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Dublin: 2 °C Friday 15 November, 2019

'People keep asking me if this will be my last year, but there's not a chance of that'

Despite turning 35 in January, Irish midfielder Alan McCormack is thriving in England.

BEFORE A TRAINING session during his time as captain of Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town, Alan McCormack visited a doctor in search of a cure for a throat infection. 

“I was really struggling,” he recalls. “My throat was on fire. I had sent a message to the physio at the club to let him know that I wasn’t well. He replied and said: ‘Paolo’s here and he thinks you’re skipping training because you thought he wasn’t in. You need to come to the training ground straight away.’

Soccer - Johnstone's Paint Trophy - Final - Chesterfield v Swindon Town - Wembley Stadium Paolo Di Canio issues instructions to Alan McCormack during the 2012 Football League Trophy final at Wembley. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Towards the end of his time at Swindon, there were a few days when Paolo wasn’t at training. Anyway, after waiting to be seen for about an hour, the doctor sent me off to bed but I had to get straight down to the training ground.

“I was about 10 minutes late in the end. As soon as I arrived, Paolo summoned me out to the pitch, stopped the session and said: ‘He thinks he can skip training when Paolo’s not here? Well, he’s no longer the captain.’ 

“To be fair to Paolo, there was a lot of stuff happening off the pitch with him at that stage. I think he was arguing with the club about funds to get players in. He’s a very passionate man and there was probably a bit of anger from that. I bore the brunt of it that day.”

Forty-eight hours later, Di Canio resigned from his position. Caretaker managers Tommy Miller and Darren Ward returned the armband to McCormack, who has never harboured animosity towards the enigmatic Italian over the incident. Were it not for his intervention, the career of a player who’s thriving at 35 may have been over by the age of 27.

* * *

At the end of the 2016-17 campaign, Alan McCormack parted company with Brentford. After four enjoyable years in West London, there was no longer a place for the Dubliner at the Championship club. For a 33-year-old whose season had been punctuated by injury setbacks, it may have seemed like the beginning of the end.

Nevertheless, the veteran midfielder is now verging on a return to the division he was pushed out of less than two years ago. McCormack has made a substantial contribution to a record-breaking undefeated run of 24 games, which has put Luton Town on top of League One.

Involvement in consecutive promotions with a club that was in League Two last season would undoubtedly be a highlight for McCormack, who has already had plenty to savour during a career in English football that began 15 years ago this month.

Luton McCormack is in his second season at Luton Town. Source: Richard Sellers/EMPICS Sport

The combative midfielder has been promoted with three different clubs. He has played at Wembley, the Millennium Stadium, Hampden Park, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane. He won Player of the Year awards at both Swindon Town and Brentford. However, he’s reluctant to devote much time to reflection while the show is still on the road. 

“I suppose I can’t really complain with how the last few years have gone for me,” says the former Republic of Ireland U19 international. “Most of the success has probably come in the last five or six years. But the thing about success is that when you have some, you want more.

“It’s certainly been a career that I’ll look back on with fond memories. But I don’t tend to do that while I’m still playing. There’s too much still to come to be focusing on what’s in the past. I’ll be a long time retired so there’ll be plenty of time then to sit down and look back on it.”

McCormack is now closing in on his 500th professional game, the first of which came as a substitute for Preston North End in a 1-1 draw with Burnley in March 2004. He was handed a full debut four days later against a Sunderland side managed by Mick McCarthy, a game that ended 3-3. It was a relatively rapid ascent for a novice who had been playing for Stella Maris in Dublin just 15 months earlier.

There were short loan spells at Leyton Orient and Southend United, before McCormack spent the 2005-06 season at Scottish Premiership side Motherwell. He provided an assist for a Jim Hamilton goal as he debuted in a 4-4 draw with Celtic.

The teams also met that season in the semi-finals of Scottish League Cup, when McCormack briefly shared the pitch with his childhood hero. Roy Keane was introduced as an 89th minute substitute for Celtic, who were 2-1 winners at Hampden Park thanks to Shaun Maloney’s late free-kick. 

McCormack was back for a second spell at Southend in November 2006. Perhaps his only regret about returning to Roots Hall was that he didn’t accelerate the process. A few days before the transfer was completed, Southend had booked their place in the quarter-finals of the League Cup by recording a 1-0 win over a Manchester United side that included Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. 

Motherwell Challenging Celtic's Stiliyan Petrov. Source: John Walton/EMPICS Sport

“I think I joined on the Saturday, and on the previous Tuesday they beat United,” he explains. “The move had been in the works so I maybe could have pushed for it a bit earlier. Obviously it would have been incredible to be involved in that. By the time I arrived, everyone at the club was absolutely bouncing. The stories were still being told for a few months after that.” 

