Chris Malone stood in a hallway of Dublin’s Jury’s Hotel as Blackburn Rovers, Dundalk FC and his father thrashed out a deal for the 16-year-old to transfer to Ewood Park.
Chris Malone stood in a hallway of Dublin’s Jury’s Hotel as Blackburn Rovers, Dundalk FC and his father thrashed out a deal for the 16-year-old to transfer to Ewood Park. It was 1993 and as the St. Mary’s College boy waited, it seemed like his entire future rested on what was decided on the other side of the wall.
Picture it. He was like the condemned man. The expectant father. Scaling the roof almost, his stomach churning at a whirlwind rate. He’d played only a handful of games for Tommy Connolly’s Oriel Park B-team and yet The Lilywhites were demanding a fee for his services.
Then, the door opens. Time stands still. Out steps Bernard, his oul fella, followed by Kenny Dalglish. The Kenny Dalglish. Rovers boss and the man Malone had impressed enough for the Scot to leap the Irish Sea in order to secure the contract.
“Dalglish sorted the whole thing out for me,” the now father of three says of that fateful day.
“He told me to do my Leaving Cert - that it was important - and then come over in July.”
The deal was done.
“I’d gone over for a week on trial at Blackburn and I was only back three or four days and they called to say they wanted to sign me. But because I’d played two reserve team games for Dundalk, the club felt that they were entitled to a fee.
“Once it was thrashed out and a move was agreed, I went over every six weeks to play a game and then home again for school on Monday.”
The importance of a formal education in the arrangement, in hindsight, proved to be a very shrewd priority. At the very least it was something to fall back on and he even completed a sports management course in neighbouring Accrington during his academy spell at Rovers.
Twenty-seven years on and Malone heads his family’s insurance firm in Dundalk. He’s thankful for the study stipulation in his youth and would insist upon his eldest son, Sam, who’s 16 and on the books of Newry City, doing the same if an offer happened to arise before the expiration of his secondary school term.
Twenty-seven years have passed since the beginning of what he had hoped would be a prolonged career at the top.
Twenty-seven years, “looking back, it seems a lifetime ago”.
A lot can happen in 27 years...
“He’d a top of the range Jaguar car and I’d a little Ford Fiesta so when we’d be walking out to the car park to go to the swimming pool, it’d be like, ‘whose car are we going in, Alan?’...”
It’s only a matter of weeks since Malone spoke to The Irish Sun’s Owen Cowzer for a piece on his football self. The former full-back made a mistake in that interview which he has been reminded of constantly since. He left out somebody. No, not his wife, Ellie; nor any of his kids, Sam, Ivanna or Chris. Instead, the man he was bestman for, a close mate, Gary Callan. Better not make that mistake again.
Callan became a confidant in Malone’s Blackburn days, the two engulfing themselves in a close-knit group of Irish at the Lancashire club. Thomas Morgan, another pal, and Chris joined around the same time and so encountered similar challenges, like how to react in the company of Dalglish’s revered figure. Not that the Glaswegian could have been any more accommodating.
“We probably were a little bit homesick, but he agreed at the start that we could go home every six weeks, once we went to ask him first.
“Everyone looked up to him, so you’re knocking on his door so nervously, but he’d be really nice and have the craic with you. He loved Celtic and with us coming from Ireland, we talked about Celtic a lot. He’d then put you at ease, ‘of course you can go home’.
“He always made time for us, be it in the corridor of the training grounds, he’d always come over and see how we were doing.”
Maybe, in Malone’s case, it was because the Liverpool legend rated him so highly, viewed the Bay United graduate as a future senior player. After all, his immediate rise from Rovers’ B and A sides to the second string, which was complemented on a weekly basis by left-out first-teamers, was rapid.
Indeed, during the defender’s second campaign at Ewood Park, the season in which Rovers won the Premiership title, he was a mainstay at right-back on the reserve team. Wolverhampton Wanderers even approached with a view to a loan deal, which Blackburn rejected in favour of keeping Malone put.
“Our reserve team was pretty strong that season as they needed lads to be match sharp in case they were called into the first-team. We played Man United at Old Trafford on a Saturday afternoon, I’ll never forget, and they’d Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Ben Thornley playing. They beat us 3-1, even though we had Mike Newell, Paul Warhurst, Nicky Marker and a guy called Lee Makel on for us. There was a good enough crowd at it; it was just unreal; an unreal time.
“You were training with Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, David Batty, Tim Flowers… training with them all at the beginning of the week. It was great.
