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'The specialist was so pleased that I saw him almost straightaway because it prevented me from having a heart attack'
What kind of operation did you have?
Tests had found a blockage in one of my arteries, so I had an angioplasty. It’s a relatively straightforward operation to widen the artery using a small tube called a stent. The stent is inserted into the artery to let the blood flow more freely. I felt so much better just a few weeks after I’d had the operation.
What were your symptoms?
I was sunbathing on the beach in Doha, when England were playing Brazil there [in November 2009]. I was relaxed and stress-free but I had this discomfort in my chest. It felt a bit like indigestion but it didn't go away. When I got back, I went to see the club doctor. He listened to my chest and didn't like the sound of it, so he sent me for more tests.
What did the heart tests show?
They found a blockage. The specialist was so pleased that I saw him almost straightaway because it prevented me from having a heart attack. It could’ve happened within a matter of weeks or a couple of months. It was certainly going to happen if I hadn’t addressed the problem.
How did you react to the news of your heart condition?
To be honest, it came as a bit of a shock. I’d had a personal check-up with an exercise ECG [an electrocardiogram recording taken during exercise] eight months previously, which I’d passed OK. Once I got over the shock, I wanted to find out as much as possible. "Why have I got a blockage? Who’s going to do the surgery? What’s the recovery time?".
Were you worried you might have to quit football?
My first question to the specialist was whether I needed to give up my job. If he had said yes, I would’ve been absolutely devastated. Luckily, he said he didn’t think so. The blockage had been detected before any damage was done to the heart. All the other arteries were clear. He said that if I exercise more and closely watch my blood pressure and cholesterol, I’d have no problems doing this job.
What caused the blockage?
The pressure of the job was given as a reason, though not the main reason. But it certainly had an effect on me. The specialist said it had been building up over the last 10 years and had it not been detected, I probably would've had a heart attack. That's how a lot of people find out that their artery is blocked.
Is football management bad for your health?
It can take its toll if you lead my type of life, particularly the last 10 years of living on the edge with the ups and downs of football management. Many years ago, I took part in a TV documentary with Dave Bassett [then Leicester City manager] about the pressures of management. We were wired up to heart monitors for a game. The tests showed that at times, our heart rate on the touchline was as fast as the heart rate of someone running on a treadmill.
Is it important to have regular health check-ups?
Well, that may have saved my life. I’m aware that you shouldn’t ignore certain warnings in your body. As men we think we’re indestructible. You think you're tough. You think it's something that happens to other people. It's a macho thing. But prevention is much better than cure. If something feels unusual in any way, you must get it checked out.
What lifestyle changes have you had to make?
I’ve gone back to exercising more regularly. Diet-wise, I’m keeping an eye on the saturated fat and the sugars. I’ve also had to cut down on alcohol, because I’ve always celebrated the end of a hard-working week by having a drink and enjoying myself. It used to be beer, but now it's a glass of red wine. I don’t over-indulge as much as I sometimes did.
What kind of exercise do you do?
I exercise three times a week. I’m hoping to extend that to four or five times. I usually wear a heart monitor as I can’t allow myself to go past 120 beats per minute. I mainly work out in the gym, either on the bike, the treadmill or the cross-trainer. I particularly like swimming. At 55, the joints get more achey, so non-weight-bearing exercise, such as swimming, is very good.
What about changes to your diet?
I have to be careful about what I eat. I have fruit and cereal in the morning, and a little bit of pasta in the afternoon. In the evening, I’ll have fish or chicken with vegetables or salad. My biggest problem is the period after supper. I tend to feel peckish before I go to bed, so I have to make sure that I don’t ruin my daily diet by eating something after 8pm, such as a cheese and onion sandwich or a block of chocolate.
Have the lifestyle changes been hard to follow?
It does take a lot of self control. But by sticking to these changes, they will eventually become a habit. You reach a point where you start to feel guilty if you don’t do these things. I think that’s the sort of mentality you’ve got to adopt.
Do you enjoy exercising?
For me, it’s experiencing the feeling I get after exercising. When you’re tense or you’ve had a bad day or whatever, you go out and you exercise and you release some of that tension. You have a shower, and afterwards you think, "wow, I feel good".
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