McAteer lives out his dream

Guy Hodgson talks to the player who is Liverpool through and through
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The sounds would have sent a wave of revulsion through the Kop. Steve McManaman rose for a header and as the ball sailed through the posts he repeated a mantra from his Evertonian childhood: "Latchford". On another pitch a Liverpool apprentice bent a long shot in from the right to the accompaniment of "and Whiteside wins the FA Cup".

Recalled phrases from long ago. Players can commit heart and soul to clubs but retain affections from the past. Melwood, Liverpool's training ground, echoed to vocal souvenirs tossed up partly as an act of remembrance, partly to goad their companions. It was grand heresy at a place where the club's pulse is supposed to beat.

To no one more so than Jason McAteer. When he shuts his eyes and imagines his heroes, the vision is ablaze with red. Kenny Dalglish reigns above all others but just below are other Anfield deities like Ian Rush and John Barnes. At 24, he has achieved a schoolboy's dream, he plays for the team he lived for as a youth and even with players he idolised. He is Liverpool through and through.

McAteer's feeling that he is a round peg in an appropriately shaped hole since his pounds 4.5m move from Bolton last autumn does not end there. A win over Leeds United at Elland Road tomorrow will push his club to within two matches of winning the FA Cup while the reeling in of Newcastle United at the top of the Premiership has accelerated. There are whispers of the Double on Merseyside.

McAteer, the supporter, hears and enjoys such talk; McAteer, the player, is surprised the expectation is having so little effect on his colleagues. "The thing I've learnt these few months at Liverpool is that they never talk about not winning anything. The season is never written off. They always believe they can win things so what pressure there is becomes a way of life. Even so there's a lot up for grabs and it's getting exciting.''

Which is the opposite of how things were when he gained a permanent place in the team. Tried in several roles, his settling-in period coincided with Liverpool's slump in November when they went out of the Uefa and Coca-Cola Cups and were trailing Newcastle by 14 points. McAteer had achieved his ambition but it was turning sour.

"If we lose I feel it more here," he said. "Even when I was at Bolton I'd be gutted if Liverpool got beaten but now, when I've been part of that defeat, it's far worse. The supporter part comes out of me, I can't wait for the next game to make amends. November was a terrible month. I'd just got into the side and we kept losing.''

The decision to try him as a right wing-back, coupled with better form and fortune, turned things round completely. Liverpool are unbeaten in 16 matches and McAteer has become such a fixture that Rob Jones, the England right back, has had to switch to the left. It has surprised the player and his manager, Roy Evans.

He had envisaged his new signing as a central midfield player who occasionally took to the flank as a conventional winger. That would have entailed scrapping the three-centre-back system that has become Evans' tactical trademark and when it came to it McAteer had to adapt. To the player's astonishment, he enjoys the role.

"I love it," he said. "When I came I wanted to play in the middle but I soon realised that playing central midfield at Bolton is very different to playing central midfield for Liverpool. It's a passing game here whereas, at Bolton, I was running at players and getting beyond defenders. If I tried that now I'd be duplicating what Steve McManaman does for us to a certain extent.

"Defensively I've been helped a lot by Mark Wright. He's the centre-back who covers my flank and gives me confidence to get forward but if I do have to tuck in he talks to me, telling me where to be, where to push opposition players. He's a world-class defender and I owe him a lot. I feel I'm learning something every day.''

By accident McAteer seems to have found his niche. "We're getting a lot of chances from his crosses," Evans said, "and he's doing the defensive bit very well. The only problem was Rob Jones but he's doing a job for us on the left even if it's not his preferred position.''

Evans, McAteer acknowledges, has had a beneficial effect on him just as Bruce Rioch, his erstwhile manager at Bolton, moulded him from a promising youngster to a Republic of Ireland international. Rioch, he says, was a father figure to him; his new boss is performing a similar function.

"Roy Evans is more laid back," he said. "The difference is that Bruce, when he arrived at Bolton, had a lot more to do. He had to start from scratch and lay the law down. He was stricter but he had to be to establish principles. The gaffer has been here for years and he knows how this ship runs.

"Both are determined men who want to win things. That's the best quality I've seen in both of them. They have a drive about them. Bruce would come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who stepped out of line but it's the same here. We're professionals after all and you're expected to behave. When you are 35 you can drink as much as you want. You've been given a chance now so why spoil it?''

Leeds could spoil at least half of Liverpool's ambitions this season in the FA Cup sixth round at Elland Road tomorrow - just as they hampered the championship campaign by beating them there at the start of the season. Then the visitors were the better team but were shot down by a a clap of thunder known as Tony Yeboah's right boot.

McAteer, coming to an end of 18 months of transfer speculation at Bolton, watched that match on television. "We were unlucky that night. We played well but were beaten by one piece of magic. Things have changed a lot since then, Liverpool's team is different and so is Leeds'. They looked good then but when they came to Anfield we beat them 5-0. We've not lost since.''

The irony being that, had things turned out differently, McAteer could be playing for the opposition tomorrow. "Leeds enquired about me at one time," he said, "I think everyone stuck their noses in at one point or other. But when it came to the crunch it was down to a choice between Blackburn, Arsenal and Liverpool.

"The financial gain was never an issue. When I was having talks I didn't even go in the room when the financial bit come out. It didn't bother me at all. My heart said Liverpool but I had to think rationally and listen to Arsenal and Blackburn. Looking back though, it was always going to be Liverpool.''

With him it usually is.