Football: Hannigan's Highbury memories

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The Independent Online
TOWARDS THE end of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, the author launches into an amusing and heartfelt polemic on the shortcomings of the Arsenal centre-half, Gus Caesar.

In the player's defence, he lists an Arsenal youth team from April 1987 to help illustrate how hard it was just to reach the first team at that point. With the exception of David Hillier, Pat Scully, and the goalkeeper, Alan Miller, all the names in that team "have gone", Hornby wrote, "and gone from a club famous for giving its own players a fair crack."

At right-back in that side was someone by the name of Hannigan, and if Hornby ever wondered what he looked like or what became of him, he would find out by going to Ninian Park this Saturday, when the Third Division leaders, Cardiff City, take on Yeovil Town in the third round of the FA Cup.

Al-James Hannigan, it must be said, grew up a Tottenham fan but, by the time Michael Thomas produced "the greatest moment ever" in the lives of Arsenal supporters like Hornby, Highbury was well and truly Hannigan's second home. A year before the 1989 championship Hannigan, by now playing in central defence, had been part of an Arsenal team featuring Andy Cole and Kevin Campbell which won the FA Youth Cup.

In the summer of 1990 he signed a one-year professional contract, but by the time Arsenal won the league for a second time under George Graham at the end of the ensuing season, Hanningan's career as an Arsenal player was over.

If Caesar was their sixth-choice centre-half, with players like Tony Adams, Steve Bould and David O'Leary at the club, Hannigan became one of a cast of thousands who never even made it that far.

Nowadays the 27-year-old still lives in north London and travels down to Yeovil for training and matches. "When you win the FA Youth Cup you think you're going to go on and do better things," he said. "But when I left Arsenal I got a bit disillusioned and I fell out of football for a while."

The moment Hannigan was told he was surplus to requirements at Highbury was, he said, "the worst feeling of my life. It was like the world coming down on you. You're so young as well, and you don't know how to handle things. When I went into the office Steve Burtenshaw was there with George Graham, who just said: `We're going to release you. I hope you do well in your career.' And that was it - it was over in 10 seconds. Then you walk out of there and it's like your heart's broken, but you pick yourself up again and you get on with it.

"Having said that, for about six or seven months it was like a big cloud over my head. All I knew was Arsenal, and when smaller clubs come in and want to sign you, you don't really want to go. You want to stay in the top flight.

"It's only now that I realise that I should have gone to one of those clubs. Colchester were interested, Cambridge United, and Birmingham City. But my heart wasn't really in it, I still had this Arsenal thing and I couldn't let go of it. But if it was now, I would have grabbed those chances with both hands and not let go."

Hannigan eventually picked up the pieces with Marlow Town, with whom he reached the FA Cup third round in 1993, when they lost to Tottenham at White Hart Lane. He then moved on to Enfield and again reached the third round, losing to Leicester City having beaten Cardiff in the first round.

In all, this will be Hannigan's fourth meeting with the Welsh club in the FA Cup - Enfield lost to Cardiff the year after and he also played against them in his Rushden & Diamonds days. More often than not in those games he found himself marking the prolific Cardiff striker, Carl Dale, now a team-mate of Hannigan's at Huish Park.

Hannigan, who won three B international caps for Northern Ireland earlier in his career, has been an ever-present this season as Yeovil have embarked on an unbeaten run in the Football Conference stretching back over 12 games.

Although promotion to the Nationwide League is now the priority for a club which is famed for its FA Cup exploits, Hannigan admitted: "I've been to the third round twice before and now I want to get to the fourth.

"The town is buzzing and we've forgotten what it's like to lose. In the last round we beat Northampton, who are in the Second Division, so we must have a decent chance against Cardiff, even though they are flying high at the moment."

And, should Yeovil reach the fourth round, how would it suit Hannigan to be drawn against, say, Arsenal?

"I'm not too bothered now, because I let go of that Arsenal thing years ago," he replied. "It always follows you about when you've been a pro at Arsenal, but you let go of things. You grow up."

Cardiff will be hoping, in a footballing sense, for a temporary relapse from a familiar foe on Saturday.

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