How NOT to be a Football Millionaire

By: Keith Gillespie

I spent my early years in Islandmagee, a quiet peninsula seven miles from Larne, a seaport on the east coast of Northern Ireland. Dad is from Larne. My mother, Beatrice Thornberry, hails from Kilrea in County Derry. When I was born on February 18, 1975, I already had a two-year-old sister, Angela. Three years later, Heather arrived.

Both my parents came from the Protestant community. Mum’s father, Robert Thornberry, was in the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and moved around a lot with his job. She lived on the same street in Kilrea as a budding Catholic footballer, a young Martin O’Neill. They weren’t friends, although I remember my grandad speaking a lot about the O’Neill family – especially after the 1982 World Cup when, against all the odds, Billy Bingham took our wee country to the finals in Spain, with Mum’s old neighbour right at the heart of it.

That tournament is my first vivid football memory. Before that, Dad watched football on Sunday afternoons and I used to cry because I wanted the Muppet Show so we had to rotate on a week to week basis until, all of a sudden, I tired of Kermit and wanted the football instead.

Dad was a Manchester United fan, going right back to his memories of the coverage of the Munich air disaster and the Busby Babes. Then, George Best came along and the connection between Northern Ireland and Old Trafford was strengthened. Dad passed his love for United onto me and Norman Whiteside, a 17-year-old from Belfast, became my hero in the summer of ’82. He became the youngest player to feature in a World Cup, and I was captivated by him.

They were a magic couple of weeks. The win over Spain is the abiding memory. I can picture the goal clearly, with Billy Hamilton charging down the right wing and crossing, their goalkeeper Luis Arconada half clearing, and Gerry Armstrong smashing home the loose ball. Mum was in the kitchen and smacked her head on a cupboard door as she rushed to find out the cause of the big cheer from the living room.

We lived in a two-storey house, the last of a row in a working-class estate, a blessing as we had a big grass area next to us with a football pitch. On those long summer evenings, I ran around imagining that I was Whiteside, flying down the wing, dodging tackles. Dreaming that one day it would be me.

I collected my first goal bonus when I was eight. The occasion was my first 11-a-side for Rathmore Primary School, and I banged in a hat-trick. Dad had promised me 20p for every goal.

Football gave me an identity in my new school. Moving to Bangor was hardly a big switch; two of Mum’s brothers lived within six miles and her parents eventually moved there. Dad’s family in Larne were only 18 miles away. So I found settling quite straightforward, although my favourite sport helped a lot. While Dad had togged out at a high enough amateur level, there was no real football pedigree in our family. It turned out I was quite decent at it. I entered Rathmore at P4 level – P7 was the oldest – and I was instantly promoted to the school team. The teachers spotted me in the playground. Like any kid, I loved getting the ball and trying to dribble around others, and I seemed to have more success than most. I didn’t know how good I was, but I copped that getting put in with lads three years older than me was a compliment.

It also introduced me to a lifelong friend, Jim Allen, who would later act as best man at my second wedding. He was in P6 and his back garden leaned onto the school grounds. Our house was nearby and I spent most evenings kicking the ball about with Jim and the other lads from the area. We’ve been best mates since. Jim has always looked out for me. There was a dark alley that linked our estates and, at night, when we finished playing, Jim would stand at his end and watch me sprint down it just to be sure that I made it to the other side safely. Through the years, I’ve trusted people that I shouldn’t have, but Jim never let me down.

Our team started winning games and I was picked to play for our district. Soon, I was playing wherever I could, even with the Boys Brigade, effectively a Northern Irish version of the boy scouts, who only offered one thing that I was really interested in. My Dad and his friend Morris McCullough started a team called Bangor West, and started entering lads from our age group in tournaments. Even though we were basically formed from nothing, we went to Belfast and won the Northern Ireland Indoor Championships. They said I was the star player, but I didn’t really think about that. As in later life, I tried not to think too hard about anything. All I wanted was to get the ball, and enjoy myself.

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