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Cult Heroes: Gary McAllister - from ‘has-been’ to Liverpool legend
By Leo Moynihan
London, early spring, 2019. Premier League-leaders Liverpool are in town and their fans have gathered at pub just a throw-in away from the River Thames. There’s still some time before kick-off, and their fans convene for long-held pre-match rituals. Fulham shouldn’t be the toughest of opponents, but a first Premier League title for the Reds is at stake, and so nervous chit-chat fills the room.
Pints are sunk in the hope that they will quell the anxiety and in time, their bubbles getting to work, the chants begin. They sing of past glories and of heroes, both present and remembered. One stands out, for he only played 87 games for the club over two seasons. ‘Gary Macca, Gary, Gary Macca!’ they chant with glee.
Gary McAllister left Anfield in 2002 but he remains a Liverpool hero, an unlikely cult hero. Unlikely because, here was a player joining the club aged 35, surely too old for an institution keen to move forward, to stop looking back on its past, desperate to take its place once more at a top table where they had seemingly lost their seat.
“My arrival certainly raised some eyebrows,” McAllister told GOAL STUDIO. “I had been involved in recent relegation battles with Leeds United and at Coventry City and maybe some thought, despite my Scotland caps and League title medal, that I was over the hill. Luckily Gerard Houllier had other ideas.”
Houllier, having taken over from Roy Evans in 1998, had set about creating a team he hoped would move the club into the twenty-first century. He had inherited young, homegrown talent such as Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, whilst a boyish (if he was ever such a thing) Steven Gerrard was waiting in the wings. The Frenchman made astute signings in Dietmar Hamann and Sami Hyypia, but in the summer of 2000, with the club still in the shadow of the trophy guzzlers at Manchester United and their only credible rivals, Arsenal, he made further moves in the transfer market and in came Gary McAllister.
“I remember some fans being very sceptical about me being there.” recalls McAllister. “One editor of a fanzine, said something like, ‘Why have we bought this balding has-been? If he plays a dozen games, I’ll show my arse at Woolworths!’”
And it wasn’t only fans who verbalised their doubts. Steven Gerrard, by now a raw but clearly gifted midfielder at the club, wrote years later in his autobiography that whilst his backside would remain covered, McAllister being there concerned him. “Isn’t he over the hill?” Gerrard asked his team-mates before ringing the agent he shared with his new team-mate.
“What’s all this about?” Gerrard asked.
“Don’t worry, Stevie,” came the reply. “Gary Mac will be brilliant for Liverpool, and for you as well. Listen to him. Learn from him.”
“F**k off! McAllister can f**king well learn from me!”
Whilst Gerrard was showing all the impetuousness of youth, McAllister got on with rediscovering his. “The summer I signed I had got myself fit. Really fit. I knew I had to arrive for pre-season and be in shape. Footballers look at new players, they make judgements early and I knew I had to walk into Melwood fitter than even the youngsters.” That’s exactly what he did, winning those pre-season runs, showing his class in training so obviously that even the club’s most prized asset was hanging on his every word.
“On away trips, I timed my run to the bus so I could sit next to McAllister, absorbing advice,” said a sold Gerrard. “Every journey was like a lesson, with me as the awestruck pupil.” Those lessons included advice about when and when not to play the glamorous long pass and why staying on his feet was every bit as effective as big, crowd-pleasing tackles. McAllister was helping to shape a legend, but still had ambitions of his own and, after a slow start to the 2000-01 season, the fans would be as grateful for his presence as they were of Gerrard’s.
Goals, a trio of cup wins (the League cup, the F.A Cup and the Uefa Cup) and memories flowed. And right there at the heart of it all, driving Liverpool forward, was a Peter Pan-like Gary McAllister. You can hear the memories in the song that, 18 years later, is still sung with gusto. A song that, like the Bayeux Tapestry, gloriously lists Gary Mac’s achievements.
“Your derby goal,” for his 44-yard winner at Goodison Park.
“Your Barca pen,” for his Uefa Cup semi-final winning spot-kick.
“Your Spurs peno, your Coventry goal, your Bradford goal,” for vital league efforts.
“Your Dortmund pen,” for another vital goal on the way to European glory.
It was, of course that long-range life-affirmer at Everton - late in the season with league points as vital as local bragging rights - that has ensured eternal love from supporters; the smile that beamed across his face further helping his cause. “I had taken a free-kick from a similar position ten minutes earlier and noticed the Everton keeper had quickly anticipated me flighting it to the back post,” recalls McAllister.
“This time I could see he was more than ready to do the same. Carra (Carragher) was in my ear. ‘Bloody hell, la, it’s on here, he’s left a space’. I felt like saying ‘Shhh, you’ll blow it,’ but he was right and I hit it and it curled in at the near post.” Cue mayhem. And hero status confirmed.
McAllister’s star would burn bright for another successful season but nothing would, nothing could, match that wonderfully bonkers Treble season. Time has passed. Other players have arrived, others are yet to come. The room in which Liverpool heroes are housed will continue to grow, and Gary McAllister will never be asked to leave.