The bulk of football autobiographies can be lumped into two categories: the going-through-the-motions account of a brilliant career; and the money-spinner churned out mid-career to capitalise on a player’s popularity. Not only does Recovering by Richie Sadlier not fit within these typical outlines, but it also seeks to distance itself from them. In doing so, it stands out brilliantly. Recovering is a story about how Sadlier reclaimed his life from football, and how he recovered from the horrible excesses that football urges on its players.
The critically-acclaimed Recovering won the 2019 Irish Sports Book of the Year, and is preceded by other similarly feted football autobiographies that describe the ravages of alcoholism. Paul McGrath’s Back from the Brink and Tony Cascarino’s Full Time: The Secret of Tony Cascarino especially come to mind. Recovering reminds us that alcoholism and drug use are both still horribly inveterate in the modern game.
Sadlier is perhaps better known for his work outside of football than his work on the pitch. He forged a decent career in football with Millwall, and represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level. He very nearly made the 2002 World Cup squad, too. He is, however, popularly known for an unfortunate TV caption during his punditry with RTE that endeared him to the masses; a caption that stated that he once “scored in UEFA European U-18 Third Place Playoff”. This answer to a middling trivia question asking “Who is Richie Sadlier?” sealed his cult hero status years after he’d given up the game. The image of a tall, young Irish striker in baggy shorts scoring a goal here and there at The Den (and maybe in the rain) some twenty years ago might have come to the mind of someone who had never even saw him play.
“Saturday nights were a no-go for boozing, though, as Sunday was when I had my games with Belvedere. Nothing was to interfere with that. I would ring-fence those nights, mark them down and be clear that on Saturday nights I never drank. This was the dedication I felt was needed to become a professional—something which was beginning to seem like a real possibility.”Sadlier on his early dedication to professionalism (pg. 30)
The above quote refers to Sadlier’s steely teenage determination to become a professional footballer, and perhaps reflects how naïve and thoroughly unprepared Sadlier was for the extracurricular vices that come part-and-parcel with the profession. The once-homesick Sadlier inevitably partakes in the debauchery. The roots of his alcoholism (“I tried [alcohol]. And everything changed in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I tried it because, well what else was there to do?” (pg. 28)); his cocaine binges in his party house; the laid-back attitude to his injury recovery and a cancer scare; and the denial of issues that led to his self-destruction, all partly make up his laundry list of misadventure.
And all this while plying his trade at Millwall—a club proud to be apart, and perhaps the club least conducive to a physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Sadlier is hardly effusive with his praise for the club. Of an early incident with Millwall fans, he writes, “What I wanted to say was that they were fucking pricks who didn’t deserve to be called supporters” (pg. 60). There is a shocking tale of Sadlier, after breaking his arm, being turned away from treatment at a hospital because Millwall owed the hospital money. His own poor handling of his injuries seems to contribute to the injury that put paid to any hope he made of making the full Republic of Ireland squad for the 2002 World Cup.
Readers of Recovering will notice that there is little banter about former teammates, or self-deprecating humour. The hardships Sadlier endures breed further ill-feeling, discontent, and deep self-resentment. Tragedy is unfettered and unfiltered. At the family level, Sadlier’s strained and seemingly distant relationship with his father is a further source for his crippling self-doubt. His father, a reformed alcoholic, doles out stoic and frank advice. At the peak of Sadlier’s playing career, when he was on the verge of making the full Republic of Ireland squad for the 2002 World Cup, his father undermines his fragile confidence by saying “the chances of you getting some game time are fairly remote, isn’t that right? It’s an awfully long way to go, too,” (pg. 120).
“We never knew which version of my dad would arrive home. Hungover, drunk or sober, take your pick, you’d know who it was before he said a word. His mood came in the door before him.”Sadlier on his father’s alcoholism (pg. 10-11)
Saddled with alcoholism, depression, and a career scuppered by injury and self-destruction—if this wasn’t enough for the reader to take in, Sadlier reveals that, at 14 years of age, he was sexually abused by his physiotherapist. This needs no more glossing over here, but it does form a part of Recovering’s extended coda and perhaps the most important and honest part of the book. It is truly necessary reading, and acts as the final moment of catharsis from his playing career and the terrors that came with it.
The sheer emotional heft of Recovering leaves the last chapters that describe his TV work tacked on. Invested readers familiar with Sadlier’s punditry will appreciate these chapters, but reading about the bickering between him and fellow pundits seems unimportant considering the nature of the preceding chapters. The writing is emotionally removed and can easily be glossed over.
There is relatively little about his playing career, and as such, little banter or humorous recollections about former teammates. A very dry wit permeates through the book, but this is derived from the unadorned, unfettered and punchy prose. Indeed, the writing serves to highlight all the cruelty that Sadlier endures. As such, Recovering is not a read for the faint-hearted. His reflections on his life come from a studied eye that has, for a very long time, looked inward.
Being a one-club man, Sadlier was hardly a journeyman footballer. He is, however, a man on a journey. He travels through many stations—professional footballer, alcoholic, club CEO, motivational speaker, TV pundit, psychotherapist. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So perhaps it is fitting that a man who has worn many caps can turn out a study of his life so plainly and honestly—a life put through the wringer every which way by football. Recovering shows an ex-footballer healed, and a man cleansed.
“I was just a kid, a powerless kid abused by a powerful man. I turned on myself and continued to do so for years.”On suffering sexual abuse as a teenager (pg. 240)
UNDER 20: A landmark autobiography by Sadlier that shows the end of football as the start of his life.
FULL-TIME SCORE: A down-and-out player finds his own beat to march to, and leads his team to a gritty and inspired 3-0 win against the rabid opposition.
RELATED READING: Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino by Tony Cascarino (2000); Back From the Brink by Paul McGrath (2006); Position of Trust by Andy Woodward (2019)