The 19th of June 1995 is one of those days which is for ever etched in my memory as an Aberdeen and Scotland footballer. The football season had just ended. It had been a difficult season for Aberdeen with the disaster of relegation from the Scottish Premier League looming over us all season. Finally, on literally the last day of the season everything came right and Aberdeen survived in the top flight.
I was "on top of the world" - "We had escaped from relegation. I had been offered and accepted a new contract. It was a relief that the season was over and I was looking forward to a nice long break before the new season. I had been speaking at a series of meetings at churches and was encouraged by these opportunities to talk about my faith."
The one niggling doubt was a strange tingling feeling in my feet, which I had been experiencing for a few weeks. I consulted my GP. When the GP immediately referred me to the local hospital, Foresterhill, for tests, I was surprised but not really bothered. I just thought he realized how important my feet are to my job and that he was making doubly sure that everything was OK. Even when it turned out that I would need a three-day stay in hospital didn't unduly bother me when I had about six weeks before I was back at work.
All that changed when the doctor came in and told me I had multiple sclerosis. It hit me like a bombshell. That morning I was just looking forward to getting out of hospital and to having a good break with my wife Donna and our two girls. By the evening I was thinking about how to cope with a potentially career-threatening, even life-threatening illness.
In my autobiography* I tell honestly that I did not cope very well at times. There were moments of utter despair. There was a period when I went AWOL, staying in a hotel while my family and friends worried themselves sick about where I was. The illness and the uncertain future was desperately difficult for wife Donna to deal with.
My recovery was amazing. In July as the Aberdeen players resumed pre-season training, the most demanding thing I could do was to walk two miles - and that exhausted me. Yet steady progress was made. I became stronger and stronger until 17 October when Aberdeen were due to play Ross County in a friendly match for the official opening their new 1,200-seater stand. I was named as a substitute and came on for the second half.
In early December I was named as substitute in a league game, back in the big-time. It proved to be a very amusing and memorable day. John Inglis got a hamstring injury after an hour and I went on. The fans' reception was tremendous. After I had been on the field for two minutes, the ball broke to me and I laid it to Dean Windass in midfield and then I blacked out. For a split second I wondered what was happening to me. Then I realized that it wasn't just me who had blacked out but the floodlights had failed. I was picked for the game next Saturday, 8 December against Motherwell. Aberdeen won 1-0 and I was chosen man of the match by the sponsors. Football-wise I haven't looked back since.
The whole experience has had a deep impact on me. It has taught me to value my health as never before. I feel that God has healed me in response to many prayers. While the healing has come through "natural" means - doctors and a homoeopathy - I see God at the centre of the process.
My career took off dramatically in the 1990 Scottish Cup Final. The game could not have reached a more dramatic climax. Aberdeen and Celtic finished 0-0 after 90 minutes. 30 minutes extra time still did not bring a goal so that match went to a penalty shoot-out.
Each team nominated 5 penalty-takers. After 10 penalties it was 4-4. Now the rest of the players took penalties in turn. As the Aberdeen defender, I was a most reluctant penalty-taker. However with each team having had 9 penalties and the score 8-8, I had no choice. When a Celtic player missed their tenth penalty, I stepped up, scored and won the cup for Aberdeen.
Afterwards I told others, "I was really nervous as I took the penalty kick but I just said a prayer and put my faith in God."
Another major highlight of my career has been playing for Scotland. On Sunday 9 September 1990 I went to church as usual in the morning and returned home to find the telephone ringing. It was the Aberdeen manager who told me that the Scottish football association had been trying to contact me all morning. I was to pack my kit and join the Scotland squad immediately. I made my debut for Scotland who won the game 2-1. At the time of writing I have played nine times for Scotland in World Cup and European Championship qualifiers.
This is a marvellous achievement for someone who was still working in a bank in his late teens, an age when most players have already been signed up as professionals.
It was while I was playing semi-professional football for Falkirk that I made a life-changing decision. I had a Christian background and went to church but it didn't really mean anything. It was something I did out of routine.
Then one day in the car on the way to football training at Falkirk, we started talking about the meaning of life. One of the others said that Jesus was going to come back. After the game I went home and opened up the Bible and from then on the Bible became real. I realized that God loved me and that Jesus had died for me. I became a Christian that night.
Prayer is important to me and as I always see faith and football as inter-related it is as natural for me to pray about football as anything else. It's not just a case of going to church on Sunday. It's the way you live your life the rest of the week, including football. I always pray before a game because it's part of my life. I don't pray that Aberdeen will win but that I will play the game fairly and the outcome will bring glory to God.
I am not what anyone would call a superstar of football. I am, rather, an honest professional who has worked hard to make the best of his talents and has got to the very top in Scottish football. Throughout my career - without preaching at anyone - I have always been ready to take a stand for what I believe in and "to give a reason for the hope that is in him.
The experience of the illness helped me to understand the importance of health and of keeping everything else in everything else in perspective.
* What a difference a day makes, Brian Irvine and Stuart Weir, published by Mainstream, Edinburgh 1996
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