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Irish League Lives: Former Linfield defender George Gibson can't remember number of sending offs

George Gibson
George Gibson

By Alex Mills

Hard, uncompromising and with a feverish will to win - it was just another day at the office for George Gibson when he pulled on a football shirt.

A lot of tough characters stamped their authority on Irish League football down the years and the Portavogie man could have mixed it with the best of them.

Unfortunately, in today's modern game, football 'hard men' are a dying breed.

His disciplinary record left a lot to be desired. He admits he hasn't a clue how many times he was sent off in a career that spanned close to two decades. It was that burning desire to be the best that drove him over the limit on occasions.

During that time, he successfully crossed the divide in North Down, having played for both Ards and Bangor, but the highlight of his playing days was undoubtedly his spell with Linfield, where he became an integral part of Roy Coyle's well-oiled title-winning machine.

Born and brought up in Cloughy on the Ards Peninsula, George attended Glastry College so, logistically, Ards Football Club was the natural choice once his talents blossomed.

Although he eventually ended up at Windsor Park, he was on the radar of the Blues a few years earlier when Billy Campbell was manager.

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"I was playing in the Lower Ards Summer League," recalls George.

"Eric Bowyer happened to be at a game and he recommended me. For me to go from Cloughy to Windsor Park to train was a non-runner anyway. It was bad enough getting up the road to Castlereagh Park.

"I used to get the bus at 5.15pm at Cloughy and was ready for training at 6.30pm. Our manager, Billy Humphries, let me go a few minutes early to catch the 8.20pm bus back down the peninsula. That was my routine until I could drive."

George Gibson sticks close to Glentoran's Gary Blackledge during a February 1992 Big Two clash at The Oval.
George Gibson sticks close to Glentoran's Gary Blackledge during a February 1992 Big Two clash at The Oval.

George negotiated his way through to the reserve team, being part of the side that lost the 1976-77 Steel & Sons Cup Final at Seaview.

"Brantwood defeated us 2-0," he adds.

"I then began to edge my way into the first team. I remember Billy taking me to Coleraine around Christmas time. I sat on the bench, it was basically to give me a bit of experience.

"Ards were a good side with the likes of the late Davy McCoy, Billy Nixon and Ray Mowat - they were in the team that lifted four trophies a few seasons earlier.

"When Ards were going well, they attracted big crowds. Castlereagh Park was a great little ground, especially when it was packed. There was no better playing surface in the League."

It was hardly surprising that George's bone-crunching, no-nonsense style of tackling made him a target of other clubs and, when Coyle came knocking, he required little persuasion.

"My father was a Linfield fan and I wanted to play for the biggest club in the land," he adds.

"I had great memories at Castlereagh Park and still have good friends at the club.

"Maybe some people were not happy with the way I left, but I made a decision.

"Peter Rafferty was coming to the end of his playing days, so the Blues were looking for a replacement.

"The Blues approached Ards to sort out a transfer fee. The club didn't want to release me, but when Linfield come knocking you don't turn down the chance. It ended in a bit of a dispute as I was under contract, but it was eventually sorted out.

"Linfield were very much a dominant force in the League. It was a bit of an ordeal going into a side like that, although I had to wait on my chance.

"Lindsay McKeown had the calming influence at the back. Roy Walsh was also there, along with John Garrett, Colin Crawford and Gary McCartney.

"We had Peter Dornan, Tom Sloan and Lee Doherty in the middle and Martin McGaughey and Trevor Anderson up front, while George Dunlop and Tommy Wright were the two goalkeepers.

"One of the many highlights at Linfield would have been playing in the 1983 European Cup against Benfica in the Stadium of Light.

"Even though the ground was only half-full, there were still 35,000 fans there. It was a brilliant experience. We did well for 70-odd minutes, and they beat us 3-0.

"I've three title-winning medals from my five years at the Blues and I also captained the team on quite a few occasions, which was a big honour.

"I was also fortunate to be part of the squad that toured the United States of America, organised by the late Noel Lemon. That was a fantastic experience.

"However, I've only one Irish Cup-winning medal. That was in my second season, in 1982. We beat Coleraine 2-1 in the Final. I was playing against Dessie Dickson and was actually named man of the match, so I must have done something right.

"Billy Bingham, the Northern Ireland team boss, was at the game and he called me into the international squad to train. That was a nice little privilege, but it was as far as that went.

"The Big Two games against Glentoran were special. They had a strong side with Jim Cleary, Raymond Morrison, Billy Caskey, Barney Bowers and Rab McCreery. They also had Alan Harrison at centre-back, who was a great player."

Following on from the Benfica experience, the Blues were drawn against Shamrock Rovers the following season. It was an occasion that lingers vividly in George's memory bank.

"It was one of those times when I was sent off," he smiles.

"I had a run-in with Dermott Keely. We clashed on the halfway line. I knew he was going in to do me.

"He wasn't even looking at the ball. I saw him coming, so I took him out. He lay down in agony, but I was up right away.

"Coyler was going nuts on the bench, he wanted me to stay down because it was a foreign referee. If I had stayed down, we were either both off or we would have been booked. But because I got to my feet, I was red-carded."

The arrival of a certain David Jeffrey, with long, blonde curly hair and fresh from a spell at Manchester United, made competition for the centre-back position even more demanding.

George goes on: "I played with big David a few times, but we were both similar in style. He was a vibrant young man with a lot of ambition. I think Coyler knew he couldn't keep both of us happy.

"Even though I didn't want to move, he opted for the younger version, which I had no problem with."

When George was released, there were no shortage of takers, but it was Bangor boss Ronnie McQuillan who was quick out of the blocks.

"Ronnie was putting together a decent side," he explains.

"Raymond Hill, John O'Connor, Reggie Dornan, Stephen Brown - they were all Irish League journeymen. They knew what the game was about and still had the will to win.

"We could have competed with the top teams, reflected in our County Antrim Shield Final win on May 15, 1989 - I managed to score the winner against Glentoran at Seaview.

"Big John Flanagan subsequently took over from Ronnie in 1988. He brought Nigel Best in as his No.2."

Bangor's finest hour during that era was finishing runners-up to Portadown in the race for the 1991 Irish League title, which earned the Seasiders a ticket to the UEFA Cup for the first time ever. However, they were beaten 3-0 in both legs by Czech side Sigma Olomouc.

Soon after that, Flanagan dropped a bombshell by announcing his resignation because of business and personal reasons.

"Nigel went on to win the Irish Cup following the three infamous games against Ards, but the reality is it was really the team that John built," concludes George.

"Unfortunately, I retired the year before the Cup win.

"Players began arriving from down south. There was no doubting their ability, they were good players, but some were more interested in their pay packets rather than our results. That's when I decided to step away."

÷ George made a total of 143 appearances for Ards between 1975 and 1981.

÷ Although he won three League titles with Linfield and lifted the Irish Cup in 1982, he was part of the side that lost to Glentoran in both the 1983 Cup Final replay and 1985 decider.

÷ The first and last of George's 190 appearances over five years for Bangor came against Brantwood.

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