STEPHEN BEST ANNOUNCES HIS RETIREMENT

Stephen Best, Glenavon’s popular club doctor, has retired after 31 years unbroken service. He is, by a considerable distance, the longest serving member of the backroom staff at Mourneview Park since James “Cliff” Mahaffy who was a player, then trainer, between 1889 and 1932.

“My licence to practice is about to expire,” the Consultant Psychiatrist explained. “I don’t have a choice. It is a bit like having no driving licence. It is unfortunate, but I am not as young as I was. It is time to hang up the stethoscope.”

Stephen Best

A Lurgan man born and bred, Stephen has been a Glenavon supporter since childhood. In his teens he attended games with neighbours from High Street, Harry, Richard and Peter Parkinson. “That was the late sixties and early seventies,” he recalls. “Freddie Clarke, Dennis Guy, Albert Macklin and Brian Craig are names which come to mind. We went to virtually every ground in the Province together. It was great craic in the car. Whether Glenavon won or lost, we always had a good time.”

Stephen studied Medicine at Queen’s University. He graduated in 1981 and started his medical career at the Royal Victoria Hospital. At that time, he married Pauline and set up home in Belfast. During the 1980s he specialised in Psychiatry and in 1990 became a Consultant Psychiatrist at Craigavon Area Hospital and Saint Luke’s Hospital, Armagh. The Best family moved to Richhill and have been there ever since.

In 1993 a chance conversation with a Glenavon director led to an invitation to become club doctor. He followed in the footsteps of the late Jack Balmer, an eminent Consultant Surgeon, who was also Chairman of the Board of Directors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Stephen’s first season – the 1993-94 campaign – saw the club come within 10 minutes of winning the Irish League Championship. “The team, at that time, was full of exceptionally talented players. Stevie McBride, Glenn Ferguson, Raymond McCoy, Geoff Ferris, Ally Mauchlen, Nigel Quigley, Tony Scappaticci. I could name more. It was a very special squad,” he recalled.

Stephen pictured in 1994.

For the last 31 years, Dr. Best has attended virtually every match and many midweek training sessions. He has provided unflinching support to the club’s managers and coaches. He has also worked closely with the physiotherapists. “When I was appointed, Kenny Bell was the physio. Kenny was followed by Billy Nellins and Alan Quinn who were sports therapists. Lynne Carpenter came next and was a fully qualified physiotherapist. Chris Loughran, Lynne’s successor, is similarly highly qualified. Things have moved on over the years thanks to the availability of experienced physiotherapists and sports therapists.”

Stephen has noticed many changes in football’s medical sphere. “Players are fitter, and the game has become faster. As a result, some injuries have become more complex. But, on the other side of the coin, surgeons now can perform a much wider range of procedures to aid recovery. It is a field which is constantly shifting, but top sports therapists, like Chris, are very capable.”

Senior matches are, of course, now played on synthetic pitches. “That has been a big change,” he continued. “There is a school of thought which suggests that players suffer more injuries and more serious injuries on plastic. Certainly, some caution is needed with older players with a history of, for example, knee injuries. It is another factor which medics must take account of when giving advice to the manager.”

Stephen admits that the last 10-12 years have been challenging for club doctors. “The responsibility which goes with the role has become more onerous,” he explains. “When I started in 1993, it was a hobby. But it is not like that now. Today there is a spotlight – and TV cameras – on practitioners holding official roles with sporting organisations. What happens if a player suffers a head injury, but it isn’t spotted, and he carries on after suffering a Concussion? Thankfully this has not arisen at Glenavon, but it is possible. If things go wrong, it is the sports therapist and the doctor who will have the tough questions to answer.”

Dr. Best revealed that the B.M.A. has considerably increased the demands on doctors working in the area of sports medicine. “Everything is very tightly regulated. We have to attend professional training courses on an ongoing basis and hold sports-specific insurance. The aim is to make sure practitioners have the up-to-date skills and knowledge to offer the very best treatment, particularly in emergency situations.”

The well publicised on-field incidents involving former Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba and Danish international Christian Eriksen have completely changed the medical landscape. “Ten or fifteen years ago cardiac arrest was not seen as an issue affecting professional footballers,” Stephen added. “But now it is front and centre. If the worst happens, doctors must be ready to respond. It is something which has been at the back of my mind since Muamba collapsed on the pitch at White Hart Lane.”

The other major development in the sports-medical field is growing concern at the dangers posed to footballers by head injuries. “Alan Shearer has highlighted the issues of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and Concussion. A footballer is three times more likely to suffer some form of dementia later in life,” he continued. “No one was talking about these subjects when I started. Now they are regularly discussed in medical journals”.

Stephen has strong views about medical provision generally at Irish Premiership venues. “I think there should be an ambulance and a paramedic at every match,” he said. “This has been a view I have held for a long time. It is not enough, I believe, to have first aiders and be depending on a doctor who may or may not be with one of the two clubs. Players who sustain head injury or other serious injuries should be able to travel immediately to hospital in an ambulance and if a spectator becomes ill, he or she should have the best possible care.”

For the past six seasons Stephen has been helped in Glenavon’s Medical Department by Dr. James Lamont, a local General Practitioner. Dr. Best has sometimes even given his seat on the Glenavon bench to Dr. Lamont. “That was a big sacrifice on my part,” he laughed. “It is probably every supporter’s dream to sit next to the manager and coaches on matchday. I really enjoyed being involved, particularly when the team played well, and we won.”

Stephen celebrates on the Glenavon bench after Sammy Clingan scores an injury-time penalty to seal a 2-1 victory against Crusaders in April 2019.

Stephen has enjoyed working with all Glenavon’s managers of the last 31 years. “I have no complaints about any of them,” he said. “They have listened to the advice which we have given and have followed it every time. Sometimes, of course, that meant leaving out an important member of the squad. As eager as we all were to see the team do well, the future health and wellbeing of each player always came first.”

Dr. Best has two sons, three daughters and eleven grandchildren. Joel, Luke and Cara live in Northern Ireland, but Amy and Gemma are in Glasgow and Brighton respectively. “I want to spend more time with my family, with more visits to see grandchildren in Scotland and England,” he continued. “But I still plan to attend as many games as possible. Joel goes regularly and Luke goes when he can. It will be nice, in the future, to sit with them in the grandstand at Mourneview Park.”

In 2019 Glenavon presented Stephen with a beautiful portrait to thank him for his many years of voluntary service. “I have got a lot more out of it than I have put into it,” he reflected. “It has been a privilege to have been part of the lives of so many managers, coaches and players. I have made friendships which have endured and will continue. It has been the honour of a lifetime.”

Glenavon President Gordon Irwin presents Stephen with a portrait in 2019 to mark 25 years voluntary service.

Footnote

James “Cliff” Mahaffy, referred to in the opening paragraph above, is a very important but little known figure in Glenavon’s history. The author would like to find out more about him. If anyone knows any current members of the Mahaffy family, please email [email protected] with details. Thank you.