Jason McAteer Management the next big stage for the Spice Boy who had to stop being a clown

Jason McAteer tells Jason Burt about rejection, tears and learning a new trade with the club he watched as a lad
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The Independent Football

McAteer is there for a charity match bringing together decades of Liverpool players, which has never happened before. The match was his idea, the purpose to collect money for the tsunami victims. More than 39,000 fans turn up, over £500,000 is raised.

"When I was walking round the pitch at the end, the Kop was there and I looked up and thought, 'It's worth it, all the people have come, we've got the money'," McAteer says. But there was something else. Something he had not anticipated.

"I was on the pitch, in that channel I used to run up and down, with that peripheral vision of the Anfield Road, the Main Stand, and I just thought, 'God, it was good'. To look at the Kop again. When I finished walking round the pitch it was like I'd shut the door, there was closure. It was done."

He was not alone. "No one will say it, but there were four or five others who had that sense as well," he says. More images are recalled. Of Alan Hansen walking down, touching the "This is Anfield" sign at the mouth of the tunnel. "He took it with both hands, stood and looked at it, held it and then moved on," he recalls. It's an emotional retelling but McAteer is an unashamedly emotional man. Always has been.

There have been more tears. He remembers returning from an away match with the Republic of Ireland. The plane had come from Dublin. On board were the Irish newspapers. One journalist had written: 'McAteer should retire, he was an absolute disgrace'." He hadn't helped himself by being "negative" about his own performance.

"I'd talked myself down," he says. But, still, he was stunned by the vitriol and "had to be talked out of retiring".

Or take his leaving Sunderland two summers ago - the club captain "tossed aside", a contract offer withdrawn because, he says, he had spoken out about the chairman Bob Murray. It hurt most that it was the manager Mick McCarthy - "an uncle to me, I loved him to bits", someone whom he had backed "to the hilt" over the infamous Roy Keane affair - who had to tell him he was not wanted.

"I gave him a cuddle and walked out of the office," McAteer says. "I was in shock. I resented Mick for a bit, I felt he could have done more, but then the dust settles, you calm down."

Then there was last season's play-off semi-final against Hartlepool. McAteer, who joined Tranmere Rovers after Sunderland, was concussed in a challenge.

"The doctor said I couldn't carry on and the gaffer [Brian Little] just said, 'I'm not taking you off because of the team, I'm taking you off because if anything happened to you I couldn't live with myself'. It was when he said that that I got really upset. He set me off. I remember him saying, 'Don't cry son, don't cry', and I was thinking, 'Well, just shut up then and I'll be all right'. He had my head on his shoulder and I kind of lost it there. It made Gazza a million pounds, I guess."

Typical Jason. That mixture of loyalty, determination and humour. "People look at me and say, 'Jason McAteer, he's Trigger' [his nickname from a character in Only Fools and Horses]," he says. "And I like a laugh. In the early days it worked for me. Half the time I played up to it. I was the clown, I enjoyed it and people enjoyed having me around."

He was one of the Liverpool Spice Boys, the Irish Three Amigos, one of the first footballers to do a television advert, for Head and Shoulders shampoo.

"But as my career went on, I moved aside," he says. Decisions had to be made. "When I left Sunderland and I was 30-odd, then what did I want to do?"

The answer was surprisingly clear. "I definitely want to go into management. I desperately want to try that side of things," explains the 34-year-old who "eats, breathes, sleeps football. "Trigger" wasn't going to get me into that. I had to start growing up, acting my age. Showing people. It was great to make the decision to come to Tranmere and to learn."

He could step down to League One, refusing more lucrative offers, because he does not, he says, have to "worry about money". He would have played for Liverpool for "nothing", but there was a wage structure. "At the time it was ridiculous amounts of money, thousands and thousands a week," he admits. "You take it and set your future up." Nevertheless he has never been "money-orientated".

"I took a £6,000-a-week drop to go to Blackburn Rovers [from Liverpool], I went to Sunderland for £4,000 less a week and then I went to Tranmere on £16,000 less a week," McAteer says. "I'm happy with my slice of cake. I'm not in the league of Steve McManaman or Robbie Fowler [his close friends]. But I'm comfortable and I can make decisions."

Tranmere was a homecoming. McAteer was born in Birkenhead and played for non-League Marine until he was 20. "I was a Liverpool fan but in the area I grew up in money was tight and to go to a match was a birthday present," he says. "Tranmere was a viable option. I lived near the ground. I worked in a pub nearby for four years and I used to bunk in."

Having been rejected by the club as a boy, he also wanted to prove something. Tranmere, who today face Nottingham Forest, could not believe their luck when McAteer's agent called to inquire whether they would be interested. There must be a catch, they thought.

"First day of training and it was like, 'What's he doing here?'" McAteer says. But there was no catch. "I'm learning my trade," he says. "I'm under no illusion that I'm going to be a Chris Coleman and manage in the Premier League straight away ... that's like learning to drive in a Ferrari."

He wants, he says, to find out what makes players at the level he is now at "tick, what inspires them to do better" - which includes the incentive of being allowed to borrow his Aston Martin every now and again. "I'd like to think if they drive that car it might inspire them to kick on in their careers," McAteer says.

It can be frustrating. "I struggle in our division at times," he says. "I find it hard to adapt, to just kick it out, because I'm looking for a pass". There have been other problems. "Certain teams set their stall out to wind me up," he admits. "I can be volatile and get frustrated easily.

"If there's an injustice on my centre-forward I want to be there; if someone gets up and pushes him, I want to protect him, help fight his cause. But people just think I'm busy." McAteer laughs. "Then the crowd will pick up on something and I'll have 8,000 people calling me a wanker. I would probably say there were a handful of away games last season when I didn't get any stick."

McAteer, who helps out with the Tranmere reserves, is happy - especially as he is learning greatly from "a wise manager" in Little. His playing contract is up at the season's end.

"Maybe it's a case of applying for jobs," he says. "But I'd like to be a player-manager next season somewhere or maybe a player-assistant manager with an experienced manager. I've got a few places in mind.I'm a massive believer in man management. Alex Ferguson is a past master and Jose Mourinho has got it. If anyone said to me, 'You can have an hour with anyone in the world', I'm afraid it wouldn't be Muhammad Ali. It would be Mourinho, because of where I want to go. I'd like that insight."

McAteer believes teams mirror their managers. "Look at Mark Hughes," he says. "He's very hard, raw, aggressive - look at his team. The disciplinary record's shocking." What about a McAteer team? "I believe they would be fair, hard-working, honest, well-prepared. But [they would] have a winning mentality and a strong camaraderie."