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Irish League Lives: Legendary keeper George Dunlop on calling time on his own glittering Blues career

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George with a photo of his Linfield squad.

George with a photo of his Linfield squad.

George with a photo of his Linfield squad.

Big Ivan Little takes a fair share of stick about his television gaffe many years ago when his vocabulary expertise failed him in his pronunciation of the word phenomenon.

The former UTV man wrestled with the tongue twister when delivering a story on Belfast's traffic wardens. It's still a favourite with TV bloopers, although the joke is now wearing thin with the Sunday Life columnist.

There is one guy, however, who had no problem living up to the term - Linfield goalkeeping phenomenon George Dunlop. The irony is that Ivan was one of his biggest fans!

Nine League title successes, two Irish Cup wins, four international caps, a Northern Ireland World Cup panellist and now an honorary Linfield life member, George just about saw it all.

Once on the books of Manchester City, he almost joined Arsenal before his roots were planted at Windsor Park - and the rest, as they say, is history.

He walked through the door in 1977 and left 13 years later. What happened in between was, in his own words, "simply sensational".

From east Belfast, George began his football journey at Orangefield Boys' School, progressing to the Northern Ireland schoolboy international side.

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George Dunlop

George Dunlop

George Dunlop

"I was in the first Northern Ireland team to play (a schoolboy international) at Wembley along with Roy Walsh and Andy Dougan," recalls George.

"Gibby Mackenzie was scouting for Manchester City and he got me over on trial.

"Joe Mercer and Malcolm Alison were the management team and I was offered an apprenticeship. I was there for three years.

"I never managed to make a first-team debut but when I was 17, I was substitute goalkeeper in the UEFA Cup tie against Valencia in Spain, which was a magical experience."

On his return, George Eastham lured George to Glentoran - a move that "didn't work out".

Soon after that, Arthur Stewart offered him a deal at Ballymena United.

With Linfield due in town for an important League game, a posse of cross-channel scouts arrived at The Showgrounds.

"The match was played on the small pitch behind the main stand because the dressing rooms were destroyed by fire," recalls George.

"Brighton, Arsenal and Tottenham had people over. As a result of that, I went on trial to Highbury, where Terry Neill was in charge. I played in a reserve game at Swindon, we drew 1-1.

"The coach, a guy called Ian Crawford, had an assessment session the following day. I can remember his words, 'You did very well, would you like to join Arsenal?'

"Of course, my answer was yes. He said if it had anything to do with him, I'll be offered a contract. I returned home and never heard another word. Apparently, Brighton did table an offer that Ballymena considered too low, which was fair enough.

"At the end of that season, Linfield declared an interest. Once they showed their hand, that was the place to go.

"It took me 18 months to make my breakthrough because Ken Barclay was the No.1. I was included in the squad against Everton for a midweek friendly. The gaffer, Roy Coyle, brought me on at half-time.

"The following Saturday, I was in the team - and I stayed there for as long as I can remember."

George admits it was a rollercoaster ride, with a lot more highs than lows - but he credits Coyle with the unprecedented success the Blues achieved for over a decade.

"He was ruthless, but you have to be if you want success," adds George. "His philosophy was shape up or ship out - it applied to everyone.

"I saw many, many grown men with tears in their eyes after Coyler told them they were finished.

"He wouldn't have achieved the success if he wasn't that sort of a manager. I don't know whether the current breed of bosses would get away with his style of management.

"We had some big personalities in the dressing room - Peter Rafferty, Lindsay McKeown, Colin McCurdy, Alan Fraser, Peter Dornan, Terry Hayes and myself, all strong minded individuals in their own right.

"Some were quiet, some were a bit louder and some were really strong, but it was a great squad with great camaraderie. Over a 10-year period throughout the 1980s, we missed out on the League title on only two occasions - and that included six on the trot.

"There were goals everywhere in the team. There was one season when everyone scored - including myself. Rafferty, for a centre-half, was chipping in with a dozen or more, we had (Warren) Feeney, (Trevor) Anderson, McCurdy, Billy Murray and even full-backs like John Garrett all contributing.

"Football is full of ups and downs, but you don't really enjoy the ups until you experience the downs.

"During my time at the club, Coyler built three teams, he was always looking to freshen up the squad. He wanted competition for places to keep players on their toes.

"That's when he displayed a ruthless approach.

"He had no hesitation in moving on players like Rafferty, Fraser and Davy Nixon - guys who had served the club for a long time.

"We then saw the emergence of the likes of Martin McGaughey and Lee Doherty, who proved they could cope with the demands and pressure at Linfield.

"I witnessed a number of players, who were big names at other clubs, arrive at Windsor but they couldn't cope with those demands."

Pragmatic George knew his Linfield romance would come to an end one day - and he was honest with himself when the time arrived.

"The Glens gave us a torrid time in my final season, beating us seven matches on the bounce," he remembers.

"It was the beginning of the end for Coyler and I knew it was the beginning of the end for me.

"A player knows himself when his time is up. Whether he wants to believe it or not, it's entirely up to him. I was honest, I knew I couldn't perform at the level I was used to.

"Eric Bowyer took over from Coyler. He telephoned me to say, 'All I want is one more year'.

"It was a difficult, difficult time for Eric, a rebuilding job was required, players can't go on forever. In my opinion, I would have been a liability.

"I told him (Bowyer) I was done and simply couldn't go through the motions. I was 35. I explained I couldn't do it anymore and I didn't want to be one of those guys to hang on. I had made my mind up.

"I loved my time there at Linfield. The club and the fans were great to me, but I knew it was the end and I was quite comfortable with that.

"I've seen many players walking away blinded by tears, having been told it's time to go. I didn't want that happening to me."

George, of course, also enjoyed a sustained spell with the Northern Ireland international set-up, being a member of the famous 1982 World Cup squad in Spain when Billy Bingham's boys reached the Quarter-Finals.

"I've been fortunate enough to see the world through football, which culminated with the 1982 World Cup," he adds.

"I also toured Australia. It was a fantastic experience.

"It shows what can be achieved with a bit of spirit and camaraderie. Wee Bingy made us difficult to beat. The night after we beat Spain was fantastic. He knew how to handle the group. After the game, he disappeared.

"Needless to say, we had the party of our lives.

"I remember big Gerry (Armstrong) was taken for a drugs test, but he couldn't go to the toilet because he was so dehydrated. We were partying when he was away, we didn't care how long it took him.

"Big Ron Atkinson joined us in the hotel afterwards, it was brilliant, especially for part-time players like me, Felix Healy, Johnny Jameson and Jim Cleary. I would be the first to admit I was very lucky."

George had one other special moment in football - after he had hung up the boots.

He dabbled in management for a time and guided Bangor to the Semi-Final of the 2006 Irish Cup - against his beloved Blues.

But it was the Quarter-Final win against Lisburn Distillery at Ballyskeagh that will live with him.

He concludes: "My son, Grant, scored the winner against the Whites and that very same night my daughter Kylie gave birth to my first grandchild, Joss. What a day it was."

÷ George made 570 appearances for Linfield between 1978 and 1990.

÷ He has four Northern Ireland caps, made 13 Inter-League appearances, featured in four Schoolboy international games and one Junior international.

÷ When George hung up the boots at Linfield, he was lured to Larne by Paul Malone to help out in a goalkeeping emergency, but played only one game.

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