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'I rang Brian to tell him I was going to retire... it took him nearly ten days to get back to me'

Jason McAteer looks forward to being reunited with Mick McCarthy at the Seán Cox Fundraiser in April.

Ronaldinho and Jason McAteer compete for possession in February 2004.
Ronaldinho and Jason McAteer compete for possession in February 2004.
Image: INPHO

HIS FINEST MOMENT in a football shirt came at Lansdowne Road, you don’t have to tell anybody that. But almost 18 years on from that famous strike against Louis van Gaal’s Holland which helped book Ireland’s spot in Japan & South Korea, Jason McAteer admits he doesn’t know this pitch all that well anymore. It’s very unfamiliar.

In eight weeks, it will be the very first time the former Ireland midfielder will play at the Aviva Stadium, the shimmering bowl of glass which dominates the skyline around Ballsbridge, and it makes perfect sense given he retired from international football three years before the old Lansdowne was knocked down to make way for a brand new home of Irish football in 2007.

As pristine and impressive as the Aviva is — a truly modern arena with its glass plates, impressive architecture and lack of half-timbered cottage club houses in close proximity to the corner flag — there still remains a warm, nostalgic romanticism with the original structure which will never die, even if there are no physical artefacts of what used to be.

McAteer remembers the last time he played at the old Lansdowne, a cool February evening friendly at home to Brazil in 2004. He says it was a fitting way to end a memorable international career in the green shirt, one which started under Jack Charlton a decade beforehand, blossomed under Mick McCarthy, and saw him play at two World Cups.

Source: PeteTop Carton/YouTube

Yes, a sold-out glamour tie at home to the reigning World champions Brazil — Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Kaká & Co. in those beautiful, iconic yellow shirts — would be a suitable way to bow out after a decade of service to the Boys in Green. Then aged 33, McAteer kept his decision to retire to himself for a while before letting Brian Kerr know he would be calling it a day.

“I was struggling with injury through Brian’s managerial stint. I managed to get myself fit and he brought me on against Brazil,” he explains speaking with The42. “I was always retiring at the end of that game. I didn’t mention it to anybody but I thought it would be a fitting game to go out, against Brazil.

I rang Brian a couple of days later to tell him I was going to retire and it took him nearly ten days to get back to me.” McAteer pauses with a wry, sarcastic grin on his face. “So yeah, I was obviously in his [Kerr’s] plans.”

McAteer is back in Dublin to help launch April’s fundraiser in aid of Liverpool supporter Seán Cox. He has been heavily involved in setting up the match which will see a Liverpool Legends XI take on an Ireland Legends XI at the Aviva on 12 April.

He will play 45 minutes for both sides in a game which will see Ian Rush, John Aldridge, Robbie Keane, Kevin Kilbane, Jerzy Dudek and Vladimir Smicer — amongst others — pull back on their boots to help raise much-needed funds for the father-of-three, who suffered serious brain injuries last April after being attacked before Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final against Roma.

“With Sean being Irish, I’ve been following it closely,” McAteer says. “I came over as a club ambassador for the Napoli game [in August] where we met up with Martina and the family and got a behind-the-scenes take on exactly what had happened, the impact it had on the family and how difficult it was for them.

Jack and Martina Cox with Jason McAteer and Ian Rush Jason McAteer and Ian Rush joined Jack and Martina Cox to launch April's fundraiser game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“What they have had to go through is just an absolute nightmare. So we’ve been following it, me personally, but also the football club as well. When the opportunity to put the game on came along it was going to be nothing else but a yes from me — of course I’m going to turn up and play. No-one should go to a football match and sadly end up in this situation.”

The fundraiser will see McAteer reunited with his old Ireland boss McCarthy, who will be in charge of the Ireland’s Legends XI on the touchline. The former midfielder is excited at the prospect of being back in the dressing room with Big Mick, a manager who knew when to use the carrot and when to use the stick to get the very best out of him in a green shirt.

I don’t know whether getting back in the dressing room is a good thing,” McAteer smiles. “Because he always used to hammer me and give me a hard time. No, but he keeps telling me that was just to get the best out of me.

“Just to be back in his company will be great — we’re close anyway. I look at Mick, not as a father-figure, but certainly as the uncle I really liked. We text each other all the time. I texted him last week and hammered him about turning 60.

“We were together at a reunion a couple of months ago and it was great to catch up with him, have a pint with him and just see where each other are. It’s great to be in his company. He’s got great conversation, he’s funny and I’m just glad he’s back here as Irish manager.”

Irish Football Team Training McAteer believes Mick McCarthy is the ideal manager for the Irish national team at this moment. Source: Toby Melville

McAteer began his international career with Charlton in 1994, enjoyed his prime years under McCarthy and brought the curtains down under Kerr. He says he is delighted to see McCarthy appointed for a second stint to help Ireland try and qualify for the 2020 European Championships, reflecting that he is exactly what the national side needs at this moment.

“He’s a manager that I loved playing for. I’m made up that he’s back in the Irish set-up. I think it was the right time and he was the perfect appointment. Listen, I know [people say] football’s moved on, but it’s not like he’s been in the wilderness for the last 20 years since he was last manager here.

