Kev McCormack: Alan McLoughlin's death was a wake-up call. Life is so, so precious - my family must now come before Portsmouth

Kev McCormack has been reflecting on the past, emotional contemplation sparking repercussions for his present and future.

Thursday, 4th November 2021, 6:00 pm
Kev McCormack with the Checkatrade Trophy following Pompey's Wembley win over Sunderland in March 2019. Picture: Joe Pepler

His wife Sarah’s battle against serious illness collided with the tragic passing of close friend and Republic of Ireland and Blues legend Alan McLoughlin in May.

The succession of brutal blows which rained down upon the 54-year-old forced him to delve into agonised soul-searching and life reappraisal.

As a consequence, one of the Football League’s longest-serving kitmen relinquished the Pompey job he loved in August – ending 22 years.

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McCormack remains at Fratton Park as assistant kitman, a reduced role which spares him match-day commitments and negotiating those exhausting Saturday treks in a minibus.

Sarah, rather than football, is now his overriding priority.

‘Recently I’ve been reminiscing about the likes of Alan Ball, Jim Smith and Macca, friends in the game who have gone. I miss them – and I think about them,’ he told The News.

‘I used to tell this joke about the lads buying me a watch – and Macca was my stooge.

Shaun North (right) has this season replaced Kev McCormack as Pompey's kitman

‘When he was Pompey’s assistant manager, we were in Manchester, with his mum and dad coming along to meet him.

‘We had a load of corporate people with us and I’m spinning this story about a magician and my watch.

‘Halfway through, Macca stood up and said “Is that the watch the players got you, Kev?”. I went “Yes Macca, that £15,000 watch”. They’re all listening to every word I say.

‘Then came the punchline: “I cut into the pie and you’ll never guess what was in it?”. I can see Macca talking to his mum and dad, but he’s listening, he’s waiting for his part.

Kev McCormack spent 22 years as Pomey's kitman before stepping down to become assistant in August. Picture: Malcolm Wells

‘He shouted “Your watch?”. I replied “No, steak and kidney”. Then everyone burst out laughing.

‘He always loved that joke. Look at me smiling now talking about him. People come and go, but you remember good people – and I still think of Macca all the time.

‘When Sarah was ill, he rang. He was going through it himself and he was there for me. My friend.

‘Macca previously had cancer of the kidney, leading to it being taken out. I knew it had come back, but didn’t realise it had got that bad. I thought they were dealing with it.

Kev McCormack has become a regular visitor to Heart Of Hayling Boxing Club, helping coach youngsters. Picture: Heart Of Hayling Boxing Club

‘His death got me thinking, it was a wake-up call. Macca was a young man, aged 54, the same as me.

‘I can hear dad saying: “Son, you’re 54 now, you’ve less in front of you than what has gone”. That’s not being morbid, it’s realistic, and I just knew I had to spend more time with Sarah.

‘Macca’s passing had a bearing on me. That and Sarah’s illness made me realise that life is so, so precious.

‘I had to take a step back from Pompey. It was time.’

McCormack’s association as the Blues’ kitman stretches back to the summer of 1999, when a vacancy arose following Gordon Neave’s retirement.

He subsequently occupied a pitch-side seat during the reigns of 18 permanent managers, eight different owners, two promotions, two FA Cup finals, two EFL Trophy finals and three play-off campaigns.

Kev McCormack remains at Fratton Park as assistant kitman to Shaun North. Picture: Joe Pepler

However, the ex-Royal Marine’s world was devastated in July 2020, two days before Pompey’s first-leg against Oxford United in the League One play-off semi-final.

Sarah had been diagnosed with serious health issues and, barely a week later, underwent an operation in a Guildford hospital.

The procedure proved to be a success, yet, a year later, McCormack announced he would be devoting more time to his wife and two children.

The assistant kitman added: ‘It’s very surreal, I suppose I had become institutionalised at Pompey.

‘When you’ve been doing a job for so long, you become part of a family. Suddenly you're leaving them and it’s very hard, but it will become easier once I get used to it.

‘I get quite emotional talking about Sarah’s illness even now. It affected me massively and still plays on my mind to this day.

‘We’ve been together for 28 years and married for 25. I’m her husband, my wife is ill and I can’t do anything about it. You feel so insignificant.

‘I’m not saying it because I want sympathy, because I don’t. It was a curveball in our lives which millions of people have also faced – but until it happens to you, you don’t really understand.

‘Even though she has been clear for a year, it’s still at the back of your mind.

‘Sarah requires scans every four months and that carries on up to five years, but she’s well. You always have those negative thoughts in your head, though, and I try not to be a negative person.

‘I was doing a lot of hours with Pompey up and down the country and I just thought “I need to spend more time with the family”. That’s what made my choice.

