Jason McAteer: ‘I missed out on a lot of things, like first day of school, birthdays’

Parenting in My Shoes: The former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland star had to make big family sacrifices during his soccer career

It was only when former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland football player Jason McAteer’s youngest two children were born that he realised quite how much he missed out on as a father, first time around.

“The difficulty with having a child when you’re playing football, certainly international football, is you’re never around to be honest”, the father-of-three says, candidly.

“You’re either away with the club or you’re away on international duty, so it was just difficult. I missed out on a lot of things, like first day of school, birthdays.”

There’s a big age gap between Jason’s eldest son Harry (22), and his two younger sons Logan (8) and Teddy (5). Jason is enjoying fatherhood second and third time around “because I was around a lot more”.


Working as an ambassador for Liverpool FC and as a football pundit means he can manage the demands of his job around family commitments.

“Most of the time I’m around to enjoy watching them grow up, take them to school, pick them up from school, watch them play football on a Saturday morning.

“Harry is a different relationship because he’s 22; he’s an adult, so the conversation is obviously different. I take him for dinner, we go for a pint. We’re probably more friends, good mates. The other two are just football mad, they’re Liverpool mad – five- and eight-year-olds are different.”

Jason split up with Harry’s mother when Harry was about 5 or 6, he says.

“I stayed very much in his life, we did co-parent and we worked around my schedule, because like I said, I was playing and it was difficult at times, messy break-ups are difficult. You’re trying to keep as much away from them as possible and you try to make their life as comfortable as you can. I struggled a lot. I struggled really, not having him about.”

The break-up coincided with the end of Jason’s playing career and he describes the period as “the darkest time”.

“When you leave and you’re out of contract, it’s like stepping into this world that you don’t know because you’ve been shadowed away from dealing with mortgages and dealing with finances and dealing with buying a car. You don’t have them friends and you don’t have to train and you don’t have anything, so you’re kind of like ‘well what do I do now’?”

There were huge mental pressures while playing too, particularly at a young age.

“I would always say, looking back, a football career is certainly, at the top, it’s very demanding and not just physically but mentally as well . . . You’ve got the country watching you, the world’s watching you. You’ve got to go out and perform at the highest level. As much as you’re physically prepared for it, are you really mentally?”

Playing for Ireland, Jason says he was lucky enough to have the friendship and support of players such as Ronnie Whelan and John Aldridge who “would put arms around you when it wasn’t going well. Playing for Liverpool is demanding – you’ve got to win otherwise you just leave the football club because you’re deemed not good enough. It’s as simple as that. But at the time you were trying to do it yourself, there was no help. There were no therapists. There were no psychologists.

“If you didn’t want to take on bad news you wouldn’t read the newspapers. You would stay in your house if you didn’t want to get abused when you were out if you lost, so that was the medicine for it. Back in the 90s it was difficult, plus the dressing room could be a very harsh place. The dressing room was brutal at times. There was no holds barred.

“Some managers are bullies. Some managers will individually point fingers out and criticise you in front of the other players and hold you accountable for defeats . . . But then I had other managers like Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy, Roy Evans, Peter Reid, you know man managers who would put their arms around you, who would ring you when you were at home and ask how you were.”

Having struggled with his mental health, Jason says he believes things are changing around the stigma associated with mental health.

“Certainly for men because obviously the bravado of being a man, it’s like you don’t want to show any sign of weakness. You don’t want to admit some things, but I think the stigma is slowly being broken down where it’s more acceptable to go and get help and more acceptable to actually come out and say that you are struggling.

“Harry was very much a comfort,” during this period, Jason says. “When I had Harry I felt really comfortable . . . we had him at weekends and stuff and I felt a sense of purpose. When you’re in your darkest times, it’s your kids that bring you around.

“It’s your kids that are the reason you’re around and you don’t want to do anything stupid because of them. You don’t want to leave them. That’s the thing that I always had at the back of my mind, when I’m feeling at my lowest, it’s them that you’re here for and it’s them that drive you through.”

Jason and his wife Lucy have been together now for 15 years and he admits that having children changed things.

“Your marriage changes. Me and Lucy were inseparable before the kids were around and we did everything together – best mates and we lived in each other’s pockets. We went away when we could. My lifestyle was great and it accommodated that. Lucy had a job but she took plenty of time off.

“But obviously as kids come along, from a fella’s point of view, you start becoming second and you know you get pushed out a little bit. I think a relationship does suffer – well ours certainly suffered, because of it.

“We kind of grew apart a little bit and we kind of stopped doing the things we enjoyed doing together. And then you’re tired all the time. And as hard as it is – I think it’s to keep the human race going – we actually forget how hard it is and then go and do it again”.

Jason wanted to have a second child with Lucy as he felt it was hard for Harry not having a sibling growing up.

“I think they need a brother or a sister, so once Logan was around it was always on my mind to have another one. Obviously Teddy came along, but your relationship suffers even more then. I think you grow apart even more and it just becomes very, very difficult . . . it was tough and we kind of had to sit down and be honest with each other and just say “listen, when we’re going to bed at night, I don’t want you on your phone and I don’t want you doing this and doing that” and she was the same with me.”

The couple made a commitment to try and spend more time together in the evenings. “It’s difficult identifying it, but when you do I think it’s important that you address it, if you want to basically stay together, so that’s what we decided we would do.”

Jason describes himself as very competitive but says that although the “winning mentality can serve you well”, sometimes “trying to win all the time is not good. My dad was ready to demand that we had to win at everything. He was from a boxing family, a sporting background, so winning at all costs, you never want to let your parents down.”

As a dad, Jason says “balance” is important.

“I think there are certain things children should have in them and installed in them, which is competitiveness and I do think winning is a good quality. I think striving to get better, winning, is a good quality, but obviously the balance of that lies with you. It’s how you treat them in defeat or if they don’t play well.

“For me, I never push my kids. I would never make them do anything. I would never individually criticise them, but I would certainly say to them, if you’re going to do something, you do it to win. You know if they lose . . . I want them to be disappointed. I want them to be sad about it. I want them to experience that. But then you know, we’ll sit down about it and we’ll say ‘listen it wasn’t your day today. It wasn’t you as an individual, I thought you did okay or you played well. Or maybe the team just needs to try a little bit harder next time.’ ”

Jason says he exposes his children to as many different sports as possible, so that they can find what they like to do.

“We just give them the opportunity and as far as being competitive, I think they need a competitive nature. I think this playing for the enjoyment, yeah they’ll enjoy it if they win.”

Jason is not the dad roaring on the sidelines though.

“I stay in the shadows,” he says.

He doesn’t believe there’s any additional pressure on his children to perform on the football pitch because of who their dad is. The boys are influenced by their dad though and they support Ireland, Jason explains.

“I enjoyed an unbelievable career with Ireland and I still class myself very much as Irish.”

For Jason, the highs of fatherhood have been the births of his children, and he reminisces about the wonderful midwife they had for Logan’s birth. Teddy’s birth was a “little bit different”, he says adding that the matron on duty “was hard work”. “She must have been an Everton fan”, he jokes.

The tiredness is Jason’s low.

“It’s unbearable. It’s where it takes you. When you see these war films that they give people sleep deprivation and they end up telling them everything, I know exactly what they mean . . . I was that tired. If you’d have said, ‘I’ll let you sleep for 24 hours if you give me your car’, I would have said, yeah!”

Parenting in My Shoes

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family