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A road well travelled

Gerry McElhinney's journey from Dreen to the cusp of Euro 1984

A road well travelled

Gerry gets a tackle in on Karl-Heinz Rummenigge during Northern Ireland's 1-0 win over West Germany in Hamburg in a qualifier for the 1984 European Championships

Former Derry GAA star Gerry McElhinney left for a trial for Celtic and after being released, he rebuilt his career and was on the cusp of playing for Northern Ireland at the 1984 European Championships. Michael McMullan tells the story of the Park man's soccer career...

***

The weekends were always about football for Gerry McElhinney. Right from the beginning. And as much as he could possibly squeeze in. Gaelic football or soccer, it didn't matter.

In January 1972, in his mid-teens, he set off from the family home under the slopes of Sawel mountain. He walked a mile down the Barnes Road. Boots and gear at the ready, he'd rest against the wall of the bridge in Park.

It was the start of a regular occurrence, waiting on the recently-formed Dungiven Celtic to collect him for the first game of a soccer career that would take him to Celtic, a career in England and the cusp of the 1984 European Championships.

“I used to walk down from Dreen, because you would never have found it, it was a little farm,” McElhinney begins.

His GAA career would earn him an all-star at the age of 18 in his first season with Derry seniors in 1975.

In 11 of a family, six boys and five girls, football was always the game of choice in the fields around home, with the neighbours joining in to bolster the numbers.

From the rural Moneyhaughan Primary School, he moved on to St Patrick's and St Brigid's in the nearby village of Claudy.

Hughie Doherty was on the teaching staff and passed on his fascination with sport. The school's gym was a haven for youngsters after school. Basketball, Gaelic football or soccer. It didn't matter. Indeed, it was often after six o'clock before McElhinney returned home.

“Hughie was the guy who got me to Dungiven Celtic. I was 15 at the time and I played in goals for them,” said McElhinney.

Derry City had withdrawn from the Irish league and before they became affiliated with the League of Ireland in the 1980s, they operated in the realms of junior football. It wasn't long before McElhinney joined them.

He recalls how hard it was to get around at the time during 'The Troubles', but he always found time for sport.

“I would've played football seven days a week,” he said.

After an outing for Derry City in the morning, Saturday afternoon would revolve around Dungiven Celtic and before he had played for Banagher on Sunday, McElhinney would've fitted in a game with Dungiven's Sunday morning league team.

He was the oldest in the house and it wasn't he until was 14 that the family home had electricity. The first game he saw televised was the 1970 FA Cup replay. David Webb's injury time winner for Chelsea over Leeds and a Chelsea kit received as a present swayed him towards supporting the blues.

Performances at the heart of Derry City's defence brought him to the attention of the other club he supported – Glasgow Celtic.

***

Jock Stein's right-hand man in the Celtic dug-out was Sligo man Sean Fallon, who scouted players such as Kenny Dalglish and goalkeeper Packie Bonner, Stein's last signing as Parkhead boss.

“When I played with Derry City, there were some Celtic scouts watching. They were a brilliant club...Sean was assistant manager, but he knew all about Donegal, he had scouts all around there,” McElhinney recalls.

They liked what they saw and their 16 year-old target was invited for trial and was snapped up on a semi-professional arrangement. McElhinney would fit it in around work and was given time off to spend the summer in Glasgow. He played 'on and off' for a season with the club's reserves.

While he was trying keep trim for the boxing back home under Jim Noonan's eye in Draperstown, Stein insisted their new signing needed to put on weight. McElhinney was stuck in the middle.

“I stayed in a hotel, near Hampden Park, and I used to travel into training every morning. My diet, every other night, was four pints of Guinness in the hotel,” McElhinney joked, having put on a stone and a half.

“By the time I came back from Celtic to play for Derry I had went welterweight to middleweight. Arthur (Guinness) had something to answer, it was very good protein.”

Gerry didn't force himself into the first-team at Parkhead, but rubbed shoulders with many future Hoops' legends in the reserves side- names like Bobby Lennox, Peter Latchford and George McCluskey.

During nearly two hours on the phone, his level of detail is staggering. He never forgets a name. From the Derry players he played with, the soccer battles he had and right down to those he worked for during his summers in America.