‘I’m her husband. In your wedding vows it’s for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. To be fair, I’m sure if the boot was on the other foot she would be doing the same thing.

‘Everybody goes through things in life, it’s just how you deal with them. My way was to take a step back and spend more time with her.

‘But I'm still there at Pompey. When it first came out that I was stepping down, I was walking along Southsea seafront with Sarah and the amount of people who stopped me and wished a “Happy Retirement” was frightening!

‘I’ve not retired, I’m still doing Monday to Friday, 37 hours a week, only now it’s just a normal job.

‘The hardest thing for me is letting go. The responsibility is no longer mine, it’s Shaun’s, and if he needs me or requires advice then I’m there for him.’

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These days, Saturday afternoons consist of McCormack following Pompey progress through Radio Solent, relying on his former manager Guy Whittingham to reflect the matches he no longer watches.

Meanwhile, he has almost finished constructing a new summer house at the bottom of the back garden of the family’s Waterlooville home.

Gardening remains a passion, as is boxing, with the 54-year-old now dedicating a chunk of his new-found spare time towards helping coach youngsters at the Heart Of Hayling Boxing Club on Wednesday evenings.

As a talented amateur heavyweight boxer, McCormack won three ABA Championship super-heavyweight titles and claimed a record-breaking 10 Welsh crowns.

Although, as he often points out with a chuckle, he’s become more famous for washing men’s underpants.

‘The other weekend I went to a Royal Marines Boxing Association reunion at the Forest Pines Hotel, outside Scunthorpe,’ McCormack said.

‘I normally can’t attend because I’m working as a kitman. On this occasion I could – while Pompey were at Accrington.

‘There were boxers there going back to the 1950s and I had an interesting chat with an 84-year-old called Tom, who won ABA titles in 1956 and 1957. Former world champion Terry Marsh was also there.

‘The evening’s entertainment was a Scouser who won Stars In Their Eyes in 1986 as Gilbert O’Sullivan. He was very good, a bit of a comedian.

‘I can do things like that now. If me and Sarah want to take the dog for a walk on Saturday afternoon in Bournemouth, we can. Or what about spending the weekend in the New Forest?

‘I can see my parents more. Dad’s nearly 80 and mum is 76, I speak to them twice a week, but could never see them a lot.

‘I nearly lost my mum two years ago and now I don’t have to worry about finding time to go back to Wales, I just go. They’re getting on now, you don’t know how long they’ll have left in this world, so it’s nice to spend a bit more time with them.

‘Then there’s giving something back to boxing. I’ve been over to the Heart Of Hayling Boxing Club four times now to do a bit of coaching with youngsters.

‘They have 40-50 kids in, and they've already been taught a lot of the basics. I get on the pads and do a bit of sparring with them. It’s just nice seeing kids doing a bit of exercise instead of being stuck on an Xbox.

‘Boxing’s been my life and sport has been my life, it’s very hard not to be around it at all.’

These days McCormack can’t straighten his arms, a consequence of floating bones in both elbows.

Having been medically discharged from the Marines at the age of 32 with back and knee issues, he admits the physical demands of hauling skips of Pompey kit has become increasingly difficult over the years.

Not that the 54-year-old is hankering for sympathy or planning to finally walk away from Pompey’s backroom for good.

He added: ‘We’re all getting old, we all feel aches and pains, it is what it is. Just bite down on the wood and crack on, I’m not ready for my pipe and slippers yet.

‘I don't know when I’ll retire, I don’t think I ever could. I need something to keep going, my brain needs to be occupied, I am not one for sitting around doing nothing.

‘Sarah even says to me when I’m gardening: “How do you get yourself motivated?”. It’s too easy to sit down.

‘I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but, when people retire, those that tend to pass away early are the ones which don’t keep active. I’m not an old man, I’m only 54, but I need to keep my brain stimulated.

‘I’ve always been on the go since the age of seven, whether boxing, bricklaying, in the Marines or with Pompey. Now all I want to do is slowly step back into my twilight years.

‘I haven’t had a bad life. Not being morbid, but if I pass away tomorrow I would have done more in my lifetime than most people have in two lifetimes. I’m thankful of that.

‘I’ve won three ABA titles, 10 Welsh titles, been to Wembley five times, won the FA Cup, got to another FA Cup final, and travelled Europe in the Uefa Cup. They are some memories.

‘Whether it was a mid-life crisis, good friends of mine passing away or Sarah getting ill, there is a time when you need to take stock of your life. It’s something I’m glad I’ve done.

‘I will always support Pompey, whether I’m working here or not. They’ve been a big part of my life and always will be.

‘But sometimes you have to put your family first. It was a massive decision, but the right decision.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Kev McCormack has been a Fratton Park fixture since appointed to Pompey's backroom staff in the summer of 1999. Picture: Joe Pepler