The above is a phrase used by my ex school language teacher John who accompanied some of his now middle – aged pupils on an away Northern Ireland trip to Iceland in 2007. He was gazing around at the lunar landscape from the volcanic warmth of the Blue Lagoon. The full version in all its glory was as follows “This morning I was standing on the King’s Road in Belfast at a quarter to seven – now I’m at the edge of the world”.
An interesting journey certainly – but hopefully you’ll find his journey from his first football game in 1948 to the present day equally as interesting. Please join me.
HM: So John – take us back to 1948 and your first introduction to football.
“My father was a Cliftonville fan though not a fanatic and he took me along. He liked the underdogs and Cliftonville were amateurs. As a six year old I had never seen men run around in shorts before. I think my first game might have been on St. Patrick’s day when the Irish League played their annual game against the League of Ireland. Shortly after I was taken to my first rugby game but knowing nothing I couldn’t get my head around the shape of the ball. Was it meant to be oval as it appeared or was it a bad shaped football? I found it boring and found football fascinating. I played my first game for the school in September and was even more hooked.
My first Irish League game was the infamous Christmas 1948 game at Windsor Park between Linfield and Belfast Celtic when Jimmy Jones was attacked by the crowd and had his leg broken. I can’t remember that but do remember Celtic scoring a penalty with about five minutes to go at the Railway end. Harry Walker scored it – he ran a newsagents outside Dundonald cemetery and was related to Mike Gibson the international rugby player. Linfield equalised through Billy Simpson who was later to star in the NI 1958 side.
I also remember clearly in 1949 being on holiday in Portrush as a small boy playing football against Don Revie of Leicester City who happened to be staying in the Northern Counties hotel. The team were there for some reason after the FA Cup final against Wolves. Imagine that…the future manager of Leeds and England. I have a picture of him somewhere in the roofspace with him holding the ball – ‘Best Wishes, Don Revie’. When I taught in York years later I used to watch Leeds in their heyday and it’s funny in football how things come round again.”
HM: When was your first NI match?
“That would have been in March 1949 against Wales. There weren’t many Northern Ireland matches to go to in those days but I remember being impressed by the Welsh goalkeeper who was called Hughes I think, who plucked the ball out of the air with great authority. I think our keeper was called Cecil Moore who played for Glentoran.
We never expected to win so I knew even then we were always underdogs. It was usually a case of would we lose 2-0 or even 7-0 and to a degree we went to see the opposition as there was no TV in those days. So this was the only chance to see the likes of Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and some of the famous Scottish players. In those days the team was picked by a committee of suits and blazers, and if there was any sort of a manager he would have had no time with the team.”
HM: So how often did you go to games?
“By the early fifties usually every fortnight to see Cliftonville with my Dad and brother Martin. Cliftonville usually finished last and had to apply for re- election. I remember Kevin McGarry who scored a lot and who was a doctor and I think was the first Ulster Footballer of the Year. I also recall Ernie McCleary from that team who became a French teacher at Friends School in Lisburn whom I met in later years when I was in the same profession. In school cricket games when we were umpires I used to reminisce with Ernie about his days with the Reds.
I also remember a right winger called Bruce Shields and their full backs Rea and Waring who kicked anything that moved. Ferocious men who wouldn’t last ten minutes today. Herbie Hegarty, bald headed, used to see how high he could clear the ball.”
HM: What else struck you about football in those days, either then as it was or now looking back?
“Well the crowds of course were much bigger. I think when Linfield played Celtic crowds were over thirty thousand and about twenty to twenty – five thousand when the Glens played the Blues. When Distillery played Benfica in 1963 in the European Cup the press were disappointed there was only twenty thousand. The game had been moved to Windsor because they had floodlights. Also it seems to me now there were many more personalities in the game then. Glentoran had Sammy Hughes and Trevor Thompson, Crusaders had ‘Mousey’ Brady and also a centre – half called Campbell. Coleraine had Clancy McDermott and Ballymena had Alex McCrae who had played for Charlton and Hearts. He helped win the Cup for them in 1958 and they also had Geoff Twentyman who had played for Liverpool and then became a scout for them.
You have to remember that the money wasn’t great for footballers in England in those days. I mean Linfield got Jackie Milburn as they were willing to pay him more than Newcastle United. Ards had the Easthams , Senior and Junior with Junior becoming a great star in England. The local game would have been more gripping than today though the national side were not as good as today’s. Football was cheap to get into, two bob, (10 p) and it was readily available when the factories shut on a Saturday lunchtime.”
HM: You have brought us into the fifties. Internationally were you aware that we had a decent side?
