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Jim Hagan: How I beat legends like Hugo Sanchez and Gary Lineker to be Spain's top import

From a first class career in England to being honoured as the best foreign player in La Liga, yet Larne's Jim Hagan never won a Northern Ireland cap... was it a case of out of sight, out of mind?

By Jim Gracey

Thirty years after being awarded Spanish football's supreme accolade for a foreign player, Jim Hagan is still enjoying his place in the sun.

Now living permanently on the Costa del Sol, as he relaxes on his balcony overlooking the Mediterranean on the outskirts of the popular holiday resort of Fuengirola, he can reflect on one of the most remarkable, and at the same time anomalous, careers of any Northern Ireland footballer.

And yet he prefers to chat to his frequent visitors from home about modern day Irish League matters, keeping in touch by listening to BBC Radio Ulster's Sportsound programme over the internet every Saturday in the season.

Can one of his old clubs, Coleraine, keep up their title challenge, he wonders? And what of the promised financial renaissance at his first club, Larne, with whom he is most associated here? Those are his preferred topics of conversation when old football pals like Jimmy Brown and Billy McAvoy step off the plane at Malaga.

Hagan, now 61, could happily spend his semi-retirement in anonymity - not easy in a football mad country where he is constantly meeting people who saw him play, as he goes about his part-time work in property management.

He was a name in Spain at a time when the only other British footballers starring there were Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes at Barcelona.

The reminders are never far away as he strolls along the seafront to his local bar where his image smiles down from the walls of a football corner, dedicated to the greats of the Spanish game.

Hagan confides that he feels as uncomfortable now in such distinguished company as he did on his surprise landing at Celta Vigo in the late Eighties. It would be a big step in a smaller world now. Back then it was unheard of for any but the marquee players to leave English football for foreign fields.

A self-effacing theme runs through our interview and, in reality, Hagan is selling himself short.

His career as a steady, reliable, 8 out of 10 every week defender for 10 years at the top level in England and Spain deserves to be a source of immense pride.

Consider his football CV.

Born in Monkstown, he made his Irish League breakthrough in Brian Halliday's useful mid-70s Larne team of still revered names at Inver, like keeper Tom Coburn, Harry Rainey, Jim Lemon and Davy Graham.

Transferred to Jimmy Hill's Coventry City, then in the Football League's top division, in November 1977 for a fee of £25,000.

On to neighbours Birmingham City in 1982, becoming a regular in the sides both promoted to and relegated from the top flight over the next five years.

Loan spells followed in the US with Detroit Express and in the Far East with Hong Kong Seiko.

And then the great Spanish adventure, lured by Vigo's English-boss Colin Addison, who was looking for a British-style defender as the final piece in his promotion jigsaw.

Soon Hagan was playing in front of 120,000 at the Nou Camp, defeating Barcelona and Real Madrid on Vigo's home patch in the north west of Spain, taking on some of the world's best strikers and famously being voted the top foreign player in La Liga in 1988.

Some honour in a league that boasted the prolific Mexican striker Hugo Sanchez at Real Madrid, his German European Championship winning team-mate Bernd Schuster and, of course, Lineker, who never scored against Hagan in their games in Spain.

And therein lies the curious anomaly... for all his achievements and honours, Hagan was never once awarded a Northern Ireland cap. To this day he is considered by many to be our finest uncapped player.

It is his lone regret and, like the high points, one he tends not to dwell upon. Again, not easy.

"I meet people who are familiar with my career, or others who've looked me up, and the first thing they say is: 'You did all that and you never won a cap?' And, in truth, I can't give them a definitive explantion," he relates.

"I would love to have played for my country. It would have been the icing on the cake but it just didn't happen. Was it a case of out of sight, out of mind, when I was playing in Spain at a time when there wasn't any TV or media coverage like now? I don't know.

"I was called up eight times by Billy Bingham for Northern Ireland squads but always sat on the bench. Once I got warmed up to go on but then Billy was forced into a tactical change by an injury.

"Another time, Billy phoned me to say I was definitely going to start in a game against Austria in 1983. But I picked up an injury playing for Birmingham the Saturday before, Paul Ramsey came in and did really well and I was back down the pecking order again.

"To be fair, there were good players around who Billy could take his pick from, most notably Jimmy Nicholl. It just wasn't to be.

"I was named in the original squads of 40 for the '82 and '86 World Cup but didn't make the cut to 24. The first time, I injured an Achilles playing for Coventry against West Brom, and in '86 I was in the US with Detroit. Jimmy Hill had connections there and loaned out quite a few of us from Coventry."

So Hagan didn't make it to Spain '82, a disappointment shared by George Best, who was also in the original 40 but unable to prove his fitness to Bingham when the big decisions were made.

