'Balancing trauma with performance': Brandon O'Neill's inspirational response to his father's courageous cancer battle

"Don’t get me wrong, I’m still living the life and chasing my dreams, but some mornings you wake up thinking ‘What's the point? It's not changing what he's going through.’"

From a fruitful period with Sydney FC, to linking up with Korean heavyweights Pohang Steelers and signing a 'life-changing' deal with Thai giants Buriram FC, Brandon O'Neill's footballing dreams are in full flight. 

But off the pitch, the 26-year-old has been forced to comprehend the most confronting of news.

As soon as he learned that his father Myles' lung cancer was worsening,  concerns around settling in a new nation and dealing with the effects of COVID seemed inconsequential.

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While dealing with the challenges of establishing himself within a foreign footballing culture, Brandon was informed that his 'best mate' had been told by doctors he had 10 to 15 months to live.

"You might sense that I come across positive and everything's alright, but it's been really tough," O'Neill reflected on The Socceroos Podcast

I've gone through some very dark stages here in Thailand and in Korea – you’re going through trauma, in a sense. It's ongoing trauma and you're in this environment where the person you are doesn't matter and who you're about doesn't matter; all that matters is performance, and if you're not performing you're deemed not necessary for requirements.

"Unfortunately over the last year and a half I’ve been thrust into things where I've got to perform, but performance doesn't matter when you know what's happening to your best mate."

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Yet despite what was originally projected, Myles is putting up a heroic fight against the condition. 

While he has his 'good days' and 'bad days', Brandon is simply grateful for the opportunity to pick up the phone and speak to him every day. 

"I just don't understand how he's doing what he's doing and how he's still with us today," he shared. 

"God love him, he's got no lungs, since I left Sydney he's been battling terminal lung cancer and it got to a stage where I’m here in Thailand and he was given a small amount of time to be with us as the cancer had spread to pretty much a lot of his body.

"It was a real eye-opening experience for myself to go through, all I've ever wanted to be is a footballer and all I ever dreamt about and worked towards is becoming the best version and the best athlete I could be."

With the world in the grips of COVID-19 last year, Brandon and his wife Nicole undertook quarantine to return to their hometown Perth and spend some incredibly valuable family time. 

Looking back, O'Neill cannot overstate how much he and his father gained from the experience. 

"I have been very lucky, during offseason we came back very suddenly because it went from a stage when he was stable to Dad not really being in the best condition," he recalls.

"I was actually lucky in this COVID world to spend eight amazing weeks with him. I woke up every morning to him, and I’d say, ‘Right, what do you want to do today?’ It was that quality time – every single day, we’d get a Maccas coffee, put a few bets on and watch the horses.

"We'd watch our favourite team Leeds play, we'd watch Sydney play and we'd talk about life and things I’d never talked about with him before." 

Their time together came to an end when the lucrative opportunity of a transfer to one of Thailand's biggest clubs came about.

As Buriram's interest became concrete, no one was more pleased with the news than Brandon's father. 

"When this life changing opportunity for myself Nicole came up he was pretty much just kicking me on a plane," he recalls with a chuckle. 

"He was like, ‘Get your rear end on that plane, you cannot turn this down. If you're going to keep me going you've got to go over there and give it the best you can, because if I know you're giving your best, I'll fight as long as I can over here.'"

LISTEN: Socceroos Podcast | Brandon O'Neill: An empowering approach to life on and off the pitch
READ: Aussies Abroad & Socceroos in the A-League weekend preview 

Looking back, O'Neill admits his new-found acceptance of the situation hasn't come easy.

It has been a long process, supported heavily by a close bond with his wife, family and members of the football community that he has met along the way. 

"It's unbelievable what I felt and what I've experienced here because I've gone to a really dark place where nothing mattered and that's not me at all," he reflected. 

"I’ve cried, I've punched walls I've taken it out on some poor Thai chaps in a tackle, I've taken out on so many people.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still living the life and chasing my dreams, but some mornings you wake up thinking ‘What's the point? You know, it's not bringing my Dad back, it's not changing what he's gone through.’

"Like, ‘why should I go and do my gym program, why should I eat properly, why should I put my best effort into my football, when I can't get back this time with him?'

"Then to be in this position now where we're grateful, we're not scared, is an amazing place to be. To have the support network around to talk about how can I balance our family’s ongoing trauma with performance and that's been the trickiest bit of it all."

Every minute Brandon has played since that day has been well and truly dedicated to Myles. 

"I've been here four months now and he's still here and I facetime him every day, he's smiling and so proud of me. I'm so proud of him - like I said he shouldn't be here.

Every time I step on the field it is for him. When Buriram are playing he’s up and about he's doing things - that gives him energy.

"I see it as it may add a week it may add two weeks, it may add even two hours - it's just adding into his life and I get to experience that with him for as long as I can."

Looking back on his formative years, Brandon truly believes he would not be where he is today without his father steering him in the right direction.

He was the first to spot his son's potential and encourage him to expand his horizons beyond NPL football in Perth, before willing him to remain patient has the first few years of his professional career saw him spend game after game on the substitutes bench. 

His support instilled a belief that 'the cream will always rise to the top', and after Graham Arnold brought him to Sydney FC in 2015 those words began to prove prophetic. Having been exposed to such a strong support network throughout his life, it is no wonder that Brandon has developed such an incredibly positive outlook. 

No matter what life throws at him moving forward, he feels well poised to combat anything - especially with the unconditional backing of his wife Nicole. 

"No matter what's happening in our life, our main goal is our future and fulfillment and how happy we're going to be raising a family post-football," said O'Neill. 

"It's mental to think about that now, because I feel very grown up chatting about it, but it's the reality of life and the perspective on things that football will end one day. 

"I'm here in a beautiful country, still playing the game I love, being able to provide as much as I can for the future. I'm so lucky and so grateful to be able to do that, and it's crazy to look back on our journey from Korea to now having a crack in Thailand."

Click here to listen to Brandon's remarkably honest interview in full on The Socceroos Podcast.