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Stephen Darby: Motor Neurone Disease

Professional footballer Stephen Darby has announced his early retirement from the sport after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 29.

The Bolton full-back, who last played for the EFL Championship club in December 2017, is passionate about football. He joined Liverpool FC in 2006, at the age of 18, after successfully working his way up through the club’s academy, playing in their triumphant FA Youth Cup team in 2006 and 2007.

The Maghull-born player has enjoyed a long and successful football career and is married to Steph Houghton, 30, who captains the Manchester City women’s team and the England women’s squad.



Early career

Darby played for Liverpool until the end of the 2011-12 season. In 2008, he was captain of the reserves’ team that became northern and national champions.

The former England Under-19 international made his senior debut for Liverpool against Atletico Madrid in 2008 in the Champions League. He also played in Champions League matches against PSV Eindhoven in 2008 and against ACF Fiorentina in 2009.

Following loan spells with Notts County, Swindon Town and Rochdale, he signed for Bradford City in 2012. He was captain there for five years, during which time they reached the League Cup final and were promoted to League One in 2013.

On hearing about Darby’s motor neurone diagnosis, Bradford chairman Edin Rahic said the news was “heart-breaking” and described the player as being a “massive part of the club’s recent history”. He made 236 appearances during his time with the club.


Bolton Wanderers

Darby signed for Bolton Wanderers in July 2017 under Phil Parkinson, who has paid tribute to the player’s professionalism during what has been a difficult time.

Darby “led by example” on and off the pitch, according to Parkinson, who added, “The Bolton Wanderers fans didn’t see the best of him,” and praised Darby for the “significant role” he played in the club’s survival battle in the 2017-18 season.

Parkinson said Darby “constantly set high standards in training” and was an inspiration to his fellow teammates.

When Darby announced his immediate retirement on 18th September, he asked for privacy, so that he could adjust to the new period in his life and spend time with his loved ones.

Bolton Wanderers’ chairman Ken Anderson said everyone at the club was saddened to hear that Darby had to retire from a “profession that he loves”.



Professional Footballers’ Association director of player management, Matthew Buck, said he had been aware of the difficulties Darby had faced in the weeks leading up to his announcement. He described him as having become a “good friend” and said the player had conducted himself with “dignity and bravery”.

Describing Darby as “a credit to his profession,” Buck added that the PFA (and Buck himself) would continue to support him in his battle ahead.

Motor neurone disease is a progressive degenerative condition that causes various symptoms, including muscle aches, clumsiness, cramps, stumbling and twitching. It can cause weakness in the hands, legs, arms and voice, including slurred speech, and can lead to difficulty in chewing or swallowing.

People with the condition can feel continually fatigued and experience weight loss, muscle wasting and cognitive changes. There is not yet a known cure for motor neurone disease, although treatments are available to help improve the quality of life for people with the condition, such as breathing and ventilation support and medication.


Family support

Darby’s wife Steph has been praised for her professionalism in not only supporting her husband with his personal battles, but also in continuing to train and play football at the highest level herself.

Her manager at Manchester City, Nick Cushing, said Steph was the club captain and England captain for a reason – and that’s because she is a “top leader”.

He described how family was “very important” to her, adding, “All of us here will support Steph and Stephen all the way through their journey.”

Darby is the second professional footballer to publicly announce he has motor neurone disease in the past two months. In August, Len Johnrose (a former midfielder with Blackburn Rovers, Burnley and Swansea City) also revealed he had the illness.

The 48-year-old is now a school teacher and admits he has had days thinking, “Why me?” and misses doing the things he used to do, such as getting up at dawn and going for a run, or to the gym.

He adds, “It’s just one of those things,” and says one of the hardest parts has been admitting to his children that he has the condition.


Specialist beds

People with motor neurone disease often experience insomnia which can be caused by the pain of joint and muscle stiffness, shortness of breath and discomfort due to their immobility.

Kinderkey’s Stellan complex care system can help improve comfort and safety to promote a better night’s sleep. Please contact us on 01978 820714 or email for further details.

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