Our Sporting Lives And Times with Gerry McElhinney - ‘It was great to keep a clean sheet against Germans... we weren’t under the cosh and we won it 1-0, it really was a brilliant result’
Being thrust into your international debut would fill even some of the steeliest sportsmen with nerves.
When you’re lining up against West Germany in their own backyard with talent oozing from a squad that had been World Cup finalists just 16 months earlier, you could be forgiven for quaking in your football boots.
In November 1983 Gerry McElhinney was a late comer to international football at the age of 27, but had a wealth of sporting experience behind him. Facing the likes of Harald Schumacher, Uli Stielike, Lothar Matthaus and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the hotbed of Hamburg was just another step on a journey that had already taken him to Croke Park and the United States as a Gaelic footballer.
McElhinney had collected back-to-back Ulster Championship honours with Derry in his teens and received an All Star in 1975 too before going on to win Mid-Ulster boxing titles at two weights.
No wonder the man from the small village of Park in Co Londonderry simply took his dream debut in international football in his stride.
“Billy Bingham said he was thinking of playing me, but I think he was afraid of scaring me,” said McElhinney.
“When he named me in the team I wasn’t overawed. I’d Jimmy Nicholl on one side of me, Mal Donaghy on the other and Pat Jennings, who was the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, behind me. I thought I was safe as houses.
“If someone had said to me five years earlier that I would be playing against Karl-Heinz Rummenigge I’d have thought they’d been on the drink!
“It was great to keep a clean sheet against the Germans.
“Jimmy Nicholl cleared one off the line, but it wasn’t a smash-and-grab job and we weren’t under the cosh.
“Norman Whiteside scored to win the game 1-0 and it was really a brilliant result, but it didn’t sink in at the time and I didn’t realise how tight it was at the top of the group and how big a result it was until a few days later when the Germans scored a late goal to beat Albania to qualify for the European finals ahead of us on goal difference.”
McElhinney’s meandering sporting journey started close to home and even as a teenager it was his varied talents that helped him progress quickly, even if he was a relatively late starter.
“I went to Intermediate school in Claudy at 11-years-old and started playing basketball, football and Gaelic football,” said McElhinney, who turns 63 later this month and is now based close to Derby.
“I joined Banagher, my local club and played in the schools and minor teams for the district when I was 14.
“I’d just turned 18 when I made my debut for the Derry county team. Frankie Kearney was the manager and I’d just come back from being at Celtic so I thought I was going to be on the bench, but because of my fitness I started the match. It felt fairly easy to me because of that fitness.
“Derry had a really good team then. Players like Sean O’Connell, Seamus Lagan, Peter Stevenson were 10 years older than me, but they all made me feel like part of what was just a big family.
“We had great success with two Ulster titles, taking us to two All-Ireland semi-finals.
“I was in my teens and I didn’t really think about what we were achieving. I just went with the flow. I’ve always been like that. I just got on with it.
“We’d a wee bit of success, but I still went back to work on Monday morning.
“We could maybe have achieved more. We lost out on an All-Ireland title, but I didn’t have any regrets. Derry did win it late when I wasn’t playing, but I was there to see them.”
Gerry still has strong ties with GAA. His sister is married to Derry legend Anthony Tohill and he regularly watches nephew Anton playing Australian Rules on television after he joined Collingwood.
McElhinney encountered a number of iconic managers and coaches during his career.
One, who he never actually played for, was indirectly responsible for him becoming a winner in another sporting field.
He never made the breakthrough at Celtic, but Jock Stein still influenced him becoming a champion.
“The boxing just started as a bit of fun. The Gaelic players were doing it for a bit of extra training. We trained in this shack behind a shop in Dungiven that had all the equipment in it,” he said.
“I did it because others did it and I enjoyed the boxing.
“I wasn’t giving it much thought, but I went on to fight in the Mid-Ulster Championships and Ulster Championships.
“I was doing it for three or four years and when I went over to Celtic Jock Stein wanted to build me up and to put on weight. He had me drinking Guinness and I ended up moving up from welterweight to middleweight and that’s when I won a Mid-Ulster title.”
At the same time as he was enjoying success on the Gaelic football pitch and in the boxing ring, the sport that would see McElhinney forge a professional career was just starting.
He joined Dungiven United as a 14-year-old shortly after their formation and will come home to join some of his old team-mates at their 50th anniversary dinner in a few weeks time.
He turned out for Limavady United and Derry City who were playing junior football then after being thrown out of the Irish League, often playing two football games on a Saturday and another two Gaelic matches on a Sunday.
