Sean Friars: From Liverpool youth star to addiction battles - then redemption

Sean Friars (front row fifth from left) pictured in a Liverpool Youth Academy squad in 1996 that included Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard
Friars (front row fifth from left) played for Liverpool youth teams that included Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard

"If I had reached my potential, I wouldn't have the kids I have now and I wouldn't be with Jacqueline."

Sean Friars has just spent 35 minutes documenting his life.

From more than holding his own in a Liverpool youth set-up in the mid-1990s that included Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, to a descent into alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs and gambling.

Along the way, he "even made it on to Sky Sports News" after a crazy incident which led to his arrest by a team of Suffolk police officers during his post-Liverpool spell at Ipswich Town.

That day in question had followed a night's drinking with friends in Ipswich celebrating his acquisition of a new BMW. Football Lives indeed.

But on this June day in Derry as he sits in Depaul Foyle Haven Centre, which helps people afflicted by addiction issues and homelessness, a 40-year-old Sean Friars reflects on a life "turned full circle".

The former addict's working life with Foyle Haven is now fully focused on helping people struggling with some of the demons that wrecked his football career.

Steve Heighway attempts to get past Borussia Monchengladbach's Berti Vogts during the European Cup semi-final second leg in 1978
Steve Heighway immediately moved to sign a 12-year-old Friars after seeing him in action during a trial

Friars' first Liverpool contract at aged 12

Friars' displays for Foyle Harps in his native Derry caught the eye of a host of English and Scottish clubs and he wasn't even yet a teenager when his first Liverpool contract was agreed after the club's academy chief, Anfield great Steve Heighway, had been immediately struck by the youngster's ability.

"Within 15 minutes of my first training session, I had not had any games, Steve Heighway phoned our next door neighbour - we didn't have a phone at the time - and said to my father Neville, 'We have a contract here for Sean, we want him to sign it'," Friars told BBC Radio Foyle's Dessie McCallion.

The left-sided midfielder's routine over the next few years involved heading over to Liverpool virtually every weekend and school holiday as he played and trained with players who were to become established stars.

Then in 1996, he was offered and accepted a full-time Liverpool contract under the then Youth Training Scheme [YTS] as the club continued to believe Friars represented an investment that was going to reap rich dividends.

"There was real quality at the time with Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman having already come through the ranks. Then Jamie Carragher and David Thompson and then you had your Owens and your Gerrards.

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Demons wrecked his football career but now Sean Friars helps others to battle their's

"On the pitch, and at training, I knew I was as good [as them]. I probably was ahead of a lot of them at the time."

Homesickness sees Friars lose direction

But like many young Irish players pursuing their football dreams in England, homesickness and sheer boredom soon became issues for Friars.

"At the weekends, it got tough because all the other boys were going home. Even the Welsh and Scottish lads would just jump on a train or a bus whereas I would be left in the digs full-time."

While naturally a shy person, Friars' status as an up and coming Liverpool player meant a rapidly expanding social circle and outlets.

"Me being a bit homesick and with Liverpool having such a big Irish following, people were coming over and looking for tickets.

"You would bump into people in the town and me being a bit homesick, I kind of latched on to those people and spent time with them and you were out drinking and partying.

"For a while the club couldn't see it. Having a lot of ability, I was able to cover it up in terms of the football side of it.

"But when they grasped that things were getting a wee bit of out of hand, Steve Heighway, Sammy Lee and boys at the club put their arm around me and some of the senior players as well were coming and having a chat with me and trying to help. It was a real family club.

"But these were my decisions even though I knew what I was doing was something I shouldn't be doing. I just kept going."

Sammy Lee was Liverpool's reserve team coach during Friars' time at the club
Reserve team coach Sammy Lee was among those who tried to save Friars' Liverpool career

'Son what have you done'

Liverpool even welcomed Friars back after he had come to police attention in the city after smashing up a telephone box following another day's drinking.

"After that incident, I got a police caution and I panicked and I went straight to the airport and went home. My family didn't know anything until I actually knocked at the door.

"You can imagine the shock on their faces when I'm stood at the door with my suitcase. It was a really worrying time for them."

Inevitably, Friars eventually ran out of road at Liverpool in 1998 as then manager Roy Evans told him his contract wasn't being renewed.

"That same day after I had just been told I wasn't getting a new contract, we had a game against Manchester United reserves and I had one of those games when everything went right.

"After the game, I remember Sammy Lee just looking at me, shaking his head and saying, 'son what have you done'."

Bryan Hamilton was aware of Friars' ability having been Northern Ireland manager
Bryan Hamilton's recommendation saw Friars securing a contract at Ipswich following his exit from Liverpool

Hamilton offers Friars Ipswich chance

Despite the end to his Liverpool career, Ipswich Town quickly offered Friars a contract on the recommendation of ex-Northern Ireland boss Bryan Hamilton, who was fully aware of the Derryman's ability having watched him play for the country's youth teams.

"Bryan Hamilton was with Ipswich manager George Burley and was really good to me.

"He phoned me straight away and said, 'down you come. We have a contract here for you'.

"I went down and had a look at the club. I loved the place too. I probably loved it a bit too much.

"I was doing well but again, I remember the reserve and first-team coaches pulling me aside and saying there was so much more in there. I was just coasting," says Friars, who earned the first of his 21 Northern Ireland Under-21 caps during his time at Portman Road.

Career in England ends after high-profile arrest

But Friars' Ipswich career was to end very publicly after an incident in April 2001 when, after bumping his new BMW into the back of an off-duty policeman's car at a set of traffic lights following another night's drinking, he sped off from the scene of the crime.

