‘I had to be brave’: Clare Shine’s journey back from the brink | Women’s World Cup
Sydney, Australia – As the Republic of Ireland played their first ever Women’s World Cup match on July 20, former Ireland striker Clare Shine was making a defining debut of her own.
Three years and a month to the day since her second attempt at addiction-induced suicide, in Edinburgh, Shine was on the other side of the world, in Sydney, commentating on Ireland’s game against Australia at a sold-out Stadium Australia.
“It’s mad; it’s absolutely mad, how my story is panning out,” Shine, 28, told Al Jazeera, smiling. “The dark place that alcohol first, and then drugs, took me to and where I am at now – as a person and a retired footballer at what’s my first bow in World Cup broadcasting – it’s bonkers.”
— Stephanie Zambra (@StephanieRoche9) July 20, 2023
On assignment at the World Cup as a co-commentator with Irish public service broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Shine cuts a calm, confident figure in her corn-silk shirt and trousers as she sits by the Sydney Harbour Bridge and reflects on her journey to the brink and back.
“My life – it was a series of unfortunate events through the best part of my life as an athlete,” says the former Cork City and Glasgow City striker about her struggles with alcoholism and mental health issues that brought her playing career to a premature end last year.
“I don’t really know the root of the problem, but I do know it was a mix of things that filled over time,” she says. “The drinking culture in Ireland is profound. Kids start as early as 11-12, and I remember being 14 when I first went down that road.
“I also see a lot of triggers in one of my closest friends passing at a very young age. I didn’t have a lot of time to grieve it, or then process my uncle’s passing a couple of years later. So, alcohol gradually, unknowingly, became my escape.”
‘I didn’t see a way back’
The weight of expectations as a prodigy also burdened the Cork native and former Football Association of Ireland (FAI) Under-19 International Player of the Year over time.
After all, at 15, she had featured in Ireland’s runners-up side at the 2010 UEFA Women’s Under-17 Championship and played in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup later that year. At the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship in 2014, she had scored the only goal against Spain as Ireland won their group.
Shine had moved to Scotland by the age of 18. In May 2015, she was signed by then reigning Scottish Women’s Premier League champions Glasgow City and made her full international debut during UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 qualifying six months later.
“Moving to a new country at 18 had also meant as if I was a dog off the leash,” Shine explains. “I had a bit of freedom, no family or parents around, and I availed of every opportunity [to be reckless] that I got.”
Shine remembers being the first person at the bar and the last to leave. In no time, football – her teams, training, years of hard work and discipline – took a back seat as alcohol and drugs – and a spiral of lies to fund both – became the focus of her life.
Injury and struggles with her sexuality made matters worse. In free fall, her mind had turned into a ticking time bomb.
“I didn’t see a way back or if I was ever going to get peace, so I thought the best way out would be to end all the pain,” she recalls.
In October 2018, Shine, while intoxicated, attempted to take her own life for the first time. “I had acted on that thought after pondering it several nights,” she says. “Looking back, I’m thankful that it didn’t leave me with serious injuries.”
The incident proved a wake-up call and forced a recalibration that saw her spend a year and a half in rehab.
The strictures from COVID-19-enforced lockdowns, however, soon prompted a debilitating relapse. On the night of June 20, 2020, she left an Edinburgh house party unnoticed, in her pyjamas, with a view to attempting suicide for a second time.
“When I went missing, Scotland’s First Minister [Nicola Sturgeon] helped publicise a missing person’s appeal on social media and prominent public figures did too,” Shine says.
“I also got a video message from [former US star footballer] Carli Lloyd through somebody else. It was pretty insane – I went viral, worldwide, and to this day, those memories cause me a lot of shame for all the hurt I caused my loved ones.”
‘Many people suffer in silence’
That she has been able to come out to the other side, Shine acknowledges, is as much a matter of luck as finding support systems when she needed them most.
“When I relapsed in 2020, my brother got me back up on my feet. My friend and former Irish teammate, Amanda Budden, has also been an absolute rock. I was lucky I could talk about it with people and get treatment.
“As my mum always tells me, I can always go home [when something goes amiss]. This love and security can be an invaluable thing when all else seems to fail.”
Amid all her issues, she still managed to make 12 appearances for Glasgow City in 2020/21 and scored 10 goals in 28 appearances in 2021/22, including a volley against the Swiss side Servette FC that earned her the Club Goal of the Season.
Capped seven times by Ireland, the last a substitute appearance against Montenegro in 2020, Shine retired from professional football just two weeks before they sealed their qualification berth for the expanded 32-team 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“When Amber [Barrett] scored that goal at Hampden Park against Scotland last October, I was bawling at home,” Shine says of what’s now the most important goal in Irish women’s football history. “I was watching it on TV in Cork with my family. Emotional as I was, Ireland’s qualification was an incredibly proud moment for me, too.
“I remember my mum telling me, ‘You could have waited another week.’ There’s a reason why I stopped playing when I did,’ I reminded her.”
Years of struggle with addiction, rehabilitation, a relapse and two attempts at ending her life had taken a toll on her by then, she admits. “I was struggling a lot with my medication and was struggling to keep up with the demands of top-tier football,” she said.
“Not a lot of people in my position would have stepped away from football when I did. They would have pursued and kept knocking on the door. I had to be brave at the time for my own mental health and wellbeing.”
In 2021, Shine found another anchor in her life. Sober nearly two years, she decided to pen her autobiography that would go on to become Scoring Goals in the Dark. Co-written with Gareth Maher, Ireland’s media liaison at the World Cup, the book was released last June and draws in part from journals she kept since she was 15.
“Through my book, I just wanted to help as many people as possible to not make the same mistakes as me. I wanted to share it because many people suffer in silence like I did. I do feel if I spoke up earlier, I’d probably still be playing.”
Besides a career in broadcasting, Shine is pursuing a life-coaching course remotely from an England-based institution and will soon move to Australia with her girlfriend, having obtained a working holiday visa.
For now, her approach towards life post-retirement is based on “playing by ear”. In the future, she intends to work closely with athletes as a mindset mentor and then go into addiction studies.
“If I would want young footballers to take anything from me, it would be bravery,” she says, pointing to the tattoo “be brave” she had inked on her forearm last year.
“I used to be so afraid of people for the things I have done. When you make peace with that, and own up to your mistakes, there’s such bravery in that, as much as there is in taking ownership of your life,” she said. “Not a lot of people can do it. And I am proud of being able to do it.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organisations may be able to help: