BLUE-EYED BHOY…  Fenlon celebrated Linfield’s Double success by playing Celtic songs on open-top bus. Pic: Pacemaker.

With ex-Bohemian boss Pat Fenlon hotly-tipped for the soon-to-be vacated manager’s job at Linfield, KEVIN BRANNIGAN examines the role ‘Nutsy’ and other players from the Republic had in the history of one of Loyalism’s footballing bastions.

It’s early November 1993 and the newspapers on both sides of the border are filled with fear. The two Irelands are set to come head to head in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Belfast’s Windsor Park, with the Republic needing a positive result to qualify for USA ’94.

The fear was warranted. October 1993 had seen the worst month of violence in the Troubles for 17 years, with 27 deaths that included the multiple fatalities in atrocities such as the Greysteel massacre and Shankhill Road bombing.

In the week leading up to the game, the Irish Times printed a map of Belfast for the few southerners who would ignore official warnings and make the expedition, the paper colour-coding Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.

Nestled deep within Protestant South Belfast was Windsor Park, home of the Northern Ireland international side and Linfield FC, a totem of working class Loyalist Belfast.

A late Alan McLoughlin equaliser sent Jack Charlton and the Republic to their second World Cup campaign, while the North’s manager Billy Bingham stepped aside after 13 years in charge. ‘Big Jack’ would later recoil when asked of his memory of that night in South Belfast, describing the atmosphere as ‘nasty and unhealthy’.

More nastiness was to come. While watching the Republic take on Italy at the following summer’s World Cup finals, six men were gunned down in a bar at Loughlinsisland by Loyalist paramilitaries. Football and death were dancing together down a sectarian drainpipe.

While hate spewed from the terraces and bullets flew in bars, in an unusual twist, the Northern Irish League was experiencing an influx of players from south of the border. By January 1993, 20 players from the south were plying their trade in the north. Crusaders had four, including one Roddy Collins, while Ards, under the stewardship of the legendary former Linfield manager Roy Coyle, also had a strong southern contingent.

But the most significant transfers were those made at Windsor Park. Long seen as a bastion of Ulster Loyalism, Linfield had already snapped up a Senegalese Catholic, Tony Coley, in 1988. Roy Keane would later feel the wrath of Coyle when he claimed in his autobiography that the signing had cost the latter his job – a false and bizarre claim.

It was Trevor Anderson, Coyle’s successor, who brought a Catholic from closer to home into the Linfield fold. In 1992, Anderson signed Chris Cullen, a Catholic from Downpatrick. A wall had been smashed. In December of that year, with Crusaders and their men of the south top of the table, Anderson signed Linfield’s first southerner since 1945 when Dessie Gorman moved across the border from Shelbourne.

His arrival was likened to the then recent Mo Johnston move from Glasgow Celtic to Graeme Souness’ Rangers. For Gorman, who hadn’t been getting much game-time with Shelbourne, it was all about football. Quoted at the time, he said: “The religious thing doesn’t interest me in the slightest – my move to Belfast will be to purely score goals.”

By the season’s end, Anderson had added two more players from the League of Ireland to his side in the form of Englishman Garry Haylock and Dubliner Martin Bayly. He also added the league trophy to the Windsor Park cabinet after an absence of four years – the Haylock and Gorman partnership being the decisive factor as the Blues edged Crusaders out on goal difference.

With the apparent unwritten rule of not signing players from the south now confined to history, Anderson added Finglas man Fenlon to his side in January 1994. The £25,000 arrival from Bohemians would prove to be a key player with Linfield going on to secure back-to-back league titles as well as claiming the cup for the first time in 12 years.

As well as scoring the winner in the Big Two derby against Glentoran that secured the Blues’ title, ‘Nutsy’ – or ‘Wee Billy’ as he is known at Windsor Park – also netted the second goal in the 2-0 cup final win  against Bangor a week later and celebrated, according to Anderson, by playing Celtic songs on the Linfield open-top bus tour of the Shankhill.

While the signings were clearly pushing Linfield back to the top, some viewed them as cynical coming as they did after the American Irish National Caucus (INC) had called for a boycott of Coca-Cola after hearing the multi-national was a sponsor at Windsor Park. A Loyalist delegation to the INC leader Fr Seán McManus would later point to the signings of Fenlon, Gorman, Haylock, Bayly and Cullen from Downpatrick when arguing for the boycott to be lifted.

While changes were under way, the past hadn’t been wiped away overnight. Linfield’s ‘away’ games to the mainly nationalist Cliftonville would continue to be played at Windsor Park into the late 1990s.

And when then Derry City manager Felix Healy was asked in 1995 after his side had won the FAI Cup if he would take up the Belfast Newsletter’s offer of a trophy for a one-off game against IFA cup winners Linfield, Healy replied: “It’s a lovely idea but where would we play – the Falklands?”

Fenlon’s Linfield career ended with a move back down south, this time to Shamrock Rovers, in the process becoming one of the first Irish players to avail of the Bosman ruling. His subsequent success as manager with Shels and Bohs needs no introduction and now, after ending his two-year spell as Hibernian boss in November, he is currently the bookies’ favourite to take the reins at Linfield when David Jeffrey calls time on his 17-year tenure at the end of the season.

Gorman’s time at Windsor lasted a little longer than Fenlon’s, ending in 1997 having firmly established himself as an all time fan favourite. Gorman continued to play for teams north and south of the border for a further decade.

His involvement with both Dundalk and Linfield continues to this day with both clubs’ youth sides playing in the Dessie Gorman Cup, an initiative to bring youths from Dundalk and South Belfast together through football, since 2011.

The 2012-13 Irish League season saw Loyalist flag protesters succeed in getting a top-of-the-table Belfast derby between Crusaders and Cliftonville abandoned. But the press statements from both clubs and the sight of Crusaders fans “guarding” their Cliftonville counterparts making their way into the ground proved stronger than any image of protesters waving Union flags.

Today, a player’s religion has little influence on transfers, although it remains to be seen whether Linfield can tempt Fenlon – no matter what foot he kicked with – north of the border once again.

Website by Simon Alcock