DEAN Shiels probably won’t like this because I’m going to mention his eye, the one he lost. The last thing I want to do is distract him because I greatly admired Deano when he played for my team and would love to see him win the League Cup with Kilmarnock today.
But this has to be said – I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how he plays football at this level with his degree of skill, how he scores goals requring keen awareness or nifty close control or a killing finish. Or, indeed, a combination of all these things, when he possesses 50 per less vision than the guys round about him.
This remarkable young man doesn’t like a fuss. Apart from family and closest friends, he didn’t tell anyone he couldn’t see out of his right eye when he was a promising youngster in his native Northern Ireland. He didn’t tell the Manchester United or Arsenal youth teams and, for a long time, he didn’t tell Tony Mowbray who brought him to Scotland, or anyone else at Hibs.
He didn’t want pity, he simply wanted to be treated normally, like any other player.
He’s never been that, though. Not even when we didn’t know his secret. Early on at Hibs, the blond hair and gold boots made him stand out, as did his exuberant style. In Mowbray’s first midfield Guillame Beuzelin was all French langour, Stephen Glass worked away quietly on the left, trying to re-discover his initial promise, Craig Rocastle was the ball-winner and Shiels would fizz around like a firework, bright and quick and restless.
With hindsight, we could say he was playing with the urgency of someone determined to seize the opportunity he at one stage must have thought would be denied him.
He was eight when the accident with the wallpaper scraper happened and, during the next five years, had five operations, but doctors couldn’t save the sight in that eye. He was nine when he was picked for his first 11-a-side game so he never knew what it was like to play football without being partially sighted.
You would think that some of what happens on the pitch would be outwith his restricted vision, thereby impairing his performance. But I’ve gone on to YouTube and studied the compilations of his goals and general play and some of the things he does – for example a deft overhead flick in a crowded penalty box on to the head of a team-mate, resulting in a goal – would definitely be beyond quite a few of the players with two working eyes I’ve had the misfortune to watch.
Most of them simply wouldn’t have had the wit to try them.
A lot of his own strikes in these video collections are the result of good balance, quick feet, some dribbling and an understanding of angles that would surely secure Deano the O-level geometry which I failed. There’s even one that seems to be a homage to classic George Best. Like his countryman playing for Man U against Spurs at White Hart Lane, Deano is on the left of the box, the ball is bouncing, opposition players and the goalie stand in front of him, and the only way to score is to lob it, with precision and finesse, into the far corner of the net. How does he do all of this? I don’t know but it’s hugely impressive.
It was in December 2005 that Shiels – worried about headaches and the eye being increasingly bloodshot, as well as a loss of form – owned up to his secret. Hibs found him the best specialist in Britain who told him the eye had long since died, and that blood vessels which continued to grow were bursting and increasing the pressure on his skull. An operation was a success and, early in 2007, he said: “The eye’s comfortable, pain free. This season’s been good because not many people have talked about it. It’s something I want to forget about. Well, not forget about but I don’t want to be judged on anything else other than my football.”
He missed Hibs’ League Cup triumph that spring through injury, tried his luck in England, was brought back to the SPL by his dad, Killie manager Kenny, and now a new set of fans shouts his name in appreciation of his skill, and his bravery.
Good luck today, Deano.