Alex Mills newspaper feature on Dessie Cathcart

Posted : 21st October 2019

The following article on former Linfield winger Dessie Cathcart by leading local sport journalist Alex Mills was published in a recent issue of Sunday Life and is reproduced below with the permission of the author and the newspaper.

IRISH LEAGUE LIVES . . . . DESSIE CATHCART

FRANCIS Lee, the former Manchester City and England star, thought he had seen it all until he faced Linfield in a European Cup Winners’ Cup tie at Windsor Park.

The teams had previously been acquainted because Billy Bingham’s boys travelled to Maine Road on September 15, 1970, only to be beaten by a last gasp Colin Bell goal.

The English Division One giants, managed by Joe Mercer -- assisted by the cigar-chugging Malcolm Allison – arrived in Belfast a fortnight later for the return fixture. They were hot favourites to dismantle the Irish League part-timers.

As kick-off approached, City emerged from the sanctuary of their dressing room into the long, dark, imposing corridor, that dominated the old international stadium.

They were soon joined by their opponents. But just before both teams walked out in front of a bouncing Windsor Park, which was packed to the rafters, Blues winger Dessie Cathcart had one little piece of business to attend to.

He chuckled: “My wife’s mother was a massive fan of Francis Lee. She asked me to get his autograph. So, when we were lining up, I dashed back to get my pen and asked him to do the needful.

“I’m sure he thought I was mad. This was before a big European game. He signed, ‘to Peggy, best wishes from Franny Lee’. I then had to go back to our dressing room with the programme before we could walk out.

“Peggy was chuffed to bits when I handed it to her the next day.”

Dessie played in both games against the City aristocrats – a team that boasted the lethal forward line of Lee, Bell, Mike Summerbee, Neil Young and Tony Towers.

“There was a hot of hype in the English newspapers leading up to the game over there,” recalls Dessie. “Young stated that if he didn’t score four goals, he would class it as a failure. Whether it was paper talk, I don’t know, but they scraped home 1-0.”

Once he got Lee’s name on his programme at Windsor Park, Dessie and the irrepressible Billy Millen helped the Blues produce one of the biggest shocks in European history.

Although, Lee scored early on to silence the partisan crowd, Millen bagged a glorious double that had City hanging on. They eventually progressed to the next round on the away-goal rule.

“Their goalkeeper, Joe Corrigan, later admitted it was one of the most intimidating atmospheres he had ever witnessed,” added Dessie. “The boys on the Spion Kop not only hurled abuse at him, but everything else as well. Billy Bingham had to plead with the fans to stop throwing stuff.

“Bingham has us training four nights a week and we were as fit as City. I remember some of the our lads being violently sick he trained us that hard.”

Having been born and brought up on the Donegall Road, it was a dream come true when Dessie joined the club he supported as a boy.

“One of my mates was Alex Higgins,” declared Dessie. “He lived at the back of our house. He used to hang out in a little entry called the 3D-bit. Higgy was gambling from no age, throwing the old pennies from the edge of the kerb, nearest to the wall.

“My parents moved when I was nine to a bigger house further up the Donegall Road, facing the Methodist Church . . . I was a member of the 388th Boys Brigade.

“I started playing for Shorts in the Amateur League and, when I was 17, I was asked up to Windsor Park. I by-passed the Rangers and went straight into the Swifts team. Tommy Dickson was everyone’s idol, but for me, John Parke and Alex Russell were my idols.

“I played with some great players in Swifts . . . Billy Craig, Billy Wilson while either Bertie McGonigle or Tommy Moffett were in goals. My first team debut was in one of the cup competitions against Ards

“It was a team committee that picked the team -- Leslie McClean, Tommy Armstrong and wee George Best. I don’t remember who gave the team talk – it definitely wasn’t one of those boys . . . three wee men in suits, shirts and ties.

“When Tommy Leishman arrived in 1965, he took charge of all team affairs – he was a big Scot. We won the League title in his first season, pipping Derry City and Glentoran.”

