Our Sporting Lives: Linfield legend Pat Fenlon on why he has taken Dublin road back to Windsor
Our Sporting Lives and Times: Dubliner Pat Fenlon on becoming a Blues great, hailed on the Shankill, and why he is back at Windsor
There are no hard borders in football, Pat Fenlon being a prime example, amid the Brexit wrangling, that everything is possible.
Of all the boyhood football dreams he could have imagined growing up on Dublin's tough north side, not even in his wildest would he have seen himself being cheered wildly on an open top bus ride along Belfast's Shankill Road.
This is a story of an enduring affinity and mutual affection between a football man, a club and its supporters, remarkable for the diametrically different backgrounds and traditions that became interwoven in the creation of a Linfield legend. Small in stature, he carved out a giant reputation as a midfield genius in Trevor Anderson's swashbuckling mid-Nineties side.
And now, two decades after he left as a player, Pat Fenlon is back at Windsor Park as Linfield's newly-appointed general manager.
His job description and avowed aim is to make the club as successful off the pitch as he did on the field in his 1990s trophy-laden spell, topped by a league and cup double in his first season, with the ultimate aim of taking the Blues full-time. So no pressure then.
The fit is such a natural one, you wonder why they didn't think of it sooner.
You can just picture the raised eyebrows and sharp intake of excited breath in the Linfield boardroom when they opened the letter of application, postmarked Dublin.
The temptation must have been to lift the phone immediately and ask, 'When can you start?'
But fair employment procedure decreed that even a favourite son was required to engage in a rigorous interview and presentation process, at the end of which he landed the job on his considerable merits and not just on his football CV. For the past 20 years he has been running a successful cleaning business in Dublin, bringing that acumen and his experience as general manager of Waterford in a conscious change of direction to the commercial side of the game.
In a glittering career as player and manager, the 49-year-old has amassed 10 league titles, north and south, numerous cups and personal accolades.
As a boss, he has directed Shelbourne, Derry City, Bohemians, Hibs in Scotland, Shamrock Rovers, who he supported as a boy, Waterford and the Republic U23s.
Yet he is keen to point out that his Windsor Park remit does not extend to the playing side.
Seated in his new office, next to David Healy's, with its photographic reminders of past and present Linfield glories, he insists: "David is the main man on the football side and he is doing a fantastic job. I have no input there.
"My role is different, working to develop a strategy for the future direction of the club over the next five to 10 years. We will be looking to maximise our fantastic facilities at Windsor and the new Midgely Park with its 4G pitch and state of the art training set-up. There are income and commercial targets to be met and we also want to explore a full-time football aspect.
"When you look around Windsor Park it is completely different to when I was first here. It's a huge opportunity to progress the club. It's a great time for Linfield to try and develop and it's something for me to get my teeth into."
It is to a new Northern Ireland, as well as a new Windsor, he has returned.
The age-old 'no Catholics' signing taboo at Windsor had been well and truly broken by the time he arrived from Bohemians in still troubled times in 1994.
But as the first Dublin Catholic to sign for the Blues and a significant, for then, £25,000 transfer fee to justify, eyes were upon him, north and south.
Linfield supporters, by then, were less interested in what foot a player metaphorically kicked with and more on how he used his feet on the field of play.
Unfazed by the symbolism of his signing, Fenlon was determined he would win over the most demanding crowd in Irish football by doing his talking on the pitch. He did not make an immediate impact.
"I arrived with a bit of an injury and didn't play well in my first few games," he recalls.
"But gradually my form improved and the turning point came in a game against Cliftonville when I scored a rare headed goal.
"Trevor subbed me soon after and the crowd went ballistic at him. As I trooped off, Trevor whispered to me, 'You've arrived now, that's them showing they appreciate you as a player'.
"It was a great piece of management by Trevor, taking stick from the fans to big me up with them."
And so began a mutual love affair with those fans who immortalised their new hero in song and affectionately nicknamed him Billy.
Surreal is a word that crops up frequently in our conversation.
Like when he recalls that open top bus ride on the Shankill to celebrate the 1994 double. His goal against Glentoran on a dramatic last day of the league had secured the title for Linfield and a week later, he scored the second goal in a 2-0 Irish Cup final win over Bangor.
