Review: Soccer: Walk On - My Life In Red by Ronnie Whelan
Simon & Schuster £14.99
Published 03/09/2011 | 05:00
The casual cruelty that is common in football is one of the things which comes across clearly in Ronnie Whelan's book. It's visible at various stages in his story and, even though he says it's just the way things are, it's something he always found hard to stomach.
In August 1994, Whelan was nearly 33, out of contract, and had been plagued by injury. But he was fit again and was holding out for a two-year deal at Liverpool.
On the first day back at training, manager Roy Evans told him the board was offering him a one-year contract. Unhappy, Whelan thought about it for a day or two and then decided to take it. "It's better than nothing," he told Evans.
But the next day, as Whelan arrived at the training ground, Evans told him the board had withdrawn the offer. He muttered something about coming in to train if he wanted to until he found another club. Then he drifted over to where the first team were kicking around and left Whelan standing there.
Ronnie walked back to the dressing room, got his clothes and drove home. On the way it hit him. He pulled into a lay-by and burst into tears.
In the book he says the speed of his dismissal left him traumatised. "Fifteen years finished in 15 seconds. No handshakes, no goodbyes, no word of thanks. . . You just turn on your heel and walk away.
"The lads are playing a game just 20 yards away and you can hear them calling for the ball and talking and laughing the same as any other day. But you might as well be a million miles away. Suddenly you're an outsider now. You've gone from the inside to the outside in a matter of seconds."
It's a telling example of how ugly the beautiful game can be when a player nears the end of his career.
Whelan also writes at length about his difficult relationship with Jack Charlton. He had been a regular for the Irish team since 1981 (five years before Charlton took over) but found the gruff new boss hard to communicate with. His injury problems did not help. On one occasion when he failed to make the team even though he was fit again and wanted to talk to Charlton about it, Big Jack deliberately humiliated him.
The big man does not come well out of Whelan's account of what went on. Big Jack did not like to be challenged. But it was injury more than Charlton's pig-headed manner which meant Whelan played only a minor role in Ireland's first ever World Cup in Italia '90. The most interesting part of the book is Whelan's account of his Liverpool career, when he was a mainstay of the iconic 1980s team that won six League Championships, two FA Cups, three League Cups and the European Cup.
Under the management of Kenny Dalglish (the first time round), Whelan and teammates like Alan Hansen and John Barnes formed one of the great sides in English football history.
His account of this great era for Liverpool -- and its decline -- is fascinating. It was also the time of Heysel and Hillsborough and Whelan reveals how devastating these tragedies were for both players and supporters.
It's a very frank autobiography in comparison with the usual anodyne soccer book and Whelan is very open about the behind-the-scenes arguments. He was always quick to argue back and sometimes seems a bit too sensitive for the tough world of football. But it's that sensitivity that makes this book.