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Alan McLoughlin played for Ireland 42 times over the course of his career.
Alan McLoughlin played for Ireland 42 times over the course of his career.
Image: EMPICS Sport

'I was proud to play for Ireland and how dare anyone suggest I wasn’t'

Alan McLoughlin chats to us about battling cancer, befriending Roy Keane and playing under Jack Charlton.
Dec 23rd 2014, 3:00 PM 33,278 12

IT’S BEEN AN eventful year in the life of former Irish international Alan McLoughlin.

In November, he released an acclaimed autobiography, A Different Shade of Green, which subsequently earned a nomination for Irish Sports Book of the Year, going up against titans of Irish sport such as Roy Keane and Brian O’Driscoll in the process.

Moreover, recently, he was unfortunately relieved from his duties as Portsmouth assistant boss, ironically being replaced by Gary Waddock — the man whose squad place he famously took at the last minute just prior to the 1990 World Cup.

Yet as momentous as both the aforementioned occasions were, they pale in significance when compared to what Alan McLoughlin has been through in recent years.

A Different Shade of Green, which McLoughlin co-authored with Liverpool-based academic Bryce Evans, vividly documents the former player’s battle with cancer, as well the death of a close family friend during that same dark period.

And while McLoughlin is “delighted” with the overwhelmingly positive reception that his book has been afforded, he admits to often finding it difficult recalling the traumatic period when he first received his cancer diagnosis.

“It was quite therapeutic if I’m honest,” he tells TheScore.ie. “I could remember the football side of things [for the book] quite well. There were significant times, and I’ve had some highs and lows. The wonderful times are certainly easier to remember.

“The more difficult things were [in relation to] talking about the issue of my illness. I’d not really talked to anyone about the process of what happened to me. I didn’t want to burden my family. I just wanted to be as positive as I could be. So Bryce ended being more like a social worker for me at times.”

While McLoughlin’s health has improved in the two years since he was diagnosed, he still has just over a year of a drugs trial left and faces further important scans over the next 12 months.

Interestingly though, McLoughlin may never have decided to tell his story had it not been for this unfortunate situation in which he found himself. The Manchester-born ex-Irish international had rejected offers to pen an autobiography over the years, yet after being approached by Evans — who was, like McLoughlin, from an Anglo-Irish background as well as being a lifelong Portsmouth fan — he had a change of heart after some gentle persuasion.

“The situation I found myself in, developing a cancerous tumour in my kidney and having to have my kidney removed — you certainly perceive things in a different way [as a result].

“My eldest daughter Abby is 23, and my youngest Megan is 20 already. So I just felt, being two girls, they haven’t got that interest that a young boy might have [in football], but it’s really a legacy that I can leave for them. My perception on life has changed, and I changed my life basically and just thought it was something that people would be interested in.”

He adds: “There’s a bit in the book that I’m keen on people reading, where if you act on [cancer signs] early, it can save your life.”

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(A Different Shade of Green by Alan McLoughlin and Bryce Evans was nominated for the Irish Sports Book of the Year)

However, although the book can be a difficult read at times as a result of McLoughlin’s unflinching honesty while reliving these grim moments, it is by no means a misery memoir. On the contrary in fact, it is filled with several colourful anecdotes involving some of Irish football’s most famous figures, with Roy Keane being a primary example.

And while Keane may have many enemies in football, the former Portsmouth star is certainly not one of them — in fact, though the Man United legend is notoriously dismissive of the idea of having many ‘friends’ in football, himself and McLoughlin appear to have been relatively close at one point.

“We’ve always got on fantastically well. I respect him as a football player, number one. I respect how he treated me and he respects how I treated him.

“I’ve no axe to grind with Roy Keane. I looked after him when he first came into the Ireland squad and he looked after me when I was having a difficult time at Wigan [by inviting McLoughlin to his house and sympathising with his problems]. I know Roy from my time with Ireland, but we’re certainly not best friends. However, I enjoyed his company and I hope he enjoyed mine.”

That said, one of the more difficult moments of their relationship occurred amid the release of the Corkonian’s first autobiography. In it, Keane suggested McLoughlin, among others, was more or less oblivious to the situation in Northern Ireland before the two teams met in the famous qualifier for the 1994 World Cup at Windsor Park.

McLoughlin consequently took offence to the book’s claim, while Keane ultimately apologised and effectively blamed ghostwriter Eamon Dunphy for the mishap.

“When writing a book, the author might find something an issue more than the person himself,” McLoughlin says.

“My parents are both Irish. I could just as easily have moved to England when I was younger and picked up an English accent. I was proud to play for Ireland and how dare anyone suggest I wasn’t as proud and that I should have been born in Ireland.”

In addition to Keane, McLoughlin had plenty of experience dealing with another Irish sporting icon — Jack Charlton — in close quarters.

A considerable portion of McLoughlin’s 42 international caps were won under the Northumberland-born coach, and Charlton certainly lives up to his eccentric reputation in the book, owing to the type of amusing anecdotes which — coupled with the unprecedented success the team enjoyed during his tenure — earned the English World Cup winner a permanent place in the hearts of Irish soccer fans.

