“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” – Bill Shankly.
Avid Dundalk fan Alan Gray always knew that 2019 would be life-changing. He just didn’t know how much.
Coming into this year, the local businessman – who runs Goldstar Jewellers in the Demesne Shopping Centre – had much to look forward to.
On July 12th he got married to Shauneen Bannon while there was still his 50th birthday to look forward to exactly two months later on September 12th.
A brilliant year was further enhanced by the fact that his beloved Lilywhites were battling for honours on three fronts. By the time Alan returned from his honeymoon, Vinny Perth’s side were well on course to retaining the league title, there was an EA Sports Cup semi-final to look forward to and their bid to retain the FAI Cup for the first time had just got off the ground courtesy of a 1-0 win away to Cobh Ramblers.
Then Alan’s world was rocked to its core when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer on August 15th.
Suddenly a year that promised so much was gripped by fear, anxiety and doubt.
Thankfully this was one story which had a happy ending.
Just six days after turning 50, Alan underwent a bowel re-section operation on September 18th before finally getting the all-clear less than a fortnight ago on Thursday October 17th.
He could be forgiven, therefore, for feeling like a winner when he takes his seat at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday for the FAI Cup final between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers regardless of the outcome on the field.
Speaking about his whirlwind three months, the father of four admitted that it was a slight accident while meeting his son Niall for an early morning flight at Dublin Airport last March which led to his diagnosis.
“I fell at the airport in March,” he revealed.
“I was heading over to a Celtic game with my eldest son. He was coming from Galway and I was meeting him at the airport but I fell and hit myself against a railing.
“It was about five in the morning but I thought nothing of it. It was sore but I said I’d just get on with it. We went to Glasgow then and I was on the drink for two days so I didn’t feel anything but a week later it was still sore, two weeks later it was still sore and three weeks later it was very sore so I went to the doctor.
“It turned out just to be bruised ribs which he said could take months to heal but when I was there I asked for blood tests just because I was there. I got a call the next day to say my iron was very low and they said they wanted to send me for scopes. So I went for the scopes and they found a number of polyps which isn’t unusual because they’re just like skin tags in the bowel. But there was a large one they couldn’t remove so they took a biopsy of it and it came back a week later cancerous.
“I was diagnosed on August 15th and I had an operation on September 18th for a bowel re-section, which is basically cutting out a bit of your bowel and rejoining it together again. About three weeks later then I got the all-clear, which was only last Thursday (October 17th).
“It was a few scary weeks but I consider myself one of the lucky ones. It was only stage one but only for the fact I went for the blood tests that day I could still be living with it and not know a thing because I had absolutely no symptoms.
“I turned 50 in September so I made a decision a few months ago that I was going to go for blood tests every six months anyway so I’m glad I did.”
Alan described the diagnosis as “terrible” and said he found it particularly hard to open up about it to wife Shauneen and his kids Niall (20), Ryan (18), Kayleigh (11) and Tyler (8).
“The diagnosis was terrible and the timing was very, very bad because it was my wife’s mum’s first anniversary. Her uncle, who she was very, very close to, had died the day before from bowel cancer that wasn’t detected early and he was only 56 so it was a very tough time.
“My GP said they were very confident they had it early but they didn’t know if it had spread at that stage until I had a scan. They did fill me with good confidence from the word go but still at the back of your head you’re thinking the worst and you start getting phantom pains in your body.
“The word itself is very scary but it’s strange how you react. I wasn’t worried about myself. I always thought if I was ever diagnosed with something serious I’d just put my head down in a corner but as soon as I was told I said ‘right, I’m going to fight this’. Not so much for myself but for the family. The only thing that got me down was looking at the kids, especially the two smaller ones. I couldn’t look them in the eye and that was tough but all is good.
“I’ve got the all clear and now I’m just looking forward to the Cup final and looking forward to Christmas,” he laughed.
Alan admits that the whole ordeal has been a real eye opener and changed his outlook on life.
“Big time,” he said.
“Even though it was only stage one, the word cancer is a brush with death and you do have it in your head that this could be the end or it could lead to the end so it does change your outlook and makes you grateful for everything you have including Dundalk and Celtic and Liverpool too,” he laughed.
“I watched the last Rovers game in a hospital bed. I couldn’t move but I had an iPad setup and when they scored I let a roar and four nurses came flying to me to check I was okay.”
This Sunday he’ll be there in person to cheer on the team he has supported almost from birth having been almost born into it having followed in the footsteps of his father Owen and grandfather Paddy McAlester, who was a former director of the club.
Joining him will be members of the famous Tie Wrap Gang, a group of fellow supporters who have become close friends and almost like family over the years.
“The tie wrap gang are a great bunch of lads,” he said, before going on to explain how they got their name.
“Basically we were all volunteers above and we’d be a fairly tight-knit bunch. Before the European games we’d have to cover up signs and some advertising so we’d be covering it with cloth and everything was held together with tie-wraps hence the name the Tie Wrap Gang.
“We run a bus to every away game and we go away on a trip every year. We’ve a tie in with the Lurgan Foresters and they come down to us once or twice a year and we go up to them. It’s all about networking,” he laughed.
After overcoming a scary few months, Alan won’t be taking life for granted any time soon and he feels no one should take this current Dundalk side for granted either.
“It’s only seven years ago that we were packing bags in Tesco as part of Save Our Club but I think that only makes you enjoy these times and appreciate them all the more.
“My youngest lad turned eight a few weeks ago and just in the last six months or so he has really got into the football and he has seen us win five titles! He doesn’t know what it’s like not to win, which is quite amazing when you think back to where we were.
“We all take the success for granted even though we remember the bad times. You can’t not because we’ve been so good. Like God forbid we finish second in the league next year, we’ll all be devastated but we’d have given anything for that seven or eight years ago.”
Alan certainly won’t be taking Rovers for granted on Sunday as they look to end a 32 wait for the FAI Cup against the side they last won it against back in 1987.
Asked about the big game, he admitted: “I’m worried.
“Rovers are no bad side. On their day they are capable of beating us. They’ll be depending a lot on Jack Byrne but hopefully McEleney will be fit because he’s the guy with the brains and he’ll know Jack Byrne’s next move. They’d be on a certain level together. Man for man we are better, there’s no doubt, and if we turn up on the day we will win but we have to turn up.”
If Dundalk show half as much fight and determination as Alan they’ll be all right on the big day.
Whether his side win or lose on Sunday, Alan Gray is a real champion. He has won his own personal battle and that’s more important than any Cup final.