Overcoming adversity: FAI Paralympic soccer captain Gary Messett

Gary Messett has represented Ireland since the 2004 Paralympics // Twitter @UEFA

It has been a year of ecstatic sporting highs, and heart-breaking personal lows for Gary Messett.

2018 got off to a flyer for the Irish Cerebral Palsy football captain, when he claimed the FAI Football for All Award in March.

In June, summer was in full swing and the football mad Bray man was looking ahead to August with the 2018 Cerebral Palsy European Championships down for decision in Holland.

But the 31-year-old’s life was turned upside down when his 50-year-old father Bobby unexpectedly died in tragic circumstances.

The passing of a loved one in such sudden circumstances would break many men, but Gary’s life hasn’t always been plain sailing and he has often been forced to make the best of difficult situations.

After suffering a stroke, aged two, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Growing up, playing football on the streets of Bray was something he found great enjoyment in and it helped him to carry on with his life.

He started out his career as a five-year-old with St Fergal’s FC, eager not to let his disability hinder his dreams of one day representing Ireland.

He said: “My mam and dad were very worried [when I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy]. I tried to stop it affecting me and I was football mad, from day one I was always thinking about football, football, football.

“From a sporting perspective, I had a great group of friends around me and they didn’t treat me any differently.

“I was really focused on being the best that I could be. I was proving to myself that I was good enough to play against ‘mainstream’ players.

“Playing mainstream with other kids at a young age brought me on another level, especially in terms of cerebral palsy football.

“A lot of people with this disability struggle to play regular football because of the ability of the other players. I just kept focusing on myself to get to the level that I wanted to be at.”

Gary’s persistence eventually paid off, when a chance meeting with the chairman of the Irish cerebral palsy football team led to him being asked to represent Ireland at the 2004 Paralympics.

Gary Messett in action for Ireland // Twitter @FAIreland

He recalls: “I was fifteen at the time and kicking a ball outside my estate. I literally got spotted kicking a football on the side of the road.

“The chairman of the Irish cerebral palsy team back then was Leo Greene – who lived in the estate across from mine. He spotted me playing with my hand raised and was intrigued by me.

“Leo approached me, explained who he was and politely asked if I had cerebral palsy. I told him that I did, and he asked would I be willing to represent Ireland in the upcoming Paralympics.

“He had a chat with my mam and dad and the following weekend I was brought out to the Ireland training camp, from there it just kicked on.”

Fourteen years and 85 caps later, Gary is the current captain of the Irish team, having led his side to a European bronze medal in the summer, just months after his dad’s passing.

He said: “I was made captain in 2017 and from there it’s just been a tremendous honour.

“With the squad of players we had this year we were expecting to win a medal, but it’s one of those things where you take it game by game.

“We were very disciplined and approached every match with respect. I’ve won a few individual awards but for me, being the person that I am, it’s more about me pushing myself on.”

Gary admits that his father was an influential figure on his footballing career and says that focusing on the sport has helped him come to terms with his loss.

He said: “Football is like an outlet for me. It’s something I enjoy – playing for my country especially.

“You’re representing your country, your family and your friends.

“At the same time, I obviously have thoughts of the horrible thing that happened to my dad, in that regard it is shit.

“He was my role model and a huge influence on me as an athlete and a person.

“But I know if he was here he would have hit me a slap on the head and just told me to keep focusing on what I’m doing.

“It’s one of those things where I just want to carry on his name and do him proud.

“In the past five years he got mad into his cycling and he also did a kayak from Belfast to Scotland.

“Just two months before he passed, he told me that he wanted to do a father and son run next year, which he obviously can’t do now.

“He was just one of those people who strived to better himself.

“It’s about just trying to keep busy, rather than sitting around doing nothing where it will just hit you like a tonne of bricks, I’m doing OK right now.

“I have a few people who rely on me now, being a dad and stuff, so I’m focusing on that.”

Gary was joined by a large group of his family while at the Euros in Holland, including his two-year-old daughter Poppie and his fiancé Hollie, which he said helped with the healing process.

Messett captaining Ireland to a bronze medal at the 2018 European Championships // Twitter @FAIreland

The Ireland midfielder shared a heart-warming moment with his family after scoring a decisive goal against the Netherlands in the third place play-off, a memory that Messett says he will never forget.

However, his young daughter wasn’t always able to travel to watch her dad’s games after a complicated birth.

Gary said: “In 2016, Poppie was born, but she came into the world a little bit startled. Eventually we got the all clear that everything was OK – to an extent.

“She needed to be monitored for a few years, but I went to Rio [for the 2016 Paralympics] a few weeks after, which was a decision me and my fiancé made at the time.

“Hollie said that I had to go because I put so much time and commitment into it.

“But when I was over there I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

“If I had to make that decision again, I wouldn’t go. My head wasn’t in it and I didn’t give someone else a chance who might have done better than me.

“You win some and you lose some and it was the decision I made. At the same time, this is all the making of me.

“It will be nice to look back in a few years and say to Poppie, ‘Your Dad was here and there playing football’.

 “She came over to Holland with my fiancé, and I had twelve members of my family over to support me.

“Getting the winning goal in the third place play-off and running over to my family was a surreal moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life … I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had.”

Gary has also hailed the support he received from his Ireland team mates in the aftermath of his father’s death and can’t wait to put on the green jersey again.

He said: “The management team is fairly new, and we’ve been together just two years under Paul Breen and Rob Sweeney.

“Above the management team is Oisin Jordan who is the Football for All National Coordinator, who has also been very good to me.

“The FAI have been very supportive and the support structure behind it all has made things easier.”

 

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