'Ireland to thrive like team that Jack built'
RONNIE Whelan, Irish and Liverpool football legend. Aged 50, with a wonderful playing career behind him... and he knows it could all have been so different.
As a boy, he had no interest in school. Football was his passion. And when a well-meaning teacher told him that becoming a professional footballer was out of the question, the teenager just ignored the 'advice'.
So when Whelan spoke to a gathering of track-suited young men and women from the Ballymun area of Dublin, all unemployed, who are seeking a fresh start via a comprehensive 'education through football' initiative called 'Project Futsal', he was counting his blessings.
"What would I have done if I hadn't been a footballer? I've no idea," Whelan said. "I remember the careers officer at school... when I told him I wanted to be a footballer, he said 'you can't just want that' but I didn't have a clue about anything else.
"I worked as a lounge boy, I worked in Superquinn collecting trolleys. I was lucky that it (football) worked out for me.
"I only stayed at school because of my Da (Ronnie Snr, RIP). I failed my Leaving (Certificate). I was in the classroom but I never studied."
Whelan, now a soccer media analyst, was at Ballymun yesterday to launch 'Project Futsal' (Football Used Towards Social Advancement and Learning).
This is an EU-funded joint initiative between the FAI and the Welsh Football Trust, and backed by Dublin City Council, Ballymun Regeneration Ltd, DCU in the Community and Whitehall College of Further Education.
The 30 male and female participants in the Ballymun hub of the scheme were not fans of school in the past, but through this football/education scheme they are seeing new hope of building a future for themselves and also contributing to their community.
Whelan's presence was an endorsement of the project and of his brother Paul's involvement as a development officer.
Ronnie was blessed with great talent, but many talented youngsters have gone to English football with hope in their hearts and ultimately had their dreams shattered.
Inevitably, and particularly in the year that the Republic of Ireland will play in the European Championships for only the second time in our history, 'that' goal against the USSR in Euro 88 was shown on screen at the Civic Offices.
Whelan grinned as he said he never gets sick of seeing it. It was a spectacular effort, albeit that his shin made partial contact with the ball.
"It was one of those that you hit, a loopy one, and you think it could be going somewhere. Nearly broke my back trying to do it. They called it a 'shinner' (off the shin pad) because of the camera angle behind the goal," he said.
Comparisons between the Irish sides of '88 and of 2012 are closer than many might think, even though Whelan's team contained players who were first-team regulars with top trophy-laden clubs of that era such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.
Giovanni Trapattoni's men mostly ply their trade with the more humble Premier League sides or in lower divisions, but Whelan sees hope for the current crop of the Boys in Green, even though Italy, Croatia and Spain are in Ireland's group.
"People keep talking about Italy -- they are ninth or 10th in the world but they are not playing like that. For me, they are not much better than Ireland," he said.
"I'd be confident of getting a result against them, and we've shown in the past we can do it.
"And although most of the players are not in the top sides in England, they are a team with a structure that has got them through to the finals, and they know what they're doing now.
"Some managers, like Jack did with us, have their own way of playing, and though we weren't all great lovers of that style, we did it, and it got us through to World Cups and a European Championships. Our team was hard to beat and so is this Irish team, and they believe in what they're doing.
"It's not going to be great to watch. We're not going to be playing great football and going out and beating everybody, but I think it's possible they can do well because they don't concede a lot of goals."
Whelan gave Keith Andrews the thumbs-up for moving from Blackburn to West Brom to enhance his European championship prospects, and has been impressed by young Derry-born James McClean of Sunderland.
"This lad McClean has come on the scene and for me he looks like a Trap player. He gets up and down the line, he's big, strong, he works hard, gets good crosses into the box," he said.
"He seems to tick all the boxes for what Trap wants but the manager may just stick with the players that got them through."
Liverpool fans will be heartened by the Reds' progress in the Carling and FA Cups, and Whelan, who helped keep the Anfield trophy room well-stocked during his 14 years with the club, sees signs of hope.
"You know what was a big game for Liverpool this week? Wolves," Whelan added. "Because they'd beaten the big Manchester clubs and everybody goes, 'yes they can beat the big clubs but they can't beat the little clubs' and then they go and stuff Wolves, which for me was a statement to say 'okay, we can still do it.'
"It's still a team in progress, not the finished article by a long shot. There are still inconsistencies there, but Liverpool are not a million miles away.
"I think they can go on and get that fourth Champions League spot."
Incidentally, Whelan feels that the English FA have jumped the gun in removing the national team captaincy from Chelsea defender John Terry due to his pending court case on charges of racism.
"I've seen all the headlines, but aren't you innocent until proved guilty?" said Whelan.
"It's a big call for them (the FA). It doesn't bode well for their squad or team before the European championships."