Alex Mills newspaper article on Gary McCartney
Posted : 21st April 2020
The following excellent article on former Linfield player Gary McCartney in a recent issue of Sunday Life by leading local sports journalist Alex Mills, is reproduced here with the kind permission of the writer and the newspaper.
IRISH LEAGUE LIVES . . . GARY McCARTNEY
HE was regularly mistaken for Glentoran’s Gary Macartney, but there were two vital characteristics that separated the pair.
The first is Gary McCartney was a dyed-in-blue Linfield man, born under the shadow of the towering North Stand at Windsor Park in Ebor Street . . . and the second is he was never a prolific goal scorer!
Gary enjoyed a fairytale introduction to full-time football, snapped up by Liverpool even before he cut his teeth in the Irish League. As a 17-year-old, he was offered a professional contract – a dream for any budding young prospect.
And, within months of arriving on Merseyside, he struck up a firm friendship with Alan Hansen, who had been signed from Partick Thistle. Not only was the big Scot part of a team that rewrote the record books – winning eight league titles – but he went on to enjoy a 22-year spell as a television pundit.
Hansen and Gary shared lodgings and, even when the international defender moved on, the bonding remained.
Not bad for a Belfast lad who earned a trial at one of the world’s most famous clubs, having taken up a challenge from his teacher, Jake Gallagher, who was not only a qualified football coach, but head of English at Dundonald High School.
“Jake offered me a deal, if I passed my English exam, he would organise a trial at Liverpool,” recalls Gary. “Of course, I took that with a pinch of salt.
“I was at Manchester United a few times on the recommendation of Bob Bishop and, to be honest, thought no more about Jake’s proposition.
“On the final day of term, he handed me a piece of paper with a telephone number . . . it was Tom Saunders, the head of Liverpool Academy.
“I’d signed for Ards before that. I was making the transition from schoolboy to senior football.
“To my delight, Liverpool offered me an apprenticeship. But for some reason there was a dispute (with Ards) that held up the procedure.
“When I arrived at Anfield, it was four days after my 17th birthday, which meant I missed the deadline for the apprenticeship. The registration couldn’t be backdated.
“The people at Liverpool still wanted me, so they asked would I mind signing professionally. I jumped at the chance . . . it was a dream come true.”
During that era, Liverpool were not only dominant in England, but were also kings of Europe.
“It was tough for the first few months . . . I was a young lad leaving home for the first time,” adds Gary. “I was thrust into the bright lights of a big city, with a great football pedigree.
“About a fortnight before I arrived, Kevin Keegan left to join Hamburg. But a short time later, Kenny Dalglish joined from Celtic.
“I was fortunate to have formed that great friendship with Alan (Hansen), he basically looked after me. At the end of the season, he would take me up to his home in Scotland and we would attend the Home internationals, especially when England were playing.
“When he got married to Janet, I was invited to their wedding . . . they moved away to live in Southport.
“And, when Tracey and I married a few years later, they both came over to our wedding.
“When Alan left, I moved into a house with two Dublin boys – Derek Carroll and Brian Duff. By strange coincidence, Derek and I finished up playing at Crusaders over a decade later.”
After three years, Gary was faced with a dilemma, whether to try to further his football career in England or return home.
“My contract wasn’t renewed,” he went on. “I had to make a decision, but clubs in England were off loading players.
“As fate would have it, Roy Coyle was at Liverpool for a week to study training methods and we got talking. I was also in contact with Jake Gallagher.
“Although Glentoran were interested, I made the decision to take Roy up on an offer he made in the event of me returning to Northern Ireland.
“Due to the fact he was managing the Irish League side on a tour of America, Jim Emery telephoned me to arrange a meeting at the Europa Hotel with a couple of Linfield directors. We thrashed out a deal there and then.”
It was then Gary was transformed from a fleeting left-winger, to a left-sided midfielder . . . and then to left-back.
He laughs: “Anywhere further back I would have been in the changing room! It all transpired from a tournament in Haarlem. Linfield have a few guest players, including George Neill, the late Ron Manley and Nigel Worthington.
