Thursday, 28 July 2016

Letting go of football

Hampden,12th May 1990.  Aberdeen and Celtic contest the Scottish Cup Final. After full and extra the teams are still drawing. On to a sudden-death play-off.  Four times players from either side score successfully, and then for Celtic Anton Rogan misses. The final Aberdeen player steps forward to the penalty spot, shoots, and scores. And so Aberdeen wins the Cup for the seventh time.

Brian Irvine who scored the winning goal relived that moment of glory last Thursday evening at the Craigmonie Hotel in Inverness when he spoke to the ’41 club’, a group of former Round Table members. He gave one more significant detail. As he prepared to take that penalty, he prayed. ‘I didn’t pray that God would help me score. I simply asked God to be with me and give me peace and calm.’

Brian made a number of references in his talk to his Christian faith. He described coming to faith as a teenager as ‘the best thing that ever happened to me.’ You got the impression as this very likable and self-aware man told his story with gentleness and a quiet humour that faith is central to who he is, affecting all his thinking and living.

He described the high and low points in his life. The ‘highs’ included that famous goal in 1990 and the ‘unbelievable thrill’ of playing for Scotland (he was capped 9 times). 

And the ‘lows’? There was a shattering diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis in 1995, which produced the cruel press headline ‘Who’d want to sign a player with MS?’ (in fact he played more professional games after the diagnosis than before).

There was challenge of leaving professional football, where everything was taken care of for you, and having to learn to take responsibility for your own life, to ‘stand on your own two feet.’  And there is the place he has now reached, where he is unsure of the future. ‘It is not a good story for me just now,’ he admits candidly.

Yet no matter what his circumstances, Brian tells us he practises ‘thankfulness.’ Each day he lists five things for which he can be thankful – big things, such as his health, or simple things like sunset and beauty and friendship. And you know as you listen that this man’s thankfulness is directed to God.

The 41 club heard two other specific references to Brian’s faith. One was in connection with the diagnosis of MS at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in Aberdeen. ‘At times like that you realise just how fragile you are,’ he told us. ‘In that situation my Christian faith was a big help. Prayer made a difference.’

And the second reference came as he described the events of last year, when he spent several months in South Korea working with Seoul E-land, a corporately-sponsored team seeking to win entry to the South Korean equivalent of the Premier League. His travelling expenses and accommodation were taken care of, and there was a modest gratuity, but no salary.

Brian went to South Korea at the invitation of E-Land’s manager, Martin Rennie who had previously employed him when he managed sides in the USA. It made no sense for Brian to leave his work in Inverness with the charity Action for Children. Perhaps in part he was prompted by a desire to keep his football dream alive, but he also had a strong impression ‘that this was something God wanted me to do.’

It was, he tells us ‘A good experience, but not a good career move.’ As well as working with the team, Brian coached disadvantaged children in Seoul, took part in Bible studies with team members and spoke (with the help of a translator) at the team chaplain’s church. Throughout that time, far away from wife Donna and family, he was sustained by a sense of God’s presence, and by the knowledge that friends in Hilton Church were supporting him and praying for him.

Since leaving the professional game in 2003 (latterly he played for Ross County), football has had a key part in  his life, but recently he has realised (and the months in Korea helped him focus on this) that the time has come for him to ‘let go of football.’

It’s possible to tell old stories of the glory days over and over while not moving on. These days, Brian tells the stories, but he does not cling to them. Instead he in looking forward to discover what the next chapter holds.

When discussing his MS diagnosis Brian mentioned a thought from the Bible which encouraged him.  But its wisdom is perennially relevant as he looks ahead to life after football: it’s not that all circumstances are inherently good but that ‘In all things God works for good.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 4th February 2016)

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