Spice Boys reunite for a match of real meaning

The ambassador: Jason McAteer, miscast as just a joker, always wanted to make a difference. Now he is doing so

It's 1996 and Jason McAteer is a Liverpool Spice Boy. He's one of Ireland's Three Amigos. He's the self-styled "cheeky Scouser", he's Trigger from Only Fools and Horses. And he's "a god". In Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, where he is a club ambassador, McAteer is feted. "It was unbelievable," he recalls of his visit to Asia that summer. The enthusiasm, the children's faces, the love of football.

It's 1996 and Jason McAteer is a Liverpool Spice Boy. He's one of Ireland's Three Amigos. He's the self-styled "cheeky Scouser", he's Trigger from Only Fools and Horses. And he's "a god". In Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, where he is a club ambassador, McAteer is feted. "It was unbelievable," he recalls of his visit to Asia that summer. The enthusiasm, the children's faces, the love of football.

It's now Christmas 2004. McAteer is at home in Merseyside and watching, as he likes to, the television news. "After all, everyone else is drunk and doing their own thing and I'm the sober one," he jokes. The viewing is sobering also. He watches the Tsunami disaster unfold. The death toll rises. Hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands.

Places he visited filter back through his mind, the images of children playing football intermingle with those of them now running in fear, scrambling for their lives. Lost and bewildered. McAteer turns to his girlfriend. He thinks of their four-year-old son, Harry. "If I wasn't playing football," he tells her, "I'd go there." He means it, and that night he can't sleep. It's not enough just to donate, he tells himself, it's not enough to ring a charity line.

Again he thinks. He's a footballer. What do footballers do? They play. "I told myself, 'Put on a football match,' and the more I thought about it the more I answered my own questions," McAteer recalls. The night remained sleepless and he rose the next morning, picked up the phone and started dialling. Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman. The so-called Spice Boys reunited. Then John Barnes, Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan. He worked his way through generations of Liverpool players. They all said yes. Celebrity friends also. The singers Brian McFadden and Nicky Byrne, from Westlife, and the actor Colin Farrell. "Something for the ladies," McAteer jokes.

McAteer got into his car. The adrenalin was pumping now and he headed for the home of his agent, Dave Lockwood. "I said, 'I want to do this' and he said, 'Great idea'," McAteer says. The ball was really rolling. "If you ask any marketing company, the first thing they say is 'venue'. I know it's a charity event, but you have to sell sometimes." It took Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, less than an hour to say yes and offer two dates. Now a Liverpool Legends v Celebrity Team will meet at Anfield on 27 March, Easter Sunday. Socceraid was born. Tickets are on sale and moving fast. £1m could be raised for the Save the Children Fund. "Charity is a very powerful word," says McAteer. "It makes people stand up and think. It drags the best out of them."

It's not hard to drag the best out of McAteer. He has always been someone "who wears my heart on my sleeve". He has always fought his corner - and everyone else's as well. It's what led to him leaving Sunderland last summer. "My contract ran out and with the financial situation..." McAteer says. His voice trails off and then he adds: "Well, the board are hard work. I'm not a fan of [chairman] Bob Murray. I said a few things and probably should have kept my mouth shut."

Sunderland had been torn apart. Of a Premiership team he was, virtually, the only one left. "But the young lads had come good," McAteer explains. FA Cup semi-final, the play-offs. "A lot of them were out of contract and I said, 'Listen, Bob, you need to look after these kids and do it properly, otherwise this club will become another Sheffield Wednesday'. He didn't take kindly to that, and the next thing there was no contract offered to me." Six weeks previously it had been. It was a shock. But, also, an opportunity. "I had nothing to do and few choices," McAteer says. He sat down with Lockwood and decided "that I wanted to put a few building blocks for the future".

He is 33, and football has been good to him. "Financially I've looked after myself," McAteer says, "so I could make the decision I wanted to make. I wasn't in a position where, as when I was at Blackburn, all I wanted to do was play football and Graeme Souness [the then manager] stopped me. For once I had the power." So he said thanks, but no thanks, to Sheffield United. He chose to drop down to League One and Tranmere Rovers.

It was a decision made with his head. And, again, his heart. The former told him that Tranmere was the perfect club to do his coaching badges, learn the ropes from Brian Little and fulfil his ambition to manage. The latter told him that "I always wanted to play for Tranmere". He watched them as a kid. Liverpool was his club, "but it was too expensive". Johnny King was the manager at Prenton Park on his "journey to the moon". McAteer hitched a ride. Tranmere got under his skin.

