A two-and-a-half hour chat from tennis superstar Venus Williams got Stephen McPhail back on track when he was struggling to get out of bed due to his autoimmune disease.
The former Republic of Ireland midfielder – now Sports Director at Shamrock Rovers – suffers from Sjogren’s syndrome, in which the body attacks its own moisture-producing glands such as the lacrimal and salivary glands and swells the joints.
In this weekOn the podcast, McPhail tells Graham Cummins about the role Williams, who also suffers from Sjogren’s, played in overcoming his problems.
“I read at the time that she had the same autoimmune disease. And my agent said we’ll try to get in touch with her. She played, she seemed to be leading the life of an athlete. So let’s see what she does.
“He got in touch with her agent and one day she called the Cardiff house. And I talked to her for about two and a half hours. It was incredible, unreal. It was surreal. I just sat there in the kitchen and talked to Venus Williams about everything.
She had just been diagnosed within a year and a half, so she went through it. She had little tips about nutrition and such. She said she loved drinking pints of Guinness but had to cut down on the amount of pints.
“She was absolutely brilliant, first class, so honest. I stayed in touch with her a bit. Obviously she’s a big superstar so I didn’t piss her off. But it was great to be able to choose someone’s brain that was in my position as an athlete and was trying to live with something like that. It helped a lot.
“She talked about keeping it real, not giving up. That was a big part of her conversation with me. Because I’ve had times when I thought I couldn’t get up here and have to train. I just felt tired and she was telling me the exact same story.
“She told me to see that specialist in LA, I’ll book it, and within three days she did it. And I was over there. She made the appointment and I spent four days with him. He said this is the treatment you need and it is helping me recover all the time now when I have a flare.
“Their conversation was, don’t lie down, you’ll be fine. She was really very positive about leading a normal life as much as possible. “
Williams, who is still a professional tennis player at 39, repeated that advice in an interview with Prevention.com last year.
“Don’t get discouraged because what? [you’re] Going through is similar to other people, “she said.” Talk to and reach out to people who understand or are in a similar condition [support] Team. Don’t isolate yourself. Do not give up. “
McPhail, then a Cardiff City player, had overcome a harrowing setback back in 2009 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma related to his autoimmune disease.
“The year I got sick, I was 29 and flying. I’ve started 56 games this year. It was the strongest I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t miss a minute of the entire season.
All of a sudden I found a lump just under my jaw. It was just small, tiny as a pea, and I told the doctor. And it was kind of a buzz and a punch, we think it’s just an infection. I got antibiotics, but it never cleared up, never went away. It wasn’t sore or anything, so I wasn’t too bothered.
“But he took me to a specialist. And we had an international hiatus ahead of us, a two-week hiatus, so he said I’ll take them out. You won’t miss a game, you might miss a week of training.
“I took it out and didn’t miss a game, but they told me when I came out of recovery it was much bigger. It grew back in the reverse direction, but nothing to worry about sewed me back together and played away.
“Then two or three weeks later I had a follow-up appointment and they told me it was lymphoma. The whole world stops. Then in the meeting room I honestly asked what I need to do, what treatment I need, let’s do it, let’s move on.
“I had my treatment, Cardiff was brilliant, they sent me home. I had my treatment in the Mater, let me be in the family. So I had six to eight weeks at home to get treatment every day. And I actually trained with Tony McCarthy back then to stay fit. It’s ironic that Macca is here at Rovers now.
“Tough time, but I was so determined it wouldn’t stop me. That I wanted to be back on the field as soon as possible.
“I went back in the middle of my treatment to watch a game and say hello, just for a weekend. For the first four or five weeks of treatment, I felt fine, didn’t feel any different, but got quite sick towards the end.
“Obviously people only have roots for you, all the players, all the fans. The fans were amazing, singing my name at every game. Little things keep you going. Even when you’re not there, you feel part of it. You see results, Football Saturday, and see how they’re doing. Call the guys afterwards.
“The whole club was frighteningly good. And luckily, I was back on the field within four months. I feel very blessed that it is over.
“It was then that I found out about the autoimmune disease that I still have. It’s incurable, it’s something I have to live with every day. I can handle that now. I am on the right track with everything. I have ups and downs, it’s all about staying up to date as much as possible. I just have to keep going.
“All the time, a few years after the lymphoma, I would break down, get sick, and then jump back and play and break down again. They tried to figure everything out, it was pretty complicated. “
At least until this conversation with Williams and a visit to Dr. Daniel Wallace in Los Angeles.
“I went to LA and met the best surgeon in the field. He treated him that I still have today.”
Though he continued his career, McPhail admits that he never quite met the same standards after his diagnosis.
“To be honest, I didn’t go back to where I was. After that I played probably 100 games, from 30 on. I never felt defeated all the time. I would be for a while, then I would collapse again.
I was in my prime so it was frustrating. But I’m just happy to be here. Because when you go through the treatment and sit next to sick and sick children, you only get an overview of what is going on. It’s heartbreaking to see the treatment centers and people who are really, really having problems.
“I had my first child a few months before I found the lump, so I don’t know how my wife coped with it. It was a huge stone. I always look more at her than at myself. Because you just go to the auto drive and keep going. “
Graham Cummins describes Stephen McPhail as “one of the nicest guys I have ever met”.
In a long-range interview, McPhail, whom Cummins describes as “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” talks about his early years at Leeds United, where he was first trained on defensive instincts by George Graham and then one of them became David O’Leary’s “Babies”.
Harry Kewell was the first of those Leeds kids to break through, and McPhail remembers getting up at the end of the roommate’s H-bed and waiting for news of the first crew to travel to Anfield or Stamford Bridge.
He talks about the bond these youngsters have built on the way to the semi-finals of the Champions League, but also about the rapid decline and suffering of relegation under club legend Eddie Gray.
He discusses rediscovering his love for the game at Barnsley and leading Cardiff to an FA Cup final.
Refusing to blame anyone but himself for winning only 10 caps in Ireland, he praises Mick McCarthy’s no-nonsense man management.
And he talks about the joy of life in Dublin in the club that he has supported “since I was a baby”.
Hear the life of a footballer with Stephen McPhail here.