When Super-Sub came to town

“And Fairclough is onside, this now could be interesting, FAIRCLOUGH, Super Sub strikes again.”

That goal in 1977 sealed victory for Liverpool over St Eitenne and would go down in Anfield folklore. A magical moment in the clubs history, as they advanced to the semi-final and then final to claim their first European Cup. Just 9 years after ‘that’ goal and ‘that’ celebration as he ran arms outstretched in front of a heaving KOP, Supersub himself, David Fairclough, was rumoured to be on his way to my local club, Finn Harps F.C. For a 14 year old Liverpool fanatic living in Donegal, Ireland, this news was hard to believe. It was the last days of summer, 1986.

Ask any football fan to name an Irish side from the North West of Ireland and they’ll more than likely come up with Derry City. After withdrawing from the Northern Irish League in the mid 70’s the club languished in junior ranks until 1985 when they entered the southern League of Ireland to great fanfare. Starved of senior football for over a decade the people of Derry got behind the club in great numbers with crowds hitting the 12,000 mark. To the ailing League of Ireland they were a breath of fresh air. For my club, Finn Harps F.C. and their supporters it would mean much more. Ballybofey based Finn Harps were located just 25 miles away from Derry. Up to this point in our history we only had one so-called ‘derby’ game and that was against Sligo Rovers, a mere 80 miles away. Now we had local derbies to look forward to and we may have a flame haired striker in our ranks to boost our chances of success. I just needed convincing the proposed arrival of Fairclough wasn’t a rumour to combat the Derry City bandwagon.

The club badly needed something to cheer about; I was too young to remember the 1970’s, when it was commonplace for crowds to exceed 3,000 every fortnight at Finn Park. There was an FAI Cup success in 1974, along with UEFA Cup adventures against the likes of Aberdeen, Derby County and Everton. But by the mid-80s only a few hundred spectators would enter through the turnstiles as the crowds were lured away from the domestic game by the live broadcasts of English League games on TV. Let’s face it, a cold and frosty Sunday afternoon at Finn Park didn’t have much chance against the likes of Rush, Dalglish, Robson and Hoddle on the box in front of a cosy fire.

Clubs had to attract spectators and with the Irish obsession with the game cross-channel, the signing of ‘stars’ on a game to game basis began to take off with Irish clubs. This was nothing new, Dixie Dean made a number of appearances for Sligo Rovers in 1939. Whilst the 1970’s saw George Best, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Gordon Banks, Rodney Marsh and former German international Uwe Steeler lining out for various Irish clubs. That trend was set to continue and Liverpool’s own Terry McDermott and Ian Callaghan lined out for Cork, Denis Tueart and Alan Sunderland had just signed for Derry and then it was our turn. The rumour was true. I couldn’t believe my eyes; a small heading in the Irish Independent confirmed it. ‘Super-Sub for Harps’ – David Fairclough could be playing for my club, hell, he was playing with Dalglish and Hansen just a few years before. I can vaguely remember listening to BBC Radio 2 when he scored a hat-trick against Norwich in the famous Justin Fashanu ‘Goal of the Season’ game in 1980. Now he could be a few feet away from me at Finn Park in a few weeks’ time.

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The headline gave me hope – maybe it was true

The news spread quickly and the local press were all over the impending transfer coup.  It turned out that Harps had tried to secure the signature of Fairclough the season before. They kept that well hidden from me! Speaking at the time, club chairman Fran Fields said;

“We wanted a big name player for the cup last season and we had more or less agreed to bring Fairclough over for a month. But Oldham pulled out at the last minute and insisted we take the player for six months. But we kept in touch with David over the summer and being a free agent this season he has agreed to join us. But there will be no monthly contracts this time, with promotion in mind we hope to have him here for the season.”

Now that was a statement of intent – so this wasn’t to be a PR stunt to get spectators through the turnstiles. It seemed Fairclough would be here for the coming season and he was only 29. It didn’t matter if he was 49 to me, this was David Fairclough. Surely it was just a matter of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. However, the next David Fairclough to Finn Harps story sent a shiver down my spine.

