When the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager’s job fell vacant, seven-year-old fan Ewan Mackenzie fired off his application, a lovely letter which I hope has been properly archived by the club as a cheering example of short-trousered devotion.
“It has come to my attention,” he began with politeness and sturdy handwriting, a credit to his parents and his school. Captain Richie Foran was hotly tipped for the post but, generous lad that he is, Ewan said he’d make the Irishman his No 2. “I can speak to my headmaster and see if he would be up for letting me leave class early for important matches,” he wrote. In the end, ICT gave the job to Foran.
Did they make the right choice? This is Foran on football: “It’s not the most important thing in my life.” This is the number of people in the game he thinks who, even just a few years ago, were marking him down as future management material: Zero. So how is it going so far, Richie? “Hectic. I’m missing my fishing.”
How have his results been? Inverness lost their opening Premiership game at Partick Thistle and on Tuesday were dumped out of the Betfred Cup by Alloa Athletic. Today they meet Ross County for a kind of consolation prize for Wasps-stung top-flighters or as it is traditionally known, the Highlands derby.
Lest the ICT hardcore are worried, though, they should know they have a man who loves the club to bits. This is how much: “I’m dedicated to Inverness, the team and the city. I’m going to spend the rest of my life here.” For the wild rover he used to be – and wild is most definitely the word – that’s quite something.
Foran in his playing days needed saving from himself, and not just once either. In the League of Ireland he was a rumbustious talent but couldn’t stay on the park long enough, being sent off five times in a season. Fellow Dubliner Roddy Collins gave him a chance at Carlisle United. Then when that went sour and he was almost resigned to drifting back home where he’s sure booze would have become a problem, Terry Butcher gave him another lifeline and took him to Motherwell.
To the list of saviours we should add Butcher’s wife Rita. “The story goes that Terry was in the house when he put on a DVD of my last away game for Carlisle sent up by my agent, but he only gave it the first ten minutes. He went out to walk the dog and Rita carried on watching. He came back and she said: ‘Sign that one.’ So I’ve got a lot to thank Rita for.”
How then does all of this, plus the blown chances and the court convictions, help Foran in his new role? Quite simple, really: “I’ve made all my mistakes and I’ve learned from them,” he says. “There are a lot of raw kids out there who just need someone to help them and get the best out of them. You’ll find these kids in Dublin’s innercity where I’m from and all over Scotland and England and here in Inverness. I’d be willing to sign any player who’ll learn from his mistakes. I’d take a chance on someone like Richie Foran.”
I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of Foran, 36. The club had said he wasn’t up for a big, long chat and rewinding his first public utterings in the job suggested he’d be quite circumspect, perhaps understandably, as he’s still finding his feet. But he’s got the gift of the gab, all right, delivered in a thick brogue and with a rascally smile, even if he does lapse into the third person.
After he’s briefed the local press on groin strains, we discuss pressure. When he was appointed John Hughes’ replacement Butcher pinged him the text: “Welcome to The Asylum.” Two games into his reign, Dick Campbell checked on his mental state. “Wait until you’ve done 1,300 games,” quipped the grand old man of the Scottish dugout.
Foran admits he had “a million thoughts” swimming in his head while sat in the team bus in his new position up front on the way back up the road from Alloa, although the defeat at Firhill hit him harder. “Because it was the first league game, I think. When I got home I had ten minutes sat up with the wee man [his four-year-old son Harris] and then my wife Stephanie had to put me to bed.
Now that’s not a normal Saturday night for Richie Foran. Usually I get the beers open, I get the wine open and then I’ll maybe make a wee visit to my local pub. But last Saturday I was shattered, completely drained.”
You can talk to Foran about anything and especially fishing. “I’ve fished all my life,” he says. “When I was a boy I did it with my dad in Dublin Bay. Now I’ve got myself a wee boat and I like to get out in the Moray Firth or on Loch Ness. It’s great to knock the engine off in the middle of the ocean, hear no noise apart from the water battering the side of the boat, and wait for the cod and the mackerel. I can spend six hours fishing, no bother.”
