THE DERRY man who helped guide St Joseph’s Boys School’s U12 football team to N. Ireland Cup glory this year has been tackling a much bigger foe away from the football field.
Unknown to his pupils, English teacher, Sean O’Kane was diagnosed with Testicular Cancer on May 8th last year - almost 12 months before he helped the Creggan school to its first football title since 1988.
Faced with the biggest match of his life, Sean also had a football team to coach and didn’t let his battle with the disease stop him from assisting the school’s promising young football team who, he knew, had the potential to go on and win silverware.
And St Joseph’s Boys’ School did indeed, go on to claim their first ever NISFA title when defeating St Columb’s College (U12) convincingly in the season’s showpiece at Ballymena Showgrounds.
Sean and fellow coach and PE teacher, Paul Gibbons saw their young team battle back from a goal behind against their Buncrana Road counterparts in the final to claim their first ever Minor Cup title as he approached the year anniversary of being diagnosed with cancer.
Despite the physical toll he was facing post-surgery as he underwent Chemotherapy treatment, the 34 year-old Bogside man felt fit enough to take training sessions alongside Mr Gibbons and attend matches. And he spent a big chunk of his time on the football pitch.
So why endure the many training sessions and the stress of managing a boys football team when he was so sick?
Well Sean believes the distraction of guiding the Under-12 side through the N. Ireland Cup competition actually helped him in his recovery from the illness.
“Football has kept me going,” he said. “It’s allowed me to go in to school and help out. So it didn’t hold me back and the football gave me something to focus on.
“The doctors were very much telling me to keep up with my routine and not to lie in my bed. I know unfortunately with some people they suffer the side effects of the treatment but I was very lucky I was able to do it all.
“And that helped me in my recovery, the fact that I wasn’t being ill and I wasn’t laid up in my bed. The distraction of football definitely gave me some focus.
“The boys didn’t know any better so they just took it for granted and didn’t ask any questions.
“I was diagnosed on May 8th last year. And while it came as a shock, in a way when I was told I was kind of prepared for it because I had seen the signs and foolishly ignored them for a couple of weeks.
“Eventually I became physically sore and sought medical help and the medical teams in Altnagelvin and Belfast have been brilliant.
“They removed one of my testicles and then I went through the chemotherapy treatment which I finish up soon.
“They don’t like to give you the all clear for up to two years everything looks like it’s going the right way and I’m hopefully to get back at work soon because I’ve been off for a year.
“I’ve no problem highlighting my experience and stressing the importance of taking action if you notice something irregular. So if you find yourself in the same position as me, get to the doctors as soon as possible and get it checked out!
“Not everyone is as lucky as I have been and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Sean’s dedication to the school’s football team reaped its rewards as they sailed to victory in Ballymena and it was a proud moment for the Bogside man.
“We got to the final last year but we’ve never won it before,” he explained. “It’s the first time we’ve won a cup outright since 1988. So it’s been a long wait and you seen how much it meant to the boys and the school.
“The boys have been brilliant. We’ve beaten some very good teams along the way. Teams like Holy Cross and Boys Model - teams that are there every year - and that gave the boys confidence.
“St Columb’s won in all three finals one year so they’re used to winning. When they made it 2-2 the worry was that they would go on from there and win it but our lads got straight back up and scored within 30 seconds of them scoring.
“It’s been a brilliant year. To see them progress is fantastic,” he concluded.