Home boy plays from the heart

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The Independent Online
FROM his childhood days on Merseyside, Jason McAteer had an ambition not to follow the family tradition and be a boxer but to experience the renowned practices and customs of Anfield's Boot Room. He was lucky to arrive at a time when Roy Evans had restored continuity after Graeme Souness's reign imperilled so many of the myths and so much of the magic.

Although born just across the Mersey in Birkenhead, he was not invited to join the Liverpool set until he was 24 years old. And he cost pounds 4.5m, which pretty much made a nonsense of the idea that Evans, one of the old school at Anfield, begrudged every penny spent on buying players. In his first year, Evans, the Boot Room boy who liked nothing better than seeing the young lads from the Melwood training ground come good, spent pounds 22m because not enough of them were doing just that.

McAteer admits that he would have liked nothing better than to have come through the Liverpool system and to have played in many previous important FA Cup ties for the club before this afternoon's semi-final against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. Even when they ignored him as a teenager, he remained loyal. The loyalty is even stronger now. As soon as he joined from Bolton last September he was told that no Liverpool player contemplated defeat ("we never talk about anything but winning, especially in games like this"). He needed no telling.

If defeat should come, he says he will be more "gutted" than ever before. "When I was at Bolton, I could come off after we'd lost and feel flat but if I heard Liverpool had lost as well, that was worse. I'm a fan at heart, always will be."

Unlike Souness, Evans spends shrewdly. Although he talks a lot about "how much I've learned here", McAteer was almost the finished product when he arrived. Today, his value as a natural wing-back will again be obvious. Like the boxers of the past who were taught to defend before they attacked, he adores going forward and, thanks largely to the reliability of Mark Wright, can usually do so without misgivings.

McAteer was never seriously tempted by boxing. Cross- country satisfied him but there was always the feeling that he would make it as a professional footballer. His confidence seemed misplaced. "I got turned down by Liverpool, Everton and Tranmere - I nearly gave up." He was playing for Marine when Phil Neal, then with Bolton, took a look and welcomed him on board.

International honours followed although it took a considerable time for him to look the part. Jack Charlton recalled: "He's going to play a major part for Ireland, but it took about a year for him to realise that club and international football were two different things."

Evans says that it could have been all the running as a teenager that gave McAteer such a good "motor". More than anything, though, Evans bought him for versatility. "My favourite position is the centre of midfield," McAteer said, "but with so much competition at Anfield, I won't often get the chance."

It was three months before he came into contention for a regular first- team place. At the time Liverpool could hardly put a foot right. He was not concerned about his own future since he knew about the policy of blending in new players. But, like the mates he left as spectators, he was suffering terribly for the club.

"When the negotiations were going on with Bolton, I listened to Arsenal and Blackburn, but I knew that it had to be Liverpool." The other clubs offered him greater riches, but the thought of walking out at Wembley in a Liverpool shirt not bought at the club shop was irresistible.