Alex Mills article on Gary Peebles

Posted : 3rd March 2019

The following excellent article on former Linfield midfielder Gary Peebles by leading local sports journalist Alex Mills was published in a recent issue of Sunday Life and is reproduced by kind permission of the writer and the paper.

IRISH LEAGUE LIVES
GARY PEEBLES


NEVER one to shirk a challenge on or off the pitch, it’s no surprise Gary Peebles became an iconic Irish League figure in a roller-coaster seven-year romance.

Confident, charismatic and controversial, there was never a dull moment when the talented, bustling midfielder – famed for his trademark shirt-over-the-head goal celebration -- arrived on these shores from his native Scotland in the early 1990s.

Having been snapped up from Partick Thistle by Ronnie McFall, Gary embarked on a success-driven white-knuckle ride that earned him a stash of winners’ medals, both at Portadown and Linfield.

But it wasn’t all high-fives and back slaps. He was involved in an ugly bust-up in a second spell at Shamrock Park, which ended up in the courts. He later got caught up in a legal battle with Newry Town over unpaid wages – more of that later.

It was an out-of-the-blue New Year’s Day telephone call from McFall that tempted Gary to try his luck in Irish League football.

“I hadn’t a clue where Portadown was,” he chuckles. “I never heard of the place. But Ronnie, being Ronnie, there was a few quid in it as a sweetener. I knew Dougie Bell and Stevie Cowan were there. I originally came over for four weeks before being recalled by Partick.

“Ronnie managed to persuade our manager John Lambe to let met stay until the end of the season.”

Realising his days at Thistle were numbered, former Liverpool striker David Hodgson, who was acting as a PFA agent, offered Gary the chance of joining a Swedish First Division side. Alternatively, there were lower-division clubs in England up for grabs.

But a telephone call from Linfield scout Jim Emery altered the landscape of Gary’s career.

“Jim had been keeping tabs on me and asked me over to meet him and manager Trevor Anderson,” recalls Gary in his broad Scots accent. “They flew me over and I met them in a Belfast hotel. Ronnie (McFall) was still hovering – he tabled a one-year contract.

“After lunch, Trevor and Jim took me to Windsor Park and offered me a two-year deal.

They told me to go home and think about it. I wasn’t long married. I knew Linfield were the biggest club in the country . . . they had just won the league title, so I thought, why not? Let’s give it a go.”

Although Gary then achieved an ambition by appearing in the Champions League, he was about to face a baptism of fire because the Blues were drawn against Dinamo Tbilisi, which meant they faced a nightmare journey to the newly formed independent state of Georgia, following the break-up of the USSR.

“We lost 2-1 out there, but it was shooting-in,” adds Gary. “Our goalkeeper Wes Lamont had the game of his life – he was unbelievable. It was probably the greatest match he’d ever played.

“There were around 60,000 fans in the stadium, it was such an intimidating place. We brought Tbilisi back to Windsor and drew 1-1.

“I flew home the next morning, but later in the day, I received a telephone call from Gary Eccles to say that we were back in the tournament because Tbilisi allegedly attempted to bribe a match official in the game over there and were thrown out.

“We faced FC Copenhagen in the next round. We absolutely destroyed them at Windsor, winning 3-0. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we approached the return game in Denmark thinking we could win it. We should have adapted a more cautious attitude.

“We were two-nil down before the half-hour. However, we regrouped at half-time and defended for our lives in the second half. That was until they were awarded a debatable free kick deep into injury time. There were not a lot of injuries, but we were around six minutes onto added time.

“Anyway, the boy hit a wonder strike right into the top corner. If he was to do it 100 times, he couldn’t repeat it. At that stage we were out on our feet. They scored again in the first half of extra-time and we just couldn’t respond. To add insult to injury, Copenhagen were drawn against AC Milan in the next round.”

