Tuesday, June 18, 2024

How a casual kickabout lead to the World Cup for Ireland’s transplant soccer team

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The team first formed in December 2019 after double lung transplant recipients Lar Brennan, Keith Daly and others got together to play football.

Collectively and individually, everyone on the team has been on an epic journey to get to this point and are counting down the days to September when they represent their country and take on the world.

The team first formed in December 2019 after double lung transplant recipients Lar Brennan, Keith Daly and others got together to play football.

Covid put things on hold for a while, but the team played their first competitive match against Northern Ireland in 2022 and have since played internationals against teams including England, Wales and The Netherlands.

One player, Mick O’Shea from Mallow, Co Cork, is still alive today because he received a heart transplant in 2017, just months after a viral infection in the muscle of his heart left him fighting for his life.

He explained how much being part of the team meant to all the players.

“We went over to Solihull [in Birmingham] last year and played our first tournament. I started crying when we won a game and the next minute I looked over and there’s another fella tearing up.

“Then there’s three or four guys tearing up. Would you ever think you’d cry over wining a six-a-side game of soccer — but it’s nothing to do with the soccer, it’s to do with the journey we’d all be on.”

Andrew Gallagher and coach Matt Dunne of the Ireland transplant soccer team. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

Mick was a keen athlete before his heart issue and is still involved in numerous sporting activities as well as football.

“I always say on the track and field to get to the start line is the biggest achievement, it doesn’t matter how long it takes me to get to the finish line.

“It’s the same with soccer — to get to the dressing room and tog out and have the chat with the guy beside you and to be able to do it is what it’s all about.”

Darragh Stapleton from Lucan in Dublin is alive today thanks to a liver transplant in 2022 having been diagnosed with a rare progressive disease in 2010 called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC).

Like Mick, Darragh was heavily into sports before his health issues and played GAA for Dublin at various levels, even winning an All-Ireland medal.

“I thought my sporting career was done. I played for Dublin Minors and won an All Ireland with the Under 21s with Jim Gavin in 2010 and was on the senior panel and that’s when I was diagnosed.”

The Ireland transplant soccer team pictured at the Watershed in Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

His illness put an end to his GAA career but his transplant was a success.

Darragh was told by his consultant after his transplant that if he had got one more infection he might not have got over it.

Since the transplant he has had what he says is a “new lease of life”.

“Trying to play with my daughter before the transplant was tough. My biggest worry was not being there for her to watch her grow up. I’ve had a full recovery and another baby on the way in July.”

Being able to return to sports through the transplant team was a massive boost for Darragh.

Lar Brennan (right) Ireland transplant soccer team and Nikodem Czernik Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

“When you see people post-transplant, having gone through the same thing as you, enjoying life, being able to play sport again and wearing the green jersey, it’s just unbelievable.

“That helped me with my recovery because it gave me something to aim for.”

He said being able to talk to other people who had gone through the same things meant so much.

“I came to the team for the sporting aspect of it, but that’s secondary to the bond I have with all these people here. We all have this passion for organ donation awareness. We wouldn’t be alive without it.”

He said everyone on the team is so grateful to the people who donated their organs.

“I think about my donor every day and something I can do to honour their memory is to raise awareness about organ donation.

“I’d encourage everyone to have the conversation with your loved ones about whether they’d like to be an organ donor. It’s difficult conversation to have. You don’t want a situation where you die and your loved ones don’t know what your wishes are.“

Dundalk team member Andrew Gallagher laughed as he told the Sunday World he doesn’t make any mother-in-law jokes.

He was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease in 2008 and was later on dialysis for two years and needed a kidney transplant to survive.

“My wife’s mam, Jacqueline Foster, decided one day to go and get tested unbeknownst to ourselves and she was a match.”

He remembers a phone call came for Jacqueline while he was over in her house and it was the hospital. “She came into the room and said ‘how are you fixed for November 4th?’”

The operation was a success and every year Andrew celebrates on November 4th with his mother-in-law.

“We mark it every year. I always make sure I have a bunch of flowers. It’s ten-and-a-half years now. It’s been bliss. It’s been a fast 10 years,” he says.

The team is managed by Kilkenny man Matt Dunne whose partner Martina donated a kidney to his nephew six years ago.

“That opened up our eyes to that sort of stuff and I wanted to jump in and get involved when I heard about it,” he said.

He said the team has to pay for an ambulance crew to be on standby for all the games.

The team, which is sponsored by Sonas Bathrooms, is trying to raise the money to fund the trip to Italy. ”It’s going to cost in the region of €25,000 or €30,000 and we’ve raised about €8,000 so far.

“Some lads said they can’t go because it’s just too much expense. We have a couple of players who can’t come because of that which is a killer. I’d love for them to be there but unless you raise the money they won’t be able to,” Matt said.

You can donate via Transplant Football Ireland at here

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