A few weeks after returning to Southend, he scored his first Championship goal in a 2-1 win against a Southampton side containing Gareth Bale. He also went on to play in the next round of the League Cup against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, where the Premier League club needed a 115th-minute Jermain Defoe goal to advance to a semi-final meeting with Arsenal, after the game was still goalless at the end of normal time.

Another significant outing came in the FA Cup third round in January 2009. As McCormack tussled with the likes of Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel in midfield at Stamford Bridge, Southend earned a 1-1 draw after Peter Clarke’s stoppage-time header cancelled out Salomon Kalou’s opener for Chelsea. A suspension due to an accumulation of yellow cards ruled McCormack out for the replay, which Chelsea won 4-1 despite falling behind.

Having been unable to prevent Southend from dropping out of League One, McCormack moved to Charlton Athletic in 2010. However, a two-year contract was discarded at the end of his first season. A difficult campaign, during which a comment on Twitter irreparably damaged his relationship with the club’s supporters, almost pushed him out of football entirely. 

“Things were going fairly well at Charlton at first,” he says. “But then we started struggling for a few results, I struggled with performances and my confidence dropped. It got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying football at all. You put on a brave face and go out and give it everything you have, but I had no confidence in myself at all.

“Charlton is a really big club, so I started to see a different side of social media then. It starts with one comment on Twitter, and that then multiplies into five, 10, 20 and so on.

“I went out one evening for an anniversary dinner with Lauren [his wife] after we lost that day to Swindon. I had tweeted a reply to one of the boys about needing a glass of red wine after it. I got abuse over that like you would not believe. There were people putting my address up, saying they knew where I lived and they were going to come up.

Tottenham Tangling with Tottenham's Edgar Davids. Source: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport

“It was probably naive of me to tweet that because it might have seemed like I didn’t care about the club or the results, that I was going out and celebrating a defeat. Even though that’s not at all what I was doing, I could see how it came across that way to very passionate fans. I ended up leaving Twitter over it. I didn’t want to be caught up in stuff like that instead of focusing on playing.”

He adds: “Towards the end of the season, Charlton said I was free to leave and find another club in the summer. I remember telling Lauren that I might just pack it in altogether. I just thought I couldn’t be dealing with football anymore. I wouldn’t say I started to hate the game, but I was completely lost and not enjoying it at all. I wasn’t myself any longer.

“I was quite serious about calling it a day in the sense that I wasn’t actively looking for a new club. Chris Powell [Charlton manager] rang me and offered me a few clubs, but they just weren’t for me. I was already speaking to Lauren and a few friends about what type of jobs I could get into. At that stage it really wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t gotten a new club.”

On the eve of the 2011-12 season, a phone call from McCormack’s agent led to a complete change in his outlook. There was a new man in charge at Swindon Town and he wanted McCormack to assist in their bid to return to League One.

“My agent rang and said Paolo Di Canio wants you at Swindon. It sounded interesting enough to explore at least,” says McCormack. “Then as soon as I met Paolo I wanted to be involved. He knew more about me than I knew about myself. He put a bit of confidence back in me, which was exactly what I needed. It all went from there.”

Di Canio had an instant impact at a club that had just been relegated to League Two. In the third round of the FA Cup, they eliminated Premier League side Wigan Athletic, who went on to win the competition the following season. 

Swindon also made it to Wembley for the Football League Trophy final, but came up short against a Chesterfield side from the level above. It was McCormack’s second defeat in the competition’s decider. In 2005 he was a member of a Southend team that was beaten by Wrexham at the Millennium Stadium.

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Fourth Round - Swindon Town v Aston Villa - County Ground Tracking Aston Villa's Christian Benteke during a League Cup game for Swindon Town in 2012. Source: PA Wire/PA Archive/PA Images

Most significantly for Swindon during Di Canio’s first season at the helm, they succeeded in their attempt to achieve an immediate return to League One. For McCormack, a league winners’ medal was accompanied by the Player of the Year award.

Di Canio didn’t see out the following season, which ended with Swindon reaching the League One play-offs. McCormack — who by then had been appointed skipper — continues to speak highly of the former AC Milan and Celtic striker, in spite of the training-ground spat which saw him stripped of the captaincy for a brief period.

“Playing under Paolo was amazing,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong — he was very, very tough. You’d be lucky if he gave you a Sunday off. The whole English mentality — as he liked to call it — of afternoons off to go out and play golf, or go down the bookies, as players must have done in his day, he used to hate that. 

“He made sure that we were on the grass for a minimum of two hours every day from Monday to Friday. It was tough, but we were very fit because of it. We were educated in the game and our roles were drilled into us. 

“It was great to learn the game his way, but you could never cross him. If you did, you were gone. He stripped me of the captaincy but I don’t hold any grudges. If I bumped into him on the street now, I’d love to go up and speak to him and give him a hug. He was tremendous. That incident didn’t change the fact that I loved playing for him.”

