BY NATHAN O’HAGAN

Professional footballers these days, or those plying their trade in the modern Premier League at least, sometimes come across as living in an alternate reality. They have top PR firms sculpting their image and social media output to such a degree that they’re closer to politicians than the old school pro. They step off team buses with huge headphones on, eyes down on their smart phone, only communicating with fans via copied and pasted tweets. The clubs themselves add to this feeling of sanitised, carefully-constructed outpourings, which each club’s official twitter and Instagram profiles frequently posting footage of meetings between a start-struck young fan and their favourite player that can often feel set-up. It all seems designed to create the illusion of closeness, when footballers have rarely seemed so distant. Some of these videos are admittedly very touching, but it’s when footballers are genuinely caught unawares that the great meetings happen. Or far more interestingly (to me at least), where the oddly banal or disappointingly humdrum meetings happen.

For my own part, my paucity of experiences in this area is, in itself, banal and disappointing. I put one penalty out of three past Tranmere keeper Eric Nixon circa 1989, and the team I played for in my youth, Poutlon Athletic, were presented with awards by Tranmere’s Shaun Garnett and goal-scoring Everton centre-back Derek Mountfield at our annual awards ceremonies. Paul Tarpey’s own meeting with Mountfield in the Birkenhead branch of Waterstones has mine easily bested though, as he handed a perplexed Degsy an irrelevant magazine he happened to be carrying and asked him to sign it. Confused he may have been, but at least he obliged with the requested John Hancock. Unlike former Liverpool and Tottenham’s former defensive colossus Neil Ruddock, who was approached by Tom Blake and a friend during his tenure as Swindon manager, in classy, and now defunct, local nightspot Po Na Na. When asked for a scribble, ‘Razor’ threatened the pair with a dance floor kicking, and sent them scarpering.

The only player I’ve had any significant ongoing interaction with was a similarly rotund former Red – Danish midfielder Jan Molby. My first encounter with him was after a mini derby match (Everton reserves vs. Liverpool reserves) my dad took me to at Goodison Park sometime in the late eighties. Jan went off injured and after the match we saw him being carried into a waiting ambulance on a stretcher. “How’s the leg, Jan?” My dad asked. “It’ll be fine, mate,” replied Jan in his distinctive scouse/Danish hybrid accent, which led me to believe my dad and Jan were actually mates. Shortly thereafter, Jan was stepping up his rehab in the salubrious setting of Leasowe Leisure Centre, where I played five-a-side every Saturday. Someone shouted that Molby was in the corridor and we all rushed outside to get autographs signed, despite most of us being Everton and/or Tranmere fans. When I was getting an autograph, I told Jan he was mates with my dad.

“Am I?” he asked.

“Yeah, he asked how your leg was after the mini derby,” I said. Jan simply looked confused and walked off.

He and my dad did become acquaintances of sorts, though, in that they both frequented the Lighthouse pub in Wallasey, and the Wagers betting shop next door. Each time Dad saw him, he’d return home with an autograph, usually scribbled on a betting slip. Eventually, he stopped asking, either because I was increasingly underwhelmed to having another Jan autograph to throw on the pile, or perhaps because the big man had got sick of the pissed bloke with the Scousefro asking him to sign betting slips all the time. Still, my dad’s interaction was positively friendly compared to my friend Craig Ward, who was sat in the back of his dad’s car with his brother, both in full Liverpool kit, when Jan pulled up next to them at the traffic lights in Upton during his Liverpool heyday. Spotting one of their footballing idols, Craig and his brother started banging on the window to get his attention, and when they did so, kissing the badge and giving him clenched fist salutes. Facial expression unchanging, Jan gave no response other than to stick two fingers up at them, before speeding off as the lights changed to amber.

Another Liverpool stalwart of the era was Jason McAteer. A thoroughly nice fella by all accounts, but one whose lack of intellect is almost worthy of an article in its own right. An old work colleague of my dad’s had known McAteer since he was a kid and confirmed both his immense likeability and utter daftness. This friend told my dad about an incident in the car park of Arrowe Park hospital, where Jason’s wife was having their first baby. Visiting a poorly relative, my dad’s mate passed McAteer as he struggled to fit a child car seat. When asked if he needed a hand, the Republic of Ireland international assured him he’d be fine, so off he went to hand over some grapes and ask how the hospital food was. Sometime later, he was pulling out of the car park, only to drive past McAteer, who was still struggling with the seat.

