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'The only time I ever saw him cry was when he recalled the end of his Ireland career'

Bryce Evans and Terry Phelan pay tribute to the late Alan McLoughlin.

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IT WAS A sad week for Irish football, as it was announced on Tuesday that Alan McLoughlin had died at the age of 54.

Obituaries were inevitably dominated by his famous goal against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park that secured the Republic’s qualification for the 1994 World Cup and is widely considered one of the most iconic moments in Irish sport, but both on and off the field, there was far more to McLoughlin than just that game.

In addition to nine years representing Ireland, he also enjoyed a good career in English football, particularly with Portsmouth, for whom he made over 300 appearances.

His untimely death brought an end to a gruelling few years. He was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and had multiple serious health issues in the subsequent period.

And the initial diagnosis inevitably prompted McLoughlin to think more about his legacy.

Having turned down previous opportunities to write a book, in 2014, he released  ‘A Different Shade of Green’.

The project was undertaken in collaboration with Dr Bryce Evans, a history lecturer and lifelong Portsmouth fan who grew up idolising the Irish footballer.

The book has more depth than you would associate with the typical sports autobiography. As much as being football-related, it is also about English-Irish identity.

McLoughlin was born in Manchester to Irish parents and always perceived himself as Irish, notably turning down England in favour of a Boys in Green call-up. 

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And like the late footballer, Evans was born in England to Irish parents. Working with his hero proved to be a rewarding experience and the pair kept in touch, staying close friends for the remainder of McLoughlin’s life.

“In a way, I asked him at the right time,” Evans tells The42. “He wanted to get his story out there and the point was getting that story out there, and the last nine years were all about the theme of continued struggle in his life.

“He had always struggled physically. He was about 5 foot 8, a small guy. He struggled to prove that he was physically capable on the football field. 

“Some of the details we put in the book were quite unpleasant, about what happens to the body [due to cancer]. His life was a bodily struggle, up to two months ago when he revealed that the cancer had returned aggressively and it caused a collapsed vertebrae, so horrific physical suffering really.

“But he had kind of been through that all his life. He had a mystery illness when he was in his early teens, which lasted a long time. It was never properly looked into. He was just fed steak and Guinness by Manchester United at that time. 

“He was playing at Man United’s legendary training ground the Cliff, where it was extremely physical exercise, he even talked about working with his dad and uncle on building sites, the blisters on his hands and that kind of thing. So this theme of continual struggle explains why he wanted to do the book.

“It was continuously this struggle for recognition about the English-Irish identity thing. And latterly, the way that he was overlooked by the FAI — just basically, [he wanted] courtesy and dignity, which he always gave to other people.

“I think he knew he might not have a long time. Thank god he had seven years after he did it. But he wanted to make a point with that book, and not in a bitter way.”

roy-keane-celebrates-with-alan-mcloughlin-after-the-game Roy Keane celebrates with Alan McLoughlin. Source: ©INPHO

***

One of the passages in the book that attracted headlines concerned his relationship with Roy Keane. The pair had been friendly during their time together with Ireland, but McLoughlin felt disappointed by a passage in the Corkonian’s first autobiography.

McLoughlin wrote: “When Roy Keane’s autobiography was published in 2002, I was shocked to read the following words describing the intensity of the pre-match atmosphere when we faced Northern Ireland in November 1993:

‘Knowing little of the history, lads like Andy Townsend, John Aldridge, Tony Cascarino and Alan McLoughlin were puzzled.’

“Now, Townsend and Aldridge may have qualified through the ‘granny rule’ and Cass, as he later revealed, had no immediate Irish heritage and wasn’t actually entitled to an Irish cap at all. But me? Both my parents were Irish and had a good grasp of the nation’s history; I knew exactly what that rivalry was all about. Just as much, if not more, than Roy Keane.”

McLoughlin revealed that Keane subsequently rang him to apologise and blamed ghostwriter Eamon Dunphy for this unfair claim.

Reflecting on it now, Evans says: “I think he must have been one of the only people to put the manners on not just Roy Keane, but the FAI. He received an apology from both.

“He remained close to Roy. But he was really irked by passages in Roy’s first book

“And he was pissed off quite rightly with the FAI. There’s detail in the book — crap hotels, even when they were playing out in America, really cheap sun lotion and mosquito repellent.

“To be fair to the FAI, they did take some measures in the last few years to address that and to face up to the fact that they treated their best assets really poorly and of course, that came out with Saipan and everything.”

On the issue of identity, Evans adds: “Reading a lot about the importance of that goal in the context of the Troubles and the later peace, without wanting to attribute too much to Alan, who at the end of the day was only a professional footballer, his attitude, background and identity went a long way and I speak as an Irish historian, he knew a lot. He wasn’t just a stereotypical [conception of a] footballer, he was a clever guy. He understood his heritage and he understood Irish history. I think that’s why some of this identity stuff rankled later on.”

