Soccer: The greatest save of his life

By Michael Brown

It is four years, seven months and 18 days since Michael Utting last had a drink.

It's a date the 36-year-old rattles off like it's a simple equation but, given what has happened, it's understandable June 30, 2002 is etched in his consciousness.

He had been in camp with the All Whites as they played Scottish club side Dunfermline a week before the Oceania Nations Cup but, on the first night the players were given time off, Utting got drunk... again.

He was cut from the team next morning and has never added to his 19 international appearances.

"It was the day I said I would never drink again and I haven't come close," Utting says as he sips a juice.

"It was the lowest point of my life, getting kicked out of the All Whites, but it was the high point as well because it turned my life around. I wasn't happy with my life and I probably wouldn't be alive today if I hadn't stopped drinking. I had wanted to stop drinking for years, I just needed something to force the issue."

His problem first became public at the 1999 Confederations Cup in Mexico, when he was dropped for a game for breaking team curfew. It was little surprise, then, that he got into more trouble in 2002.

Nearly five years later, the rehabilitation of Michael Utting seems complete. He is still irreverent (what goalkeeper isn't?) but he is happy and contented.

He is engaged to a Scottish woman he met on the street just over a year ago, works as an account manager for a graphics company and is still frustrating opposition strikers.

Wellington coach Mick Waitt, All Whites coach when Utting was axed in 2002, said recently his former charge was playing the best football of his career.

It is this form that has helped Waitakere United lead the NZFC. Although he has missed the past three games because of injury, he returns to the squad today to take on cross-town rivals Auckland City.

It wouldn't be a surprise if these two lined up again in next month's NZFC final and it also wouldn't be a surprise if Utting then called time, finally, on his long and colourful career.

"I would dearly love to see us beat Auckland in the final," he says. "I believe I'm on a journey and it would be a nice way to finish it all by beating them in the final. But I don't know about next season because at the moment, I love being a part of it."

It's wise not to expect Utting to retire and he is careful not to declare his intentions. He's announced it and threatened it so many times he could be cast as the boy who cried wolf. But this personality trait is part of what makes Utting unique.

He engages and divides people in equal measure because he's such a straight-talker.

For too long, he says, he tried to be everything to everyone and it's part of the reason he became an alcoholic. He found it hard to say no.

"I don't have a lot of friends from football, I have a lot of acquaintances," he says. "Drinking was the way I fitted in with people but there are a lot of shallow people out there.

"I remember when I broke my neck [in a car crash in South Africa in 1995] some of the people I thought were my best mates never came to visit me in hospital. I was there for eight weeks. I couldn't believe it.

"I thought I was a good friend who would do anything for a mate but I have been let down by people. I was also dodgy and would often lie, especially about my drinking. Now I'm pretty honest and I don't take short-cuts in life, and some people don't like that."

Waitakere chief executive Bill MacGowan has enormous respect for Utting. The former New Zealand Soccer boss was the one who decided to axe the goalkeeper from the All Whites in 2002, a decision that gave him no pleasure.

It was a wholly better experience signing him to Waitakere's squad for the current season.

"Michael has certainly come a long way since 2002," MacGowan explains. "He's probably at the twilight of his career and he probably wants to prove something. He wants to win. He has some very clear goals and he wants to win the league with Waitakere.

"He's a lot calmer than he used to be and he's very focused. The larrikin days are well gone."

There are still many who expect to find the Utting of old, and he's come to accept there will always be people who check what is in his glass or try to buy him a beer ("the bastards never used to do it when I was drinking," he says). But as his career comes to an end, Utting has afforded time to reflect on the journey he has been on.

"I know if I had stayed sober over the years I would have gone places [in football]," he says. "It's not until now that I believe that I could have played anywhere, I could have done what Wynton [Rufer] did.

"People say to me I have done so much but I think I have been the biggest underachiever in the world. I had all of the talent but I haven't used it."

Except for those four years, seven months and 18 days. That's one hell of an achievement.


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