The comeback king Paul Perth By Aidan Fitzmaurice

Former Belvo player Paul Perth on how heroin cost him three years of his life and how he's using his experience educate youngsters on the danger of drugs

TEN years ago Leonard Curtis, Mark O'Neill and Paul Perth were all good friends and team-mates at Belvedere. They were excellent young footballers and all had a chance of making it.

Curtis earned a professional contract with Leeds United, played U-21 international football for Ireland and, when Leeds didn't work out, he had a decent career with Shamrock Rovers.

O'Neill also got to England and spent three years with Leyton Orient. Coming home to play for St Pats and Cliftonville, he also served Shamrock Rovers, `Nailer' also made a decent stab at a career in the game.

But while his old pals were making those achievements, Perth had none of that. No trial in England, no FAI Cup finals, no youth caps.

Instead, he spent three years addicted to heroin and spent seven months in Mountjoy.

Happily, thanks to a lot of help from his family, his own deep dedication and a lot of pain, he came back from all that to play a huge role in Longford Town's promotion to the Premier Division of the eircom League in 2000. In days when footballers have modelling contracts, movie roles, supermodel girlfriends and million-pound wage packets, when Irish 16-year-olds can earn six-figure signing on fees from English clubs even though they have no guarantee of making the first team, having 60-odd games for Longford Town on your CV is not much of a boast. But Paul Perth says it with pride. Because a few short years ago it was all so different.

He was a junkie living rough and roaming the streets of Dublin looking for his next fix while the Gardai were looking for him. His family had stopped talking to him. He was a wreck, a shell of the teenage footballer who impressed St Pat's manager Brian Kerr. One day Paul Perth made a decision.

Footballers talk about the big decisions they have to make: to sign a new contract with their club, to look for a transfer, to move to England, change agents, buy a new house. Small stuff. Paul Perth made a big decision. He walked into a Garda station and handed himself up. Brought up in Killinarden in Tallaght, Paul and Vinny Perth were good young footballers. Paul was playing for local side Priory Celtic when his manager, Jimmy Cousins, brought him up to Belvedere.

He did well at `The Belvo' and was on the fringes of the Irish youths team when Kerr gave him a chance with St Patrick's Athletic. But things did't work out for Paul at Inchicore because he had already started the downward path. "I started drinking heavily, then smoking hash. I was staying out all night," he recalls. "If I had a match on a Saturday morning, I would stay out all Friday night and my ma and da would be worrying where I was.

"I would stroll home at 11am when the game was at 12.30. My attitude was terrible because I didn't want it. I wasn't able for it. I was happier down in the local park, gathered around a radio drinking cider."Paul started on hash, but soon moved on to harder drugs. He started taking heroin.

"I was smoking a lot of hash, sniffing petrol. I was taking tablets. I didn't even know what they were called, I just took them to see what they were like. "All my mates started going to raves, though I wasn't into that.

They started taking ecstasy but I wasn't too keen. I preferred to get drunk or stoned on hash ... or both. "But then they started taking heroin to come down off the ecstasy. I was standing around them with my two-litre of cider and I'd see them running off. I asked them where they were going and they said `Ah, we'll be back in a while'. I didn't want to know, but I knew they were doing heroin. And eventually I wanted to be let into it. "So I went up with them one day with 10, asked them for a go and that was that."

Paul Perth was 19 years of age. The first time he took heroin he got sick and didn't like it. But he tried it again and again. "All my mates were doing it ... it was the in-thing to do at the time. Or so I thought. So I got to like it. I knew the dangers of it, but I had never seen anybody really badly sick.

" Heroin was a drug which took three years off his life. "I tried to go cold turkey here at home. My ma was great to me. she'd bring 7-Up to my room. But as soon as she was gone to work I'd jump out the window and I was gone again.

"I didn't want to be a junkie but I didn't know any better. I had lived with drugs and the buzz so long that, when that buzz was gone, all I was left with was me, and I wasn't able for it. So the only option I had ... or so I thought at the time ... was to get stoned again.

"Perth put himself into a treatment centre in Limerick but was back in Dublin after six weeks ... and back on drugs. By this stage he was out of the family home and living in a bed-sit in Harold's Cross, which he also had to leave. He ended up in hostels, wherever he could get a bed, doing whatever he could to get a fix.That was one of his lowest points.

"My father took time off work every day for three weeks to drive me into Pearse Street to get detoxes and my mother was doing everything for me, but eventually they couldn't take any more. They were doing everything for me and I was doing nothing.

"Eventually I had enough. I realised I would die or else spend a lot of time in prison. I was in a lot of trouble with the police, so I decided to hand myself up and go into prison.

"Paul's decision to give himself up was sparked by his family. His younger brother was in hospital with leukaemia but Paul was unable to visit him. He was too ashamed of what he was. Then, an aunt had some harsh words for him.

She said that drugs were keeping one of Paul's mother's sons alive in hospital, while they were killing another. Sentenced at a night court while he was still high, Paul ended up in the drug-free wing in Mountjoy. Counsellors from the Coolmine Centre made a big impression. "They just talked to us, told us what our options were if we wanted to stay clean when we got out. They told me about themselves ... they were former addicts, and everything they said made sense. So I applied to get into Coolmine and was accepted.

