Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives with Noel Bailie: I was very proud to receive my MBE from the Queen but my mum wasn't there to see it

Great innings: Noel Bailie played 1,013 times for Linfield
Great innings: Noel Bailie played 1,013 times for Linfield
League joy: Noel Bailie with the Gibson Cup in 2007
Winning combination: Noel and David Jeffrey
Emotional day: Noel is given his MBE by the Queen

By Graham Luney

In the latest installment of our popular series, Linfield legend Noel Bailie discusses his glittering playing career, how the game has changed, and an emotional day at Buckingham Palace.

Q So Noel, 1,013 games for Linfield, 10 Irish League titles, eight Irish Cup wins, six League Cups, a Setanta Cup, 37 winner's medals and an MBE for services to football in the 2013 Queen's Birthday Honours List. Where did it all go wrong?

A Where DID it all go wrong? I'll take your word for that, I didn't count all the medals. As a 15-year-old kid joining Linfield, I could never have predicted that. I still laugh about it, it's nuts.

I've said it a million times, when you get lucky with injuries you're a lucky player and I was. There was a scurrilous rumour that I never tackled but that's not true! I even got sent off, once in Russia and twice in the Irish League.

Q Did it all start for you at Hillsborough Boys?

A That was from the age of nine or 10. I also played for Lisburn Central primary school. I loved that time, we had a good team with Hillsborough Boys and even won a UK title.

We had great players like Gerry Taggart and Neil Lennon. They were both with Manchester City and Gerry was a man mountain.

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Lenny wasn't the quickest in the world but he could pass the ball very well. I've lived in Hillsborough for 20 years, it's nice and quiet.

Q How did the link with Linfield happen?

A When I was 14 or 15, we had Tommy Dickson junior as one of our coaches. The story I've been told is that Jim 'Stick' Thompson of Linfield Rangers lost a few players and he needed additions.

They got in touch with Tommy and for some strange reason they thought I could do a job in midfield. I had played alongside Gerry and took up the sweeper role then, playing behind him.

I moved into midfield for Linfield Rangers. The late Gerry Burrell contacted my dad Billy to make sure everyone was okay with the move. We all agreed and the rest is history.

Linfield were my dad's team and I was more than happy to join them.

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League joy: Noel Bailie with the Gibson Cup in 2007

Q Gerry and Neil progressed their careers across the water. Did that opportunity ever present itself to you?

A The only time I was supposed to go was to Rangers. When Walter Smith was manager I was due to go over for a trial but Graeme Souness became the boss and it never happened. There was some interest but nothing developed.

Q Who were your football heroes growing up?

A Liam Brady was my first hero, he was a fantastic player. Then it was Graham Rix. I'm a big Arsenal fan but I've only seen them play once.

I took my kids Lee and Claire to see them beat West Ham 3-1 at the Emirates over five years ago. Linfield bought us the tickets as a leaving present.

Q We don't see many one-club men in football. How come you never left Linfield?

A I was never close to leaving Linfield. I was enjoying my football and even during the periods when we didn't win a league or Irish Cup I didn't want to go anywhere else.

If I couldn't go to England to play for Arsenal, I wanted to play for Linfield. Even during tough times I believed we would come back. There were never any problems when it came to agreeing contracts, not from my end or Linfield's.

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Noel Bailie(centre) walks out for his 1000th appearance for Linfield.

Q You've had many incredible highlights. If you had to pick one, what would it be?

A If I had to, it would probably be the Irish Cup final when we went 1-0 down to the Glens and Peter Thompson scored two to clinch us the clean sweep in 2006. That was a phenomenal experience in front of a huge crowd and it would probably just beat the Setanta Cup win, though that was a one-off stunning achievement.

It's not often teams do a clean sweep. Linfield won six doubles in seven seasons too and it may take many years for that to happen again, if it ever does. David (Jeffrey) made great signings and the squad was so strong.

Q Who was your toughest opponent?

A Gary Hamilton. He was just a different player. You knew he was quality and just had so many strengths.

In Irish League terms, he had everything you needed in a striker. You were certainly kept on your toes with him around.

Portadown had Stevie Cowan and Sandy Fraser, who were also a handful. I was fortunate because I usually had a big, strong centre-half beside me like Winkie (William Murphy), Jeff Spiers or Kris Lindsay who could pick up the strong centre-forward and I would pick up the other one.

Q Did you have any interest in management?

A No, that would take up too much time. Players have a much easier life in comparison. Managers have to make plans, organise training and then decide on formations and squads. All that didn't interest me.

Q When you look back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

A I'm not really into 'what ifs' but I would have loved to play for Northern Ireland. It would have been nice to get at least one appearance after playing for youth sides and becoming a B international.

There was talk I was going to be called into a squad if it was a home game against Czech Republic but it was an away game so it never happened. In those days, Irish League players didn't always get a chance.

Q I'm sure you're not surprised by David Jeffrey's success at Ballymena United. What was your relationship like at Linfield?

A What David achieved with Linfield was stunning. His recruitment of players was spot on and that's a fantastic quality to have.

