In an exclusive with the Official Matchday Programme for Saturday's visit of Spurs, Dwight McNeil sits down to reflect on the toughest year of his personal life to date, caring for long-term girlfriend Megan throughout a harrowing period, while balancing his unwavering commitment to the Blues and much more. Keep reading for the first half of his story...
The beginning of a prolonged crescendo to the toughest year of Dwight McNeil’s life so far began when you would have least expected it.
Just 24 hours before producing a match-winning swing of his left boot to seal a 1-0 victory at Nottingham Forest in early December - the first win of four in succession - the Everton winger was arriving at hospital with a bag of supplies for long-term girlfriend, Megan, who had been admitted the previous night after lingering concerns over her wellbeing worsened.
By that point, following countless appointments, it had been identified she had a large tumour - measuring at approximately 20cm by 19cm - growing on her ovary but subsequent CT and MRI scans failed to uncover the full extent of the issue and, the following week, it would be confirmed open surgery was required.
McNeil’s unquestionable commitment on the pitch pales into insignificance in the landscape. It has been a period that has altered his daily routines and opened up a new perspective on life, perhaps, forever.
And despite the profound challenges the 24-year-old and his partner have faced, an extraordinary ability to seamlessly balance his devotion to Megan while maintaining his role as a key cog in Sean Dyche’s side has meant these turbulent times have gone largely under the radar of the Premier League’s global audience.
“It was a difficult period for us both,” reflects McNeil, who is as affable and humble as ever as we sit down to chat at Finch Farm. “I could have had time off to be with her but Meg insisted I went in every day, trained and played. I think we both agreed on that front early on - for my own sanity, really, because she knows how much I love football. That’s what kept me distracted for a few hours at a time. But there’s no getting away from the fact it was a tough time.
“One of the hardest parts was not really knowing what the problem was for a while, but she was really poorly and it was a case of trying to find out what was wrong.
“It’s the first time in my life things have really changed and because of that you see things from a different perspective. I think I’ve learned a lot in the past few months, on and off the pitch.”
A reality check certainly wasn’t required for McNeil and his partner (pictured above), who have stayed unflinchingly loyal to their working-class backgrounds, despite the former establishing himself as a Premier League regular as a teenager.
Rewind to Christmas 2022 and, keen to get involved in the local community after sealing a move to the Blues that summer, the couple embarked on their own charity work across Merseyside, helping three separate charities to ensure a brighter festive period for disadvantaged children, families in poverty and those facing homelessness.
Once the couple were given some clarity on the medical issue Megan was facing, they came to a decision to inform the Club - including manager Sean Dyche, Head of Medical Services, Adam Newall, and Club Doctor, John Hollingsworth. Megan also encouraged her partner to confide in some of his closest friends.
“The Club have been really good about the whole situation, I can’t thank them all enough,” insists McNeil. “The gaffer has been really supportive and, actually just before this interview, he asked me how Meg is feeling and getting on. He checks on me regularly and the Club have let me know throughout that they would help in any way they possibly can, which has been great for us.
“I told Shay [Seamus Coleman] and Tarky [James Tarkowski], who are my two closest mates in those early days when we first found out as well. They are both first-class people.
“Seamus is Seamus - just an unbelievable guy who would help you with anything. Tarky as well… I guess he’s like my big brother, having known him for so long. We’ve been close ever since our time at Burnley… he bullies me sometimes as well so he’s definitely like a big brother! No, Tarky and I spend a lot of time together away from football. Meg is close with his family and we all get on, so they’ve been close throughout it all.
“I’m really thankful to both of them [Coleman and Tarkowski].”
Team travel plans for that win over Nottingham Forest fell favourably for McNeil, who stayed overnight in hospital with Megan on Thursday before heading to training on Friday morning then back to the hospital in the afternoon. He departed for the East Midlands with the rest of the Blues’ squad later that evening.
“When I left her on Friday night to travel with the lads, I was reassured that she’ll be fine but you can’t help but worry,” he explains. “Going to sleep that night wasn’t the easiest because you just think about things.
“I spoke to her the day of the game and she seemed in good spirits which put my mind at ease a bit, then, afterwards, she was just really happy that we’d won and I’d scored.
“She was really proud, which was nice to hear and it was a bit emotional, to be honest. I had my mum and dad, who go to every game, there as well, so to have family around me at that time was important for me because I’ve always been close with my family.
“She stayed in hospital for that full week, so was still in when we played Newcastle and I managed to score another goal. Again, it was nice to bring just a little bit of happiness during that time where there are so many worries flying around. Those goals were for her and I was just really glad to be able to help the team.
“It helped us go on a really strong run and that’s where we want to go back to.”
More tests and a pre-op followed for Megan, with a date for surgery later locked in for 27 December, the day the Toffees hosted Manchester City at Goodison Park.
Though the operation to remove the growth was successful, Megan - who had her right ovary removed in the procedure - still faces four months of rehabilitation, while the pair also wait on results from laboratory tests to uncover the extent of any further treatment.
“Going into Christmas was really difficult, knowing what was coming up,” explains McNeil. “On the day of the operation, we got to the hospital at around 7am and it was just a case of waiting. I was with her, then she was taken down to have it done at 10.30am and under anaesthetic for just under three hours.
“That was the longest three hours of my life. Your mind is racing.
“Thankfully, it went really well and she was really well looked after.
“At around 4pm, it was my time to go to play the City game. I was straight back after the game to stay with her in hospital that night.
“We managed to get out just in time for New Year, so it was nice to have that at home together and now she’s on the recovery side.”
On the pitch, McNeil’s season-and-a-half at Everton has been packed with incident.
A testing maiden campaign, culminating in a final-day victory over Bournemouth to extend the Club’s 69-year unbroken stay in the top-flight has been followed by improvements this term, blighted by off-field battles that saw the Blues docked an unprecedented 10 points by a Premier League commission after it was deemed Profit & Sustainability rules had been broken.
While the appeal process for that sanction is ongoing, McNeil echoes manager Dyche’s approach in focusing only on what he can directly affect.
“I’ve really enjoyed it, really enjoyed it - even through the difficult times and what has gone on off the pitch, I’ve just loved every minute of being an Everton player… and the challenges that have come with it as well,” he insists. “We’ve been much better this season compared to last - we’ve already got more wins than we had in the whole of last season. What has happened off the pitch is something we can’t do anything about as players. What we can do is concentrate on performing every week and we have been doing that. We’ve got to keep going and keep focusing on ourselves.
“The way this club pulls together is massive. You see how much Everton means to people and it really does feel like one big family. No matter where we play, the fans will pack it out and win, lose or draw they are with us. We’re extremely thankful for them and we know it’s a difficult time for them with what’s been happening but they’ve been incredible. We want to keep moving forward together.
“It’s inspiring, to be honest. It definitely gives you extra belief and confidence because we know how much this means to them. We try to give everything back.”
>>> Click here to read the second and final part of McNeil's exclusive sit-down chat with the Official Matchday Programme, as the Everton winger reflects on an incident-packed season-and-a-half with the Blues, the damage of a pre-season injury, a developing relationship with one of his teammates and his targets for the rest of the campaign.
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