Source: sp1873/YouTube

***

And as is so often the case — evidenced by the alarming statistics — McLoughlin, like many former athletes, didn’t find it easy to adapt to life after football.

“He often worked without any pay at Portsmouth. We didn’t really labour that point in the book. He was denied stuff that was in his contract like a testimonial, which he eventually got. He often laboured for no money at all at Portsmouth later on when they went back into administration. And he did the same for Swindon Town, so it was a life of struggle, service and selflessness.

“I was very close to Alan, so I would say this, but I really think he was a very strong example of someone who never was bitter about anything. It was just a life of struggle basically, even if that meant working for no pay.

“He had to do a succession of jobs and he worked as a delivery guy. He’d be delivering parcels, just like we all get these days during Covid, in Swindon, where he lived, and people would be recognising him on the doorstep. ‘Is that you, you were a professional footballer?’

“He even joked in the book about putting on a disguise, joke-shop glasses and moustache-type thing, because it was humiliating. But that was part of his attitude that he didn’t dwell on it.”

McLoughlin could also be brusque. As this reporter discovered owing to the occasional poorly phrased question, he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

“It comes from a Manchester-working-class upbringing,” Evans explains. “His mum and dad worked very hard, they were Irish working-class people at the time of the Troubles.

“As well as being a gentleman, there were no unnecessary airs and graces, and he spoke his mind, but never in a bitchy way. 

“We had a lot of heart-to-heart interviews in person and on Skype, many, many hours. And illustrative of the fact of that hardness, but also of the incredible pride he felt in representing Ireland, the only time I ever saw him cry in our interviews or in the book, and when he admitted to crying, was when he recalled the end of his Ireland career.

“It was the only time in all those struggles, with all the discussions on family bereavements, the struggle with cancer, the only time he cried was talking about the end of his international career.

“It came when Mick McCarthy’s side failed to qualify for Euro 2000 [with a last-gasp equaliser in Macedonia followed by a playoff loss to Turkey denying them a spot in the tournament]. He told the story of how he sat in the bed, with his wife, and he just broke down.

“He put such emotion into representing the Republic.”

gary-breen-9101999 Ireland players dejected after conceding a late goal in Macedonia. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

And yet, for all that undoubted passion and commitment, McLoughlin had far from a straightforward relationship with his defining footballing moment, the unforgettable goal at Windsor Park.

Initially, the Irish player felt he should be remembered for the 42 caps rather than just one strike. Eventually, though, he became more comfortable with his legacy.

“He came to realise that, as the saying goes, everyone gets their five minutes of fame.

“He knew that that goal alone is up there with the greatest modern Irish sporting moments.

“I think initially there was a bit of annoyance that that was all he was remembered for.

“It put his marriage under a bit of strain when he had to get on a plane to Albania or Turkey and sit on the bench. I think that was where the certain frustration came from.

“He had stories about how, when they were playing in Istanbul, he sat on the bench and someone threw a dead cat at him, which hit him on the face. Bottles of piss being chucked on them and stuff like this. All that he went through just to sit on the bench for a long time really.

“But in later years, he became reconciled to it and he was quite happy with the fact that that was his moment really, he could always be proud that was his legacy.”

***

One man who was with McLoughlin on that famous night in Belfast was Irish teammate Terry Phelan.

There are multiple parallels between the two. Both were born in Manchester but had an Irish background (Phelan’s mother is from Tubbercurry in Sligo). Phelan is 54, the same age as McLoughlin was. And they each earned 42 Ireland caps — Phelan between 1991 and 2000, and McLoughlin between 1990 and 1999.

They also knew each other long before either became part of their country’s senior set-up.

“You always have fond memories of a beautiful person who’s got a great sense of nature about them,”  Phelan, now technical director at Indian side South United, tells The42. “I first met Alan when he was playing for Manchester Boys. And if [my team] Salford Boys were playing, Alan and his father would often come down and watch. 

“Obviously, we got to play against each other on numerous occasions and it was going in the right direction with Al. 

“He would always leave a smart remark in there. He was always having a laugh and a joke.

“And he was a lovely football player — to play 42 times for your country just shows you what characteristics he had. 

“We all gathered together — there was me, him, Eddie McGoldrick, Roy Keane, a few of us used to hang out. The older boys used to call him ‘big Al’.

“Obviously, playing-wise, he’d sit in that midfield, stroke the ball about, attack, and he had a great engine.

“There was no malice in him. But when he got angry, he did get angry to be fair.

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“He could be blunt. I remember him doing an interview one day and he just was saying: “Yes… No… Yes… No.” I think he was a bit pissed off at something. You knew something was wrong when he didn’t smile.