"There was a wee bump…no damage. The fellow got out of the car and said 'you've bumped the car' and obviously he could smell the drink off me. He flashed the badge.

"I just remembered in that split second it was Liverpool all over again. What have I done? I literally just panicked. I was sitting down with Ipswich at the time agreeing a new deal.

"I drove off. There was a wee bit of a police chase. They followed me for a while. I was driving a wee bit too erratically. Obviously, with the registration, they traced it back to my house."

When he did return home a couple of hours later, a police squad were waiting for him and it didn't end well as a scuffle was eventually ended by him being wrestled to the ground by a number of officers - one of whom ended up with a broken thumb. All with the neighbours looking on.

"I was done for leaving the scene of an accident, resisting arrest and then it got all blown out of proportion.

"To be fair to that policewoman, her statement tallied with exactly what had happened but one of the other police officers said I had behaved like King Kong.

"I had my mum over for the court case. It was on Sky Sports News. Blankets were put over her and my head to sneak her in the backdoor. That was really tough for her.

"Once we got into the court and read the statements, the judge just said it looked like this young fellow was going to lose a lot so I ended up getting a fine and some community service."

But Friars' football career in England was over.

Sean Friars (centre) celebrates after helping Derry City win the 2002 FAI Cup
Sean Friars (centre) helped Derry City win the 2002 FAI Cup but he continued to battle against alcoholism

Life spirals out of control after return to Derry

After rejecting an offer to play for a Dutch club, Friars opted to return home to Derry and it was at that point his life really began to spiral out of control.

"I wanted a break from football. I had had my fill of it.

"But unfortunately I was still living a footballer's lifestyle. I got caught up in the partying and all that comes with that."

Needing money to live like everybody else, Friars returned to the game within a year as he signed for Irish League club Newry Town before further stints at Derry City, Finn Harps, Cliftonville, Limavady United, Newry City, Institute and Dungannon Swifts over the next dozen years.

Friars' two-year Derry City stint included helping his hometown club win the FAI Cup in 2002 but he admits his time in local football was a stark tale of unfulfilled potential as alcoholism had taken a grip on his life.

"I was going through the motions. Fortunately for me, I was still able to get by. People still saw my ability and were willing to take a chance on me."

Gambling and prescription drugs addictions

Eventually, Friars gave in to his family's plea that he should start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings although he still was refusing to accept he had a serious problem.

"I was going to please other people. I was saying to myself, 'I'm a young lad. Everybody does this'. I was off it for a while but I kept going back to it.

"Gambling was going hand in hand with it. It was just a lifestyle I got caught up in. It was definitely something I didn't need in my life given all I was going through but at that time, my decision-making wasn't good."

But Friars had yet to reach the bottom as he then became addicted to prescription drugs tramadol and diazepam after suffering a bad arm injury caused by his drinking.

"I stopped drinking because the tablets were like a substitute. I was told I was going to be on them for life.

"One time, I remember forgetting or losing my prescription and that weekend was like something out of Trainspotting and I thought, 'Oh…I'm in trouble here'.

"There is only so much you can drink before you fall over or fall asleep but with those things you can be dead before you know it.

"I know I was putting my life at risk. Depression and that stuff was there. There were times when I thought about ending it."

Emmet Friars also played in England before having stints for several Irish League and League of Ireland clubs
Friars said words uttered by his brother Emmet at one of his counselling sessions finally convinced him to tackle his drug addiction

'You were my hero but I no longer want to see you'

But rehabilitation was to come in the nick of time for Friars as a home truth from his brother Emmet, who played with Notts County before beginning a long stint in the Irish League and League of Ireland, finally was the "game-changer" in turning his life around.

"Rehab was hard….tough…but the best thing I've ever done," recalls Sean.

"I went in there cold turkey. Your body hurts and I don't think I slept for 21 days. I was reading all the books I could read. Bibles...I was reading the back of mars bars packets - anything to take my mind off this feeling I was getting.

"My mum and my wife were there for the first few months and then they brought Emmet in.

"I remember Emmet sitting there. He spoke about it at my wedding as part of his speech. Going from being his hero to not wanting to see me.

"Leaving that family group meeting that day, the penny had dropped. Something changed in me. I focused everything into the counselling."

When Friars came out of rehab, he went back to school to get English and maths qualifications before landing a job with the Leafair Community Association in Derry.

"That was brilliant as they are great people up there it really helped my recovery as well.

"Then Richard Stewart, manager at Depaul Foyle Haven, told me that the job was coming up here and that 'you are really, really good at this'. I went up and was interviewed and haven't looked back since.

"I know I can give something in my work if I need to call on my story, which I do a lot. I've built my trust with some of the service users because they know where I've come from."

'My journey has helped me become a better coach'

On this day, Friars, who turned 40 last month, has just returned from one of his four children's school sports days.

When asked whether he has any regrets over missing out on the financial security a successful career in England would have virtually guaranteed for him and his kids, Friars' reply is instant.

"My kids are my kids and I wouldn't swap them for the world.

"The other side of it too is that I probably wouldn't have made it. I probably would have died how I was living my life. Everything happens for a reason. I truly believe that."

And after falling out of love with football, Friars finds himself immersed in the game again having recently become assistant first-team coach at Irish Premiership club Institute following a managerial stint at Limavady United.

"A few years back, I don't think anybody would have let me around coaching. I'm really thankful to Institute and Limavady for giving me the opportunities.

"I'm really, really proud of my journey and what I've come through.

"Fortunately people are starting to see now that I'm quite good at that [coaching] as well.

"It's people skills as well. You can know about the game but you have got to be able to get your points across and be able to talk to people.

"I genuinely believe my journey has helped me be better at that."