Donegal FA Cup legend remembered

This Saturday March 22nd Sheffield United entertain Wolverhampton Wanderers in a League One encounter at Bramall Lane Sheffield. But this is no ordinary fixture as Sheffield United will be celebrating the exact date the football club was founded 125years ago and they will be hosting a series of events ahead of the game to launch its anniversary celebrations. Central to the festivities is paying tribute to their great players of yesteryear of which one in particular stands out for all Sheffield United supporters young and old – Kerrykeel native, Billy Gillespie.

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Billy Gillespie was born in Kerrykeel  on 6th August 1891, and went on to become the most famous Irish footballer of his generation, the highlight of which came in 1925, when he was the first Irishman to captain an English FA Cup winning team, leading his Sheffield United team to victory over Cardiff in the Wembley final. To this day it is the last major trophy the Sheffield club has won and a game in which he played a major part, his performance described as follows by the football writers of the day “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.”

The Donegal man was equally influential for his country, scoring two goals on his international debut for Ireland against England in 1913 as the Irish defeated England for the very first time. He repeated the feat the year after, notching another two against the English as the Irish destroyed the home side at Ayresome Park Middlesbrough, the boys in green running out 3-0 winners. He was to leave his mark on the local football scene when he returned home to manage Irish League side Derry City in 1932. Gillespie was required to take a red and white team strip with him as part of the deal. These colours of course would be adapted by Derry City, the candy-stripes we see them wear to this day. Image

So it’s fitting that this Saturday, Gillespie’s descendants, his grand-daughter Jane Bull and great grand-son Andy Bull will be introduced to the Bramall Lane faithful in what is sure to be a memorable afternoon. Both Jane and Andy have fond memories of their visit to Kerrykeel last September where they unveiled a plaque to the football great at Rabs Park Kerrykeel – and a return to Donegal is on the agenda for them and indeed Sheffield United representatives who were most impressed with the numbers attending the football academy in the region.

Later in the year the club will be announcing the result of polls designed to discover United’s greatest ever goal, manager and player. With the club currently in the FA Cup semi-finals, fans thoughts will invariably turn back to Billy Gillespie and that Wembley victory. It may be nearly 90 years ago but football fans never forget their history and their heroes.

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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


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.