On Saturday September 7th , the day after Ireland lock horns with Sweden in a vital World Cup qualifier, the Donegal village of Kerrykeel will pay homage to one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers, William Balintrae Gillespie. Born in Kerrykeel on 6th August 1891, Gillespie 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.
William Ballintrae became known as “Billy” and his father was Robert Gillepsie who was stationed as a sergeant at the RIC Barracks in Kerrykeel (Carrowkeel) in the early 1890’s. Billy’s mother was Eliya Gillespie (formerly Blair) and his birth was officially registered in the Registrar’s District of Milford on 1st September 1891. Indeed the wall steads of the police barracks where Billy Gillespie was born remain to this day along with old adjoining stables. Ironically Gillepsie’s homestead is just a stones throw from Drury Park, the football field that served the community of Kerrykeel for over 50 years until very recently.
Information compiled by Billy’s father, Robert Gillespie, in his role as sergeant in September 1893, notes that the population of Kerrykeel at the time was 146, with Fair Days on the 8th of every month. The barracks also served as the local Post Office, Savings Bank and Money Order Office – And from these humble beginnings at a remote location in Kerrykeel, Donegal, Billy Gillespie arose to become a legend of the beautiful game.
One can only wonder what standing he would have in the modern era considering what he achieved as a player with Sheffield United and on the international arena with Ireland. Milestones such as the FA Cup victory mentioned in the opening paragraph – A victory 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 Blades captain was equally influential for his country, scoring two goals on his international debut 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 even played his part in BBC Radio history – On January 22, 1927, the BBC broadcasted a league match for the very first time – a game between Arsenal and Sheffield United. Gillespie scored United’s goal in a 1-1 draw at Highbury.
On returning home from Sheffield 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. He had a successful stint in Derry, leading them 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.
It is hoped that local football enthusiasts from the North West and beyond will converge on the village on Saturday week as representatives from Sheffield United FC, the FAI, IFA, Derry City, Institute FC and Billy’s own relatives pay tribute to one of our own legends, William Ballintrae Gillespie.
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)