Saturday 22 October 2016

Steven Reid: I'm English by birth, Irish by grace of God

Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30

‘My proudest moment’ – Steven Reid captains Ireland against Holland in 2006
‘My proudest moment’ – Steven Reid captains Ireland against Holland in 2006

We were stuffed 4-0, beaten out the gate, taught a lesson and murdered by pundits and press.

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And nine years on, do you know what? That game is easily the highlight of my career - a moment of pride you talk about in quiet tones with your children.

"I was once captain of Ireland, Harry," I told my boy earlier this week.

He's six and not as impressed by that piece as information as by the fact we are off to Disneyland on holiday. "Is that something good?" he asked.

To me it was. To me it was everything. It wasn't just that I was handed the armband, trusted with the responsibility to walk out first against a footballing nation as great as Holland.

This wasn't just about sport, not just about a kid who'd learned his trade at Millwall, who'd come up the hard way, who'd started on £200 a week, who thought he'd won the lottery when that salary went up to £800 a week. This was also about who I was. I was born and raised in London. My accent is English. I have Jamaican heritage. All of which I'm proud of.

But I'm Irish. I played schoolboy football for England but that never made me English. It never made me think twice about what to do when Richard Sadlier and Robbie Ryan sat down with me for a cup of tea in Millwall's canteen one March day in 2001 and listened to my story.

"Do you want us to make a call to the FAI?" they asked. They did pick up the phone and later that month I made my own call. Ireland or England? It had to be Ireland.

The alternative option was there. England's U-21s had been in touch. But I knew what I was doing because I was doing it for mum. Her dad was from Ballinasloe. She'd spoken to us about it when we were children. She'd sat us down and told us we were Irish, that this meant a lot to her.

The way she explained it, the way she spoke, so softly but so serious, you could sense the emotion. Yet you couldn't quite understand why it was like that.

Then, when I had the same conversation with my children, Isla and Harry, I finally understood. You are talking about your pride, your Irish, English and Jamaican backgrounds. You are talking about who, and what, you are.

So when Ireland walk out to play England tomorrow, there is no doubt in my mind who I want to win - and it won't be the country I have lived all my life in.

You could offer me anything now - the extra millions I could have earned had I won 23 caps for England rather than Ireland, the offer of leading England out at Wembley - and I'd turn it down.

Who cares about money when you think of the things I earned playing for Ireland, the respect from the players and fans I got to meet, the bridges we built with family?

That was the big thing. Every time I came across to play, I'd hook up with relations. Mum would fly over too. She would reconnect with cousins, aunts, uncles she'd lost touch with - simply because she'd lived in England for so long.

Playing for Ireland brought a bond back into our family. You can't put a price on that.

So when that day came in August 2006, when Steve Staunton asked me to captain the side, you have to understand how special that felt.

This was for my mum, who'd sacrificed so much to bring us up. It was for her parents, who'd moved across from recession-hit Galway in search of work. It was for a family who'd been brought closer together. It was about everything except football.

And it is why I'm reluctant to come out and take a dig at Jack Grealish. In my eyes, he has kind of already made his mind up, having played U-21 football for Ireland. Yet if he wants time then he has to be allowed it because everyone's story is personal, everyone's level of patriotism differs.

I've never made much noise about the Ireland-England thing. I knew how I felt about it and I went with it. I didn't want to pretend I was a different kind of person than I actually was.

I presented myself to the squad and to the Irish public and pretty much had the attitude, 'this is who I am, take me or leave me'.

They took to me. That is the thing with the Ireland squad. Once you're in, you're regarded as 'one of us'. The way you speak is the least concern. It's the way you play.

Can you hack it? Are you good enough? I'll never forget Roy Keane's welcome when I first stepped up to the senior squad.

First ball at training, he gets it, looks around to see where I am and thumps it, hard as he can, straight at me. Then he gave that look, that thousand yard stare. "Give it back," he screamed. I did.


And that was the initiation over. The only question in Roy's mind was how you played not how you talked. And that was what I loved about being an Irish international. There were no cliques in the dressing-room.

I remember the first conversation I had as an Irish U-21 international. Michael Reddy, from Kilkenny, took the mick out of my accent. And that broke the ice. He was such a character, likewise Jason Gavin.

I bumped into Michael in Manchester recently - and the friendship formed 14 years ago was renewed. That was what was special about being an Irish international. You weren't just someone's team-mate. You covered their back and they covered yours.

Plus there was a connection between the players and fans. Remember that photo from Ibaraki and the 2002 World Cup, where all the players are lined up to salute the fans? That is my favourite image from my career. We were as one in our dressing-room.

Can the same be said about England? Not from what I hear. I'm glad I never got the chance to find out.

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