Friday 23 February 2018

Oh Carol - let him steal your heart away... Ian Rush on love and Ireland's Euro hopes

On the eve of the Euro Championships in France, Liverpool football legend Ian Rush and Carol Anthony open up to Barry Egan about their love life, and predict how they think Ireland (and Ian's beloved Wales) will fare in France. Martin O'Neill, avert your eyes now . . .

Former Liverpool and Wales footballer Ian Rush and his Irish girlfriend Carol Anthony in their bedroom at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin last week
Photo: Tony Gavin.
Former Liverpool and Wales footballer Ian Rush and his Irish girlfriend Carol Anthony in their bedroom at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin last week Photo: Tony Gavin.
Rush celebrates scoring for Liverpool against Arsenal in the Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final at Anfield in January, 1995.

I suspect Ian Rush and his Irish girlfriend Carol Anthony had a good night's sleep in their suite in the Westbury last night. (The happy couple have just got out of the hotel's lift to meet me for brunch to do this interview.)

Quality sleep, it transpires, was something of a rarity in Ian's early youth. Not because he was an out-all-night tearaway. The lack of sleep was primarily because of the slightly disadvantageous sleeping arrangements . . .

He shared a box bedroom with his five older brothers - Francis, Gerald, Graham, Peter and Stephen - in a council house in Flint, North Wales.

Looking back on that time, Ian laughs that six young men in one bedroom was an exasperating enough proposition logistically when he and the five brothers were at school - but "it was next to impossible" when the older brothers starting going out the door to work.

One brother, he recalls, would be getting up for his morning shift at the steelworks at 5am, "waking us all up, and me especially as I had to get up for school!"

Then just as young Ian had got himself back to an uneasy state of slumber, another brother would come home from a night shift at 6am - "waking us all again. It was like a Disney movie! I grew up essentially with no sleep!" he laughs.

"I was on the top of one of the bunk beds until one of my brothers got married. Then I moved down!" he laughs.

"Six of us in one room and my four sisters in another room. It was harder for my mum, because she was the alarm clock for everyone to get people up. She would shout to get the brothers up at 2am and 6am."

Ian's brothers and their father worked in Shotton Steelworks.

Was Ian expected to follow them into the steelworks as a career?

"Oh, yeah. Funnily enough, when I was 16, a lot of my friends went to work in the steelworks. I signed for Chester Football Club. After one year, the steelworks shut down and my dad had been there for 20-odd years. He was 55 then, still relatively young, but he wasn't going to get another job. He just got on with it, to tell you the truth. He never let on that it bothered him. Luckily, he was a Liverpool fan. He used to go to the games when I played for Liverpool. So that was his new life then," Ian says of his dad who died seven years ago.

"But he only got a small severance pay at the steelworks. So when I signed for Chester in 1979, I was on 16 pounds a week and I was worried that I hadn't done the right thing because all my friends had worked at the steelworks for only a year and got three or four thousand severance pay. And then they could go on to another job.

"So I was anxious - had I done the right thing by becoming a footballer?" says multi-millionaire Ian Rush.

Ian tells a story that illustrates the kind of man his father was. The 1986 FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium was a Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton. Liverpool won 3-1 on the day, with Ian scoring two goals.

"My dad and all my brothers came to London to watch. When I scored my first to go 2-1 up, one of my brothers was running up and down the aisle to celebrate. My dad said to him: 'Sit down! You idiot!'"

"So when I scored the second goal to make it 3-1, all my brothers got up and were running down the aisle at Wembley.

"Then at the end of the game, this Scouser came up to my dad and said to him: 'I bet you're proud of your son.'"

"My dad said: 'Which one of them? I've got six.'"

The last but one of ten children (after the five brothers, Ian has four sisters: Carol, Susan, Pauline, and his younger sib Janet) Ian led anything but a privileged childhood.

Francis Rush and his wife Doris had a feat looking after all their children. "Life must have been a gruelling struggle for my parents. My mother seemed to spend her whole day cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing."

"There was," Ian remembers, "no money for luxuries."

Not long after Ian signed for Liverpool in 1980 for £300,000 - becoming at the time in football, Britain's most expensive teenager - Ian bought his parents a bigger and somewhat more luxurious house for them to move into.

"The house was about 25-30 grand," he says now.

"That must have been such a proud feeling to be able to do that for your parents?" Carol asks.