“Shearer and Sutton, they were unreal; so strong with their back to goal. Shearer would just stick his bum out, swivel and bury it, and you just couldn’t get near him. He just loved scoring goals. Sutton was a bit of a different character, but some player. That season the two of them were just on fire.”
The final day of the 1994/’95 programme saw Blackburn take their reserves to Anfield as Rovers battled Liverpool, knowing victory would see them crowned. In the end, defeat for both Dalglish’s outfit and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United gave the former title glory. The celebrations, even for Malone, were memorable.
A blow was to follow, though, as the teenager’s spell in blue and white fell from its peak.
“It was a huge shock to everybody when Dalglish moved upstairs. It just wasn’t really the same for me after that. Ray Harford took over and was a brilliant coach, one of the best coaches you could come across, but becoming a manager, it was different.
“There was a Champions League game in Russia where Graeme Le Saux and David Batty had a fight on the pitch. I don’t think it would have happened had Dalglish been there. They had respect for Ray obviously, but it was just different, and then Shearer, Batty and others started leaving. It went downhill and that’s the way it’s really gone ever since. I’ve been over a few times since and it doesn’t seem to be the same club; it was a real family club.”
Malone suffered an injury which affected the remainder of his time at Rovers, although he recalls fondly part of his period in the treatment room, in the company of a certain, lethal Geordie.
“Shearer was brilliant. Before Euro ’96, he had the double hernia the same as me and Alan Smith, the England physio, came down to Blackburn and did the rehab with him. And because I was struggling with the same injury, we did everything together.
“The first week or so after the operation, we could really only walk and swim, so the two of us and the physio would just go for walks around the training ground. He kept saying to the physio, ‘I’m going to be the leading scorer at the Euros’.
“For about five or six weeks it was just the three of us and Shearer was such a great laugh. He was really pushing it because of the Euros.
“He’d a top of the range Jaguar car and I’d a little Ford Fiesta so when we’d be walking out to the car park to go to the swimming pool, it’d be like, ‘whose car are we going in Alan?’... ‘We’ll go in yours.’ He was a great lad and that was a good time where you got to see him up close. He put in serious effort and it worked out for him.”
Big Al was right. He was the leading marksman at that summer’s championships. Unfortunately, Malone wasn’t quite as lucky. All he got was a six-month contract extension at the end of an injury-ravaged third year, after which short stints at Blackpool and Rochdale yielded little success.
Where to next?
“I got a call out of the blue from Eddie May and Tommy Connolly… It’s that long ago that we met up in the Derryhale Hotel.”
Malone had been living with future Ireland legend Shay Given in a Blackburn-based house when at Blackpool and the arrangement wasn’t especially ideal. He felt home, or Ireland at the very least, was becoming the gradual option.
Hence, when Pat Byrne got in touch regarding signing for Shamrock Rovers, the chance was grasped with both hands, his debut coming against Bohemians in a scoreless draw at Dalymount Park.
Tony Cousins was among a strong cohort of Hoops players who made him feel a part of the fabric and with a job secured at Hibernian’s Dublin branch, he agreed in principle to remain at Rovers the following season, until his phone rang…
“I got a call out of the blue from Eddie May and Tommy Connolly… It’s that long ago that we met up in the Derryhale Hotel. Eddie said he wanted me to sign; they were going to start something new and that he’d contacts in England so if things went well, you never know… he sold it to me that way.
“I agreed to go and I signed the same day as Steve Williams. Pre-season training was going well, but I’ll never forget it, a Tuesday night before we played Cork away, and Eddie comes in and says he’s going back to Brentford in a youth role. That was it. Jim McLaughlin came in and he decided to go for Tom McNulty at right-full in Cork, ‘a bit of experience’.”
Chris had got a transfer to his day-time employer’s Drogheda outlet, just so that he could give it a go with The Lilywhites. But, suddenly, he was second choice and scrapping for B-team games, along with the odd senior start in the subsidiary competitions. His demise, it appeared, was continuing.
“My son will probably give out to me for saying this, but I should’ve stayed at Rovers that season. I was out of town and doing quite well; I was loving it. But, obviously, when you get a call to go back to your hometown club, you think it’s going to be great and you want to come back. It didn’t work out, though.”
He still, however, had credit in the bank with St. Patrick’s Athletic supremo Pat Dolan, who, via a mutual acquaintance, got Malone to join the Inchicore club’s reserve squad, managed by none other than Stephen Kenny.
