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'Players gave me advice about marking Stanley Matthews - don't watch the ball, watch his feet'

From Barn United to Arsenal, via Portadown, Billy McCullough has been on an extraordinary journey

Billy McCullough relaxes at his home near London
Billy McCullough relaxes at his home near London
Heyday: Billy McCullough

By Stuart McKinley

Imagine the scenario. You're a young footballer in the Irish League and out of the blue you get the call that one of the biggest clubs in England are bringing you over to sign.

It's every young boy's dream come true.

It's also the type of thing you would think only a fool would turn down.

Billy McCullough is nobody's fool though. Even at the age of 83 the Carrickfergus-born man is still full of life and sharp as a tack.

The memories of 61 years ago remain vivid too. Back in the autumn of 1958 when Gibby McKenzie, the irrepressible Scot who was manager at Portadown, informed him he was going to sign for Arsenal, McCullough told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't boarding the flight to London that night.

"I played for the Irish League against the Scottish League and afterwards Gibby McKenzie introduced me to George Swindin, the Arsenal manager," explained McCullough.

"The next day I was in work when Gibby turned up. He said we were flying to London that night and I was signing for Arsenal.

"I said 'no I'm not'.

"Nothing had been discussed about the move in terms of money or anything.

"My Uncle Tom was the only member of the family who had any connection with football so he rang Gibby and he said no as well.

"It was all sorted out quite quickly though as I was in London by the end of the week, signed on the Friday and watched them play Wolves on the Saturday."

It was the start of a career that would bring a multitude of memories and lifelong friends.

The green swathe of Highbury was a far cry from where it all began for McCullough.

"I worked in Belfast at Graham and Jordans, near the docks," said McCullough.

"There was a bit of waste ground there where we used to play football at lunchtime.

"Someone had seen me playing and asked me to join Barn United, which was close to home for me in Carrickfergus.

"Then I was asked to go to Ballyclare Comrades and from there I went to Portadown."

The late 1950s into the swinging 60s was a great era in English football, leading up to England's glorious World Cup triumph in 1966.

Of all the greats that he came up against, two right-wingers stand out for the tough left-back, who was a fixture in the Gunners first-team for seven years.

"I signed in September and I was at the match on Christmas Day when Arsenal went to Luton and got beaten 6-3. The return match at Highbury was the next day, the manager made some changes and I was brought in for my debut," said McCullough, who made 10 appearances for Northern Ireland.

"I played at left-back against Billy Bingham. He'd played for Northern Ireland at the World Cup earlier that year and I remember him having a go at me all through the match.

"I went up to Blackpool and played against Stanley Matthews. He wasn't far off 50-years-old and I was playing alongside Vic Groves - the two of us combined weren't as old as him.

"The week before we'd played away at Newcastle and they had Alf McMichael and Dick Keith, two Northern Ireland players, as their full-backs. They gave me a bit of advice about Matthews - they told me, 'don't watch the ball, watch his feet'."

Such was his swift rise in north London that there was no time to get homesick. Within a matter of months any chance of that happening was wiped out when a man who would become a friend for life appeared - with McKenzie having an impact again.

"My last match for Portadown was Jim Magill's first," said McCullough.

"Arsenal went to play a friendly against Bath City to turn on their floodlights and when we got to the hotel I was told that I was in a room on my own. I asked why and was told, 'because you've been a naughty boy', but they were playing a trick on me.

"I went up to my room to have a nap. The door knocked and standing there was Jim, who was from Lurgan, with Gibby. He had come on trial and then signed soon after.

"We've been friends ever since, I was best man at his wedding and we still speak regularly.

"We are both in the 100 Club at Arsenal for those who played over 100 games for the first team. I played over 300 and one season played every game, 42 matches."

That total could have been a lot higher had it not been for a managerial change. Swindin was replaced by England legend Billy Wright and that was the beginning of the end for McCullough at Highbury.

"I was at Arsenal for eight years and the first seven were the best years of my life," said Billy.

"Billy Wright came in as manager and we never really got on.

"I could have signed for Northampton, but I'd just got engaged and didn't want to go too far out of London, so I went to Millwall."

From the late 50s to the early 80s it was unusual for an Arsenal line-up not to include a Northern Irish man.

For the 1979 FA Cup final three - Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson - were in the team.

McCullough was always keen to help the younger players at the club, but also quick to cut any down to size when required, as Rice found out when the two men's careers overlapped.

"On a Friday we'd do a few laps round the pitch at Highbury and one day Pat Rice, who was only 17 and I was 29, shouted out 'McCullough, I'll race you round the pitch'.

"I said, 'give me a yard head start for every year I'm older than you'. The other lads were geeing me up and I was back sitting in the dugout at the half way line before he'd turned the corner at the Clock End.

"I told him he needed a bit more experience before throwing out challenges like that. I still see him at the Emirates and remind him of that."

McCullough never really settled at Millwall and soon after he was back across the Irish Sea, this time in Cork.

On the verge of their first FAI Cup triumph Cork Celtic let a 2-0 lead slip against Shamrock Rovers and were then beaten 4-1 in the replay. Even getting to the final made player-manager McCullough a hero in the city, but it wasn't long before he was on the move.

"We went up to play Coleraine in the Blaxnit Cup. Jim Hill, who I'd known from when we were boys in Carrickfergus, was manager of Derry City and he asked if I'd be interested in going there," he said.

"I'd got married and we had a young daughter by then. We lived in Bangor and it was good for a while, but then the Troubles started up and my wife, who was a London girl, wanted to go back home.

"I worked for my father-in-law, who had his own business, and that's what I did until I retired."

Nowadays Billy is still playing competitive sport, as part of the snooker team at his local golf club. He also follows Arsenal's fortunes closely too, watching matches with a neighbour in Potters Bar - just 16 miles from the Emirates Stadium - which is where he saw the Gunners beat Valencia on Thursday night to progress to the Europa League final.

"I do get invited back to Arsenal. I was due to go last Sunday against Brighton, but I don't drive now and I wasn't able to get. I'll hopefully get there next season.

"I think they need some new signings. The defence is poor and they need a new centre-half.

"They don't make them like Frank McClintock any more."

They don't make them like Billy McCullough any more either.

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