Belfast Telegraph

Keith Gillespie had so much promise but it was only partially fulfilled: A classic case of could have been

By Steven Beacom

Keith Gillespie was the boy with the world at his gifted feet. He was at Manchester United and was all set to be their next big thing.

Labelled the 'new George Best', like so many Northern Ireland youngsters at Old Trafford, Gillespie had pace, balance and the ability to score magical goals, so at least he had a chance of living up to the unenviable tag.

Gillespie broke into Sir Alex Ferguson's United team aged just 17, and not long after, when he scored a brilliant goal against Newcastle at the Theatre of Dreams, anything appeared possible.

There was excitement and genuine hope in Northern Ireland that here was a superstar in the making.

It didn't exactly work out that way.

Gillespie, capable of offering insightful and enlightening views into the football world, never truly lived up to all that early promise. Yes, he enjoyed an excellent international career – earning 86 caps and becoming a huge crowd favourite at Windsor Park as well as an influential figure on the pitch – but at club level there was always a sense that he could have shone far brighter than he did.

He may have loved playing in Kevin Keegan's entertaining and cavalier Newcastle side and won the League Cup with Blackburn Rovers, playing superbly against Spurs in the final, but such was his talent he ought to have achieved more.

Had he not been swallowed up by an addiction to gambling, who knows what would have happened.

When he was a Fergie fledging at Old Trafford, the betting bug started to bite big time.

Taking home £46 per week as a United apprentice, most of it was spent at the bookies.

Things got worse once he landed his first professional contract and he had thousands to gamble with.

The pattern continued throughout his career. Money would come and money would go ... into the bank accounts of bookmakers.

In his extraordinarily frank autobiography, How Not to be a Football Millionaire, Keith calculated that he squandered a staggering £7,215,875 during his time as a professional.

He revealed that while a lot of it was down to gambling, he also lost money on property and a film scheme that did not work out as planned.

The book proved to be highly successful, giving Gillespie a much-needed boost as he ended his career playing in Ireland – north and south – with Glentoran and Longford Town respectively.

Some called it one of the most candid football autobiographies ever. It certainly was a page- turner as Gillespie laid his life bare, from an altercation with then Newcastle team-mate Alan Shearer in Dublin, which left the Ulsterman in hospital, to going into bankruptcy, another financial blow.

The latest chapter in Gillespie's turbulent life came yesterday with the 39-year-old escaping jail when a judge ordered him to complete 100 hours of community service for three breaches of a non-molestation order.

Highs and lows of a career in the spotlight

1971: Born in Larne, Co Antrim. His early years are spent in Islandmagee, where he attends Whitehead Primary School. He later moves to Bangor, where he attends Rathmore Primary and Bangor Grammar.

1991: Keith leaves school and signs for Manchester United.

1992: Gillespie is part of the legendary 'Class of 92' which lifts the FA Youth Cup. Future first team stars Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Gary Neville are also in the side.

1993: He makes his first team debut for Man United.

1994: Gillespie makes his international debut in a 2–1 home defeat by Portugal – the first of 86 caps over the next 14 years.

1995: Moves to Newcastle United as a £1m make-weight in the £7m deal which took Andy Cole to Old Trafford.

1998: Helps Newcastle reach the FA Cup final but is left out of the squad for the final. Later moves to Blackburn Rovers in a £2.3m deal.

2002: Part of the Blackburn side which beats Tottenham Hotspur 2–1 to lift the League Cup.

2005: Signs for Sheffield United and helps the Blades to promotion to the Premiership.

2009: After a short spell with Bradford City, Gillespie makes a shock switch to Irish League side Glentoran.

2010: Gillespie is declared bankrupt by the High Court. He estimates he lost over £7m to his gambling addiction.

2013: Gillespie, now playing for League of Ireland First Division side Longford Town, announces his retirement.

2014: He is ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for three breaches of a non-molestation order.

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