McAteer raises the premium

Simon O'Hagan meets the Bolton midfielder destined for the top flight
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The Independent Online
EVERYONE says what a likeable young man Jason McAteer is, and to spend an hour in his company in the Bolton Wanderers Executive Club lounge last Friday was to discover this for oneself. But it turned out that even good-natured, honest Jason, full of bright-eyed bounce as he looked forward to today's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final first leg at Swindon Town, was capable of making enemies.

It was, of all things, appearing on A Question of Sport last week that did it. "I let on I was a Liverpool supporter," McAteer explained, "and I got a letter from a Bolton fan this morning having a right go at me, telling me I should be showing a bit more loyalty to the club." So will you write back? "I think I'll probably ask one of the secretaries to do it."

McAteer is good at getting people to do things for him. And he is also someone people are ready to do things for. Like the time last season when he got himself in a pickle over his international future.

The day before Bolton played Oldham in the sixth round of the FA Cup, McAteer had a visitor. It was Jimmy Armfield, "with a message direct from Terry Venables" offering the midfielder a place in the England B squad. McAteer, stunned and delighted, accepted. But on the day of the match, who should pull up in the car park but Jack Charlton. Now there was the prospect of a full cap for the Republic of Ireland, for whom McAteer was also qualified through an Irish-born grandfather.

"It was a big decision, the biggest since when I left school," McAteer said. And when the difficult call rejecting England had to be made, it was Bruce Rioch, the Bolton manager, who picked up the phone. "I stayed out of Jimmy Armfield's way for a while, I can tell you," McAteer said. "Though funnily enough, I saw him a couple of weeks ago and he shook my hand and said `Well done'." With 12 caps to McAteer's name - it probably would have become 13 on Wednesday had he not been withdrawn from the squad to play England - how could Armfield have said otherwise?

McAteer, now 23, could never have been said to relish responsibility. He let slip at one point that the right-back position he played in at school was one he liked because "you weren't too involved". But that is not to say he is irresponsible, and in his favour are his willingness to learn, and his awareness - in its own way quite a mature awareness - that there are times when a player needs support and guidance.

These he seems to derive chiefly from his mother, Thora, still a big influence on his life, and Rioch, with whom his relationship, McAteer said, "was not exactly father and son, but a bit like it". McAteer has a lot to be grateful to his mother for - not least for refusing to let him follow his uncles Pat and Les into the boxing ring, where the former had been a European champion. It was a decision the young Jason was quite happy to go along with.

Growing up across the road from Tranmere Rovers' ground, it was almost inevitable McAteer would play football, although the example of Kenny Dalglish made him a Red, and he has never stopped hero-worshipping him. "We were playing Arsenal in the Cup last season," McAteer said, "and someone told me Kenny Dalglish was in the lounge downstairs. I went straight there in my kit, nothing on my feet, and got his autograph. He thought I was joking."

McAteer did not go straight into football, which he said had made him appreciate things more. He studied graphic design on leaving school, while playing for Marine reserves. He nearly went on a football scholarship to Tiffin University in Ohio. But then Phil Neal, Rioch's predecessor, spotted him. So did Everton, and a battle ensued for McAteer's signature, which Marine hoped the latter would win, because it would bring them more money. But, after much agonising, McAteer chose to be "a small fish in a small sea". It was not going to stay that way for long.

Neal, now manager of Coventry City, remembered what he had seen in the young McAteer: "A fine athlete, got from box to box, two good feet, could cross the ball, although he was trying to run with it a bit too much at that stage. I told him that quality does not have to be beating five people. You can show it in one touch."

In the three years since Mc- Ateer joined Bolton, they have risen from half-way down the Second Division to the brink of the Premiership, their progress as a club inseparable from Mc- Ateer's as an individual. And on the way there have been their astonishing Cup successes.

All this has helped turn Mc- Ateer into one of the most desirable properties outside the Premiership, valued at about £3m. If he had decided to be an Englishman, it would surely be more. The Premiership, McAteer said, is where he wants to play, and the way Bolton are going, he may get his wish without having to leave. "I remember the year we got promotion to the First Division," he said. "There was a real buzz about the place. I can feel that again now."

But for McAteer, no experience can match being a member of the Ireland World Cup team in America: "I look back and think, from Marine to the World Cup in two and a half years. It's almost frightening." McAteer, naturally, was wrapped in the warm embrace of the big family that is the Irish set-up. He, Phil Babb and Gary Kelly, who had all made their international debuts in the match against Russia, formed their own group. "We've done things other people our age have never done, and couldn't even relate to," McAteer said.

Andy Townsend, the Republic's captain, said McAteer settled into the squad much more easily than he might have expected of a player coming from outside the Pemiership. "He's a really bubbly lad, very relaxed." But even so, McAteer got sufficiently homesick to fly his mother, brother and sister to Florida half-way through the campaign.

When he got back to Bolton for the new season, he found he had lost his way, partly through the distraction of having bought his first house. "The gaffer called me into his office," McAteer said. "He could see things weren't quite right. He's very good like that. I won't tell you what advice he gave me," he continued sheepishly, "...oh all right, he told me `You're not eating properly, you should move back in with your mum and get some proper food inside you'."

And that's what McAteer did. Life was good again, and it is improving all the time.