You’ll find him in tackle shops trying to lure info on the best fishing sites. “The ones I like are those out of phone-range but I couldn’t go to any of them right now, what with agents calling all the time and me still needing three new players.”
So he lives the fishing life vicariously by seeking out the anglers in the Inverness dressing-room and listening to their tales. “Our goalie Fonners [Owain Fon Williams] is a sea fisherman from the Welsh valleys and Dave Raven is a fly fisherman. Dave’s a fancy fisherman, feathers covering his cap and all the best gear. Me, I’m from the rough-and-tumble school: cutting the heads off, gutting on the boat, blood everywhere.”
This sounds like some of Foran’s football matches from the bad-boy days. Or maybe his Gaelic football matches because this was his first love. That’s the ball game where, between two uprights or into a net, you can kick or punch goals. Or indeed opposition players. “I played in a few hairy games, like the time a great row erupted. I was 17, playing for my dad’s team O’Connell Boys with my brother Steven and my cousins. We were the only inner- city Gaelic team, everyone on the outskirts hated us and we hated them back. Suddenly it was 15 boys were going against 15.
“Luckily I was getting better of my lad when I got this whack on the head. It was the boy’s mum – she’d battered me with her umbrella.”
So Gaelic is just organised thuggery then? “It used to be. The refs would say ‘Now then, lads,’ break up good-going fights, but never send you off. If Gaelic had been professional I’d have played it rather than football. It’s a fantastic sport, still not pro, but the players are much fitter these days and my team, the Dubs, are doing well.”
Dad Paddy, a truck driver, and his wife Mary raised six kids in Dublin’s East Wall, a tough area with no grass for Foran’s kickabouts so he and his pals played on the road. “And always some boys from other areas would try to steal your ball so we’d end up fighting them. East Wall definitely toughened me up.
“There were loads of vultures who’d take advantage and loads of carry-on. If you weren’t tough enough there wouldn’t be great times for you.”
Foran worked in an slaughterhouse and on a building site. “If football hadn’t have happened for me I’d have ended up in a physical job and that would have been fine.” But football did happen and at Shelbourne he was a dynamic young goal-grabber for slow-turning defenders to fear. “I was flying but centre-halves were told to wind me up. They’d punch me in the ribs and stand on my heels. I was taught at Gaelic: ‘Thump me and I’ll thump you even harder.’ But [in football] I kept getting caught. For a striker to be sent off five times in one season was quite a lot. So I got a reputation as a wild boy.”
Future Hibernian manager Pat Fenlon was his captain. “Pat tried to help me and so did the referees but they can’t see everything that happens.” Foran wasn’t always sinned against first. First game of the campaign after those five reds he got his retaliation in early, with the inevitable result of another dismissal. “After that the manager and the owner decided they needed to get me out of Ireland.”
The boy could play: goals in both legs against Rosenborg in a Champions League qualifier and the League of Ireland’s top youngster commendation proved that. So who would take a chance on him? Ebbe Skovdahl’s Aberdeen thought they might, only to back off after he broke a Republic of Ireland under-21s curfew. Earlier he’d walked out on a trial at Middlesbrough without telling them.
The funny thing about Foran at that time was he’d come to football with no self-confidence. “None of my family had any but the game gave me mine.” Maybe too much of it, though, for his problems continued at Carlisle. There was a rammy with stewards at Lincoln City after Foran had been sent off and his team, leading one-nil, were down to eight men and Lincoln to ten. When Lincoln missed a penalty our man celebrated too enthusiastically. Foran and his chairman, also Irish, were charged with threatening behaviour. “We were stitched up,” he says. “Two Irishmen in an English court – we were never going to win that one.”
Foran was sentenced to 200 hours’ community service. “I coached kids who weren’t doing great at school.” There was more community service for a nightclub scuffle. “I didn’t start it – this guy poured drink over me.” Carlisle, though, was coming to a pretty sorry end for Foran. The club were Conference-bound and Foran thought it might be a return to Ireland for him. “But I didn’t want to go back. That would have been me in the old routine of Gaelic, my mates, red cards and the local pub being too near at hand. I thought drink was going to be a problem.”
