Matthew Bell: Ireland international ‘holding back tears’ on playing return after brain tumor

Matthew Bell comes under pressure from three Germany opponents in a 2018 international match

Not many venture out to watch Banbridge Fifths in action, but for one player their game on Saturday was an “emotional” landmark, an arduous journey completed and adversity overcome.

Matthew Bell already had over 100 Ireland caps tucked away when, at the age of 26 and after experiencing dizzy spells, his life was turned upside down on Friday 13 September, 2019.

For on this day he was diagnosed with a brain tumor – the size of three golf balls – and 24 hours later he was undergoing the first of five operations in six weeks.

Bell couldn’t speak for seven weeks, was unable to eat and had to learn to walk again. He had been playing for club side Krefeld in Germany and after initial treatment there an air ambulance flew him back to Northern Ireland.

Further treatment and lengthy rehabilitation lay ahead but on Saturday he again donned the shirt of his hometown club against Bangor Fifths.

The defender had once captained the Firsts but this was a massive boost in his recovery and especially as he now plays with a visual impairment.

Long-awaited

“Emotional is one word I would use to describe it – coming off the pitch I was struggling to hold back a few tears,” he told Radio Ulster’s Sportsound Extra time.

“Two years ago I had these aspirations of being on the pitch within a few months. I didn’t realize how immobile and unfit I was – I was told by my surgeon in Germany that I had a very long road ahead of me and he wasn’t lying.

Matthew Bell undergoing hospital treatment after his brain tumor diagnosis
Matthew Bell undergoing hospital treatment after his brain tumor diagnosis

“My eyesight is obviously a big issue although my footwork, running and fitness are all there. After having to learn to walk again, talk again and eat again – it’s an emotional day and I couldn’t be happier to be back on the pitch .

“It was enjoyable and unenjoyable. When I didn’t have the ball and others did and we were going forward I was very happy but a win’s a win.

“To have it here at home for Banbridge, the club that I grew up with and captained before going to Germany. Playing back at Havelock Park – I couldn’t be happier.”

Bell, who missed out on selection for the Ireland squad going to the 2016 Rio Olympics, reveals the psychological hurdles he has faced in reassessing his targets in the sport.

More realistic

“I said back then (two years ago) that I wanted to be back playing in the Irish team – obviously that’s still the ultimate goal after the heartbreak of Rio, but I have to be more realistic these days,” he added.

“After a couple of training sessions I went home very frustrated. A couple of people messaged me saying ‘what’s up?’ and ‘what’s wrong with you?’.

“I was frustrated at how bad I was at hockey because in my head I know what I was once like as a player, but my body’s not able to keep up with that.

“People were sending videos of me just running for the first time and and saying you’re back on the pitch and that I was too hard on myself. I’ve always been hard on myself, I’ve always held high aspirations and big It’s about being a bit more realistic maybe.

“I was always told from the physio, oncologist and occupational therapists that I would have to relearn life skills and recovery would be slow, and it’s been very slow.

“But each training session is going in the right direction – my footwork, my mobility on the pitch and things like that increase and improve with each session. I made it back on the pitch – I couldn’t be happier and I just said ‘let’s take it one day at a time and go from there’. “

Bell’s family has been at his side throughout his recovery along with many friends, including four-time Paralympic champion Michael McKillop.

Michael McKillop retired from competitive Paralympic athletics last November after a hugely successful track career
Michael McKillop retired from competitive Paralympic athletics last November after a hugely successful track career

The pair met while training at the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland at Jordanstown and a mutual love of Arsenal helped cement a lasting relationship.

McKillop traveled down to Banbridge to watch Bell’s return to action and they embraced after the match, such was its significance.

“It’s a special day – seeing him back on the pitch after so many years battling through what he’s been through is inspirational and impressive,” he said.

“When you look back on images of him in the air ambulance coming back home. He couldn’t swallow, couldn’t talk and physically couldn’t do pretty much anything by himself and to see him now being able to communicate, talk, run and play hockey.This is what dreams are made of probably for him.

“This is probably his Olympic Games. I think what you’re seeing out there is a man who is so happy and blessed to be back playing and doing the things he loves. You can see that’s he’s warming up 30 or 40 minutes before the match – you can see he still has that elite mentality.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s for the Fifths game or the Firsts – he’s still got the quality and ability to be as good as he wants to be and he’s doing that out there now. It’s a special day and incredible to come and watch “It was a special moment for me.”

You can hear more from Matthew Bell’s interview on Sportsound Extra Time on Monday at 18:05 BST on Radio Ulster.

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