Sport Soccer

Sunday 22 September 2019

New beginning on both sides of the microphone

In September 1994, Paul Kimmage joined the Sunday Independent and travelled to Marseilles to meet Tony Cascarino. Paul's first feature for the paper, under the headline 'Cas: l'histoire recommence', was published on October 2. Although not included in our book, On The Seventh Day, the piece reproduced here is typical of the great sports writing featured in the newly-released anthology

Tony Cascarino: ‘In England, if you are overweight but take a drink and are one of the lads then you’re acceptable. But in France it’s different.’ Photo: David Conachy
Tony Cascarino: ‘In England, if you are overweight but take a drink and are one of the lads then you’re acceptable. But in France it’s different.’ Photo: David Conachy

These are the facts: In the 15 games he has played for Olympique Marseilles this season, Tony Cascarino's 20 goals make him the most successful striker in the history of the only French club ever to have won the (a) European Cup. These are the questions: Is it possible for a man to discover his true potential at the age of 32? Is the striker the fans loved to hate at Aston Villa, Celtic and Chelsea a man re-born or mutton dressed up as (French) lamb?

Marseilles, Tuesday, 20:45: If seeing is truly believing then those who consider the French second division a retirement home for "fat-arsed Irish c**ts" might take a trip along to the Stade Velodrome on the Boulevard Michelet the next time OM are in town. Tonight, the challengers are the current leaders of the Greek first division, Olympiakos. Holding a 2-1 lead after the away leg of this opening UEFA Cup tie, a capacity 38,593 crowd have come to see their team advance to the second round in style.

20:55: The game kicks off. Dogs let off the leash, Marseilles move immediately on the attack much to the delight of their fanatical support. For two days the players have been cooped together in a hotel. This is a big game for the club, the biggest perhaps they've played since that famous night in Munich in May last year when they defeated AC Milan in the final of the European Cup . . . only to have the trophy taken away from them as a result of a league bribery scandal. L'histoire recommence announces L'Equipe on the morning of the game. Bernard Tapie, the club's controversial president, would like to think so. Slapping his players down the shoulders as he prances around like a mad-man in the dressing room before the game, he offers his players a bonus of five grand a man to win. And what Monsieur Tapie wants . . .

21:00: As French football teams, and indeed cities, go, Marseilles is a case apart. There are three different tribes of supporters: 'Yankee', 'Fanatic' and 'Ultra'. The Yankees, who sit in the north end of the ground, paint their faces in the club colours and are generally moderate. Directly opposite them, in the upper terracing behind the south facing goal, stand the Fanatics and below them the Ultras. As their name suggests, the Ultras are by far the most fervent. Directed by a "leader" who, winter and summer, directs the chants bare-chested with a hand held loudspeaker to his mouth, tonight in honour of Tony Cascarino they're waving a giant Irish tricolour. "At Marseilles, on aime les gars que se bat" (we like players to give their all), an Ultra explains after the game. "Fiere d'etre Marseillese" (proud to be Marseillaise) is written on his scarf.

21:15: From her seat in the stand, Sarah Cascarino would no doubt find these comments very amusing. Two years ago, when she was eight months pregnant with their second son Teddy, she paid her first ever visit to Stamford Bridge. Not exactly an "Ultra" when it came to football, she didn't go to watch him that often . . . there was Michael to take care of. . . and the unpleasantness of having to sit and listen to the louts who perpetually bad-mouthed her husband. At Villa and Celtic she hadn't complained but such was the venom . . . "GET 'IM OFF! CASCARINO YOU FAT-ARSED IRISH C**T" . . . coming from the man sitting beside her this day at Stamford Bridge that she decided to have a word. "Excuse me, that's my husband you're talking about. Would you mind refraining please?" she asked. "I've paid me money, I can say what I like," the supporter replied. It was a long, long time before she went back again.

21:25: Looking back, he isn't sure what exactly went wrong over the last four years. After a couple of seasons of making hay with Teddy Sheringham at Millwall, the harvest wasn't nearly as plentiful when he moved to Aston Villa. Used to being supplied, he suddenly became a supplier. A very good player, David Platt didn't always appreciate the simplicity of the square ball. The move to Celtic was a disaster from day one. He started badly, missed a few scoreable chances and was hammered in the press. "Every day when I picked up the newspaper there was some ex-Celtic player having a go at me." Nine months later he was ready to move south again, he had had enough.

They booed him on his debut at Chelsea. He scored, was voted man-of-the-match, then spent the next two years fighting continual injury. Every time he played he had the supporters on his back.

21:35: There was a different reception awaiting him on the night he touched down in Marseilles: the reporters waiting in the terminal to question him, the photographers lining up to take his picture . . . they made him feel wanted, made him feel good. Nine days later, when he ran out in front of the Ultras, the Fanatics and Yankees, no one insulted his name. Unburdened by the prejudice that is rife in the English game, they encouraged him, wished him well, thanked him for coming to Marseilles in their hour of greatest need. A man with no past and no reputation, they would judge him on his performance. This was the key.

