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Football: McAteer: I was never a Spice Boy but Robbie Fowler could have been. He would be Ugly Spice!; Now and then.

Byline: Simon BIRD

JASON McAteer returns to Anfield tomorrow convinced the Spice Boys image helped end his Liverpool career.

The Sunderland midfielder was one of the Liverpool stars who won the infamous nickname because of their good looks and love for nights on the town.

But McAteer reckons the label did him no favours when Gerard Houllier took over and began his Anfield revolution.

McAteer, David James, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Phil Babb and Jamie Redknapp were branded football's answer to the Spice Girls.

Now the 30-year-old, in his first Premiership game back at the club he supports, is ready to make them pay for the decision to ship him out to Blackburn Rovers. McAteer, still best pals with Fowler and Redknapp, said: "The Spice Boys tag did me no favours at all.

"Gerard Houllier came in and wanted to change things around and get players he knew he could manage.

"I think there were lads at Liverpool at that time he thought he could not manage. They were pushed out, or moved on.

"In reality we were not the Spice Boys, although Robbie Fowler could have been Ugly Spice.

"The fact is we were a very professional bunch of lads and didn't deserve the reputation that the nickname gave us. We got it because people saw us as under-achievers who liked to go out.

"There was a social culture in football at the time. We were doing nothing more than the players at Arsenal or Manchester United. Gerard wanted to change that side and bring in lads, mainly foreign lads, who had been taught differently from a young age and were not so used to the social side."

McAteer recalls his four years at Anfield as the most enjoyable of his career, adding: "The only bad day was when I left. Gerard said I was only going to be a squad player.

"My heart said stick it out and stay, but my head knew I should join Brian Kidd at Blackburn."

McAteer's stay at Blackburn went sour after Graeme Souness froze him out of the first team but he's been a revelation for Peter Reid.

"Going back to Anfield this weekend will be very special for me," he said. "Being a Liverpool fan I will be emotional. I love the club. I haven't been back to watch them since I left and have not played a competitive game there so it will be an odd feeling.

"I am still mates with Robbie Fowler and he'll be getting a 3am alarm call on Sunday morning before the game."

McAteer has now seen Fowler and new team-mate Kevin Phillips close up and reckons England should take both to the World Cup.

He added: "There was a time at Liverpool when Robbie could do no wrong. He's the best I have ever played with. But when I came here and saw Kevin Phillips I realised they are identical. People say they are fighting for the same place in the England squad but there should be room for both. With the runs they make and goals they score you just can't split them."

McAteer has told rejuvenated Sunderland to expect a backlash from Liverpool after their humiliation against Barcelona.

"The team will be different, but the lads who come in will not be happy they didn't play in the big one in midweek and will be up for it."

Manager Reid has challenged his stars to live up to the high standards they set in beating Leeds last weekend by getting a result at Anfield. The Black Cats' boss is still chasing Rangers star Claudio Reyna and has lodged a pounds 3.5million bid.

Rangers chairman David Murray insists he is going nowhere but Reid is determined to land his man and said: "I am interested in him and it has been made known to me that he wants to play in the Premier League."

CAPTION(S):

WHAT A PLAYER: Guitarist Jason; McAteer in his new Sunderland kit (left) and (right) in his days at Anfield with Robbie Fowler
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 24, 2001
Words:676
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