“One of our centre-backs sustained an injury and Roy (Coyle) told Nigel to play in there. He then instructed me to play left-back – and it stuck.
“I was at Windsor Park for nine years and we had a really successful period through the 1980’s, it was unbelievable. I won three league titles and numerous other medals, but I never managed to appear in an Irish Cup final. I was either out of favour or injured.
“Linfield and Glentoran were certainly the Big Two in the country. It was a dream to play with boys like George Dunlop, Peter Rafferty, Peter Dornan, Stephen McKee and Martin McGaughey.
“We had a fantastic team spirit . . . we were the best of friends on and off the pitch. We made a point of getting together once a month socially with wives and girl friends.
“And, the Glens were equally strong because they had Jimmy Cleary, Barney Bowers, Billy Caskey and Gary Macartney.
“In fact, people regularly got me mixed up with him, even though our surname was spelt differently. Even when I finished playing, I used to be asked, are you the Gary McCartney that played for Glentoran.”
After nine years, Gary severed his Windsor Park links – by mutual, consent -- to join Bangor.
“The time was right to move on,” he added. “There was a little bit of a rift because Coyler tried to offload me to Ards. Although I got back into the side, I took a little bit of exception.
“I was married with a couple of kids, so I though a new challenge would be beneficial. John Flanagan brought me to Bangor, but he wasn’t there for long. Nigel Best took over.”
However, tragedy struck when Gary developed testicular cancer, which required surgery and radiotherapy
“I wasn’t feeling ill or anything like that,” he remembered. “I got smacked with the ball and after a week or so, a swelling developed. I went to my doctor and was soon under the knife.
“It was during the time Bangor reached the (1993) Irish Cup final against Ards, which infamously took three games to settle. I was going through the healing process and wasn’t part of it.
“Although I travelled to Windsor Park with the team, it took a lot out of me . . . it was a difficult time. Because of what happened, I decided to head up an Action Cancer campaign, just to make people more aware.
“I suppose it was nine months before I was back to full fitness. I had a bit of a fall out with Nigel . . . I think he thought I was over the hill, but I’d still plenty to offer.”
When Crusaders boss Roy Walker came knocking, Gary required little encouragement to pack his bags. And, with something to prove, he duly added another two league titles to his impressive array of honours.
“I loved every minute of it,” he laughs. “The camaraderie in the squad was outstanding . . . and what a group of players we had, Glenn Dunlop, Kirk Hunter, Stephen Baxter, Sid Burrows, along with the Dublin lads, Robbie Lawlor, my mate Derek Carroll and Martin Murray. What characters they were.
“And, with Roy being assisted by Tony O’Carroll, I had a few great years at Crusaders. We won the title in 1995 and 1997. I finished playing when I was almost 38, it was a great way to end my career, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t the backing of my parents, my wife Tracy and my kids.”
Gary found himself back at Seaview, taking over as manager from Martin Murray in 2002, but it was two years fraught with financial problems and relegation fears.
“It was a tough, tough time,” he concludes. “Things were getting to the point that my budget was ridiculous. It got to the stage that players were not being paid . . . I had boys not getting wages.
“After talking things over with my wife, I lifted the telephone to inform the late Jim Semple that I couldn’t go on under the current circumstances. He asked me to think it over, but I explained that had did plenty of thinking before contacting him. It was a really difficult period for the football club.”
Did you know?
Gary joined Linfield in September, 1980 from Liverpool. In nine years, he made of total of 168 appearances, scoring seven goals.
He made his debut in a 4-0 Gold Cup win away to Ards on October 18, 1980. He also made seven European appearances for the Blues.
Gary played in the 1976 Steel & Sons Cup final for Ards Seconds, losing 2-0 to Brantwood. He also has Northern Ireland schoolboy and youth international caps.
His days at Windsor Park were hindered by injury. He suffered two leg breaks, underwent two cartilage operations and was also out with a broken toe.
Gary is now helping out coaching at Tullycarnet FC’s Under-12 team, where his grandson plays.