Gerry Breen with his father, Gerard, and mother, Kathleen, before his move to Leeds United as a 16-year-old in 2000.
The similarities that exist between the tales of those who’ve experienced the “cut throat” nature of academy football in England are remarkable. A majority don’t make it and many within that tally are then left as fodder for the masses in the working world. The reality is harsh.
A portion will develop a resolve that insulates their mental wellbeing and allows them to either make it into the soccer aristocracy or at least progress in life when clubs pull the rug from beneath. Others are affected and fall away, forevermore scarred by a nightmare that began as a dream.
Blackrock’s Gerry Breen was through the mill at Leeds United; a prospect at Elland Road at the same time as Bryan McCrystal and Paul Murphy, interview subjects over previous weeks, were trying to find the same, deceitful path to the top. Like them, he never made it into the first-team. Like them, he finished playing football at an early age.
Now 36, he hasn’t kicked a ball since lining out for Rock Celtic almost a decade ago. It wasn’t as though he fell out of love with the game either. Injury intervened. Three serious knee operations in quick succession led to retirement becoming an inevitability. Though he’ll always have the war wounds to show for his efforts. A double knee replacement is in the offing.
“If I can get the two of them done in the next couple of years I’ll be delighted,” Breen, an intimate character, tells The Democrat.
“You’d think to look at me that there was a bend in my shinbone with the curve, the bow. It’s actually that the hinges in my knee have gone to the side nearly. They’re sore, they’re tender, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t in pain most of the time.
“The plan is to get them both done in the next couple of years and hopefully get the quality of life back.”
“I was injured at the time and I remember ringing home to the parents to ask if they’d send me over a few bob.”
Breen was a hot property during the late 1990s. Trials at Manchester United, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Leeds. The list is continuous. Involved with Ireland underage squads. A midfielder who oozed quality.
Firm contract offers were tabled by Villa and Leeds, the former throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the De La Salle student inducement-wise. Though Leeds were the “homely” option. He’d been over and the academy manager, Alan Hill, was an attractive, friendly person.
Hence he went with The Whites, the club his father, Gerard snr, supported all his life.
“I knew the Irish guys and Bryan McCrystal was very good to me; I just felt happier there and happiness was key for me.
“My dad asked me 500 times, double-checking to make sure that he was not the reason that I was choosing Leeds. I had to convince him that I was just happier there, it had nothing to do with him following Leeds. But it definitely made him proud.”
It was agreed that Breen’s year of recruits, the class of 2000, would be filmed for a Channel Four documentary and so the television company made a visit to his going-away party in the Rock, interviewing him a few times subsequently before the deal was ripped up only about a month in on the call of Brian Kidd.
The former Man United No2 was Hill’s replacement over Leeds’ development set-up, bringing with him a completely different aura. Breen and co, unaware of it immediately, were doomed before they began.
“We all arrived and the first thing you hear is that the man who’s signed you is gone. All of a sudden, what you thought you were coming into was gone. It was probably the worst start you could imagine.”
Sixteen when he upped sticks, moving a country away from home and leaving all he really knew up to that juncture - despite, obviously, having been over and back on weekend stays through his early teens - unpleasantness soon manifested itself.
John Seasman, an old headmaster-type, was appointed to hand down a professional approach to the youngsters, but his techniques bordered on bullying. Breen, just a few weeks into his stay, developed shin splints and so was ruled out for over a month. Injured players had to be at the treatment dock by 9am daily, though that was also the time in which the kit office opened. A delay was inevitable, but unreasonably punished.
“He fined me a week’s wages for being four minutes late - 9:04 - and a few days later he fined me for being three minutes late. In the same month, there were four or five of us in the canteen. There was an industrial toaster and like you do, ‘put a slice on for me…’
“We all had a slice each in and we never copped (the burning), we were watching a Champions League game with our backs turned to the toaster. Didn’t the smoke alarm go off and all four of us were fined a week’s wages.
“I was injured at the time and I remember ringing home to the parents to ask if they’d send me over a few bob. I’d three weeks’ wages taken out of the one month’s salary. And I still hadn’t signed a proper contract, an adult contract.”
Warren Joyce was over Breen’s U17 team that term and while opportunities were sporadic, he felt fit and ready moving into the 2001/02 campaign. Leeds, as a club, were much changed from the one he had opted for, though. As opposed to maximising the academy which produced Ian Harte, Alan Smith, etc, they were purchasing ready-made seniors for millions of pounds. The margins thinned and chances weren’t exactly available in lucky bags.
“I could sort of see the way it was going and my one worry was that the guy (Kidd), who didn’t sign us, would be taking in his own signings. It was like, ‘how is this going to affect your progress’ when a lad from the 17s was getting into the 19s ahead of you out of the blue. It started to happen, even more so in the third year. It was nearly automatic that these guys were going to play ahead of you; we weren’t their men.
“It’s tough, the whole situation, and you have to grow up quickly or else you’ll struggle. You’re constantly getting over disappointments, resetting and going again. You might play well in training all week and be on the bench.
“You mightn’t get on the pitch in that particular game and then feel you’re back at square one on Monday morning, having to do it all over again.
“It’s constantly about keeping your mind right, ‘don’t let it beat you’, keep rolling week after week. But it can play havoc with your head in that you start doubting your own ability, ‘are these people right?’”
“We were at the hospital from about six or seven in the evening and at three the next morning we found out that he was paralysed for life.”
Urged to work on the defensive side of his game, Breen spent his 2002 summer holidays grafting, readying himself for pre-season, trying to get an edge, attempting to overcome the hurdles and become more than ‘just another number’ at the club.
