OUR KIT-MAN Charlie O’Leary is standing at the Aer Lingus check-in desk at Dublin airport with about a hundred bags and skips and all sorts in front of him. We can barely see him – he’s not the tallest – as we saunter by, but I can hear him.
‘Can you send that bag to Chicago please, that one to New York and that one to Amsterdam?’
‘But you’re flying to Orlando via New York,’ says the girl in the Aer Lingus uniform.
‘I know,’ says Charlie. ‘But that’s where you sent them last time we went to America!’
The banter is up and running.
We’re off on a six-week adventure in America, and I’m living the dream. I’m at the airport, checking in for a transatlantic flight with the likes of Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath and John Aldridge. I’m with my new heroes in life. It’s like I’ve won the biggest holiday competition in the history of holiday competitions, and I’m off to America to play footie with my mates Babbsy and Kells at the World Cup finals! I can’t wait to get up to the lounge, say goodbye to the dignitaries and get on that plane.
This is the adventure of a lifetime, and there’s no pressure on me at all. I don’t expect to play any games – I want to, but I can’t expect it because I didn’t get us here. I’m going as a squad player. If I get a chance then great, I will take it and give it the old 110 per cent. But it will be a bonus.
Right now the adrenalin is flowing. They’ve sent our bags ahead of us with Charlie. The next time we see them will be in an American hotel room. President Mary Robinson came around the hotel last night to wish us well and the cameras are out at the airport. They send us through our own security channel. No queuing for us! We’re sitting in this posh Aer Lingus lounge upstairs and we want out.
The Three Amigos want to go down to the shops in the duty free and get some magazines for the plane. Tony Hickey’s not keen on the idea, but he has no choice. We breeze through the shops, get what we want and then we’re on the plane, down the back like regular punters but feeling like a million dollars. We’re Ireland. We don’t need business class.
Jack’s easy with us on the flight over. We can have a bevvy if we’re sensible, so we have a few. And we have a laugh like we always do. We’re all in this together and that makes us special. This flight typifies that spirit. It’s like the Jolly Boys’ day out on Only Fools and Horses. We’re having a laugh and we’re having it together. No airs and no graces. No cliques and no egos. Look like you’re getting too big for your boots and Andy Townsend will bring you back down to earth before Jack or Mick Byrne get a chance to.
As we get closer to JFK for our connecting flight, one of the air hostesses comes down to Kells and me. The captain wants to know if we’d like to land the plane. The lads are falling around themselves at the idea of me landing a jumbo jet!
I’m not so sure what she means, so I ask her exactly what ‘landing’ the plane involves. She says we’re welcome to go up into the cockpit for the landing, and the captain might let us land the plane. Aldo is cracking up and one or two of the lads are starting to look a little nervous when me and Gary head for the cockpit.
The next thing we are landing the plane! Well, not really. The captain shows us all these buttons and explains how the plane basically lands itself via computer. We just sit there and pretend to be in charge of it all.
‘Captain McAteer would like to welcome you to America and thanks you for flying with Aer Lingus today. We look forward to welcoming you onto one of our planes again in the very near future.’
When we get off the plane in Orlando there’s an official World Cup bus waiting for us. We’re royalty now, whisked through immigration and straight to the hotel. We have our own rooms, a break with the Irish team’s tradition of sharing.
Not only am I in a room on my own, but it’s bloody huge, one of those big American bedrooms with two king-size beds and enough room to play a game of five-a-side. But I don’t really like it. I’m bored on my own. Jack’s room is close to mine as well, which doesn’t help. He’ll be able to keep an eye on me, and I don’t fancy that.
I last one night in that room before asking Kells if I can move in with him. Like the big brother he’s always been to me, he agrees and I get away from Jack’s clutches.
Jack seems to be keeping a close eye on us, even the senior players. Aldo and Kevin Moran have been called in to see him most evenings since we got here. I’ve seen Packie and Ronnie head in there late at night as well. This World Cup is serious business. I think they’re having meetings without the ‘kids’. Maybe they’re only for the players who will be playing.
Then the truth outs. Guinness have installed a keg and a tap for Jack in his room. That’s why he has the most popular room in the hotel. The older lads have been sneaking in for a pint with Jack. Every night. The one night I do get in there, Jack has closed the bar. I knew they were strict on the age limit for serving alcohol in the States but it’s like you have to be fifty like Kevin Moran to get a pint in there.
The heat is stifling here. Jack’s going to have to work us hard to get us acclimatised. He can’t understand why they want us to play games in this heat. It’s going to be over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit when we play Mexico in the Citrus Bowl. Jack tells the press that Fifa are playing with our lives. He warns that someone could die trying to play a World Cup match in these conditions if they don’t let us take water on the pitch.
Our money is on Stan Staunton to collapse first. His skin is so pale in this sunshine he’s now known as Casper. He gets sunburned when he goes home to Dundalk, so this is going to kill him. Everywhere he goes, Stan has the baseball cap and the factor fifty on. Even at night!
I don’t mind the heat. It does take a lot out of me, but nothing compared to some of the other players. Jack keeps telling us to rehydrate and get fluids into us. That’s never been a problem in my short time with the Ireland team!
The training camp at a local college is a hard grind. Boredom sets in easily. Then Jack heads down to Miami for a day with his mate Frank Gillespie to see Mexico in action against Bryan Hamilton’s Northern Ireland in a friendly. He leaves his number two Maurice Setters in charge and the power goes straight to Maurice’s head.
He runs the bollocks off us for the morning. We’re going box to box then across the field in the midday sun and the sweltering heat. It’s ridiculous. The lads get pissed off very quickly and let him know about it.
Terry Phelan cracks and gives Maurice an earful. Then Cas has a go at him. Finally, it all comes to a head when Roy Keane tells Maurice that his training stinks. It blows up between them. Roy has a point, but he also has this habit of getting himself into trouble when he tries to get his point across. He’s far too aggressive. He’s always right and everyone else is wrong. At one point it looks like his row with Maurice is going to come to blows. Maurice is fuming and gives as good as he gets.
Jack’s already in a bad mood when he gets back from Miami after his plane was thrown all over the place in a thunderstorm. He explodes when he hears what happened on the training ground and gives Roy a right bollocking.
Somehow the story makes one of the papers back home. It’s not the first story to make that particular paper from this trip. They’ve also claimed that a serial killer was stalking the Irish hotel – a serial killer who had murdered people in a part of Florida about 500 miles from where we’re staying. And they blew up a story about a skin infection Andy Townsend had. By the time they were finished with it, he was living through a ‘flesh-eating disease nightmare’. We pissed ourselves laughing at that one.
Roy’s row with Maurice isn’t funny. Jack goes through Roy for a shortcut and threatens to send him home from the World Cup for disrespecting Maurice. The next morning there’s the press conference. Roy makes a statement to the media that the row never happened and says that he has no problem with Maurice and no issue with his training methods. The message to the players comes out loud and clear — don’t mess with Jack and his staff.
Blood, Sweat & McAteer: A Footballer’s Story by Jason McAteer is published by Hachette Ireland and is available now. More info here.
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