Niall Canavan, captain of League Two side AFC Barrow, is one of just a few English-based professional footballers with type 1 diabetes. To mark World Diabetes Day, Niall sat down with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to discuss his condition and the need for greater diabetes awareness across football.
Canavan, 32, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 27 while playing at his former club Plymouth Argyle. He initially assumed that the severe fatigue and bouts of intense thirst he experienced were caused by his return from injury and a tough pre-season schedule. But with persistent symptoms he sought medical attention.
Looking back, what made you seek medical support?
“I had been out injured for quite a long time the previous year. I told myself the thirst and the tiredness were part of the comeback. But I played my first game back, and about 30 minutes before the final whistle, I got severe cramp in both quads and both hamstrings – I thought, ‘I’ve never had that before.’ My hydration scores also went from perfectly fine, to severely dehydrated. Nothing we did food or fluids-wise helped.”
The club’s medical team and hospital consultants then carried out further checks, which revealed his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.
“I’m so thankful for the people that were at the club at the time, and for the help I got from the club doctor and consultant. They made the first moves into a new life with a new condition so much easier.”
Before your diagnosis, did you know much about diabetes?
“I had no idea what I was going to need to do. I was sat in hospital with needles… like ‘do I need to take a swing with this?!’ That first week was quite difficult. Realising I’m going to have to do this forever. But once I had accepted that – I was able then to move forward.
“It was a period of just focusing on me. Because I was away from my family, I was able to do that a little bit. Just getting healthy again became my focus.
“But the first thing they told me in the hospital was: ‘You will be fine. You can still play professional sport.’”
Fewer than one in 10 people with diabetes in the UK have type 1, and unlike type 2 – which is often induced by lifestyle factors – the exact causes of the condition are currently unknown.
How did the diagnosis help you come to terms with how you had been feeling?
“A lot of questions I had about myself and my ability were answered – there was something going on. In that period of not knowing, I genuinely toyed with retirement. I thought maybe my body just can’t do it anymore.
“The diagnosis was a good thing for my family as well. My wife thought I was depressed. She knew something was off – how I was talking, how I sounded. And then within a week of being able to medicate and look after myself she said, ‘right, you’re back.’
“As athletes, we do know our bodies well. So, for them to say I was right and something was off, it was really reassuring.”
With the support of physicians and club medical teams, Niall has learned to manage his condition. He uses a flash glucose monitor – an alternative to the ‘finger prick’ sensor – which allows his sugar levels to be tracked, and an alarm to sound if sugars go too low or too high.
As an active, full-time footballer, how do you get on with the technology you need to monitor your diabetes?
“Because we play sport, people actually think my sensor is a heart rate monitor. It’s good though, because people see it and it allows you to start a conversation about diabetes.
“With the alarms… that’s a really big thing. You can link up with the healthcare team and even your family – my wife’s got it linked too – so they know if my sugars drop low and what I need.
“It’s made it easier for training, I can scan and nip inside if I need sugar. But you do also learn to read your body and recognise how you feel.”
People with type 1 diabetes are required to closely monitor their insulin levels throughout the day, and manually adjust their sugars to keep them at a safe level. Niall says that sometimes unpredictable delays in football can make this hard.
How do you manage your sugars during matches?
“I’ve had two diabetic hypos [when sugar levels drop too low] during games. It can be quite hard because you can’t really just go down. So, it’s often a case of communicating with the touchline, and making sure they have a gel with them that they can get to me.
“But it can be difficult during matches. This year, for example, we have the new added time rules. If there’s a long delay in play, you can get a drop off - the timings on your injections can be off, and then you haven’t taken on board what you need.”
Do you think there’s enough awareness about the condition from a footballing sense?
“Thankfully officials are becoming more understanding, they know I have something I have to deal with. But I have been questioned in the past around time-wasting for getting a gel.
“But again, it comes down to awareness and people understanding who is on the pitch and what they may need to do during a game. Whether an asterisk is put next to a player on the team sheet, or the fourth official liaises with the physio to say look, is there a treatment plan for that player? It’s not just diabetes. There are lots that players deal with, but that conversation helps.
Research suggests that young people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes can often be deterred from sport due to stigma and fear of hypos. Niall, who has worked closely with young people and their parents living with the condition, says being fully prepared for all scenarios can help alleviate some of that fear.
What do you say to young people who have type 1 and are concerned about doing sport?
“It’s scary, it can be really daunting – you don’t know what’s going to happen. What I always try to say though, is if you are fully prepared – for a high or low sugar – and those around you know how to deal with it, then you’re in the best place to just go for it.
“You’ve got to look at it as something you can take with you. It will be trial and error, and you won’t get it right every time. But the last thing I’d want to hear is that kids shy away from it because they’re embarrassed, or they feel different.
“I say, you are different. But in a good way. You have an incentive to look after your health, and a lot of people don’t.”
Douglas Twenefour, Head of Care at Diabetes UK, said: “Having diabetes doesn’t need to be a barrier to actively enjoying exercise as a hobby or a professional career in sport.
“There are athletes living with diabetes across all sports, including football, and many have reached the pinnacle of their discipline.”
Canavan joined Barrow AFC in 2022 and has made over 75 appearances for the League Two side. He is also currently completing a PFA-funded BSc in Economics and Mathematical Sciences, which he says is preparing him for the next stage of his non-playing career.
“When I read the prospectus, it sounded like something I’d really enjoy. It went into quite a few areas within maths, and then economics, I thought would be helpful from a business perspective, lending itself to a few different industries. I’m in my final year now, and the PFA have been really easy to get on with.”