Tom Blake’s threats of violence from Razor Ruddock is a near-death experience probably about even in magnitude to that of Fay Kesby, who was nearly ran over by Alan Smith (the Leeds and Manchester United one, not the Arsenal and Sky Sports one) on her way home from volunteering at an elderly care home, as Smith tore out of his parents drive. Perhaps it was guilt over this that led Smith to volunteer some of his own time, by turning up as a ringer for a mate’s five-a-side team in a tournament between Leeds accountancy firms.

My friend Gruvinder Evans was working in a Docklands bank when Ian Wright popped in to use a cash machine en route to the Brit Awards. She called out a friendly hello, Wrighty responded with a smile. What isn’t clear is whether, in these days of contactless technology, Wrighty still prefers to attend high-profile shindigs with ample cash on his person. One footballer who should probably stick to cold, hard cash is Andy Cole (sorry, Andrew Cole), who had to be asked to sign his credit card slip no less than three times by Bertrand Grussle in House of Fraser.

The best/oddest encounters with footballers seem to have come from people who’ve met players while working in some capacity in the service industry. Nick Jones blazes a trail in this regard, having been called upon to take a pint of blackcurrant and soda to Ian Woan’s hotel room at the Forte Crest Hotel in Sheffield. Even more surreal than Woan’s choice of beverage was the sight of his roommate, Roy Keane, singing along to The Farm’s version of the Human League classic “Don’t You Want Me” as it played on The Chart Show. As brilliantly bizarre as Nick’s encounter is, though, it’s Alex James that proves himself the king of the banal footballer meeting. First, he served Gary Neville a bottle of mineral water, for which he received a tip so large it can only have been accidental in its generosity. But that’s nothing compared to the night he was hired to perform in a murder mystery evening attended by charity patrons and Manchester United player Paul McGrath, and Ian Woan’s erstwhile roommate, Roy Keane. I can only do justice to Alex (@SpleenShot) and his story by telling it, verbatim, in his own words as he relayed it to me in a Twitter thread.

“We’d had literally no rehearsal or anything, and were all prepared to improvise on the hoof, given it was a light-hearted charity event. So when me and my United-supporting uni pal found out we’d be in the presence of two club legends we freaked out.

We arrived and unloaded our bags and coats in the ‘dressing room’ (a store room with an Ikea lamp, a clothes rail & SHIT LOADS of wine). We poked our heads out into the function room, to zero-in on where the important guests were sat. It was clear that they were very, very drunk

At least, big Paul was. Though by the time we went on, so were we, having been told in no uncertain terms that we should give up any hope of earning Equity rates, or even cash, that we should swallow our pride & shameful opportunism, and take the c.300 bottles of red wine as pay.

My account from there gets hazy, as “paid ourselves up front”, as it were, and proceeded to get smashed before the murder mystery with no decipherable plot, some awful characterisation (I was a French butcher/chef), and, if memory serves, absent of an actual homicide. We had to improvise that every character was heavily intoxicated or sedated. Because we were. The ‘show’ started. Needless to say it was a disaster.

OF COURSE, ROY AND PAUL SEEMED TO LOVE IT!

What was slightly weird was when the performance had wound down, we were invited to have a drink on a table just off to the side while the entertainment continued. Paul came over to us, with Roy following behind, and me & United-fan mate thought we could have a good chinwag.

Nope. They were looking for the loo. Roy had seen that Paul might need a chaperone. For some reason Roy is staring my mate out. He takes McGrath by the arm to lead him away, and Paul just looks at us and says, “he was a fucking better player than Bryan Robson, that’s for sure.

Which is a perhaps overlong story about how a) I was an unprofessional actor, and b)… Well, just (a), really.”

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but if Alex’s story tells us anything, it’s that you should meet your footballing heroes when performing at a murder mystery evening, drunk on free wine.

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