Belfast Telegraph

Obituary: Bertie McMinn, Irish League legend who was one of the most gifted players of his generation

 

Irish League football legend of the Seventies and early Eighties Bertie McMinn, who lost a "lion-hearted" battle against cancer yesterday aged 60, was by common consent one of the most gifted players of his generation.

Had fate been kinder to him Bertie would have enjoyed the full-time cross-channel career, all the way up to international level, that his natural flair warranted.

Instead he will be remembered as one of the great entertainers and goalscorers of the Irish League, most notably with Distillery, whose slide down the divisions in recent years was a great source of regret for him.

Bertie also played for Glenavon and Ards in the top division, ending his career at 37 after lower league spells with Dungannon Swifts and Moyola Park, not for reward but for love of the game.

Distillery are the team he is chiefly associated with, having signed for them three times, always gravitating back to the side he considered his football spiritual home.

His loyalty to the Whites was all the more remarkable in that the club mean-spiritedly blocked a move to Bobby Robson's then high-riding Ipswich Town that could have led to fame and fortune.

But he stuck by them, proudly wearing a club shirt to the end as he entered the NI Hospice.

His standing in the game was confirmed in his last few months with a steady stream of leading football figures visiting him, including one of his former Distillery bosses, Northern Ireland World Cup hero Billy Hamilton, and Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey.

A proud Shankill Road man, he was also touched on the Twelfth of July this year when, unable to parade due to his illness, his Duke of Manchester lodge diverted from their route to the field to pass by his house.

Bertie was spotted by Distillery scout Norman Brady while playing Churches League football for 51st Old Boys on the Shankill aged just 15.

He was fast-tracked to the first team and became an instant goalscoring success.

Selection for a star-studded Northern Ireland youth international team followed, but an escapade on an away trip to Switzerland proved the first setback in a career that looked destined for great heights.

Full of mischief and bravado, Bertie and team-mate Bobby Campbell, who predeceased him two years ago, embarked on a joyride through Zurich that ended with the car they had 'borrowed' crashing into a river.

In an interview last year Bertie candidly related: "We had drawn 1-1 with England in a tournament. Ray Wilkins was their captain. We had Jimmy Nicholl, David McCreery and the late Noel Brotherston in our side.

"Our boss Tommy Casey told us to enjoy ourselves on a night out in Zurich. I think he genuinely meant us to enjoy ourselves, not get into the bother we did. But we were young and foolish."

Both players were banned for life from international football by the Irish FA, but while Campbell was later pardoned and called up to Billy Bingham's squad for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, it was too late for Bertie.

He might have had a chance if Distillery had not pitched his price too high for Ipswich when they considered signing him after a promising trial.

"Ipswich made an offer and it wasn't accepted," he explained.

"I was home on the next flight. I was gutted.

"I was rubbing shoulders with top names like Allan Hunter, Kevin Beattie, Mick Mills, George Burley and Brian Talbot.

"I was deprived of the chance because of greed. Naturally, I wasn't happy. In fact, I had made up my mind not to go back to the Whites."

Persuaded to return by legendary Whites boss Jimmy McAlinden, he remained the club's star performer for 11 years, even turning down what would have been a dream move for a Shankill Road lad to Linfield.

Distillery were enduring a nomadic existence at the time, ground-sharing with Crusaders and Brantwood after their original Grosvenor Park home, situated where the Westlink now runs, was destroyed in the early Troubles.

Financial worries eventually forced them to sell their most valuable assets, Bertie and team-mate Gerry Higgins, to Glenavon in 1978.

But despite a promising, goalscoring start, Bertie never settled in Lurgan and within a year was back with the Whites.

And even though they cashed in on him again, selling him to Ards, he returned for a third spell. He once explained why, saying: "What I loved about Distillery was the supporters. It didn't matter why you had a bad game, there was always next week, that was their attitude They were great people."

Still involved in football on the committee of Shankill United in the Premier Division of the Amateur League, Bertie was also active in community work on the Road until his recent diagnosis.

Son Ryan wrote on Facebook: "You fought like a lion. We love you and we're proud."

Bertie is survived by Ryan, wife Sharon, daughter Kerry, grandchildren Taylor, Mason and Harper, and great granddaughter Ariyah. A family funeral service at home will be followed by an open service at St Matthew's Church, Woodvale Road, at 9.45am on Monday.

Jim gracey

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph