DAVE LANGAN winces and rolls up the right leg of his jeans. He surveys the scar. It’s clean and neat but four weeks after knee-replacement surgery his leg remains a bulging swell.
“I’ve never experienced pain like it,” says the former Ireland international looking up, then worriedly looking down again.
“I’m on painkillers to help me sleep. I can’t even turn in the bed. I’ve asked people who have had it done before. They said the first four weeks are the worst. Really painful.”
Langan speaks low in a soft voice. At 55, he is a veteran of the beautiful game; only the game has left him with ugly injuries. He’s the ex-footballer with the worst set of knees in the business; he’s the guy Jack Charlton controversially dropped when Ireland qualified for the Euros in ’88.
Standing in his kitchen, on crutches, making tea, it’s hard to picture Dave Langan marking the great Maradona in 1980, when Ireland played Argentina in Dublin.
Lansdowne Road was full that afternoon and there was Langan steaming into Diego at 100 miles per hour, knocking him to the ground.
“Well, Eoin Hand said to let him know he was in a game,” he smiles.
“I remember, the ball broke and I clattered into him. Maradona looked at me as if to say: ‘Is that the best you got?’ “I thought: ‘I’m in trouble here.’ But there had been a rugby match the Saturday before and the grass was still a bit long so anytime he went running he couldn’t get away with the ball.
“They won one-nil but he didn’t score. I remember we shook hands after and he gave me a smile. It was a highlight of my career, the best player I have ever marked.
“You know, if I give a talk in any school, the students will always ask: ‘Who is the best player you have played against?’ It’s strange to hear myself say ‘it was Maradona’…their eyes light up.”
“‘YOU PLAYED AGAINST MARADONA?’” He leans back into his chair and smiles.
Dave Langan served his apprenticeship under Brian Clough at Derby County after signing from Cherry Orchard in 1973. He was player of the year in the 1977-78 season; won promotion to the old first division with Oxford United in ’85 and lifted a League Cup there the following season beside John Aldridge and Ray Houghton. Langan once beat Pat Jennings from 30 yards – “one of my heroes” – and was tutored in the finer points of the game by players like Colin Todd and Charlie George … yet his knees and Euro ’88 remain in the foreground.
Langan’s world unfurled during that tournament. He had been ever-present during the qualifying campaign but there was no phone call. No second chance. Silence followed team selection, then a feeling of rejection.
Langan isn’t bitter. He’s just disappointed. Still.
His mam lived so close to Lansdowne Road Langan could almost hear the grass grow. He always dreamed about moving from the terraces and onto the pitch and Cherry Orchard was the vehicle that would get him there.
He was part of a team that swept all before them when he was a youth and graduated to a Derby County team that was then a giant of the game. Derby won the old Division One title in 1972 and would do so again in 1975.
It is where he learnt the fundamentals of the game, where Brian Clough shaped him. “We used to play six-a-side matches. ‘Keep the ball’ that’s what Clough called it,” he says.
“If you gave it away, he’d come over with a brush and tell you to go sweep the stands or go down and sweep out his office.
“He used to call me the Irishman … he was very good to me. My mother loved him because he used to send her a bunch of flowers at Christmas time. He was strict though; if he gave you a rollicking you know you were getting one. Then, we’d lose a match, you’d be thinking we were in for it and he’d come along and praise you for doing one good thing on the pitch.
“I’d see him rip into superstars. They’d be there with their heads down and other times he’d lift them. He was a great man manager, a brilliant man manager. People said we were in fear but it was total respect. He’d come out with these one-liners and he’d crack you up. I remember there was a sign in the dressing room that read ‘the biggest crime in football is to give the ball to the opposition’. That was Clough. He taught me how to play the game.”
Dave Langan is living on the outskirts of Peterborough now in a quiet housing estate. You wonder, does he have Maradona’s shirt hidden in a drawer somewhere, but he explains that it was Don Given’s testimonial that night and Don had asked Argentina’s Alberto Tarantini for it.
There was no souvenir and there would never be a testimonial, despite the fact the full-back had broken the watermark of entitlement – 26 international caps.
He didn’t think they’d lead him to Peterborough, where his football career finished, where the stark reality of retirement left Langan working as car park attendant on a wage of £112 a week.
“I struggled for a long time,” he says. “You had a standard of living and all of a sudden it drops. I hadn’t much money at all. I had savings but they were dwindling away. I had personal problems too. They started at Birmingham when I was injured. I was getting loads of cortisone injections. My knee kept swelling up. But they’d give me cortisone and it would go down. I’d go out and play and it would swell up again.”
Langan didn’t realise the damage he was doing to his joints. He says the clubs didn’t really know either. He was no good to anyone injured, but even then, he remembers finding time away from the game difficult to handle.
