Friday 13 December 2019

A night in November... and the day two years ago that changed Alan McLoughlin’s life forever

The USA 94 hero reveals in his new book how he tackled his biggest battle.

Damian Corless

Liverpool’s Bill Shankly gave us the most over-used quote in sport: “Football isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s far more important than that.” Former Irish international Alan McLoughlin can give the lie to that one.

Raised on Manchester’s Maine Road by Irish parents, the young Alan let down his close friend and City diehard Noel Gallagher, later of Oasis, by signing for United. No sooner had his career kicked off than it was derailed by a sapping “mystery illness” accompanied by a sinister shadow on his lung. United’s remedy was a £25 weekly top up to his mother to build him back up with steak and stout.

It worked and the teen regained his mojo, but the layoff had cost him and he was let go to traipse the lower divisions as “a journeyman” in Eamon Dunphy’s words. As a player he picked up numerous injuries, including double hernias and a slipped disc, but nothing prepared him for the chilling moment, two years ago, when he stood over a urinal at Portsmouth FC: “There was red everywhere. A hell of a lot of blood. Shocked, I instinctively jumped back. But the torrent kept coming out of me, deep scarlet in colour.”

Fit, active and young at 45, he was told he had a cancerous kidney tumour and it would be six weeks before the medics could tell if the disease had spread. With his life flashing before him, McLougnlin uses this crisis in a new book, Different Shade Of Green, as a jumping-off point to the night when, in the grudging words of Ireland boss Jack Charlton, he “justified his existence”. A generation of fans will forever cherish the November evening when, on as a sub for the dying minutes, he kept his cool in the seething cauldron of Belfast’s Windsor Park to stroke home a classy goal that sent the Republic to the 1994 World Cup Finals in the USA. He recalls: “In that killer moment a calm came over me. All the noise in the stadium disappeared.”

What he would have given for some of that inner calm 19 years later as he lay on a hospital bed enduring “the longest night of my life” as he awaited the morning and scan results which really would be a matter of life and death.

He says: “All sorts of frantic and silly questions were running through my head. Who’s going to lock the doors at night? Who’s going to give my girls away on their wedding day? What’s my funeral going to be like?”

One of the “silly” thoughts that struck him on first learning of his cancer was that he’d somehow let his parents down. Here again he delves back into his memories to demolish the issue, again current this week, of so-called ‘Plastic Paddies’ lining out for Ireland.

Although always a bit-player, McLoughlin was with Ireland for two World Cups and the messy departure of Jack Charlton, who called him “McDonald”. There’s little warmth towards Big Jack, who emerges as a José Mourinho-type egotist.

In Sicily during Italia 90 Jack overheard Alan talking big money in a phone booth at the team hotel. They were in “the home of the Mafia”, and it was perhaps a sign of the pre-Sky millionaire times that the manager interrupted the conversation. The boss put down the receiver to end the call and confronted his player in a sympathetic manner, saying: “Do you have money worries, son?” Despite Alan’s protests that he was just trying to get a mortgage, Jack persisted with the offer of a big loan.

All that said, Big Jack doesn’t come out well, but any two-tier health system fares worse. In hospital, Alan is asked to speak to a medical journal about his stay. But the mag is only interested in plugging private schemes. When he reveals he’s with the UK’s National Health Service the piece is scrapped. “I’m nothing more than a commodity,” he muses.

His kidney removed, he could have pulled out of the tackle with cancer, but he has volunteered to road-test a new drug until 2016. It’s been rough. He’s lost his hair, and it’s playing havoc with his digestion, but he’s never been one to shirk a challenge.

‘A Different Shade Of Green’ by Alan McLoughlin (Ballpoint Press, €14.99)

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