Nevertheless, despite the many legendary stories of Charlton’s unconventional behaviour and coaching methods during this period, McLoughlin says that the ex-Leeds United player’s managerial prowess should not be overshadowed by these memorable tales.

Soccer - World Cup Italia 90 - Ireland Training Camp Source: Claire Mackintosh

(Jack Charlton is Ireland’s most successful manager of all time, in addition to being notoriously eccentric)

“Jack had success as a club manager,” he says. “He took the Irish team to heights that had never been seen before. That’s not done without being very good at what you do.

“I wanted to play well for the manager and it was key that everyone bought into that. There’ll be quirks in every manager whether or not they’re successful, they’ve all got their little daft ways. But Jack was a character, and he played the game with the press and with the players. He knew how to play the game whereby most of the time, he’d have the media eating out of the palm of his hand.

“Tactically, I don’t think he was the best coach I worked under, but he had great knowledge of the international scene given how many games he played at that level, and he had success getting the best out of the players he had — I’ve been managed by fantastic man managers who weren’t particularly good coaches and they still got good results.

“But he could be tactically very astute as well — to move Paul McGrath into midfield and have him in there, while playing with Mick McCarthy and David O’Leary as centre-backs, he knew what to do to get the best out of his players — that was the strength he had.”

Furthermore, while his book contains its fair share of anecdotes recalling wild booze-ups involving the Irish team, particularly during the now-infamous 1992 US Tour, McLoughlin plays down the suggestion put forward by critics — most notably Roy Keane in his first autobiography — that these sporadic indulgences in excess considerably hampered the progress of the Irish team.

“I’m not so sure about that, because everyone to a man went out virtually. But when we played on a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Saturday, it was done in the correct manner.

“Roy probably looked after himself better in his later career, because you get wiser and you know what you can and can’t cope with. We had our 48-hour rule [no drinking two days before a game] and that was it.

“The boozing was excessive, but that was the culture… The criticism doesn’t sit right with me, because everyone did go out and drink, Roy included.”

Roy Keane celebrates with Alan McLoughlin after the game Source: ©INPHO

(Ireland’s Roy Keane celebrates with Alan McLoughlin after the famous 1993 World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland)

And while acknowledging that modern players have benefited now that drinking excessively is considered taboo and a far more scientific approach to match preparation has been embraced by the game, he also feels his generation were better off in some respects.

“Technically, there’s no difference [between my generation and the current one], but physically there is. The strength and conditioning work is now available on a day-to-day basis — I didn’t have that outlet as a player. Their food is monitored, their urine is monitored, their body fat is tested, everything on a scientific basis is covered. They look after themselves a lot better than we did physically.

“Latterly in my career, drinking was socially acceptable and it was part and parcel of your football routine. Pasta and dieting, loading and bulking up came later, so it’s changed in that way.

“Clubs look at players in a different light now and they have to look after themselves physically. The one criticism is that some, not all, are mentally quite weak at times [compared with past players]. But that’s football — not everyone’s built the same, not everyone acts the same and not everyone plays the same.”

And speaking of modern players, what does he make of the Irish side? Is he optimistic about their chances of Euro 2016 qualification?

“A draw with the world champions, whichever way you look at it, was a fantastic result. You are going to be on the backfoot against Germany, whether it’s O’Neill or Mourinho managing the side. I thought they hung in there manfully, defended well and got their rewards in the end.

“John O’Shea scoring was fantastic. I thought I was back at Lansdowne Road — I jumped up off my chair and was delighted with it.

“O’Neill and Keane have to work with a squad that’s adapting. They have to find a solution up front, but it’s difficult to replicate the years from 1988 up through Mick taking the boys to the World Cup.

“It’s a work in progress. Success will come in a cycle. It’s not going to be there all the time. It depends on the players coming in. Hopefully we can get a bit of luck and one or two people coming in, but the state of the Premier League, with the amount of foreign players… It certainly doesn’t help the cause of Irish players, as they don’t get run-outs on a regular basis.”

And finally, as someone who was in a somewhat similar position himself, does McLoughlin sympathise to a degree with footballers such as Mark Noble and Jack Grealish — two players who have yet to definitively declare for either Ireland or England — despite the ostensible best efforts of Keane and O’Neill to persuade them to join the Irish set-up?

“It’s more difficult for Mark Noble because he’s been in the Premier League for a long time and so I can understand his reluctance, as it looks like a last resort when you’re not good enough to get in the English team.

“I must admit, I haven’t seen Grealish play, so I can’t comment on that. Obviously he’s a bit younger and I suppose if you don’t jump at the chance as I did [it raises questions]. But whatever decision they make, we should respect it and ensure that, if they do come along for the ride, they enjoy it.”

A Different Shade of Green: The Alan McLoughlin Story by Bryce Evans and Alan McLoughlin is published by Ballpoint Press. For more info, click here.

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