Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Obituary - Jackie Denver: Hero, legend, family man

The Belfast Celtic team which toured the USA in 1949 - Back Row, Elisha Scott, Dan McSparran, Robin Lawler, Joe Douglas, Jimmy Murdough, Mick O'Flanagan, Billy McMillan, Kevin McAliden, Charlie Currie, Reggie Simpson, Patsy McAliden, Austin Donnelly (chairman); Front Row: Paddy McGuigan (trainer)Alex Moore, johnny Campbell, George Hazlett, Jackie Denver (5th from LEFT), Harry Walker, Tommy Aherne, Paddy Bonnar, Tom Dorman.
The Belfast Celtic team which toured the USA in 1949 - Back Row, Elisha Scott, Dan McSparran, Robin Lawler, Joe Douglas, Jimmy Murdough, Mick O'Flanagan, Billy McMillan, Kevin McAliden, Charlie Currie, Reggie Simpson, Patsy McAliden, Austin Donnelly (chairman); Front Row: Paddy McGuigan (trainer)Alex Moore, johnny Campbell, George Hazlett, Jackie Denver (5th from LEFT), Harry Walker, Tommy Aherne, Paddy Bonnar, Tom Dorman.
Former Belfast Celtic players Gerry Burrell, Jackie Denver and Jimmy Jones at Windsor Park
The surviving members of the Belfast Celtic side who were invited for the first time ever to Belfast City Hall for a civic reception with the Lord Mayor Cllr Pat McCarthy, pictured are (left to right) Gerry Burrell, Jackie Denver, Sam Gillispie, Ossie Bailie, Jimmy Jones and Jimmy Donnelly.

Denver, Jones and Cush... growing up as football-mad youngsters in Lurgan, they were our very own Best, Law and Charlton. We rhymed off the names and learned of the legends, even before our ABCs.

Giants of the game living among us, they were the Holy Trinity of football here for their various exploits with Belfast Celtic, Glenavon and Northern Ireland.

And we saw them every day.

Jimmy Jones, holder of an Irish League scoring record that will never be broken, an incredible 646 career goals... behind the wheel of his delivery lorry.

Wilbur Cush, hero of the 1958 World Cup and a one-man battle tank... delivering the milk to our doorsteps, he famously signed his transfer form from Glenavon to Leeds United on the back of a cow.

And then there was unassuming, deep thinking Jackie Denver, taking his regular constitution, around the park or out the Waringstown Road... by common consent of the expert opinion of his era, the greatest inside-forward never to be capped by Northern Ireland, unlike his two compadres who made their mark on the international stage, too.

It would be akin to kids now seeing Bale, van Persie and Roy Keane, the modern day playing equivalents of Denver, Jones and Cush, in day jobs.

These guys were legends of their day... Denver and Jones inextricably linked to the glorious, turned tragic, history of the last Belfast Celtic team to grace football here. With Celtic forced out of football after the infamous Boxing Day 1948 attack on Jones at Windsor Park, they eventually returned to their home town where, in harness with the combative Cush, they powered the all conquering Glenavon of the Fifties.

They seemed football gods to us, even in retirement, yet we were reminded of their mortality when, first, Wilbur, Jackie's cousin, was taken by illness, aged just 53 in 1981.

Now Jackie has gone, passing away on Sunday at the respectable age of 87, though his last few years were a bravely fought battle against failing health, leading to the loss of those talented legs through amputation.

He carried the burden uncomplaining, and until not so long ago continued out and about the town in a wheelchair.

That just leaves the one-time wrecking ball of a striker, Jimmy Jones, as a reminder of an age when our beleaguered old town and football club produced player after player of national renown, of which those three were stellar.

They were an education, as well as an inspiration, to generations, leading those of us too young to remember the Celtic demise and Glenavon rise, to read up on the parts they played.

And, as the song goes, when you know the history, you appreciate their exploits and achievements, and in the case of Jones, the agony, even more.

I wasn't privileged to see Jackie Denver play, and only watched Jones and Wilbur through the eyes of a child in the twilight of their Glenavon careers.

I did get to know Jackie when son Alex, also a gifted player, broke into the late 70s Glenavon team when I worked as the local reporter.

Here was a man with a vast knowledge of the game and incredible stories to tell, yet he never sought an audience, nor attempted to use his influence to further Alex's career. He simply let him get on with it and enjoyed seeing him grace the Glenavon shirt and later that of Crusaders.

Privately, and only with persuasion, he'd share his memories of the game that changed the course of Irish football history as Celtic players found themselves at the mercy of an invading Linfield crowd in a pitch battle at Windsor.

"The tension at that game was unbearable and we took the lead when McCune took me down inside the area and Harry Walker scored the penalty kick," he recalled.

"Then there was pandemonium when Billy Simpson equalised for Linfield a couple of minutes later.

"At the end, I saw the crowd running onto the field. George Hazlett, the inside right, was caught on the face with a fist. When I saw this, I made a run for it. Someone tried to hit me, so I kicked him. I got off the field – it was everybody for themselves."

He was much more at ease reminiscing about great games and players. I remember thinking that must have been some Celtic team when he started out in the reserves and numbered the revered Charlie Tully and Kevin McGarry among his team-mates.

In his heart and Lurgan DNA, though, he was a Glenavon man, rating the 1952 team which he helped remove the Irish League champions trophy from Belfast for the first time as the finest in the history of the club.

"I personally never played in a better Glenavon team. It had quality in every department," he recalled.

"You always felt great getting changed in the dressing room alongside players like Jones, Cush, Liggett and the others. Glenavon feared no-one in those days."

Hero, legend, family man.. Jackie Denver was a gent to the end. I last saw him, wheelchair-bound, paying his Remembrance Sunday respects at Lurgan Cenotaph, a lifelong tradition, and I think now, very apt... lest we forget his own outstanding service to his clubs and the great game of football. God rest you, Jackie.

JIM GRACEY

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