Footballers have to take the rough with the smooth, and Stephen McPhail has had it rougher than most. In the second half of his exclusive interview with VFTN, he discusses his health problems and the unsung heroes behind the scenes that were there for him when he needed them most.
As we all know, you were given a shock cancer diagnosis whilst playing for Cardiff. How was that diagnosed and what were the symptoms you were experiencing?
I initially found a small lump under my jaw bone and it was completely innocuous really. I had no pain or discomfort and the club doctor Len Nokes initially thought it was just an infection. Having kept an eye on it for a while, Len became slightly concerned and decided that I should see a specialist to rule out anything sinister. He wasn’t concerned and it was just a precaution, but one he felt we had to take.
I wasn’t worried in the slightest, especially when the first specialist said he thought it was just a cyst. Len wasn’t convinced by that and so we went for a second opinion on it. The second specialist wasn’t concerned either and believed it to be a cyst of some kind, but decided to remove it anyway to be on the safe side and that’s when things became interesting.
Thankfully there was an international break, which was great for me as I was determined not to miss a game over something so apparently minor. The timing worked out well and I went in for the operation. The surgeon reassured me I would only be in the hospital overnight and should be back playing within the week.
I was able to play the following week with no issues and a month later the results became available. Funnily enough, the weekend that my results were due coincided with my parents visiting from Ireland. Len and I went to see the specialist for the results together.
The specialist sat down and told me that the lump they had removed was a lymphoma and I immediately thought; “I don’t know what a lymphoma is.” The specialist explained to me that it was cancerous and I was just in complete shock at what he had said. Len probably took the news worse than I did at that time. He was pale white and looked like he had seen a ghost. Seeing his worried reaction took me aback and that whole meeting was just a shock to the system.
What did you do next and how did everyone respond to your news?
I determined immediately that I was going to play on and not tell the squad. Dave was absolutely brilliant with me from the moment he found out. He agreed that I could keep it private, train and play as normal until the treatment began.
My quad muscle felt slightly tight in the warm up for the next match (Nottingham Forest), but I thought I was OK to play. Within 10 minutes of the game starting, I had pulled the muscle straight off the bone and I just remember thinking how unbelievable the last few weeks had been.
When I look back though, it was probably the best thing to have happened to me because I had to go through an operation on my quad muscle and the rehab from that injury coincided with my treatment for the cancer. That meant I had another goal to aim for and kept my mind on track.
I was able to think of the cancer treatment as something that was an aside to my rehabilitation for the quad injury and that helped me get through it. Treatment for cancer really does knock you for six, but my focus on getting back playing as quickly as possible helped.
To be back playing for the first team within four months of the diagnosis was incredible really because the doctors weren’t convinced I’d ever play another game of football.
You were also diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, which affects the auto-immune system. What was it like trying to play football, competing at a high level and also competing against this debilitating condition? Do you feel like it held you back or restricted your career to some extent?
Navigating that diagnosis was a real jigsaw puzzle for the specialists to put together and that meant my diagnosis took some time. Whilst I was awaiting the final verdict on why I was becoming so ill (it took over a year), I had still somehow managed to play over 50 matches.
I knew I wasn’t going to be the same player again after the diagnosis, but I was determined to be the best player I could be in the circumstances. The club physio Sean Connolly and Len were absolutely amazing during that time and they put so many hours into helping me, they were just incredible.
Adam Rattenberry (lead performance analyst at Cardiff from 2005 – 2008) actually turned my case into a study aiming to learn more about the whole condition. Not many staff members would do that, let me tell you. I was on over 15 tablets a day trying to control my blood pressure, amongst other things, and because of that team around me and my determination, I was able to play over 150 more games after my diagnosis. I can’t sing their praises highly enough.
How difficult was it telling your family about the diagnosis?
It’s the most difficult thing of all because as soon as you go home and mention cancer, everyone starts thinking the worst.
My little boy had just been born and it was so difficult managing all of that. Your family are the ones that get you through it and stand by your side in the dark times. They’re the most important people in my life. My number one motivation was to make sure I was there for my family and make sure I was going to get better.
You and many other players at Cardiff seem to have a lot of time and respect for the club doctor Len Nokes. Can you tell us why he’s so important to you and the club?
When you talk about unsung heroes, I can’t even put it into words of just how true that is about that man. I’ll tell you a story about him that demonstrates his character.
When I went in to the meeting with the specialist who gave me my cancer diagnosis, my father waited outside the room and Len came into the room with me. Upon giving me my diagnosis, the doctor then proceeded to address Len as my father. He had assumed given the strength of feeling on Len’s face that he was my father. That goes to show you just how much he cares for his players. The specialist could see how much of a father figure he was.
There was more than occasion where I had to be rushed in to hospital because the pain was so severe and no matter what time of day or night it was, he would be there to meet us at the hospital. It honestly chokes me up thinking about how much he helped me and my wife Michelle through the hardest time of our lives.
At a time when dark thoughts cloud your mind and you just don’t know what’s around the corner, he was always there with calming words of wisdom. I can’t speak highly enough of him, Cardiff have an absolute gem of a man in Len and he is an absolute hero to the players and staff at the club.
It goes way beyond a job for that man and people outside the club could easily miss it. When you’re outside of the club, it can be easy to miss the fact that most football players have various issues of some sort, whether physical or mental. Len has always been there for us. His door is always open and it doesn’t matter what the problem is, he wants to help.
It could be a psychological issue or a physical problem, he makes himself available and it’s all confidential. His role cannot be overstated. He is an absolute God send and is fundamental to all the club has achieved.
To see the horrendous circumstances he has been through with the loss of his daughter, my heart just goes out to him. Our families became very close over the years and even now when I speak to him, he’s heartbroken at what’s transpired. You wonder how something like that can happen to someone like him.
He tells me his love of Cardiff City and the club are helping him get through the day to day and that’s a demonstration of his character.
Given it has been 11 years since the club sacked Dave Jones. How do you feel his time in charge should be remembered?
Dave should be remembered as nothing less than a miracle worker. When he came to the club, it was on its knees and there was a serious amount of upheaval. How he managed to get the right players with the right character in to a squad that was so together was phenomenal. He gave me the freedom to just go out and express myself.
He led us to various play-offs, the FA Cup final and played a major part in forming the foundations upon which the club is now built. If that final against Blackpool had gone any differently, he would have been held in the highest of regards and some of the doubters would have been silenced.
Malky Mackay stood on his shoulders and there should be no doubt in my mind that the job he did was remarkable. He forged a fantastic link between the fans and the players and when you consider all that was going on off the pitch, that really was an unbelievable achievement.
You mention the FA Cup final there. How do you look back on that now?
Honestly, I probably enjoyed the semi-final more because we had overcome the most tense, pressure-filled game of my career. When that final whistle went, it was just the most wonderful feeling and I’ve never had it since.
The overriding feeling regarding the final was one of disappointment given we ran a very talented Portsmouth squad so close and probably could have won it. The manner in which we lost was so frustrating but to lead the team out as captain was indescribable.
When you captain Cardiff City, you are always aware of just how big a responsibility that is and you never want to take that for granted. I was the proudest man alive that day. It is still something I am so proud of.
Finally Stephen, how would you like to be remembered by the supporters at Cardiff?
I played for the club for eight years and I would hope that they saw that I was always true to myself. I always gave my all in every game and I know my style looked languid at times, but I cared more than anyone in that dressing room.
I loved playing for Cardiff City and above all, I would like to be remembered as someone who gave everything for the cause.