At 86 years old Gerry Burrell has seen many of his proteges pull on the blue of Linfield. Ivan Little finds out the secret of his success
Genial Gerry Burrell has always relished the role of the joker in the pack. Behind the jibes and the joviality, they don’t come any older — or wiser — than the former Belfast Celtic player who has recruited a veritable galaxy of stars for Linfield in the astonishing 44 years he has scouted for the club.
Yet Gerry, who at 86 is probably the longest-serving and surviving, active participant in Irish League football, admits that one of the biggest successes of his talent-spotting career, was almost his biggest disaster.
For the high-octane octogenarian, who discovered Noel Bailie as a youngster turning out for the Hillsborough Boys club in the Lisburn league, admits: “I didn’t think he would make it!”
Noel, who recently clocked up his staggering 1000th appearance for his beloved Blues, first caught Gerry’s eye in the Barbour Playing Fields in Lisburn, but it took the scout another three trips before he recommended Bailie to Windsor Park.
“He was playing what I would call the old left half position and he looked easy on the ball, but I thought he was too nice to make it at a time when teams were looking for players who would go through brick walls for the cause,” explained Burrell.
“Noel wasn’t the quickest, but he had great poise and great balance.”
The Linfield boss at that time in the mid-80s was Roy Coyle and he moved Noel Bailie into the heart of his defence.
“And that suited him right down to the ground. I was delighted to see him do so well for the Blues.” says Gerry, who also liked what he saw when he first spotted a youthful David Jeffrey who is now, of course, Linfield’s manager.
“The only problem was that Manchester United came in for David and Linfield had no chance of competing,” says Gerry.
“That, of course, is a common problem for local clubs to try to compete against the English giants and I can’t blame youngsters or their parents for taking their chance to go across the water.
“It is only common sense to try for the big time, but it can be soul destroying to see young lads coming back from England after being released. They can be so disillusioned and disappointed that they turn their backs on the game for good.”
But Gerry has first hand experience of the highs in cross-channel football.
Born just a throw-in away from Shamrock Park in Portadown, Gerry became a schoolboy international in 1937 after his family moved to Belfast’s Donegall Pass area.
After spells with Sirocco Works, Belfast Celtic and Dundela, Burrell who was a speedy right winger, got an unexpected break with St Mirren in the Scottish League.
“Their manager Bobby Rankin came over to watch Dundela play against Crusaders at Seaview when they were a junior club like ourselves.”
The target of his spying mission was the father of Portadown manager Ronnie McFall. “But after the game Bobby Rankin offered me a trial against Queen of the South reserves and he later signed me for his club,” said Gerry.
Gerry who had served his time as an electrician in Harland & Wolff after leaving school at 14, finished his apprenticeship in Glasgow while playing for St Mirren where he stayed for four years before joining Dundee in 1951.
Two years later, he moved south to Huddersfield Town and made his debut against Sunderland where his opposite number on the right wing was Billy Bingham, who was to make sure that senior international honours always eluded Gerry.
Burrell’s never predictable career path then almost took him to France.
“Huddersfield had a game against Nice and I played like something out of the Wizard comic,” he smiled.
The Nice manager tried to sign Burrell but his wife Patricia, a Shankill Road girl, said ‘non.’
After breaking an ankle in an FA Cup game against Tranmere, Gerry’s form dipped and he was transferred to Chesterfield.
“After a couple of years there I decided to come home and ended up with Portadown who were managed by Gibby McKenzie and I later went back to where it all started — at Wilgar Park with Dundela,” he added.
He played on until well into his forties, but a series of heart problems made Gerry hang up his boots and he was urged to become a scout by Dundela manager Albert Mitchell.
However the scout was quickly scouted by Linfield and he has been there ever since.
“I love it,” says Gerry, “In the summer, on the bright nights, I can be watching up to four games a week, taking in school games, youth matches and I also try to get to as many Milk Cup games up on the north coast as possible too,” he explained.
“Obviously you don’t spot great players in every game you watch. In fact it can be quite rare, but I always think I can recognise potential early on and I get a buzz out of unearthing new players for Linfield.
“Sometimes of course I will also follow up leads from supporters of the club who think they have found a new George Best or Wayne Rooney.
“I don’t do it for the money, I do it because football is my passion and I still think it is the greatest game on earth.”
As well as Bailie, Gerry lists Peter Dornan and Martin McGaughey as his favourite finds for the Blues. And Norman Whiteside is another of his most regretted ‘ones that got away.’
Linfield manager Jeffrey believes football has seriously underestimated his scout’s standing in the game.
“Because he is always laughing and joking, people tend not to give Gerry the respect he deserves, but you just have to look at his record as a player and as a scout to know that he is someone really special,” said Jeffrey.
“If he was coming back to Irish League football from England at the minute, he would be lauded as a modern day superstar, a legend, an icon.
“I remember him first watching me when I was a 14-year-old playing for Holywood Star. Obviously, history now records that I opted to join Manchester United, but Gerry never forgot about me and when he heard I was coming back home from Old Trafford, he made sure Linfield were aware of the fact.
“And I am proud to have worked with him. The number of players he has signed for this club is quite remarkable and his commitment to Linfield has been absolutely fantastic.”
However Gerry Burrell confesses that even after 44 years with Linfield, he still has a soft spot.for Belfast Celtic.
“Their departure from Irish League football ruined the game here,” says Gerry who still talks with a mixture of humour and fear of the manager who signed him from junior football for Celtic — Elisha Scott.
“He was an absolutely brilliant manager. I learnt my football at Celtic Park, but he could be a hard taskmaster.
“I used to get the tram up the Donegall Road at about tuppence a time and when I once put in my expenses for ten bob, he asked me if I had gone via America!
“He wouldn’t have given you two halfpennies for a penny and it’s said that after Peter O’Connor scored 11 goals for Celtic against Glenavon, Scott told him off for missing two sitters in the first-half.”
Gerry Burrell did play for Linfield — but only once.
“I keep people going that I had a 100 per cent record for the Blues — one game and one goal,” laughs Gerry who guested for the Windsor Park club in a friendly against Manchester United in May 1948.
“They beat us 2-1, but it was a night I will never forget. The forward line for Linfield also included Peter Doherty, Davy Walsh and Jimmy McAlinden. It was unbelievable.”
But ask him to single out his greatest ever playing colleague, and he comes up with two names.
“Charles Patrick Tully was a great player and a great friend, but Billy Steel at Dundee was the best inside forward of my lifetime.”
Gerry still makes an annual pilgrimage to Scotland to see his old clubs in action. “They still look after me over there,” he says. “And I also get along to a lot events organised by the Belfast Celtic Society.”
So, for a man who survived major health scares four decades ago, Gerry Burrell is clearly showing no sign of slowing down. And retirement isn’t on the scout’s radar.
“No, the only way I will quit is when they cart me off to Roselawn,” he says “But maybe they will take me via somewhere like the Newtownbreda playing pitches, so I can just have one last search to find a footballer of tomorrow”