Dessie had the chance to complete a full set of Irish League medals when the Blues reached the 1968 Irish Cup final against Crusaders – but things didn’t quite go according to plan.

He remembers: “I had won every medal four or five times over, and desperately wanted the Irish Cup.

“There was a bit of rivalry leading up to the match, which was hyped up in the papers. Two of my mates were in the Crues team. Thanny Brush and I played together at Kelvin Secondary School, while Alex Anderson lived near me and was in the same BB.

“Things were not right from the start. Ronnie Wood was due to fly in from Scotland, but the flight was delayed because of fog over there. There was still no sign of him at 2.30pm when we were getting ready. Stanley Gregg was told he was playing.

“The teams on the pitch, shooting in before kick-off. The referee was ready to call the respective captains. The next thing, Ronnie (Wood) runs out on to the pitch and Gregg was called off.

“Joe Meldrum shot the Crues into the lead, but we were awarded a first half penalty. Ronnie hit it and I think finished up in Dee Street.

When we were awarded a second one after the break, none of our experienced boys wanted to hit it . . . Phil Scott, Sammy Pavis, Billy Ferguson or Bryan Hamilton didn’t fancy it.

“I just grabbed the ball. I didn’t hit it all that well and Terry Nicholson saved it. But it got worse because he rolled the ball to Anderson. He sent the winger away on the right, who crossed for Meldrum to score at the back post. It was a double whammy . . . 2-0 and the game was over.”

Two years later, Dessie missed out again. Even though the Blues did lift the Irish Cup following a 2-1 win over Ballymena United at Solitude – Phil Scott scored both – he was out injured after breaking his leg in a league game ironically at Ballymena.

After five years, Dessie’s Linfield romance came to an end. If one memorable chapter was about to close another one was just about to open at Ards

“I was still only about 25, but I was for packing in the game altogether,” admits Dessie. “Having won practically everything, my motivation wasn’t the same. But Billy Humphries was very persuasive. I had a men’s clothes shop in the town, it suited me to join Ards. My former team-mate Ronnie McAteer arrived at the same time, from Crusaders.

“Well, you just couldn’t have written the script for what was about the happen. Wee Billy put together a great team, which is still the most successful in the club’s history.

“Billy McAvoy and Denis Guy scored goals for fun . . . we had Duckie Johnston, David McCoy, Billy Nixon, Sid Patterson, with Denis Matthews in goals.

“The Ulster Cup was the first trophy to arrive at Castlereagh Park, followed by the Gold Cup – we beat Bangor 4-1 in the final.

“Guy and McAvoy scored the goals to secure the Irish Cup with a 2-1 win over Ballymena United. At last, I got to complete my set of Irish League medals, but we were still not finished.

“We defeated Drogheda in a Blaxnit (All-Ireland) Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out to set up another meeting with Ballymena United in the final. We romped home 3-1 at Windsor Park.

“Although a few of the boys have passed away, most of the others still have a reunion every year to mark that remarkable achievement back in the 1973/74 season.

“I remember touring the bars in Newtownards with the four trophies – it was a unique occasion. Humphries said to me, ‘I supposed you are used to this, being at Linfield?’

“I told him if we didn’t win four trophies in a season at Linfield, we would be classed as failures – and that’s true.”

Did you know? . . .

Dessie won three Northern Ireland Amateur caps in the 1968/69 season against England, Wales and Scotland. He also represented the Irish League on three occasions, from 1968-1970, twice against the English Football League (which included a posse of the country’s World Cup winning team) and the League of Ireland.

He almost joined Linfield’s biggest rivals Glentoran on one occasion when the Blues were haggling over contract terms. When news got out Dessie was approached by Peter McParland, a settlement was quickly agreed.

When he joined Ards at the start of the 1973-74 season, making his debut in a 5-0 win over Ballymena United, Dessie went on to play in all but five of his new club’s 57 games.

In almost two seasons at Castlereagh Park, Dessie made 92 appearance, scoring 29 goals – his final outing was an Ulster Cup tie against Cliftonville on October 9, 1976.
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