Echo Sport Replay: Fahey- Life in football and the mental turmoil that almost tore him apart

By Stephen Leonard

KEITH Fahey has finally begun to apply the brakes to life and confront the emotional pain of his past, the effects of which tormented him mentally and continuously threatened to derail a football career brimming with promise.

It might have been easy to disregard or not even detect the mental darkness that plagued the young Tallaght man as he served up sensational goals for St Patrick's Athletic, helped Birmingham City stun Arsenal in the 2011 League Cup Final at a packed Wembley Stadium or played an integral part in the Republic of Ireland's qualification for Euro 2012.

01 Keith Fahey 1

After a long and tumultuous football career that saw him play at the highest level while struggling mentally, Keith Fahey is on a journey of emotional recovery and reconnecting with his home community in Tallaght (Photo by John Mooney)

But anxiety and depression constantly bedevilled the former St Maelruan's and Old Bawn Community School student from a young age when his family broke apart and he subsequently rushed to take refuge in a sport that was, so often, to prove a double-edged sword.

Indeed, the game that had provided delight and freedom for Fahey as a young schoolboy with Tymon Bawn began to demand a toll he was not emotionally equipped to pay as the stakes increased with a move to England to join Arsenal and later Aston Villa as a youth.

A return to St Pat's might have suggested more security for the gifted midfielder, but instead Fahey found his life continuing to spiral out of control to an extent that he attempted suicide.

As football fell short in staving off the growing malevolent gloom he experienced whenever alone, drink and drugs became a more imperative crutch, and it was only the natural talent he possessed on the ball that kept him on the books in Inchicore and eventually secured him a return to England with Birmingham.

The death of his father in 2009 rocked him further at a time when his best was required as the Blues secured promotion to the Premier League and Giovanni Trapattoni issued him a call-up to the Ireland senior squad.

Still, when presented with these challenges, Fahey somehow flourished for the most part until injury brought his time in England to a close and he returned home to finish out his playing career with St Pat's and Shamrock Rovers, helping the former bridge a 53-year gap since they had last raised the FAI Cup after they beat Derry City in the 2014 decider at the Aviva.

That game itself provided some redemption for Fahey who had been sent off in the 2003 Final when the Saints were beaten by Longford- a night out drinking in the lead-up to the match proving so costly for player and club.

Keith Fahey helped St Patricks Athletic win the 2014 FAI Cup 1

Keith Fahey helped St Patrick's Athletic win the 2014 FAI Cup

Life after football has crucially afforded Fahey the time and opportunity to look inward and begin a journey of healing from the emotional torment that has afflicted him for so long and it makes his story all the more important to tell- a story he hopes will help others who find themselves in a similar plight.

“I was always a real deep thinker” Fahey told The Echo. “I never felt right, never felt comfortable, at ease. I always wanted to be somewhere else.

“But when I had a football, it was different. That was the only time when I was ever present, when I was young. When I had a football I didn't think about anything else. I wasn't living in fear, anxiety, feeling sad. I was just present.

“Football was helping me to express myself, because, as a child, I felt I couldn't, for whatever reason, express what I felt. When I was playing football I was free.

“But when it got to a certain point, that freedom was taken away from me. That's what happens in football.

Keith Fahey enjoyed some great success in his football career 1

Keith Fahey enjoyed some great success in his football career

“I used to try and live from my head and try and protect my heart, because my heart was broken from an early age. The family broke up and that profoundly affected my outlook on the world.

“Looking back, I was absolutely lost for a lot of my life. Football kept me alive. I always had football to turn back into. It never shut the door on me and there were times when I tried to tear it all down.

“With Tymon Bawn, I'd say I think they were probably the best days, because I was playing local.

“My dad used to look after the team with Peter White. The nets would be up early and there'd be a real community buzz about it. I was with friends from around the area, I was scoring loads of goals.

“There was a lot of interest there from other clubs for me to sign and eventually I went to Cherry Orchard at about 12.

Keith Fahey in action for the Republic of Ireland 1

Keith Fahey in action for the Republic of Ireland

“But when I went to Arsenal, it changed, it changed really suddenly for me. It was very different and then I felt like I was trapped in it.

“I went into different digs, and I never felt comfortable in this house, I wanted to go to the next house and then another. I just thought it would be different somewhere else and it never really happened.

“I picked up substances from an early age to escape this feeling and it worked, but I can say that it almost killed me in the end.

“I owe a lot to football for what it done for me, that physical outlet. I know when I talk about it, I can talk about it in a really negative way.

