Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Stephen McPhail has revealed how a telephone call from tennis star Venus Williams helped rescue his career.
The former Leeds United and Barnsley midfield maestro openly admits he nearly quit football 18 months ago as he battled against an incurable immune system disease.
The 33-year-old, part of the Leeds side which enjoyed that famous run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2001, was struggling to cope with the symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome.
The disease – which sees the body attack its own moisture-producing glands, such as the tear and salivary glands – has debilitating effects and saw McPhail fall seriously ill, shedding a stone in weight.
But with the help of tennis star Venus Williams – who also suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome – McPhail was referred to a specialist doctor in California who prescribed him a course of medication.
“Venus is the only other sports athlete in the world I think that has been diagnosed with this, that has come out anyway,” said McPhail.
“The phone rang one night and she was on the other end of the line. It was strange to talk to a superstar, a bit of a shock even though I knew it was coming through my agent.
“I spoke to her for over an hour, we exchanged stories, where we were with the Syndrome, and luckily enough we have both come out the other side, playing and still enjoying life.
“I have texts and good luck messages. She has obviously been battling hard, she has had injuries with her back.
“She is a super woman and so easy to talk to. You would never believe she is such a big superstar. She’s good, keeps me going.”
McPhail said eight-times grand slam winner Williams helped him when he was at a low ebb, seriously considering quitting a career which has seen him appear for Elland Road, Barnsley and Cardiff City as well as picking up international honours with the Republic of Ireland.
“About 18 months ago, anything I did I just couldn’t get to grips with,” he said. “I was breaking down all the time, ill, not myself. I lost maybe a stone in weight, felt bad really.
“Venus got me in touch with a doctor in Los Angeles and I flew out there with a physio for a couple of weeks.
“I spoke to him, he gave me a course of treatment, and that’s what I am still on now.
“It calmed the syndrome down and gave me a chance to go out every day and live a normal life, which is good.”
It was not the first battle McPhail had endured. Four years ago he was diagnosed with cancer, a form of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I was diagnosed with lymphoma, went for treatment, and at the time I had done my quad which was a bit of a blessing as it sort of took my mind off things,” he said.
“Luckily enough I only had three months’ treatment. Radiotherapy, operation and I was playing against Newcastle three months to the day that I started my treatment.
“It was a case of ‘get it done, what do I need to do to get fit again?’ That was three years ago and luckily enough I have been all-clear ever since. Hopefully that continues.”
It was during his cancer treatment that McPhail was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome.
“They are related, there is no cure for that. I have treatment every six months, just for a day. I go to hospital for treatment then come out the day later.
“I am back training within a few days so it’s under control at the moment. I have a flare-up now and again but it doesn’t keep me out for any longer than a couple of days.
“I just have to keep an eye on my levels. It affects the whole body, the immune disease, which attacks your body when you are feeling low.
“I haven’t had a flare-up for a year or so now. You get joint-ache, dryness of your mouth, eyes, you just feel crap. You don’t want to get out of bed. I know when it’s coming and how to deal with it. Learning all the time really.”
McPhail will today make his Hillsborough debut for Sheffield Wednesday in the Yorkshire derby with Doncaster Rovers.
After leaving Cardiff in the summer, McPhail had been training at Middlewood Road for several weeks waiting for the cash-strapped Owls to find the money to offer him a short-term deal.
He revealed he has taken a wage cut to join his former Bluebirds manager Dave Jones at Hillsborough.
“It was frustrating,” he admitted. “The manager wanted me in the club, but things had to materialise because he hasn’t got a massive budget.
“It took time, but I haven’t come here for anything financial, I have come here to try and play, help out, and make sure we are looking up the table rather than behind. It’s definitely not the money I am used to earning, but that’s not an issue. I just want to play football.”
McPhail said he wanted to join the Owls in January, but promotion-hunting Cardiff refused to let him go in case they picked up injuries.
Now he hopes he can add some much-needed creativity in central midfield as Wednesday go hunting their first win of the season. And he could have picked no bigger game than a Yorkshire derby.
“I played for Barnsley and Leeds so I know what football means to people in this part of the world,” said McPhail, who was part of the Barnsley side to win promotion from League One in 2006. “I love being back up here and hopefully I can make a difference.
“It’s a great game (against Rovers), local derby, we all know how passionate it will be. But we are desperate for results, and most important is we get three points. We don’t want to be lingering down the bottom half of the league.”