Vincent Hogan: langan goes to the depths to deliver refreshing tale
Published 15/09/2012 | 05:00
The more you learn about Dave Langan's story, the more you suspect he has never mastered the trick of self-forgiveness. He made an unholy mess of his life and now seems cursed to face every day, fuelled with a dislike of the man peering back from his bathroom mirror. What Langan sees isn't an old, broken down footballer whose career became a tragic love story, but some kind of quick-fingered felon.
Because the game made him selfish. He became a relegation-standard husband and father, endlessly chasing that familiar mirage of enlightenment from the bottom of a beer glass. The more injury nullified his one identifiable life skill, the deeper he plunged into self-pity.
There are a number of photographs in Langan's book, 'Running Through Walls', where you find his head tilted oddly to one side, his eyes drifting off towards some private place of refuge.
All the weaknesses and imperfections of his life beyond the whitewashed lines seem to contradict the natural ferocity he brought to football. The game gave him a voice that was, essentially, silenced once his body began to betray him.
It has been well documented now that Langan's fall was Biblical. A knee injury sustained during a World Cup qualifier against France in October 1981 had calamitous repercussions and, by the age of 32, he was reduced to playing non-league and, ultimately, pub football.
The experience proved humiliating, opponents routinely -- as he puts it -- "taking the piss" out of the one-time Irish international. Langan underwent eight operations on his left knee and three on a back left hopelessly unstable by the cruel rehab programme.
After the break-up of his second marriage, Dave was a registered "cripple" and officially homeless. Working as a porter in Peterborough Town Hall, he'd been reduced to sleeping secretly in a cupboard.
Four years ago, his plight was highlighted by the Irish soccer website 'You Boys in Green' and through their campaigning a Testimonial dinner was organised for Langan by the FAI. It was roughly around that time that Trevor Keane and Alan Conway became interested in his story and, four years later, the book they have written is a refreshing antidote to the platitudinous drivel so often presented as a footballer's story.
There's something apposite about the timing too, given Giovanni Trapattoni's recent struggles to babysit the egos of young millionaires for whom international duty is, apparently, worthwhile only as an exercise in self-promotion. But then television money has turned the professional game into a Disney theme park, so can we reasonably express surprise if the likes of Darron Gibson or James McClean don't come across as the most grounded members of society?
Nowadays footballers interest the editor of 'Forbes' as much as they do the head honcho of 'Four Four Two'. And maybe it's all too easy then to see them as overpaid men with silly gloves, day-glo boots and tattoos inking the length of their bodies as attention-seeking art.
Comparison seems pointless.
Dave Langan was still well enough paid at his peak (£250 a week) to have made a better life than the one he managed. "I was never the best of fathers," he admits in 'Running Through Walls'. He doesn't spare himself the cold introspection of a man who can trace his own fingerprints on a lot of the bad stuff in his story.
The candour is refreshing. So too the clarity of a life gradually losing its coherence once deprived the oxygen of football. Langan's last club was Peterborough United. He went there already crocked and, soon, the supporters were venting their anger at a pitifully easy target. In his last game, Dave was brought on as a substitute only to slope off injured again eight minutes later. The response on the terraces was ugly.
He worked subsequently as a car-park attendant, struggling to "make the adjustment from player to nobody", spent some time doing security before becoming the Town Hall porter. Today, he works for the Mayor of Peterborough and has begun the process of getting two new knees.
The last seven of Langan's 26 Irish caps were won on Jack Charlton's watch, but he didn't make it to Euro '88 and, unforgivably, wasn't afforded the courtesy of a phone call at the time of the squad announcement. The book challenges what he sees as some misinformation spread by Big Jack over that period but at no point is Langan's hurt allowed curdle into spite.
You can't mope forever and, if much of Dave Langan's life has been a personal tragedy playing to an ambivalent world, his way now is to highlight the little air pockets of happiness that sustained him.
The book is awash with lovely anecdotes from friends you suspect he had once forgotten were even his. And, for all the on-going ridicule of those who only saw him play football when his body had gone brittle as a vase, he retains the memory of one Dublin evening when a God of the game felt the sunny warmth of Langan's attention.
For a man whose career was spent burning the tramlines at relatively low-watt clubs, he still adores being asked to identify his most difficult opponent.
"Maradona," he grins.
In a town like Peterborough, that sounds less an answer than a punch-line.