Football in mourning for legend Jimmy Jones, the man caught up in one of local game's darkest days
Scoring legend Jimmy Jones, who was at the centre of a pivotal moment in local football, passed away yesterday at the age of 85.
The softly-spoken record-breaker had to be encouraged to speak up for the cameras as he relived the nightmarish day he almost died in the 1940s, but Jimmy Jones pulled no punches about the blackest chapter in the history of Irish League football.
Standing outside a Belfast theatre he told me he was convinced the thugs who beat him senseless and shattered his leg at Windsor Park 65 years ago weren't going to stop until he was dead.
Right up until he did pass away yesterday, Jones said he owed his life to a goalkeeping friend called Sean McCann who made the most important save of all-time as he flung himself on top of the Belfast Celtic centre-forward to protect him from a mob of Linfield supporters who attacked him on Boxing Day, 1948.
It had been a tense clash and the sectarian atmosphere was poisoned even further after Jones was involved in an accidental collision with Linfield player Bob Bryson, who was carried off.
At half-time a Linfield official made a Tannoy announcement that Bryson's leg had been broken.
Jones was set upon as he left the pitch after Celtic and Linfield had drawn 1-1 in front of 33,000 fans. "I didn't think I was in any danger after the crowd came on," he said
"But then I did see there was a bit of aggression towards me."
To his horror Jones realised that police who had been nearby had moved away and as he fled the Linfield fans pushed him on to to the terracing where he was kicked unconscious before a man jumped off a wall, breaking his leg.
"I tried to run but the leg was just like a piece of rubber and wasn't supporting any weight at all," said Jones, who also tried to fight off his rescuer Sean McCann, whom he didn't immediately recognise.
Jones later told a radio documentary: "The irony is that I'm a Protestant and the people who were trying to kill me were Protestants, and Sean is a Roman Catholic."
After the riot, Celtic directors decided to withdraw from the Irish League once their season's commitments had been fulfilled.
Surgeons thought about amputating Jones' leg but he recovered and played for Glenavon and Northern Ireland. But it was his years with Celtic and what happened on Boxing Day 1948 in what became known as 'the Jimmy Jones incident' which was to define his career.
He was revered by Belfast Celtic fans and his story was central to a play at the Lyric Theatre in June 2004.
It was written by journalist and Belfast Celtic society official Padraig Coyle in collaboration with actors Conor Grimes and Alan McKee. Last night Conor said Jimmy Jones had been an invaluable source of information in the research for the play called Paradise: The Belfast Celtic Story.
Conor added: "He was a lovely, lovely man. We met him a lot of times and he had a clear recollection of the events of Boxing Day 1948."
At the opening night Jones was the star of the show on and off stage.
Conor said: "We were all exhausted after busting a gut to play 54 different characters but at the final curtain no one bothered with us.
"The only person they wanted to meet was Jimmy Jones, who spoke eloquently at the post-show party."
Actor Richard Clements, who took the role of Jones, said he was saddened to hear about his death.
"It was a real privilege to portray him and to meet him afterwards," he said.
"He also came to see another Belfast Celtic-related project with which I was involved at the Linenhall Library." Indeed Jones was always the first name on the guest list of any event associated with Belfast Celtic.
Just a few years ago I was present as he joined Belfast Celtic fans and ex-players as they went back to Windsor Park for the first time since 1948.
The humble Lurgan man said he was happy to be back for the workshop aimed at establishing closer ties between Linfield supporters and the Belfast Celtic Society.
Not long afterwards, the Belfast Celtic Society opened a museum about the old club in a shop unit at the Park Centre, which stands where the former Celtic Park once stood.
The guest of honour was, of course, Jimmy Jones, who said he could never forget his time with Belfast Celtic.
The feelings were mutual.
He scored more goals in Irish League football than any other player, and that despite having been told he might never play again after his 1948 injuries, which left him with a limp and a mis-shapen leg.
He may have been shy and retiring off the pitch.
But on it Jones was not only an extraordinary goalscorer but also a fearless tank of a man who never ducked a challenge on the field.
Indeed, Sean McCann revelled in telling the story of how Jones' reward for saving his life was to break his arm in a collision in one of his first games for Glenavon against Ballymena.