‘Hit one and you had to hit the other as you were taking us both on’: Glens double act together again
Vic Moreland and Billy Caskey are reunited 40 years after their double transfer from Glentoran to Derby County as they recall a football odyssey all the way to the USA.
The last time these two buddies faced the camera at Glentoran’s Oval ground, they were about to embark on a great football adventure that would take them to the top division in England, international honours with Northern Ireland and a niche in North American Soccer League history among the first wave of British and Irish players who helped establish the professional game in the States.
Vic Moreland and Billy Caskey now live either side of the Atlantic, Caskey by the Irish Sea at Millisle and his former sidekick in Tulsa, Oklahoma where both starred with the renowned Roughnecks and where Moreland remained when his colourful football career ended.
Last week they met up again and it was like they had never been apart, 40 years after their 1978 double transfer from the Glens to Tommy Docherty’s Derby County, in English football’s top division, for a then princely £90,000.
Moreland, now 60, was on a flying visit back to his native Belfast to see family and explore scouting opportunities with two pals from the Tulsa Nationals club where he now helps out, coaching youngsters on their way to securing prized soccer scholarships at American universities.
He couldn’t resist taking in a match at his beloved Oval as the Glens lost to Ballymena United and was saddened to find the decaying old ground not much changed from his 70s era and a team in decline, too, a class apart from the trophy-laden side he starred on alongside East Belfast folk heroes like Rab McCreery, Dennis Matthews, Alex Robson, Johnny ‘Stumpy’ Jamieson, current caretaker boss Ronnie McFall and, of course, his pal Casko.
“I won’t talk down Glentoran,” he is quick to stress. “I supported them as a boy and they gave me my break in football. I will always have a great affinity and affection for them. It is hard not to feel sympathy for them and for their great and loyal supporters.
“Whatever the reasons for the straits they now find themselves in, I hope they find a way to turn the tide soon. They seem to have been left behind while other clubs have received financial support to improve their facilities. I’m told the money earmarked for the redevelopment of the Glens’ ground is tied up in the political stalemate at Stormont. It would be good to see all of that sorted out soon.”
Seeing them back together on their old stomping ground will have given Glens fans of their vintage a wistful reminder of a golden era they must fear will never return.
To those fans, Moreland and Caskey will always be a double act; rarely is one mentioned without the other in the same breath.
Both hail from similar Shankill Road family backgrounds, yet they had never met til they landed at The Oval in their teens and immediately connected.
Linfield would have seemed their natural football progression with Moreland related to the family of the late, esteemed Windsor Park chairman Billy McCoubrey and Caskey’s late grandfather a lifelong Blueman.
But the Troubles intervened with the Morelands moving east into Glentoran territory where he was spotted playing for Ardcarn Boys Club by the club’s famous old scout Bud McFarlane.
The Caskeys moved further down the coast to Millisle where, by chance, Crusaders stalwart Norman Pavis, who owned a holiday caravan by the sea, saw young Billy in a kickabout and swept him up to Seaview.
“I played with the reserves. Billy Johnston was the manager, but the Crues had a great side with Tom Finney, Walter McFarland, John McPolin, Terry Nicholson, Liam Beckett and Albert Campbell. There was no way I was going to get into that team. I ended up back playing with my brothers again in the Amateur League,” relates Caskey.
Linfield did have their chance to secure, by common consent, one of the finest Irish League players of all time and who would become a thorn in their side as he inspired the great Glens sides of the 80s and 90s to League and Cup glory.
Caskey recalls: “One of my big disappointments was when I was at Linfield Rangers as a kid. I remember Billy Bingham going along the line, picking out the players he wanted. I was quite small. He told me I wouldn’t be playing for Linfield. It nearly broke my heart.
“I think that’s why I played so hard against Linfield in later years.”
Moreland’s route to The Oval wasn’t straightforward, either.
He loved boxing at Ledley Hall as a lad and wasn’t sure he wanted a football career. “But my dad told me, no Glens, no Ledley Hall, so I signed,” he laughs. “In those days, kids did what their parents told them.”
Caskey, three years older, was a late arrival into senior football having been eventually persuaded by the late Glens physio Bobby McGregor, another coastal caravanner, that he could indeed have a future in the Irish League and beyond.
The pair, having hit it off as mates, were soon off for a summer in the States as players from the English, Scottish and Irish Leagues flocked to the fledgling US soccer set up, some to extend their careers, others, like the young Moreland and Caskey, for the adventure.
“There wasn’t a lot of money in it, our games weren’t televised and the crowds weren’t huge, but we loved the experience,” Moreland says.
