All set for the big one tomorrow? The Super Sunday to beat them all?
Not Man U v Leicester, silly — although we’ll return to that later. No, I’m talking, of course, about Inter Kenmare Legends v Republic of Ireland Masters at Inter Kenmare Park, when Tony Cascarino, Ronnie Whelan, and Mark Kinsella will dust off the boots to help Internazionale Kenmare FC celebrate the club’s 30th anniversary.
As part of our in-depth, pre-match build-up, I rang old acquaintance Cascarino to see how he’s shaping up ahead of the big game. It’s the morning after a day at the races at Punchestown and the great man is not long out of bed.
“You know the expression, ‘fit as a fiddle’?” he chirps. “Well, I’m as fit as a harp.”
16 years after he played his last game as a pro, it sounds like the man they call Cas could be a bit of a doubt to last the 90 minutes.
Or maybe even 15.
“I don’t play anymore,” he confirms, “my right knee hurts me too much and I’m probably two stone too heavy — although you might look at me and probably go, ‘he don’t look that bad’. I enjoy life too much, unfortunately. I enjoy a pint, I enjoy nice food, and I train as little as I can because I enjoy it — but not that much.”
More than anything, it’s three cartilage operations which have taken their toll.
“If I play 15 minutes tomorrow I guarantee you my knee will be killing me on Monday morning,” he says. “It’s never been right since the operations and it’s really just a case of managing it. Then, of course, once you finish, you put a bit of weight on. And, plus, I’m 53, Liam, you know?”
Of the old guard who’ll be turning out tomorrow, he reckons Ronnie Whelan is probably the fittest — “because Ronnie doesn’t put any timber on” — but, for himself, Tony has noticed that his own physical limitations now extend even to the attribute he was probably once most famous for as a striker: his prodigious aerial threat.
“Obviously as you get older you can’t run as much,” he reflects, “but you know what I’ve found is one of my biggest problems whenever I play games — and I find this very difficult to understand — I can’t jump as high as I once did.
“I totally mistime headers now because I can’t get off the floor. I see a cross coming in and I’m thinking, ‘yeah I can get a head to that’ — but I don’t get anywhere near it.”
Irish supporters of a certain age will need no reminding of how Tony Cascarino’s 88-cap career ended with a bang — or three — amid the disappointment and drama of losing a Euros play-off in Turkey in 1999.
Less well remembered, because much more below the radar, was his very last game as a professional footballer in 2000, after a club career which had seen him play in the top-flight in England, Scotland, and France.
“We’d just got relegated with Nancy and it was a big disappointment,” he recalls. “I agreed a one-year contract with a third division team in Paris called Red Star. Obviously I got a great package to go there but, really, I had no enthusiasm for it. I’d had a good year with Nancy, played ever so well, but it ended in relegation and I just found it hard to motivate myself to go to level three.
“So I only played one-and-a-half games for Red Star and I was substituted in my last ever game at half-time after not playing well and missing a great chance.
“When I came off, I remember thinking that it would take an awful lot for me to get back to fitness. And I didn’t have the drive to do it anymore.
“For a footballer, dropping down can be the most disheartening thing of all. I’d started my career as a young lad when that enthusiasm to prove myself and get to a higher level was all there.
“But at the end of my career, having to prove myself again, and playing with a lesser quality of player than I’d been used to before — I just thought, ‘nah, I don’t want to do this’. And so, after that game, I just said to the President, ‘rip the contract up’.”
And not for one moment, he insists, did he ever regret blowing full-time on his career.
“No, I was delighted to finish. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was 38 then and I can honestly say that I’ve never missed being a footballer since I stopped playing.
“I missed the obvious things — meeting people and being around football. That never left me and so I stayed in the media. But the actual fact of training and getting fit and putting in the hard work — I just didn’t have that anymore.”
Cascarino says he has never fallen out of love with football although he does admit that there are aspects of the commercially-driven modern game he finds annoying.
“But we all moan, don’t we?” he laughs. “We all get nostalgic, we all think it was better then. We’re all guilty of that. But, in general, I’m very fortunate to be part of what football is today. I do a lot of stuff in the media and, hey, it stops me from having to go and get a proper job.”
And, of course, even those who might have grown thoroughly disenchanted with the game can’t but have had their faith restored this year by the Leicester City story.
“To me it’s incredible but — and this is going to sound stupid — quite obvious in some ways too,” Tony observes.
“What I mean is, it was obvious that this was going to happen one day, where the big boys would take their eyes off the ball and get totally caught up in the commercial side, in merchandising, ridiculous pre-season tours and all that.
“It’s all about growing the club and the brand, blah, blah, blah, and they’ve taken their eye off the most important thing — what happens on the football pitch.
“But what Leicester are doing was evident even towards the end of last season, when they were beating everybody up. Did I think back then that Leicester would win the league this time? Not at all.
“But from last season into this one you could see there was a pattern there: hard work, graft, everyone fighting for the ball.
“I actually did a piece before Christmas saying that Leicester could do it. And it’s one of my proudest pieces.
“My argument was that the only reason people are telling me Leicester can’t do it is because they’re Leicester.
“They couldn’t give me evidence that they couldn’t score, couldn’t defend, or couldn’t keep clean sheets. It was really just because they’re Leicester.”
And, now, can they go on and wrap it all up at Old Trafford tomorrow?
“I think it’s a hard one to win at Man United, and not having Vardy away from home is a big blow,” he says. “But I’m sure they will win the league. They have to. It would be terrible now if they didn’t.”
More importantly, of course, will the Irish Masters prevail in Kenmare?
“I hope so,” chuckles Cascarino.
“But it won’t be due to me if we do.”
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