GERARD DOHERTY has been Derry City’s undisputed No.1 for quite some time but when it comes to family life the experienced ‘keeper takes nothing for granted as he learns to cope with being a father to an autistic child.
The 36-year-old City captain and his wife, Edele, are parents to five year-old Cian who was diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) two years ago.
And in a heart-warming interview to mark his testimonial year, the down-to-earth Creggan man opens up about how the sacrifices and daily struggles which come with having an autistic child have helped put his football life firmly into perspective.
He’s Derry City’s longest-standing goalkeeper, having made a total of 421 appearances for the Candy Stripes since making his debut in his first spell with his hometown club on August 1998, captaining the side 83 times.
So he may be a veteran between the sticks but Gerard admits his hardest challenge was coming to terms with his son’s disorder which, he understands, is a condition both he and his wife will tackle head-on for the rest of their lives.
And as he celebrates 10 proud years unbroken service to his hometown club, he’s promised to donate some of the proceeds of his upcoming events to a charity close to his heart.
Up until Cian’s diagnosis, Gerard’s been protective of his private life but he hopes his experience can help those in similar circumstances and he’s anxious to raise the profile of the ‘Circle of Support’ charity for autistic children which has provided his family with such vital support and, most importantly, a listening ear during testing times as parents.
Breaking his silence publicly for the first time, the former Derby County keeper explains how his family situation has ensured he keeps the highs and lows experienced on the pitch into perspective.
The numerous overnight stays during a League of Ireland season often take their toll on a busy family life but when he recently returned from a long, midweek trip from Limerick, he noted a significant, positive change in his son’s behaviour which made it all worthwhile.
“He’s definitely coming on leaps and bounds since he’s gone to school, we got him into Ardnashee and he was non-verbal for a long time,” explained Gerard. “He’s only really started to communicate with us.
It definitely puts things into perspective. You can get down about a match but sometimes that’s the only thing I want to do is get back to the wains.Gerard Doherty
“Even wee stupid things people would take for granted. I know now he misses me when I go away. And when I came back the other night from Limerick it was the first time he said it. The next day he turned and looked at me and said; ‘Cian missed Gerard’ and I was like, ‘what has he just said here’. He then said ‘hug’.
“So he’s started to come on massively. All the tiny things people would take for granted, we’re just sort of seeing those wee things now.
“It’s only now he’s started to say things like that. I know he’s missing me when I’m away. That’s a good thing, he’s starting to tell us what he wants and how he feels.”
Gerard admits his wife has sacrificed most in order to care and provide the necessary support for Cian, giving up her job when she had ‘the weight of the world on her shoulders’ last year. And while he also has a hands-on role with the children, he freely admits going to training sessions and playing matches with City offers him a release from the pressures at home.
“It was hard there for a couple of years, especially for Edele. I could go out training for a couple of hours and come back but he would never sleep. Edele would get the backlash of that and she would try and go to work and it was hard.
“Edele had to give up work last year. It just got too much. It was mad but you just have to get on with it. You go to training and nothing else matters for an hour or two. It might sound a bit selfish but at least I could do that whereas Edele had the weight of the world on her shoulders and was reading up about everything. She’s probably an expert in it now. But we can see the difference in Cian because of the work Edele has done.
“It’s something we’re always going to have to do and we understand that the same as anyone else who has children with autism. They’re going to be adults with autism at some stage and it’s something you just have to work with.”
So while the odd bit of abuse from the football terraces or the heart-wrenching feeling after a heavy loss naturally gets him down, his attention immediately turns to his children after a match.
“It definitely puts things into perspective. You can get down about a match but sometimes that’s the only thing I want to do is get back to the wains.”
Gerard’s other two children, Lennan (9) and Cian’s twin, Killian, cope ‘brilliantly’ with their brother’s ongoing condition according to their proud father, who explains how they ‘look at the world through different eyes’ as a result.
“To be fair to the other two boys, you wouldn’t believe the way they are with Cian. We would try and give them treats and take them away on their own at times because they live with it too. We had to move Killian out of Cian’s bedroom and even though he’s his twin brother, he calls Cian ‘the baby’.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of things the wains know and how they treat him just comes as second nature. I see it in the older boy. If we’re walking down the town and if he heard somebody say something about someone he would say ‘that’s not nice, he might have autism’. It definitely makes them look at the world with different eyes.
“We knew a long time before he was diagnosed that he had ASD.
“We knew from a year and a bit in and it helped that we could see Killian reach milestones and Cian wasn’t there and we could see the difference. So we were probably lucky enough we could see it early.”
The Circle of Support (C.O.S) has been instrumental in helping Gerard and Edele cope with their son’s condition in recent months as they spend time with those in similar positions. And they’re hoping the proceeds from the testimonial celebrations can help give something back to such a worthwhile cause.
“I don’t know what we would’ve done without them (C.O.S) a couple of years back. We just found out by word of mouth when someone invited us down. It was a bit of a shock at the start when you go into a total autism environment when you’re just used to your own family circle and the wain. It took a while to get used to but it was the best thing we ever done. Especially for Edele, being with people who are in the same situation and people who you can get advice from.
“You just know you’re not the only people it’s happening to.
“We’re now in the position where people can come to us and ask us for advice.
“There’s even a couple of people in football who would come to me and ask about Cian, maybe worried themselves, and it’s good we’re in a position to help others who might be in the same boat as us that are struggling a bit.
“I said to Edele if we’re having a testimonial year then I wanted to give some of the proceeds towards Circle of Support because the work they do with children is brilliant and they struggle to get funding. For parents getting together, it’s mad how much it helps them.”
As part of Gerard’s testimonial celebrations there will be a Casino Night on June 1st in Pitcher’s (Admission £10) and a Night at the Races on August 17th in Sandinos.