THE BIG INTERVIEW – Jim Cleary, the one that got away?

By Niall Gartland

THE one that got away? Jim Cleary doesn’t see it that way.

The term ‘Glentoran legend’ is regularly affixed to his name, but he was a gifted Gaelic footballer and represented Fermanagh for a number of years before eventually pulling the plug in 1979, when he was in his early twenties.

Indeed, Peter McGinnity has gone on the record as saying that he could’ve made the difference if he’d lined out in their Ulster final defeat to Armagh in 1982 (“another fella who was maybe one of the most outstanding footballers that Fermanagh ever produced in Jimmy Cleary was away in Spain with Northern Ireland at the World Cup”).

But in reality, there’s wishful thinking to all that – Cleary is quite open about the fact that he prefers soccer, and that it was always going to take precedence over Gaelic football when it came to the crunch. And you could say his decision was vindicated as he became a golden boy of the Glentoran faithful, winning two Irish League championships and six Irish Cups during his nine-year stay at the Oval.

Reflecting back on his journey into the soccer world, Cleary, who grew up in Enniskillen said: “There was more soccer in my house than Gaelic football. I went to St Michael’s and initially I didn’t play on the MacRory team. I did play the following year when we were beaten by Omagh CBS in the final, Eugene McKenna was on that team.

“I was playing soccer at that time too – I remember playing a youth international in Scotland on the Saturday and I flew back, either on the Saturday night or Sunday morning, and played Omagh CBS in the drawn final on Sunday in Dungannon. The following week we played the replay in Lisnaskea and Omagh won the replay.”

Enniskillen had a rich tradition of soccer, but he had strong GAA connections on his mother’s side and played a pivotal role in Enniskillen Gaels’ championship triumphs in 1976 and 1978 (their 1976 title victory over St Pat’s after a replay was their first in 46 years, and Cleary was named Man of the Match even though he sustained a broken jaw in the drawn encounter).

“It was a good time looking back on it, we hadn’t won it for 46 years. It was only afterwards I learnt of a family link with that team, my mother’s brother (Charlie) played on the team that won in 1930. I remember that being spoken about at the time.

“My mother’s family were a lot older than my father’s. Her brothers played Gaelic football and hurling whereas my father’s family were more into soccer.”

Asked whether he ever picked up a hurl, he commented “It isn’t very strong in Fermanagh. But like a lot of things in life, you grow up and think ‘flip, I wouldn’t have minded trying that’, but I just didn’t get the opportunity.”

Cleary made the step up to the Irish League when he was signed by Portadown in 1975, but at that point he was able to juggle the two sports.

“I went to Portadown and played for them for six years, and then I went to Glentoran and played for nine years.

“I kept on playing Gaelic. In ’78 I finished at St Michael’s and went to Jordanstown, or the Poly as they called it.

“A lot of boys from St Michael’s went there. I played for them, Dessie McKenna, Eugene’s brother was running the team. There were six or seven lads from Fermanagh on the Jordanstown side. It was a good old team, it had only started up the year before and they weren’t allowed into the Sigerson Cup because they weren’t seen to be a university at the time, they were just seen as a Polytechnic.”

Cleary wasn’t affected by Rule 27, commonly known as ‘the ban’, that prohibited members of the GAA from playing other sports. It was abolished at the GAA’s annual congress in Belfast in 1971, and Cleary says that it helped that matches were played on different days at the weekend.

“There used to be the odd battle about which game I’d go to as sometimes they’d clash. Generally I’d have opted for the soccer which didn’t always go down that well. But the good thing about club football in those days, is that nobody trained like they do these days, and the matches were always on a Sunday whereas the soccer matches were traditionally played on a Saturday.”

It’s obvious from his above comments that he prioritised soccer, and it eventually forced his hand as he eventually quit intercounty football altogether.

“I’ve never made any bones about that, I always preferred soccer, it was just more attractive to me than Gaelic. I don’t know why exactly because I loved playing Gaelic as well. But when I look back, it was difficult to do both and it wasn’t fair either, especially when I was playing for Fermanagh. It wasn’t fair for me to play when other lads were putting in the effort at training.”

That said, he still has a keen interest in Gaelic on both a local and national level.

“I watched the Ulster Club final obviously. I hadn’t seen Derrygonnelly before that point and from a Fermanagh perspective it didn’t make for good viewing.

“My wife’s from Dromore, and my nephew Paddy Montague helped Collie McCullagh with Dromore last season. I was talking to my brother-in-law before they played Derrygonnelly in the Ulster Championship. That match was initially supposed to be played in Healy Park but it was switched to Carrickmore. He said to me Carrickmore is a heavier pitch and that Healy Park would’ve suited them better, he turned out to be right in that.”

Cleary was part of the Fermanagh team that won the McKenna Cup in 1977, and he also lined out for Ulster in the Railway Cup that very same year.

