Alan Stubbs is only too aware of how lucky he was to benefit from the football support network
DOCTORS save lives, as do nurses, with a little bit of help from medicine and the latest technology. Alan Stubbs benefited from all of those in his battle against cancer, but there was another, more subtle support mechanism that helped him to pull through.
Had he not been fortunate enough to play football for a living, it would have been much more difficult.
Stubbs, a former Celtic captain, would not have undergone the routine drug test that revealed testicular cancer after the 1999 Scottish Cup final. Neither would he have been fit enough or strong enough to recover so quickly from a disease that twice afflicted him during the peak of his career.
More than that, if it hadn’t been for football, he would not have enjoyed the support of so many well-wishers. He would not have come to understand just how many people’s lives he had touched over the years, how the game gives life another dimension. It reminded him that he was not alone.
“Because of the occupation you are in, you get a lot of letters offering you comfort, people wishing you all the best. It makes you think. Some people have got no-one. They maybe have one family member and they find it hard to gather the courage and confidence to battle on. It can make them go under. I always had someone around me. I always had the football club to support me. I always had my family and friends. Unfortunately, some people have no family, maybe no money. You can see why, with these illnesses, some people go very quickly. It’s not necessarily due to the illness.”
He was thinking about all this when he wrote his book, How Football Saved My Life, published last week. He will also be thinking about it this afternoon, when he visits Celtic Park for Stiliyan Petrov’s charity match. Stubbs will be there as a pundit for BT Sport, which is providing live television coverage.
A sell-out crowd of 60,000 will be there to honour Petrov, the former Celtic midfield player who is recovering from acute leukaemia. Think about that. Sixty thousand. That’s 10,000 more than the ground held for the recent Champions League playoff against Shakhter Karagandy, 24,000 more than Scotland had for their World Cup qualifier against Belgium the other night.
Petrov, you can be sure, is not alone. “When you talk about Celtic, you’re talking about a ‘proper club’, a family,” says Stubbs. “They certainly look after their own. The players and staff are so well looked after and, when you’ve got that feeling and commitment from the club, you can understand why it plays such a big part in everybody’s lives. It’s a special place.
“It will be a very emotional day for Stiliyan, but it will be a real pick-up too. Once he gets over that initial emotion, he and his family will be so proud. It will be a really, really special moment, one that he deserves.”
It is a side of football often overlooked by those who see only its greed and tribalism. When Petrov, then the Aston Villa captain, returned to their stadium for the first time since his diagnosis in March 2012, he and his wife were given a moving 19th-minute tribute, a reference to his shirt number. In the warm-up for that match, against Chelsea, both teams wore No 19 T-shirts on which it read “our thoughts are with you”.
“When you play football, you’re not just playing for a club, you are part of football’s society,” says Stubbs. “I got letters from fans of all different clubs, including Rangers, wishing me all the best. Stan would be the same. Football is our national game. When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, or has been in an accident, the whole football community comes together. It’s very heart-warming.”
Stubbs, now 41, and coaching with Everton, his hometown club, played for Celtic between 1996 and 2001, a period in which he won two league titles and two League Cups.
After he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, he was treated so quickly and effectively that he was back in training six weeks later.
When the disease returned the following year, this time in the form of a tumour at the base of his spine, it was more complicated.
“The second time was a bit different. I had chemotherapy. And you basically had someone opening you up from the breastbone to below the belly button, having a little look around and moving all your organs so that they could get to the tumour. That’s a bit different but, being a footballer, being an athlete, helped me. It took me three months to recover, but, if I had been a normal person with a nine-to-five job, it would have been six months, maybe longer.”
Petrov, pictured left, was a team-mate at the time. The Bulgarian player, signed by Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes in 1999, would spend seven years at Celtic, with whom he won four league titles, three Scottish Cups and three League Cups, to say nothing of that run to the 2003 UEFA Cup final under Martin O’Neill. By the time he left for Villa, he had scored 55 goals in 228 appearances.
Stubbs first heard about Petrov’s diagnosis when he was called by Alan Thompson, who played with them both at Celtic. “I have to say, I was totally gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe it. Stiliyan? With leukaemia? But he’s dealt with it in the way I would have expected him to. He was never one to shirk responsibility. It would have been really tough and challenging, but he was always going to tackle it. Some people don’t have that choice, but others do. The ones who do, have to fight. And Stiliyan’s certainly done that.”
Last August, it was announced that, after four months of chemotherapy, Petrov’s leukaemia was in remission. Thereafter, he underwent “softer treatment” before announcing his retirement at the end of last season. Now 34, the man who captained Celtic, Villa and Bulgaria is looking forward to a new career, a new life, one in which everything has changed, including him.
Stubbs is a more relaxed man now, less inclined to look beyond the day ahead. He likes feeling that way, just as he likes appreciating his family and friends. He always did, of course, but it took an experience such as his to remind him that life does not begin and end with football.
Neither does he live in fear of the disease returning. He says that he has as much chance of being run over by a bus, which is not something he spends much time worrying about. He is not expecting to go through it all again but, if the worst happens, he will deal with it, just as he did the last time.
Stubbs is more humble than he used to be. Too often, footballers are persuaded – by obscene wages, blanket media coverage and the worship of adoring fans – that they are somehow different, maybe a little bit special, but they aren’t. Cancer is brutally objective. It takes no account of celebrity. It doesn’t care how many goals you have scored.
“Unfortunately, football gives you that [feeling of] invincibility at times,” says Stubbs. “You think you can do anything, that you are above everything. You don’t think anything wrong will happen to you. It’s a bit of a false lifestyle. So it takes something like this to make you realise that you are just one of another. You’re no different. You’re not better, you’re not any worse. You’re just the same. And it can happen to anyone.”
Football can only provide support and aid the healing process, which it will seek to do in spectacular fashion at Celtic Park this afternoon. A stellar cast of former players and celebrities – from Henrik Larsson, Roy Keane and Chris Sutton to John Terry, Louis Tomlinson and John Bishop – will pay tribute to the player Petrov was and the man he is now.
“He was technically gifted with a good first touch, and he had great enthusiasm and energy,” says Stubbs. “You have to remember that he was a really young lad when he came to Celtic. It was a big move for Stiliyan. But he went on to be a really important player, for Bulgaria as well.
“He was a captain. And I always think that a captain has a lot of qualities, as a player and a person. Stan is a lovely fella, very honest and genuine. If you find those qualities in someone, you’ll take that all day long. Unfortunately, it’s not the case with everyone, but it is with Stan.”
The two teams – a Celtic XI and a Petrov XI – will be coached by O’Neill and Dalglish. Stubbs plans to have a word with both of them, not because he wants to be a manager – although he does, with a passion – but because he wants to know why he wasn’t selected to play. Asked about his omission, he says: “I haven’t actually ... I was ... I don’t know whether ... ach ...you know what, they’ve probably just forgotten about me.”
Don’t you believe it. At times like these, football doesn’t forget.