" Paul hadn't kicked a ball in some time, but he hadn't forgotten how to play the game. After a month in Coolmine he started to play football for s local side, St Mochta's, the only time he was allowed out and the only time he wanted to come out.

After the first phase of treatment, which lasted 16 months, he was able to start working."I was able to build up my confidence and self-esteem to where I am today, where I can believe that I didn't need drugs. But it was tough.

"I was mixing with different people when I was playing for Mochta's. There were businessmen on the team. I didn't know if some people knew about me or not. But I was talking to people again, normal people and that was the hardest part of getting clean. "I'd look at the other people on the team. I had come from the streets, from Mountjoy and here I was talking to a businessman with a brand new car, thinking `If only he knew'. But the lads on the team were great."

Soon he was able to start working and found work on building sites. The football came back to him in the summer of France '98. Paul was playing in seven-a-sides in Tallaght that August and was about to sign for Ballymun United when Longford's kit-man Fergus McNally spotted him and asked him to join Longford, who had already signed his brother, Vinny. So he joined a Longford side who had finished the previous season bottom of the First Division.

They had no money, few fans, a delapidated ground and not much was expected of new manager Stephen Kenny (a former Belvedere player). The League Cup progressed well for Longford who qualified for the quarter-finals by beating Monaghan United and Drogheda United and drawing with Dundalk. They lost their first League game to Athlone but won their second of the campaign, beating Limerick 3-0 in Longford.

Their first goal was scored by Paul Perth and Longford embarked on a remarkable run which brought crowds of 1,000 to their stadium on the Strokestown Road, whereas only 80 had paid in for that league match against Limerick. The highlight was the League Cup quarter-final. Longford had the toughest task possible, away to St Pats, the Premier Division champions. But Kenny's side had no fears and they actually took the lead through Paul before losing on penalties.

The game was another landmark for Paul. "It was the beat goal I will ever score," he says. "Not so much the actual goal, but the fact that it mean so much to me. "From September to November, they won eight of their ten league games and they also dumped Shamrock Rovers out of the Leinster Senior Cup. Paul Perth scored that goal, too.

They were now five points clear at the top of the First Division, a big change-around for a club which had won just two games the previous season. Suspensions to key players had a drastic effect and Longford had to wait three months for their next victory.

That slump dented Town's hopes of promotion, and they went from first to a finishing position of fourth, but Paul still had a lot to be pleased about as he finished the season as the club's joint top scorer and was voted Player of the Year. A year later, Longford ... older and wiser ... won promotion.

Longford went from strength to strength. Unlike most promoted clubs, they managed to survive their first season in the top flight, reached the FAI Cup final and, though defeated by Bohemians, they qualified for the UEFA Cup. While Vinny was now a stalwart for the Town, Paul played just twice in the Premier Division campaign after damaging cruciate ligaments. And, by the end of the 2001/02 season, Longford's second in the Premier Division, Paul Perth, who played such a large part in getting the club that far, had started only one game in the top division. But, considering all that Paul has gone through, he can live with that.

Paul has a great love for Longford, the club and its people, a county he had never even been in before he signed for their football team.

Football has been a big part in his rehabilitation. "The main part of staying clean is keeping busy, doing positive things instead of sitting around the house all day. We train a couple of nights a week and on a Saturday night when everyone else is out clubbing I'm playing or watching a match. "A healthy body is a healthy mind and now I feel better about myself."

It was Perth's own choice to tell his story. Some people know some things about his past, but not all. And he wants people to know.

"One day during work someone told my foreman told him to lock up all his tools because there was a tall junkie walking around the site.

I felt that I should tell people that, yes, I was a junkie but I'm not now. I don't rob. I don't take drugs. "Some players who know have come up to me to shake my hand and say `fair play to you', like a couple of Monaghan players did at one game. "I don't want to hide this because I think it would affect me if I did. In work I was trying to hide it, and I was always worried if my boss would find out. So I went to him and told him, and he was great.

"Paul wants other people to benefit from his own tragic story, wants to do his bit to ensure that the teenagers of today ... including Belvedere's players ... do not touch drugs. And he's proud of where he comes from.

"It's not Foxrock," he smiles as he says goodbye to me on the driveway of his Killinarden home, "but I'm proud of where I come from.

"There are a lot of good people here. There are people doing a lot of work ... my ma is one of them ... helping out by talking in schools. There's good stuff happening here, not like when I was younger when heroin was the in-thing to do. Now people are being told from an early age.

"I've started coaching kids, which was great, and I have given a few talks in schools where I told people what had happened to me, where I was and how it easy it was to happen.

"I'd like to help out kids more, but I also have to be selfish and concentrate on keeping myself on the straight and narrow. I reckon some day I can be a role model for kids. I was as low as you could be but I climbed back up.

"I feel a million times better. I have days when I am down, but no matter how much I am down it's nothing like the days when I was sick, on drugs, no energy, sitting on the ground somewhere in town crying, wishing I was dead. I'm happy now."