“A lot of the time, especially in the bad weather, the Celtic first-teamers would play (for the reserves) to keep themselves fit,” he continued.

At the time, Billy McNeill had left the club. Roddy McDonald was on the books and they brought in Roy Aitken, who would go on to captain the club and win the league and cup double in 1988.

McElhinney was surplus to requirements, but his career was far from finished. It was time to head back home, but his career was only beginning.

***

Gerry hit the brakes, but nothing happened. The car skidded on the black ice, careered across the road and over the hedge.

“There'll be no Castle the night Jim,” Gerry offered, when the car eventually came to a stop. He was referring to the infamous Dungiven night spot and the Jim was Jim McGroarty. McElhinney was dropping him off in Lettershandoney on their way back from a Finn Harps game.

“I had to go and get towed out,” McElhinney remembers. “My da was going mad because it was his car and I was in the bad books for a while.”

He was on loan from Parkhead to the Harps. He had one game under his belt in centre midfield against Shamrock Rovers, before regular goalkeeper Gerry Murray got injured. In their hour of need, they turned to McElhinney.

“I had played in goals for Dungiven and Patsy McGowan (Harps' manager) kicked a few balls at me under lights in a car park in Ballybofey and reckoned I would be a good goalkeeper.”

He was never going to stay in goals. Goalkeeper Packie Bonner used the rough and tumble of the Donegal club GAA scene to toughened him. Coming for crosses was a breeze.

McElhinney was different.  He played 'a dozen' games between the posts for the Harps, but wasn't for him. Boredom set in.  He missed the banter of being stuck in the middle of a game.

“We did alright, we beat Bohemians on a night when I got man of the match and we had some good times,” he said of this time at the club.

This spell came during Gerry's GAA career with Derry and during the summer he'd jet off to America for work and play a bit of ball.

During his time in Philadelphia, he played with FC Berne and he had trials with Chicago Sting. But as 1979 came to a conclusion, so too did his time in the US.

***

When Annie McElhinney answered the phone and a thick Scottish accent filtered down the line, the first thought was that Celtic were back in the hunt for her son's signature.

It wasn't, but it was an opportunity to kick-start a soccer career that had been parked. It was the voice of Distillery manager Gibby McKenzie.

On his return from America, Gerry had written to 'a few clubs' asking if he could get a trial. Distillery were the only club to take notice.

“Right big man, if you want to come and play for us, you can come and play for us,” McKenzie bellowed down the phone.

At the time, they had no ground and shared with Brantwood in Antrim. McElhinney got Kenny Shiels and Eugene Young involved in the club.

“At that stage, Distillery pretty much finished bottom of the league every season,” Gerry recalls. “Martin O'Neill had gone by the time I got there. I played there for a season and done really well.”

McKenzie was replaced as boss by Bertie Neill as manager. He arranged for McElhinney to have a trial with English top-flight club Bristol City, who had Joe Royle on their team.

“I played against Vancouver Whitecaps, it was a friendly. We drew 1-1 and I thought I did fairly well,” Gerry adds.

Manager Alan Dicks was impressed by what he saw, but with the club's financial situation and so many of the squad on long-term contracts.  His hands were tied.

“I was that down in the dumps, so I decided to go back to America. I came back again at Christmas and went back to Distillery,” he continues.

With a good pre-season under his belt, he was playing well and impressed a Bolton Wanderers scout during a friendly away to Drogheda in July 1980. Within a week, McElhinney and Neill were on a plane over to Bolton.

Gerry in his Bolton kit

“I played a friendly against Bury FC. It was 0-0 and I done quite well and they more or less signed me straight after the game.

“Bolton bought me for a fee that rose to around £45,000 after I had played a certain amount of games and lined out with Northern Ireland. Distillery moved to their new stadium in Lisburn, got the greyhound track and built that big wall. They reckon my transfer paid for that wall. They were really good to me.”

***

Anytime Northern Ireland Billy Bingham came to see Billy Hamilton play for Burnley against Bolton his heart must've been in his mouth. Gerry McElhinney didn't stand on ceremony. He gave as good as he got.

