Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' lives: Glentoran legend Billy Caskey on how dad saved family by moving out of Shankill during Troubles, hitting a ref and career highlight NI debut

 

Proud man: Billy Caskey with grandkids Sophie, Hayley, James, Abbie and Owen
Proud man: Billy Caskey with grandkids Sophie, Hayley, James, Abbie and Owen
On run: Billy in action for Tulsa Roughnecks
Billy at a Legends game
Billy with late father Sammy
Great times: Billy during his Glentoran days

By Graham Luney

Glentoran legend Billy Caskey on sad loss of his father, being banned for hitting a referee in America, and how scoring on NI debut was a career highlight.

Q. What was your upbringing like?

A. I was brought up on the Shankill Road and had no interest in football. Never in a million years could I have predicted how my career would unfold. My three brothers were good footballers and my dad Sammy played for Lower Shankill Old Boys.

He took us to the games as part of his babysitting duties. My grandfather was a big Blueman. I was at Cairn Lodge Boys Club on the Crumlin Road where my brothers played but I had no interest in football. I was a hothead getting into trouble.

My dad took me to Albert Foundry Boxing Club to try and calm me down. I was getting into stupid fights and was a complete lunatic at times. My brother went to East Belfast FC so I followed them and enjoyed it but I was all aggression and feared nobody.

I didn't wear shin pads and loved a tackle! We shared Wilgar Park with Dundela and I can remember scoring three headers against RUC in a Steel and Sons Cup game.

It finished 3-3 but we lost the replay at Newforge. I loved the craic and when Glentoran showed an interest I didn't want to let go of those fun times.

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Q. It's fair to say you needn't have worried. You helped Glentoran to 18 major honours while playing 440 games and scoring 110 goals over a 19-year period. Was all that a surprise to you?

A. I never thought I was good enough, to be honest with you. I thought I belonged in the Amateur League where I enjoyed a game and a pint afterwards. But my family encouraged me to give it a go at the Glens.

I went to Crusaders first, where Billy Johnston was manager. I was in the reserves for a few seasons before returning to East Belfast.

Norman Pavis, the reserve team boss at the Crues, put me forward for the first team and I was a substitute against Glentoran at The Oval.

Jackie Fullerton and Walter McFarland were playing for the Crues, that's how long ago that was! They won the league that year. I can remember running onto The Oval pitch thinking to myself, 'Look at the size of this, how can I play on this pitch?'

The breakthrough didn't happen at Crusaders and Bobby McGregor was at the Glens with Walter Bruce and Jim 'Bimbo' Weatherup. I was playing up front, in midfield and centre-half!

Q. Were you turned down by Linfield?

A. Billy Bingham was the manager. I was with the Linfield Rangers kids and Billy told me I was too small.

That knocked my confidence and I lost interest in football a bit. But I think a lot of good players today aren't given an opportunity. I was grateful I was given a chance. Billy later picked me to play for Northern Ireland so he saw something in me. Playing for my country seven times and scoring on my debut was special.

Q. How did you find the step up from East Belfast to Glentoran?

A. I just played the same way. I had a good engine, though the first few matches were a bit intimidating.

The old Johnny Jameson, Roy Welsh and Victor Moreland were rebuilding the team.

Q. You spent a significant part of your career in America, playing for the Tulsa Roughnecks in the North American Soccer League and Dallas Sidekicks in the Major Indoor Soccer League. How did that all happen?

A. Noel Lemon, the general manager of Tulsa, was from here and came looking for players. We played Cliftonville and I scored a hat-trick at a time when he was watching Linfield's Peter Dornan.

He invited me over to the States when I was about 25 and married with two kids. I thought it was worth giving it a go and it was fantastic, my wife Margaret loved it in Oklahoma.

The team folded, and wages didn't come in at a time when we were expecting a third child. Victor Moreland was over there too and it was a decent standard.

The pitches were hard though and not easy on my knees. The indoor game was brutal and involved a lot of travelling. Sometimes it felt like you were playing on a carpet on top of an ice rink. But 20,000 turned up to watch indoor games and I enjoyed it.

I have no regrets about going over to the States and I enjoyed a reunion at Tulsa, where they are rebuilding the team.

Q. Your time in America ended on a sour note. While playing for the Dallas Sidekicks, you were banned for three seasons for assaulting a referee during a game with Minnesota in 1986. What happened there and what was that time like?

A. Of course I regret that, it shouldn't have happened and it was a difficult time for myself and the family, including my wife who was pregnant at the time.

It was quite a physical league. I didn't know I caught the referee in the play-off game. The goalkeeper and myself weren't the best of friends and after I made a tackle he came running out towards me. Then a scuffle happened.

The keeper was throwing punches at me so I needed to free up my arms to protect myself. I didn't know the referee was pulling me back by the hair and I threw my hand back, slapping the referee.

It's not in my nature to attack a referee but there are times when boys are jumping on top of you and what do you do about it?

They banned me from the indoor game for life but I was going home anyway. The goalkeeper got away with it! It was a disappointing end to my time in America and one of the lowest moments in my career but coming home was one of the best decisions I've made.

Q. There was a move to Derby County in the late 1970s. How did you find that?

A. I came back from my loan spell at Tulsa and Derby, under Tommy Docherty, wanted to sign me. I didn't enjoy Derby despite making many friends.

I wasn't a striker but they played me up front. In my own head I was a midfield player but you'll play anywhere. And it felt like there was a lot of expectation on me to perform like a Northern Ireland legend.

I didn't feel comfortable and when a new manager came in I was out. Tulsa came in and saved me again.

