Kevin Grogan

Kevin Grogan joined Belvedere when he was 12. Like almost everyone else who pulls on the sky blue jersey, he had dreams of becoming a professional footballer. He achieved that dream - and how - as he was signed by Manchester United. But not every dream has a happy ending. This is Kevin's story.

IT was the day of my 21st birthday, November 15, and when I got up out of bed that morning I should have been buzzing with the realisation that I had come of age.

But I wasn't. Four weeks previously I'd had four injections into my pelvis in a bid to keep me playing and ensure my career as a professional footballer with Millwall Football Club stayed on track.

But the pain had come back and I knew the injections hadn't worked. The plan had been to have a course of these injections at the start of every season for the rest of my career so I knew the game was finally up.

I knew my body better than most at that stage. Since joining Manchester United as a 15-year-old in 1997 I'd had three operations, ten injections and been examined by some of the top specialists in Britain and Ireland.

I had physiotherapy and long bouts of rest and chased every possible chance of a cure, but I had now reached the stage where I felt I had put my body through as much physical stress that it could possibly cope with.

Later that morning I was examined by the Millwall physio, Gerry Doherty, and a few tests confirmed my worst fears. He didn't have to say anything; his face said it all.

He tried to be upbeat and didn't want to commit himself to any prognosis until the club doctor or a specialist had seen me.

But I was realistic enough to read between the lines. It was over!
Since I was eight I had dreamed of being a professional footballer. I was inspired by Euro '88 and started playing in a field beside my parents' house in Sutton before joining Seagrange in Baldoyle when I was eight.

I was always very single-minded and, even though everybody wanted to be a professional football, I knew I was going to be one.

When I was 12 I joined Belvedere and began paying against the top schoolboys clubs in Dublin. A trial at Millwall was quickly followed by an invitation to go over to Manchester United.

The five day trial involved training and matches and I was happy with the way I performed.
On the last day United's Irish scout Joe Corcoran brought me to see the first team training and I stood at the bottom of the stairs at The Cliff getting autographs from the players as they walked past.

Then Alex Ferguson appeared at the top of the stairs and roared: "Grogan, get up here."
When I got into his office and closed the door he took a Machete out of his draw, caught me in a headlock and put the knife to my throat. "I'm the boss," he said.

That was some introduction, but, once those pleasantries were finished, he sat me down and told me how well I had done over the week.

He told me to keep my feet on the ground and said that if I kept improving that they would be keen to sign me when I turned 16.

When I was leaving his office he called me back and asked me who I supported. I turned around and, without thinking, said "Liverpool". Out came the Machete again and, with a wry smile, he repeated the question and added: "You are one of us now son."

I kept going over to United for a few more years and my interest in Millwall waned after Mick McCarthy left to take over Ireland.

In 1997, after sitting my Junior Cert, I decided to spend my transition year at United rather than accept the three year contract they were offering.

It was the sensible approach, because I reasoned that if it didn't work out I could come back and start studying for my Leaving Cert. I was lucky to have plenty of good people advising me.

I went over in July and, after two or three months, I knew that this was what I wanted. I felt comfortable living away from home and, even though I did miss my family and friends, my determination to succeed meant I wasn't going to let homesickness get in the way.

I signed my three year contract in 1998, near the end of the season and just before I left for the European U-16 Championships with Ireland.

It's always an honour to play for your country but that squad was particularly special. They were a great bunch of lads and in Brian Kerr and Noel O'Reilly we had two great coaches. In England the underage coaches tend to be very aggressive but Brian and Noel treated us like adults, always gave us respect and had a great influence on all our careers.

I remember us standing around Brian one day at Clonshaugh and listening to him tell us that we were not going to Scotland to make up the numbers, we were going to win.

It was a great feeling to be part of the first Irish team to win a European trophy and we got a huge welcome home in Dublin. But I was sensible enough to realise that, even though I had achieved a lot over the previous 18 months, it was nothing to what I wanted in the future.

By this stage I had experienced slight growing pains in my knees but it wasn't really a cause for concern because most young players suffer from it. All it meant was that I occasionally had to step back from training and match to rest.

But when I returned to United in July 1998 I started getting problems with my groin, hip and pelvis. I played through the pain barrier because I didn't want to miss matches or training and, in hindsight, it was probably the wrong thing to do.

I eventually underwent two operations on my Gilmore's Groin in 1998, my first big set-back on the road to making it as a professional footballer. After my rehab I got back playing and just picked up where I left off. I was playing well and everybody was happy with me.

But I was still feeling pain in my pelvis and hip and United sent me to dozens of doctors all over England in a bid to find out what was wrong.

It was eventually discovered that I had a lot of bone erosion in my pelvis, which for a 16-year-old, was horrific according to the doctors.

The cause was chronic overuse, which is not surprising as English clubs place a heavy emphasis on young players undergoing intensive physical training.

On the continent they assume young players are naturally fit and concentrate on developing players' skills which is why they produce better technical players.

The remedy suggested for me was rest. But as the 1998-99 season drew to a close we were in the running for U-17 Academy League and they wanted me back.

I got several cortisone injections into my groin, and although I had been a bit fearful when I heard the word cortisone, they worked.

