Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Memory lane with Mr Linfield Andy Kerr

Former Linfield worker Andy Kerr relaxing at home in Portglenone. Photo by Peter Morrison
Former Linfield worker Andy Kerr relaxing at home in Portglenone. Photo by Peter Morrison

By Alex Mills

Having enjoyed 27 League title wins, 14 Irish Cup successes, been involved in 107 European ties and witnessed 14 managers come through the door, it's hardly surprising the title 'Mr Linfield' rests easily on the shoulders of Andrew Kerr MBE.

He arrived at Windsor Park as a supporter in the early 1960s - and is still there, more than half a century later.

Andy carried on a strong family tradition of following the Blues, even though he was from Portglenone, a little village in the heart of County Antrim. He travelled to matches with his father and brother Jim, who years later became chairman of the club.

At the tender age of 16, when still a pupil at Ballymena Academy, Andy ventured into Europe for the first time in 1962 when the Blues were drawn against Vorwaerts of East Germany, but it didn't quite go according to plan.

"We were due to fly out of Nutt's Corner, but it emerged the pilots used up most of their flying hours," recalls Andy.

"After a quick meeting (between supporters), we came up with a solution of flying to London and then on to Amsterdam before completing the journey to Berlin by bus - it was a 17-hour nightmare. We had to negotiate Checkpoint Charlie which was an experience.

"I was fortunate to see the seven-trophy team that season, I only missed about three games. The League title was won in the final game. Portadown needed to avoid defeat against Glentoran to secure the championship.

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"Against all the odds, the Glens won 3-2 - and Portadown even missed a penalty kick in the last five minutes. Goal difference wasn't used back then, so it meant that Linfield and Portadown had to play in a title decider at Solitude. We won 3-1 to secure the seventh trophy.

"My father took us to see the victory parade, which started at the top of the Shankill Road and made its way to Sandy Row before going to Windsor. The streets were packed with people.

"The team boarded the back of an old coal lorry with all the trophies, it was unforgettable."

But it was a few years later - the 1966/67 season - that Andy's Linfield romance began to blossom.

The Blues, under the managerial expertise of Tommy Leishman, had been drawn against Aris of Luxembourg in the first round of the European Cup.

With no supporters travelling, Andy contacted the club to ask if he could join the official party - at his own expense, of course.

"Dr Scarlett was chairman and he told me I could come along," smiles Andy. "The late Len Hiller was the club physio. He said 'if you are going to be around this dressing room, you may take off your coat and do a bit of work'.

"That was the start of my association with the club, I've been part of the backroom staff ever since. I've been to places that you would never dream of going to and have some brilliant memories."

Although he's now 52 years at Windsor, Andy has never been on the payroll. His duties are to assist kit manager Gary Eccles, making sure the players are catered for, blowing up the matchballs and looking after the referee and his assistants.

"Everything I've done for the club has been voluntary," adds Andy.

"My father bought me a life member's ticket when I was in my teens. It was big money back then - and we hadn't a lot to throw about.

"So I've never been on the pay roll. I wouldn't change it for the world. Any contribution I make is for the benefit of the club, it's a labour of love.

"When I arrived, Tommy Leishman was in charge. He took us to the quarter-final of the European Cup. Ewan Fenton and Dennis Viollet arrived before Billy Bingham took over.

"Wee Billy smoked his pipe in the dugout. When things were not going too well, he would fire the pipe down the touchline in a bad temper.

"Then, a few minutes later, he would say in his polite tone 'Andy, go and get my pipe please'. I did more running after that pipe. No matter how many times he threw it, for some reason it never broke. In fact, most of the times the tobacco was still burning in it."

Because of his proximity to the International Airport, Andy also had the job ferrying players who travelled over from England or Scotland.

He adds: "One of my favourites was the late, great, Dennis Viollet, the former Manchester United star. We had some great conversations, but he always declined to talk about the Munich air disaster which claimed the lives of 23 people.

"Dennis told me about his great times at Old Trafford and the players he played with but, when I tried to question him about Munich, he didn't want to talk. He would only say I lost too many good friends.

"By sheer coincidence, the year he was with us we were drawn against Red Star Belgrade in a European tie - the team that Manchester United had beaten before the crash.

"When we arrived over there, Dennis was the one all the Press men wanted to talk to because of the disaster.

"When we were travelling back from Munich to London, our airplane hit air turbulence. Dennis was sitting beside me. He turned white. He whispered 'don't be coming to the airport on Saturday because I won't be coming over'. He couldn't face another flight."

When quizzed on his best Linfield player, Andy is quick to reply: "It has to be Tommy Dickson, the Duke of Windsor. In all my time, as a schoolboy, supporter and club worker, I've never seen anything like him - he had everything.

"He could score goals and make goals. Tommy had a cockiness about him, without being big headed.

"Noel Bailie is another player I've great respect for. He played over 1,000 games for the club. In this day and age, that is remarkable. Players these days now tend to change clubs on a regular basis, but Noel had great loyalty."

With so many trophy successes, it's no surprise that Andy is spoilt for choice in terms of highlights.

"One of my best memories was winning the League title in 1994 when Trevor Anderson was manager," he adds.

"Portadown and Glenavon were playing at Mourneview Park and the winners were guaranteed the title.

"Trevor predicted prior our game with Glentoran that we would win and the other game would be drawn which would earn us the title.

"His words came true. Our game finished five or six minutes before the final whistle at Lurgan. The celebrations were unbelievable.

"I was due to drive to Cork that night for a wedding. I ended up in Belfast with everyone else and stayed the night in Lindsay McKeown's house. Needless to say, I was in no fit state to drive."

Andy admits the game has changed dramatically since his early years.

He explains: "The days of 42,000 attending a Big Two game at Windsor Park have gone. There are many distractions to keep people away from football these days, including wall-to-wall televised coverage.

"I saw us play three games in three days when Christmas Day fell on a Thursday, back in the 1960s. We would play on Boxing Day and then on the Saturday - it wouldn't happen now.

"Yes, I've seen the game change over the years. In Roy Coyle's time as boss, we won six championships on the trot. I never thought that would have been bettered.

"But David Jeffrey led the team to six League and Cup double successes in seven years, which was unbelievable.

"I don't think that will ever be beaten. To be that successful over such a long period of time was incredible."

Andy has one big regret, missing the 2005 Setanta Cup win over Shelbourne in Dublin - a result that completed a clean sweep of trophies for Jeffrey and his team.

"I was on holiday in Spain," he concludes.

"I was waiting for a telephone call all night. When I eventually heard the score, I really did have a party with my family."

÷ Andy refereed for 26 years in the Ballymena Saturday Morning League, in which he was later installed as President.

÷ To mark his 50 years at Windsor Park, Linfield hosted a tribute night, which was attended by players, officials and supporters, along with many former players.

÷ Andy was awarded the MBE in 1998 for what he says was for 'service to the people of Northern Ireland'.

Andy Kerr was speaking to Alex Mills.

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