If I'm not enjoying my football, my game suffers. Maybe I should have said something at Derby to get me playing in midfield, where I belonged. I was good at putting players under pressure, I lacked pace and wasn't a natural finisher but I did score goals.

I wasn't a Gary Macartney or Gary Blackledge, put the ball in front of those guys and you knew where it was going. Then again, the guys needed service from players like myself, Barney Bowers, Jimmy Cleary and Raymond Morrison.

But I couldn't embrace Derby after having a taste of America. If you're not right mentally, your game will suffer and I wasn't happy.

Q. You had great times with Glentoran, including two league titles in 1977 and 1988 and Irish Cup wins in 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990. Did you play some of your best football with them?

A. I was a completely different player when I came back from Tulsa. I was stronger and had a better temperament. I was more skilful, could hold the ball up and my vision was better.

Terry Hennessey, who played for Wales, was my coach out there and he improved my game so much. I was still a physically strong player with that reputation, people went out to kick and upset me, to put me off my game.

Players like Davy Jeffrey and Portadown's Roy McCreadie went for me but I got PFA Player of the Year in 1988 and they were special times.

Q. What do you remember about scoring on your Northern Ireland debut?

A. I remember the snow. It was freezing in Sofia and Danny Blanchflower told me I was playing up front with Gerry Armstrong.

He chased every ball and we both scored, destroying Bulgaria 2-0 in horrible weather.

It was a brilliant result away from home and very enjoyable. That was probably the highlight of my career.

Q. You just missed out on the 1982 Northern Ireland World Cup squad. How big a disappointment was that?

A. Myself and Victor missed out and it was disappointing as I had been in squads but I had made the call to go to America.

I wasn't playing regularly for Derby and maybe that counted against me.

Q. Can you pick a best player you have played with and toughest opponent?

A. I must mention Victor as I've been like an older brother to him. He followed me to Tulsa and Derby.

I played with some Glentoran greats like Billy McKeag, Alex Robson, Johnny Jameson, Jimmy Cleary, Barney Bowers, Raymond Morrison and Gary Mccartney. How could you pick a favourite?

In terms of friendship and longevity of playing in the same team, it would be Victor from the Glens to Derby to Tulsa.

Roy McCreadie had famous battles with me and then we had a pint afterwards. A wee man from Newry, Willie Crawley, man marked me every time we played.

He followed me over to the bench one time and I turned around and offered him a drink of water and the two benches laughed.

David Jeffrey, Bryan McLaughlin and Lee Doherty used to try and put me off my game but I knew I couldn't lose my temper all the time.

Q. Did you have any bad experiences on the pitch?

A. The Big Two games were lively and I was spat at a lot but I had a lot of success against Linfield. The opposition fans just made me play harder and better.

I've seen players crumble in a Big Two game. The nerves can get to them but I was able to blank out the crowd. I relished the big matches but having nine operations on my knees didn't help.

I suffered a broken cheekbone playing against Linfield at Windsor. I headed the ball clear and then someone knocked me out and I had to go to hospital when we were 2-1 up. We lost 3-2 by the way. I found out the result when I woke in the hospital the next day.

I didn't know who was responsible and I thought it might have been Davy Jeffrey until I went with an Irish League team to America. Sid Burrows said to me: "Casko, I have to admit it was me that elbowed you in the face that day".

I said: "You're joking, if you had told me that a few years ago I would have killed you!" The lads were joking with him to stay away from me in training!

It's been a long few seasons for the Glens and I'd love to see them back at the top. They've been in the wilderness and hopefully they can turn the corner. The long-suffering fans are loyal and passionate about the club.

Q. Who has been a big influence on your career?

A. I've a close family, including my brothers Jim, Sam and John, who played for the Glens. I've one sister, Margaret.

My father died in June. He was 89 but that didn't make it any easier. He was my mum's carer so we had to put her in a home. She's 93.

We moved to Millisle, away from the Troubles, in 1969. We lived very close to the Falls Road and the bullets used to bounce off the walls. Our dad got us out and we lived in a caravan in Millisle for three years. It was hard leaving our friends but it was the right thing to do. It saved us.

Boys I went to school with were shot dead and the Shankill Butchers were around. My three daughters are Kerry, Linsey and Christy, who was born in Dallas.

I married Margaret when we were teenagers and we are still together. Having kids changed my life for the better. I'm sure I wasn't the easiest to live with, especially after we lost to Linfield.

Q. What was your dad like?

A. My father was a very quiet man, he never told me how to play. He threw in a few hints but he encouraged us and gave us the will to win.

He was competitive and never let us win when I played with my uncle Leonard. He was sick for a while and had stomach cancer but he didn't tell the family.

He was in a hospital and we got him out but as we took him out of the car at my house he stopped breathing and never came round. It was surreal being there, trying to give my father the kiss of life.

My mum has dementia now and it's demoralising, she knows my face but not my name. I've my own kids to look after, five grandkids and life goes on for all of us.

Q. Did you struggle to let go of your playing days?

A. You can't replace that competitive feeling. I loved training and stayed back for more. I'm fortunate to have had the career I had, particularly as I believed I would never be a footballer.

The Legends games are great craic and the stories are wonderful. We raise money for important charities and that's worth all the little pains I get at my age.

It's nice to be respected and hear older supporters say they enjoyed watching me play. I could write a book about my life and it would be called 'From a lunatic to a legend'.

Snapshot

Date of birth: 12 October 1953

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: East Belfast, Glentoran, Tulsa Roughnecks, Derby County, Dallas Sidekicks, Abbey Villa, Dundela, Meadowbank

Northern Ireland record: Seven appearances, one goal

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