Donegal’s Forgotten FA Cup Winning Captain

Derry City are known throughout the football world as the Candystripes, but the story about how they got their colours has a distinct Donegal flavour. It’s all down to one man, Kerrykeel born and Sheffield United legend, Billy Gillespie.

Billy Gillespie was born in Kerrykeel, on 6 August 1891. The son of a policeman he made a name for himself in local junior football ranks and was quickly signed up by Derry Institute when he was just 17. It was to be the start of an outstanding career.

Northern giants Linfield made an offer for Gillespie in May 1910, but Leeds City beat the Windsor Park outfit to seal his signature. It didn’t take long for Gillespie to make an impression with the Yorkshire outfit. He opened his scoring account for Leeds in the 1-1 draw with Birmingham at Elland Road on October 1st. It was a start of a goal-scoring spree that resulted in Gillespie scoring seven times in the following eight games. After a poor run of results he lost his place in the side and after playing the first four games of the 1911/12 season, Gillespie was left out again.

Billy Gillespie

On 22 December, the Yorkshire Post broke the news that the Irishman would be leaving Elland Road for a fee in excess of £400. It was a fee the board said they could not refuse as the club was in financial difficulty. However it would be a decision they would regret as Gillespie went on to prove himself as one of the outstanding Irish players of all time, enjoying a 20-year career at Bramall Lane and scoring over 130 goals in nearly 500 games.

The Kerrykeel man made his international debut in February 1913, scoring twice as Ireland achieved a first historic victory over England (This was a period when Ireland players were drawn from both sides of the border). One year later he was a member of the first Irish team to secure the Home International Championships. Gillespie was a thorn in the English side as seven of his thirteen international goals came against the English. That international goal haul was an Irish record, which stood until 2004 when David Healy took his international total to fourteen goals. In total Gillespie would win 25 Irish caps.

At Bramall Lane, Gillespie was well on the way to becoming a Sheffield United legend. He suffered heartbreak when missing the Blades’ FA Cup triumph in 1915 as he was out with a broken leg. But ten years later Billy Gillespie captained the Blades to victory in the final against Cardiff City. The scribes of the day were impressed; “Sheffield United played wonderfully well but special praise is due to Gillespie, the man who waves a wand and whose influence has played such a vital part in United’s capture of the Cup.” To date this is still Sheffield United last major honour.

In 1932 Billy Gillespie returned to Ireland to take over as manager of Irish League side Derry City. As part of the deal taking him back to Ireland, Gillespie had to take a red and white team strip with him and Derry City adopted the colours, the candystripes we see them wear today. He led Derry City to two City Cup triumphs and on four successive occasions they finished runners up in the Irish League.
When Gillespie left Derry City in 1941 he relocated to Bexley in Kent, where he died a month short of his ninetieth birthday in July 1981.

The Donegal man is still revered in the Yorkshire city and deserves to be mentioned in the same company as Donegal and Ireland heroes, Pat Bonner and Shay Given. December 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of Billy Gillespie signing for Sheffield United; it could be the ideal opportunity to honour the Sheffield United, Ireland, and most of all, Kerrykeel legend.

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