"I'm looking at the crowds lining the road as we paraded the trophies and some of them are wearing Billy Fenlon T-shirts. Surreal," he smiles at the memory.
"To be honest, that old Protestant-Catholic, north-south thing never bothered me, then or now.
"I knew the history. As a Rovers fan, I was at the European game in Dublin in 1985 when Linfield fans were banned from travelling but I had no hesitation in signing when Trevor Anderson made his offer. Football is football. It's about players and what happens on the park.
"I wasn't oblivious to what was going on with the Troubles but I just wanted to play.
"Admittedly, neither Linfield nor the Irish League were part of my thinking when I decided to leave Bohs. I'd enjoyed three good seasons under Eamon Gregg, then he was sacked and it left me very unhappy.
"I'd expected to join another club in the south but then Roy Coyle, who was managing Ards, came to watch me and invited me to join them. It wasn't what I had in mind. Then Jim Emery, the Linfield scout, telephoned out of the blue and set up a meeting with Trevor Anderson who sold the club to me."
That was in January 1994 and nearly 25 years on, his admiration for his former boss is clear and present.
"Trevor is a great guy and a great manager," he affirms.
"He was quiet but he could make himself heard when he needed to and his knowledge of the game was immense. Lindsay McKeown was his assistant, a much more outgoing character, and their two very different personalities blended brilliantly.
"It was a fantastic dressing room and team to be part of. Big Wes Lamont, our keeper, was another big character, we had Alan Dornan and John Easton solid at the back, big Jeff Spiers at centre-half, Noel Bailie tidying up, myself and Garry Peebles in midfield, Ray Campbell and Stephen Beatty chipping in with goals and Gary Haylock and Dessie Gorman banging them in up front. Some side.
"I've had many experiences in football but nothing like that last-day league decider. It was between us, Glenavon and Portadown who were playing each other at Mourneview and we all had to win to take the title. The pendulum swung one way, then the other. At one stage Glenavon were two goals up, we were a goal down to the Glens and the trophy, which was parked at Moira roundabout on the M1, looked on its way to Lurgan.
"But Portadown fought back to 2-2, and both sides missed chances to win as we came back against the Glens. I popped in our winner but the other game still hadn't finished and we had to wait on the pitch for what seemed like an age to hear if we were going to be champions. Surreal."
Two successful seasons, 62 appearances and 18 goals later, he bade farewell for what he thought would be his dream move, as a lifelong supporter, to Shamrock Rovers - a case of be careful what you wish for. "It didn't work out. I was gone after a season," he says regretfully.
Ten incredibly successful years followed as player and manager of Shelbourne, including three league titles and a run to the third qualifying round of the Champions League, eventually losing to Spanish giants Deportivo La Coruna.
Back on the rollercoaster, he eventually said yes to managing Derry City after resisting three previous offers. "It was the only time in my career I've gone against my instincts. I shouldn't have taken the job. After six months I asked them to tear up my contract and they did. Great city and people, big club, but not for me," he says.
More success at Bohs led to his move to Hibs who he guided to two Scottish Cup finals, finishing up back in charge at Rovers and finally Waterford.
Football has been his life since his boyhood, playing for youth and junior sides in his native Ballymun and Finglass.
Progressing to the Republic U17 side, two goals against Northern Ireland in a game at the Mardyke in Cork were enough to persuade a watching Chelsea scout to spirit him back to London on a three-year deal.
It was the Chelsea side of Kerry Dixon, Nigel Spackman, David Speedie and Pat Nevin, managed by John Hollins, and although he never broke through and was back home in two years, he banked the experience as part of his football and life learning curve.
Former Republic boss Brian Kerr, who signed him for St Pat's Athletic, became a career-long influence. "We speak regularly. He really should still have a role in Irish football," asserts Fenlon.
With his mentor's expertise confined to the commentary box, Kerr will surely follow with interest his new career path.
"This is a massive club," Pat enthuses as we sign off. "Being here as a player, legend is too big a word, but being accepted by the supporters and enjoying a successful time here, I want to maintain and enhance that relationship coming back in a different role. That's important for me because I've always had a great rapport with the supporters.
"I really want to take Linfield forward and help the club fulfil all its potential."