The Donegal Democrat newspaper stated that David was coming over to Finn Park to see the set-up and if he is impressed he may sign. “IF HE’S IMPRESSED?”  What Finn Harps should have done is travel to Merseyside, sign him and only then show him his new surroundings. He couldn’t back down then! You see, Finn Park, like a lot of grounds in Ireland in the 1980’s left a lot to be desired. It was basic to say the least; Everton had to change in a hotel 12 miles away when they played Harps in the UEFA Cup in 1978. It wasn’t the clubs fault, improvements had been made but you need people to come through the gates as well. I was sure David would not be impressed. But the Finn Harps manager Tommy McConville was upbeat. Speaking to the newspaper, he said;

“David Fairclough has played at the highest level and would be a big asset to us. He is also a big name and would take some of the limelight off Derry City. He is a proven goalscorer and is still in his prime.”

Chairman Fields continued to express his delight on the impending capture of the Liverpool legend.

“I have always wanted to get him and I am hoping that he will like the set-up here and make up his mind to join us. We are going to have a lot of talking to do this weekend but I am hopeful that it will be successful”

Even Super-Sub himself was quoted, it was getting ever closer.

“I am looking forward to coming over and I am very pleased that people are willing to ask about me and enquire about me. Although I have been to Dublin many times and have relatives in Termonfeckin outside Drogheda I don’t know where Ballybofey is so I am looking forward to visiting it. I am a free agent at present and although I have talked to one or two clubs in England I have not found anything suitable.”

Although I was only 14 years of age that last line was like a dagger to the heart “Although I have talked to one or two clubs in England I have not found anything suitable.” Now unless Roman Abramovich had an uncle sipping vodka around the town in the mid 80’s there was no way Finn Harps would have the finance to pull this deal off. But at least Fairclough was coming to have a look and he was rumoured to be playing in the pre-season friendly against the Northern Irish League side, Larne, on the day he arrived.

The press exposure certainly worked and a large crowd turned up for the game to see the superstar from Liverpool. And he didn’t disappoint either, making an impressive ‘home début  and of course scoring in a 3-2 victory for the home side. Maybe he was impressed with the gentle surroundings of Ballybofey and was willing to give it a go in Ireland. Promotion here we come, and then watch out Europe.

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Back row second from the right – David Fairclough

Much to my dismay it just wasn’t to be for Finn Harps and Fairclough. I’m quite sure the Finn Harps board tried their utmost to persuade the striker that his future lay in Donegal, but Belgian side FC Beveren finally secured his signature. He spent two successful years in the Belgium league before returning home to Tranmere Rovers and Wigan to finish a successful playing career.

Who would Finn Harps turn to now? A few weeks later the club finally got their big name. Former Southampton and England striker Mike Channon was on his way to the Ballybofey outfit. How many times would we see the famous windmill goal celebration that season? Sadly it never materialised at all. It was to be a very short-lived affair, the contract was on a match to match basis but it really should have been a minute to minute basis, he lasted only 49 minutes and retired injured, never to play again. Maybe it was the Finn Harps experience that was the final straw for Channon to throw his lot into becoming a successful racehorse trainer.

Over the next decade Finn Harps remained in the lower reaches of the league before finally gaining promotion to the top flight in 1996. Since then they have become somewhat of a yo-yo club but with a new stadium on the horizon, there is much optimism around the town for a return to the top flight and once more challenging for top honours.

Surprisingly the Finn Harps/David Fairclough story became something of an urban myth around the Donegal region. I would mention it every so often and struggled to convince fellow fans; well it was nearly 30 years ago. My biggest regret was not having a camera at the time to take a picture of the man in action. It seemed everyone had forgotten about the day Supersub lined out for the Harps, until last year that is. Whilst attending a league game one supporter came up to me with the ‘golden shot’. There he was, in the back row, one David Fairclough, chest pumped, ready to give his all in a pre-season friendly game in a town he had never heard of just days before.

I obtained a copy of the picture and just weeks later it appeared along with a brief article in the Liverpool FC fanzine, Red All Over The Land. Being a regular at Anfield I would see David walking around the ground to take up his position in the commentary box before most games. Getting to the ground early before a league game in 2012, I managed to get a word with him about his brief stay in Donegal. He was puzzled at first, I’ll put that down to my accent, but when I produced the picture he remembered some details about the occasion. “It was raining wasn’t it?”  Well it was the North West of Ireland, it’s always raining. “And I scored one?” He remembered that anyway, once a goalscorer always a goalscorer and off he went with a smile on his face.

Of course it wasn’t as important a strike as any of the 55 he scored in the red of Liverpool. But for a 14 year old lad to witness one of Liverpool FC’s great icons score for my local club he will always be David Fairclough, League and European Cup winner and one-time Finn Harps centre forward.