* * * 

By a sizeable margin, Alan McCormack is the elder statesman in the current Luton Town squad. He’s the only player in the dressing room who can recall — albeit vaguely — when the Hatters were a top-flight club, playing their home games on an infamous ‘plastic’ pitch.

“I think the next oldest fella is three years behind me,” McCormack says, ruefully. “I’m way out in front as the oldest. But the lads here make me feel younger anyway. If I’m being honest, I don’t feel 35 at all.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 19.12.39

Promotion to the Championship would be a significant feat for a club that was still playing non-league football in 2014.

Leading goalscorer James Collins has hogged the Irish interest in the Luton story this season, having been included in Mick McCarthy’s squad for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia.

McCormack’s role may have flown under the radar by comparison, but his leadership and tenacity in the middle of the park have made him a vital cog in a wheel that’s rolling smoothly in the direction of a division Luton have been absent from for 12 years. Yesterday, he was announced as the club’s Player of the Month for February.

“My time here has been incredible,” he says. “The club has a vision of where it wants to go. To be part of something like that is really enjoyable. You want to play as much of a part in it as you can. Since I came here from Brentford, I’ve loved every second of it.”

After leaving Swindon Town in 2013, McCormack helped Brentford to promotion to the Championship in his first season, as well as adding another Player of the Year award to the mantlepiece. Having operated at right-back, he was also selected in the League One Team of the Season, which included current England international Harry Maguire, who was then at Sheffield United.

McCormack had to drop down a couple of levels to continue his career when the Bees released him after a four-year spell at Griffin Park. Nevertheless, as things stand, he could be back at Brentford next season as part of the opposition. 

He says: “I still felt good about myself when I left Brentford. I was waiting to have an operation on my groin which I kept putting off. I knew once I got that sorted that I could get fit and stay fit. I still wanted to be pushed. I had no intention of packing it in.

Brentford Celebrating with Brentford fans after the club's promotion from League One in 2014. Source: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images

“There was no problem with going down to League Two. With the squad at Luton, I was confident that we could get promoted. But did I think I’d play in the Championship again? Probably not. I probably thought I’d be a coach the next time I saw the Championship. 

“Knowing that I’ve already been there and I have the chance to get back there, that has kind of driven me on. I’ve actually never thought about it much, but being honest now, I didn’t think I’d be back there two years later and maybe facing the club that I left. In saying that, there’s still a bit to go before that can happen.”

With nine games remaining, a five-point buffer separates Luton from second-placed Barnsley, while Sunderland are four points further back. They’ll expect to strengthen their grip on top spot today when relegation-threatened Gillingham visit Kennilworth Road, where McCormack’s run of 14 consecutive starts could be halted by a hamstring injury he sustained in Tuesday night’s win at Bradford City.

Luton have defied the departure of manager Nathan Jones to keep their promotion bid on track. Jones left in January to take the Stoke City job, but caretaker boss Mick Harford has maintained the continuity established by his predecessor.

Harford will remain in place until a permanent successor is appointed in the summer. The new man in charge will have his own ideas on how to bring the club forward. In the unlikely event that McCormack doesn’t feature in them, it won’t change his own plans. Whether he’s at Luton next season or not, retirement isn’t being considered. For starters, four-year-old son Ronnie won’t allow it.

“My little boy is at a stage now where he’s absolutely obsessed with football. He loves coming to games,” says McCormack, who also has a six-year-old daughter, Olivia. “It gives me such a buzz, knowing my little boy is in the crowd watching. He goes into school and he’s really proud telling his friends that his daddy plays football.

“People keep asking me how long I have left and if this will be my last year, but there’s not a chance of that. I’m enjoying it too much. I want to play for as long as I can and not just accept age as a reason to finish. As long as my body is good, I have no intention of quitting the game. I may have lost a yard of pace, but what you lose in your feet you gain in your head.”

Preston During his debut season at Preston. Source: Barry Coombs/EMPICS Sport

Tales of unfulfilled potential, of what might have been, are regrettably common among young footballers who have crossed the Irish Sea in the hope of being a part of the tiny minority to crack the professional game in England.

When Alan McCormack eventually decides to call it a day, he’ll do so with peace of mind from the knowledge that he left nothing behind. Senior international caps and a chance to play in the Premier League were ultimately out of reach, but in such a callously competitive industry, his story is one of indisputable success. And it’s not over yet.

“Even now, at the end of every conversation, my dad still always says, ‘no matter what happens, make sure you’re giving 100%’, and that has stuck with me from the moment I first came to England,” says McCormack, who was a week into an electrician’s apprenticeship in Dublin when Preston offered him a contract at the age of 18.

“I’ve grafted every step of the way. I had a bit of luck at the start to get into the Preston team so early because of injuries. If I hadn’t had that luck, I’d probably be working as an electrician or in the guards back home in Ireland now.

“You have to take your chance, but you need that slice of luck as well. I probably made the most of mine when it came.”

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Paul Dollery

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