Enter, then, Butcher or rather the Butchers. “Terry took a chance on me when no one else would.” Deepest Lanarkshire was slightly less picturesque than the place he now calls home forever but that didn’t bother him over much. “I come from the inner city, I could go anywhere. I don’t need five-star hotels or fancy new flats.
“Mind you, my first house was ant-infested. Even Richie Foran couldn’t live there!”
Aware of his chaotic, combustible reputation, his new team-mates started out wary of him. Half the Carlisle team were Irish which helped him settle there; the process took longer at Fir Park. “I don’t think I spoke for the first three months. We were on a night out and the guys asked: ‘When are you going to explode?’ They thought I was a nutcase and I couldn’t deny that I had been. But I didn’t want to ruin what was probably my last chance to make it in the UK. I had some great times at Motherwell and maybe played the football of my life there. Then I moved to Southend and wished I hadn’t.”
Butcher switched to Sydney FC but, when the manager returned to Scotland and Caley Thistle, Foran knew he’d get a call to join him in the Highlands and it came right away. “Terry and I had a great relationship. It was more than manager-player, we were very close. But, saying that, I probably fell out with him more than any of the other players at Inverness. We clashed a fair bit. I’d lose the head, speak before I thought. Obviously he won those rows. He knew how to intimidate!”
Foran admits that already he’s borrowed some of his mentor’s techniques. “There have been times, maybe when I’ve thought someone’s not been pulling his weight, when I’ve wondered whether to tear into the guy or give him a cuddle and I’ve asked myself: ‘What would Butcher have done?’ I’m new to this and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Terry’s a great man-manager. In his team talks when he was here he made us all feel like top, top players. We never knew what he’d do next. He could go from asking ‘Which dog do you think most reflects your personality?’ to quoting Churchill to telling us about the Roman warriors. Terry is still very well liked at this club and I don’t mind admitting I’ve ripped him off.”
The new man has also learned from John Hughes, who quit after a row with the board over his player budget. “There are big characters in the dressing-room and the club needed a manager with presence. John definitely had that.” Hughes’ legend is assured having steered Inverness to the Scottish Cup. Foran, long-term injured, didn’t play in the triumph over Falkirk, which you think must have hurt, but his answer is maybe an illustration of his new-found maturity. “It was a cup final, it was a knee injury, it wasn’t cancer,” he says. “Of course I would like to have played but it wasn’t devastating.
“Listen, I’m blessed. I had people looking out for me in my career and now I’ve got to try to do that. I’m fortunate that I’ve landed up in a wonderful part of the world and that I’ve met a beautiful woman.” I refer him back to an old questionnaire: “How romantic are you? Foran: ‘A girl would be lucky if I took her to my local pub and bought her a pint of Guinness’.” Presumably this wasn’t how he wooed local girl Stephanie. “No, I’d improved since then! We got together seven years ago, lucky for me, and settled right down.” The couple also have a five-month-old daughter, Vegas.
Foran repeats: he ain’t leaving Inversnecky. “I love the way of life here. There are no traffic jams, no queues. You meet a very nice person in the Highlands. They’re polite and reserved and don’t like to burden you.” Hang on, you think: Foran was in Carlisle, Motherwell and Southend before – none of them exactly a teeming metropolis. Ah, but perhaps previously everything was hectic inside his head. “My family’s my life. What’s best for them is staying here. My wife has a beauty salon which does very well so Inverness is great for all of us.”
He might seem like the opposite of the thrusting young manager always in a tearing hurry to get someplace. But this is a man whose harum-scarum days as a player threatened to destroy his career long before he found contentment at the end of the A9. A quieter time of it was probably vital to his well-being. But don’t confuse that with lack of ambition.
“I’m at a great club in a great city with great people round about me. For my first job in management I’m extremely fortunate. Do I want to get Inverness back to cup finals? Of course I do. And I want them to go out on the park and express themselves because I probably didn’t enjoy my football as much as I should have done because I would beat myself up so much.”
Management, as he’s discovered already, isn’t stress-free.
So what he’d really love are three points today, followed by six hours on his boat.