Press Art – Courtesy Barclay Ramsey, Finn Harps Club Historian


Just a little respect

August 2012 – It’s the first game home league game of the season and the champions of England run out at Anfield. How many times has that happened? Quite a few as it happens. But this time it’s not the redmen running out as league champions but those in the sky blue kit that take the plaudits from the away end. The super-rich Manchester City finally claimed the top prize in English football in dramatic circumstances last May on what can only be described as SKY TV’s ultimate wet dream. The citizen men of Manchester hadn’t won the top prize in 44 years and now boast some of the worlds top players. How times have changed. We once put 10 goals past city in three days back in October 1995. But I’m not bitter or jealous, how could I be. They have a long way to go.

18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 League Cups, 5 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups

Midday down at the Albert Dock and the sun is beaming down. Another new era at Anfield has begun with the appointment of Brendan Rodgers. His first competitive game at Anfield couldn’t have gone any better with the defeat of FC Gomel in the Europa League. In league terms the new regime has had a rocky start. An opening day 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion is up there with the 1-0 shock defeat to fellow Black Country side Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening day of the 1981-82 season. It was a campaign that ended with League and League Cup success. We can only dream of league success these days. But still.

18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 League Cups, 5 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups

I feel like one of the players on an early morning stroll – getting the pre-match nerves out of my system if you will. It’s great to have the footy back again. The Euro’s were a welcome distraction, even if it does play havoc with pre-season plans. Then the Olympics stole the limelight, it was easy to get caught up in the emotion of it all as well. But let’s face it, whether it’s Beth Twiddle or Katie Taylor grabbing the headlines, all I really wanted to know was the Charlie Adam tackle on Gareth Bale THAT bad. Bale did himself no favours at all in crying to the press about big bad Charlie. But Tony Pulis and Stoke must have been impressed with Charlie’s enthusiasm, so much so, that they paid £4 million for more of the same.

As usual there was a good crowd around the docks soaking up the last rays of the summer and as I walked across the road towards Liverpool One I could see a commotion outside the Hilton Hotel at Liverpool One. As I get closer I can make out the Ellison’s coach outside the hotel and a large group surrounding the coach. Closer again, and the majority are decked out in our new home kit. Even closer again, and it’s the Manchester City coach and our supporters are at the ready, the clicking has begun, the phones are out. How did it come to this?

18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 League Cups, 5 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups

Frankly, I was embarrassed at what I was seeing, maybe I’m also overreacting? It’s the modern game isn’t it? Football celebrities everywhere, believing the hype, pumped up by the SKY machine. Bullshit. I don’t have a big problem with parents and kids, well maybe the parents should know better. But groups of grown men were standing around in LFC gear waiting for god knows how long in the hope that they might just catch a snap of Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez’s arse in a photo? No, sorry, but I’m out. I was brought up in the era when visiting teams were scared out of their wits to come to Anfield – the game was over before it even started. It worked as well, we nearly always came out on top, particularly against sides like city. Even when they did turn us over, a Boxing Day 3-1 victory in 1981, we went on to win 20 of our last 25 games to win the title once more.

18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 League Cups, 5 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups

I swiftly move on towards the centre of Liverpool One and meet up with a few reds and as we are standing there in the middle of the main shopping area we become engulfed by a crowd of people, not kids, but grown ups and they are all in pursuit of the city squad who are having a pre-match walkabout. It was one of the most bizarre sights I have ever seen – one man stops and proudly tells me he got a picture with Mancini, and wait for it, Brian Kidd. Brian fucking Kidd, the man who nearly leapt as far as Bob Beaman onto the Old Trafford turf when Steve Bruce scored that goal to send Man Ure on their way to the title in 1993. Still, it’s something to post on facebook isn’t it. “Me and Brian Kidd on the day the champions came to Anfield”. Nice.

It’s not right is it? It’s certainly not Liverpool Football Club. We pride ourselves in that we have always given a certain amount of respect to all visiting teams and playing staff – ok maybe the gas attack on the Man Ure bus in 1985 being an exception. Some don’t deserve it. I see that cretin Jussi Jaaskelainen is back in the Premiership, and once more he’ll ignore the Kop’s applause as he runs towards us. But this is the first home league game of the season under a new manager who needs our support. I’m not saying abuse teams; just don’t treat them as if they are some sort of gods. It’s the support we give our team that unnerves the opposition – it always did.

Look what it delivered.

