John and David Meyler: Sporting opportunities realised and unrealised

From late night McDonald’s to games at Old Trafford - father and son have lived the dream

There’s a McDonald’s in north Wales – “up the top of the hill there”– where the staff came to know John Meyler’s order by heart. He’d land in shortly before 11 on Saturday nights and over the seasons they learned that he was heading home after watching his son play football for Hull or Sunderland. They’d always ask how the game went. A quick chat, a quicker evening meal and then he was back on the road, to the sounds of a late night disc jockey, for the 2.30am sailing from Holyhead.

David played professional football in England from 2008 to 2019. John reckons he was in the grounds for about 90 per cent of all games. He has driven the countryside on lightning tours of England’s iconic football grounds.

He once got pulled over by the traffic police while trying to find his way to Morecambe. During one strange 48 hours he was in Wembley to see Hull and Arsenal in the FA Cup final and then managed Carlow hurlers in the Leinster championship.

The stadiums around London and Manchester were a doddle to plan for. Manchester was a handy routine also. The Europa car-hire desk staff got to know him over the years. He usually hired something small and inexpensive. But when Hull were going for promotion if they beat Barnsley in 2014, they handed him the keys and said “You’ll need a special car for a day like this.” They’d bumped him up to a Range-Rover.

“Who was it you had with you one time?” David asks, groaning at the memory. “Was it Robbie Brady? And you’d a Fiat 500 or something?”

They've spent the last year collaborating on a book, written with Fintan O'Toole of the 42, chronicling how two distinct sports lives guided them both. "I'd trust him with my life," David says of his father in the early pages. "He is one of my closest friends." It's a book about John's life as a Wexford man domiciled in Cork – which is partly like being a Connecticut Yankee in the court of King Arthur – and about David's rapid journey from a promising Leaving Cert student who dropped out to pursue football and found himself playing against Manchester United just four years later. At the heart of it is what John Meyler identifies as "opportunities realised and unrealised."

“It is definitely a theme in the book,” he says.

When we talk on a Zoom call, it's a few mornings after the Liverpool-United game, which has sent tremors through Lancashire. The Meylers are fast friends with the Hendersons since David and Jordan came through at Sunderland together. But it's a former Manchester United player, Steve Bruce, who emerges as a towering figure in the book. The brutal closing to Bruce's time in charge of Newcastle has been one of the more gripping narratives of the season and it pained the Meylers to watch it unfold.

“Do you know, I was shocked and appalled to see the abuse he received,” David admits.

" Yes, I know he managed Sunderland. Was his record with Newcastle fantastic? No but it is similar to Rafa [Benitez], who is lauded as a god up there. Maybe that is because he took on Mike Ashley. But Steve Bruce is an incredible family man. He is very knowledgeable about the game. He will always ask about my dad, my wife and my kids.

“At times I find it hard to find the words for what he did for me. He was just very good to me. It was hard to see it at the end in Newcastle because it was so bitter. And I know a vast number of Newcastle players speak so highly of him. And fans there never really gave him an opportunity even though he is from Wallsend. He used to go to St James’ Park. He is one of their own, a Geordie through and through. And that was his dream job.”

John used to try and spend a week or two in Hull around Christmas, when he had time off. He’d mooch along to training, almost hiding in the shadows because technically, the sessions were closed. But when Bruce saw him, he’d always amble over. It was always “Mr Meyler”.

“I used to love Bruce because he was a father figure to David. He was courteous, friendly. He was a family man. And a really good, nice person. So it is tough to see that. It is a ruthless business.”

Education

They always knew that. It partly informed David’s decision to leave school in his Leaving Cert year. It wasn’t taken lightly. John boarded in Gormanston, attended UCC and is a lecturer by profession. Education is valued in the house. Stella, his mother, thought David dropping out was a ridiculous idea. Stella’s mother – David’s granny – wasn’t too thrilled. But the Meyler men had a conversation and figured there was no point in half-committing to football if it was a footballer he intended to become.

“In hindsight, it is madness,” David concedes.

“I know it paid off because I got my move to Sunderland in July. But really, at the time all I had was four months with Cork City. Even to this day nobody tells me what to do. I answer to no one. My dad is like that, my mum is like that, my sister Sarah is the same. Those are the decisions you make.”

At this point, his father cuts in.

“But that was an opportunity, David, that arose in that particular point in time and you have to decide to take it or not take it.”

But you have to take that chance. It is something that has to be realised. And that comes back to the character of the individual

Meyler's early steps at Sunderland might have been destabilised when then manager Roy Keane – an idol of Meyler's and later a friend – left the club at short notice. The book is fascinating on the pitfalls of those novice days, when he was trying to make his way with Henderson, who was on such a modest wage then that a night out at Nando's and the cinema was sometimes a luxury out of reach.

The offer to transfer to Hull on loan was another definitive moment. The invitation came from Bruce, who had warmed to Meyler after his two-year spell in charge at Sunderland. Exiting a Premier League club was a risk and again, the Meylers spoke about it. John was slightly anxious but David had a good feeling. It turned out to be the making of his football career.

"It is one thing to get an opportunity to go to England,” John says.

“You need to take it. At the time you wonder: is it a missed opportunity going to Hull? But next thing he is playing, he scores against Leeds, the crowd warms to him and he was on the way. But you have to take that chance. It is something that has to be realised. And that comes back to the character of the individual.”

