Liam McAlinden speaks to Damian Dolan about his part in Wolves’ journey to Champions League contenders, switching from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and getting his career back on track at Stockport County
The romantic re-emergence of Wolverhampton Wanderers as a footballing giant of the English game has been one of the most extraordinary stories of recent years, and Stockport County forward Liam McAlinden can rightly lay claim to having played a part in its rise from the ashes.
Seventh in last season’s Premier League, Wolves are currently sixth in the table and into the last 16 of the Europa League.
It was a season that bubbled with possibilities – before the coronavirus struck – and could still yet deliver a grandstand finish. Only time will tell.
It’s all a far cry from McAlinden’s debut for the club in April 2013 – a 2-1 defeat to fellow Championship strugglers Burnley.
It was a loss that edged Dean Saunders’ Wolves ever closer to League One. They would not escape.
Thrown into the fray by Saunders for his professional debut with Wolves 2-0 down, for McAlinden it was very nearly a dream debut for the local boy from Cannock who’d grown up supporting the club.
Replacing Stephen Hunt, McAlinden almost scored with his first touch; curling a left-foot shot just wide.
“It would have been some introduction, but it wasn’t to be,” McAlinden told the Irish World.
“I got it on the inside of my right, shifted it on to my left, but it went just past the post.”
While McAlinden did set up Nouha Dicko to pull one back for Wolves with two minutes of normal time to go, it came too late to make a difference.
For McAlinden, who joined the club when he was seven, it was a “bitter-sweet” day.
He remembers the Wolves fans streaming on to the pitch at Molineux at the final whistle to vent their frustration at the club’s impending relegation.
They made their “feelings very well known that they didn’t want to be in the position they were in” he recalls. An “intimidating” place to be for a 19-year-old to be faced with.
“It’s one you don’t forget; there was a lot of fans on the pitch wanting to get their point across and smashing up the dugouts,” he said.
“It was a tough time to come in, but on a personal note, being local, it was great. I enjoyed it.”
He added: “The club’s back in all its glory now and it’s forgotten.”
Up until the age of 16 McAlinden was still a left back – it was only by chance that he switched to a more attacking role.
While playing for Wolves’ Under 16s, he was suddenly pulled to substitute for the club’s Under 18s – who were playing at the same time on a neighbouring pitch – when one of their forwards was injured.
McAlinden ended up scoring and kept his place for the subsequent trip to Southampton. He scored again.
“From there it just stuck – that was going to be my position and it hasn’t changed since,” he says.
Now 26, McAlinden left Wolves in 2016, but not before he helped the club take its first steps back from the abyss.
Having begun the 2013/14 season on loan at fellow League One side Shrewsbury Town, McAlinden was recalled by new Wolves manager Kenny Jackett, after finding the target a few times.
Wolves fans remember him fondly for coming off the bench to head an 81st minute winner in front of the travelling Wanderers support at MK Dons. They still remind him of it.
His first league goal for the club, it kept Wolves clear of Brentford at the top of the table and on course for the League One title.
“It was a great moment for me and one I’ll never forget,” says McAlinden.
“It was a really good season for me; I played in some important games and scored a few goals.”
He’s watched Wolves go from strength-to-strength, particularly since the current owners, Fosun, successful £45m takeover of the club from Steve Morgan in 2016.
“They’ve hit new heights that I don’t think anyone expected them to,” he said.
“They’re real Champions League contenders and one of the favourites for the Europa League. It’s amazing the difference the new owners and the players have made.
“I still support them now.”
McAlinden had already made his mark at underage with Northern Ireland by the time the Republic showed an interest in him – he represented the North at Under 16, 18 and 21 thanks to his grandfather, from Warrenpoint in Co Down.
In June 2013 it was confirmed that McAlinden had decided to switch allegiance to the Republic – his mother’s family come from Dublin – after he was named in the Northern Ireland U21 squad to play Cyprus. He withdrew.
When the approach came from the Republic, McAlinden felt “it was the right decision to make”.
