For many years Stephen Carr stood in a tent with a sandwich in one hand and a bottle of mineral water in the other, not an unusual occurrence in the seaside Wicklow town of Bray.
He was there as a professional footballer coming to the end of his career with Newcastle United, who had just won a pre-season friendly against the local Wanderers. I was there as a journalist from the Star group of newspapers.
We spoke, but not for the first time. The first time was many years earlier, when I was working in London covering the formative years of the Premier League and Carr was a teenage apprentice at Tottenham Hotspur.
It was the Spurs press officer who introduced us, a wonderful man called John Fennelly whose father came from Dublin and inspired his willingness to help any journalist of an Irish persuasion.
The day we first met, Carr was sitting on the wall in the car park of the Tottenham training ground and shooting the breeze with a bunch of players of his own vintage.
He was an amicable young man, eager to chat and keen to have a laugh and a joke as he set out on the road to fame and fortune that is the dream of so many youngsters chasing the professional game in England.
Unlike so many others, Stephen Carr realized his dream. He played 44 times in all for Ireland and he loved it, although injury denied him his rightful place in the 2002 World Cup finals.
He won a League Cup medal with Spurs and he got a big money move to Newcastle United in 2004 which ensured he would never have to worry about money again. The money paid for his big post-football house in the north Dublin suburb of Malahide, not far from the Donaghmede of his childhood.
By the time Stephen Carr and I explained pleasantries in that seaside marquee, following the friendly match between Bray Wanderers and Newcastle in the summer of 2005, the teenage joker of our first meeting was a distant memory.
By then, Carr’s patience with journalistic intrusion into his life had worn so thin that he politely declined all invitations to talk without as much as a smile on his face.
“It’s nothing personal, I just don’t talk to the press anymore, any of you,” said Carr on that hot August night when Damien Duff, another media recluse, thrilled those who turned up to witness his magic in the blue shirt which was the Geordie’s away shirt at the time.
Somewhere between a North London car-park in 1994 and the Carlisle Grounds in Bray in 2005, Stephen Carr lost the spark that burned inside him the morning we first met.
Granted, we parted on amicable enough terms that night six years ago, but something wasn’t quite right. Within three years my suspicions were confirmed when Carr announced, via the media of course, that he had quit football after becoming totally disillusioned when Kevin Keegan showed him the door at Newcastle in May of 2008.
There were offers on the table back then. Bohs even tried to entice him to Dalymount Park a year and a bit after he had announced a premature retirement from international football.
But Carr, then only 32, had had more than enough with professional sport. He decamped to Malahide, settled into life after football and lasted less than a year before boredom set in and threatened to take over his life.
By February 2009, Carr was back training with Championship side Birmingham City at the invitation of their manager Alex McLeish and on the way to a long term contract and promotion to the Premier League.
By last Sunday, Carr was the captain of Birmingham as they won the Carling Cup final with a sensational last minute goal, gifted as it may have been, against Arsenal at Wembley, and the reluctant hero got to life the trophy.
He did speak to the media afterwards. As captain he had no choice.
“That will make their year, make their life probably. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this,” said Carr as the Blues took a major trophy for the first time in 48 years and qualified for Europe into the bargain.
Stephen Carr was talking about the Birmingham City supporters when he spoke those words to Sky Sports at Wembley on Sunday, but he could just as easily have been talking about himself after lifting that Carling Cup.
It’s good to see him back, good to see him a winner again.
He’ll have enough time for life after football the next time he retires. And who knows, he might just smile again.
SOCCER: What’s the connection between the Irish Parliament, Croke Park and Turner’s Cross? Let me explain. Louth football team boss Peter Fitzpatrick has just won a seat in Dail Eireann, the Parliament, as has former Carlow County Board chairman Pat Deering.
They will be joined in the new Dail by Wexford Youths founder and manager Mick Wallace and Cork City director Jonathon O’Brien, both of whom also were elected last weekend. And guess who Cork play on Friday night at Turner’s Cross? Yes, Wexford Youths.
Speaking of Wallace, he was at the launch of the League of Ireland on Monday when I asked him who’s going to play striker alongside Shane Ross on the right wing and Mick on the left wing? He smiled but never answered.
SOCCER: Nice insight from Celtic manager Neil Lennon this week as he congratulated Ally McCoist on his appointment as successor to Rangers boss Walter Smith at the end of the season. “I would like to wish him well but obviously being the Celtic manager it is a bit difficult to do that!” said Lennon, who went on to explain the rivalry between the Old Firm managers.
“We don’t hate each other,” said Lennon. “There is a professional rivalry obviously, but there is a professional respect. You don’t know what the job entails until you are in the hot seat itself. There is that sympathy with each other, if you want to call it that.
“So I wouldn’t say we hate each other but there is that intense rivalry.”
CRICKET: Nice touch by the Irish team at the cricket World Cup in the Indian city of Bangalore where they’ve added their weight to the Irish Cancer Society’s “Shave or Dye” campaign. Members of the Irish squad had their hair dyed green or shaved which is commendable in itself.
That they had it done on the eve of their big game with England is all the more remarkable, so well done to captain William Porterfield, coach Phil Simmons and the rest of the gang. Hopefully the green hair works against England.
SOCCER: The League of Ireland season kicks-off on Friday night with financial reality now the norm. Bohs, for example, spent 2.8 million on players four seasons ago, yet this year Pat Fenlon’s budget is a paltry 280,000 in comparison. For what it’s worth I will give you my annual predictions, namely Shamrock Rovers to retain their title, Sligo Rovers to finish second and Dundalk to win the FAI Cup. If anyone can find last season’s predictions, please let me know how I did.
SOCCER: As an Arsenal fan -- since Charlie George scored in the 1971 FA Cup final against Liverpool just to show my age -- it gives me no pleasure to report that Robin Van Persie will miss next week’s Champions League clash in Barcelona. Arsenal are 2-1 up from the first leg, but even with Van Persie in the side, I’d have worried for them in Catalonia against Messi and Co. Now I reckon they haven’t got a chance in hell.
HERO OF THE WEEK
Ronan O’Gara once again proved there’s life in the old dog with a top scorer Man of the Match performance as Ireland’s lethargic Six Nations season limped along with a one score win over Scotland in Edinburgh on Sunday. O’Gara may be coming to the end of the road in this World Cup year, but his battle for the 10 shirt with Jonathon Sexton is fascinating to watch – and it can only make Sexton a far better player in the long run which is a win, win bonus for Irish rugby.
IDIOT OF THE WEEK
The British tabloid News of the World last Sunday revealed how Ashley Cole shot and wounded a work placement student at the Chelsea training ground with an air rifle he brought to his place of work. The previous day Wayne Rooney got away with an elbow into the back of Wigan and Ireland player James McCarthy’s head. Have these footballers no sense at all? I fear not.
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