Joey Dunlop was the icon with the common touch - like George Best in football, Dunlop captivated thousands with his genius-like skills on the motorcycle road racing track, particularly at the Isle of Man TT.
It is amazing to think that 10 years ago Joey was winning a treble at the Isle of Man at 46 years of age and showing everyone that he could still perform at the highest level.
Then, only a few weeks later, he was dead. There were many who asked at the time why Joey went to Estonia after being so successful at the Isle of Man.
Davy Wood, Joey’s late manager, told me the King of the Road loved the people of Estonia and didn’t want to let them down.
Wood believed Joey was also prompted by a desire to get away from everything.
He said: “I was his long-time manager and friend and my theory is that Joey left for Estonia following the death of his close friend Andy McMenemy in Cookstown.”
It upset Dunlop greatly, according to Wood, who added: “He was not a chap who voiced his feelings but the shock and sadness were very evident.”
Joey Dunlop was a unique character and the bike which he took to Estonia was hung up in the bar he owned in Ballymoney, but that was Joey’s way.
Also the fact that he liked to be on his own, and in this respect I have to refer back to the last days of his tragic end in Estonia.
Cookstown fan Lavinia Cooke told me she would never forget the day Joey died. It was not that she was a close friend, it is just the circumstances surrounding the crash and everything that led up it are etched in her memory forever.
On that fateful afternoon of Sunday July 2, 2000, it seemed like any other day. But Joey found it difficult to sleep the previous night and joined fellow rider John Caffrey round a camp fire where they discussed what lay ahead.
As it turned out, Joey went out and won the next morning. But tragedy took over when he crashed in the 125cc race.
Lavinia said Joey always liked the people in Estonia, and what’s more they liked him.
She added: “What a lot of people didn’t know was that Joey wore glasses and didn’t always be seen wearing them. Certainly at home he gave the impression that he didn’t wear glasses, but in the later years of his life he used to use them and it was only when he was abroad he appeared to be relaxed with them on.
“Everyone has their own particular story about Joey and his quaint ways, and I remember when we were in New Zealand we had booked into different houses but Joey decided he would sleep in his van.
“I will also never forget that when we were in New Zealand Joey preferred to sleep on the floor of the jumbo jet and no one appeared to mind.”
There are many extraordinary stories told about Joey Dunlop which help paint a picture of the man we came to know. He was obviously a very talented road racer, but also an intensely shy man who depended a lot on his close friends.
One of them was entrepreneur Hector Neill, now head of the Suzuki team.
Hector was one of those who gave Joey his first chance in the Ulster Grand Prix in 1979, and Joey obliged by winning even after being injured in practice.
Hector said: “I remember driving round in the inroads of the Dundrod circuit along with my mechanic Mouse Morrow, and we came across Joey rather disconsolate at one of the bends. It turned out he had injured his shoulder and it wasn’t certain if he would start the next day.
“But on the morning of the race, Mouse wheeled out the bike and we waited for Joey to turn up.
“As it turned out a friend of his, who was a ‘charm’ specialist, had sorted out the injury and made Joey feel a lot better — confident enough to ride and win. That was the sort of Joey, he always pulled out something special.”
Hector and Joey went through a lot of scrapes together but none more so than Davy Wood.
Davy once told me an amazing tale of travelling from Hong Kong on the ferry to Macau for the Macau Grand Prix.
He said: “When Joey and I left Macau to go back to Hong Kong there was a bridge we crossed and, believe it or not, it was known as the suicide bridge where the unfortunate gamblers in the casinos at Macau had decided to end their days. Joey said to me: ‘What a way to go’.”
Joey Dunlop began his career in 1969 riding on a short-circuit at Maghaberry and went on to win a phenomenal 26 Isle of Man TTs — a record which will probably never be surpassed.
His influence within Northern Ireland sport was enormous and at his funeral 50,000 people paid tribute, many of whom would say there will be no one like Joey Dunlop again and I would definitely agree.
There had been many greats, but surely Joey Dunlop was one of the true greats.
Jimmy Walker is the author |of best-selling book Just Joey, |published by Harper Collins