Wednesday 12 December 2018

'I generated millions for the FAI; put up with crap hotels; suffered death threats from Combat 18: you name it'

Alan McLoughlin struck one of the most famous goals in Irish football history at Windsor Park in 1993. In an exclusive interview, he tells Vincent Hogan about how he received death threats for his 'treachery' and why he won't be losing any sleep if he's not invited to Dublin next week

Alan McLoughlin celebrates in Windsor Park after the final whistle. Photo: Bob Thomas
Alan McLoughlin celebrates in Windsor Park after the final whistle. Photo: Bob Thomas
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

By Wednesday, Alan McLoughlin's enthusiasm for the looming anniversary was already beginning to taper. The media calls had been building, interest in that goal piqued by the symmetry of next Thursday's friendly against Northern Ireland in Dublin almost exactly 25 years on from one of the ugliest, yet most tumultuous nights in Irish sports history.

Yet nothing from the FAI. And the more McLoughlin thought about it, maybe the less his appetite for beating a sentimental drum now. The Association did Tweet a video of his famous moment with a link to Ticketmaster and the caption "Here's hoping for another finish like this famous one from Alan McLoughlin!"

He even retweeted it himself.

But their silence was beginning to get under his skin too. As of last night, he was resigned to not being in the Aviva on Thursday for one brutally simple reason.

"I can't be there if I'm not invited, that's all I'd say," he reflected from his home in Swindon. "It's as simple as that. If you're not invited, you can't turn up. What more can I say? I'm not going to feel crap about it. And I certainly won't be going cap-in-hand to anybody.

"At the end of the day, I can sleep soundly at night.

"I don't always make every person that I'm working with happy, that's not the way it works. But I'd like to think that every person I work with knows me as a fair person, someone who treats everyone with an equal amount of respect that they deserve or, sometimes, even don't deserve. You just have to be man enough to step up and treat people in the right way.

Invited

Roy Keane in action against Jim Magilton. Photo: Sportsfile
Roy Keane in action against Jim Magilton. Photo: Sportsfile

"And at the end of the day, if I'm not invited, I'll still watch the game."

Once known as 'Swindon Town's first million-pound player' following his transfer to Southampton in December 1990, McLoughlin is now back at the club as Academy Manager. Life, he says, is good.

The goal in Belfast was, as he puts it, "a moment in time". But it didn't define him. "It has to be put into perspective," he says flatly. "I hadn't played any part up until that point in the qualification because of the absolute quality of the squad that we had. And I knew my place in that squad.

"What you'd give for those sort of players now, players of quality who played for huge clubs. So to be just involved in any way, shape or form was just wonderful for me. Listen, I was with the Irish team for nine-and-a-half years and, a little-known fact, I made every squad in that time apart one where I was suspended.

McLoughlin, John Aldridge and Denis Irwin after learning of Ireland’s qualification. Photo: Sportsfile
McLoughlin, John Aldridge and Denis Irwin after learning of Ireland’s qualification. Photo: Sportsfile

Read more: 'A few minutes into the game we heard an anguished whisper from the son saying, 'Daddy, there's five Fenians in front of us''

"I'm probably most proud of that, apart from maybe winning Player of the Year ('96). Then comes the goal, because that's just, as I said, a moment in time."

McLoughlin is right in the sense that his Ireland career either side of that goal was resolutely low-watt. For three years prior to Windsor Park, he didn't kick a ball in a competitive international. And, for the two years after, that sense of marginality continued. It was really only when Mick McCarthy replaced Jack Charlton as manager, eschewing the high-press, long-ball tactic in favour of actually passing the ball through midfield, that McLoughlin actually began starting games for Ireland. Remarkably, his first time to complete a full 90 minutes in an Irish jersey only came when winning his 24th international cap.

For all that, there was never anything equivocal about his commitment.

