Mervyn Bell: 'Football has given me many great memories, but what happened to Michael will haunt me for the rest of my life'
Mervyn Bell on his amazing 40-year journey with Dundela, trophy triumphs and tragic losses
After everything that Dundela's legendary former manager Mervyn Bell achieved in his incredible career, you would expect him to sit back in his retirement years and reflect on the glory days.
After all, the 76-year-old's association with the east Belfast side stretched 40 years, involved more than 1,700 matches and featured more than 30 trophies.
Forget about England winning the World Cup in 1966, when Mervyn arrived at Wilgar Park as a player that same year the landscape of junior football in Northern Ireland was set to undergo dramatic change.
Mervyn joined as a defender and in 1973 he became player-manager before retiring to focus solely on managing the club from 1980 to 2006.
His Dundela side was named Junior Team of the Year four times as the silverware piled up.
He guided the Duns to 10.5 league titles, seven Intermediate Cups, six Steel and Sons Cups, four Smirnoff Cups and three George Wilson Cups.
But there was tragedy too as Mervyn remains haunted by the death of club captain Michael Goddard after he was struck on the chest by a ball at Stangmore Park on August 25, 1995.
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"Dundela was absolutely shattered by what happened to Michael," said Mervyn, who keeps 12 scrapbooks documenting his extraordinary career. "Michael's daughter Sophie, who was only two when it happened, ran in the London Marathon this year to raise money for cardiomyopathy which is what Michael died from.
"Dundela and myself gave her a donation and we are proud of how she has grown into a lovely woman.
"That day we were playing Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore and due to meet at Wilgar on the Friday night. It was Michael's 38th birthday and he asked if it would be okay to travel by car as he wanted to get home and celebrate with his family including his wife Sadie and Simon, who was six-years-old, and Sophie.
"I didn't like players travelling separately but we allowed him to go with team-mate Sammy Whiteside.
"When we were 1-0 ahead Brian Kennedy, who was left-back for Dungannon, attempted a cross and Michael blocked it with his chest. Michael ran back for the corner to come but as he hit the six-yard box he went down. The ambulance came pretty quickly and they worked on him but I'll never forget the medical staff looking at one another, shaking their heads.
"I sat in the dressing room and in came a police sergeant who said, 'I'm sorry, but would you be prepared to make a statement saying this is Michael Goddard's body?' Then we had to go and see Michael's family in Bangor and it was heartbreaking.
"The press became aware that someone had died on the pitch and by the 9pm news they said it was a 'Dundela player'. Can you imagine how the wives and girlfriends would feel?
"Michael was a top accountant in Shorts, Manchester United mad and he used to play for 1st Bangor. He was going to retire at the end of the season and I got on really well with him.
"Dundela were going to mark their 100th anniversary but no one felt like celebrating. Football became irrelevant. Everyone was looking to me to be the strong one but while you can prepare for a lot of things as a manager, nothing could prepare me for that night. It totally floored me.
"There was a testimonial match arranged and the Germany national team were staying in Belfast for a game against Northern Ireland. The German players found out about the tragedy and made a donation of £1,100.
"Michael wanted us to go on and achieve more and we felt that was a nice way to honour his memory. We won trophies again.
"Michael's brother Colin sent me a nice letter a few weeks after the funeral thanking me and the club for the support and I still have it, though it's difficult to read. It will haunt me for the rest of my life. It was Dundela's darkest hour. As I get older I get more sentimental and talking about it brings a lump to my throat."
Mervyn's astonishing spell at Dundela saw him become one of the longest-serving managers in football but he's too humble to tell you that. And he achieved it all without finding the time to do any coaching qualifications.
He started his career with 46th Boys' Brigade in the Old Boys' League as a 14-year-old.
"They stuck me out on the right wing to get me away from the hustle and bustle," recalled Mervyn, who has an older brother, Jim. "I ended up scoring two goals. In the Old Boys' League I learned all about doubles and trebles and it was nothing to do with alcohol."
After spells at Crusaders reserves, Distillery and Portadown, a 23-year-old Mervyn arrived at Dundela in 1966 ready to begin a remarkable journey.
"Charlie Tully was Portadown manager and I was deemed surplus to requirements," he added. "Albert Mitchell, then Dundela manager, had a good relationship with Charlie and I was playing for East Belfast at Wilgar Park. In the very early days I played for both teams. I was centre-half for East Belfast, to my right was Ronnie McQuillan and on my left was Roy Coyle.
"The Dundela team was called 'has beens' and my mum hated that but I was happy there and they brought in Johnny 'Stumpy' Jamieson and Jimmy Martin along with younger players. The club thought about allowing me to go to Larne in the late '60s but Albert made sure it didn't happen."
In 1972 Bertie Neill's Dundela reign came to an end and Sammy Wilson had a full season in charge before Mervyn agreed to become a 30-year-old player-manager.
"Bertie, who went on to manage Bangor, encouraged me to take on the role but he did warn me that managers would resent me," he recalled. "The next season we won the Intermediate Cup and George Wilson Cup although we couldn't compete financially with Carrick. They pipped us at everything until that half a trophy which I love."
In another extraordinary example of Irish League behaviour, a title was shared between Dundela and Carrick in 1976.
"Carrick beat Linfield in the final of the Irish Cup and they had fallen behind in the fixtures," said Mervyn, who lives in the Four Winds area of Belfast. "We won the B Division South Section and they triumphed in the North Section. The only window of opportunity was a one-off game to decide the winners but neither side would agree to toss a coin to see who played at home. All other pitches had been ripped up.
