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Jason McAteer on World Cup '94: 'It was like going away with 24 of your mates'

The former Liverpool midfielder will never forget the team’s trip to America.

Phil Babb, Gary Kelly and Jason McAteer pictured at a 1994 World Cup Republic of Ireland Press Conference.
Phil Babb, Gary Kelly and Jason McAteer pictured at a 1994 World Cup Republic of Ireland Press Conference.
Image: James Meehan/INPHO

28 MAY — THE day Martin O’Neill confirms Ireland’s 23-man Euro 2016 squad — is getting closer.

While many are effectively assured a place barring injury, a few of the younger players will be feeling the pressure in the coming weeks, while even some relatively experienced pros may be getting nervy.

Jason McAteer is one individual who has experienced both sides of the coin. The former Liverpool player was just 22 at the time of the 1994 World Cup, and one of the few rookies in a largely experienced squad, while eight years later, he was the fourth most-capped player to feature in Mick McCarthy’s original 2002 selection (of the players initially picked, only Steve Staunton, Roy Keane and Niall Quinn had played more matches at international level).

In relation to his initial experience of tournament football, McAteer has fond memories.

In ’94, I hadn’t played a qualifier, I’d come to the squad really late. We played against Germany (in a friendly), beat them 2-0 in Hanover, didn’t we? Gary (Kelly) and (Tony) Cascarino scored. But I didn’t play many games (before the World Cup), so I didn’t know what it was all about really, to be honest.

“But then when I played in Japan, obviously, having gone through the campaign, if I’d been dropped last minute, I would have been devastated.

“There are going to be lads coming in now in that 40-man squad, or whatever, who might think they have half a chance (for Euro 2016), but all of a sudden, when he names the squad, you get a phone call… In fact, I don’t think you get a phone call if you’re not in it… So there are going to be a lot of disappointed lads.”

jason 11th May 2016: SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme ambassador and former Republic of Ireland International Jason McAteer was at the AVIVA Stadium to watch the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s National Finals where 192 girls and boys from 24 schools battled it out for national honours. Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Yet once the worries about not getting picked subside, playing at a major tournament — for McAteer and many others — tends to be a relatively unique and special experience.

“After ’94, I thought: ‘I want to do this again. This is the best thing I’ve ever done,’” he says.

I know we have a laugh and a joke and say (it was like) a stag and we had a great time and that, but it was that enjoyable. We were there in a professional capacity, I didn’t think I was going to play any part of it, I ended up playing quite a lot of it, which made it a bit different. But it was an amazing experience.

“We were very close as a squad anyway, so it was like going away with 24 of your mates to play footy on the best pitches in the world against the best players in the world. It’s just the best thing. The preparation was perfect, although some would disagree.”

One significant change between then and now is the team’s relationship with the media.

Whereas the sight of members of the press pack and the Irish team drinking together on trips away was once not uncommon, perhaps it was the 2002 World Cup and the Saipan debacle that created a division and which altered this relationship irrevocably.

Back then, it was different,” McAteer recalls. “We had a bit of a razzmatazz with it being America as well. All that was thrown into it. Back then, we were really close with the press. We were having a bevvy with them.

“It’s changed over the years — that’s just the way it’s gone. It was just a really, really good time. It was six weeks, the preparation was perfect, you couldn’t have had it any better, the food was great. Plus, we didn’t get followed around by the media as much as an Italy or a Germany or an England. We had free time, so we could go out and do what we wanted.”

However, the heady days of 1994 are a far cry from modern tournament football. Euro 2012 was a far more sobering affair in many respects, with Stephen Hunt among those to complain of boredom and isolation in the lead up to the tournament. But of course, as McAteer points out, then-manager Giovanni Trapattoni was of a different mindset to previous bosses such as Mick McCarthy and Jack Charlton, enforcing a much stricter set of rules for the players to abide by.

“Sometimes, it’s not always your fault, because you get grouped in different spaces and venues and stuff,” McAteer adds. “We were just lucky it was New York and Florida in ’94.”

Another former Irish player, Ray Houghton, was among those to criticise players who complain of feeling bored at major tournaments, suggesting that preparing for the pinnacle of a footballing career should prompt altogether different feelings.

McAteer, though, is more sympathetic to such complaints, likening them to his own experience in 2002.

I got bored in Japan,” he reveals. “That was because when Roy went home, the world’s media descended on us… It wasn’t great, because we couldn’t speak to anyone. Something had happened that we weren’t allowed to let out. If that incident hadn’t happened, we could have walked out to the hotel, gone to the coffee shop, enjoyed ourselves — we could probably have gone for a pint after one of the games at the right time.

“When (the Saipan incident) happened, the world’s media were there, so we didn’t go out of the hotel. We didn’t want to go down to the reception… Sky (were there), they were all there, so we never went to reception.

There was a big room given to us with a table tennis table — there’s only so much table tennis you can do, and there’s only so much pool you can play and only so many DVDs you can watch. So I can understand why you’d get bored.”

Yet when asked how the team can recreate the atmosphere that brought Ireland so far at times during his playing days, the answer is simple: “Results.”

He continues: “In ’94, when we beat Italy, that sets you up brilliantly. We just carried on there with confidence… It’s just a matter of filling the time, days out, bonding. I’m still a believer that there’s a time and a place for the drink. You’re away for six weeks, it’s hard enough — you’re away from your wife and kids and stuff, it’s hard.”

Part of the current side’s winning formula, McAteer adds, is down to Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane having a good knowledge of Irish footballing culture.

I think this is why we’re having a bit of success at the minute. It’s not that they’ve bought into (the culture), they know it already.

“One of the lads gets caught with a pint in his hand, all of a sudden he’s got ‘10 pints’ (owing to media exaggeration)… It has to be handled in the correct way and I think what they brought back is a bit of unity to the squad, pulling all together in the right direction, bonding, which is basically having a bevvy together.”

 The 2016 SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme was the biggest yet as almost 24,000 children from 1,267 schools took part in county, regional and provincial blitzes nationwide. For further information please see www.spar.ie or www.faischools.ie.

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Paul Fennessy

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