McLoughlin (not visable) scores his left-footed equaliser. Photo: Sportsfile
McLoughlin (not visable) scores his left-footed equaliser. Photo: Sportsfile

Read more: Bingham stoked fire with plans to 'stuff the Republic'

Indeed he was incensed by a line in Roy Keane's 2002 autobiography, surmising that the wretched vitriol of Belfast that November night "puzzled" the likes of Andy Townsend, John Aldridge, Tony Cascarino and McLoughlin who, it was suggested, knew "little of the history" involved.

Keane, untypically, rang to apologise for the line, blaming his ghostwriter for not understanding that McLoughlin - whose mam, Nora, comes from Knockaderry in Limerick and dad, Pat, from Largan in Galway - knew precisely the provenance of that evening's toxicity.

McLoughlin was, by then, working for a printing company in Swindon and defiantly proud of what he'd achieved in an Irish shirt.

As he put it: "I had represented my country 42 times; left my first child's birth to get on a plane to play football for Ireland; taken us to the World Cup; generated millions for the FAI; put up with crap hotels; numbed my a**e on an Albanian bench; suffered death threats from Combat 18: you name it. That is why those words really niggled. It was as if, having wrecked my body playing for my country, I was still seeking justification."

Those death threats?

Not long after the abandonment of that Ireland-England game at Lansdowne Road in February '95 because of rioting English supporters, a letter arrived for him at his club, Portsmouth. Signed simply 'Combat 18', it warned McLoughlin to expect trouble on account of his "treachery".

hooligans1.jpg
HOOLIGANS WRECK LANSDOWNE ROAD: Neo-Nazi thugs chanting ‘Seig Heil’ and No Surrender to the IRA were among the England supporters who tore up seats and hoardings and rained the debris down on Ireland fans

Police took the threat extremely seriously, two Special Branch officers coming to his house to offer instructions on how to check his vehicle each morning for a car-bomb. That check, he recalls, became "a solemn ritual" for months before McLoughlin desisted, deciding that he couldn't live his life in fear of such "bigoted threats".

In a sense, maybe McLoughlin shouldn't have been surprised by the FAI's distance this week.

In his 2014 autobiography, 'A Different Shade of Green' (Ballpoint Press), he criticised the lamentable absence of any communication from the Association when he'd been diagnosed two years earlier with a tumour in his right kidney. Their silence, he says, surprised and disappointed him. He wrote: "In 2007, aged 40, I underwent a hip replacement; testament to the fact that for 20 years I had put my body on the line for club and country, particularly the latter. I had always dutifully turned out for the Republic. I was there for those exhausting, eye-reddening foreign trips.

"I'd put up with the corner-cutting and the occasionally poor hotels that the FAI laid on for its players and I'd never kicked up a fuss. God knows, I'd have slept outside the hotel on a park bench if I'd had to! Even if I didn't get a game, it was an honour to be picked to represent my country.

"And then, beyond the privilege of playing for Ireland, just think how much money my goal that put us into USA '94 made the FAI! How many corporate junkets were carved out of my left foot volley? In short, I'd done the state some service. My body was testament to that story. Bruises. Sprains. Torn muscles. Prolapsed disc. Dodgy hip.

"And now, most seriously of all, this. So, did the FAI put in a courtesy call or merely a letter when I was at my lowest ebb? No, they didn't!"

Famously, his introduction to the Irish story had been an uncomfortable one, McLoughlin (he'd scored 18 goals for Swindon that season, including a play-off winner at Wembley) a late inclusion in Charlton's squad for the '90 World Cup finals after Big Jack made a last-minute decision to omit Gary Waddock from the traveling party.

The decision was communicated clumsily to Waddock, initially creating unfair tension between McLoughlin and some of the senior Irish players. They had already set up pre-tournament base in Malta when, the story goes, that McLoughlin exited one side of a taxi while Waddock climbed in the other.

It was, accordingly, "an unfriendly welcome" for McLoughlin who recalled: "To say that captain Mick McCarthy gave me the cold shoulder would be an understatement."

That chill eventually thawed, so much so that he'd become an almost constant starter for McCarthy when the Barnsley man eventually replaced Charlton as Irish manager in '96.

