stand out players from your era?
I would say that Brian Atkinson, Paul Williams and Anthony Smith could have made progress in the game had injury, poor coaching and other factors not been relevant.
You’re always remembered on Wearside for that game against West Ham (a 4-3 home win in March 1990) where you were Man of the Match, made a couple of goals and scored an overhead kick. This ‘announced’ your arrival in the first team as ‘one to watch’. The reaction towards you from then on must have changed? Did the expectation levels suddenly increase?
I was not conscious of greater expectations at the time, I did however feel the warmth and affection of the support. The game was, of course, memorable at an individual level, also in terms of entertainment value. The fact it has featured as one of the greatest individual performances ever by a Sunderland player is a wonderful memory to have.
Barely out of your teens, your career was ended by medical issues. What exactly was the injury that finished your career and how did you feel when you realised it was over? How was life in the immediate 6-12 months afterwards?
It was difficult, but through false bravado I managed to secrete the profound sense of loss and anger. The condition effectively restricted the blood flow in my lower right leg. Consequently, this hampered by ability to run for any prolonged period and eventually stifled my walking to the point that trying to cover 50 yards can, on occasion, bring excruciating pain.
You’re a recovering alcoholic, are there any links to what triggered your condition from your time as a player - going out with the lads, peer pressure, people wanting to be seen with you around town - or even from the aftermath or your retirement?
No, whilst I understand the reasons people ask this, my alcoholism has been predisposed from the moment I saw daylight. It would have emerged whether I had never played football or had a very successful and long career. What may have differed is the recognition of such given I may have had sustained periods of abstinence to allow a successful career to be forged. I am an alcoholic through a diktat of nature, not through any adverse event in life, even if it may have prompted me to find solace in a bottle. That, however, is alcoholism and I found such solace also when things may have appeared positive and productive. Adversity of course may encourage people to drown sorrows, it is not, however, the reason anyone is an alcoholic.
What have you been doing since you stopped playing football?
I have been able to engage in a great passion, that around Equality and Social Justice. I was reared in a very left wing and politicised environment. This naturally predated my fledgling football career and whilst it was relatively backgrounded during my football days, it was never wholly absented and resurfaced in a major way once I was over the shock of my premature retirement. Becoming the first ever footballer to be Patron of Gay Pride is a part of it. It was, of course, rewarding to be able to entertain people on a weekend. It is, however, incomparable to being able to effect people in their everyday life.
Going back to football, how many of the issues you tackle in your everyday life and work - racism, homophobia, alcoholism amongst players - are going unchecked in football and what measures would you recommend that the game implement to do better?
It is arguable that all exist within the game to some degree. Obviously, the lack of openly gay or bisexual players in the men’s professional game is common knowledge. Racism, from both supporters and staff, seems to rear its ugly head frequently. Even clubs, without knowing for the most part, engage in discriminatory employment practices when they sign players because of their nationality owing to hoped for revenue streams from the respective part of the world. Staff, be that players, coaches, managers and others, have to be adequately trained in a general manner but also in relation to the nuances of the dressing room, media coverage and the life of the modern football person. I believe that the FA should have wide ranging sanctions available to dissuade clubs from inaction on such matters.
Whose responsibility is it, ultimately, to see the game become more inclusive?
I do not believe there are any parties who can exculpate themselves vis a vis responsibilities. From fans’ groups to clubs, leagues to national associations to grassroots, it is imperative that all embrace egalitarian values within sport and society.
Do you ever think we’ll see football totally inclusive or prejudice free or do you think the macho culture is so deeply imbedded in the fabric that we just have to accept it?
We can certainly create progress; the advancements we have made in England, for example, can be a positive demonstration for others beyond these shores. I do think, however, that we still have to address the perception of some that certain behaviours amount to being emasculated.
Regarding mental health issues in football – and society in general – what action could be taken by the players and clubs to improve diagnosis and also to try and deal with the problems? Do you think mental illness manifests itself in other behaviours in footballers (e.g. alcoholism, gambling addictions)?
There is no evidence to suggest footballers are more prone to alcoholism, for example, than the broad and general population. That, however, excludes the drinking culture which has existed to varying degrees in the English game for decades. This, in turn, can leave those experiencing troubled times with the impression that alcohol can offer temporary respite. Whilst this of course has veracity to it, we also have to recognise that no genuine mental ailment can be alleviated in a definitive manner through excess or over indulgence. We have to educate and empower, within that context we have to rid ourselves of this dangerous promotion that manliness is something we measure from the neck down and in an exclusively physical manner. The most courageous thing I have ever done, the most ‘manly’ behaviour ever from me was saying ‘I am scared’. Further, we also have to be able to distinguish between the pressures that may affect some within the culture of celebrity and the consequent fears which that entails.
There are rumours that a current Premier League and international player is going to ‘come out’ as gay in the very near future – what sort of reaction do you expect from fans and the media, and do you think this will have a positive impact for the perception and acceptance of being gay and a pro footballer? Or do you think the response will be so negative it will only discourage any others to do the same?
I believe the reaction would be favourable in the medium to long term. How this is pursued is critical and I dread the idea that any such player, or players, are receiving guidance on this issue by people who are well intentioned but not au fait with certain realities around the sub-culture of the dressing room or Hate Crime in general. My own view is that bringing such players together would have merits prior to any public declaration. The issue is not merely about supporters or media reaction; we cannot ignore the fact that players, at least some, will have their own convictions on this and some will be not what we would hope.
Lastly back to yourself and your career, how far do you think you could have gone in the game and any regrets that it didn’t happen? Or do you subscribe to the old saying that everything happens for a reason and where you are now is as a result of everything that’s happened in your life to this point?
I have come to accept that, in relation to natural talent, I was very blessed. When I was being repeatedly told from being very young that I would not only play professionally but would ascend to the highest levels of the game I found it somewhat hard to fathom, this perhaps owing to the fact that what I was able to produce did not take any meaningful effort. I am, however, mindful that this, in the context of the professional game, only brings an advantageous platform from which to make progress. I would have had to have been fortunate, hard working and able to mature before any elite level was reached and sustained. No regrets as such, I only played to 21 and managed to fill those embryonic years with some great memories, be that the game against West Ham, receiving a man of the match award when Zinedine Zidane was playing for the opposition, or featuring in Sunderland fans’ all time XI.