Callum McElhinney looks forward to a return to action for Claudy
In his first year out of underage, Callum McElhinney broke into the Claudy senior team and was playing soccer with Dungiven Celtic. The epitome of fitness, he had his whole career ahead of him until a lung infection left him gasping for breath and worried about the how long he would live for. He told Michael McMullan his story...
In just 24 years, Callum McElhinney has had to deal with more than most. Adversity has never been far away, but he has now made it to the other side.
To those not in his inner circle, he is Claudy's all action wing-back. The type of player that every manager with a counter-attacking gameplan craves. Lean, with an engine to cover the ground. And coming into his prime.
On the soccer field, he was on the books of Derry's Maiden City Academy for five seasons, before joining Dungiven Celtic with whom he still plays.
From the outside, you'd think he was infallible. Not everybody steps straight into the senior team after graduating from the underage ranks. Callum did and looked like having 10 plus years ahead of him.
But the last four years tested that to the maximum. A rare lung condition, coupled with asthma, left him with a constant cough, a wheeze and struggling to function both on the training field and in general day to day activities.
Armed with two inhalers and a monthly injection, he has resurrected his sporting career. The torn hamstring that kept him out of last year's championship was just a small bump in the road. A winter of playing soccer with Dungiven Celtic tuned his aerobic system to where it once was.
When sport gets the green light after this latest lockdown, it will be a welcome return for everyone. But McElhinney will be at the front of that queue.
“Four years ago I didn't think things would've been like this, so I am just grateful,” Callum states.
He has come a long way.
In 1990, Park man Gerard McElhinney left Ireland to work in London, where he met Stacey Peasnell, his future wife. They got married and Callum was born in London in 1996, but sadly Stacey passed away with terminal cancer when he was just two years old.
“Me and my Da moved, we moved back here in 1999, a year after she died,” Callum said. “I think he met her around the 1993 All-Ireland Final time.”
It was a tough start. The maturity with how he now talks about it speaks volumes. He was too young to remember his mother, but photos help carry her memory.
Back home, Callum attended Altinure Primary School, before moving to St Patrick's and St Brigid's Claudy. He lives in the village with his father Gerard.
Growing up, there was always football – soccer and Gaelic – all the way through the underage ranks. The asthma was there, but despite his first memory of having an inhaler at the age of seven, he never really needed to use it.
It was wall to wall sport. From game to game and training session to training session. Everything was ticking along nicely until his mid-teens.
“The first signs of asthma was when I was U16 and missed two games due to a chest infection,” Callum points out.
Two years went by and the same thing happened at the age of 18, as he broke onto the Claudy senior team in their promotion season of 2015. A regular at wing back, he won a Dr Kerlin Cup medal and scored a goal in their promotion decider win over Glenullin.
“It was the exact same symptoms,” he describes. “It was a wheezing and it meant I needed a course of steroids and antibiotic to get rid of it. That was a two-week course and I wouldn't be able to play during that time.”
As his career progressed, the asthma got worse, but it was a case of managing it with his inhalers.
“It wasn't something that was in the family,” Callum said. “Of about 50 in the (extended) family I am the only one that has severe asthma.
“In that season, I was playing at least 30 games between Claudy and Dungiven Celtic,” he continues.
In 2016, Claudy were promoted to the senior grade and Callum was 'feeling good' as the preparations were in full flow for their season in the top flight.
Callum in action for Claudy against Newbridge in the 2016 senior championship, before his problems were at their worst (Pic: Mary K Burke)
“I remember we played Slaughtneil away and I had started a course of steroids the day before and I had a chest infection,” he points out.
“I played that game...but there were games like that, where I had a chest infection and I got through them. The symptoms weren't as bad and my inhalers were able to get me through it. Realistically and looking back I shouldn't have been playing.”
As the season developed, he played in the senior championship and missed 'a game or two' in the league. It was nothing untoward.
Things went downhill from there and the following year he was forced to pack in sport.
By its nature, pre-season is a test of both body and mind. It's a case of pushing to the limit to find the next level. Claudy's 2017 preparations were no different.
“It was my third year with the seniors,” Callum begins. “I was 21 and remember going to pre-season and it was so, so hard. I just thought it was the cold weather that was sore on me and pre-season is supposed to be hard.
“But I knew myself, from previous years, that I shouldn't have been feeling like this. I didn't know any better and I just kept at it.”
His natural fitness had him questioning his body and was why it was failing to respond to the exertions. It wasn't getting any easier.
“I just knew it shouldn't have been this hard. I didn't know what was going on. I don't think I played that year at all, I just couldn't,” he said.
Callum's routine was a consistent one. Two weeks of tablets, followed by two weeks of grace before another two weeks weeks of tablets in a never-ending cycle. From a sporting point of view, he was going nowhere fast.
It was time to tell manager Michael O'Kane that he would have to pull the plug. As things developed, it was to be the year of hospital visits and tests.
“I think it kicked in around April or May,” Callum remembers. “There was one time I went down to Claudy clinic just thinking I had a chest infection.”
An oxygen level test revealed that he was only taking in 80 percent, compared to the normal '96 or 97' figure. Callum was sent straight to Altnagelvin hospital for three days of treatment, before moving on to the Respiratory Clinic at Belfast City Hospital for tests.