“We thought it would be short-lived and we were always going back to the Glens but in another quirk of fate, a guy called Dougie Collins, who was a coach under Tommy Docherty at Derby, was also at Tulsa and recommended us to The Doc.
“We weren’t long back at The Oval when The Doc came in with a £90,000 bid the Glens board couldn’t refuse and next thing we are playing in the old First Division alongside guys of the calibre of Roy McFarlane, David Webb, David Nish, Colin Todd, Charlie George, Gerry Daly and Bruce Rioch. It was a dream come true.
“The Doc was brilliant to play for. We had two fantastic years, then he was sacked and a guy called Colin Addison came in and started shipping out all the players The Doc had signed.”
Caskey is less complimentary, calling the new managerial arrival “a poser”.
Other English clubs showed interest in the by then Northern Ireland international duo but they had made such an impact Stateside that Tulsa stepped in to buy out their Derby contracts.
They may have been inseparable but for two players to be transferred in a single deal, not once but twice, remains a rarity.
“That’s the way it was with us. If you took one, you had to take the other. And if you hit one, you had to hit the other because you were taking us both on,” Moreland reflects.
So it is maybe just as well for him and the life he has now that Moreland wasn’t around the day the American dream ended for Casko, banned for three years from football there after striking a referee in a pitch free for all while playing for Dallas Sidekicks, where he had moved when Tulsa unexpectedly folded, against Minnesota in the 1986 league play-offs.
“They had an Italian goalkeeper,” recalls Billy, whose aggressive style earned him the nickname of ‘The Enforcer’ from his team-mates.
“I always had little run-ins with him. He was a nasty piece of work. They also had a big Greek centre-back and it was his tackle on me that started the row. As he fell, he was going to punch me. I got in first and I lost it. I was also keeping my eye out for the goalkeeper. Nearly all the players were involved.
“I saw the keeper running at me, so I threw my head into him. I then felt someone pulling my hair to get me off him. I turned round and smacked the guy, not realising it was the referee! I was given a three-year ban by the NASL.
“They also tried to get Fifa to ban me, but the League wasn’t affiliated to Fifa. It made my decision to come home to Northern Ireland an easy one.”
Linfield, then managed by Roy Coyle, ‘tortured’ him to sign a lucrative deal with them, but remembering his previous rejection and his rapport with the Glentoran fans who idolise him to this day, he accepted less money from his old team-mate Ronnie McFall in his first spell in charge and went on to earn legend status, winning a League and Cup double and Irish League Player of the Year award in 1988.
In good shape at 63, he looks like he could still play and attends Glens Legends games but wear and tear on his knees over 20 years of midfield battles means he only now engages in the increasingly popular walking football game.
It is one source of regret for both players that the great times they enjoyed in their US prime came at a cost to their Northern Ireland careers, Caskey winning just seven caps when he could have had 50, and Moreland six.
Both have Northern Ireland goals to their names, Caskey scoring in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria in 1978 and Moreland netting a penalty in an infamous 5-1 Windsor Park drubbing by England in 1979.
“That was some England side,” Moreland protests. “They Peter Shilton in goal, Trevor Francis (who left Linfield’s revered Bald Eagle Peter Rafferty trailing in his wake for one of the goals), Tony Woodcock, Kevin Keegan, Steve Coppell and Trevor Brooking.
“We were no slouches ourselves with Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Martin O’Neill and my old youth international pal Jimmy Nicholl who I was also glad to meet again on this trip. But England outclassed us that day.
“Billy and I ought to have won more caps but when we went to the States, it was out of sight, out of mind. I was especially disappointed not to make the 1982 World Cup squad after being told I was in the running.”
Moreland played against George Best, whose family he knew growing up in East Belfast, in the superstar’s spell at LA Aztecs. “George was sent off for a foul on me but we still went for a drink after the game,” says Moreland who stayed on in Tulsa where he married and raised a family.
Only in America, as they say, his wedding to wife Lyne took place in the centre circle of the Roughnecks stadium before a game.
“We were actually married at a ceremony on the morning of the match and the club asked us to perform a re-enactment on the pitch,” he explains. “Lyne went along with it but I’m not sure she would now.”
Moreland still works for a living as a manager in a carpet tile company. His sporting interests these days are Nascar racing and golf.
“Tulsa is a big oil town that was hard hit by recession but it’s still a great place to live and a superb quality of life,” he adds.
Not enough, though, to persuade him to take up US citizenship, despite having lived twice as long in the States as in his native Belfast.
Proudly producing his British passport, he only half jokingly declares himself: “Glentoran and British til I die.”
He does form lasting attachments, does Victor!