18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 League Cups, 5 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups


“HONEST” JOHN MCKENNA – LFC TRAILBLAZER

As a kid I remember coming across a piece in a magazine called Ireland’s Own about a man called John McKenna who was involved in the formation of Liverpool FC. Imagine my delight when I discovered that he was also born in my home county of Monaghan, and not only that, we shared the same birthday as well, the 3rd of January bit anyhow. To a ten year old this was major news. Like thousands of youngsters in Ireland I was drawn to the red half of Merseyside. My first game, a European Cup tie in Dundalk is still etched in my memory.

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It was McKenna who sent the telegram to the Football League to apply for League Status

Fast forward about 30 years or so and I have moved to the North West of the country, Donegal to be exact, a county with a rich football heritage. My love for the reds never waned in the interim and whenever I could I’d remind people that I came from the same county as one John McKenna. But what I realised is that not many reds knew anything about the man at all. Were they aware of his involvement with one of the world’s greatest football clubs? I didn’t know much myself, the liverpoolfc.tv website has a useful profile of the man but I wanted to know a bit more.

Last August I noticed that the town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford unveiled a plaque in honour of Billy Lacey. Billy was the first player from the Republic of Ireland to wear the famous red shirt. He also wore the blue of Everton, but we’ll let him away with that mishap. What got my attention was that it was a redman from the area, Alan Breen, who alerted the local media of the connection. This got me thinking, if Alan can do it so can I. It’s up to the fans to make it happen.

An email was sent to the heritage section of Monaghan County Council informing them off the link between John McKenna and Liverpool FC. This was met with an enthusiastic response, things were moving or so I thought. They said they would get back to me; they never did.  Anyway, I still had to find out more about the man. What else did he achieve? Is he buried in Liverpool? I was certain he had to be buried in Anfield Cemetery, it just seemed logical.  Various Liverpool cemetery websites were trawled through but to no avail. Help was at hand however. A new book was released about Liverpool FC and its Irish connections; this was called Emerald Anfield and was written by Keith Falkener. I emailed Keith and he pointed me in the direction of Peter Lupsons book Across The Park, he said there was even a picture of John McKenna’s resting place in it. A quick online visit to Merseyshop later and the book was on its way.

What a great book Across The Park is, a must read for Reds and Blues alike. The picture was there alright, very clear, the gravestone was unusual AND it wasn’t located at Anfield at all. Smithdown Road Cemetery was the place to go to. I just had to find out where this Smithdown Road was located, after all I only knew one graveyard in Liverpool and that was Goodison. Just to confuse me further, Smithdown is also known as Toxteth Park Cemetery and although the excellent Toxteth Park Cemetery website had no results for my John McKenna search, I was confident I’d find the grave and cemetery location no problem. Now I had to get to a game where I could make time to begin my search.

It wasn’t hard to find where Smithdown Road was; much to my surprise it turns out I go past Smithdown Road cemetery every time I get the 86A into the city. So I was set, I had two hours to spare in Liverpool before the Stoke game on Feb 2nd. I’d have no problem finding it. It was a very distinctive headstone after all. How wrong I was. My first mistake was not taking the picture of the headstone with me. Disaster, there I was at 4’o clock on a cold February afternoon faced with 1’000’s of headstones that looked more or less the same. Almost all were of a similar height, and I thought this was going to be easy. Nothing for it only to start walking, I could visualise the picture in the book after all. Row upon row, lap after lap, I knew there was a hill behind the headstone, the thing is, there were hills everywhere. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail came into my head. In total I spent two hours walking around, at least it was a bit of exercise and I was now warm. Maybe there was a place for me on the Irish road walking team for London 2012 after all. Onwards to the game at least, and standing in 305 on the KOP was probably not what the doctor ordered but a 2-0 victory certainly was.

So back to the search and that eureka moment or maybe I was just naive, naive I think. From looking at the picture of the headstone, I shouldn’t have been searching for John McKenna’s name at all, his wife, Charlotte Maria, had died before him; she was the one to search for. A search for Charlotte Maria McKenna later, and there it was, not only that, but I also had a map of the graveyard and the exact location of the grave, how easy was this! At last, now to get back over to Liverpool and the perfect opportunity was just a few weeks away.

I had booked flights for the Man Ure game on March 6th last October, over at 10am Saturday and back at 8.30pm on Sunday would cover all options, even pesky SKY. Saturday afternoon would be dedicated to finding John McKenna’s grave, map in hand, myself and three other LFC Donegal committee members hopped on the 86A to Smithdown Cemetery. It took about 10 minutes to find my holy grail and of course I did recall walking very close to the spot only weeks earlier. My fellow travellers, Clare, Chris and Conor were probably as relieved as I was; they had to listen to me every weekend going on and on about John McKenna.  One Dirk Kuyt hat-trick later and it was the perfect weekend.

