By Monsignor Bonehead
From Issue 45, Winter 2000
There are those of us who will suffer palpitations at the merest mention of the words “Norwegian”, “Footballer” and “Liverpool” in the same sentence. Kvarme, Leonhardsen and Bjornebye are likely to have outdone any good that Heggem may yet do for us, and the combination simply does not work. Then I got to thinking about the last four Irish internationals that have played for us: McAteer, Babb, Kennedy and Staunton. I’ve got some cheek to be slagging off the Norsemen!
We don’t get tarred with the same brush for some reason. Maybe it’s because the likes of Jason only qualify through the Granny Rule anyway, so most Reds probably don’t think them of as Irish. I thought I’d better get this slightly scary Hall of Shame out in the open before someone else noticed it and was tipped over the edge by news of yet another Irish international coming to Anfield. Or perhaps I think we’ll get a lighter sentence if we confess now!
It hasn’t always been so bad. I never saw Steve Heighway play, so there’s not a lot I can say apart from the fact that, judging by the videos I’ve seen, he was a fast left winger able to dribble, pass to a red shirt and make the odd half-decent cross. Pity he isn’t still playing now. Berger has got nicer hair, mind you (poor attempt at sarcasm alert). Steve must also get some of the credit for some of the young talent that’s come through the ranks in recent years, while it was left to others to shell out millions for donkeys not fit to lace their drinks.
Mark Lawrenson can be a bit of a pain in the arse nowadays. His attempts to be controversial on Football Focus by slagging off whatever town is featured that week are even lamer than Lineker’s forays into ‘humour’ – as for his ‘repartee’ with Ray Stubbs, it simply disproves the Victor Lewis Smith theory that Hale and Pace were the world’s only double act with two straight men. It also wrecks my head to hear him talk about “we” when referring to England on Football Focus in the morning and use the same “we” in the evening on Irish telly referring to the Republic’s team.
But what a player. It’s almost impossible to believe we had two centre backs as good as Hansen and Lawrenson in the same team for five or six years because God knows we haven’t one that even came close since then. Incredibly, neither was actually capped regularly – Lawrenson often ended up in the midfield on Irish international duty. He always caught the eye with those brilliant last-ditch slide tackles, but he was decent in the air too and was a fine passer of the ball. Will we ever see his like again? And for God’s sake, do something about those teeth. Shergar may have gone missing in Ireland, but at least we know where part of him ended up.
The real unsung hero for the Eighties Reds was Ronnie Whelan. He started off as a goal-scoring midfielder who developed a nice habit of saving our bacon on the odd occasion when we were up a certain creek without a paddle. When Johnny Barnes and co. were taking teams apart in the late 80’s, someone had to stay at home to keep the barn door shut and that task fell to Ronnie. Never really appreciated at the time, it’s incredible to think now that we used to moan quite a bit about Ronnie – probably because there wasn’t anything else to moan about really. He was so comfortable with either foot that even to this day I genuinely don’t know whether he was naturally left-footed or right. He never gave the ball away cheaply, and his partnership with McMahon was as much a joy to behold as JB’s or Beardsley’s magic. If he had faced Wimbledon in ’88, Vinnie Jones would have gone home in an ambulance – the only Hollywood role he’d get after that would be as “big plank of wood propped up in the corner”. No change there then. And, on matters Irish, I will always treasure the 25-yard overhead volley against Russia in Euro 88.
Michael Robinson. Fat, slow, 3 winners medals in one season. That’s two more than Robbie Fowler in his whole career thus far. Liverpool could truly do no wrong at this stage if we could pay good money for this blubber merchant and still reign supreme abroad. I mean, whoever heard of a team winning the European Cup with a striker that couldn’t hit a cow’s ar-……..ah yeah, just realised how short my memory is! For younger readers, think Erik Meijer only slightly shorter but with Le Tissier’s gut. He ended up doing commentary for Spanish football in Spain (they seem to like it there). I hope he’s better at that, he could hardly be worse.
Maybe I’m being a touch unfair to Robbo, but our other two strikers at the time were Dalglish and Rush. Not exactly what Houllier would nowadays call “a nice little problem to solve” in terms of team selection. He was certainly a lot more suited to the Irish game, as you would expect from a country that still plays Tony Cascarino at 37, and will probably play Quinn until he’s 50! At least Robbo’s chest gave our centre backs something to aim at ………….I mean some things to aim at really, don’t I?
If you thought all that was harsh, then brace yourselves. Jim Beglin is possibly my least favourite ex-Red this side of Emlyn Hughes, and currently just behind Solskjaer in the “used to be one of us, y’know” list of horrible treacherous Manc Weasels (patron: Z Ball). Week after week I have to listen to him in raptures as the Mancs take apart the latest Champion League no-hopers from Lithuania or Liechtenstein or wherever. He never misses a chance to have a dig during Liverpool games, and I think it’s fair to say he has forgotten his roots.
But, and given our current status it’s an ironic ‘but’, he was actually a half-decent left back. He’d be worth his weight in gold today. He eventually took over from Barney early in the double season and deservedly kept it. Had the classic though one-sided skirmish with Brucie during the cup final. Knowing what I know now, perhaps Brucie should have hit him a lot harder? As it was, Gary Stevens did the job with an absolute shocker of a tackle, otherwise Beglin would have been our left back for years to come (well, would Gary Ablett have kept him out?).
As well as being Ireland’s most/only successful manager, Jack Charlton was also the luckiest by far. The first couple of breaks in almost a decade of good fortune were getting Ray Houghton and John Aldridge to declare their ‘Irish-ness’ shortly before their careers took them to the very top. Both were as Irish as Gandhi of course, with Houghton actually beginning his autobiography with the words “I should never have played for Ireland”. Or something along those lines – wow, thanks Ray! Seriously, this wasn’t an expression of regret, as anyone who witnessed his reaction to the winner against England in ’88 will testify. Aldo took forever to get his international career going (no goals in his first 12 starts). He managed to score a few eventually, but what he did do was run his legs off for Charlton (“down to the stumps”, in one famous phrase).
