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How Greek odyssey proved a real eye-opener for ex-Northern Ireland star Derek Spence

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Derek Spence has fond memories of playing for Olympiakos

Derek Spence has fond memories of playing for Olympiakos

Derek Spence during his Northern Ireland playing days

Derek Spence during his Northern Ireland playing days

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Derek Spence has fond memories of playing for Olympiakos

Northern Ireland open their Nations League campaign against Greece on Thursday and it brings back bittersweet memories for one of our football pioneers, Derek Spence.

Snowball, as he was known for his dashing blonde locks, signed for top Greek side Olympiakos from English Third Division club Blackpool in the mid-1970s and, although he didn’t stay too long, it left a lasting impression.

“I would call it organised chaos,” says Belfast-born Spence, who won 29 caps for Northern Ireland and scored three goals.

“You had to get used to playing in the baking heat at 3pm on Sunday afternoons and, of course, there was the culture of bungs and corruption. But for all that, they were great times.

“I remember going for a trial in Brugge thinking I would be signing for a Belgian side, but the agent said I was wanted at Olympiakos. I’d never even heard of them.

“So I phoned the Northern Ireland assistant manager, Tommy Cavanagh, and he said, ‘Get signed up, it will be a fantastic experience for you’.

“He was right, the only regret was not seeing out my three-year contract.

“By the end of my first year, I was buzzing but midway through the second, I came back to Blackpool and was their leading goalscorer and Player of the Year. It was a great learning curve for me.”

Playing on foreign fields back in the Seventies often seemed like a world away from the hurly burly of the British game.

“You felt completely and utterly isolated,” adds the 70-year-old, who later also played in Holland before joining up with George Best in Hong Kong. “There was no mobile phones in those days and you never got any scouts.

“When the squad was chosen for a World Cup qualifier against Holland at Windsor Park, the telegram was sent to Panathinaikos. Not that it would have mattered much because Olympiakos didn’t give two bits about Northern Ireland.

“In those days, the Greek national team was chosen from home-based players. Now hardly any are based there.

“Back then, Greek players were technically very good, but they didn’t have the right work ethic. Some were prima donnas but players such as Liverpool’s Kostas Tsimikas are the complete package now.

“When they won the 2004 Euros, it surprised a lot of people, but not me. They’ve fallen back a bit since then, but they are dangerous opponents.”

Spence talks glowingly of the Windsor Park atmosphere that continues to be the country’s 12th man.

But he doesn’t believe it will intimidate the Greeks, whose fans can be just as passionate but far more volatile.

“We played our great rivals AEK Athens in the Greek Cup Semi-Final at their ground, but our bus broke down on the way there and we had to walk the rest of the distance,” he recalls.

“I have never had so much stick and we had to dodge punches and spit. It didn’t bother me too much — I’m from Belfast.”


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