He could motivate the younger players who needed guidance. I was used to his motivational talks but I didn't need to hear them. My attitude was always if players need a motivational talk to get them going then there's something wrong. It baffles me when people say players should be up for big games.

As far as I'm concerned, if you pull on a Linfield jersey you should be up for it, full stop. That applies to any jersey you have on. You don't pick and choose what games to be up for.

I didn't need a hairdryer talk from David but he was good at knowing how players would respond to either strong words or an arm around the shoulder.

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Winning combination: Noel and David Jeffrey

Q What was your style as captain?

A I was always a big talker on the pitch, I never stopped! I've no doubt players were sick of hearing me give out instructions!

Every so often Winkie would explode at someone and I'd have to calm him down. We had loud characters and big personalities in the team and while I wasn't a shouter, if there was a talk with someone needed I'd do that.

Q Does a Linfield player, in particular, need to be mentally strong?

A I think the players have to understand the demands and expectations of the club. Those are to win every game. The minimum is hard work and the fans expect that.

You've got to work hard for every minute. Some players maybe thought this is just a County Antrim Shield game and it doesn't matter as much.

In reality, there are 600 Linfield fans here on a wet and windy night and it's very important to them. Some players have struggled to cope with those demands and they left the club.

Q Do you see any big difference between today's game and when you started playing for Linfield in 1989?

A Players are going down far too easily and the referee automatically awards a free-kick. It sometimes feels like you can't produce a good tackle any more without being punished. A good, strong tackle is something everyone appreciates but we are losing that.

There's too much play acting, whereas in my day a good, strong shoulder charge was accepted. But there is still plenty of quality in the league.

The other big difference is there was no social media. You weren't worried about saying one controversial thing and it appearing on the internet.

Players have made mistakes on Twitter and they need to be very careful. We always had that saying at Linfield to remember who you are and where you are at all times. That's never more important than today when players are on social media.

Q Did you get much stick from opposing fans?

A You got the odd comment but nothing to worry about. There was, however, the trouble at the Park Avenue Hotel. We had our Christmas parties there but one year it became an experience I will never forget. It was crazy.

Jamie Marks suffered a broken jaw and it was a nightmare. There was another party in the hotel and I don't know how or why trouble broke out. Players and partners had to give statements to police.

Q Your No.11 shirt was 'retired' after the May 2011 Irish Cup final win over Crusaders. Was that a fitting tribute?

A That was not something I asked for. When the club told me they were contemplating doing that, I suggested they didn't.

Linfield had done enough for me, I had the testimonial and the medals plus the trip to Arsenal for the first time. It was Linfield's suggestion to retire the shirt but I was happy for someone else to wear the No.11. The club made the decision and it's a lovely gesture, even though I didn't feel it was necessary.

Q Do you miss anything about the game?

A I'm still scouting for Linfield so I'm still involved in terms of looking at players and how teams play.

I don't miss the game any more, I've been out of it for eight years. I had a brilliant time and I was happy to retire when I did.

The old players meet up at supporters' club functions and that's nice. There's been the odd charity game too and it's fantastic to meet up with the boys.

Q Did you get great support from your parents?

A Fantastic. My mum Wilma went to some matches and my dad Billy went to them all. Grandchildren came along and my mum made it a day out. For example, if I was off to Institute she would go shopping.

They went to cup finals and dad was encouraging without putting me under pressure. He trusted me to do what I had to.

My son Lee went to the games with my dad. He's a teenager now, as is Claire who came to the big cup finals with the family.

In one Irish Cup final both Lee and Claire were mascots walking out with me which was perfect. I've watched Lee play for Downshire Young Men on a Saturday.

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Noel Bailie at Belfast City Council after he was recognised by Lord Mayor Pat Convery for his long service to Linfield. He is pictured with his children Lee (10) and Claire (7) and parents Billy and Wilma.

Q How special was the chance to mingle with royalty at Buckingham Palace in 2013?

A I was one of the lucky ones as I got to meet Her Majesty herself. We didn't know until the day if it was going to be the Queen doing the honours.

She asked me what I did and what I do now and congratulated me. I never got to ask her who her favourite team was.

It was a fantastic day with my dad, Lee and Claire. My mum had just passed away in the previous few months so that was sad but my dad was very proud. It was a proud and emotional day.

Q Was your mum aware you were awarded an MBE?

A She died of cancer aged 65 and was at that period when she couldn't communicate. I had got the letter and told her. Hopefully she could hear it. I really hope so.

I didn't tell the family about the letter because it didn't feel right to celebrate something when my mum was ill. Losing someone so close to you is hard, particularly for my dad who did everything with my mum, apart from go to Linfield matches!

They were together for more than 40 years and then everything changes, leaving my dad on his own.

The cancer came quite quickly in my mum and I feel for anyone affected by it, it is heartbreaking.

I've a brother William who came from Canada for the funeral. My dad's strong now and he's fine.

Life must go on and we must all support one another.

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Emotional day: Noel is given his MBE by the Queen

Snapshot

Date of birth: February 23, 1971

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: Hillsborough Boys, Linfield

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