Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Crusaders hero Beckett says his Christian name almost sparked a riot because fans thought he was Catholic

 

Liam Beckett during his playing days with Coleraine. Credit: Pacemaker
Liam Beckett during his playing days with Coleraine. Credit: Pacemaker

By Liam Beckett

While playing Irish League football I regularly faced a tirade of sectarian abuse at certain stadiums.

For years during my career I was called a "Fenian b*****d" by many opposition supporters, who thought that I was a Catholic just because of my name. I never let it annoy me too much.

One of the most memorable occasions was when the Crusaders team I played for was pushing for the club's first ever league title in 1972/73.

We were up against one of the top Belfast clubs and were just heading out of the dressing room for the second half when the manager Billy Johnston said to me, "Liam, ask Nicky (goalkeeper Terry Nicholson) if he wants a cap."

There was strong sun that day, and Billy was concerned it might blind Nicky, making high balls difficult to see. I called to Nicky, "Do you want a cap?"

But he was struggling to hear what I was saying over the crowd. I tried to signal to him, moving my right hand in an up and down fashion at my forehead, when suddenly I heard a voice from the home stand shout, "I told you he was a Fenian f****r."

He thought I was making the Sign of the Cross.

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The comment was also a reference to the fact that I am called Liam. My actual name is William but I was christened Liam. I come from a family of staunch Protestants and unionists, so why my dad decided on that name I don't know, but it has taken me down many an avenue that might otherwise have been closed to me.

It's also brought me some unwelcome attention from time to time.

That day in Belfast I was playing at one of the tougher, predominantly Protestant, clubs and I suppose the home supporters thought that I was deliberately trying to antagonise them.

The party's in full swing after Crusaders win their first-ever League title in 1973. Liam Beckett in the back row, third from the left.
The party's in full swing after Crusaders win their first-ever League title in 1973. Liam Beckett in the back row, third from the left.

In no time, all hell had let loose and they were throwing stones and all sorts of objects at me.

Eventually, calm was restored, and the match continued, though every time I got the ball there was a chorus of boos, hoots and whistles. Crusaders went on to win the game and, after the final whistle, things took a turn for the worse.

We were all in the communal tub after the match when I heard strange voices in the dressing room.

RUC officers were there to let us know that a few opposition supporters had formed a lynch mob outside the ground and were looking for me.

Losing the game had been bad enough for them, and they were also seething because they thought I had blessed myself in front of the main grandstand.

The police insisted that I could not leave the stadium in the team coach - it would jeopardise the safety of the other players - so the decision was made to smuggle me out in a black taxi with blacked-out windows.

I was bundled into the back seat, out of sight of the main gate and the assembled mob, and told to lie flat until we were clear of the stadium. The hope was that the mob would be more focused on the team coach.

I'll never forget the taxi driver, a craggy-faced, hardened guy, leaning back and saying to me, "Don't get up until I tell you. By the way my name's Vincent", - another Catholic name. I remember saying back to him, "For Christ's sake, don't you start as well."

I did exactly as instructed and we were soon clear of the grounds. The RUC informed the mob that I'd already left, and the team bus left the stadium without incident.

Of course, all the drama was worth it when we took home the Gibson Cup - the Irish League title - later that season.

Everyone had expected Linfield and Glentoran, in particular, to reel us in over the marathon of a season and they expected us to falter, but we never did.

We turned Seaview into a fortress and went through the whole season unbeaten at home, which was unprecedented for the Crues.

I remember on the very last day of the season we played against Larne, a bloody tough and uncompromising team, at Inver Park.

We needed to beat them to be sure of winning the league, and we did, taking the victory 5-2 on the day.

Winning the league was an incredible achievement for Crusaders, one of the so-called smaller clubs, and it was the first time in the club's history that we had brought home the Gibson Cup, the most prestigious trophy in Irish League football.

The scenes of jubilation at the final whistle are something I will never forget. Grown men were crying their eyes out as the Crues fans rushed the pitch.

My family were all there, and the joy and elation on my mum's face meant so much to me - we'd come through so many hard times together and I was delighted to have made her so proud.

÷ Liam Beckett's Old School: Beckett, Bikes, Balls and All is published by Blackstaff Press. Available in all good book stores, it can also be ordered online via the publisher and major online book retailers.

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