“Yes because we had four great players. Gregg, Blanchflower, McIlroy and McParland who were well supported elsewhere in the team. Keith and McMichael were Newcastle’s full backs, Jackie Blanchflower played centre – half for Man U and we had the aggression of Wilbur Cush in midfield and the speed of Bingham on the wing. Harry Gregg was an outstanding goalkeeper and I remember watching him for Coleraine and it was clear he would go onto better things.
He went to Doncaster Rovers when Peter Doherty was his manager and then on to Manchester United. Jimmy McIlroy almost ran the Burnley team and when I saw him play for them in later years when I was in England he played better for them than for NI, but then of course he was playing with better players all the time. He was like a quarterback for Burnley and all the players knew when and where to run but they were playing with him week in week out.
Bertie Peacock of Coleraine and Celtic was another great player of that era. He worked his socks off all the time and was always top rate. But they were a good NI side and I remember one of their first victories that signified this was beating England 3-2 at Wembley in 1957. I remember a Southend player called Sammy McCrory getting a cap for us which may be Southend’s only international cap. But we knew we had a chance of the World Cup and I was at the Italy game when we put them out to qualify. Jimmy McIlroy scored one at the Railway end from outside the box and Wilbur Cush got the other. Italy scored and then their outside- right was sent off for next to nothing.
This of course was a month after the original game was meant to have been played in December ‘57 but due to a fogbound referee, was reduced to a friendly which enraged the 58000 crowd who had taken the day off work to see it. In the January ‘58 official game, the Italians took advantage of the rule which allowed residential players to appear for the side so there were a few Argentinians etc…so they were ‘Italy plus’. It was the last time Italy failed to qualify for a World Cup until this year.”
HM: Into the sixties and you had moved to England to teach in 1965. Were you aware of Best and Jennings’ international arrival the year before?
“Yes, Jennings had played for non – League Newry City and Best was already in England. Everyone knew about Best as he was one of these geniuses already at seventeen. I don’t think I saw him live until 1970 when he was sent off for throwing mud at the ref against Scotland, but I do remember watching him on TV in 1967 absolutely destroy Scotland almost on his own. He ran the Scottish full- back into the ground and put shots in from all angles. It was like watching a big boy play against wee boys but of course there was no size difference. He did whatever he liked and Scotland couldn’t touch him. But by 1970 his best years were behind him though we didn’t know it then and his speed had gone.
Another closer to home feature of my footballing life in the sixties before I left for England was playing in ‘the Belmont League’. This was a nine a side league Gordon Burns (for younger readers he presented a gameshow called The Krypton Factor and before that was the Ruth Gorman of the early seventies on UTV) had organised locally and he and I played for the mighty Dorchester Rovers. The best talent we played against was a guy called Neill who played for a Bangor team. In later years he turned out to be Spurs and Arsenal manager Terry Neill who scored the winner against England at Wembley in 1972.”
HM: Whilst in England how did your love of football manifest itself?
“By attending every game possible. Teaching near Scunthorpe they played on Friday nights a lot so on Saturdays I went to Sheffield, Hull, Bradford Park Avenue, Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Hull, Leeds, Huddersfield Town and Hartlepool amongst others. Ray Clemence later of Liverpool was the Scunthorpe goalkeeper. Keegan came after my time there. Scunthorpe weren’t very good so he got plenty of practice before his Liverpool move. I also taught in York and their star player was now RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy who went to Millwall and wrote that great book ‘Only a Game’. “
HM: At school we remember you as a huge QPR fan. Where did that come from?
“That goes back to January 1949 when listening to the radio I heard a team called Queens Park Rangers being beaten by Huddersfield Town 5-0 and I immediately sided with the underdog. I’ve been following them for sixty- nine years. We have been mostly a second division side apart from a golden period in the seventies when we almost won the league. I can’t imagine life without them…..and you know I can’t imagine life for anyone without having their own club. I think you get more fun out of following a lesser club than following say … Manchester United which everybody does.
And just talking of Manchester United the 1958 crash was a huge memory of mine. I know exactly what I was doing when I heard about it – more clearly than when Kennedy was killed. There was huge hysteria following that. They were allowed to sign players to compete in the FA Cup that Saturday against Sheffield Wednesday.
Another incident I remember from the sixties before we leave them was attending a Scotland game at Hampden and coming home on the boat. I bumped into Sammy Moore whom I knew of SS Moore sports shop fame and who was a Distillery director. On questioning him he was on ‘IFA business’ and I was invited to join the suits and blazers for hospitality. The IFA hasn’t changed much.
A friend from school had converted me to Distillery as they were a great footballing side with players such as Roy Welsh, John Kennedy and Sid and Joe Meldrum. I loved Grosvenor Park as well – a proper football ground hemmed in by terraced houses with chimneys standing around like something out of a Lowry painting. They had no sectarian baggage and all sorts watched them. They were the Fulham of the Irish League. I remember a barrister used to come from the Law Courts and stand in his pinstripes and bowler hat watching them. The ground was lost to the Troubles and then redevelopment.