And McLoughlin admits he cried after that infamous late Macedonia equaliser in Skopje in October '99 that denied McCarthy's men automatic qualification to the Euro 2000 finals.

Macedonia.jpg
Rep of Ireland's players watch on after the injury time equaliser for Macedonia in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile

If the goal in Windsor Park will always be the specific highlight of his Irish playing career, it did little to soften his belief at the time that the FAI's relationship with Ireland's players was, largely, mean-spirited and opportunistic. McLoughlin believed they were treated by the Association as "second-class citizens".


As he puts it in 'A Different Shade of Green': "The qualifying campaign was long and hard and the entire squad had put in the effort, but ultimately it was my decisive goal that meant that thousands of travel agents, hoteliers, middlemen, airline companies and - of course - publicans would make a pretty penny from the Irish invasion of the United States that summer.

"Not to mention the FAI, to whom the trip to America was one big cash-cow which they would milk until dry, sometimes to the detriment of the players."

Six years on from that devastating diagnosis, his health is good today and he and was hugely disappointed to miss the recent Irish player reunion at The K Club. But his dad only just left hospital after more than a year inside and they are still grieving the recent death of his wife Deby's father.

Bizarrely, people sometimes ask McLoughlin if he "still" supports Ireland and he meets the question with incredulity.

Jumping

"When Shane Long scored that goal a few years ago against Germany, my wife ran down the stairs thinking I was having a heart attack," he chuckles. "I'd actually hurt myself, jumping right out of the chair and knocking over the TV. So that passion is still there."

He's been to the new Lansdowne Road just once, doing radio work, but remains is in regular contact with former international colleagues Alan Kelly and Kevin Sheedy, while regularly encountering the likes of Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan and John Aldridge on the media circuit.

"When we meet up, you're back to where you were with the lads," he says. "We won't ever lose that sense of togetherness."

And his evaluation of the current generation?

"Listen," he says "when I was playing, so many of the lads were playing in the Premier League or First Division as it was then. That's much more difficult now with the influx of foreign players.

"It will be an uphill struggle for the foreseeable future I think. If you qualify for a major competition, you know something? You're pulling up trees. Whether it's Martin and Roy in charge or Guardiola and Mourinho as a one-two combination, you still have to work with what you've got.

"There's a lot of good, individual players in the squad, but maybe the collective quality just isn't there like we had. But I'm sure the Irish supporters understand that and will be patient.

"Look, I hope everyone enjoys Thursday's game and it passes peacefully."

Windsor Park, November 17, 1993

Northern Ireland 1 Republic Of Ireland 1

SCORERS – Northern Ireland: Jimmy Quinn, 73, Republic of Ireland: Alan McLoughlin, 76.

NORTHERN IRELAND – Tommy Wright; Mal Donaghy, Alan McDonald, Gerry Taggart, Gary Fleming; Jim Magilton, Nigel Worthington, Michael Hughes; Jimmy Quinn, Kevin Wilson (Kingsley Black, 82), Philip Gray (Iain Dowie, 72).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND – Packie Bonner; Alan Kernaghan, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath, Terry Phelan; Ray Houghton (Alan McLoughlin, 71), Roy Keane, Eddie McGoldrick, Andy Townsend; John Aldridge (Tony Cascarino, 81), Niall Quinn.

SCORERS – Northern Ireland: Jimmy Quinn, 73, Republic of Ireland: Alan McLoughlin, 76.

NORTHERN IRELAND – Tommy Wright; Mal Donaghy, Alan McDonald, Gerry Taggart, Gary Fleming; Jim Magilton, Nigel Worthington, Michael Hughes; Jimmy Quinn, Kevin Wilson (Kingsley Black, 82), Philip Gray (Iain Dowie, 72).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND – Packie Bonner; Alan Kernaghan, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath, Terry Phelan; Ray Houghton (Alan McLoughlin, 71), Roy Keane, Eddie McGoldrick, Andy Townsend; John Aldridge (Tony Cascarino, 81), Niall Quinn.

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