This morning I made a small donation to the Mater Foundation. If you are involved in sport and decide to donate to charity this Christmas, here are my reasons why I think it would be great if you supported the same charity or one similar to it.
December 12, 2017, is a date that will be etched in my mind as one my worst ever experiences in life, never mind sport. I doubt I will ever forget the last time I saw 16-year-old Izzy Dezu alive.
The details of the game are trivial now but it was a final day of season title decider between Shelbourne and St Kevin’s Boys in the DDSL U16s league. Two excellent teams couldn’t be separated during the season and this game would decide the destination of the title. There was a tremendous sense of occasion of what was comparable to a cup final in itself.
As coach of the Shelbourne U17s in the League of Ireland structure I had watched both of the two opponents on several occasions. I had come to know the Shels U16s players quite well having had some of them train with my side through the year. All were great lads with a desire to do well in the game they love.
I knew Izzy longer than most of them as I’d been influential in him joining Shels 12 months previously from Cherry Orchard. That talented U15s side was due to be dispersed with many of the players agreeing to join clubs within the LoI U17s structure.
Izzy stood out as a powerful and raw striker with great competitive spirit and his concentration levels also made an impression upon me. He wanted to be involved in the game at all times and he used his physicality to good effect.
I invited him to train with the LoI U17s and he did well in pre-season friendlies but he was competing against some excellent attacking players – including the likes of Ali Reghba, Jordan Adeyemo and Eoin McPhillips who all went on to play first team football in the past year.
One of the restrictions of the LoI underage structure are that you can only sign 20 players. This is apparently to ease the fears of schoolboy clubs against the ‘hoarding’ of players but the irony is that the same schoolboy clubs can sign players without limit.
I liked Izzy a lot as a player and his commitment was amazing. He never missed a session despite travelling across from Citywest to the AUL Complex near Dublin Airport. He always gave everything in those sessions and he was instantly popular with the group. I found him a very likeable and polite young man.
After discussing the situation with the U16s management, Chicko Mifsud and Keith Bruen, I suggested to Izzy that he sign for that team and when the opportunity opened up to move up to the LoI U17s then we would bring him up.
My philosophy has been to never ‘release’ players. The gaps emerged when players moved up to the LoI U19s or if they opted to move on for other reasons but in development football I can’t see the value in dropping young players who can be on the roller-coaster in their personal development.
The thought process was that Izzy would benefit far more by playing every week with the DDSL U16s – which has roll-on roll-off substitutes – than playing less football with the LoI U17s – which only permits five permanent subs a game.
It was a gamble because not every player accepts being offered a different option than the one which they originally wanted. It says everything about Izzy’s intelligence and personality that he accepted that the proposal was in his best interests and he went on to become an integral part of the DDSL U16s. Working with Chicko and Keith definitely improved him as a player. He also trained with the LoI U17s many times and appeared in friendly games through the year.
The nature of the LoI underage structure is that as one season comes to a close the mind is already on the next campaign so players are focussed on looking at breaking into a LoI U17s squad the following year and clubs are scouting and assessing potential recruits constantly.
Given that Shelbourne has a strong schoolboy set-up, my existing U17 squad had seven players still eligible the following season and we had full groups of players progressing from the U16s and LoI U15s, Shels were not short of players this time last year.
The St Kevin’s game was not going to be a deciding factor for Izzy. He was such a big personality and had matured so much as a player that attending the fateful final game was more about looking at other candidates as in reality there weren’t many slots left out of the 20.
The game was a high tempo affair and the players threw everything into it on a cold night at the AUL Complex. Early in the second half I saw the ball bounce around on the opposite side of the pitch and noticed Izzy coming to an unusual jolt and collapse backwards. My first reaction was that he may have slipped on an icy patch or slipped a disc. Within seconds I could tell by the frantic waving of Ola – one of his team-mates – that something more serious was up.
