Gareth Cauldwell chats to Jimmy Cleary about the Glens, World Cup selection, GAA and a satisfying playing career

GC: It all began for you at Enniskillen Rangers. You had strong family links to the club, didn’t you?

JC: My uncles, my father’s brothers – Francie and Ned – had played for Rangers in the ’50s and early ’60s.

My brother Fred, who is a few years older than me, then played for Rangers, and I followed suit.

The fact that there was that link back to my uncles also helped.

What are your earliest memories from your time at Rangers?

I suppose I would have been about the Rangers when I was nine or ten, but from a competitive point of view, there used to be an U-15 competition many years ago – the Belfast Telegraph Shield – and one of my earliest memories would be from that.

We had two Rangers teams playing in it and the first year I played in it we got to the final. I was probably about 12 or 13, and Fred’s team were in the final against us.

The game was played at Derrychara – that was my earliest memory of competitive matches, as there was no youth league or anything like that.

You moved up to play in the Rangers first team and helped the side to a Fermanagh and Western league title in 1973.

I was 16 at the time when I went into the side, and we went through the league unbeaten that year.

Brian Holmes was the goalkeeper; you had John Craig, Toots Lunny, Tommy Nolan, Fred, Hoppy [Adrian Hopkins], Denzil [McDaniel]; it was a good team.

You were also to get your first taste of international football around that time with the Northern Ireland Youth set-up.

Willie McElroy was a big part of Rangers, and Willie had a link to the IFA, and he got me to a trial in Rathfriland.I went and played in it, and then I got called up to the youth team after that.

It was then on to Portadown and Willie McElroy played a role in your move there as well, didn’t he?

Credit to Willie McElroy – he had a connection at Portadown, and took me there. Willie would have brought me up and down to training, and we would have had a good bit of craic over the few months that we did it.

I only played eight or nine matches for the Reserves that season, but then the next season, after I had left school at St. Michael’s, I got into the first team.

How did you enjoy your time at Shamrock Park?

Portadown was great. I spent six seasons there, and I couldn’t complain. They were a good club, nice people, and they were always good to me.

My father used to drive me up the odd time, and they were always very good to him. No, I had a good time there.

There is no doubt that you were also a talented GAA player, and during your time at Portadown you continued to play away for your club, Enniskillen Gaels, as well as representing Fermanagh. Was it something you enjoyed?

We [Enniskillen Gaels] won the championship in 1976 [Jimmy was Man of the Match in the win over St. Pat’s], which was the first one in more than 40 years, so it was a big one for the club, and then we won it again in 1978.

I was playing away for Fermanagh when I was at Portadown, and I won a McKenna Cup in 1977.

I played both sports for a right while, and I enjoyed it.

There was also an appearance for Ulster in the Railway Cup, wasn’t there?

Yes, I played for Ulster in 1977, and there were some great players in that team.

I was right corner forward, Frank McGuigan was full forward, Willie Walsh was left corner forward. Colm McAlarney and Peter McGinnity were also in that team.

Martin Carney, John Somers, Mickey Moran ... it was a good team to be involved in.

In 1980, you made the move to Glentoran under Ronnie McFall. Did you find the expectation much higher, going from Portadown to Glentoran?

I had played with big Ronnie at Portadown; he was a player when I went there, and after three or four years he moved on to the Glens, and he then became manager, and he signed me in 1980.

Portadown hadn’t won much, in terms of major trophies, and didn’t while I was there either.

We won the Gold Cup one year, and got to the final of the Irish Cup in 1979, but got beaten 3-2 by Cliftonville.

We had also got to the semi-final of the cup the previous season, so we were actually building a half-decent side, but then there were a couple of changes of management and it helped to make my decision to move.

I went to Glentoran, and you were always expected to win a bit of silverware. From that point of view, there was a bit of pressure – you were there to win trophies.

What sort of Glentoran side was it that you went in to?

They hadn’t done particularly well in the previous season, so Ronnie got the job of rebuilding, to a certain extent.

He had signed four or five players – Alan Paterson, Alan Harrison, Johnny Jameson, myself, all came in – to bolster what was already there.

And it was to be a successful first season at the Oval.

It was a good season, in terms of we won the league and, funnily enough, we won it unbeaten, the same as I had done with Rangers.

We also lost about four semi-finals that year, including the Irish Cup after a replay, so the only trophy we actually won was the league trophy.

That Glentoran team was one that gelled, and one of the things that helped us, I felt, was that we only used about 16 players over the season. We were very lucky with injuries and had a fairly settled side.

The Irish Cup was one that the club seemed to fare really well during your at that time. Was it five Irish Cup wins in six years?

Yes, and I think we lost two semi-finals as well. The Irish Cup was a good competition for me – I think in total I played in nine semi-finals over the years, between Portadown and Glentoran.

We won it in ’83 when we beat Linfield in the final. I was sent off that day with about 15 minutes to go, and I think I was the first player to get sent off in an Irish Cup final, but we won the match.

We then won it in ’85, ’86, ’87 and ’88. To do it four years on the trot was a great achievement. I was lucky, too, that I was Captain in all those four.

Cup final day is a great day, and we were very fortunate to get to five finals in the nine seasons that I was there.

