Our journey through players to have played in both the Irish League and across the water continues as this week we look at the career of a Northern Ireland fan favourite, Keith Gillespie.
Gillsepie’s early years were spent in Larne but his family moved to Bangor and Gillespie would eventually join Belfast youth side St Andrews, who were managed by former Rangers scout Joe Kincaid. St Andrews dominated local football for a number of years and Gillespie soon attracted the attention of Manchester United scout Eddie Coulter, who invited Gillespie to the Manchester United School of Excellence. Gillespie obviously impressed enough that he was invited to Manchester for a week’s training and soon signed a pre-contract agreement with Manchester United.
Gillespie continued to play locally and in 1989 he turned out for Dungannon Swifts in the Milk Cup, St Andrews had been unable to participate, and scored the winner in extra-time of the final. The following year Gillespie played at the Milk Cup again but this time he was representing Manchester United and one of his teammates was none other than Ryan Giggs. Gillespie spent time playing and training in Manchester, with United flying him out as required and when not in Manchester he would turn out for Linfield’s youth team as he was now too old to play for St Andrews, and then in July of 1991 Gillespie made the move permanently across the water to Manchester.
At United Gillespie would play with many players who would go on to play senior football for United and become legends of the club, as well as Giggs, Gillespie played with David Beckham, Gary Neville, Philip Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt and was part of the legenday team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992. Gillespie made his debut for United’s first team in January 1993 in an FA Cup 3rd round match against Bury, Gillespie had travelled with the squad not expecting to play but was told he would be starting the match by Alex Ferguson that morning because Giggs wasn’t fit enough. Gillespie provided the cross for Mike Phelan to score the opener and then scored himself 11 minutes from time to mark his debut in style. Gillespie didn’t make any appearances for United during the 1993-94 season but did get some first team football when he was loaned to Wigan Athletic in the Third Division. Gillespie impressed in his brief spell at the club and scored 4 goals in 8 appearances and Wigan were keen to keep him for a longer period of time but United wanted him back. Gillespie made sporadic appearances for United during the 1994-95 season but could never nail down a regular place in the side and the time soon came to move on.
On the 10th January 1995, Gillespie signed for Newcastle United, this was a deal of great significance as Gillespie was a £1 million component in the deal that took Andy Cole the other direction. Gillespie stayed with Newcastle for 3 and a half seasons and became a key player in Kevin Keegan’s team known as ‘The Entertainers’. Newcastle had made a strong start to that season but by the time Gillespie arrived they had fallen out of the title race, ironically in part due to a goal Gillespie had scored against them for United in a 2-0 win for his former side, and Newcastle would eventually finish 6th meaning they just missed out on Europe.
The following season Newcastle spent heavily, the additions of David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla proving particularly significant, and Gillespie made 32 appearances as he helped the Toon Army to a 2nd place finish and back into Europe, of course this is perhaps regarded as the season that might have been for Newcastle as they led the table for virtually the entire season but a poor run of form late in the season and a resurgence from Manchester United seen Gillespie’s former side take the title by four points, though this was still Newcastle’s highest finish in many years.
The following season Newcastle continued their big spending in a bid to bring the title back to St James’ Park for the first time since 1927 with the addition of striker Alan Shearer, at the time this signing broke the world record for a transfer fee. Newcastle started the season with a 4-0 thumping against adversaries United in the Charity Shield. Newcastle went onto finish second but this time they were 7 points behind United and Keegan stood down in January to be replaced by Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish. Newcastle also had a disappointing campaign cup wise as they went out of the League and FA Cups in the 4th round but they did make the UEFA Cup quarter final, losing 4-0 on aggregate against AS Monaco. Gillespie was a regular again making over 30 appearances in all competitions.
The 1997-98 season, Gillespie’s last full season with the club, proved to be his best season appearance wise as he made 43 appearances in all competitions but Newcastle had a disappointing league campaign as they finished a lowly 13th place. One of the highlights of Newcastle’s season was their 3-2 win over Barcelona in the Champions League group stages with Gillespie laying on two of the goals for Asprilla. Newcastle also made it to the FA Cup final where they were beaten 2-0 by Arsenal but unfortunately Gillespie had to watch from the stand after failing a fitness test before the game due to an injury picked up in an earlier game. The following season Newcastle started poorly and Dalglish left to be replaced by Ruud Gullit and Gillespie also decided it was time for a change of scenery, and after failing a medical at Middlesbrough, he joined Blackburn Rovers for £2.3 million, he had made 138 appearances for Newcastle.
Gillespie’s arrival couldn’t stop Blackburn from finishing the 1998-99 season in the relegation zone but he did make 20 appearances for the club after his arrival. Some high profile signings meant Blackburn were among the favourites to get promoted but the club suffered a poor start and manager Brian Kidd was sacked with the club closer to the bottom of the table again, the appointment of Graeme Souness did see them climb up to 11th. Gillespie found himself out of favour at Rovers during the first half of the 2000-01 season and was sent out for a second loan spell at Wigan but when he did return he managed to nail down a more regular place in the team and helped Souness secure promotion in his first full season at the club.
Gillespie won his one and only senior winners medal during the 2001-02 season as he started for Blackburn in the League Cup final against Tottenham, Rovers ran out 2-0 winners and Gillespie played most of the game. After leaving Blackburn, Gillespie moved onto Leicester City and made 48 appearances in two seasons, the first of which ended with relegation for the Foxes. In June 2005 Gillespie joined up with experienced and controversial manager Neil Warnock at Sheffield United and was part of the side that secured promotion to the Premiership with a 2nd placed finish but The Blades were immediately sent back down to the Championship. During United’s one season stay in the Premiership Gillespie made headlines for all the wrong reasons in a match against Reading as, mere seconds after coming on as a substitute, he was sent off for an elbow on opponent Stephen Hunt, in fact as play had not restarted Gillespie must go down in history as one of the few players to have been sent off after ZERO seconds. Whilst not a regular on the scoresheet during his career Gillespie did score a superb goal in the 88th minute of a match against Charlton that was later nominated for Goal of the Month that season.
Following United’s relegation Gillespie fell out of favour due to a lack of fitness and also a strained relationship with manager Kevin Blackwell, and after a loan spell with Charlton, opted to leave the club. A brief spell at Bradford and a number of trials followed and then Gillespie made a surprising move when he returned home and signed for Irish League side Glentoran. Gillespie spent the 2009/2010 season with the Glens but despite winning the League Cup, beating Coleraine on penalties in the final, the Glens had a lacklustre season and Gillespie didn’t particularly set the world alight and didn’t return for the 2010/11 season. Gillespie followed this up with a brief stint back in England with Darlington and then signed for Longford Town, who were playing in the League of Ireland First Division, and won the club’s 2012 Player of the Year and was named in the First Division Team of the Season before hanging up his playing boots.
Throughout his career Gillespie was a regular in the Northern Ireland side, winning 86 caps and scoring 2 goals, and sits 8th on Northern Ireland’s most capped players list. Unfortunately Gillespie couldn’t help his country qualify for any major tournaments but he was in the team for historic wins against the likes of England and Spain and was a firm favourite with the Northern Ireland fans.