However, the lengthy FIFA re-registering process meant McAlinden didn’t become available until the Republic’s final match of their Euro 2014 qualifying campaign – against Montenegro at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin in March of that year. A full ten months later.
“It was very frustrating at the time; I didn’t realise it [the process] was going to take so long,” he says.
Noel King named McAlinden in his Republic squad alongside the likes of Matt Doherty, Jack Grealish, Shane Duffy, Aidan O’Brien, John Egan and Jeff Hendrick.
With both sides vying to finish as runners up and reach the play-offs, Ireland led thanks to Doherty’s 11th minute goal. But two second half Montenegro goals in the space of three minutes turned the game.
McAlinden was immediately thrown into the fray with 12 minutes to go to try and rescue the game for Ireland, but to no avail.
One cap and 12 minutes was to be the extent of his Under 21 career for the Republic, owing to being overage for the start of the next qualifying campaign.
“I thought it was going to be big opportunity for me, but I ended up getting only one substitute appearance in the end,” said McAlinden.
The “dream” for McAlinden, who has been banging in the goals this season in the National League for Halifax Town and now Stockport, is to get back to the Football League stage, and maybe even the Championship or beyond.
“I’ve had a bit of a stumble over the last couple of years, where my career came to a standstill, but I’ve had a good season this year and hopefully I can carry it on,” he said.
“I want to prove what I’m worth and get back to the high standard I was at when I was younger.”
Promotion to League Two with Stockport would provide a “shop window” for McAlinden to remind everyone of the talents that saw him force his way into Wolves’ first-team.
After Molineux, McAlinden had spells with Exeter City and Cheltenham before dropping down into National League North last season with Brackley and Kidderminster.
But ten goals in 20 games for Halifax – in a short term move that ended in January – earned him a contract with Stockport.
He’d already found the target twice in seven appearances for Irishman Jim Gannon’s County team, including the winner in a 2-1 win at Maidenhead on the final weekend before the coronavirus saw all football suspended until 30 April.
In his third spell as manager – Gannon is now the club’s longest-serving manager.
A Stockport legend, he scored 64 goals in 505 appearances, achieving two promotions and reaching a League Cup semi-final in 1996-97, when they lost 2-1 to Middlesbrough over two legs.
London-born, Gannon moved back to Ireland with his family as a young boy. He began his managerial career with Dundalk, and returned in 2001 to help Shelbourne secure two league titles.
“He’s a really big part of the club going forwards,” says McAlinden.
Football, when it resumes, will do so with Stockport seventh in the National League, and occupying the last play-off place.
The club has carried forward the momentum of last season’s National League North title winning campaign under Gannon.
“We’re in a decent bit of form at the minute – we’re unbeaten in the last six. We want to get through the fixtures and see where it takes us,” said McAlinden.
“When the league does get going again, it’s going to be really important to hit the ground running.”
When that will be, no one really knows, of course.
Unlike other teams in the National League, Stockport remain a part-time club, operating on a three-day training week – Monday (day time), and Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
Due to the coronavris they’ve dropped Monday training.
“It’s difficult but we’re ticking over in training and hopefully that will put us in the best light for when the league does restart,” he added.
“It’s a day-by-day thing; we’re keeping fit, but there’s not much we can do. We’re just waiting.”
Although new to the club, McAlinden is already in tune with the positivity running through Stockport – a club which as recent as 1997/98 finished eighth in the Championship before a spectacular slide down the leagues, accelerated by going into administration.
While it doesn’t have the budget of some of its rivals, it is now debt free under its new owner, a local businessman, and the play-offs is the target.
“Everyone at the club is really looking forward to seeing what we can achieve this year, on the back of last year’s promotion and the takeover,” said McAlinden.
“It’s a great place to be – everyone’s been buzzing.”
And the support-base is clearly there. More than 5,000 watched the sides’ last home game at Edgeley Park – a 1-1 draw with Barnet.
“Stockport is a sleeping giant; if the club can make the next step back into the Football League it’s got the potential to kick on, and hopefully I can be a part of that,” said McAlinden.