“I was playing for Portadown when I was selected for the Ulster team. Sean O’Neill was the manager and Patsy O’Hara and Brian McEniff were his assistants. I’d only played about six times for Fermanagh but they said ‘we should have a look at this Cleary fella’ and I was selected. Portadown agreed to let me have the Saturday off from an Irish League match so I could join the boys and go down to Dublin before the game. It was very good of them, they were pretty understanding.”

He continued: “I was disappointed with my own display to be honest. Our full-forward line was Frank McGuigan, Willie Walsh from Down and I was right corner-forward. Colm McAlarney was behind me at right half-forward. I was marked by a fella Brian Murphy from Cork. He was a dual All-Star, both hurling and football, and he was a very fair player. I was actually pleased I managed to last the whole game, that Sean didn’t take me off, I’ve met him a few times over the years and chatted to him about it.”

BACK IN THE DAY…Jim Cleary, back row and second from left, with an Enniskillen soccer team in the early seventies

Cleary’s managers at Fermanagh were John Donnelly and then John McElroy, who led the team to the 1982 final. McElroy is a unique character but Jim always got on well with him.

“John was great, he was dead on. I met him last year at a funeral at Enniskillen, but I didn’t really get chatting to him. He managed the McKenna Cup winning team in ’77 and was still manager when we got the final in 1982. I was still playing for Fermanagh in 1979 but that’s when I had to finish up playing county football. It wasn’t a big deal, John was well aware of how much time the soccer took up and it was just a case of moving on.”

Cleary, who says he never experienced overt sectarianism while playing for Glentoran during the turbulent eighties, still played Gaelic football when he could for north Belfast club St Enda’s.

“In ’79 I signed for St Enda’s up here in Belfast and I still was playing for them in 1982. Once the soccer was over I played in league matches and tournaments. They have a great facility now in the Hightown Road, they’re a great club. I had to stop after that, it just got too much for me.”

Cleary was part of the Northern Ireland panel that reached the World Cup in 1982. He didn’t play but still enjoyed the experience of being part of it, the campaign’s highlight being their 1-0 victory over Spain.

“I was called in late, I wasn’t included in the squad until May ’82. We went off for World Cup training and I was asked to play two matches against Scotland and Wales and I got selected.

“It was a great experience right enough and at the same time Fermanagh were on a good run to the Ulster final. I was never going to be part of it even if I hadn’t been selected for the World Cup, I think I’d already booked to go on my summer holidays. I hadn’t been there for two years and I wasn’t just going to land up and expect to be selected, that would’ve been unfair on everyone.”

Cleary, who played in midfield for Glentoran, was named the Ulster Footballer of the Year for the 19823 season and won five caps in all for Northern Ireland. He admits it would’ve been nice to try his hand at a professional career across the water, but that wasn’t to be.

“I suppose I did think about that, but as time went on I realised it wasn’t going to happen. You hear things in the press about clubs being interested but that’s a pretty common practice. It didn’t happen but I wouldn’t have minded trying it to see how I’d compete against the full-time guys.”

While soccer was always his number one sport, Cleary says he was glad to be able to play Gaelic football and says if anything, he’d have liked to have tried his hand at even more.

“I think everybody should get the opportunity to try different sports. I look back and think I never really got the chance to try anything apart from soccer and Gaelic. I’d like to have tried rugby and maybe other sports as well. I think we should be giving kids the opportunity to try as many sports as they can.

“Our Lady and St Patrick’s, Knock started rugby a couple of years ago which I think is good. There’s some kids who aren’t interested in Gaelic football or soccer but might excel at rugby. I don’t think we do enough in our schools but I also understand it’s time-consuming for teachers and they get tied down with other things.”

Cleary’s son Jonathan played for Bredagh, and he still goes to Croke Park when he can, albeit the pandemic has hindered things.

“I used to go surely, we used to go down as much as we could, partially because Croke Park is such a great stadium. One of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had was when Tyrone played Dublin under floodlights on Saturday night. With the pandemic I haven’t been back in a couple of years.”

Finally, asked if there was anything soccer could learn from the GAA, he said:

“Well you asked me earlier if Gaelic helped me. I think it did, particularly when it came to timing. In those days, there was more catching the ball in Gaelic. It helped me with my timing, when I headed the ball in soccer, it was good for my positional sense as well.

“When I played Gaelic it was a totally different game, it was man-for-man marking. If you’re a corner -orward you knew the corner-back was going to be marking you. There wasn’t the fluidity there is nowadays.

“From a soccer point of view, it’s always been part time but Gaelic has moved on a bit. You listen to the guys talking now and it seems to have practically gone full-time.

“Strength and conditioning is coming into soccer a bit later than the Gaelic.

“The physicality has gone out of the game though, you don’t get as many brutes of lads playing soccer now. It’s a different style of game.”

ALSO READ…Former Farney star Dermot Malone looks back at his career.  Click here…

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