Alex Mills Sunday Life feature on Tommy Shields

Posted : 3rd February 2019

The following excellent article on former Linfield player Tommy Shields by the leading sports journalist Alex Mills was published in a recent edition of Sunday Life and is reproduced with the kind permission of the writer and the paper.


What have Tottenham Hotspur, the European Cup, Mount Everest and Daniel O’Donnell all got in common?

They are all linked in some shape or form to the irrepressible Tommy Shields – a guy who made a lasting impression in a relatively short eight-year spell in Irish League football.

Articulate, educated and well-travelled, Tommy has achieved in life what most others dream about.

From rubbing shoulders with legends like Jimmy Greaves and Alan Gilzean, to scaling the world’s biggest mountain, the Banbridge man has just about seen it all.

And, even at 75-years-of age, he’s still not finished as he wants to follow up his visit to the Grand Canyon with another trip to America later this year.

Even though his romance with local football was considered a brief encounter -- compared to some players’ careers -- he still managed to leave with a full set of medals, when six trophies were on offer.

Born and brought up in Dromore, County Down, and a member of a family of 10, Tommy, in his days at Banbridge Academy, represented Ulster and Ireland at schoolboy hockey.

But his football skills surfaced when he moved to Queen’s University to embark on an Honours Degree in Geography.

Not many people turn down the chance of full-time football, but Tommy was an exception, having rebuffed an offer from Bill Nicholson after the Spurs boss spotted him playing in a British Universities game.

“As a 17-year-old, I almost joined Glentoran,” recalls Tommy. “I was playing for Queen’s University in the B Division, but it transpired you were not allowed to play Irish League football when at Uni.

“We had a great side that included, Brian Mulgrew and Lew Huddleston, who both went on to play at senior level. We won the Irish Collingwood Cup four years on the bounce – I don’t think it was ever done before.

“I was then selected for the British Universities side and that’s when I came into contact with Bill Nicholson. He offered me an amateur contract. I played for Spurs reserves for a couple of seasons. They used to fly me over at weekends, out of the old Nutt’s Corner Airport.

“When I completed my degree at Queen’s in 1966, I went over to Tottenham for pre-season training. By that stage, big Pat Jennings, was at White Hart Lane.

“In all honesty, I don’t think I was cut out for the full-time game. Even though I enjoyed the training and mingled with the likes of Terry Venables, Jimmy Greaves and Alan Gilzean, it just didn’t sit easily with me.

“I’d too much time on my hands. I used to spend my days visiting museums. There wasn’t a great deal of money in English football back then – unlike today’s modern game. The Spurs boys were on £40-£60 a week.

“When I was offered a teaching job back in Northern Ireland, it made up my mind to return home.”

Linfield manager Tommy Leishman was quick off the mark when word filtered back. After a meeting with the big Scot and secretary Harry Wallace, the deal was sealed.

“I was well looked after at Linfield . . . I was on a pay-per-play sort of deal, earning £8 a week,” adds Tommy. “Coupled with my teaching job at Kilkeel High School, I was earning as much as the boys in England.

“Leishman was re-building and we had a great side . . . Iam McFaul, Bryan Hamilton, Phil Scott, Billy Ferguson. I spent only three years at Windsor Park and had many highlights – we won the League title in my first season.

“In fact, I won every medal with the exception of the Irish Cup (he later put that right).

Probably, the biggest achievement was reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the 1966-67 season.”

After beating Luxemborg side Aris 9-4 on aggregate in the first round, the Blues then defeated Valerenga of Norway, 5-2 in round two, over two legs.

“That earned us a quarter-final place against Bulgarian side CSKA. They were an army side, but it was basically the Bulgarian national team. It was unbelievable. We drew 2-2 at Windsor Park . . . Bryan Hamilton and I scored the goals, but we lost 1-0 in Sofia.

“I think it would be fair to say that Bryan and I are the only two players from Northern Ireland to have scored in the quarter finals of the European Cup.

“CSKA were beaten by Inter Milan in the semi-finals, who then lost to Celtic in the final.

“During my time at Linfield, I had the pleasure of meeting the great Joe Bambrick -- or Joe Gardiner Absolom Bambrick, which was his full title. On occasions, he would travel in the team bus to games . . . he was a fair age back then.

“When I looked back on his record, in 299 games he scored a staggering 364 goals.

And, when he was at Linfield, he hit the net 286 times in 183 games, which was phenomenal.

“He turned out 11 times for Northern Ireland, scoring 12 goals and is still the only player to score at double hat-trick in an international game against Wales. It was an honour to meet him.

“I had a wonderful time at Linfield – three great years. When Ewan Fenton replaced Leishman, I didn’t feature so much. I suppose it would be fair to say I fell out of favour.”

When Tommy was eventually released, Ards boss George Eastham led the queue for his signature.

“I was part of the deal that took Warren Feeney in the opposite direction,” remembers Tommy. “Again, I was fortunate to join a great Ards team, who had Sam Kydd, Don Johnston, Billy Nixon, Billy Humphries, the late David McCoy, and the lethal Billy McAvoy up front.

“It didn’t take me long to complete my set of Irish League medals as we won the Irish Cup in 1969, beating Distillery in the final.

“The initial game wasn’t one to remember as it finished scoreless. But the replay is still talked about because McAvoy scored the four goals in our 4-2 win. I still think he mentions it on the odd occasion!

“We finished runners-up to Linfield twice in the title race. There were some tough teams during that era . . . although the Blues were regular title winners, you never got it easy against the likes of Glentoran, Crusaders, Portadown, Coleraine and Glenavon.”

After five years at Castlereagh Park, Tommy decided to hang up the boots, even though he was only in his early 30s.

“I played a lot of junior stuff, just for fun” added Tommy, who had been appointed vice-principal of Tandragee Junior High School, before embarking on a role with the Education Authority. “I thought it was time I devoted a bit of time to my wife and four children who were growing up very quickly.”

When Tommy retired in 2003, he didn’t intend to sit on a rocking chair and puff on a cigar. Instead, he decided to visit some of the world’s most famous landmarks, including Mount Everest Base Camp, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, Tanzania and the Oregon Coast.

“I’m very much into travel,” he went on. “I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some wonderful places . . . I’ve lot of relatives in America which helps.

“I was also bitten by the golf bug back in th 1980s. I was captain of Warrenpoint Golf Club in 1987 – the year we won five all-Ireland titles, which I’m very proud of.”

And, his association with ace crooner Daniel O’Daniel? Tommy concludes: “My son Gavin is married to Siobhan, who is the daughter of Majella, Daniel’s wife.

“Daniel and Majella are often in Banbridge to look after the two grandchildren, who they adore.

“My wife Linda and I also know where to go if we want a cup of tea when we visit Donegal!”

Did you know?

Tommy made his Linfield debut in a in a 3-1 win against Crusaders in September, 1966. He was on the score sheet along with Billy Ferguson, who bagged a double. Joe Meldrum hit the Crues’ consolation.

After three successful years at Windsor Park, Tommy moved on to Ards. He made his debut in a 2-2 draw with Derry City in an Ulster Cup game in September, 1968 – he scored his team’s two goals at Castlereagh Park.

In an ironic twist, Tommy’s final game for Ards -- one Thursday in March, 1973 -- was against his former club Linfield at Castlereagh Park. Denis Guy gave the home team the lead only for Paul Malone to equalise. But the irony was, the dropped point meant that Crusaders won the league title – finishing one point above Ards!

In his five seasons at Ards, Tommy played 111 games and scored 19 goals.
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