“I had another admission in Belfast for four days of treatment, but through that all I was getting no better. I didn't know how I was going to move on,” said Callum, now aged 21.
He'd wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air and the worry of how his condition would worsen as he got older.
It was a lot to process. At that time he was studying Sport Studies at the Derry campus of Northern Regional College. He would later graduate and transfer into the second year of the degree course in Jordanstown which he has also completed.
“Even though I was feeling bad throughout that time, I was still going about my life as normal. I didn't know any better or I didn't know (at that point) I had a lung disease”, said Callum.
Living in Belfast's 'Holy Lands', with Claudy trio Oran Armstrong, Cillian Higgins and Ross Stevenson, it was a student haven like any other, with the nights out to match. The only difference was how much Callum, a non smoker, would be gasping for air after a routine day.
Playing sport was parked for the season. It would've been impossible. Rather it was a case of keeping active for the everyday tasks.
“I remember standing beside Ross in a nightclub and him asking me if I was alright because he heard me coughing. At that time, I didn't really realise it, but I was pretty bad. I always had a natural cough,” Callum remembers.
Eventually came the news of the root of his problems. One of the previous hospital tests diagnosed him with bronchiectasis, a long-term condition where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened.
It leads to the build-up of excess mucus that can make the lungs more vulnerable to infection.
“I didn't have a clue what it was at the time,” Callum now confesses.
“The mucus gathers in the lungs and so it's harder to get it up and it makes them even tighter because the air is not getting through.
“When it combines with asthma, it just makes it that bit worse...they are working against each other.”
While there was a breakthrough and light at the end of the tunnel, the 2018 season was another write off. He didn't even go to watch. Looking on as everyone else was in the middle of the action would've been too difficult.
The saviour arrived in October in the form of the mepolizumab injection, one that costs a staggering £840 a pop. Thankfully he receives it free via the NHS.
“I take it every fourth week, it is used to treat severe asthma,” he explains. “It took them (doctors) two years to go through a process of severe testing, to see what they could use to help me.
“They had to turn to that, because there was nothing working...without it, I would be in trouble. I wouldn't be able to play.”
Aside from his playing career, there was the question over his career. Teaching was something that was on the horizon.
“I just couldn't think of the future,” Callum admits. “I was waking up every morning thinking if I am like this at 21, what am I going to be like when I am 30.
“I thought I wasn't going to live long. That's the harsh truth of it and looking back, it was brutal what I went through.”
Those outside his family and friends had no idea. He was always getting stopped in Claudy. When was he returning to football? He was needed back on the field.
“Every time I was asked, I was thinking that next year I could get better, but I was kidding myself, not realising how bad I was.”
The light at the end of the tunnel was getting brighter, but he wasn't just there yet.
When Emmet McKeever arrived as Claudy manager at the start of 2019, Callum McElhinney made the decision to return to the squad, but it was going to take time. He was also back tipping away with a bit of soccer for Claudy Rovers.
In January he made an arrangement with McKeever to spend a month working in Conor Johnston's gym. Avoiding the 'brutal' weather outdoors would help ease the lungs back into activity.
It was his first season in two years and it took 'until July or August' to finally feel fit.
“It took all that time,” Callum reveals. “Two years of doing nothing and your legs weren't ready for it and I couldn't get a place on the team.
“I started back in mid-February with them (the squad) and took it from there. For the first month, it was like a trial. I didn't know if I was going to be fit for it. Within a few weeks, it wasn't my chest that was holding me back, it was just fitness. My lungs were coping with it (training) well and I couldn't believe it.”
The four doses of mepolizumab were doing the business. He was improving, but just couldn't break into the senior team as the Mitchell's secured promotion back to the senior league, but he was playing away with the reserves.
By the time the intermediate championship came around and he was back close to full power, Callum came on as sub in Claudy's drawn game with Steelstown and scored one of their three goals in their replay win.
He played the full game against Lissan and 15 minutes in their semi-final win over Drumsurn before being handed a start in the final with Foreglen. But there was no fairytale ending, as Claudy's hopes of the double were quashed. For Callum, he was back on the horse again.
Callum carries the ball during the 2019 intermediate final in Celtic Park (Pic: Cathal McOscar)
“I signed for Dungiven Celtic at the end of the 2019 and I was playing flat out and my fitness levels were unbelievably high as I had that grounding over the winter,” he said.
As Covid-19 raised its head, McElhinney's condition left him in the shielding category. Another notification dropped through the letter box on Friday telling him he had to isolate once again in the latest version of lockdown.
With some help from physio Conán Kearney Loughery, the hamstring is in tip top shape. And he has been in action for Dungiven Celtic.
Last Friday, he reached for the fridge and his 28th dose of mepolizumab. Along with two inhalers, it is Callum's drill for life, for the 2021 season and beyond.
For now, it's about staying clear of Covid-19, but Callum McElhinney has spent his short life facing down obstacles. This is just another.
But now, his outlook is different.
There is a smile on his face and he radiates contentment. Even chatting to him is inspiring.
There is a long term sporting career on the other side, one he can almost touch.
Standing on Claudy pitch, the questions begin to focus on when the club season will begin.
He has come a long way.
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