How many of us envy the life of a footballer? Getting to play the game for vast amounts of money sounds like the perfect scenario for millions of us who spent the majority of our childhood kicking a ball around.
A few hours training and having a laugh with your mates each day before playing a match at the weekend. What more could you ask for? It doesn’t even sound like work.
And the financial rewards on offer for those at the top of the sport are beyond comprehension for most.
But, what does it guarantee? It doesn’t make you immune to the problems that afflict so-called ordinary people, such as illness or death.
Such a thought had never really occurred to me too much, despite covering football on a daily basis. In fact, I had never considered it properly until this week when I went to interview Jason McAteer ahead of the launch of his autobiography.
I didn’t expect to be discussing such subjects with the man affectionately known as ‘Trigger’ when on international duty with Ireland and ‘Dave’ at his boyhood club Liverpool, both references to Only Fools and Horses and McAteer’s perceived, shall we call it, naivety.
Funny, happy-go-lucky and always entertaining are usually the terms associated with the former midfielder and I anticipated hearing more tales similar to that of when he shouted ‘180’ at snooker player Jimmy White or asked for a pizza to be cut in to four slices rather than eight because he ‘wasn’t that hungry’.
But, as with any person in any walk of life, he has had his dark times too, episodes he details in depth in the book.
“People see the money and automatically think: ‘things are easy for those guys’,” McAteer points out while chatting in an executive box in Anfield’s Centenary Stand.
“But the wages and the life of a footballer doesn’t protect you from the things that affect everybody like death or somebody close to you getting ill.
“You’ll have that happening and then you have to out out and play – not just play, but play at your best – in front of 50,000 people and help the team to win.
“If you don’t you get heavily criticised. You pick up the paper the next day and you are getting slated. The guys writing that and the fans watching usually have no idea of what the past week off the pitch has been like for you and your family. It could have been hell and, at those times, the money is absolutely irrelevant.
“I wanted to get that human side of the story across in the book. I remember reading Cas’ [Tony Cascarino] book and I loved his honesty. I loved the fact that he wanted people to see that there was a human aspect to him and the game.
“I wanted to go down that route too with my book. I didn’t want it just to be ‘we beat Man United 2-0 and Robbie Fowler scored and there was a substitution on 35 minutes…’
“Obviously you need football in there. But there has to be more to the story and hopefully that comes across.”
It definitely does. A passage relating to his time at Blackburn Rovers is a prime example of what the Wirral native, who qualified for Ireland through his grandfather’s Co. Down roots, is talking about:
‘My partner loses her mum and dad in the space of six weeks. I feel absolutely helpless. No words can console her. It doesn’t matter what money we have. It makes no difference that I make my living playing football for Blackburn Rovers and Ireland, that I know surgeons and doctors. My partner has just lost both her parents and there’s nothing money can do for her, nothing I can do for her. Graeme Souness does offer his condolences but I don’t care. I’ve lost all interest in playing for Blackburn. In fact, I’ve lost interest in playing football. We’re done.’
McAteer’s career, and subsequent story, followed the rollercoaster style nature of the fortunes of most sportspeople. There are the highs of playing in World Cups and signing for Liverpool along with the inevitable disagreements with team-mates such as Roy Keane and managers like Souness and Gerard Houllier.
It’s when he stopped playing though, after a spell as player-coach at Tranmere Rovers, that his problems really began. The lack of routine and sudden removal from the camaraderie of the dressing room saw him sitting at home in his bath for sustained periods as he fell into a struggle with depression.
At one point, in 2007, it got so bad that he seriously considered ending his own life by veering into lanes of oncoming traffic while driving through the Birkenhead Tunnel.
‘The lights are coming towards me, welcoming me home. It’s time. Time to cross that central isle, cross into those oncoming cars and bring it all to an end. That’s all I want to do now – all I have to do. Throw the car across the lanes and end it in an instant. I’ve had enough. I don’t know what I am doing with my life. I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I don’t know where I’m going, and I can’t see any future.
It’s all about me now, and even I don’t want to know me. I don’t like me anymore. I’m totally selfish, and I don’t care. I want it all to end and those lights can end it for me.’
Thankfully, thoughts of his son Harry prevented him from following through with the plan that would undoubtedly have concluded in tragedy for him and, more than likely, others.
Now, thanks to seeking the right kind of help, he has moved on from those dark days.
“Writing the book has been like a kind of therapy,” he laughs.
“It’s been quite a few years in the making, probably half a dozen since I first started getting some of the details down.
“At first everything was very raw. I disliked a lot of people and said so. Since then I’ve got to know some of them and realise that, maybe, they actually aren’t that bad. That everyone has their own things going on behind the scenes.”
Blood, Sweat & Jason McAteer: A Footballer’s Story is out now.
Johnny Hynes, Pundit Arena