He’s managed various football teams and done really well. His last job at Ipswich, with the budget he had, was phenomenal. You can see how difficult Paul Lambert is finding the job. What Mick did there was brilliant. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now, being an international manager hasn’t changed.

“As footballers, it’s great coming to play for your country. It’s the biggest honour. I played under two managers here who had unbelievable man-management skills, and they were Jack and Mick. I wanted to come and play in every game. Even when I was injured I wanted to come away with the squad and be around the team, and that’s just testament to the way they managed and what they brought out.”

McAteer stresses that the personal touch which McCarthy applies to each team he takes charge of not only makes him a successful manager, but a stand-out individual on a human level. Someone who treats his squad with respect and as a result draws out a mutual loyalty which benefits all parties.

Mick McCarthy with Terry Connor and Robbie Keane McCarthy will take charge of his first game as the new Ireland manager against Gibraltar on 23 March. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I always feel when you’re talking about international management, you’re talking about man-management skills. You’re dealing with the best players that country can offer. A lot of the time they don’t need coaching – they just need managing. There’s a difference between coaching and managing.

I think it’s a breath of fresh air and it’s the right time for Mick to come, to get a different voice in the dressing room, a different expectancy to what the previous regime had. I think one or two issues — like how to attract other players to come and play for Ireland — I think Mick is the man to do that.”

McAteer has emphasised before and repeats again today that one of McCarthy’s key strengths when appointed to succeed Charlton over 20 years ago was the transition he oversaw in terms of his personnel on the field of play.

Taking over an ageing squad who had failed to qualify for Euro 96, McAteer says that the new boss showed his managerial quality by helping to usher in the new generation led by the likes of Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Damien Duff.

“I think for international managers, the toughest job is the transition. And no manager gets changed while the team is doing well. Mick’s obviously coming in to change things around and to bring some success, and with that is a change of tactics, some fresh faces and trying to bring some players through. That’s what Mick’s going to have to do, and it’s going to be difficult. He’s going in cold, he’s got no friendlies.

Jason McAteer 18/2/2004 The midfielder played his final game for Ireland at the old Lansdowne Road against Brazil in February 2004. Source: INPHO

“He’s straight into it, and that’s going to be difficult because you’ve got to bring success straight away. He did a fantastic job transitioning the first time around after Jack. He had an ageing squad and had to bring some fresh faces through – Gary Breen, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane. 

He brought them through and he bedded them really well. We got the success out of it by going to Japan in… 2002… was it that long ago? Bloody hell. 16 years ago. He did a phenomenal job.”

You can sense the respect and adulation McAteer has for McCarthy in his voice and his body language. Being reunited at the new Lansdowne Road, the location where the pair made a lot of history together all those years ago, will be an enjoyable experience to help raise funds for Seán Cox, he says.

McAteer is well used to lining out in legends matches and, now aged 47, welcomes the chance to meet up with faces old and new for a worthy cause.

To have a kick-about, share some laughs at a packed Lansdowne and to indulge in some happy nostalgia of great nights from the past at the sight where — hopefully — some more iconic moments in Irish football will unfold in the near future under McCarthy and his successor Stephen Kenny.

“We are all really close anyway at Liverpool and get together whenever we can. We’ve always been very close, this group of lads and sometimes this is just the icing on the cake where we get to lace up the footie boots again and getting back into match mode. As a group of lads we are always on the phone to each other.

“Myself and Robbie [Fowler] are best mates, myself and Macca [Steve McManaman] married sisters so we’re always together — in fact we’re going on holidays together tomorrow. I mightn’t be as close to Michael Owen as I probably want to be at the moment…” McAteer laughs.

The pair clashed during a Soccer Sixes tournament last month in an incident which saw McAteer shown a red card as Ireland took on England, but he sees the funny side of it now, he says, and holds no grudges against his old Liverpool team-mate.

Ah no it’s alright myself and Michael are fine,” he smiles. “We all live around the same area as well and whenever we get the opportunity to come together we do and things like this make it a bit more special.

“I was made up when Michael kicked me because it showed the passion and desire that is still there. I kicked him back and we were mates at the end of it. Myself and Michael spoke to each other on the way home, we had a training session on the Wednesday and we’re still best of mates.

“At the end of the day you can’t take that [spark] out of us. We still want to win and we still go out every time to win. We’ve still got the desire and we don’t want to get beat. That’s why I was made up with Michael doing that because it just shows he’s still got it in him.”

It won’t be Ronaldinho and Ronaldo in those iconic yellow shirts and it won’t be the old Lansdowne with its floodlights, clubhouse by the corner flag and the Dutch net rippling in the distance. But with a green shirt on Jason McAteer’s back and Mick McCarthy barking orders from the dugout, it might just feel oddly familiar at the Aviva.

Tickets for April’s fundraiser game between an Ireland Legends XI and a Liverpool Legends XI in aid of Séan Cox in Dublin can be booked here. You can donate to the Support Séan Cox GoFundMe page here.

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Aaron Gallagher

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