He spent six years there. He scored in a 3-1 win over Brendan Rogers’s title-driving Liverpool side in 2013. He played in the FA Cup final in 2014. They were the best of days. His father was there for those – and for the grimmer afternoons. David suffered career-threatening injuries twice in quick succession, rupturing his ligaments at old Trafford on May 2nd, 2010 and was then stretchered off shortly after returning to first-team action against Aston Villa in January 2011. His father was there for the terrible experience against Portsmouth, in just his third ever game, when he was red carded. In a way, those were the times when his father’s presence mattered more.

“Back then I always knew he was coming. But I never understood the amount of travelling. I did the ferry in one go recently. He was doing it both ways. So I knew how long the journey was but until you do it and feel it . . . it is only then you appreciate what he did. We had the launch for the book in St Finbarr’s. It was fantastic. But I was thinking about the nights when it hasn’t gone well – when I have a bad game or we lose – and he had a 12-hour journey home.”

Sometimes they’d only meet for a few minutes after the game. “He’d be getting on the bus with a chef and a five-course meal. Sometimes he’d throw me out a bottle of water,” John laughs

David shakes his head in frustration. He’s heard this before.

“I wasn’t getting a five-course meal. There was hot food. Sometimes it was eaten, sometimes not.”

Culture of success

John Meyler was born and raised in Wexford. Almost five decades in Cork has left little impression on his accent.

“I went to UCC in ’74. And I never pretended to be a Cork person even though I played hurling for Cork and have managed all Cork hurling teams over the years. But they will not let you in and they have this pride in their own culture and their culture of success in sport.”

They just don't like losing. It hurts their pride and everything that is them.

He is absorbing and unflinching in charting his hurling life in the county: the fabulous years when he played with St Finbarr’s in their pomp; the untrammelled genius of JBM; the cool, tactical intelligence of Donal O’Grady and just the non-stop Cork-ness of it all. He got an opportunity to play senior in 1983 and felt he let it pass him by but later won his All-Ireland in 1990 as a substitute. He has coached Cork hurling teams at all grades and was manager for the wild, thrilling All-Ireland semi-final of 2018, which Limerick snatched after extra-time. It was a defeat which cut to the quick.

“They treasure the culture of success and of winning and it is a blood-red culture. They just don’t like losing. It hurts their pride and everything that is them. I lost in 2018 and I felt it: you are embarrassed and you feel you have let the county down and everyone down. The pure hurling people will come up and say thank you and we’ll go again.”

When you read about Meyler’s life in hurling, it’s a wonder how he found the energy to follow his son’s football career in England. The family had marvellous days following Ireland, particularly during the Martin O’Neill era. When O’Neill stepped away from the Ireland job, Meyler phoned him to commiserate: they chatted over everything for an hour.

And when Meyler himself retired, he got a phone call from Roy Keane and it meant more than Keane probably knew. The conclusion to his own football career is one of those timeless, familiar stories illustrating the coldly transactional side of the game: behind the songs, the emotion and the fandom is the reality of the player as commodity. Football is a wasteland of promising players who didn’t make it for colliding reasons – luck, injury, bad timing. It’s something they’ve spoken about. It’s like trying to navigate a minefield.

“You talk there about luck,” David says.

"I would say that is the right word. Football is a game of opinions. You use Jordan as an example. When Jordan was at Liverpool early on and Brendan took over there was talk of Jordan going to Fulham. The club wanted to swap with Clint Dempsey. Jordan said no. Now you look at him – went on to captain them to everything.

“It was a good decision. But there is luck too. He was nearly released from Sunderland at 15, 16. There was talk of Jordan convincing them. And he got that opportunity. But there is luck too. The real question is: do you create your own luck.”

Meyler went to Reading to play but couldn’t find a way into the team. When a new manager came in, he was surplus to requirements. He was one of eight players called into the office to be told he could leave.

Closing chapter

On the surface, it felt like an unsatisfactory closing chapter. But two years ago, Meyler spoke about the trauma he and his wife Cally experienced in 2017, when she suffered three miscarriages following the birth of their eldest girl, Alanna. The first of those occurred on the night that Ireland played Wales in a bitterly contested game in Dublin. Meyler’s way of dealing with everything was to block it out.

Sometimes, you don't think about the other things and outside what is going on at three o'clock on the Saturday.

“It is the persona that most men have. You shove it to the back of your mind and not think about it. And I got into a situation where I was just thinking about training and football and not addressing the issue. My dad was there. Should I go talk to him? I am the one who has to go to him and say I’m not right. That’s what I’d advise anyone to do in that situation. And you do see the light. Luckily for us, Cally was able to get pregnant again and we had our son Brodie.”

Curiously, it was through living in Reading that the couple came to visit a clinic which successfully diagnosed the reasons for the three miscarriages and helped the couple through a successful pregnancy. So in a strange way, for all the on-field frustrations at Reading FC, it's a move that David Meyler has never regretted. In the end, that was a consolation for his father, who fretted through those last seasons.

“Sometimes we as men say everything else looks after itself and football is the most important thing. says John. “Sometimes, you don’t think about the other things and outside what is going on at three o’clock on the Saturday. We have spoken about it since. And sure we were absolutely thrilled that Brodie was born after Alannah.”

It was a fast, brilliant decade for both Meylers. Both men are still immersed in sport. David is involved in coaching the Ireland Under-17s. Late in the afternoon, John would drive for training with Kilmoyley, the Kerry club champions. He intended jumping in the water at Banna Stand, determined to extend his autumn of sea swimming.

Things are good for the Meylers. They are content they saw the opportunities and made the right choices. Sometimes they’ll both miss the pure adrenaline of David’s football years. But not those night drives to Holyhead.

Meyler: A Family Memoir with Fintan O’Toole is published by Hero Books and is available now

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