Little did a dejected Hagan realise that, six years later, he would be lauded on a Madrid stage as the country's top foreign import.

Even then, he modestly insists: "I wasn't the best foreign player in Spain, more like the most consistent that year. What happened was a national newspaper's match reporters scored every player out of 10 in every game. Points were deducted for red and yellow cards, and I only picked up one booking all season, so when the averages were calculated, I came out on top."

It added to the feeling of an unreal experience for Hagan, who found the move, with his young family, from the English Midlands to Spain's Atlantic Coast more than just a culture shock.

"I arrived expecting wall to wall sunshine but it rained for the whole of the first month," he smiles.

"The climate did become more agreeable, but I had to adjust to more than the weather, the food and the language which I learned.

"The training methods were so different to what I was used to. In England we just ran and ran. In Spain we concentrated more on ball work. We had fitness coaches and dieticians which were unheard of in England at the time. I became a much better player, and fitter too. I finished games believing I could have started another.

"I was playing against strikers like Butragueno, Sanchez and Lineker. At times I had to pinch myself and ask: 'What am I doing here?'"

There were light-hearted moments too, lost in translation, as he recalls from his first road trip with Vigo.

"We flew to games when we became established in La Liga after promotion, but at the start we would travel to away games by bus, starting out on a Friday for a game on Sunday and not get back til Tuesday," he recalls.

"On my first trip I was sitting beside a Brazilian player who spoke little English but was able to ask me: 'Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?'

"I thought, I've come all the way from Northern Ireland to be asked this, as a professional footballer, by a Brazilian, on a bus, in Spain. Bizarre. Then I discovered he was a religious guy who liked to give bibles to new players and wanted to be sure to give me the one for my faith.. it was as innocent as that!"

Manager Addison departed, but Vigo's new Spanish boss, Jose Maria Maguregui, liked Hagan's newly acquired Continental style and awarded him a contract that kept him at the club for two-and-a-half seasons, the best times of his football life, he says, and there have been many.

Not least his fun times at Birmingham. They were the original Crazy Gang, with big characters like Tony Coton, Mark Dennis, Howard Gayle and Noel Blake, and a young David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn and Julian Dicks coming through the ranks.

As a teen he had been on trial at Manchester United but a deal couldn't be worked out with the Larne board. But he still ended up on the front cover of the United programme.

Again, he laughs as he recalls: "Birmingham lost a New Year's Day match at Old Trafford, 1-0 to a Bryan Robson goal, and a friend sent me the programme from the next home game.

"I'm on the front cover, looking the commanding figure as we defended a corner. What the picture didn't show, out of shot, was Robbo stealing in on my shoulder to head the winner!"

His professional career over, aged 33 in 1989, he returned for an undistinguished spell, by his own admission, under Paul Malone at Larne before joining Swedish side IK Oddevold in May 1990.

A management spell followed at Ballymena United and he signed twice for Kenny Shiels at Carrick and Coleraine. He was also part of Roy Walker's 1995 title winning team at Crusaders, missing out on a medal by just one game.

"I played nine games; 10 would have got me a medal, but really I was only there as back-up for Glenn Dunlop and Aaron Callaghan," he accepts.

The decision to return to Spain to live seven years ago was an easy one.

"My family were grown up and away leading their own lives. I'd no ties and the appeal of Spain and the Spanish way of life was too strong. Besides, my son and two daughters said they'd rather visit me in Spain than Larne," he jokes.

They day after we chatted in midweek, Jim flew with son Jamie (34) to visit his youngest daughter, Natasha (25), in Australia over Christmas. His other daughter, Danielle (32), lives and works in England.

"I do enjoy living in Spain, the sun and the sea, and I am never short of company or football chat. There's always someone coming over from home, Jimmy Brown and Billy McAvoy are regular visitors. What a couple of characters they are.

"But I am also very conscious of not falling into the ex-pat way of life that revolves around bars. You need to be disciplined and create a work-life balance. That's why I took on the property management interest."

The regime is agreeing with a still trim and fit-looking Hagan, as our picture shows.

In the New Year, he looks forward to welcoming another old friend, the Larne chairman Gareth Clements, who is hoping to lead a revolution that takes Larne back to the top division in the Irish League, backed by local boy made good Kenny Bruce of the Purple Bricks online property market empire.

"It's an incredible story unfolding at Larne," he observes. "And no better man to deliver the dream than Gareth. It can happen. This time the backing is real. Kenny Bruce and Gareth have big plans and they are working in a structured, business-like way to make them reality.

"I believe they will get Larne into the Premier in the next two years."

And, as Hagan's own remarkable story teaches us, anything is possible in football.

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