“In Birmingham I turned to the drink when I was out injured. I’d get myself into an awful state. I couldn’t go without a drink. It was morning noon and night, the lowest point in my life. I was breaking down in tears. I couldn’t make it to the toilet … I was going to the toilet in my trousers because I was so drunk, lying on the floor because of the pain. It was an awful time.”
Dave Langan can look back at that period now and make peace with the craziness of it all. It was a different kind of pain to that which he is suffering now. Today in the kitchen there’s room for humour. He refers back to his recent operation and the surgeon telling him: ‘Come on now Mr Langan. Get up please. Stand up.’
He was out of the bed hours after a plastic knee-joint had been lumped into his leg.
‘Bend it. Lean on it. Test it,’ they ordered. Langan thought his knee was going to explode.
“You could have fried an egg on it with the heat,” he says and he moves away in the direction of the sitting room: “Can you bring the tea in?”
Langan’s affection for the clubs he played for in England is sincere. He refers to them like old friends and the feeling is mutual. A rare appearance back at Oxford or Birmingham or Derby usually finishes with him being swamped by supporters.
They want him to get better, he gave them good memories. His own are a source of strength. Langan remembers the League Cup he won with Oxford in ’86, looking out the window of the bus as it went up Wembley Way and the simple joy of picking out his sisters among a crowd of thousands, and they him.
He remembers standing in the tunnel before kick-off and his legs turning to jelly when he heard the roar. Then getting it together to lift the cup.
They were special moments and every second spent wearing the green of Ireland was special too.
The journey he undertook was always destined to finish in international caps and while Dave Langan was a nervous debutant, he drew strength from the management style of John Giles.
Under Eoin Hand he blossomed, but suffered the collective heartbreak of failing to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, on goal difference.
He didn’t think that feeling could get worse. He was wrong. After the amazing high of qualifying for Euro ’88, Langan was dropped, even though is knee problems were in check. He enjoyed a solid qualifying campaign, picking up a man of the match award against Scotland and was the type of experienced player expected to contribute handsomely at the tournament in Germany.
Instead, he watched his former Oxford teammate Ray Houghton scoring against England from his mother’s house in the shadows of Lansdowne Road.
“Jack didn’t want me. He left me out. That’s fair enough, but I’ll tell you being out of that championship broke my heart. Not being told was the thing that hurt most. When it came to naming the squad, Jack didn’t even bother to pick the phone up. I was shocked that he couldn’t be bothered to tell me I was left out.
“Ireland were playing Poland in a friendly in Dublin before they went away. I went to Lansdowne. I saw Jack. He said: ‘I’m sorry. I lost your phone number.’
I didn’t say anything, I thought, ‘I’m not listening to this.’ It destroyed me. It was my country and I broke down.
“I stayed in my mother’s house for that tournament. I really hoped they’d do well and they did do well. I enjoyed Ray’s goal and Ronnie’s too, I’m proud to be Irish and I was thinking I should have been there. I remember my mother saying: ‘You are not with us Dave’ …I got very upset at times.”
Some years later, Langan met Charlton at John Aldridge’s Testimonial.
“He came over to me and shook my hand. He never mentioned anything, just asked me how I was. I said ‘Yeah, I’m grand.’ It was quite a brief conversation then he went down to his table and I went down to mine. We didn’t speak again and I don’t think I can ever forgive Jack for the way I was left out.”
Dave Langan is registered disabled. It’s surreal that an athlete who once held his own against the best in the world can fall so hard. It’s taken an effort to get-up, the love of partner Dawn, to whom he feels indebted, the strength of family ties in Ireland and Britain and the good will of people he never met. He is staggered by it.
Some of it’s to do with his vulnerability, warmth and sincerity. More of it is to do with the selfless way he sacrificed his body under the banner of club and country. But the way he sees it, he’s just a regular guy that fell on hard times. He could be anybody and still can’t quite figure why everybody wants to help.
He talks about his good friend in Dublin, Con Meehan, a guy he never met, but who took it upon himself to kick-start a benefit night in his name. For this, Langan will always be indebted.
He talks about good times in Oxford, the many days he came out of the ground after a game and went for a pint with supporters who were regular guys just like him: “Come on Langey,” they’d shout. “You’ll come in for one, just for one.”
He talks about his three children, Dawn, his mum and his sisters in Dublin and how they check with him every day, sometimes twice a day.
He talks about a new book – Running Through Walls – being written by Trevor Keane about his life. It will be released in September. He wonders how it might go and how he’ll he get around.
He worries about the future, about his job making coffees and teas in for the Mayor in Peterborough Town Hall; whether the job will still be there when all this is done.
Because you’d still fry an egg on that right knee of his, and the left one has to be replaced yet.