Irish League Lives: Tough tackling defender turned physio Ray McGuinness

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Ray McGuinness is now a physio. Picture Martin McKeown

Ray McGuinness is now a physio. Picture Martin McKeown

Ray McGuinness is now a physio. Picture Martin McKeown

He spends most of his time these days soothing aching muscles.

Quite a contrast from his playing days when Ray McGuinness was a no-nonsense defender - a tenacious tackler who knew no fear, both north and south of the border.

He frowns with sarcasm when it's suggested he now has the job of healing the very injuries he once helped inflict!

Of course, the Londonderry man sees the funny side of it.

Ray is still a larger than life character. He enjoyed a playing career that began as a 16-year-old at Finn Harps and ended 22 years later at Limavady United.

What happened in between was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, although he has one big regret - missing out on Derry City's triple trophy success in 1989.

Ray was a chip off the old block because his late dad, Jimmy, had impressive football pedigree with Finn Harps and Crusaders in the Irish League.

He was born in Osbourne Street and attended Rosemount Primary School.

Even as a nine-year-old, his competitive spirit erupted when he was left out of the team that contested the Northern Ireland Primary Schools Final - even though the rest of the kids were aged 11!

"I used to watch my dad play for Harps and he was my inspiration," recalls Ray.

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Ray McGuinness in action for Institute

Ray McGuinness in action for Institute

"His tackling was so committed and I suppose I copied his style. A few years later I joined Derry Athletic Academy, who were managed by Jim O'Hea and Paddy Cassidy. Jim was the guy who sent boys like Paul Ramsey and John O'Neill to Leicester City."

Ray had just turned 16 when he received an unexpected promotion to the Finn Harps first team - because of an epidemic of influenza!

"My brother Jimmy played for Harps, so I joined him at training," he laughs.

"Because of a bad outbreak of flu, I was asked to travel to Waterford - purely to make up the numbers and sit on the substitutes bench.

"However, a couple of the lads picked up injuries during the game, so I had to come on. Thankfully, we were 3-0 up. Waterford were managed by Tommy Jackson."

Ray's dream came true when he signed for the club he supported as a boy, Derry City. After 13 years in junior football, the Brandywell side joined the FAI's First Division in the 1985-86 season.

"Making my debut for my hometown club was a fantastic experience," states Ray.

"The adrenaline was pumping through my veins. I was privileged to share the same pitch with the likes of Owen Da Gama, Alex Kristic and Stuart Gauld.

"We got to the Final of the FAI Cup in 1988 but were beaten by Dundalk at Dalymount Park in front of over 20,000 fans. It was one of the highlights, but also a disappointment. The result meant Dundalk completed the double."

The following season, Ray was off on his travels. He explains: "Jimmy McLaughlin, who had taken over from Noel King, offered me a one-year contract. To be honest, I thought I was worth more.

"Owen Da Gama was planning on returning to South Africa. He asked Kevin O'Neill and I to join him, so away we went.

"In our 12 months, we made quite an impression. We joined a team called Leeds United and their manager, Gorden Igesund, said the club owed Da Gama a debt for bringing us over.

"I still have one newspaper cutting, stating: 'McGuinness has proved to be the most incredible midfield destroyer this country has ever seen'. I was quite proud of that.

"It's an experience that will live with me. People out there loved the game, we played in front of 100,000 supporters in the African Cup."

On his return to Northern Ireland, Ray rejoined Derry but got caught up in a political storm.

He recalls: "It was nothing to do with us.

"Apartheid still existed in South Africa, so the Anti-Apartheid Movement insisted we should not be allowed to play because we went out there. It was soon sorted out.

"The year I was away, Derry City won the domestic treble. It was a massive disappointment for me to miss out."

On leaving the Brandywell, Ray had a brief stint at Portadown before igniting his career in the Irish League with Omagh Town.

"Portadown were a good side," he adds.

"I was looking for £90 a week. Ronnie McFall told me he couldn't justify having two full-backs at the club."

Ray subsequently linked up with the irrepressible Roy McCreadie at Omagh, where he was player-manager.

One special memory from his time at St Julian's Road was winning the 1991 Budweiser Cup, beating Linfield 3-1 in the Final at The Oval.

He goes on: "They were massive favourites. Linfield were not only League champions, but they were on a 16-game unbeaten run. Big Roy ran the show in the middle of the park.

"He came in at half-time with the scores level. He didn't need to say anything, he just looked at me and winked. That's all he had to do to tell me I was doing fine.

"In all honesty, had Linfield taken their chances they would have won 10-3. Big (Stephen) Baxter even missed a penalty, which was a big relief to me because I conceded it by pushing Martin McGaughey.

"They had a top side - Jeffrey, Dornan, Easton, Doherty, Curry and Bailie. McGaughey scored early on, but Declan McColgan equalised with a header from an Eamon Kavanagh free kick.

"Harry McCourt and Marty Woodhead then scored in the second half.

"We just got into Linfield's faces from the start and it worked. John Crilly was full of running, Paul Dunnion, Woodhead and big Roy bossed the middle, Eamon Kavanagh was full of tricks, while the Blues just couldn't handle McCourt up front. We had Joe McBrearty in goals, he was 38 years of age.

"It was a fantastic team performance - one that helped write the club into the Irish League history books.

"There was a funny story in the after-match celebrations. My dad and (Linfield boss) Eric Bowyer were friends, having met years earlier in junior football. After the game, my dad took the Cup into the Linfield dressing room to offer Eric a drink out of it. I told him he'd be lynched.

"Fair play to Eric, he didn't refuse. Not too many people would have got away with that!"

After two years, Ray was transferred to Bangor - a club under the revolution of John Flanagan.

"Although John signed me, I never got to play for him," laughs Ray. "Soon after I moved to Bangor, Nigel Best took over.

"It was a good Bangor side that John had been building. We had two flying wingers in Tony Canning and Mark Glendinning - they spent more time darting up the wings than they did defending.

"Big Stevie Brown and I were in the middle of defence, we also had John Muldoon and Reggie Dornan. Raymie Hill, Jock O'Connor and Paul Byrne were in the middle of the park with Davy McCallan and Johnny Magee up front.

"We had a boy, Stuart MacPherson, who was a nephew of George Best. He was tipped for the top. He was a great prospect, but it just never happened for him.

"Nigel brought in Colin McCurdy as his No.2. It seemed like an odd combination, but it worked - it was the case of good cop, bad cop.

"When 'McCurd' spoke, everyone listened. Then Nigel would step in to calm things down. It was a good mix."

Ray's fiery temper and brash tackling took its toll which cost him a place in the 1993 Irish Cup Final - a North Down derby against Ards.

"As usual, I was suspended," he remembers. "Throughout my career, I played to protect myself and I suppose the reputation stuck with me.

"Just like a few years earlier at Derry City, I missed out when it mattered most.

"I do recall that the Final wasn't a great spectacle. We won it at the third attempt, with Paul Byrne scoring in the very last minute to avoid the game going to penalties."

÷ In his teens, Ray had trials under Ron Saunders and Lennie Lawrence at Birmingham and Charlton Athletic respectively.

÷ After leaving Bangor, he had spells with Ballymena United and Institute before finishing up at Limavady United.

÷ Having had a two-month trial with Swedish club GIF Sundsvall, Ray was offered a full-time contract but turned it down in favour of returning home to Derry City.

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