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Down Memory Lane: Bambrick’s amazing record shows that he was no ordinary Joe

A milestone in Northern Ireland football was reached this week when Lisburn Distillery striker Glenn Ferguson scored against Ballinamallard United to become the second highest marksman in the history of the local game.

His total reached 562 goals — one more than the legendary Joe Bambrick.

“Head, heel or toe, slip it to Joe,”words which are part of Ulster football folklore, with everyone instantly knowing they referred to Bambrick, the supreme predator of them all.

Bambrick, or to give him his full name, Joseph Gardiner Absolon Bambrick (the birth certificate said James) was quiet-spoken, introverted in many ways. Yet, he stamped his authority and professionalism in all his matches.

When he raced onto the field, you could hear fathers saying to sons: “That’s Bambrick.”

Adulation followed him everywhere, even in his declining years and since his death in Belfast on October 13, 1983 at the age of 77, his legacy remains.

One of my regrets was not seeing him play at the height of his career and I caught him only in glimpses when he played in selected teams at the end of the Second World War along with many players whose careers had been fragmented by hostilities.

He scored amazing goals from the moment he started kicking a ball with local junior teams. Then he joined Glentoran in 1926, making 22 appearances for them and hitting 28 goals.

He was not broad-shouldered or heavy in physique like so many of the greats of his day, Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton, Jimmy McGrory, but he was perfectly balanced with a superb positional sense for a target man.

It was in the 1929 season that he established a record of 94 goals, made up like this: Irish League 50, City Cup 10, Charity Cup 9, Irish Cup 7, International 6, Inter-League 5, Co Antrim Shield 5, City Cup 1, Condor Cup 1.

That record, however, stood for only 12 months for Glentoran’s striker Fred Roberts, his arch-rival, reached a total of 96 — a record which may never be surpassed.

Bambrick, who was brought up in Roden Street, spent eight years with Linfield before a lucrative transfer to Chelsea where he was twice leading scorer in the years between 1935-38. Finally, he moved to Walsall during the 1938-39 season and when war broke out, returned to Belfast.

Unfortunately, no accurate records of his goals, apart from those in Irish and English senior football, can be traced, but some sources suggest that the figure could be around 900. He was the predator supreme.

Bambrick, who never married, collected 11 Northern Ireland international caps and was the six goal hero in Ireland’s 7-0 win over Wales at Celtic Park, Belfast on Saturday, February 1, 1930, which still remains a record score for a British Isles player in an international fixture.

On the 50th anniversary of that astonishing feat, I visited Celtic Park with Bambrick and Tommy Dickson, the Duke of Windsor.

The stands had become somewhat dilapidated, the greyhound track remained, the pitch was a mass of grass and weeds and all around the theatre of dreams looked a sad sight. In 1983 it was eventually sold to a property developer for a shopping centre which now stands at the end of the M1 motorway on the Donegall Road.

Bambrick, notorious for his economy of words, related many stories that day. He could recall all the goals and at the end he scored them.

He was filled with emotion, commenting: “I expect Elisha Scott (the Celtic goalkeeper and manager) to rise any moment from that ground — a fabulous character and no better goalkeeper. Yes, he was one of the greats.”

Bambrick was a cult figure in Irish football — a Linfield immortal who holds a special place in the hearts of all Bluemen and women who, later this year, celebrate the 125th anniversary of the club, founded in a Belfast linen mill — a club which was to become an institution.

Belfast Telegraph