22:03: Ten minutes into the second half the velodrome erupts. Running on to a pass from team-mate Ferreri, Cascarino's beautifully balanced chip sends the Ultras into orbit. "Quelle lucidite, quelle but intelligent de la part du Cascarino," screams a French television commentator. "Fighting Tony a marque," screams another. Down on the pitch the hero modestly acknowledges the applause. It is, after all, becoming a habit.

* * * * *

THE move to Marseilles began - as every decision involving Olympique de Marseilles does - with Bernard Tapie who wasn't at all convinced (although he would undoubtedly tell you differently now) when Cascarino's name was first mentioned to him by Jean-Louis Levreau, his right hand man. 'Cask-a-kilo???? No, the name means nothing to me . . . I hope you know what you're doing, Jean-Louis,' he warned before agreeing they should make an approach.

Levreau, a former journalist, had learnt of Cascarino's availability from the English agent Denis Roche and remembered him from his appearances for Ireland during the Italian World Cup. "He reminded me a bit of Frank Stapleton (Fronk Stap-ell-ton)," Levreau said on Wednesday. "Facing a season in the second division, I reckoned we needed that type of player up front - a strong targetman who would rattle defenders and wouldn't be afraid . . . and who better than an Irishman?"

Who better indeed . . . except that the Irishman in question wasn't doing much rattling at the time. Four weeks into his second World Cup in Orlando, the finals were going miserably for him. A calf injury sustained during the opening week in Orlando not only ruled him out of Ireland's three first round games, but cast a shadow on his future. Informed by Glenn Hoddle at Chelsea that he was being released on a free transfer, he had travelled out determined to put himself in the shop window and to prove his manager wrong.

But there weren't many takers for an injured bit-player. Reading were interested. Notts County too. Kevin Sheedy phoned with an offer from Blackpool. "You should definitely sign for them," John Sheridan laughed, "they've got a great big dipper there." Big Cass laughed too . . . but inside he despaired. Twice a million pound transfer, how on earth had it come to this? Was it possible he was worthless overnight?

The tide turned a couple of days before the Dutch game. Denis Roche phoned with news of interest from Marseilles. He couldn't believe it at first. How could Marseilles, European champions of the summer before, possibly be interested in him? But when he remembered the league bribery scandal that had erupted in the wake of that Munich victory and the sanctions that had been imposed - relegated to the second division and banned from spending money on new players - suddenly it began to make sense. They could have him for nothing. After stating his terms to Denis Roche, he waited anxiously for a reply. Home now after the World Cup, the phone didn't ring for days: "Maybe they don't know I'm back," he reasoned, worried the deal had fallen through. Sarah knew better: their son Michael's swimming teacher knew they were back but she thought it kinder to say nothing.

Roche at last made contact. "Everything is set up," he informed him, "but you must ring Bernard Tapie at his home in Paris to arrange a meeting." Not at all sure of what was waiting on the other end of the line, Cass picked up the phone. "MARSEILLES! . . . MARSEILLES! YOU MUST COME!," the president screamed in broken English. "Y-e-s I a-m v-e-r-y g-r-a-t-e-f-u-1 t-h-a-t y-o-u s-h-o-u-l-d a-s-k m-e t-o c-o-m-e," Cascarino replied meekly before agreeing to fly to Paris.

When they met the following day, Cascarino's first impressions were of Tapie's energy and fierce passion for the club. "He asked me what sort of player I was . . . told me how he wanted the team to play. I tried to be myself, tried to be honest . . . but I must admit I had to lie when he asked me how many goals I had scored the season before. I mean, I couldn't say 'four' now, could I?"

Levreau, and a battalion of photographers and newspapermen, were waiting for him when he arrived in Marseilles later that evening. Escorted to the Concorde Hotel, they sat down for a meal, signed the contract and, aware that he was still recovering from injury, asked if he could play for 20 minutes in a friendly they had arranged next day. "Sure," said Cas, "no problem." Running on for the last 20 minutes, after all, was a speciality.

With just nine days to get ready before the opening league game of the season, Cascarino prepared like never before. The warm and sunny weather made him sweat, curbed his appetite. Switching his fondness from coke to mineral water and from a few beers after dinner to a glass of wine with it, he began to feel fitter, sharper. "Things are going to be different here," Cascarino told himself. They were. One-nil down after two minutes against Le Mans, the home team were given a chance to draw level through a penalty in the 25th minute. Frenchman Jean-Marc Ferreri, the team's designated kicker, stepped forward but was more than a little surprised when Cascarino walked over to him and pulled the ball from his hands.

"I wasn't on penos for the first game, I've never been the peno taker at any of my former clubs but, I don't know, I so wanted to do well here that I just walked up to Ferreri, grabbed the ball, put it down and smashed it in the back of the net. I mean, it was such a good opportunity to get off to a good start I had to take it. It was going to be all or nothing here. I wanted to show people back in England, to stuff it up their arse."

