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.
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.
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.
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.
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)