McAteer adds spice to his Anfield return

Sunderland's resurgent midfielder is heading for his second World Cup. Simon Turnbull on a new image
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Jason McAteer is back. Back in the Premiership. Back in the World Cup finals. Back in the spotlight. And back at Anfield today.

He was in the boot room on Thursday lunchtime – the boot room at Sunderland's training ground, that is, Peter Reid having brought him in from the cold of Blackburn. Five weeks ago McAteer was still being frozen out of first-team action by Graeme Souness, playing reserve-team friendlies in between World Cup qualifiers for Ireland.

It was not the first time the boy from Birkenhead, with the great grandfather from County Down, had been deemed surplus to requirements – as McAteer will duly be reminded when the Sunderland team bus pulls through the Shankly Gates this afternoon. "I still think now that it was very unfair," he said, referring to the image problem that led to his departure from Liverpool in January 1999. "We were getting branded the Spice Boys and the lads at Man United were doing exactly the same things. We'd go to places where they were. They'd come to places where we were. The difference was they were winning things.

"Gérard Houllier came to the club and there's no room in the way he wants to manage for the kind of image the media were portraying. He wanted to change things around and the ammunition was there for him to do it. He wanted to change the Spice Boys image. You could see what he wanted to do when he came to the club, the players he wanted out. And you can't say he was wrong. He's brought success back to Liverpool, which is a hard thing to do."

It is typical of the man McAteer happens to be that his appreciation of Houllier's success is genuine. The same applies to the concern he expresses for the Liverpool manager's health. Having risen from the non-League ranks to the brink of a second World Cup campaign, McAteer has a refreshingly broad perspective on football life.

He also has a love for Liverpool so deeply entrenched that only a plea from his boyhood hero has, until today, overcome his reluctance to return to the scene of his broken dream. "The only time I've been back was for Ronnie Moran's testimonial," McAteer said. "I got a phone call off Kenny Dalglish asking me to play for Celtic. Kenny being a hero of mine, I couldn't say no. Plus it was for Ronnie.

"It's something I've found difficult after leaving: the thought of going back. As you grow up you have dreams and mine was to play for Liverpool. It wasn't landing on the moon or anything like that. My dad took me to watch Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish stole the show, became my hero, and that was it. So, obviously, when I left Liverpool, it was like the end of the dream come true. The bubble had burst."

It deflated even further when Souness followed him to Blackburn. As Rovers moved on course for their Premiership return, McAteer found himself on the fringe of the first team, and ultimately out of the frame.

"When Graeme came to Blackburn I got the feeling he didn't really fancy me," he reflected. "We'd come in at half-time and I might not have done anything wrong but he'd find something – maybe I'd tied my boots up the wrong way.

"I'm not the type of player who goes banging on the manager's door, kicking up a fuss, but I did go and speak to him and he told me I wasn't in his plans. He said it would be the best thing for everyone if I left. And looking back, he was right.

"I don't want to slag him off because we got on. We didn't hate each other. But I do feel he should have paid me more respect than he did. I thought he was treating me like a 19-year-old apprentice when I was actually a 30-year-old experienced international."

McAteer's international career almost came to an end, however, after a below-par performance against Cyprus in March. "Things weren't going right for me at the time," he recalled. "I was struggling at Blackburn and I didn't play too well against Cyprus. A couple of the Irish press lads were calling for me head. They were telling me it was time to retire. And when I came back home I did consider quitting international football.

"I was really low. I was probably a couple of days away from ringing Mick McCarthy to tell him. Then out of the blue I got a phone call from Bruce Rioch and he told me it would be the wrong thing to do. Actually, he told me he'd kick me up the arse if I did it.

"I took his advice on board, because I've looked up to Bruce as a father figure from when I played for him at Bolton. Like he said at the time, I would have been letting Mick McCarthy down."

As it was, McAteer rewarded the faith McCarthy showed in him with the goal that knocked the Dutch off the World Cup trail and that earned the Republic the play-off chance they snatched in Tehran 10 days ago. So, for the second time in his rollercoaster career, the indefatigable midfielder has come from nowhere to reach the World Cup finals. He made the Irish team back in 1994, two-and-a-half years after playing Lancashire League football for Marine Reserves.

He also proceeded to become a model profess-ional, of course, though the Liverpool old boy has no shampoo commercials on his personal agenda at present. "My Spice Boy days are over, mate," he said, heading for the showers – to wash and go, presumably.