‘If someone hears my name and thinks, that’s the guy who was sexually abused, I’m okay with that’

RICHIE SADLIER SPENT the first part of his adult life primarily trying to impress a large group of strangers. Now, he says, he has learned not to care what strangers think.

His memoir, ‘Recovering’, written with sports journalist Dion Fanning, has been widely acclaimed, recently winning the sports category in the Irish Book Awards.

It charts his rise and fall, starring as a highly promising young footballer with Millwall and Ireland, retiring prematurely from sport at the age of 24 and documenting the subsequent years of adjusting to life as a former footballer.

He turns 41 in January, and for a long time, it was suspected he had a book in him.

After hanging up his boots, he started to regularly write columns for the Sunday Independent that were admired for their insight and honesty, covering behind-the-scenes issues not often explored so rigorously in coverage of the beautiful game.

Partly as a result of the attention he was getting from these well-received articles, at the age of 27 or 28, Sadlier was offered the chance to write a book. Perhaps wisely, he declined.

“If I’d written it in my late 20s, it would have just been a book about my hopes of being a footballer, my experiences of being a footballer and my difficulties of being an ex-footballer — that would have been it,” he tells The42.

Of course, much else has happened since retirement. He has given up alcohol and stopped using recreational drugs. He has started regularly attending therapy as well as recovery meetings for his alcoholism. He had a brief spell on the board at St Patrick’s Athletic in addition to working for a period with the football agent Fintan Drury. He has undertaken college degrees and become a psychotherapist. He has gone from being, by his own admission, a mediocre soccer pundit when starting out to one of Ireland’s most respected voices, not just on football, but also matters pertaining to sex, mental health and addiction, working as a contributor for RTÉ, The Irish Times and Second Captains. He also regularly gives talks on consent to transition year students.

“Probably one of the biggest things I got from it was even more gratitude for how my life is today,” he says of writing the book.

Yet the journey to get to this point was far from easy. There was even some apprehension about how his story would be received.

“I would have said ‘no’ in previous years, because I kept telling myself I wasn’t ready.

“I just thought it felt like the right time. It was a gut feeling. There was no bigger thought than that. I felt ready to write it. 

“I just wouldn’t have been comfortable with people knowing about my issues with drink, or my childhood stuff, or my family stuff, or some of the darker stuff around my career, or my own personal stuff.

“I have a job in the public eye. I would tend to be quite a private person, which is what’s caught a lot of people by surprise. So much of what’s in the book, there was no hint of that before, because I did a really good job of keeping a lot of my life private.”

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The most distressing revelation from the book is Sadlier’s recollection of being abused as a 14-year-old by a now-deceased physio who was giving him treatment for a sports injury. He recently spoke about the issue on the Late Late Show and has been widely praised for opening up on the matter. It took him years to come to terms with and there is a suggestion in the book it contributed to his addiction issues and difficulties sustaining long-term relationships with women, owing to what he originally perceived as a shameful secret. For years, he had blamed himself, and wished he had responded with more than “silence and confusion”. He worried that by staying quiet, he was effectively an accomplice for the future crimes his abuser may have committed. He once told a friend about it during a “coke-fuelled bender,” only for that person to urge him to stay silent on the matter, reconfirming his original reservations in the process. It was only in 2008 that he opened up to a psychotherapist about the secret, gradually telling more people thereafter.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t yet met anyone who can make the pain go away,” he writes. But then adds that the emotional scars “have begun to heal” and “talking about it was the thing that started the healing process”.

He credits Paul Stewart, a fellow abuse survivor, who Sadlier interviewed when the ex-Tottenham and Liverpool player wrote his own book, as one of the inspirations for ‘Recovering’.

Recalling such painful memories was an inevitably intense experience, though years of therapy had helped Sadlier become more accustomed to such a process.

“And then there was the thing of going: will I regret writing this? Will it change how people perceive me? Will it cost me work? Will it change how people are to me in my therapy practice? Will people look at me differently on the RTÉ panel? Will it impact whether schools want me to come in and talk to their pupils or not? Because I wrote a lot of stuff that people tend not to write about themselves.

“All those questions are unanswerable until you go through it, because there’s no way of knowing until you actually do it. So I just thought: ‘I’m ready to do it.’ And whatever the answers are to those questions, I’m going to be alright and I’ll be able to cope. I can stand over every word in the book, and that was important.”

Meeting former Tottenham player Paul Stewart was one of the inspirations behind Sadlier’s decision to write ‘Recovering’.

Source: EMPICS Sport

He continues: “I go to therapy every week, so throughout writing the book, I was in therapy. And that was a huge support. Any of the topics that had come up or would come up — the memories or emotions or regrets, the stuff that would make me feel happy as well as sad, I had somewhere every Wednesday to go to, just to talk about it in a really safe place with someone I trusted.

“I’ve heard people talk about the process of writing a book and they said it was very therapeutic. A lot of the stuff they were talking about or remembering for the first time. They were saying things out loud for the first time. Virtually everything that was in the book I’d been talking about for years in therapy anyway.

“So there was no real new material that came up, but it did really help. Because when you really write down in detail all the stuff you’ve gone through, particularly when some of the things you go through are difficult and you remember how you felt, I feel very different today and it’s nice to realise how different my life is compared to some of the darker days I’ve had in the past.”

Moreover, his concerns that the book would do more harm than good have proved to be unfounded.

“There was the initial reaction to the Late-Late interview and 100% of the messages I got were positive and supportive. I thought if people stopped me and mentioned the interview, will I be awkward? Or will they be awkward? That hasn’t been the case at all.

“There hasn’t been one response from anyone — either directly to me or that I’ve heard about that has made me question whether writing this was the right thing to do.”

Nowadays, Sadlier feels much more comfortable in his own skin than had been the case for much of his teenage and adult life.

Opening up, both in therapy and to loved ones, has helped. Quitting alcohol has also had a positive effect. Nights out without drink are not as awkward as he feared. The cravings for a pint have gradually become less intense since he originally stopped in 2011, after one night too many where he blacked out or lost control in some fashion.

Sadlier, pictured above representing Ireland at the World Youth Championships in 1999, says he no longer thinks of himself primarily as a former footballer.

Source: EMPICS Sport

“It was an exhausting battle of trying to control something that was always out of control — my relationship with drink,” he says.

“I know lots of people who are recovering alcoholics and my own view is I don’t think I had issues with drink because of any one specific incident in my life or any specific experience — it’s a combination of them all. [There were] genetic reasons — I came from a home where alcoholism was present since I was a kid, so I think no matter what road I travelled, I would have arrived at this destination. I would have arrived at a point where I’d accept I had to stop drinking or continue creating carnage.

“I switch off when I hear someone talk about the idea of constant or eternal or ongoing happiness. ‘Here’s the secret to happiness or the key to happiness.’ Or ‘here are the things you need to do or change or say in order to achieve and maintain happiness’. Happiness is just one thing you’re going to experience throughout your life. There are loads of other emotions.