Ronnie Whelan on the highs and lows of life at Liverpool and why Stephen Kenny needs time

LOI Arena is the new podcast about the League of Ireland and Irish football from Con Murphy, Conan Byrne and Pundit Arena.

On the tenth episode of LOI Arena, Ireland and Liverpool legend Ronnie Whelan reflected on his brilliant playing career, chatted about his life as a commentator and shared his opinion on Stephen Kenny as Ireland manager.

Ronnie Whelan.

This week’s guest was former Home Farm, Liverpool and Ireland midfielder Ronnie Whelan. Whelan featured for Ireland at Euro ’88, Italia ’90 and USA ’94 and scored three times for the Boys in Green in 53 appearances. His goal against the USSR at Euro ’88 remains one of the most famous strikes in Irish football history.

The Dubliner also enjoyed a tremendous club career with Liverpool where he won no less than six league titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups, a European Cup, five Charity Shields and a Super Cup. Whelan played under the great Bob Paisley for the reds and was made captain of the club for the 1988-1989 season.

While the 59-year-old has some tremendous highs to reflect on from his career, he also experienced the Heysel Disaster in 1985 and captained Liverpool on the day of the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. Speaking on Episode 10 of LOI Arena, Whelan was open and emotional in his description of that difficult time which made for powerful listening.

Ronnie Whelan on the Hillsborough Disaster and the pain it caused.

“I don’t think people will ever imagine how difficult it was,” said the RTE Sport commentator.

“Everyone says ‘yeah it must have been really difficult’ but you were footballers who had witnessed this disaster at a football ground. You were then asked to go and speak to the families of the kids or the father or the sister of people who had died.

“Then we sort of had to go training and I think Ronny Moran, in the end, said ‘listen, we have to get back, we’re footballers, we’re professional footballers. It’s been horrible and we’ve all been through it’. But we were put in situations I don’t think we should have been.

“We did our best, we tried, but we weren’t counsellors. To go into a room full of people missing their loved ones,  kids running around whose dad had died and it was just an awful thing to do but everybody did what they could or had to do.

“We all went to different funerals along the way which was not nice at all but you felt it was the right thing to do. When you look back it was the right thing to do because people felt a little bit better when players were in and around them in the player’s room, in the football ground. So yeah it was not the nicest time that could ever be spent for a footballer.”

“I don’t think Liverpool people in future generations long after we’re gone will ever forget it. It will always be told to your kids, to your grandkids, it will always be told down the line what happened at Hillsborough.

“I don’t think it will ever go away. It was a terrible time for everyone, it wasn’t just Liverpool fans, there was a whole lot of people who were very kind to the whole Liverpool family.

Ronnie Whelan on managing the highs and lows of his time at Liverpool.

“You take the high and low – you get to the European Cup final in 1985 against Juventus and that’s your low. [You think to yourself] ‘I’ve been to one in ’84 against Rome, we won it, what an occasion, everything was magnificent’ but then you go to the Heysel and you see things unfold in front of your eyes – this is nothing to do with football whatsoever.

“You come away with your professional head-on after the game and you think ‘we could have won that, I could have gotten another European Cup’ but then you go home and get the newspapers and then you see so many people have died and you think ‘is it worth it really?’.

“That was in ’85 so I’m saying in ’85 ‘is it really worth all this to be a footballer?’. You pick yourself up and get going again, the club pick themself up and get going again and it all happens much worse in ’89.

“The players had an amazing amount of courage to go on and win the FA Cup final against Everton in ’86 after what had gone on, after what they had had to go through with funerals, bereavements, meeting all the families and then going playing a load of games in a load of days and then going and winning an FA Cup final.

“And then after the FA Cup final to go trying to win a league against Arsenal – I think everybody was physically and mentally shot by then.”

Ronnie Whelan on Stephen Kenny’s start to life as Ireland manager. 

Since retiring Whelan has become a regular fixture on RTE’s soccer coverage alongside George Hamilton on commentary. He is a highly respected voice central to discussions about the Irish national team and is optimistic about the direction Stephen Kenny is taking the team.

“I haven’t seen a game live with Stephen so far but when I’ve seen it on TV, I know they’re losing but I don’t think the performances have been really that bad.

“They look like they want to get on the ball, they look like they want to pass it around. Every team you play against now in the whole world, they basically all want to play the same way. They play it out from the back and he wants to do that with the young ones he has – maybe they’re not ready for it.

“Maybe if you switch managers and put Jack with this lot and Stephen with us back in ’88 you would have seen us lot play even better football and you would have seen this lot qualifying for things. I don’t know, I wouldn’t get rid of Stephen at this moment in time, I think it’s silly to put him in there and just give him a couple of games.

“Put him in there and give him whatever it takes, bad or good, give him a couple of years.

Kenny’s philosophy of wanting to play out from the back and keep the ball on the ground has divided some opinion in Irish football but Ronnie says he is fully behind the manager’s ambitious playing style.

“There are younger kids who need to mature a bit more and you could probably get a good team out of it in the end. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but I think it’s time to give him a go, leave him alone, see where he goes with it, if it doesn’t work we’re not going to be any worse off.”

“People shout saying it’s the wrong thing – it’s the wrong thing to keep kicking the ball back to the opposition as well. I think they’ve got to go with the times, try keep it. I’m seeing Irish players playing for their club teams as I did before – they seem to all want to play, even at Sheffield United. They all want to get on the ball, let them do what they’re doing back at Sheffield United even if they are getting relegated.

“There are younger kids coming in, let them make mistakes, you just don’t want them booting every ball like we did. Times have changed, let’s get the ball on the ground and see if these kids can create and make passes. Give them time to flourish and be good.”

LOI Arena.

LOI Arena is the new home for great League of Ireland discussion. Each week Con and Conan will take to the mic to analyse the highs and lows from the Greatest League in the World. The lads are joined by great guests each week who share a passion for all things LOI and Irish Football.

Episode 10 of LOI Arena is available to listen to here.

The podcast is part of a new membership offering from Pundit Arena that focuses on Irish soccer fans for just €3.99 per month, less than a euro per week.

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