I have to tell you about 25th September 1963. The Whites had won the League and were up against the mighty Benfica – Eusebio, Torres, Coluna etc… The Whites had paid Tom Finney £150 to play. I looked forward to this game for weeks. I’ll never forget John Kennedy’s shot in the first minute and thinking ‘this is going in’. 1-0. They equalised but Ken Hamilton, the left winger put Distillery ahead before half- time. The ground was rocking. They went ahead again but with five minutes to go Freddie Ellison equalised. It trickled over the line. 3-3. Who cares we lost 5-0 in the second leg. It just wouldn’t or couldn’t happen today. It was amazing how Benfica played twice in Northern Ireland in the sixties and won neither game.” (Glentoran in 1968)
HM: Football dropped a bit for you in the seventies and beyond when you came home from England?
“In physical attendance yes but not otherwise. I got married in 1969 and kids arrived and it was dangerous to travel to matches in Belfast. I also had extra – curricular activities with the school as well but did lose interest a bit. The 75/ 76 season when QPR were within fifteen minutes of winning the league with Wolves beating Liverpool 1-0 only to lose 3-1 was huge, because I knew QPR would never come as close again. So sad to see Stan Bowles with dementia now.
He took over from Rodney Marsh and was told people were afraid to wear the number 10 shirt but he said he had never heard of Rodney Marsh. He didn’t give a toss. He went to the dog track instead of an England training session. But he was a magician. Great side….Webb, McLintock, Thomas, Givens, Clement, Gillard, Hollins, Francis, Masson and Parkes.”
HM: In recent years you have been back with Northern Ireland on various away games.
“Yes, the eighties were great of course especially following you and your mates on TV in Spain but I had retired certainly by the time I went with you to Iceland in 2007. I couldn’t believe there were so many there. I have since appreciated those trips are not really about the team…..it’s the fans. The Green and White Army who are quite unique.”
HM: How would you say they are unique?
“They are extremely good-humoured considering the results, extremely loyal and spread goodwill wherever they go. Also it is strange going with your gang who were wee boys all those years ago and you forget you are an old man.”
HM: You certainly get a lot from the trips because you take a lot from the places we visit and miss nothing from the various characters you encounter.
“Oh yes….the accountant from Kinshasa in Brussels comes to mind, ‘Larne John’ in Romania and ‘Skin’ who treats everyone as his long lost mate. Also seeing all sorts giving Jim Boyce, the FIFA vice – President banter about free watches was priceless. You wouldn’t see Association Presidents walking amongst the fans the way it happens with us. It’s all very democratic. ‘Skin’ chats away to the President and the President chats back. No pomposity or anything like that. I remember the police in Bratislava giving us free beer because they liked us so much. I loved the old Eastern Bloc bowl type ground in Chorzow in Poland. Packed full of proper fans.”
HM: Any managers and players that stick out for you?
“Peter Doherty was good and George Eastham got Distillery playing rightly. This present guy O’ Neill is probably the best. He does wonders with fairly modest resources and I hope he stays. One of my colleagues taught him in Ballymena and remembers him as a very earnest and intelligent young man. Davis and the centre backs are good but you can’t imagine them walking into any team in the world. Gregg was world class, Blanchflower would have talked his way into any team and (Jimmy) McIlroy was a fantastic midfielder.”
HM: John, we regard you as a well read and learned man and I would suggest football doesn’t hold your life together the way it does for some of us. How would you describe the ways it does though?
“No, football is a way of life to me. I read papers like the Chinese, from back to front. In many papers the only thing that is true is the football results. Football has taught me politics, geography and a love of various neighbourhoods like Lancashire and Lincolnshire. I still get tense when Scunthorpe play Grimsby. You always hope that the next game is a cracker. The money ruins it of course. It teaches you history and tradition as well. Especially the earlier times. Football created the need for stadiums to be built. There was nothing built from the Colosseum until Goodison Park. Then Molineux. Structures built for the purposes of watching football. And now the second coming of the new grounds. Most of the forty odd grounds I have visited no longer exist, nor do the clubs.”
HM: I knew you would say that and that the game has changed so much but what is the constant that still does it for you?
“The love of the fans for their club. It never changes. For example when Charlton were forced to leave their ground the fans formed a political party which fought an election on the issue. The ‘Valley Party’ who ran on the slogan ‘Back to the Valley’. My favourite ground by the way due to a photograph I saw as a boy with its huge terraces. I finally got there in 1961. It was built out of a quarry.
HM: A couple of quickies to finish. Favourite player?
HM: Favourite moment?
“Freddie Ellison’s equaliser against Benfica”.
HM: Moment that haunts you?
“Liverpool winning the league by a point in 1976.”
HM: Thank you John. It’s been an education.