During his first two seasons at Bolton, the international call never came despite being on the standby list for the squad in the build-up to the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

“I broke my toe. It had came through my boot and I was injured and would've never been fit,” McElhinney admits.

Later in his Bolton career, after returning from a 20-game spell at Rochdale, he forced himself into the first-team and his form earned him an international call-up, with the 1984 European Championships around the corner.

Seven games came and went, with McElhinney yet to make an appearance. Their last game was against West Germany, who they had beaten 1-0 in Belfast thanks to Ian Stewart's goal earlier in the campaign.

With Hamburg's Volksparkstadion filling to an attendance of over 61,000, Billy Bingham decided to reshuffle his deck and took his Derry contingent to three.

Martin O'Neill was joined by Paul Ramsay for his second appearance and dropped Chris Nicholl at the expense of Gerry McElhinney for his debut at the age of 27.

Gerry remembers Bingham giving him the news: “You're playing big man, get yourself sorted out,” he was told.

“I didn't think that much about it at the time, it was just a game. You have to understand that I would've travelled anywhere for a game of football,” McElhinney said.

Just to spice it up, he was up against captain Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who had six goals to his name during the campaign, but the Park man's early tackle laid down a marker.

After 25 minutes, Northern Ireland grew in confidence much to the frustration of the home fans. Early in the second half, Harald Schumacher failed to hold an Ian Stewart effort and when Ramsay's shot was blocked, Norman Whiteside fired them into a 1-0 lead.

McElhinney was part of the back four that thwarted the Germans and on the one occasion they threatened to beat goalkeeper Pat Jennings, Jimmy Nicholl cleared the ball off the line from Lothar Matthaus' shot.

For four days, Northern Ireland led West Germany by three points in the one qualifying spot.

“They had a game in hand against Albania to qualify and a win would put them through on score difference,” McElhinney can remember.

Their chances were not out of their own hands. The Albanians took an early lead, only for Rummenigge to immediately level the game and with 11 minutes to go, Gerhard Strack's goal ended their qualification dreams.

“After that, I played for Northern Ireland in the Home Championships and we were the last winners of it in 1984,” McElhinney adds.

In the first game, they were 2-0 winners over a Scotland side that included Roy Aitken. McElhinney nearly score a third and after the game the Scots' manager Jock Stein admitted to McElhinney that he should've kept him on at Celtic.

***

By Christmas of 1984, Bolton were in the third tier of the league and their bank accounts didn't make for pleasant reading. Aside from a squad of kids, McElhinney and Jeff Chander were the only senior players they 'could sell' to help their plight.

“He went to Derby County and I went Plymouth. Bolton got a combined total of £100,000 and it kept them afloat. Even though they had been relegated from the first division, they were still getting really good crowds.

“They lost a lot of players, with them not being given contracts. Nothing has changed with Bolton, they still have got no money.”

During his four years at Plymouth, McElhinney was captain for two seasons as they gained promotion to the old second division. In his first season, 1984/85, he helped tighten up their defence, helping them begin their climb – beginning with a 2-0 win over Bolton early in his spell. The following year, Argyle were promoted in second place.

”We beat Bristol City in a mid-week game to seal promotion. Reading won it, we were second and Derby County came third,” McElhinney remembers.

His Gaelic career was beginning to take prominence back home and after steering Gortin to the final of the Tyrone senior championship – a game be missed due to Bolton's pre-season – he transferred back to Craigbane.

“A lot of the guys who sign for Plymouth never leave that area. It is a lovely and Cornwall is on your doorstep,” explains McElhinney, who had the opportunity of following his promotion winning manager to picturesque Torquay.

“I was coming home, every now and then, playing Gaelic football on the sly. To come home and play, I had to drive from Plymouth to London to get a flight home. I thought I'd move a bit closer, so I moved to Peterborough.”

When Peterborough gained promotion in the 1991 season, Gerry was the youth team coach before moving to non-league Corby Town for two seasons at the end of his career.

Gerry now lives in Draycott, near Derby where he currently works in construction. He is still fanatical about sport. He is also a guest at Bolton on match-days days and takes part in an open mic question and answer session.

“Plymouth get me down too, I am part of the Plymouth Argyle legends and I got my free tie,” he laughs.

Gerry McElhinney – a legend on both sides of the pond.

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