JOHN O’KANE was known as ‘The Spaceman’ because he always seemed to be out there on his own planet.
Sir Alex Ferguson told him he had more ability than Gary Neville but would slap him on the head before games because he often seemed so distant.
After he left Manchester United for Everton, boss Walter Smith bumped into him in a Goodison corridor and said: “Oh, you’re the lazy b, aren’t you?”
Last year, Neville had a Twitter spat with his fellow Class of ’92 member, declaring that O’Kane was wasting his time waging war on United’s owners, the Glazers.
Neville tweeted: “Are there 2 John O’Kanes?
“The one I knew that cowered at the thought of giving his all for the club and was unprofessional whilst wearing the shirt.
“And this one who is a Twitter warrior and represents the fans with all his heart. Can’t be the same bloke surely!”
O’Kane is indeed the same bloke.
It is just that he was never the bloke that Neville, Fergie, Smith and all the others who criticised him for lacking focus and wasting his talent, thought he was.
O’Kane is autistic and, until now, has never made that public.
He has just retired after 15 years working with disadvantaged kids because he also suffers from stage four kidney disease.
There is a danger that, like former United star Andy Cole two years ago, a kidney transplant may be needed to save his life.
Yet O’Kane, 45, insisted he has never been happier.
He said: “They’ve got me on pills for my kidney condition and everything is under control.
“What was never under control when I was playing was my mental state because of autism.
“My team-mates would call me The Spaceman, because at times I seemed a bit detached.
“And Sir Alex — in a good way — would whack me to get me going. There was a battle with Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest to sign me when I was 15.
“I came from Nottingham but Sir Alex got me after he invited me to his home.
“There was this surreal experience of us having a game of snooker together before we went to a game against Arsenal.
“He always liked me, always said ‘Come on, you are my best right-back — go out and prove it’.
“And I knew I was more gifted than most but I was never as committed because I was constantly battling things in my head.
“All my managers and team-mates knew there was something ‘different’ about me.
“I always knew I was autistic but I just tried to get on with it.
“But it was always such a mental drain. Nobody knew what I was really going through.
“Howard Kendall signed me for Everton in 1998, then got sacked and Walter Smith took over.
“By then I had the reputation of being too laid back, not committed enough, not hungry enough and Smith made his feelings clear.
“We never got on and he got rid of me as soon as he could.
“I never said there was pressure in my brain as well as on my body — I was just ‘lazy’ John O’Kane who threw his career away.”
The former right-back ended that career at non–league Hyde.
He quit the game in 2006 and is now writing his autobiography.
O’Kane added: “Had I been able to be more emotionally committed, I might have been winning the 1999 Treble.
“But I spent 15 years working with kids in the care sector.
“They are my medals and I’m prouder of the work I did helping those poor youngsters than anything I ever did in the game.
“I’m speaking out now about my autism because, if that helps one other person suffering in silence, then that will make me prouder still of my life.”