Gary was the driving force behind Linfield’s title win in his first season. He remembers: “The turning point came when we played Glentoran at Windsor Park. They were winning one nil, but I scored in the very last minute. I ran the length of the park. That’s when I pulled the jersey over my head, which stuck with me – it became my trademark celebration. We went on a run of 33 games without losing – it was a fantastic season.

“I think Trevor thought that team would dominate for a few years, but every team needs to add quality year on year. We didn’t do that, so we suffered in the league the following season. Although we won the Shield and Irish Cup, we let ourselves down in the league.

“I was bothered by Achilles-tendonitis. If I played on the Saturday, I couldn’t train until Thursday. I scored 16 goals in my second year, which was decent from midfield, but I didn’t play to my potential because of the injury.

“A physio in Scotland told me I needed a month of total rest to clear it up, but the manager (Anderson) kept telling me I was needed. Then, at the end of the season, I was released which was disappointing.”

Gary was on the radar of Tommy Cassidy (Glentoran), Nigel Best (Glenavon) and Felix Healy (Coleraine), while McFall was also on the prowl.

“I remember a director telling me, if Stranraer come in, we’ll not be difficult to deal with, but if Inter Milan are interested, it’s a different matter. What he meant was the price would be based on whatever club made a bid. It scared off a few, but Ronnie kept in touch and told me to bide my time.

“The clubs eventually went to a tribunal and he ended up paying £22,000 which was a lot of money back then. I signed a two-year deal and it worked out well.”

Gary was in his second year with the Ports when he got caught up in a brawl in the tunnel area at Shamrock Park when Mid Ulster rivals Glenavon were visiting – it was a scenario that not only grabbed the headlines, but duly ended his days at the club

“Obviously, it’s an incident I regret. There was a fight and it shouldn’t have happened, but it was heat of the moment thing,” admitted Gary. “I was on my way back to the airport to catch a flight home when I was picked up by the Police at the Moira roundabout.

“They took me back to Lurgan Station to be interviewed. When returned, I was remanded in custody. I spent a couple of nights in Maghaberry before appearing at Belfast High Court. I was fined and given a suspended jail sentence. I was never in trouble in my life, so it was all new to me.

“Portadown were fantastic and were really supportive. I remained until the end of the season and the club honoured my wages.”

In a strange quick of fate, Anderson had moved on to Newry Town – under the Joe Rice revolution – and he persuaded Gary to join the border club.

“We beat every team in front of us and won the First Division by the proverbial mile,” concluded Gary. “Ollie Ralph and Harry Fay replaced Trevor. They brought me over to play against Crusaders on a cold winter night and I ruptured my hamstring. I could hardly walk the next day.

“That was the beginning of the end for me. Newry owed me quite a bit of money, so I had to get former Linfield player, the solicitor Peter Dornan, to represent me. He won the case hands down because I had everything in black and white. Newry opted for out of court settlement.”

Did you know?

Gary was born and brought up in Paisley and, as a 17-year-old, achieved an ambition by joining the club he supported as a kid – St Mirren. He moved to Love Street as a striker, having bagged 40 and 50 goals every season in junior football, but was soon converted to a right back. He made his debut on November 1986 in a scoreless draw against Hearts.

Gary had an impressive CV at all of his clubs: 1987: He was a member of the St Mirren Scottish Cup winning squad. 1989: Glasgow Cup winner with Partick Thistle. 1992: promoted to SPL with Partick. 1994: Irish League title, Irish Cup and Irish League Cup winner with Linfield. 1996: Irish League title and Irish Cup winner with Portadown. 1998: First Division winner with Newry Town

After retiring in 1999, he returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in 2011 to take in the Linfield versus Portadown game as an analyst for the BBC. Gary is also due back in Belfast next month to attend a 25-year reunion, organised by Raven Linfield Supporters’ Club at Malone Rugby Club.

He finished his playing days at Ards who were managed by Tommy Cassidy. But it was a partnership that lasted merely six weeks.

Gary is currently an operations manager with Kibble Education and Care Centre, Scotland, dealing with youths with behavioural or mental health problems.
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