“From what I've experienced, it's a really tough place to be when you're vulnerable, when you're not feeling well, when you're anxious and you're depressed.

Keith Fahey 1

Keith Fahey

“I'm a recovering addict. I picked up substances at an early age to escape how I felt and I didn't really realise when I done that, that I was hook, line and sinkered and this was going to continue.

“You end up lying to people, manipulating them, lying to yourself. I used to go back to Arsenal after being in accidents, all through drink and stuff. And I was lying. 'Cover this up at all costs.' 

“And then you're trying to fit into whatever group you're in and I was constantly conflicted within myself.

“So I went into Liam Brady and I told him I wanted to leave. From what I remember, he looked at me and he told me 'I don't think you've given yourself the best chance here.' He knew I was acting the maggot. I said, ‘No I want to leave and that's it’ and so I went to Aston Villa.

“So I signed for Villa and slowly started to dismantle that as well. It was me getting in the way of myself again. I was self-sabotaging in the background, going into training, coming home during breaks and running amuck.

“I came home eventually after tearing most of it down myself and I remember young fellas, who were only waiting to knock you, saying 'You're nothing but a waster.'

“And I'd take things in. People would say 'Ah let it wash', but I'm not the type of fella that would let things go. It could be a stranger on the street who says something to me, and I take it very personal and it stays with me. It just fed that kind of stuff I thought about myself.

“So I came home and was playing at Bluebell and then went to Pat's and I was playing quite well, but I was out an awful a lot.

“I'd say it openly, I was abusing drink and drugs. How I'm still alive after that? That was probably the worst period, between the age of about 20 until I went away to Birmingham.

“During that time I had a suicide attempt, there was many a time I was out for days and I don't know how my heart was still beating.

“I went to Drogheda and I was sacked from Drogheda, so I was on an absolute course of self-destruction again, but I was still managing to play well.

“I was able to play well because I was comfortable on the ball. I was probably far more comfortable that 90 percent of the players in the League and I always stood out because of that.

“I had a drive that, like that, in the last year when I was at Pat's [2008] I said 'This year you're going to get back to England' because I thought at the time, 'I'm after missing out.'

“I'd seen fellas going away and I was like 'I'm better than them and I should be doing better than them.'

“And I had people around me, supporting me and telling me how good I was and I started to believe in it a little. I scored a good few goals in that season and thank God I got a move to Birmingham.

“It was very strange when I look back on it, because I was still off the rails, but I had a chance to go back.

“I could feel the step-up in Birmingham. Training, when I went there, was brilliant. It was a step-up in the facilities, the pitch, the goals, but I seemed to be able to step up straight away to it.

“But then my father died in August 2009, not long after I had gone over. That wobbled me completely.

“My Dad brought me and my brother up from a young age on his own and it wouldn’t have been easy. And, like that, he would have been my one constant in life.

“I knew my Dad was sick just after I'd left. He was diagnosed with cancer and he wasn't going to recover from it.

“I couldn't cope with life when this stuff was happening, but I was lucky. I was after going to Birmingham with a drive to get another contract and get a rise. This stuff was keeping me safe from sitting around and feeling the feelings.

“But when he died it wobbled me completely. I was at the top level, playing Premier League and I don't know how much it affected me, because I then remember the fans at Birmingham kind of questioning my talent.

“I don't know, but when we won promotion and went up another level, Premier League, I started half the games in that season.

“I don't know if something changed after my father died in my own spirit. But then you look at it and you say 'Jeeze you won a League Cup Final and you were playing for Ireland’.

“Personally I find that in the face of adversity, grief or trauma, I seem to thrive. I don't know why. I suffer, don't get me wrong, but I focus on something and I seem to thrive.

“During the week of the Cup Final against Arsenal, I was waiting to see if I was going to be playing and when I was, I was nervous and excited.

“I had a good part to play in it. For the first goal, I had put a cross in and we won a corner and we scored from the corner. I hit the post.

“I started on the left and I ended up going into central midfield after someone got injured. My legs went on me and I was substituted, but I done well” he recalled.

By this stage, Fahey had already made his senior international debut and was starting to establish himself in Trapattoni’s Ireland squad that pushed towards qualification for Euro 2012.

Still, while he was finding the net and helping set up crucial goals for his country, there was no shaking the lingering anxiety and depression that afflicted him on the club front.

“I would have looked back on interviews and said all things that people say like 'it's great, it's my dream to play for Ireland” continued Fahey.

“It probably was and is for most kids, but when I got in there, we had a good squad of players, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, Shay Given and all. They were all still there.