It is a great day out for both the fans and the players, as there are a lot of players who go through their career without getting the chance to play in one.

That 1988 season was another special one for Glentoran as you completed the league and cup double. How special was that?

That was extra-special. It was the first time the club had done the double in, I don’t know how many years, and I know they haven’t done it since, either.

We had won the league the week before up at Coleraine, and I had a week to wait for the Irish Cup final, so we had to keep a lid on the celebrations.

We then had a hard final against Glenavon. All the finals I played in were hard games – I never played in an easy one.

No, that was a really good season; we won four trophies that year, which was good.

It must have been a great honour to have captained Glentoran?

It was a big honour. I was Captain for the last four or five seasons that I was there, and we won a few trophies when I was Captain as well, including that league and cup double.

Were there ever any offers to go across the water and play?

Not that I’m aware of, to be honest. When I was at Portadown, there would have been the usual thing with young players that such-and-such is looking at you, and I went on trial at a few clubs, but nothing came off it.

Let’s go back, Jimmy, to 1982. You received your first call-up for Northern Ireland from Billy Bingham. What are your memories of that?

We had stopped playing at the time because our season was over. It was for the Home Internationals, and I had never even been in a Northern Ireland squad before, so I was surprised to get called up.

The way things happened in those days, you didn’t get a text or a message from the IFA to say you were in the squad, it was released to the press, and a fella I knew came down our street in his van.

He rolled the window down and he shouted to me that he had just heard that I was picked in the Northern Ireland squad! I didn’t know about it until then!

In those days, squads for international matches were limited to 16 players, but you could bring 22 to the World Cup, so I think Billy Bingham was looking around the Irish League and I was fortunate, along with Felix Healy, Johnny Jameson and George Dunlop, to be selected for the Home Internationals.

Myself and Felix Healy played against Scotland, and we both played the whole game.

There wasn’t another match for a week or ten days and I was lucky enough to be selected, and I played against Wales.

It was after that match that Billy said to me, sort of off the cuff, that I would be going to Brighton the following week for the World Cup preparation.

I was still playing Gaelic at the time for St. Enda’s in Belfast; I had played a couple of games of Gaelic after I had finished playing the normal season with Glentoran, so that was sort of keeping me half-fit.

It must have been very surreal then to be selected for the World Cup squad in Spain?

It was. Myself, Felix Healy and Johnny Jamieson hadn’t been involved in any squads before, and then you found you were being invited along.

I would have gone to the matches anyway – myself and my wife were at the match in November, 1981 when we qualified against Israel – but I never thought that I would be involved six or seven months later.

The other thing was that I had a full-time job in Shorts at the time, so I had to go to them and ask what were the chances of getting off work for two or three weeks.

I actually got off without pay, that’s how they agreed to do it – they wouldn’t pay me, but they let me have the time off, but I would have left anyway if they hadn’t let me; I wasn’t going to miss that!

In fairness to them, they were accommodating to me over those few years when I was in the squad.

What was the build-up to the competition like?

First of all, we were in Brighton for a few weeks; we did our training there at Sussex University on their playing fields.

We were lucky actually that there was a really good spell of weather, it was roasting when we were there.

I think there was a few accusations about us not going somewhere hotter to acclimatise but we were lucky because we got a couple of weeks of really good weather and we trained hard and flew out from there to Spain for the competition.

And what was the experience like of being involved in a World Cup?

It was fantastic – you look back on it now, and it is just something out of the ordinary, especially for me as I hadn’t dreamed of being involved at all.

I had turned 26 around the time of the first game, so in football terms I was getting on a bit, to break into something like that.

To be invited along and then to go through what happened in qualifying out of the group was unreal.

One thing you did miss out on in 1982, though, was Fermanagh’s Ulster final appearance. Any regrets?

It would have been lovely to be involved in, but it wasn’t something that was going to happen anyway as I hadn’t been involved with Fermanagh since late 1979 or early 1980.

I was actually on holidays when the final was played. and I remember watching the game and I would love to have seen them winning it.

You were, and still are, a firm favourite with the Glentoran supporters. Is that bond with the supporters something special to you?

It is, and I think it was maybe something to do with the time we were there.

When Ronnie McFall brought us in, he made a point of making sure that we bedded in with all the supporters.

I remember that first season, in the first few months the players used to go around the supporter clubs just to meet them.

Ronnie made a point of bringing us around and introducing us, and getting to know them.

I go to the Oval now, and I see fellas who were supporting when I started out playing there, and this is 40-odd years later, and it is great to see them.

I think that all the players who played through that era had that rapport with the supporters. It is always good to have that; I think it is important.

You decided to retire at 32, and I know a lot of people would have felt that it was early to call time on your career. Were you satisfied with your lot at that stage?

I was nearly 33, and people do say that to me, but my answer back is that I spent 15 seasons playing in the Irish League; it wasn’t too bad!

I played at two good clubs, and personally, I won everything there was to win in terms of trophies, while I was also capped for Northern Ireland and went to a World Cup, so I can’t complain.

I’m very lucky, to be perfectly honest, to have done what I did, and to have won what I have won.

The only thing I’m missing is a Mulhern Cup!