I saw Chicko run onto the pitch and within moments Dave Henderson was racing on too. A professional paramedic, I was relieved Dave was there as I knew he’d know exactly what to do. I decided that I should run to the changing rooms to see if anybody had gone for the defibrillator.
On my route I met Tony McCarthy, one of the physios with the Ireland senior international set-up. His daughter played for Shels so I regularly bumped into him at the AUL Complex. I asked him if he could lend some assistance and he told me to keep going for the defibrillator. I got it off Jimmy in the clubhouse and he checked it was working. It was fully charged.
By the time I’d made it to the pitch with the defibrillator, Dave, Tony and one of the parents, Mrs Ashe, were all frantically trying to keep Izzy breathing and administering CPR while the ambulance was on its way. They worked to put the defibrillator on Izzy and were all absolute heroes in my eyes.
I felt a sickening sense of dread. I’ll never forget the faces of those standing helplessly by. The worst of all was the sight of Izzy’s dad Robert in complete shock. As I am now a father of three I can not even try to imagine what it must feel like to see a child you’d seen grow into a fine young man struck down and completely helpless. All I could do was keep urging Izzy to keep fighting. I’d no idea if he could hear me. It was just desperation.
When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics leapt into action I felt a glimmer of hope. They put on a machine to pump Izzy’s heart automatically. Eventually they put him in the ambulance, which to compound matters took an age to get out of the ground and bring him to hospital.
By the time I made it back home I’d not heard anything more and I dared to imagine we may get to hear of a miracle, as in the case of Fabrice Muamba, but tragically it wasn’t to be. Chicko rang from the hospital to confirm the worst possible news. Izzy was dead. I called some parents and received calls from people who knew Izzy through football. The wailing and anguish I heard was shattering.
The following days were a blur. The schoolboy section organised a counsellor and invited the players from both sides to attend a meeting in the beginning of a process to help the young players come to terms with this absolute tragedy. The whole club came together in an impressive show of unity.
A gofundme account was set-up to help cover the costs around the funeral and burial. The funeral in Tallaght a couple of weeks later was a very emotional occasion. Izzy’s school-mates and representatives of his school, Holy Family CS Rathcoole, spoke so brilliantly about this unforgettable young man.
The representation from the football community, from so many Shels people, St Kevin’s Boys, his former club Cherry Orchard, his former GAA team-mates at St Mary’s and the wider community was further proof if needed of the esteem Izzy was held in.
Somehow I ended up saying a few words to the congregation when somebody from his football club was asked to speak. I don’t recall much of what I said but I remember telling Izzy’s mother what a wonderful young man she’d raised. I remember that I had forgot to mention St Kevin’s Boys in my few words and that was on my mind afterwards. Chicko said also lovely words on behalf of Izzy’s team-mates.
The follow on from the club was to provide screening for the players within the underage structures. I would hope that this becomes an integral part of the club’s structures from here on in and that all sports clubs in Ireland investigate similar opportunities for their young members. In fact my opinion is that every 13-year-old in the country should be screened and I believe it would be an investment by the state that few could argue with.
Izzy’s death is not the first time a fantastic young person has died on our sports fields. I know from the worst possible experience how devastating this is. As somebody whose relationship with Izzy was as a coach and basically a person who likes to see young people fulfil happy lives, I know how hard this entire process has been to deal with.
The memory of Izzy Dezu and what happened that night will never leave me. A couple of months after the dreadful night I bumped into a tall young black man turning a corner in the city centre. For a split second my mind played tricks on me and I was brought back to that awful incident all over again. I suspect the memory will always be locked in there and I’m sure it’s the same for others who’ve experienced similar horrific experiences.
I am currently taking a break from coaching and recharging the batteries. I hope to return to it in 2019. I can’t put into words how desperately I hope never to experience anything like that again and my thoughts are with Izzy’s family and friends as they cope without the presence of that fantastic smiling young man in their lives.
If you’d like to know more about screening, please contact the Mater Foundation at: http://www.sads.ie/index.html and you can make a donation at the same address.