I got back playing and we won the league while Teddy Sheringham, who had been my constant companion in rehab, also returned to score in the Champions League Final.

I had watched players like Roy Keane and seen how single-minded they were. I knew if I didn't have a work ethic, to go along with my ability, I wouldn't make it.

I went back for pre-season in 1999 knowing it was a big year as my contract was up in the summer of 2000. If I kept myself fit, I was good enough to get a new contract.

But the injuries kept coming back and I ended up going to more doctors and specialists and hearing many more different opinions.

United wanted me to have an operation on my groins which carried a lot of risk because I wasn't fully developed physically.

I felt they were being bit selfish because they had nothing to lose. If it worked they had a player and if it didn't, they'd find a replacement pretty quickly. But it was my body.

Brian Kerr was a great mentor to me at this time and suggested that I try UCD. I could go to College and play in the League of Ireland where the training demands wouldn't be as severe as United.

It was hard decision to tell United I wasn't having the operation. I had a long chat with Alex Ferguson and he was excellent. He understood where I was coming from and in the end everybody was happy.

I enjoyed UCD and the chance to experience college life and things went well for me in the beginning. Just before Christmas 2000 I went back to United for a week.

Going over on the plane I met Roy Keane and we had a good chat. He knew I had been back in Ireland and that things were going well for me. He told me to keep being single-minded.

Alex Ferguson made me train with the first team that week and I held my own. One day we were having a practice match and he called out the midfield for the one of the teams.

It was: "Beckham, Giggs, Keane and Grogan".
At that point it looked like I would be returning to United at the start of the 2001-02 season but, in February 2001, the injuries started coming back.

A specialist in Dublin took a look, sat me down and told me I wouldn't be able to play football again. There were tears in my eyes and I was gutted, but at least he was honest.

Having consulted a few other doctors, he suggested I might have the operation United wanted but warned it would be my last chance to make it as a professional footballer.

After the operation was a lonely time as I did my rehab on my own but I was determined not to give up. I got back playing for UCD towards the end of the 2001-02 season and that summer I was ready to try and make it in England. I went to Millwall for three weeks trial and was offered a contract within a week.

There was great satisfaction in that. People had told me I'd never make it back in England so it was one of the most satisfying moments of my career.

My ambition was to get into the first team and I knew it was attainable. I worked hard for two months and was on the verge of achieving my goal when I felt the pain.

For a while I was in denial and tried to play through the pain barrier but it soon became obvious to everybody that I had a problem.

A course of four injections was prescribed and the hope was that this mixture of cortisone and anti-inflammatories would see me through the season pain free.

Four weeks after those jabs the pain returned and it wasn't quite the surprise I had hoped for on my 21st birthday.
I kept my secret to myself over the weekend as I celebrated my birthday over the weekend with family and friends who had made the effort to come over to London.

My injury is a unique injury because not many people get it and nobody, as yet, knows how to cure it. A lot of people were willing to see me and treat me as a guinea pig in the hope of using me to find a cure but I knew my body was not up to it anymore.

Deep down I knew I had done everything to sort out my injury and continuing to look for a cure was only clutching at straws.

I wasn't willing to jeopardise my health or quality of life in future years.
People who have seen my x-rays have always been shocked by the severity of the damage to my pelvis for someone of such a young age. Their concern was that continued stress on the pelvis from training would cause even more damage and eventually leave me crippled.

The hardest thing is to admit that it's time to quit and then being brave enough to do it.
After two days thinking things over I headed back to Millwall, still unsure what to do. After parking the car I went for a walk to gather my thoughts.

As I walked around the training ground something clicked in my brain. I started thinking positive.
I looked back at how hard I had worked over the past five years, first to get to Manchester United and onto the Irish international team. Then to make a success of my time at UCD where I got a Diploma in Sports Management as well as a few goals. And finally there was my success in getting back to full time football with Millwall.

I told myself I had shown a lot of character to achieve all that by the time I was 21 and the future now held little fear for me. I was big enough and brave enough to walk away from football and start a new life.

Then I took a deep breath and walked into the training ground with my head held high. I sat down with the manager, Mark McGhee, and told him I was walking away from football.

I could easily have sat tight and picked up my wages for the remainder of my contract but this wasn't about money. It was about my future and being honest with myself.

I was never going to walk away from Millwall feeling sorry for myself because life goes on, no matter who you are. "What doesn't kill you, makes you" is a saying I like.

I got my stuff together, said goodbye to the people I had to, and left London with my head held high and a smile on my face, determined to make something of my future life back in Ireland. I had no regrets.

I have no worries about my future and I certainly don't feel sorry for myself or expect anybody to be sorry for me. I have had five great years as a professional football and rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names.

I will always be rooting for the likes of John O'Shea, Graham Barrett, Stephen Reid and Richard Sadlier to achieve everything they can from the game and don't begrudge them anything.

I think I am a stronger person for it all and, whatever I chose to do, I have the confidence to know that I will succeed because I will bring the same work ethic that stood me so well in football.

It's not a matter of looking back and asking: "What if?". It's about looking forward and saying: "What's next?"
It's the end of one chapter and the start of another, but the book is far from finished!