I still don’t know why the hell this club sold him. He loved Liverpool FC, and I’m not convinced Rushie Mk 2 was better in any case. Certainly Aldo wouldn’t (and still doesn’t) talk to the ‘Sun’. Unlike some. John went on scoring loads of goals for another 4 or 5 years after he left. Houghton was pure class, scored plenty of goals for club and country (including their two most famous goals – v England in 88, v Italy in 94). He was also sold well before he was past it, which is strange considering that Souness was normally such a good judge of a player. Have I mentioned that Ray scored the winner in the England v Ireland match in ’88? I did? Sorry, but I could have sworn I hadn’t mentioned that Ray sc- (oh all right – ed).
It’s often been said in these very pages and elsewhere that all we really expect from our players is 100% commitment. Two words: Jason fucking McAteer. I remember his first international as a Blackburn player. Me and my mate breathed a huge sigh of relief as, finally, we could slag him off without fear of guilt. It all proved too much for a girl in front of us who turned around and defended the dandruff-free one; “he’s gorgeous, though”. Well, that’s okay then. It’s the only thing I’ve heard in his defence since the delightful Mr Kidd took him off our hands. Here’s someone else whose Irish connections are vague to say the least, but he always showed as much determination and spirit in green as he did in red.
The thing is, and this is slightly troublesome if you are a professional footballer, he’s no bloody good at football. I’m sure Roy bought him for midfield but suddenly realised that someone who couldn’t pass water, never mind a ball, might be a liability in a system that relied on us having the ball a lot more than the opposition. He was slightly better as a wing back, being one of the few who could get up and down the whole pitch regularly, but after a few exciting months his game went to pot. He has since blamed the system at Liverpool for taking away his edge as a player who would try other things, but in truth I feel that he passes the buck far better than he passes the ball. Hard work got him as far it could and then he was found out. It’s a pity, as he clearly loved the club – but then so do you and I, and we won’t get a chance will we? He did nutmeg Roberto Baggio in a World Cup game, though. Something he can tell his grandchildren – whoever they may qualify for.
Roy must have had a damned good luck at the Irish national side over the years because Phil Babb ended up here as well. He cost us £4m in the days when that was a lot of money. When he leaves, he will still have cost us £4m. Thanks, Roy. For anyone who doesn’t know, Paul McGrath is regarded as the nearest thing to a football deity over here and it’s well deserved. For one thing, he single-handedly made a defence containing Phil Babb and Terry Phelan look secure (presumably with a complex system involving levers and two-way mirrors). Honestly, Babb looked like a footballer in USA ’94. It was a cruel hoax, because he’s looked nothing like one since. I have rarely seen an international player look so uncomfortable with the ball at his feet, and yes I include David James and Mark Bosnich in that assessment.
He most resembles a man who had a traumatic childhood incident involving a spherical bit of inflated leather, from which he has never been able to fully recover. His collision with the post during last season’s Chelsea game is about the most memorable thing he’s ever done in a red jersey. It makes my eyes water just thinking about it. He was always slightly more comfortable in a back four, with more emphasis on getting in the way and less on passing the ball. Putting him in a back five where he didn’t seem to actually know what he should be doing was yet another of Uncle Roy’s tactical masterstrokes. Total Football! It says a lot about Liverpool in the 90’s when this man has played 170 games for us.
More genius from the Evans book of tricks. “I know, I’ll spend £2m on the brightest young star in British football. When I see him hit the bar with his very first touch, I’ll ignore him for two years”. Now maybe Mark Kennedy will not be troubling MENSA for an application form judging by the interviews I’ve seen over here, but I’m delighted to see him do well (yes, even for Manchester City) after he was messed about at Anfield. Where was he going to play in a team that didn’t use wingers? He’ll probably never be good enough to play at the very highest level, but it always seemed like the most pointless signing in a decade chock full of them. Good luck to the man.
In conclusion, I would like to make a list of some 90’s left backs: Ablett, Burrows, Dicks, Bjornebye, Matteo. Is Steve Staunton really that awful? No Paolo Maldini, I agree, but I don’t mind Staunton. I know I’m in a minority on this one, but bear with me. What did he ever do to us? He lacks pace, he’s not so hot in the air, his positional sense is questionable and his right foot might as well not be there but apart from that, what has Steve Staunton ever done to us?
I’ll admit that some sort of lateral thinking has gone on here. For years I’ve listened to the Mancs moaning about how bad he is down one flank for the Republic while conveniently ignoring Irwin’s lifelong ambition to knock out every fan in Lansdowne Road with a ‘cross’ before he retires. In the same circumstances, you’d defend your own. He has played absolutely everywhere for us, even scoring a hat trick against Wigan in the Whateveritwascalledthen Cup. Some say he’s found his true vocation after that marvellous save in the final seconds of the last derby, but I think most of us knew that Kenny had lost the plot when he played Steve in central midfield – presumably because all the other full backs he’d played there were injured. When Ronnie Moran played him at centre half, the idiocy was complete. Evans & Houllier made the same mistake.
Stick him on the left side and he won’t get skinned by too many wingers. He’ll even stick the odd cross into the box, and might even get within five yards of Beckham the next time we face the bastard (unlike some, eh Dominic?). Before I get me coat, if you knew as many Utd fans as I do who are absolutely sickened by the idea of him being the first man to win 100 Republic caps, you’d have a wee bit of time for him too.