Luck of the Irish

Tuesday 12 February 2002

Steve Finnan may not be a household name yet but the Fulham defender has come a long way since a rejection from Crystal Palace almost dumped him on football's scrap heap nine years ago.

The 25-year-old has been in sparkling form for the Premiership side this season and his assured performances have attracted appreciative glances from several managers.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, is thought to rate the rightback highly.

He has made no approach, but is said to want him to replace Phil Neville, probably his team's weakest link.

Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy also appears to be on the verge of making him his first choice in that position for his country's World Cup finals campaign this summer.

But as Finnan prepares to press his case for the Irish in their friendly against Russia at Lansdowne Road in Dublin tomorrow, he knows how lucky he is to have got this far.

He said: "I was with Palace as a boy but they released me at 16 and I thought that might be my last chance of doing anything in the game.

"If Welling had not been starting their first year of taking on YTS players then I don't know what I would have done.

"They were my last option and if it had not come off with them I'd have probably gone to college and got a trade."

As it was, Finnan learned his trade amid the rough and tumble of the Conference.

He was playing as a midfielder then and caught the eye of bargain-hunter Barry Fry, who signed him as a teenager for Birmingham for £100,000 in 1995.

The move didn't entirely work out and Finnan was loaned out to Notts County and eventually earned himself a £300,000 transfer in 1996.

During his stay at the County Ground, the Limerick-born player was called up for Ireland's Under-21 squad.

At the time he thought nothing of giving up his qualification to play for England, where he has lived most of his life, as his chances of doing so seemed slim.

He was playing in Division Two and could not have predicted that he would be transferred to Fulham during one of their most exciting periods.

Finnan made that £600,000 move in 1998 when Kevin Keegan was in charge and after helping them achieve two promotions, he has been converted into a right-back by manager Jean Tigana.

In his new role he has proved safe defensively, dealing well with the Premiership's top wide men including Ryan Giggs, Harry Kewell and Robert Pires, and been impressive going forward.

Had he retained his qualification to play for England it might not have been just Ferguson looking to him as the way of improving his defence.

But Finnan said: "I was 19 when I was called up and it was a great chance for me. I have never regretted my decision.

"I have never once thought that if I had waited I could have played for England, even though people have mentioned it to me."

Even as a young Second Division player, Finnan says he always believed he was capable of doing well but the success he is experiencing now was something he only dreamed about.

A lot of credit must go to Tigana for converting him into a full-back but a knee injury to Tottenham's Stephen Carr also opened the way for him to claim a place in Ireland's squad heading for Japan and South Korea in May.

Finnan added: "You concentrate on your club football at this stage of the season but as the finals get closer there is more talk about it and it is in the back of your mind.

"The thought of playing in the World Cup can give you that bit extra in your game but the main thing is to look after yourself and stay in form."