"The league got fed up, so they told us to forget about it and share it. No one believed me about the 'half a league title' until they celebrated the 125th anniversary of Irish League football at City Hall and there it was in print, Dundela half a title, Carrick half a title. People started to believe me then! At least I can say I've won more than 10 titles."
Newry City showed an interest in Mervyn after the departure of Roy Welsh but the Duns were never in danger of losing their loyal servant.
"Once I got settled there I never wanted to leave," he said.
But Mervyn, who was dubbed 'Mr Dundela' by the late Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie, could never have predicted the golden period of success.
"Even now, I wonder how I did it all," he said. "Since my wife Irene passed away, I've been up more to the SuperCupNI and got chatting to the McArees (Joe and Rodney) who said I never realised we were the team to beat.
"We won trophies but didn't ram it down anyone's throats. The players loved to win trophies and there was a great camaraderie with the guys working together in Shorts or the shipyard.
"We had a great family atmosphere and players wanted to be part of a winning team. In the 1991-92 season we were undefeated after 30 matches. We won three trebles and four doubles, won Junior Team of the Year four times and behind all the wins we were runners-up 24 times in the league and Cups.
"I never won the Steel and Sons Cup as a player despite reaching three finals but went on to win six as manager. When the opportunity to take the Northern Ireland Junior International side emerged, I had to give up the playing duties.
"I've been fortunate to work alongside great people like physio Dessie Bell, scout Billy Rooney and my assistant, Reggie Dornan. I couldn't have done it without their support."
It was a love affair that lasted longer than many marriages but in 2006 Mervyn had to leave Dundela and since his affection for the club ran deep it was always going to hurt.
"It was a really difficult time," he added. "Things did go wrong and I can remember sitting on Saturday morning at the breakfast table and telling Irene. When I told her she was in tears and I ended up in tears as well. She was possibly thinking of the end-of-season functions!
"You were wiping out 40 years and it wasn't easy. Irene was a huge part of it too as she was always there when I needed her.
"The story that went out was I jumped before I was pushed but that wasn't the truth. My leaving Dundela could and should have been avoided. Irene died in 2013, that gave us seven years without football. The longer time passed, the less likely I was to go back into the game despite offers.
"We enjoyed those seven years, packed in holidays and cruises and it was a good life which I wouldn't swap for anything, particularly after Irene's sad passing." Mervyn was left devastated in September 2013 when Irene lost her courageous battle with cancer.
"Irene was a tower of strength in my life," he said.
"She loved the end-of-season functions.
"We met on Tyrella Beach near Newcastle. Her husband tragically died in a workplace accident when she was 20.
"We got married in 1971 and Suzanne was born in 1972. David was born in 1966.
"We had great times together. Football can be quite demanding and it affects your family life. Billy Neill, who mentored me at Junior International level, warned me you might not see your family growing up.
"Irene loved the Northern Ireland matches. One time we went to see England play Northern Ireland at Wembley. We lost 1-0 and Gary Lineker scored. When we were at the bar, Irene fainted through fatigue. The doors opened and who walked in? Gary Lineker. I kept her going about that!
"We were to go to Tenerife in 2013 when Irene had pain in her back and there was also a lump on her leg. Doctors at the Mater Hospital saw a clot and wanted to see us again.
"The following week two doctors and two nurses came in while myself and Irene's cousins were sitting by the bed. The doctor said, 'I'm sorry Mrs Bell, you've got cancer in the lung'. Irene said, 'Is that it?' The doctor replied, 'I'm sorry to say it has spread to your spine, we will transfer you to the City and start chemo.'
"That was the end of March 2013 and Irene died in September - less than six months. Tenerife and a Caribbean cruise were cancelled when all Irene wanted was one week in the sun. A year earlier Irene's mum passed away and after she looked after her mum it felt like it was time to enjoy ourselves but they wouldn't let us fly.
"They stopped the chemo after a week and she died aged 64."
Mervyn's friends in football rallied around him and the game brought him comfort in the difficult months and years ahead.
"The funeral was a who's who of football," he said. "I played the Lionel Richie song 'Goodbye'. Irene loved it too and we made an agreement that it should be played at our funeral, whoever passed away first.
"Irene didn't want to talk about death, but did say, 'Could you play our song and tell the story about it?' How I was able to, I don't know. You get an inner strength. I looked down once and saw the tears rolling down my eldest granddaughter Ashley's cheeks. The only way I could do it was to look over the top of people's heads. But so many people rallied around me."
In recent years Mervyn, who was given a Merit Award by the Professional Footballers' Association and Northern Ireland Football Writers, could be seen enjoying a game at Olympia Leisure Centre on a Monday night but that stopped when hip replacement surgery last November didn't go according to plan.
There was nerve damage which resulted in the loss of feeling in his left leg from the knee down. Eighty-five per cent of the feeling has returned and he is hopeful of a complete recovery.
"It was difficult getting around and Dundela kindly gave me a parking space," he said. "They look after me well and I'm delighted to see Wilgar Park look great and the team on the right track. I'm out of football for 13 years but still get recognised and it's nice to have all these memories. They even have a portrait of me in the boardroom (far left)! Long may the light shine on it!"
Next year is the 125th anniversary of Dundela Football Club and Mervyn is on the committee planning the celebrations.
There's no better man for the job.