Tiring a little toward the end, he played well in a game they lost 3-2. The following week the team flew north to Brittany for an away game at St Brieuc. Reduced to ten men for most of the second half, the score was 1-1 when Marseilles were awarded a penalty with six minutes to go. Unopposed this time, Cascarino again stepped forward and placed the ball on the spot. Bang! Two goals, two games. His third goal for the club was the most unbelievable of all. An away game against Nancy, the ball was played up to him after 15 minutes. Heading it on, he watched as his team-mate up front, Marc Libbra, challenged and headed it skyward again. "I ran at it from ten yards, watched it as it dropped then caught it first time and sent it screaming into the top corner from 25 yards out." Three goals in three games, he made it four goals in four; then five in five.

The sixth game was a 'friendly' against Juventus. "The Juventus game was easily the most important of the six I played. It was going out live on Eurosport in France and Spain and I knew there would be a couple of English newspapers over to take a look.

Tapie was like thunder in the dressing room before it. I think he thought we were going to get beat two or three-nil. He came over and slapped me on the chest to gee me up and near put my rib cage in . . . he was unbelievable. But we won two-nil and I scored both goals and after it he was all over me, giving it the old 'oh la-la Cas-car-rino' and all this."

* * * * *

23:30: There are no such things as players' lounges at any of the French grounds. Game over, the team disbands - workers clocking out of the factory. Slipping into their car (a sponsored Citroen Xantia) the Cascarinos drive back to their hotel. Tony is elated. Sarah, just as pleased. After checking on the babysitter, they sit down in the hotel bar for a chat and a drink.

How come you're doing things now, that you weren't doing five years ago? "If I was totally honest, I'd have to say that I'm a lot more professional now then I was when I was 27. I'm fitter and lighter now than I was when I was 19 and I think that's the difference between the game in the two countries. In England, if you are overweight but take a drink and are one of the lads then you're acceptable. But in France it's different. In France, it's not acceptable to be unprofessional - your team-mates will criticise you to your face, they consider you are letting them down."

23:40: Questions about his future. Given Tapie's nature, has it occurred to you that while this week you are flavour of the month, next month it could be the opposite? "Yes, it has, I know what he's like."

And doesn't that worry you? "No, not a bit. The thing about it is this: even if I was to score 50 goals and play unbelievably well between now and the end of the season, the chances are that Monsieur Tapie will still go out and buy the best centre forward in Europe next year."

And you have no problem with that? "No, not at all . . . it's a fact of life that everybody has to accept at this club. Everybody. Having said that, perhaps the biggest compliment they've paid me is that they've already spoken to me about who they want to play alongside me next season as if they have already made up their mind to keep me. And to be kept here is an honour. One way or the other, I don't see myself ever playing in England again. My dream, to be honest, is to play in the final of the UEFA Cup and beat some British club, just so I can make people sit up and ask 'how on earth has all this come about?'."

23:50: Questions about Ireland. When did you hear you weren't in the squad? "Well, I first spoke to Mick Byrne . . . Marseilles had a game against Toulouse on the 11th (the day before the Liechtenstein game) but I had cleared that with the club and it wasn't going to be a problem so I told Mick what my situation was and he said he would have a word with Jack. So we left it at that and the next thing was I got a call from Sean Connolly who said I should have a chat with Jack. I rang Jack and he told me he was leaving me out for this Liechtenstein game because he felt he could quite comfortably win it with a smaller squad."

Were you surprised to get a call from Sean Connolly? "Emmmm, yes! I was surprised in that . . . it was a bit of a surprise that people like Sean knew I was going to be taken out of the squad . . . but I was just generally surprised to have been left out."

Who told you you were being left out? "Jack".

You didn't know before phoning Jack? "No . . . he just explained that he was cutting the squad back for the Liechtenstein game and that he didn't want to drag me all the way back from France. He said he wanted to look at Tommy (Coyne) and Dave Kelly but would have me back for the Northern Ireland game."

You're disappointed? "Yes, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I mean, I know he prefers Niall (Quinn) but even if it is to sit on the subs' bench, it's important for me to come over for any Ireland game just to meet up with the lads again and to be involved, but it's just been taken out of my hands".

Don't you find it a little ironic that during the lean times at Celtic and Villa you were scoring goals and a regular on the squad and yet here you are in the best form of your life and you can't get in? "Well yes, it is I suppose, but to be perfectly honest I'm much happier now that the situation has been reversed and that I'm doing it at club level again. I mean, international football has always been a plus for me but I know deep down that he (Jack) only sees me as a 20-minute player so it's much more important that I'm doing it at club level. I mean if I can't get in now, I'll never get in."

Midnight: "I remember when he scored that goal against Germany just before the World Cup," Sarah says as he nips up again to check on the kids. "I was sitting at home flicking through the teletext with my dad and when we saw he had scored we were so delighted and elated because it was so unusual. But now, it's almost normal. I mean, he's scored more goals in the last three games than he has for the last two years. He's a changed man. Completely. He's a Frenchman . . . He dips his bread in his chocolate . . . says 'ciao baby' . . . has started drinking coffee. He's gone into it 100 per cent."

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport