WE return to our Sickness and Stigmas series. In a remarkable and forthright interview, Alan Mullery, former England, Tottenham and Fulham midfielder, recalls the most desperate time in his life
The Alan Mullery who welcomes me at the Gatwick Hilton is a radically different man to the one who once picked up a shotgun and prepared to launch both himself and his wife into the abyss.
His demeanour says so much about him. He is in ebullient form as he orders a café latte. Life for him is sweet. The mortgage on the house in Horsham has finally been paid off. He’s a pundit for Sky Sports and a match day host for both Fulham and Tottenham. He has successfully infiltrated the world of after-dinner speaking. The rest of his time he devotes to Christianity.
Right now, whilst Mullers is subjecting Premiership footballers to a caustic wit, you’re aware that if someone would only hand him a microphone, a variety show would be in progress. “Peter Crouch? Lovely lad,” says my companion. “Yeah, but he’s 6ft 7in and you could get a cigarette paper between his feet and the ground when he goes up to head a ball.”
“Carlos Tevez? If he’d refused to warm up at Tottenham in the old days, my old guv’nor Bill Nicholson would have pulled him up by the hair and kicked his backside all the way back to the dressing room.”
Another mischievous smile. “I saw one defender half an hour before kick off. I asked if he was playing. He said ‘no’, that he’d been to the dentist in midweek and was suffering from sore gums. My wife June told him:‘Sore gums? My Alan played for Tottenham with three broken ribs!’ ”
Football, or those unreservedly affiliated to it, does not encourage former players to turn on their own. The lexicon of today is emphatic: please do not “diss.” But if anyone deserves a certain degree of latitude, it’s Alan Mullery. This man is most assuredly familiar with fame, if not the fortunes handed to those who currently advertise its charms.
But there is also a recurring relationship with despair and darkness. There was a point in his life when he didn’t so much explore the depths of depression as dig out its foundations. Shortly, we will record that horrendous time in more detail, but, first, let’s build a composite picture of the person before me.
Born in London’s once troubled Notting Hill, his prowess as a midfield enforcer earned him 35 England caps, the right to play 312 times for Tottenham and on 264 occasions for Fulham. Mullery’s father dabbled in another form of enforcement: he was electrician to trade but was possibly more accomplished as a drinker and a street fighter.
His younger son’s education began when he was taught how to use a cricket bat in a fashion that would have been incompatible to a conventionalist like Denis Compton. The memories are vivid. “Blimey! How Dad never got blown up (when he was doing his job) I’ll never know. He’d be out on the piss all the time. Then he’d come home and start problems in the house.
“I remember seeing my brother pin him up against the wall. I did the same thing when I was 18. It was very sad. We had to rescue him, you know. One Sunday, he came in with blood all over his face. He told us he was going back (to the pub) that night to sort the guy out. He made it clear we were going with him.
“Now, it was all right for my brother: he was 6ft and had just come out of the Army. I would have been about 11. As we went out the door, my dad handed me a cricket bat, and says: ‘If he comes out, give him a clump.’
“So I’m standing outside the pub door and it’s just like a John Wayne movie. When the guy’s run out the door, I’ve hit him across the shins. My dad and brother have gone back in the pub, knocking back pints no doubt, and I’m just standing there with a cricket bat, wondering if I’ve broken this fella’s legs…”
The mood of exultation is temporary. “I always said to June that I was going to tell my kids that I loved them. My eldest is 42 and my youngest 38. I kiss them every time I see them. But folk didn’t do that years ago. It wasn’t a manly thing to do. Dad found that difficult.
“On the day he died, we were on holiday in Malta. We rushed back to see him. When we went into the bedroom, he was a bag of bones, bless him. He had cancer. Mum was sitting at the side of him. He asked in a whisper: ‘Who’s that at the end of the bed?’ She told him it was me. It was the only time – and it brings back tears now – he ever told me that he loved me. Every time I talk about it, I feel that emotional way. That’s why, every day, I tell my kids that I love them.”
If this is an emotional moment, there is more to come. Ultimately, it was the thought of those self-same children that persuaded their parents to pull back from the aforementioned abyss. When Mullery’s playing career went into decline, he graduated to management and had five very successful years at Brighton, before sampling the disparate disillusions of Charlton, Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers.
Confrontation seemed to mug him at every corner at this point of his managerial life. “There was debt everywhere at Palace. They even owed the window cleaner £7.50 and wouldn’t pay it. I went to QPR just after Venners (Terry Venables). Everything about the club was about him. I opened a cupboard door and there was a big coat in there. I asked one of the secretaries whose coat it was. It was Terry’s… I love him dearly, but it was an absolute nightmare taking over from him.”
In time-honoured fashion, when football declared Mullery the manager to be obsolete and discarded him like an old sock, the phone stopped ringing. What does a man do when there’s no-one listening? This one opened a sports shop in Banstead, but it went into liquidation. An alleged friend offered to take it over. That “friend” vamoosed with all the stock.
So now Mullery was in a place that those blessed with a little luck would not wish to visit. Football had deserted him: he and June had lost their lovely house in Surrey and were living in diminished circumstances. “ I just sat there and stared at walls. I mean, I shave every day, but back then, I didn’t shave for weeks. I was an absolute scruff. I didn’t want to go out anywhere.”
The various desperations formed a pinnacle when they agreed on a joint suicide. I ask him how close they came to following through. The reply is unequivocal. “Close to having a shotgun and putting it under her nose. I went upstairs and got it out of the cupboard. She was fast asleep. Yeah, it was as close as that. ‘Cos everything that you’d had before…well, the world we lived in was an entirely different place.”
What had held him back? “Something said to me at the time: ‘Don’t be stupid.’ I’m standing there with the shotgun and when I looked at her, I thought: ‘What about my kids? What are they going to do? What would they think? How would they be when this fella they looked at over the years, as strong as he was, took the easy way out?’ That’s why it changed.”
So, what did June say to him when she woke up? Had he told her what he’d intended ? “No, I hadn’t, but she was quite happy to do that (commit suicide). She told me she was not staying here in this world by herself.”
Slowly, the Mullerys fought their way onto the ladder of reason. June had discovered Christianity and accepted Jesus into her life. She encouraged Alan to do the same. He hadn’t left the house for three months and the juices of cynicism were coursing through him. Nevertheless, he attended his first meeting. “I was going to wreck the place. Of all the things I needed at that particular time, I needed this like a hole in the head.
“In the end, I found the talk very interesting and wanted to go back. Eventually, I asked Jesus to come into my life. Even I couldn’t believe it. When I walked through the door of our home one night, June said:‘ You’ve changed; you made a commitment tonight.’ Literally, it (life) became easier from there on in.”
IT’S Tuesday, November 29. Gary Speed is dead, God rest his soul. I phone Mullery, who has by now celebrated his 70th birthday. Can this septuagenarian explain the tumult in a man’s mind when he is standing in the ante-room of death?
“When you’re in this darkest of places, reason absolutely goes out of the window,” he explains. “But I can’t think of a dark place that Gary was in. When we were going through the depression, people knew about it: they could see it in our faces and how we presented ourselves. We were so low, we were just looking at our shoes, basically.
“June and I sat down and tried to work out the cause. We agreed it must have been something outside of football, but, really, it was beyond us. It was absolutely shocking. So very, very sad.”
*This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald.
PICTURE COURTESY OF: H Coppdelaney