“Getting in there, people say 'it's your dream to do it', but when I got in there I didn't like it to be honest.

“I liked pulling on the jersey as everyone says and training was grand, I was expressing myself grand, but being around certain characters in the hotel, I was really uncomfortable in myself.

“Around that time, I started to notice real social anxiety, sitting at the dinner table with some of the people who I didn't like, being honest.

“I struggled in myself, I really struggled. 'Don't say this, they're going to judge you'. I just felt like I was different to them and I'm not supposed to be here. Self doubt.

“I didn't leave my room when management would meet up to play golf or go for coffees. I was really isolated most of the time.

“But I definitely added something to the squad. I scored the goal in Armenia, I put in the cross we scored from against Slovakia. When I came on in games, and I did start a couple, I generally did a job, a great job.

“Looking back on it I would say I added some sort of value to the squad. I played 16 times and I scored three goals and had an assist.

“I had a groin operation at the start of that season when I was supposed to go to the Euros.

“We had played as a group with Birmingham 63 games that season. I had played a lot of them and I was playing with injuries.

“At the end of the season when we were just meeting up with Ireland I had just tore my groin and I knew it wasn't going to be right.

“I was in the squad picked to go to the Euros and all and I was warming up and I said 'that's not right' and I said it to the doctor.

“I went and got a scan and that was it. I didn't go to the Euros and I was devastated at the time, but it wasn't meant to be. It was just part of my journey.

“And, again, there was stuff that I had been doing that I shouldn't have been doing and you're going to have to pay somewhere along the line.

“I had hip surgery when I left Birmingham and I was really hesitant about pushing it to try and get back.

“But I was like, 'Right you better try to go back to England because there might be a couple of years left in you,' so I went back training with Sheffield United and [then manager] Nigel Clough.

“I then dislocated my toe. It was a strange injury, looking back on it. Again it was forcing me back here and I just said 'That's it, I'm done over there.'

“So that led me back to Pat's for the fourth time. They had just won the League and then we won the Cup in 2014. I'm grateful that I did get a chance to kind of make amends for the 2003 Final.

“People would have remembered us getting beaten and me getting sent off and, again, I carried that as well.

“Fans who were waiting to win the cup for so long and I was literally out a couple of nights before it, all night, and then I go out and get sent off.

“So I was glad I did get the chance to go back and make amends and put things right for my own spirit, because that sort of stuff, I have a conscience and it affects me.

“I went to Rovers then at the end of the season. Pat's weren't signing me back anyway, so I went to Rovers and played 12 games.

“My last game was down at Pat's and, from what I remember, it was a real s**t show for myself.

“I don't know why, but there's a part of me that has an attachment to Richmond Park. I felt some sort of an attachment to the club and to that ground especially.

“It gave me so much joy in my life that I didn't get from a lot of other places and then I thought 'You know what, it's probably best to end it there Keith. Leave it there” he said.

With his playing career behind him, Fahey has striven to alter the perception of him simply as a footballer and find a new role in life and in the community

But in order to successfully do that, he has begun to firstly confront the mental torment he has suffered for so long through counselling and therapy.

“The stuff I was doing behind the scenes all through my life, substance abuse and the like, came to a shuddering halt about two and a half years ago and thank God, because I realise I'd no control.

“I've been through a treatment centre for addictions and I actively live in sobriety. I do a lot of therapy and counselling and I started to believe that I have something to offer. I'm not just a footballer and I'm not just a head case away from football as well.

“I have a lot to offer and I had to start seeing that for myself through the help of others.

“I done a Diploma in Counselling and Psycho Therapy and figured out that's not quite for me yet.

“Recently I've done a ten-week certificate in Child Psychology Development, which I really enjoyed.

“I'm looking to do a Social Care degree in Tallaght University actually, I'm hoping to get accepted in there.

“Like that, I think my own experiences in life, football, trauma, glimpses of happiness through it all, I've a lot to share.

“I want to be part of the comm-unity and I want to do good in the comm-unity.

“I'm born and bred Tallaght. I moved away and I always wanted to come home. I do be around the comm-unity a    lot.

“I'm in the church, I'm hopefully going to go to college in Tallaght, I’d be down my local Costa and I just feel a member of the community for once in my life.

“I started out feeling like I had never been a part of anything, so my whole life has done a full 360 internally.

“There's stuff I still have to deal with. Even now there's a couple of things that I need to face in my life that I've tried to kind of bury, but I know what's important for me now and I just try to connect to that as much as I can.”

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