Pat Shovelin has found refuge in the dressing room lately.
Despite battling a debilitating form of cancer, he somehow kept enough energy and strength to stay in his role as the goalkeeping coach with the Donegal Under-21s.
A sparkling exterior masks the deadly disease that has taken hold of the 40-year-old.
Cholangiocarcinoma is uncommon in one so young, but his worst feaes were realised when Dr Gerry McEntee relayed the news at a consultation in the Mater Hospital in February.
Shovelin is cut from tough cloth and managed to summonse the will –a defiance to his condition, even – to stay with the Donegal Under-21s, working with goalkeepers Danny Rodgers and Paddy Byrne.
After winning the Ulster final against Derry in Armagh, the captains, Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Tony McClenaghan, were joined by Shovelin in lifting the Irish News Cup.
“Football has been an escape,” Shovelin, who is facing fear and uncertainty as he fights his liver cancer, which may, or may not, be curable.
“I focussed on small things. I got to the Tyrone game and then we had a final was on the horizon, but I missed the Cavan game, the semi-final, because I had been admitted.
“It was a very emotional night to win Ulster under the circumstances. In a way, it meant as much as the All-Ireland. It was on that level.
“It was a great honour and I’ve been blessed to win what I did win.”
Gary Walsh, who had been the goalkeeping coach with the squad, was changing jobs and couldn’t commit.
Manager Declan Bonner heard Shovelin giving an interview one day July as he was driving home and the pin dropped.
The following morning, the pair met and Shovelin agreed to get involved.
“It was very evident to me that he had good structures and good people involved,” Shovelin says.
“I knew there was a good group. Declan was more than convincing. I knew things had stepped up. Things have progressed massively since 2010. Jim (McGuinness) put down the base and you can see now how the coaches have progressed the whole thing.
“I was excited to get back involved in Donegal football again.[adrotate group=”91″]
“When I look back now, especially after the last few months, it’s been a real help to me. Declan and those players have been brilliant to me and for me.”
Shovelin had been on the inside of the circle for that period under McGuinness he says was ‘box office’.
Shovelin himself won a couple of Championships with Ardara but, after his playing days were over, he went into coaching.
In the early 2000s, he did some coaching badges with former League of Ireland keepers Nicky Broujos and Declan McIntyre.
Gaelic football has no recognised goalkeeping coaching course so Shovelin did his learning through soccer.
He had hoped to begin his UEFA ‘B’ licence this year – something that would have allowed him to coach at pro level – but those plans have had to take a back seat.
Shovelin admits that he was edgy at first when McGuinness drafted him into the Donegal set-up.
“I wasn’t sure if Paul Durcan would even know who I was – it was a big step up for me,” Shovelin says.
“The first night I met with Paul and Michael (Boyle), we clicked and we became best friends.”
McGuinness recruited Shovelin for the 2010 Under-21 campaign.
Shovelin was ambitious, but he was worried about the limitations of the group – even if he was acutely aware of McGuinness’s strengths.
‘I hope we get to Croke Park,’ Shovelin ventured to McGuinness at the outset.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing plenty of Croke Park, Pat,’ came the firm response.
Croke Park, for the next few summers, became a home-from-home.
McGuinness was living in Creeslough in those days and over the kitchen table before their opening game against Armagh in 2010, he gave Shovelin an indication of his aims.
“I was just hoping that we wouldn’t shame ourselves,” Shovelin says.
“He brought out the programme from the previous year’s All-Ireland Under-21 final and opened it to the page with the teams on it.
“He said to me: ‘We’ll be there this year’. He didn’t say it in an arrogant way; it was matter-of-fact.”
Donegal won the Ulster U21 title that year and came to within a crossbar’s width of an All-Ireland U21 crown.
The following two years saw Donegal go to the top of the mountain, capturing Sam Maguire in 2012 having won back-to-back Ulster senior finals.[adrotate group=”91″]
After a final defeat to Kerry, the band broke up. McGuinness was already working as a performance consultant with Celtic FC and had run his race with Donegal.
The players would go back, under Rory Gallagher’s watch, to try again.
Shovelin, though, was caught in the headlights.
“After we lost the All-Ireland in 2014, it felt like I had been on the carnival, but the carnival had moved on and I was on my own in the car park with the lights gone out,” he says.
“I felt that things had stagnated for me.”
He got involved with his club, Ardara, for 2015, before Bonner came calling last summer.
Shovelin is friends with former Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given. Shovelin and Given’s sister, Michelle, were at college together in Sligo and Given, through the contact with Shovelin, came to train with Donegal in 2014.
“I was over at Celtic-Man City in December and Shay has been in touch regularly through the last while,” Shovelin says.
“I’ve been blessed with the support and that means a lot. The battle is tough, but the support of people makes it a little bit easier.
“Football hasn’t just been good for keeping me active and involved lately, but the people involved in sport have been so amazing.
“Conor McManus (the Monaghan forward) text the other day. Stuff like that means so much to me.”
And McGuinness calls a few times a week.
“Jim is great,” he says. “I come off the phone crying, but it’s not about the illness. We’d just have the craic, talking about football, about all sorts, memories and what not.”
He can joke with McGuinness that he is now the most successful coach in Donegal.
‘For the moment,’ McGuinness will mischieviously retort.
Although football is only a small part of who Pat Shovelin – a family man with a wife, Chrissie, and two sons, Ethan (4) and Tom (16 months) – is, it has kept his fire burning in his darkest hours lately.
“I’ve not been able to do as much,” he mentions.
“Even at training I always joined in. Paul Durcan broke my fingers a couple of times actually. I’d have joined in for games too and had Michael Murphy bearing in on me some nights – that’s an experience!
“It’s funny, I only got myself checked up after becoming sore at training. The Under-21s were taking a few shots at me that day. By the time I’d dived, the shots had hit the net and gone back out again…I put it down to old age at first…”
His voice trails off with a sigh.
It was more serious, more sinsiter, than simplty the creaks of a 40-year-old mucking in with his young colleagues.
He’s talking openly about the hand life has dealt him, in the hope that it will encourage others, most especially young males, to have themselves checked.
He’s living now like that old football cliché: ‘one game at a time’.
“I met Fr Pat McHugh in Termon recently and he lifted a weight from my shoulders,” Shovelin says.
“He spoke common sense. It’s about living each day as if it’s your last. We get bogged down in this, that and the other, but it’s so true. “Sometimes you can wander from your faith. When things are dark, you need something to turn to and Fr McHugh definitely helped me.
“A lot of people are gone since I got my news. Look at that 116 helicopter crash, people out doing good jobs, and that happened.
“You just don’t know what’s around the corner.”Tags: