Sunday 25 September 2016

Steven Reid: Players must make most of life-changing opportunity

Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30

Republic of Ireland's Jeff Hendrick
Republic of Ireland's Jeff Hendrick
Wes Hoolahan takes centre stage as Ireland’s players go through their warm-up routine in Abottstown yesterday

We land in Heathrow Airport with dreams in our heads and a dilemma on our hands. Four of us need to get to south London but only one of us has a car.

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"That's no problem. Reidy, you can give us a lift, can't you?" Kenny Cunningham says.

"Sure," I say.

Except there is a problem. This is 2001. Ireland are just after beating Cyprus to be guaranteed a play-off for a place in the 2002 World Cup finals and I'm no longer Steven Reid, the young kid from Millwall. I'm Steven Reid, Irish international, potential World Cup player.

My status has changed but my income has not. I'm still on around £1,000-a-week and still haven't moved out of home, so even though this is 2001, nearly a decade after the Premier League was formed, and even though there is serious money floating around the game, I haven't seen a huge amount of it.

The lads don't care. On this day, all they're worried about is hitching a lift. So, we make our way to Heathrow's long-term car park.

"Where'd you park, Reidy?" Steve Finnan, one of my passengers, asks.

"Here," I say, standing beside my one-litre, blue, Citreon Saxo.

Steve looks at Kenny. Then, Kenny looks at David Connolly, the fourth member of our party, and simultaneously, they all turn and look at me, with the kind of expression Del Trotter had in Only Fools and Horses after the chandeliers dropped from the ceiling and crashed to the floor.

Messing

Connolly started walking again, thinking I was messing, to stand beside a Mercedes, the kind of car you'd expect an international footballer to drive.

Finnan and Cunningham walk with him and get back to their conversation about Leeds United's chances of winning that year's title.

And I stand there next to my two-year-old motor which I bought because it came with two years free insurance.

The other three lads, meanwhile, still think I'm messing and only cop on that this is my car when I open the boot and invite them to put their bags in.

As I did so, you'd swear I'd just cracked the funniest joke any of them had ever heard. "That!" one of them says. "That's your f***** car?"

At least, he can speak. The other two are nearly rolling around the ground laughing. Needless to say, the standard of motor in the car parks of their respective clubs was considerably flashier.

And from Heathrow to Wimbledon and Kingston, where we all lived, the slagging is merciless. "Tell you what Stevo, if we qualify for the finals, you'll be able to afford a new set of wheels," I'm told.

The prophecy was spot-on. When I think back to that 2001-02 season, I can safely say that was the year my life, and not just my car, changed. All of a sudden I became a different player.

Gone was the lack of confidence, the shyness. In its place was a determination to make myself a better player and to make Mick McCarthy's squad.

The biggest game of my life? It wasn't Ireland versus Cameroon, or Ireland against Germany in the World Cup. It was Grimsby versus Millwall three days after we sealed qualification for the finals in Tehran.

That was the day I started playing for my World Cup place, the day when I emerged from my shell.

From there on in, Premier League clubs started to show an interest. A bigger contract materialised at Millwall. I gave absolutely everything to get selected for Japan and Korea. (I even traded in the Citreon).

Everything else changed, too. I got to the Premier League so that meant I got to earn Premier League wages.

When I think of my family now and how much my children mean to me, knowing I can support them fully is an unbelievable comfort to have.

And that's what is at stake for the 11 Irish players who start tonight's game for Ireland - and for another 20 or 30 footballers who dream of France.

While most of those players are in and around the Premier League, some are not. Jeff Hendrick (right) and Richard Keogh could earn a move from Derby if we qualify, Stephen Ward could be picked up from Burnley and handed first-team football.

It isn't just their club status that can change. Once you qualify, your life changes. And I'm not talking in materialistic terms. Forget that. Forget the flash cars, the big wages.

What happened to me in 2002 at the World Cup finals remains one of the four greatest things in my life, along with getting married and the birth of my two children.

Even now, 13 years on, I still get goosebumps thinking about that summer and putting it into the words, the unbelievable pride you got from playing in a major tournament for your country, the connection you had with the fans, the satisfaction you got from knowing you were standing on the biggest stage of all.

And if there is one message I can pass on to those players who will walk out at the Aviva tonight it is to be aware of that responsibility and to grasp the opportunity. If tiredness kicks in, they have to remember how their status as footballers will forever be altered.

They have to think about how next summer will pan out. Victory and they'll be at the finals; defeat and they'll be listening to Welsh, English and Northern Ireland players speak excitedly about their summer up ahead.

So they need to draw energy from the possibilities that lie ahead and from the fear of what they might leave behind.

And they need to walk out into this stadium with belief. For most of them, this is their big chance. They haven't been at a major finals and they may never get the opportunity to go again.

That isn't the voice of a cynic, either. That is the voice of a man who knows the reality of international football.

In 2002 I was the youngest member of the squad and I thought: "This will happen for me every two years. I'll finish my career with three World Cup finals and two European Championships in my scrapbook."

Eh, no.

I finished my career with one World Cup.

So these Irishmen have to seize the day.

Most of all they have to believe they are good enough to finish this job off, to capitalise on the excellent result they posted in Zenica last Friday and hold the view that they, like me, do not believe Bosnia are as strong as initially thought.

Often, when we don't know too much about the opposition, we draw simple conclusions. We look at the clubs they play for and decide, there and then, they have better players than we do.

Yet the last time I checked, 10 of the 14 players who featured for us in last Friday's game were employed by Premier League clubs.

So it's not as if they're coming from the Dog and Duck to the international arena.

The bottom line is they can do it. They can win. Clearly the need to deal with the threat Edin Visca posed down Bosnia's right, our left, on Friday. Yet Stephen Ward is the person to address that.

If there is a temptation to make a change - and from Martin O'Neill's comments at yesterday's press conference, I don't think there is - then it should be resisted.

Ward was not the problem on Friday.

The problem was that he got little protection from Brady, who needs to take up cleverer positions tonight to cut out the threat down that left hand side. Do that and we will win.

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