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l to r David Moen, Conor Carlin, Clare Neely, Christopher Dullaghan

I was aware that the 75th anniversary of his death was upon us, this was a good opportunity for me to publicise this man’s achievements in his homeland. The pictures would also help. I was missing one but. The plaque unveiled in McKenna’s honour at Anfield. I was travelling to the Braga home game so what was the harm in trying to see if I could get a picture. One call to customer services later and I was put in touch with Liverpool FC Curator Stephen Done and Steve Newton from the museum. Much to my delight there was no problem gaining access to Anfield. Friday morning it was, after we safely negotiated our way past Braga and the St Patricks Day festivities. Well, as you know, we were knocked out after failing to make the breakthrough at Anfield. It may well be the last European game for a year or so, still, I had the next morning to look forward too.

So early on Friday morning, my girlfriend Sarah, LFC Donegal member Richard, and yours truly made our way to the museum entrance. Here, we were met by Steve Brand who was to show us the way to the John McKenna plaque. Steve was great company and we even managed to get LFC legends Phil Neal and David Johnson to pose with us under the McKenna plaque. It was also great to meet Stephen Done and Steve Newton in person to thank them for their hospitality throughout the morning. We had a great time and I informed them that I planned to use the pictures for an article in the local Monaghan newspaper with a view to creating awareness of McKenna’s exploits in his native land.

So the wheels have been set in motion, I know there are plenty of like minded Reds in Monaghan and in my own branch in Donegal that are willing to make this happen. We owe John McKenna that much.  It’s a case of watch this space for now. As for a fitting tribute, well what about a plaque in Glaslough village where his parents got married. The wheel will have turned full circle as the many McKenna’s round the village will be aware of their famous son. “Honest” John McKenna, Liverpool FC’s first manager. I think he’d approve.


Donegal and Sheffield United renew Gillespie link

Last Monday, July 22nd, the Sheffield United’s U-13 side lined-up against the Donegal Schoolboy’s team in the opening game in Group E at this year’s Foyle Cup tournament in Derry. The points were shared in an entertaining 0-0 draw. Nothing too significant about that you may be thinking – but there is an historic football connection between Donegal and Sheffield United. For it was in the village of Kerrykeel on the 6th of August 1891 that Sheffield United legend and the Blades FA Cup winning captain of 1925, Billy Gillespie was born.

The young Gillespie quickly made a name for himself in the local leagues before being snapped up by Derry Institute. It was to be the start of an outstanding career both on the club and international front. He moved across the channel where his long stint in Yorkshire started at Leeds City in 1910, before he signed on the dotted line at Bramall Lane Sheffield for the local United side. It would be a match made in heaven as he would spend 20 years with the Blades amassing over 130 goals in nearly 500 games.

After suffering heartbreak by missing the Blades’ FA Cup triumph in 1915 through injury, Gillespie made amends ten years later when captaining 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’s last major honour.

With such a pedigree at club level, Irish caps were surely to follow, and the Kerrykeel man made his international debut in February 1913. Not any old debut either, scoring twice as Ireland achieved a first historic victory over England. Gillespie was to become a thorn in the English side as seven of his thirteen international goals came against the English. He is still Sheffield United’s most capped player with 25 international caps, his namesake Keith amassed over 80 for Northern Ireland but not all with Sheffield United.

When Gillespie’s long Sheffield career came to an end in 1932 he returned to Ireland to take charge 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, which they wear to this day. 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.

From speaking to the Sheffield United officials and even the young blades players, the Donegal native is still revered in the Yorkshire city and now plans are in place to honour Billy Gillespie in the village of Kerrykeel on Saturday September 7th. Billy Gillespie’s grand-daughter, Jane, and her son will travel to the village and unveil a plaque in recognition of his outstanding achievements on the football field.  Representatives from Sheffield, Derry City the FAI and IFA have also been approached to form part of the celebrations in what will surely be a weekend to remember for the village of Kerrykeel. It’s been long overdue.

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l-r – Johnny Keys (Donegal manager), Shaun Green (Sheffield United Captain), Mark McAteer (Donegal Schoolboys captain and Kerrykeel native) Nick Cox (Sheffield United manager) Fergus McAteer (Billy Gillespie committee member)