Mark Farren ‘A special player and a special person’
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Mark Farren ‘A special player and a special person’

A few weeks ago, Kevin McHugh heard the news he had long feared. His good friend, and former Derry City strike-partner, Mark Farren, was told he needed further surgery to remove a tumour on his brain.

Having already been through the mill - undergoing his first operation way back in 2009 before fighting cancer for a second time four years later - Farren had earned so much admiration for his courage in dealing with the biggest challenge man could face.

Yet here he was again, contemplating death, and thinking of others rather than himself. It got McHugh thinking. He'd played with Farren just under a decade ago, and even though they were rivals for the same position, there was something about Farren's personality that was endearing.

In 2005, he'd been voted the PFAI player of the year, after playing brilliantly for a Derry team who lost the league on the last day of the season to Cork City. On Leeside, the fact George O'Callaghan, the poster boy of that Cork title-winning team, didn't pick up the award left a sour taste. Democracy rules and when the ballot papers arrived in the dressing rooms of each club, they remembered the way Farren had conducted himself on the pitch.

"We can have different personalities when we play football," said McHugh. "I can be annoying on the park, but I'm a different person off it. Mark is always Mark, whether he was in the middle of a cup final or at home, having a cup of tea. If an opposition player was hurt, he'd check to see if he was alright.

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"Defenders might have kicked him, might have sledged him but he saw that as part of the game and never took it personally. He just ignored them. Scored goals. Answered them that way. That won respect."

His fights against cancer have won even more respect. After the 2009 scare, his career resumed. And still he was prolific, becoming Derry's all-time leading goalscorer and the player who got the goal to clinch promotion from the First Division. A move to Glenavon brought further success.

"I had mixed reports from doctors about whether I'd be able to play again," Farren said in an interview with the Donegal News last year. "Eventually they agreed to allow me do so if I wore a scrum-cap. I hated it. I'd head the ball and it could go anywhere. It affected my confidence."

So the scrum-cap went and his career continued. Then in August 2013, he travelled to Belfast for a planned check-up when was told the news he never wanted to hear. “We only realised when the scan came back that August that this was something that was always going to come back and it was something I’d have to live with for the rest of my life.”

He dealt with it. Emotionally and financially, it wasn't easy, though. League of Ireland footballers aren't well paid. Being from Donegal, Farren had to travel to Belfast for treatment, often having to book into hotels for overnight stays because of the effect the radiotherapy was having on his body. “I get a lot of headaches, nausea. I don’t feel like eating at all, but I force myself to eat,” he said.

It was then that McHugh first got involved. He and Farren had remained friends long after their days together at Derry. A fundraising fun-run was organised in February last year and the coming together of the football community then had an uplifting effect. “Long-term, after the radiotherapy, they just don’t know," said Farren at the time. "They don’t give any indication, if it’s going well, or if it’s not going well. It’s just week-by-week now. The form’s okay at times. You have to be positive to keep you up. If you weren’t, you’d just be sitting all the time thinking the worst.”

His bright personality shone through a dark winter. Then, two weeks ago, he was told that the next bout of surgery could not be done in Ireland. He, and Terri, his wife, would have to travel to Germany or Mexico for it.

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And the cost? £30,000.

That was a low point. They didn't have that kind of money and considered selling or re-mortgaging their house. Asking for help didn't appeal to their unassuming nature. So McHugh, and two other former Derry team-mates, Ciaran Martyn and Ruaidhri Higgins, took it upon themselves to get the ball rolling.

Mark Farren pictured at the Brandywell last week. Photo: INPHO. Mark Farren pictured at the Brandywell last week. Photo: INPHO.

They set up an online Mark Farren Treatment Fund, went public with the news on a Friday and by Monday had surpassed their target. A fundraising match at the Brandywell has also been arranged, with the Irish and Northern Irish international managers, Martin O'Neill and Michael O'Neill, set to take charge of the teams. Roy Keane hopes to make an appearance in that May 27 game. So does David Forde, Seamus Coleman, and James McClean - all of whom donated to the fund.

"Seamie didn't know whether to go public with his donation or not," said McHugh. "He didn't want any limelight, but we kind of said to him that it would really help our cause. He knows Mark and knows what a good guy he is. To be honest, the two of them have the exact same personalities. They're grounded, always have been, always will be and yet they are so competitive on the park."

Remembering his attitude as a player, supporters from right across the League of Ireland held collections at every match last weekend to raise money. In addition, the PFAI have organised a penalty-shoot competition at each club which will bring in €5000. A dinner with O'Neill as the special guest is being organised in Derry for May 27. "So many people have been unbelievable," said McHugh. "I'm blown away by how good the people at Glenavon, Dundalk, were. They wouldn't want me to go into detail about their generosity because it is private, but it's just amazing. Roy Keane, too. Martin O'Neill. I've so much respect not just for the fact they have been supportive, but the way they have gone about things. They're just really decent, good people."

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And it hasn't stopped at the international team's door. Players, right across the league, who are earning an average of €16,000-a-year in the Premier Division, and €4000-a-year in the First Division, have emptied their pockets for the cause.

"What this shows is the level of goodwill that is out there for our players and our league," said Stephen McGuinness, the PFAI secretary. "People can knock it as much as they want but when one of our guys needs a bit of help, we all rally around.

"Would this happen in England? Would the £30,000 required be raised just like that? I'm not so sure.

"But it's happening here because anyone who has met Mark knows what a gentleman he is.

"He is a great guy and was a gentleman on the pitch as well as off it. We all want to help."

The St Pat's captain, Ger O'Brien, was another who wanted to be of assistance. So after hearing Farren's news, he walked into the PFAI offices with €700, gathered from his squad members.

"As a League, we're always being knocked," said O'Brien. "We're told we're not that good. We hear words like dysfunctional said about us.

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"But when it comes down to it, we know how to look after one of our own. You saw that with Gary O'Neill, when he had his cancer treatment in 2013.

"Now it's Mark. He's like Gary. What you see is what you get. He's an absolute gentleman.

"I played with him for a year in 2009 - when he was first diagnosed with a tumour- and saw how he fought through that. He played on for four years.

"Now, to hear that the cancer has come back again, it's devastating. But he is not giving up and it makes you want to do something to help.

"He's a brilliant fella and to hear that Seamus Coleman, Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane and men like that are all lining up to help out - it's just brilliant."

It has perked Farren up.

"He has been overwhelmed by people's generosity," said McHugh. "If you can picture him sitting with his Ipad at home, reading all the goodwill messages people have sent him via twitter, realising how much money has been raised, it is keeping him going.

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"It's a tough journey up ahead. We all know that. But the fact we are able to support him and his wife, Terri-Louise, and the fact he can travel to Mexico for his treatment without having to worry about the finances, that's brilliant.

"It means so much to us all. And it means so much that every club in this league have contributed - from players to supporters to board members to managers. Then again, he was a special player and is a special person."