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'I was never a sheep-like figure, I was never led by others'

Total Recall: Bernie Slaven


Bernie Slaven in action for Ireland during a 1990 friendly against Wales

Bernie Slaven in action for Ireland during a 1990 friendly against Wales

Bernie Slaven in action for Ireland during a 1990 friendly against Wales

It's a line in a history book and a badge of honour, one that he's proud of, even now as his 60th birthday comes close on the horizon.

"I didn't know until someone told me last year, that I was the first Irish player to score in the Premier League," says Bernie Slaven, the former Middlesbrough player capped seven times by Jack Charlton in the 1990s.

"It's an honour, a lot of players never get to play in the top flight at all, I was fortunate enough to play in the old First Division and then the Premier League so, yeah, that's nice to look back on."

He achieved his feat in the second game of the 1992/'93 season, the first campaign of a new venture called the Premiership, Slaven scoring twice in a 2-0 win over Niall Quinn's Manchester City.

It's fortunate that he has the memory and the honour as he had no financial gain from the achievement.

Revelations by Football Leaks have laid bare the staggering amounts that current players get for scoring a goal, such as Roberto Firmino getting a bonus of between £25,000 and £85,000 per goal. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic's time at Manchester United, he was on a staggering bonus, rising to £140,000 per goal.

Old pros like Slaven could be driven to tears upon reading that, as scoring in the Premiership for him meant something personally but nothing financially. His bonus was zero, that sum of zero doubled to . . . zero if he scored twice in a game, as he did at home to Manchester City.

"The first year I was at Middlesbrough (1985/'86), the CEO had it in my contract that I'd get £75 per goal," he recalls.

"I scored nine and our top scorer had 12, we were relegated, to the old Third Division, and were on the verge of liquidation. That's how bad we were.

"All the other seasons I was there, I scored at least 15 a season but the goal bonus had stopped, I never had it again after the first season.

"They even had the audacity to only pay me for eight goals, not nine, that first season as one of them was in the cup. The bonus just disappeared, it was taken away. So I got nothing for the goals in the Premier League."

Slaven was part of a strong Irish contingent at Middlesbrough (Graham Kavanagh, Curtis Fleming, Chris Morris, Alan Moore and Alan Kernaghan) for that first season of the Premiership but he had been at that level before, playing in the old First Division (1988/'89) where he did well, even though his club struggled.

"We got relegated but I was the league's third top scorer, only Alan Smith from Arsenal, who won the league, and John Aldridge of Liverpool, who finished second, scored more than me," he says.

There was a touch of glamour about this new thing called the Premiership and while it began well for Slaven, as he scored four times in the first 10 games of the season, it didn't end well.

But there were some heady days at the start, Boro recovering from an opening-day loss at Coventry City to win 2-1 at home to Manchester City.

"I scored two that day, one with my head which was rare for me, I was never that strong with my head," he says.

The following week Leeds United, then champions of England, came to Boro full of pomp and class.

"We beat Leeds 4-1 at Ayresome Park, they had (Eric) Cantona, (Gordon) Strachan, the late, great Gary Speed, (David) Batty and all the names but we beat them well," Slaven says with a smile.

The early form from Boro, and Slaven, was decent, with two wins and two draws from the next five.

Late September in 1992 brought a big test, Aston Villa at home, and Slaven was one of six Irish players involved.

"Villa had Paul McGrath at centre-half, Steve Staunton at left-back and Ray Houghton in the middle, a good side," he recalls.

Slaven scored one of Boro's goals (the other is listed as a McGrath OG) in a 3-2 loss. A week later, Boro held Manchester United, who would win the league that season, to a 1-1 draw, Slaven and Steve Bruce trading goals.

"Scoring past Peter Schmeichel in front of our own fans, that was nice," he says now.

Before the halfway point of the season, Slaven's top-flight ship had sailed as he was exiled after a falling out with manager Lennie Lawrence.

"I was at loggerheads with the manager, my days were numbered then and it was the wrong decision," he says. "They had only one recognised striker when they got rid of me and never replaced me, which was unbelievable. 

"I could be confrontational, if people wanted to rub me up the wrong way. I stuck up for what I believed but Lennie isolated me, made me go off and train with the kids.

"I was a guy who had scored more than 100 goals, had scored in the top flight, we were in a team that needed goals and I was isolated."

He was moved on, spending the last few months of that season with Port Vale and finished his career with Darlington.

If his Premiership experience was brief (18 games), so was his international career - seven caps across three years, but he has no complaints.

"I was a squad player. Jack told me on day one with Ireland that I'd be in the squad for three years and that's exactly what happened, I had three years in the squad," says Slaven, who scored on his debut at home to Wales in March 1990 and did enough to earn a place in Ireland's World Cup squad.

"I had limited appearances but rightly so, Jack was loyal to the players he already had, the players who'd got the team to the Euros and the World Cup, players who had done the business for him. That's the right way to manage people.

"I classed myself as a fringe player, I was fortunate to get in the back door and go to the World Cup," Slaven says. "But Jack's style was not my style, I wasn't a big, strong, aggressive player who was strong in the air. I like to think I was a goalscorer who could play a bit, keep it on the ground. If I was playing regularly with Ireland I'd have had to adjust my game greatly, it was a completely different style.

"But I loved Jack and I never heard anyone say a bad word about him. It's just such a pity we couldn't all gather for his funeral."

Slaven's social media feed makes clear his passion for animal rights as he's been meat free for five years.

"I love all animals. When I hear people say they like to shoot pheasants, I'd say: 'I'd rather shoot you'," he says.

He attributes his fitness - and he's still in shape, a month shy of his 60th birthday - to being a non-drinker.

"What I had, which a lot of players didn't have then, was the fact that I was teetotal. I was super fit, and still am fit," he says. "I never drank. People found that hard to understand in England. I was always an individual. I was never interested in drinking.

"Back then, the majority of the players were English and you had the bulldog mentality, going for a drink with your mates. I was never a sheep-like figure so I was never led by others," he says.

He had the same approach in his passion for music, fighting to get The Cure or The Smiths played on the team bus when the majority wanted the dross from the charts.

"If I could change my career path I'd be a front man in a band and not a footballer," he smiled. "I had a great life and I enjoyed every minute of it. But I see bands on stage now and I think, I'd love to be up there."

pBernie Slaven's new book is available at slavensnaps.co.uk.