“Then you’re playing with him at World Cups and international games. You’re sat with him and he used to ask: ‘How did we ever get here?’ I’d say: ‘Al because we worked hard.’” 

soccer-friendly-wales-v-ireland Alan McLoughlin and Terry Phelan. Source: EMPICS Sport

Phelan started for that pivotal World Cup qualifier up north when McLoughlin came off the bench to rescue the Republic.

“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” he says. “As soon as it left his foot, I knew it was going in.

“Even when he was doing his interviews after, he was just normal Al. He wasn’t emotional. If you watch his interviews, he had a little smile on his face. ‘That’s my job, that’s what I’m here for.’”

The match took place at a particularly tense point during the Troubles with a number of related tragedies occurring in the weeks leading up to the fixture. Consequently, the visitors encountered a deeply hostile atmosphere on the night and undertook most of the journey by plane rather than bus as a precautionary measure.

“When you’ve got Kate Adie there, the war correspondent, and it’s all over world news that these two countries are going to play each other in Belfast and you’ve got helicopters over your head, you’ve got armoured cars all around you, it was kind of nerve-racking to tell you the truth.

“All we were doing was going to play a football match to entertain and get into the World Cup finals. Everybody blew it out of proportion like it was going to be World War III. Even the Northern Ireland lads we played against, some of them were your club mates, some of them you played against, they thought ‘What’s all this nonsense about?’

“It was down to Al to sort that one out, and Al sorted it out. I don’t know how many pints of Guinness he was bought that night. I didn’t see him for two days after, he must have had that much. But you know what? I can remember him now just sat there, as modest as anything, pint in his hand, tracksuit on and just having a giggle.”

***

Perhaps partially as a result of the Ireland team’s unprecedented success during that era, naysayers often used disparaging terms like ‘mercenaries’ and Plastic Paddies’ to describe the English-born players.

And like McLoughlin, Phelan was understandably annoyed by these ignorant comments questioning their identity.

“My mother was Irish. My grandparents were Irish and all my family was Irish. We can do nothing about it. My mother chose to go over to England and have a baby and it turned out like Terry Phelan. All he wanted to do was play for his country and his country was Ireland. 

“There were no English roots, it was all Irish roots — uncles, grandads. When people go on about: ‘Oh, you’re a plastic Irishman,’ that, for me, is pure discrimination. Alright, I don’t speak fluent Irish, I haven’t got an Irish accent, but deep down, I’m as Irish as anyone. I’ve got Irish blood in me. So why would people say that?

“I had the chance: ‘Who do you want to play for?’ I said: ‘I’m always going to play for Ireland.’ I was never going to choose England. And I know people say ‘you wouldn’t have got in the English squad,’ but that’s okay — it was hard enough to get in the Irish squad. 

“When you’re sitting around the table with the boys and having a laugh, you’re all just normal human beings coming together to play football, and that’s what it’s all about.”

wes-hoolohan-darren-randolph-and-alan-mcloughlin-at-the-awards Alan McLoughlin in 2019 pictured with Wes Hoolohan and Darren Randolph at the CRISC Awards. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It hasn’t been an easy couple of months for Phelan. Last July, another person he had great affection for, legendary Irish manager Jack Charlton, passed away. Meanwhile, India, where he is currently based, has been hit particularly badly by Covid-19 of late.

Such difficult circumstances have therefore led to thoughts of his own mortality.

“It keeps you grounded. I have a good old saying: ‘When I get out of bed and I put my feet on the ground, I know I’ve got another day — that’s all I’m thankful for.

“You think to yourself: ‘Why does it happen? What does it happen for? 

“But t0 tell you the truth, I’m really thankful that I’m healthy. I try to keep myself as fit as I can.

“I’m in Bangalore, which is having a bad period. My football club, South United, has stopped training again.

“But I’m thankful that every day, I’ve got warm water, a roof over my head, a warm bed. That’s the way you’ve got to be.

“We all moan, but just be thankful f0r what you’ve got, because you’re only passing through, it’s as simple as that.

“I remember Al turning around [at a testimonial a few years ago] and saying: ‘Just enjoy it. Enjoy everything.’ I said: ‘You alright, Al.’ He said: ‘Yeah, Tel, just run up and down like you used to. Let me see you running up and down. I’ll sit behind you and you do the running.’ I said: ‘Alright Al, you just sit there and I’ll do the running.’ I think I was in my 40s — it must have been in the late 2000s. 

“And it is sad. I say my prayers every morning and he’s always in my prayers. Likewise with Gary Speed, Dalian Atkinson, David Rocastle, they’re always in my thoughts because they were good pals of mine who I played with and had the chance to sit down and chat to. I’d always say a little prayer for them.

“I’ll always remember Al for having that chirpy little smile on his face and not just the goal he scored against Northern Ireland, but other occasions — coming down to watch me at Salford Boys, or when we played against each other, it was always nice.

“I know he’s gone and I know he’ll be missed, but for me, he’ll never be forgotten.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Paul Fennessy

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