An insatiable lust for goals

FA CUP QUARTER-FINALS: Liverpool's legendary sharpshooter has Law in his sights. Glenn Moore talked to him
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Close up he is much leaner than you would expect, almost unhealthily so. Angular too, although the famous nose for goal is less obvious than it appears from the terraces.

The face is weather-beaten and the greying mane is a reminder that even sporting heroes grow old - even if, like Peter Reid, they sometimes attempt to hide it.

Ian Rush has no such idol vanity. Not that he could: despite the piercing blue eyes and trademark moustache - part-Thirties Hollywood, part-Forties spiv - his features are too sharp for him ever to be regarded as tall, dark and Hansen.

Besides, after 16 years playing with his back to goal and a defender's boot up his backside, he has every right to show signs of mortality.

Rush has played 764 matches and scored 389 goals. Yet, when you watch him, the prodigious work-rate still catches the eye as much as the penalty- box speed and stealth. All those games, yet the enthusiasm and effort is undimmed, so much so that Robbie Fowler, his 19-year-old partner, is made to appear lazy by comparison.

"I enjoy playing football, I always have," Rush said this week. "I would have played even if I had not been a professional. It is something I enjoy and something I feel I am good at - there is no greater satisfaction than scoring a goal. I have been brought up to believe if people are kicking you the way to get back at them is to score a goal.

"When I am not enjoying it that is when I will pack it in, whoever I am playing for. If I enjoy it I will continue."

Imagine it. There you are, turning out at centre-half for a pub team on Merseyside. Through the bleary-eyes of a Sunday morning hangover you spot the bloke you are marking -- and it is Ian Rush. Nightmare or dream? I guess it would depend on how many he scored.

It is not that unlikely; Trevor Brooking, at 46, still turns out in a Sunday parks league in Essex. However, it is not going to be for a while, as Rush is very happy at present playing for a resurgent Liverpool.

Last Saturday he scored his 335th goal for the club against Newcastle; at Crystal Palace on Wednesday, a few hours after we had met in the team's comfortable Surrey hotel, he booked his sixth League Cup final appearance (four winners' medals to date); today, at Anfield, he plays in the FA Cup quarter-final against Tottenham.

A goal today would be his 42nd in the competition, enough to take him past Denis Law as the leading FA Cup goalscorer this century. Indeed, Rush believes he has already got there but his first cup "goal", for Chester against Workington 15 years ago, was claimed by a team-mate, Brynley Jones. At 17, Rush was not inclined to argue.

However, Law could point to the six FA Cup goals he scored for Manchester City against Luton in 1961 only to have them chalked off when the match was abandoned (City, 6-2 up with 21 minutes left, lost the re-arranged match 3-1, Law scoring).

Not that Rush is obsessed by records. He was only told recently that he is two short of Geoff Hurst's 49-goal League Cup mark.

"You don't aim at them, you just keep getting on with it," he said. "Records are there to be broken, but if you keep thinking about it you won't do it. It is like scoring: if you think you are going to score a goal, you never will. There is just a split second where your mind goes blank and then you are running away celebrating."

There has been a lot of that over the years. Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, believes he is simply "the greatest scorer there has been in British football", adding "not only does he score goals, but his contribution besides that-- in closing down defenders and working for the rest of the team - is phenomenal". Law regards Rush as the "best goalscorer since Jimmy Greaves".

Rush admits he never dared dream his career would be so successful when he began with Chester in the late Seventies. As his career has gone on he has come to appreciate his success all the more.

"When I was younger and we were winning trophies I would think `I will be back here next year'. Now, after a couple of years not doing it, you treasure your memories and you appreciate it more. You think `this might be the last one'.

"We have not been doing so well the last few years and it has been very frustrating. It has made us more determined to get a trophy again. People have been writing myself off, and writing Liverpool off, and it is nice to get back, though we are not back until we win a trophy and get back into Europe.

"I could have left last season and gone to Leeds or Manchester City, but I did not feel it was right to leave Liverpool at that time. It would have been like leaving a sinking ship. I did not want to leave on that note.

"I have been enjoying it again this season, yet I was beginning to wonder beforehand. We had one of the worst pre-seasons since I have been here. Then we had a tough first day of the season, away to Crystal Palace, who had just been promoted, and won 6-1. It went on from there. That gave us belief in ourselves and confidence. A lot of it comes down to confidence."

Unassuming, even shy, Rush is matter-of-fact about his fame and fortune. It has just happened, although there has been a lot of hard work on the way. His successes have been recorded in scrapbooks by his family - "something for the kids [he has two] to look at when I have finished".

The highlight was the 1986 FA Cup win over Everton, the team he supported as a boy. It was his first FA Cup final and he scored twice, victory securing the Double. "Everything rolled into one," he said, adding that "lifting a trophy this year, as captain, would come close."

Rush admits he took time to settle into the role of captain but, "this season, I felt a responsibility to help the younger players come through and I feel I have done that. We have a good mixture of youth and experience. Before we had a good side but people were playing as individuals. We have now got it together as a team. We realise we will win nothing as individuals."

Of the defenders he has faced, Rush picks out David O'Leary, Paul McGrath and Franco Baresi as the best. Of those players he has played with, the best - "without a doubt" - has been Kenny Dalglish, so much so Rush talks of him in the present tense.

"He always keeps you going. You make runs knowing the ball will come to you. When I first started playing with him I was not making runs because I did not feel anyone could put the ball there - but Kenny did. We have had a great understanding. He does not even look when he puts a ball through, but if I was not there I would get a right rollocking afterwards. These days a lot of people like the ball to feet, but he always wants it in space.

"Even in my testimonial it gave me an extra spring in my step when he came on in the second half to play with me."

Being a "Blue", his boyhood hero was not Dalglish, or Kevin Keegan, but Bob Latchford. His friend, Marco van Basten, is the player he admires most "for what he has done in Italy. He has two good feet, is good in the air and so strong".

Rush's own Italian sojourn was less successful, but he believes that, had he played a second season, he would still be there now. Roma and Bayern Munich were interested, but Juventus said it was Liverpool or no one. He feels he was not that unsuccessful and regards Wales' continued failure to qualify for a major tournament as his career low, not Italy.

What was a shock was the intrusive nature of the Italian public and media. "I had to laugh when Paul Gascoigne said he was going to Italy to escape our press. They are 10 times worse. They ring you anywhere, anytime.

"I like a quiet life and here I can go for a walk with my children and, though people know you, they respect your privacy. In Italy they love football that much they are all over you. They have to come over and say hello. People don't realise how bad it is. We have film stars here. In Italy most of the film stars are English or American, so footballers are the film stars."

Rush's Liverpool contract expires at the end of the season and he is discussing another. The key question in the discussions, in a repeat of Mark Hughes' situation at Old Trafford, is the length of the contract, with Rush looking for a longer deal than Liverpool initially favoured. However, Evans admits Rush is making a strong case for himself by dint of his form this season.

"I would like to stay," Rush said. "I feel I can play for another two to three years, and if it is not to be at Liverpool I will go somewhere else. In the long term I would like to have a go at management, but I speak to people I respect who have retired and they tell me: `Keep playing as long as you can. There is nothing better'. It is a great life and I would not swap it for any other job in the world."