Richie Sadlier pauses as he remembers the moment when, as a 40-year-old man, he told his father he had been sexually abused as a boy. “I told my dad this week last year,” he says. “I wanted to tell him in person. I didn’t want to text him. I didn’t want to say it over the phone. I didn’t want to say it in the company of other people.”
As he reveals in his compelling autobiography, Recovering, which won the 2019 Irish Sports Book of the Year, Sadlier was abused repeatedly at the age of 14 by a middle-aged physiotherapist. He still played professional football for Millwall and once for Ireland before a hip injury ended his career at the age of 24. Sadlier is now a psychotherapist, and the most interesting football pundit in Ireland today.
Sadlier did not write about the moment of revelation to his father. His dad is a recovering alcoholic, just like Sadlier himself, and not even their love for each other could help him share the truth. It was only when Sadlier completed the first draft of his book that he knew he could no longer spare his dad.
“But then he got sick,” Sadlier explains. “He ended up in ICU for five days. I thought, ‘I can’t tell him now.’ But I needed his feedback because it really mattered that my family were OK with the book. I picked him up from the hospital and took him to my sister’s place. He was heavily medicated, in physical pain, and quite tired and sore. He knew I had the draft of the book on the back seat.
“My wedding to Fiona was three weeks away and I was thinking, ‘What if he has a negative reaction? I don’t want to spoil the wedding. But I don’t want to tell him something he’s not ready to hear because he’s sick.’ Every time we were stuck in a traffic jam it was like, ‘Tell him now, tell him now.’ But I couldn’t.
“When we pulled up outside my sister’s place, he was like, ‘Are you going to give me the book?’ I handed it to him and said, ‘One of the most upsetting things you’re going to read is that I was sexually abused.’ I remember his face because he was unwell. He looked at me and went, ‘For fuck’s sake.’ We didn’t know what to say.
“But he came the week after the wedding and he’d gone through the book page by page. He told me really helpful things and he even told me off. ‘Are you not being too generous to me there?’ We went through it all and he said, ‘Well done.’ He didn’t explicitly mention the abuse and I didn’t ask him how he felt about it. This isn’t a topic you just throw at people when it suits you. We haven’t spoken about it since. But he’s been at a couple of interviews where I’ve talked openly about it. There’re loads of different ways of showing support. Sometimes it’s just being close to the person, beside them.”
In 2016, in the Guardian, Andy Woodward became the first footballer to reveal the sexual abuse he had endured as a young academy player. Had Sadlier told anyone then about his own ordeal? “Beyond my mum [who had separated from his dad]’, Sadlier recalls, “I had only told my sisters and my brother on drunken nights. And one friend.” Sadlier, in unflinching detail, writes of how, on a drink and cocaine-fuelled bender, he blurted out to a friend what had happened to him. They were in a taxi and his friend drunkenly warned him never to tell anyone else. Sadlier tried to bury his haunting secret.
“I met my friend a couple of days after the book was released and I’d gone on The Late Late Show to talk for the first time in public about the abuse. He said he felt awful but I was really glad to be able to say to him, genuinely, ‘Listen. I know you were doing it to protect me from what you thought would be a decision I’d really regret.’ I’d convinced myself this secret was going to stay with me until I die.” His book has been widely praised and, rather than being perceived as a victim, Sadlier is admired as a psychotherapist, a pundit and an astute interviewer in his Players Chair slot on the Second Captains podcast.
But he admits that news of his abuser last year shook him. “I had never sought any information on him,” Sadlier says. “I swear to God I only did it because I knew that after the book came out, the first questions would be: ‘Where’s this guy now? Are you going to report him? How can you claim to be someone who has the welfare of people as a priority in your working life, and then leave someone like him free on the streets?’ I thought I’d better find out where he was. I asked a friend in the police force to do some digging and I told him why.
“My friend sent me a screenshot of the [abuser’s] death notice. I was looking in his face and the message beneath said something like, ‘Loved by his wife, daughters, sons, grandchildren’, with positive praise for him. My friend had warned me by saying, ‘I found him. I think he’s dead. I’ll come back to you tomorrow.’ So I had a day to prepare for it. But when I saw the death notice I started crying. I was really confused as to why I was crying. Old habits kicked in and I said, ‘You fucking eejit. What’s wrong with you?’