Even later, when the football took a break in the summer the boots weren’t hung up as he played Gaelic for Gortin in Tyrone and Craigbane in Derry.
Before that he’d played much further afield.
“I was back and forward to America playing Gaelic,” said McElhinney, who is now self-employed in the building trade as a telehandler driver.
“I played for the Sligo team in New York, the Cavan team in Philadelphia and was in Chicago too.
“There were times when I would go over for the weekend, play a match and come home again. If Derry had been put out of the Ulster Championship early I would have spent the summer there. Marty Murphy, who is from Banagher, took me over and he is still in New York.
“I played football for Philadelphia Fury too.”
His wide variety of sporting adventures — not to mention his ability — meant McElhinney became a well-known name. It was no surprise then that clubs started to come calling and when Celtic got in touch it looked like his big opportunity had come.
The Glasgow giants’ attempts to replace a club legend proved to be a positive and a negative for him because while the chance came, it also did for many others.
“Sean Fallon was from Sligo, he was Jock Stein’s assistant and he took a lot of Irish lads to Celtic,” said Gerry.
“I would have been over during the summer holidays and even when I worked at Desmonds — I was a cutter in the shirt factory — I got time off to go. The boss Charlie McLaughlin was a football fan and he loved the fact that I was going over there.
“I played something like 30 reserve games and some of the European Cup winning team from 1967 were still there coming to the tail-end of their careers.
“It was hard as a centre-half because they had so many at the time.
“They were looking for someone to replace Billy McNeill. How do you do that?”
It was when he was picked up by another legendary Scottish manager that things took a turn for McElhinney, but only after a trial at Bristol City, which while successful, failed to result in a move because the club had overspent on contracts for other players.
“When I came back from Celtic I wrote to a few Irish League clubs and Gibby McKenzie, who was manager of Distillery, rang our house. My mum said that some Scottish man had been on the phone and I wondered if it was someone from Celtic looking me back,” he said.
“I’ll never forget it. Distillery had no ground, they were bottom of the league and other than the die-hards they didn’t have a big fanbase.
“Bertie Neill took over as manager and he got me a trial at Bristol City, but they’d no money and they couldn’t sign me.
“I was a bit down in the dumps after that and I actually went back to the United States, but Distillery asked me back and in pre-season in 1980 we played a friendly against Drogheda United.
“There was a scout from Bolton Wanderers at the game and they asked me over.
“I played in a match against Bury Reserves and did well enough in a 0-0 draw for them to sign me on a two-year contract.”
Naturally playing in England attracted the attention of Northern Ireland boss Bingham.
McElhinney’s involvement on the international stage is, however, a somewhat unusual tale.
He was part of the squad that qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but didn’t make the cut for the finals. He wouldn’t make his debut until that clash with the West Germans over a year later and what nobody knew that 12 months and six caps later he would pull on the green shirt for the last time and was no longer on the scene when the team went to Mexico in 1986.
“Billy Bingham lived in Southport and I was playing in Bolton, so he was close by and I think he watched me a few times,” said McElhinney.
“I remember the night we beat Israel to qualify for the World Cup, but in the build-up to Spain I broke my toe and couldn’t kick a ball for a while, so I missed out.
“I didn’t really think about it. It was just ‘what happens happens’ and I’m still pretty much the same. Three years earlier I’d never have thought I’d have got to where I was, so I thought that was a success.
“I’d a short international career, but I played against West Germany and all the great players they had at the time, I was up against Tony Woodcock when I played against England at Wembley, faced Mark Hughes and Ian Rush for Wales and Graeme Souness for Scotland so I have good memories.
“I remember playing in a defeat in Finland and then my last match was a win against Romania at Windsor. They had Hagi in the team. He was only young then, but you could see the class that he had.
“I moved to Plymouth Argyle then. I had a great time there and they were a great club, but I think I was a bit out of the way and faded out of the international scene because of that.
“When I was at Bolton there were so many matches in the north-west that it was easy for Billy Bingham to keep an eye on players there. It was a bit more difficult in Plymouth.
“I think that’s why I faded out of the scene. I don’t know what else I can put it down to.”
McElhinney finished his career at Peterborough United, where he moved into coaching.
He will watch Northern Ireland take on the Germans on Monday night, but his own active involvement in football ended a decade ago when he left his role with Derby County Academy.
“It was a good experience at Derby, but having to tell parents that their son wasn’t going to make it, I just didn’t like shattering their dreams when all they wanted to do was play for their club,” he said.
Those kids who don’t make it may not realise it at the time, but they always hit the heights in another sport. Just ask Gerry McElhinney.