"Three of my brothers had got married and moved out of the family home anyway. It was just me and my two brothers who were still living there. So it was just something I wanted to do for my mum and dad," he says.

Intriguingly, when he signed for Juventus in July 1986 for a then British record transfer fee of £3.2m, the Italian club moved Ian into a castle outside Turin. (Ian also became friends with Italian industrialist, playboy and billionaire owner of Juve, Gianni Agnelli.) The boy from the Welsh council estate was now living like a king in a castle in Italy.

"Living in a castle didn't change me. It was just a house to me. The same as a council house was a house to me. Council house or a castle? Who cares?"

To many, castle or no castle, Ian Rush will always be the King of the Kop, scoring a club record of 346 goals in 660 appearances. "People say how did they manage to find space on a football pitch to score 346 goals for Liverpool, but believe me it was easy compared to finding space in our house with five brothers and four sisters," he laughs.

Every five minutes in the Westbury - and the night before over dinner in the Shelbourne - people come up to talk to him, all repeating a variation on what his legendary football career meant to their lives.

As Steve Graves wrote recently in The Anfield Wrap, "When Rush celebrated his 1989 FA Cup final equaliser with a strangely camp twirly-hands gesture at John Barnes, it spawned a thousand imitations on my primary school playground." As it did all over Ireland and across the world. In 1999, at the end of his career, when he signed for Sydney Olympic in Australia, Rush's fame had hardly dimmed.

"I remember picking him up from the airport and being in awe of the man," Tony Rallis, a player agent who worked with Sydney Olympic in the late 1990s told The Guardian a few years ago. "I was so nervous that I forgot where I parked the car!"

Despite his enduring sporting and cultural significance, Rush is no big head diva. He is implacably normal even. He has been over to my house in Dublin umpteen times for dinner and to watch football on the telly. He inherited his character from his late parents.

"I learned emotionally from them to stay grounded and have respect and proper values", he says. "It's what made me the man I am".

Ian also attributes a lot of the man he is today to the experiences of his childhood. When he was five years of age, Ian was struck down with illness.

"My mum didn't have a fridge," he says, "and I remember she had to run across the road to someone who had a fridge to get some ice to put on me," he says now.

"We didn't have a car either. So the neighbour had to drive my mother and me to the hospital. The neighbour drove us back too. In those days, everybody used to help each other, didn't they?"

The young Ian was diagnosed with meningitis and admitted to the Cottage Hospital in Flint. "I was in a coma and put in an oxygen tent for five or six weeks. I could have died. So that's my earliest childhood memory. It isn't a happy one. Having meningitis."

He says that experience, in hindsight, helped mould his perspective on life, and made him appreciate everything he ever got in life.

The doctors at the hospital, he says, were concerned he might suffer permanent brain damage. Instead, he suffered a humorous kind of permanent weight loss. "I come from a family of ten and I think I was one of the heaviest in the family. I went into the hospital a chubby kid, I came out skinny."

As with a lot in Ian's life, he has a tale to go with the weight loss story. It is perhaps unlikely this diet regime will turn up in Roz Purcell or Rosanna Davison's next book.

"The nurses used to bring me my breakfast in the morning," begins Ian. "They thought I was eating it. But the cat would come and eat it."

The cat? Ian was giving his breakfast to the cat?

"Oh, yeah. I just didn't eat the breakfast. I didn't have the energy. I'd leave it there. They must have thought I was eating my breakfast every morning. It was the black cat coming in the window of the hospital. Imagine that happening now!" he laughs.

Courtesy of the mysterious if hungry cat, Ian feels that the weight he lost in hospital ultimately helped his career as an athlete.

Born October 20, 1961, Ian can remember like it was yesterday as a young kid kicking a ball around a field in Flint with his brothers. When he was seven he was picked for St Mary's Roman Catholic Primary School in Flint. Twelve years later he began his ascent to super-stardom with Liverpool.

"Ian was the ninth child of ten, and I was the youngest of nine," says Carol referring to Ruth, Avril, Veronica, Shane, Leslie, Keith, Redmond and Audrey. "I shared a bedroom with my sisters until Secondary School [St Angela's College in Patrick's Hill] in Cork and then I had my own room as most of the family had moved out."

Audrey, who was 49, died at 4.30pm on January 21st, 2015 at home in Killarney.

"She battled the worst of cancers. She had it everywhere and even towards the end she battled it with a smile. She was so brave you couldn't even imagine, against all odds," she says.