Now he's back and under "no illusions". "I'm dealing with a different animal here," he says. "The average wage is £600 a week. A different ball game." He has a lot to offer. "I've been involved in the best 10 years of football. I've seen the clubs have no money and I've seen Sky and ITV Digital and it all go down again. Now the élite is the élite. There used to be 10 players [at a club] making extreme amounts. Now it's maybe two or three."

The move allowed him to "step out of the bubble". "When you are at a massive club like Liverpool you have to concentrate on playing and doing your best. That's the thing about the Spice Boys tag."

Oh, the Spice Boys. The flash, Premiership-rich, designer-labelled Liverpool of the mid-Nineties, with McAteer at their heart. "That hurt," he recalls. "We were in the media so much that everyone had an opinion. We were on a hiding to nothing. We went out and it was, 'Oh, the Spice Boys are out again'. But we'd be doing charity work! Also, players of our age needed some release."

Still no one, he insists, trained harder. "Jamie and I were first on, last off the training pitch. Robbie would smash 100 footballs a day into the net. Steve McManaman didn't go to Real Madrid because he's an average player. The disappointing thing was that we were young lads, we were impressionable and we were affected. Now Joe Bloggs can write, 'Jason McAteer was shit on Saturday and should hang up his boots', and I'd take it with a pinch of salt. That comes with experience." All footballers are affected. Especially with, bizarrely, the marks out of 10 newspapers award. Niall Quinn, McAteer's former team-mate, "met a journalist once and said, 'Nice to meet you. But I'd just like to clear one thing up. My name's not Niall Quinn 6."

McAteer's still fighting. What hurts now is when his friends are criticised. Redknapp and he "lived in each other's pockets" during his four years at Anfield - years that he describes as "Manchester United were A-plus. We were 'could do better'." If someone attacks Redknapp now, "it gets my goat".

Liverpool is close to his soul. He is scathing about Souness's time there. McAteer questions whether subsequent managers have erred in not "staying British". He would like to see Martin O'Neill or Steve McClaren in charge. "Liverpool will always struggle to attract massive foreign imports," he says before adding, "although Morientes has kicked me in the nuts a bit on that one." It's another example of the humour. "The joker in the camp," as he puts it. It was, he says, a deliberate tactic, "because I got by on it and it worked - making a few ricks and playing up to it. 'Oh Trigger,' they said. And the next thing was 'we want him because he's a laugh'." There was method in the madcap. "Sometimes it was a get-out. It meant that the media would give me an easy time, because I hated the criticism," he says. "But now..." another pause, "bollocks to it."

McAteer could see, in Dublin last week to promote Socceraid, that "people were looking at me thinking, 'He's not the same person'." But he is. His image was always that. An image. But he knows, too, that it needed to change. "I've got this tag as Trigger and I was slowly losing it, but I'm quickly losing it now." Socceraid, he hopes, will continue. Who knows, it may even overtake his football. "I didn't have to do this," McAteer says. "I'm not doing it for anything but to raise money. It matters to me that I can go home at night and know that it makes a difference."

Tickets for the benefit game are available from 0870 220 0056. Further information: www.tsunami-socceraid.co.uk.

Football's charity workers

Niall Quinn: Donated more than £1m raised from his testimonial to education projects in Africa and Asia as well as Dublin and Sunderland, forming the Niall Quinn Children's Charity. His example was followed by Gary Kelly (£700,000).

Shay Given: Patron of Macmillan Cancer Relief. The Newcastle goalkeeper puts in many personal appearances for the cause. His involvement follows the death of his mother when he was just five. He is one of six children.

Dean Kiely: Makes a donation to Demelza House Children's Hospice every time he keeps a clean sheet. Has persuaded his Charlton Athletic team-mates to do the same.

Mario Melchiot: Brother died of a heart attack at the age of 25, so Birmingham City's ex-Chelsea full-back works as a British Heart Foundation ambassador.

Patrick Vieira: Arsenal captain established Diambars charity, along with Bernard Lama and other players, to help educate children throughout Africa.

David Prutton: Recently disgraced after his 10-match ban for pushing a referee, but the Southampton midfielder is also a reading champion for the National Literacy Trust.

Lee Carsley: His middle child, Connor, has Down's Syndrome, and the midfielder acts as Everton's Football Foundation ambassador, working with disabled children.

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