Morecambe defender Liam Gibson spent more than a decade at his boyhood club Newcastle United, before being released at the age of 22. But it’s a club that, by his own admission, he owes “everything” to.
After a long-term battle with ulcerative colitis, the now 25-year-old’s footballing journey is extraordinary to say the least. From being released by Newcastle to almost never stepping foot on a football pitch again, Gibson’s journey so far means he feels “incredibly lucky” to still be playing at all.
His is a story of determination, resilience and true character.
“The surgery left me with a colostomy bag for a year, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever play again,” Gibson says, as he recalls the removal of his large bowel.
Gibson was a regular for Newcastle Under-23s when he was unexpectedly diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel disease, which initially saw him sidelined for only a few months, before a blood clot in his leg kept him out of the game for significant periods.
“I remember not feeling myself at all,” he explains. “I was so fatigued every time I trained, I initially thought I just had a virus or something but the longer it went on the more I knew something wasn’t right.
“I was going to the toilet and finding blood which I knew was a symptom of bowel cancer, so straight away I told my mum and dad, then the club and then they got me an appointment with a hospital specialist.
“That’s when I found out it was ulcerative colitis. I wasn’t told at that stage what having it might mean, I was just on a course of medication and I had to leave football for a few weeks until I felt stronger.
"During that time I was diagnosed with a blood clot in my leg and from there I had to be on blood thinners, that’s one of the main reasons I missed so much football, because I wasn’t allowed to play contact sports.”
The defender eventually returned to football, before the unwelcome signs of colitis began to return and a life-threatening surgery left Gibson with a colostomy bag for a year and wondering whether he’d ever play professional football again.
“That’s the second part of the story really,” he adds.
“I had managed to get back playing, but the disease kept flaring up and it got so bad I had to have a surgery to remove my large colon. It left me with a colostomy bag which was really difficult. That was definitely the worst part of it all, physically and mentally.”
Dramatic weight loss and a year out of the game were almost enough for him not to return, before being encouraged to return to the club by his family, and in July 2018 - 425 days after his last appearance - Gibson featured in Newcastle’s Under-23s pre-season win over Barrow.
Born in Stanley, County Durham, Gibson grew up playing for his local club, Beamish, before being scouted by Newcastle, though it took “a lot of persuading” to get him to sign.
“I think I actually cried,” he admits. “I didn’t want to lose my mates at my local club!”
After a decade with the Magpies, Gibson says he was “gutted” to be released, but despite his devastation says he owes the club “everything”.
“I was lucky to be at a club like Newcastle at the time, their medical team supported me so much and I had really good care from them. They reassured me very early on that I’d be looked after by them which immediately settled any fears I had.
“I first got diagnosed in the January and I was only contracted until May, but Newcastle offered me another deal to keep me on another year which was really good and put my mind at ease while I was having treatment. I was really gutted when I got released but I owe them a lot.
“When you’re in a football club, you’re so used to having all the lads around you every day. To have that taken away from you because of an illness, it can be really tough mentally. I had some real low points but I got great support from everyone around me.”
After his recovery, the defender returned to professional football through loan spells with Accrington Stanley and Grimsby Town, but the challenges didn’t stop there. Deep down he knew his time at St James’ Park was coming to an end and the 2019/20 campaign proved to be Gibson’s last with the Magpies.
The disappointment of leaving his boyhood club after a decade was further compounded by being without a club during the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With football suspended, uncertainty over the return of fans and Clubs struggling financially, the future looked bleak for Gibson and hundreds of other free agents.
“Genuinely I think it was one of the toughest times for me,” he says.
“Knowing that I didn’t have a club to go back to when football returned after the first lockdown period was awful. I was really trying to keep myself fit in case I found a club but it was a constant worry every day. I didn’t want to think that I was doing all that for nothing and the longer I went without a club, the more it got to my head. It was really tough.”
Questions over what could have been are inevitable after his progress at Newcastle was derailed by such a serious illness, but wherever he is playing his football, in whatever division, Gibson is just happy to be playing at all.
“I was on the phone to my agent every day chewing his ear off, I was absolutely desperate for a club.”
And then Derek Adams and Morecambe - who were competing in Sky Bet League Two at the time - came calling.
“The gaffer rang and asked if I wanted to come and train with the club, so I did that on the Thursday and on Friday they asked if I wanted to sign. I said, ‘yes, definitely!’
“I was a massive weight lifted. We don’t earn massive money and it doesn’t last forever. Football is my job and financially I needed to be playing, I’d started to struggle being a free agent for so long so to sign permanently for Morecambe and have that security, it was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Victory in the League Two Play-Off Final that season led to an historic promotion as the Shrimps competed in League One for the first time in their history in the 2021/22 campaign.
After surviving relegation against the odds last season, with Derek Adams back in the dugout, Gibson has found an environment where he can thrive and is enjoying his football more than ever.
“I’ve definitely found a home here,” he says. “The gaffer knows what I bring to the table and I know a lot about him, I was really pleased to see him come back to the club.
“I felt good last season, there have been question marks over me in the past for obvious reasons so for me, last season was all about trying to play as many games as possible without breaking down or having fitness issues, so I hope to take that into next season.”
And with the EFL season kicking off this weekend, Gibson and his teammates are ready for another gruelling League One campaign ahead.
“It’s just getting tougher isn’t it?” he says, smiling.
“It never gets any easier. We can’t compete with the size of some of the Clubs in League One but we know if we work hard and gather some momentum we’ll be okay.
“It’s important for us just to build on last season and try and finish as high as possible. We’re under no illusions as to how tough it is going to be, there are some huge Clubs in League One but we want to give it a really good go.”