Carol, who was born October 11, 1981, grew up in Togher, a suburb of Cork city. She and Ian will be together four years in September. They are well matched. They were both married before. They both share a love of football, horse-racing, Bruce Springsteen, banter, good wine and fun.

"We like to have a laugh. That's what life is about," Carol says. "I can go out and have a laugh with him. We never row. He is so laid back. He is also very funny, which a lot of people don't see because he is also quite shy and quiet until you get to know him." And when you do get to know him, as I have been privileged enough to do over the last few years, he is often hilarious . . .

"People think I'm a Scouser! I'm fucking Welsh!" he laughs.

He shaved off his signature moustache in 2000. By getting rid of the trademark 'tache, he wanted a new identity almost? "I did but it didn't work out," he laughs, "because I got stopped by someone looking for an autograph in New York just two days after I got it off. And it has been the same every day since. No matter where you are in the world, people don't forget what you did on a muddy field with a ball for Liverpool nearly 40 years ago." (It has a certain echo of what Russell Crowe's character in Gladiator, the Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius says to his army before battle: "Brothers, what we do in life - echoes in eternity.")

"When I finished playing I wanted to get away from football altogether, because you can't beat the adrenaline of playing and then suddenly you stop."

How did you overcome that psychologically when you did stop? [Ian made his debut for Chester as a 17-year-old against Sheffield Wednesday in 1979. He played his last ever game for Sydney Olympic against Melbourne in 1999.]

"It was difficult," says Ian, "because for the first two or three years when you stop playing it is the hardest. Your brain is telling you what to do, but your body is not playing football any more. I went to America for six weeks. I thought: 'I'll shave my moustache off.' People still kept recognising me. But I never let it grow back. My son told me I looked better with it," he says (Ian has two sons with his ex-wife.)

I ask Carol would she still fancy Ian if he had his old retro-fabulous moustache back now. "I think it was so cool to have a 'tache back then," she answers, "it was like the way beards are all in now. I love him without it. I love his hair too, especially when he has a tan." (They are just back from a holiday in Barbados, so he is sporting a deep, bronzed look.) "A tanned face and a grey bread is very distinguished looking. Even my mum prefers him without the moustache."

How did Ian fall in love with Carol?

"Oh, fuck off, Barry!" Ian laughs.

What is it about her?

"She's like my best friend as well as my soulmate. She's very beautiful. We have a great laugh and a joke and everything together. She is an incredible woman, a great person. She is the kind of person who would do anything for you."

"And I would do anything for Ian," she says. "He makes me so happy. When I am with him, I am always living in the moment. I am not thinking about the past, or being bullied at school, or whatever. It was quite turbulent and crazy when we first started going out because for the first year of our relationship all the press was mad; some of it about me was quite negative," she says.

"But I am in a great place with Ian. He has taught me a lot about life. Ian is a great guy. And he loves Cork almost as much I do now, because we have been there so many times to visit my parents, who love him to bits."

"I do love Cork, yeah," Ian says. "The people are very friendly. They're a bit like Liverpudlians, to tell you the truth. I love Kerry too. When I go to Killarney, it feels like I am going back 40 or 50 years ago to Wales on holiday when I was a kid." They have a certain dynamic together.

How does he think Ireland will get on in the Euros in France next week?

"Unfortunately for Ireland, they are in the hardest group. The group of death with Italy, Sweden and Belgium. Ireland will do very, very well to qualify from that. I expect Wales will qualify along with England."

If Ireland were to play Wales in the Euros at some stage, loyalties would be divided, but who would Ian and Carol be cheering for?

Carol: "For me, Ireland, of course. We recently went to the Ireland v Wales rugby match in Dublin and that was a draw, and that wasn't too bad between myself and Ian. But I can't see that happening if Ireland played Wales in France. They'd be plenty of banter between us."

Ian: "It's great to see Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales qualify for the Euros. It gives the people of those countries a massive boost. From my point of view, it is just Wales Wales Wales," says Ian, who will be at the Euros as a team ambassador for Wales - a role he has done for years for Liverpool too.

So how will you feel when Ireland murder Wales if they met them in the latter stages of the Euros?

Ian: "You're dreaming."

What is it like to score Ian Rush, Carol?

"He should be so lucky to score me!" she laughs. "I think I was his favourite score. Well - he told me that anyway!"

Does he keep his (football) socks on in bed?

"No!" she roars. "If he came into the bedroom with footie socks on, I'd march him straight out the door - to play ... em . . . football!"

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