It was approaching Christmas 1998 and, when Alan McLoughlin thought about how Portsmouth FC was being run, he was feeling anything but festive.
The club’s unloved chairman Martin Gregory had just stepped down after three years of turmoil, and in the dressingroom the players’ joy at the news was tempered by suspicion.
“Gregory is still the majority shareholder at the club . . . He’ll probably just install a puppet to do his work for him,” McLoughlin wrote.
It was a frank view for a club employee, but not a surprising one for those who had been reading about McLoughlin’s frustrations in his columns in the Sunday Tribune.
At the start of the 1998/99 season the Ireland international had been signed up for a weekly diary, which I helped him write, on life as a First Division journeyman and a key figure in Mick McCarthy’s squad during the Euro 2000 qualifiers.
It was a time just before big TV money saturated the game and also a moment when sports books were earning mainstream popularity. There was a booming market for gritty stories of unpaid wages and ragged club administration.
In 1997 Steve Claridge’s Tales from the Boot Camp had been published to acclaim, and newspapers had their ears pricked for any hint of footballing woe or hardship. There is dog shit all over your training pitch? Please tell me more.
McLoughlin seemed like a good choice for a diary: he had turned 31 that year and even then the images of his crucial goal in Belfast in a vital 1993 World Cup game against Northern Ireland (which secured the Republic’s place in the finals) were starting to look grainy.
He was still a fine player (and a good penalty taker) but his best years had passed. Portsmouth were badly run and struggling to stay in the First Division. McLoughlin had started nine of Ireland’s 12 qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup, but he was no longer a regular in the team and that separation might help.
Best of all, he was obliging, decent, and up for it. He kept a diary and took notes. He thought about things. He wanted it to get better and, after a shaky start when all parties were feeling their way, it did.
Not surprisingly, the diaries contain quaint details that evoke an almost pre-internet era associated with punts and pennies and Nokia phones; McLoughlin checks Teletext to find out whether he has been picked in Ireland squads.
They also evoke an era before health and safety. One week against Swindon, Portsmouth’s 22-year-old goalkeeper collapses off the ball but he plays the final 15 minutes anyway.
“We were told not to play a ball back under any circumstances,” McLoughlin writes. He reports that cutting down on alcohol that season has brought big benefits: “I made a conscious effort to cut it out and now I just drink after a match on a Saturday.”
On BSkyB’s bid for Manchester United, McLoughlin shrewdly sees a time when money will take over the game: “My personal view is that the rich will get richer and the smaller clubs will have to to go part-time.”
He cracks the same gag to referees before every game: “Have you put your contacts in ref?” The hardest player he ever faced was Jimmy Case, formerly of Liverpool. “When he hurt you, you stayed hurt.”
Easily the best columns are those that focus less on the generally mundane details of a footballer’s life and more on the subjects that bring out his forthright side. Manchester-born to parents from Limerick and Galway, McLoughlin was not afraid to speak his mind, and some of his comments on events at Portsmouth were so candid that they would cause a serious stir in a social media age.
The first signs of real trouble emerge in early December with rumours that the players won’t be paid. McLoughlin notes that, for many footballers, sometimes wages are late: “That’s not an unusual occurrence at a club in the lower divisions.” He is worried about the situation, but has been “putting money away every week, every month”.
Still, the following week when the chairman quits things come to head. McLoughlin has a blazing row with a coach when he refuses to show up for weight training.
“Why should I after they broke their promise to pay me the money I’m owed? . . . I was dying to ring the coach and have a real go.”
He considers the awful possibility of having to uproot his family and leave the club early, before a testimonial he is due.
“Unless there is a takeover of some sort, I may have no choice.”
His Sunday Tribune column ran for 19 editions, ending at the start of 1999. Portsmouth went on to avoid relegation, just about, but McLoughlin was indeed forced to move to Wigan the following season, aged 33, in a £240,000 transfer.
He went back to live with his mum and dad in Manchester while his wife Deby and two young girls, Megan and Abby, went back to Swindon. The family didn’t live together again for 18 months.
Alan McLoughlin died this week, aged 54. He gave a lot.