“Maybe it was just relief. My only dealings with him from now on are trying to filter out some of my memories or feelings around it. They’re not great but I prefer it to be limited to that rather than the ordeal of knocking on his door and going: ‘Right, we’re going to court, you prick.’ I remember just crying on the Wednesday before the Women’s World Cup final that Sunday. I was working for RTE and no one knew.”
Is it easier for his patients to open up to him now that his own past is well-known? “I used to keep a keen eye out to see if anything they’d heard about me would affect the work. At first it could be a straightforward sentence like, ‘I saw you on TV’, or ‘Jesus, that was some match.’ But now, if you’re a client of mine and you’ve read the book, you’re going to know a hell of a lot about me. That’s unavoidable.
“I wondered about the impact. Are people going to think this man has gone through too much. He’s clearly too messed up, or broken. But it’s been good. It comes up a lot in sessions now where someone will say, ‘I know you know this because I’ve read your book.’ That’s a natural human exchange.
“But I remind them that ‘I’m your therapist. You might be aware of my life but, in this chair, I’m here for you.’” Sadlier’s intelligence and empathy shines out but how has the lockdown affected his work? “I contacted all my clients, offering them phone therapy, Skype therapy, Zoom therapy. Some people grabbed it, and some people who were coming to the end, said, ‘Maybe we’ll restart when I can meet you again’.” Does it change the dynamic being a Zoom therapist? “For me, yes. I remember one of the first sessions I had on Zoom was with a 17-year-old young lady.
“She was crying. I remember really feeling the distance. In this line of work so much is about connecting. But you have to come up creatively with a way that works now. So therapists have been challenged – like everyone else.”
Our talk shifts to football. Sadlier first met Roy Keane when he was called up to the Ireland squad in 2002. He was also managed briefly by him at Sunderland until injury forced his retirement before Sadlier could play for the club. Keane was kind to him and, as he knew Sadlier could become a pundit, said: “Don’t be another one who says nothing. Tell it like it is.”
Sadlier now says of Keane, who is a relentlessly abrasive pundit, “I’m bored listening to the same stuff from him. You kind of know what he’s going to say before he says it. I’d love for him to share what he went through as a player.” Sadlier laughs when I suggest that he should interview Keane on his podcast: “I could bet the house I’m sitting in that there’s no way in the world he’d do it.”
Football was Sadlier’s obsession as a boy. Then, after he was abused, the game became a much darker place where his inability to forge relationships and his subsequent alcoholism emerged during his wild days at Millwall.
How does he feel about the game now that it has disappeared during lockdown? “It’s like an ex-partner that I once thought I’d grow old with and live the happiest life ever,” he says. “It’s all I wanted to do. I swear to God the feeling I used to get from playing, it was amazing – and I’m not even talking about in a stadium. Even on my own in a field with a ball I’d be thinking, ‘This is brilliant.’
“I was so hurt, heartbroken, by the way my career ended. I found it difficult to be at matches, or to talk about football. Even in my early days in the media, I would be talking about matches and not caring who won or lost. Even with the international team I didn’t give a shit. I was just in pain. Then it became somewhere in between.
“But I really miss it in lockdown. Someone said there’s no real difference between a midweek day and the weekend because sport is gone. Sport was our thing at the weekend. I know there’re Tuesday, Wednesday games but sport on the weekend was just this constant thing. Now it’s just gone, and I don’t know when it’s coming back. It’s certainly not the thing I’m missing most during lockdown. But I want it back in my life.”
Sadlier, after all his past trauma, is close to his parents, happily married and, as he says of his work, “I love that there’s so much variety with different people in different locations. I also got married last summer and that part of my life was always a struggle. The relationship part just never seemed to go the way I wanted. But since meeting Fiona, because that has gone so well, the knock-on effect impacts me positively in all other areas. I know all our futures are uncertain with this crisis but I love the fact that whatever way this goes, whatever I’m going to do, I’m not going to be doing it on my own any more. I’ve come such a long way.”
Richie Sadlier’s Recovering is published by Gill Books
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.