As a kid, football was simple. Get the ball at your feet and run.
I just used to love running around the flats in Ballymun after my friends and playing football,” says Bohemians midfielder Ross Tierney, ahead of his finale in the red and black shirt, tomorrow’s FAI Cup final against St Patrick’s Athletic, the first all-Dublin final in 21 years.
“Keith [Long, Bohs manager] calls me and Bucko [team-mate Keith Buckley] street footballers. We grew up working for everything and didn’t get anything handed to us, and that’s benefited me with a determination of getting knocked down, or not getting picked, and I feel like I have a point to prove.
“Once I’m on the football pitch I feel free. That’s probably why I’ve so much energy. I feel free running around. That’s my escape.”
Still only 20 but a father of two who speaks with the maturity of a man twice his age, Tierney has an innate strength which sees him bat away challenges. Ignored for cross-channel trials while friends are constantly on planes to England? He took a different route, starting at St Kevin’s Boys, through the Bohs first team and onto his next chapter, a three-year contract with Scottish side Motherwell which starts in the New Year.
Omitted, controversially, from the Ireland U-21 squad last summer? Tierney comes off the bench with two minutes to go and, despite being the smallest player on the park, scores the winner, with his head, against Australia.
Those are the on-field tests which footballers all over the world face. Tierney had been dealt some heavy, heavy blows, in his short career. The death, through suicide, of his brother Aaron last year turned his own life inside out, the result being a three-day stay in a psychiatric hospital 11 months ago.
“A smile hides a lot. Aaron was a quiet lad but always a happy lad. I was with him the day before he took his own life. There was nothing out of the ordinary. We spoke about everything we would normally speak about. Then the next day, your life is shattered and it’s where do I go from here,” says Tierney.
He’s still dealing with that internally, while also coping with the fact that his son, now two and half and a bundle of energy like his dad, was born with a rare and very serious condition, anal atresia, born without an anus. Life-saving surgeries on baby Leon made the injuries sustained by footballers appear meaningless.
But Tierney also feels he has carried with him guilt from his proximity to the tragic loss of another young person, the utterly shocking sudden death in 2017, during a game in Dublin’s schoolboy leagues, of Shelbourne player Izzy Dezu. Tierney was on the field at Dublin’s AUL complex when his U-17 St Kevin’s Boys side played Dezu’s Shels, four years ago next month.
Dezu left the pitch in an ambulance and was buried days later; Tierney was off on a second trial to Shrewsbury that week, but didn’t know he had torn his MCL (medial collateral ligament), in a challenge on Dezu, and was out for six months.
It was only when his brother (“I call him my brother but he was more like my best friend”) died that Tierney saw that guilt over Dezu’s death was lurking in his brain. “He died right in front of me and when I was in my dark place, I blamed myself for that,” says Tierney.
“It hadn’t been addressed. People think it’s just a tragic incident, but in fairness after the game we had a group chat and were offered counselling. Most of the Shels lads went to it. I was thinking: ‘why do I need to go to that? I’m alright, it’s a tragic incident and I’ll forget about it’. But every December 12, I always think about it.
“When I was going through my bad patch last November and December, it got on top of me. I probably shouldn’t have blamed myself but he was always on my mind. I was thinking ‘what if I hadn’t made that tackle?’. I blamed myself but it was a tragic incident. That is what depression does, but thankfully I’m in a better place now. I’ve had setbacks and hopefully we win Sunday and if I hit the ground running in Scotland I know that I’ve deserved it.”
His brother Aaron died through suicide in March of last year; again the impact only hit Tierney months later. The football season was just starting when Aaron died, matches and training kept Tierney busy, but when the season ended and there were more quiet days, the black cloud descended.
“Football was a short season with Covid so I had a short season, I had football as a break-away, you could go onto the pitch feeling down and come off feeling high. In November we didn’t have football, the season finished and it hit me in December,” Tierney says.
“I went into a dark place, depression, it started to get really, really tough, I ended up in St Vincent’s Mental Hospital for three days. I had Keith [Long] and Bohs, who I can’t thank enough for what they did for me, they got me into counselling, I still have my bad days but the good days are worth living.
“I am thinking, this is my career over, how am I in this situation? I am a footballer, I get paid to do what I love, why am I feeling like this? Why do I blame myself for Aaron’s loss? Why am I not happy?
"I understood it was not my fault, there was nothing I could do, I am here for a reason, God put me on the earth for a reason, I have a great family, with a great club, and I wanted to pay back and show people what I can do, that you can come from nothing and be in a dark place and keep getting knocked down. Once you get back up and fight you get the rewards and thankfully I am getting the rewards now.”
Tierney has praise for the people at Bohs who supported him, especially manager Long and assistant Trevor Croly, and also credits St Kevin’s man Alan Caffrey, while Dublin player Philly McMahon, who works in a mentoring role with Bohs, helped to bring him away from darkness.
“The breakthrough was probably counselling. Counselling has been unbelievable for me. It probably wouldn’t work for some people but there are thing there, like meditation helps me a lot, and thankfully with Philly McMahon since he came into Bohs, we do a lot of mindfulness and meditation and it has helped me a lot and helped the lads a lot and the performances are showing that,” he says, Tierney willing to speak openly earlier this week at an event to mark his nomination for the PFAI Young Player of the Year award, a prize where his peers decide the winners.
“It’s important to still wind down, even a simple five-minute meditation helps. With Philly we have mindfulness in every training session. It has helped us on and off the pitch. Even when I’m alone I can feel it relaxing you. Sometimes I never wanted to be in my own company because I beat myself down. Now I enjoy my own company.
“This time last year, sitting here I wouldn’t be able to speak about anything, especially not my mental health. men’s mental health doesn’t get spoken about enough, especially with footballers and lads that come back from England and think they have failed. It’s a horrible place.
“Fortunately I haven’t been through that and hopefully I don’t go through it. Depression is not nice. Everyone has their bad days and when I had bad days I thought I’d just get over it, then the bad days keep coming, keep coming and then you’re blaming yourself for things that you shouldn’t be blaming yourself for and beating yourself down for things you shouldn’t be beating yourself down for.
“I obviously have my bad days but I’m in the best shape of my life and I know that life is not always plain sailing. But I know when those bad days come around, I’m able to open up and speak about it, and be confident speaking about it in front of people. I’m not afraid to say that look, I have been through bad days and I have contemplated suicide.
“But I’m happy now. I know that some days I won’t be happy and I’m fine with that. I know that when I get to that stage I will be happy to open up, that I have counselling to go back to and I have family, that I wouldn’t have opened to before.
"Even if it’s a stranger, people in this room, or see them on the street, you try to notice the signs if there is anything wrong. But I’m in a great place and days like tomorrow [Cup final] are days where you want to live for.”
Tierney began the season expecting to go out on loan, instead he’s been a mainstay in the Bohs side, only missing games through injury or Ireland U-21 duty. That’s been noted abroad and Motherwell have signed him up on a long-term deal. Tierney travels over next week, after the Cup final, while his partner and two children will move over in February.
“I love doing football, love playing football and I just want a ball at my feet but at the end of the day there are other things bigger than football – like family,” he says.
“Growing up, I didn’t enjoy school at all and just wanted to play football. My teacher now says I was always the first out the gate to go training. My girlfriend still asks me what happens if you don’t make it in football, what’s Plan B? And I was like, Plan A is to make it as a footballer. But she was like yeah, what’s Plan B? To make Plan A work.”
If you have been affected by issues mentioned in this report, you can contact Samaritans on freephone 116 123, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Pieta House on 1800 247 247.