Gradually, he began to find his feet again and Kenny even took him to Longford Town the next year. But with The Midlanders training in Maynooth, the commute involving a cross-capital trek, Malone knocked it on the head after a season, despite his father driving him to Longford for matches in a bid to help him make the most of the energy he’d saved.
There was a stint with Home Farm, where he played alongside brother Cormac, but upon taking a job with Irish Life, Malone’s view began to circulate more intensely around off-field matters.
Paddy Winters, Paul O’Connell and particularly Seán Kierans were instrumental in coaxing the Greenwood Drive native into signing for Quay Celtic, where he played Leinster Senior League football.
For a chap whose confidence had taken a bashing in the aftermath of his Blackburn release, the Clancy Park crew “got me back enjoying the football again,” he admits.
“I had played really well and Tommy was looking at me afterwards, ‘I thought you were on the beer!’”
Fast forward a few years and Malone was out celebrating Dundalk’s 2002 FAI Cup final win over Kenny’s Bohemians. Cormac had come in as a sub in the 2-1 triumph at Tolka Park and so the family had double-reason to celebrate. And soon treble…
“We were out celebrating with the lads and Tommy Mac was there. ‘Why don’t you come back up?’ he asked. He was involved with Ollie Ralph and Martin Murray. So I went up that pre-season and did a bit of training; Martin said they’d have a look at me.
“We went down to Galway for a game and Martin Reilly, Garry Haylock... those senior lads didn’t travel because they were going to Croatia the following week for the European game.
“Now I’m absolutely terrible on buses, especially on journeys that length and I remember sitting at the back with the lads, having the craic, but I just felt awful. I went down to Tommy Mac - he was taking the team that day - and asked if he could get the bus driver to pull over. ‘I think I’m gonna get sick.’
“We pulled over, I got off and got sick. When I got back on Tommy was shaking his head at me, ‘were you on the beer last night?’ ‘Absolutely not, Tommy; travel sickness.’ He was disgusted.
“But sure didn’t I go out, score from a corner and we won 1-0. I had played really well and Tommy was looking at me afterwards, ‘I thought you were on the beer!’
“I didn’t feel too bad going back after scoring the winner… When I got back on the bus he pulled me over and says, ‘you’re going to Croatia after that’. ‘Thank God, that’s great.’ They decided to sign me.”
Democrat: “The away tie with Varteks, that was a bit of a bonkers trip, by all accounts.”
Chris: “It was a crazy trip, yeah. It ended up crazy alright. We were hammered over there.”
Democrat: “How mad?”
Chris: “It was crazy; we’d some craic... the likes of John Sharkey, Bryan McCrystal, Chris Lawless… it was a good laugh... but we were hammered like... they were some team.”
Chris got on in both legs of the 9-0 aggregate defeat, replacing John Whyte whose injury in the first meeting ensured he struggled into the return fixture at Tolka, where he, again, departed early.
It meant both Malones got game-time in Croatia, which was an especially proud occasion for their parents, Bernard and Bernita, and uncle Peter, all of whom had travelled for the game, even gaining an interview from LMFM’s Colm Corrigan in the build-up.
Indeed, the brothers’ pairing for their hometown club remains of significance to this day in that they’re just the third set of siblings to have played for The Lilywhites in Europe.
“We didn’t do anything like the Lawlors or McConvilles, but to be mentioned in that bracket sometimes is absolutely brilliant, especially when it was your hometown club you were playing for.
“We played together for Na Piarsaigh as well and I didn’t get a mention off Gerry McGee for his dream Na Piarsaigh team (Gaels tales), so I’ve been getting stick about that. It’s probably the soccer in me that didn’t get me the nod there!”
Speaking of jokes, Malone was a Dundalk player when Trevor Anderson took over.
Chris: “Trevor took over and it was just a disaster.”
Democrat: “Stating the obvious, but how big of a disaster?”
Chris: “My God. Lucky for me, I played the first five or six games and then I pulled my thigh muscle badly; a two or three month job. I was kind of around the squad but I wasn’t playing and the season sort of finished off, and I left.
“It was very strange, he didn’t say very much. Paul Curran came in and seemed to be doing a lot of the talking… I remember the first training session, a joke was passed that we’d need to get red, white and blue training kit, but it didn’t go down well…”
“You do have some regrets. I loved my time at Blackburn and I made some of my best mates over there, but you probably have some regrets. I would have liked to have played more for Dundalk than I actually did - I really had three spells there and didn’t play all that many times.
“What can you do?”
Nothing now. If football has taught Malone anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
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