Moving into the third of his four-year contract, there was determination. And life was changing off the pitch too. Now living off campus, in digs with an elderly couple whose home was about 20 minutes from the training ground, he had company in three other Irishmen.
For a while all seemed to be going well. His manager was impressed. He felt great. Until one fateful weekend.
“The manager, Pop Robson, said I was doing well and everything was looking good. But the first league game, at home, he called out the team and I wasn’t in it.
“He literally looked at me in the dressing room when he said, ‘I know some of you have trained really well; don’t get disheartened, keep going’. I was devastated that day.
“That was the Saturday and on the Sunday the four of us went to a local shop. On the way back, on a country road, we swung the car out of the way of a car coming the other way, hit the grass verge, over the ditch and the car toppled four times, ending up on its roof.
“I’m lying on the roof of the car. I can feel the other lads beside me and I see a gap in the windscreen. I crawled out through it and two of the guys followed me, but the fourth, a great friend of mine, Peter Mitchell, was trapped. There was smoke coming out of the engine…
“He was sitting directly behind me, behind the passenger seat, and his arm was underneath my headrest. Whatever way it got trapped, he kept screaming, he was in bits and couldn’t feel his legs. I got back into the car, beside him, but I didn’t want to move or touch him.
“The people that we swerved from rang the authorities, who came pretty quickly, and it took them 30 minutes to cut him out. They asked if anyone wanted to go in the ambulance with him… Still, to this day, I feel so lucky because myself and the other two lads had no breaks or nothing that damaged us. But the whole way I knew his legs were gone.
“We were at the hospital from about six or seven in the evening and at three the next morning we found out that he was paralysed for life. He broke his back in two places. It was an awful thing to comprehend.”
Democrat: “And you only 18 or 19 yourself.”
Gerry: “Coming 19… He had to stay in Leeds for a week before they transferred him back to Belfast by helicopter to the independent unit for paraplegics. His arm was broken in two or three places as well.
“This particular guy, he was the type of guy that was telling us not to be so sad, ‘I’m alive, amn’t I’. It was killing me inside, seeing his positivity even though you were so down. He was saying he was going to be a Paralympian. And didn’t he go on to become an actor, in Hollyoaks and Coronation Street. Just a great guy.”
The trio were offered compassionate leave, but Gerry, unlike the others, declined in a hellbent attempt to remain in physical shape given the training he’d undertaken. It was a mistake.
“My head wasn’t right. Over the next month or so, any disappointment really got me down. I should’ve gone, cleared the head and attacked it again. After that Pop Robson got more humane with me. He talked to me more.”
So much so that a chat at Christmas convinced Breen that his future lay elsewhere and trials were arranged with Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest, where strong interest was forthcoming. But the circumstances didn’t suit. Still a teenager, he’d have to take a two-thirds drop in wages along with fending for himself in terms of accommodation, transport and meals.
The cocktail wasn’t appealing and so he remained with Leeds until the summer, at which point the club agreed to pay out the final year of his deal.
An amicable way to finish a turbulent period, which had its ups as well as downs.
“It was a marvellous time and I can’t say that I didn’t have some unbelievable days there. Some of the friends I had there, they’re still friends to this day.”
“When the surgeon went in to look at my cruciate it was like a cheese string.”
Back home, he tried his hand at landscaping for a few months, playing for Newry Town and Drogheda United before Trevor Anderson’s radar peaked. Breen was taken into his hometown club, though a ‘bucket tear’ in his cartilage yielded nine months on the sidelines - all before he could put pen to paper at Oriel Park.
The opportunity to work in McKenna Man on Earl Street arose as he got back to fitness, his good friend, Conor, son of the owner, PJ, setting it up. Portadown bid for Breen’s services simultaneously, a deal he had to decline on foot of working commitments on a Saturday afternoon.
Hence a transfer back to Rock Celtic, the club of his youth, and so unfolded a whirlwind series of seasons in which he forged a dynamic centre-field partnership with “a complete footballer”, Tony Walsh. Injury-free, he was flying, on and off the pitch, his future wife, Veronica, a permanent pillar, as well as his parents.
“I enjoyed those years so much, it was the happiest time I had playing football.”
With David Ward, Derek Delany and David McGeough among those to resume their Rock careers, titles and accolades started to shower the men in white. But it was too good to be true for unlucky Breen, ultimately.
“I went on a stretch for about five years where I didn’t even have a pulled hamstring and then, out of the blue, my right knee started to get sore. At first it was bearable and I would play, but on a Monday I’d be limping and by Tuesday it’d be gone. It was going on for months.”
Until one night he just couldn’t move any longer.
“Normally when you do your cruciate it’s a classic twist, snap and it breaks in one. But when the surgeon went in to look at my cruciate it was like a cheese string, it was coming away bit by bit by bit. It was getting weaker all the time.”
He returned months later in “great nick”, his rehab having involved physio with Eoghan O’Neill and gym sessions every morning. But...
“Six months later, didn’t the left knee go. The cartilage. Back in. Another operation. Another two or three months of rehab. Got the bucket tear out of it.
“Roll on another four or five months, didn’t the right knee go again. Back in for another cartilage job. In the space of months I’d three knee operations.”
On medical advice, just shy of his 27th birthday, he called it quits. With every injury the knee replacement timeframe reduced. He “misses it a terror”, but with the help of his father, he’s found pitch and putt, qualifying for All-Ireland series’ and representing Louth along the way.
“Only for that little bit of competitiveness that I still have in my brain, if it wasn’t fed by that, I think I’d go crazy.”
Still working for McKenna Man, he’s now based in their Drogheda outlet, while the Rock remains his home, with his wife and two kids, Morgan and Gerard. A proper “homely” environment, one which doesn’t involve strict timekeeping.