Ireland & ManU Soccer Captain & One Of Natures Greatest Gentlemen
A Revealing Insight Story To Cork Soccer Giant, The Late Noel Cantwell
Noel Cantwell, at the time of his transfer from West Ham United to Manchester United for a record fee in 1960, said, “It was a good deal for West Ham, they got 30 grand and had John Lyall ready as my replacement.
There were many reasons for wanting to sign for ManU but behind it was the question - did I want to leave West Ham?
I was happy here and I don’t throw things like that away easily.”
Two weeks after his transfer West Ham signed a contract for the installation of new floodlights paid for with the proceeds of the Cantwell transfer.
During his ten years at West Ham he was the shining light which illuminated the club and after his departure Upton Park was aglow with new lights paid for by Cantwell. He left them a legacy and everyone else remembers him as a great player, inspirational leader, admired by all lucky enough to have met him.
Imagine, it’s ten years in 2016 since Noel, former Republic of Ireland captain, passed to his eternal reward.
How time flies! “Was it really that long ago?” If today, he is mostly forgotten by many football aficionados, Cantwell was much idolised in his day and remains one of United’s great players of their hiatus days - that period between the promising team of 1958 and the celebrated side of the late 1960’s.
Obviously there were better players than Noel at United and maybe West Ham too. Nevertheless, nobody can doubt that he was a truly outstanding player, brilliant captain and leader of men, a fact endorsed by the legendary Man Utd Manager, Matt Busby, who in 1964 wrote.
“He is almost like a general on a battlefield; a great and versatile player, a wonderful marshal; one of the best informed theorists and thinkers in the game; his influence on other players runs right down the line - from the top internationals to the lads on the ground staff".
Noel successfully fathered soccer greats such as Denis Law, Harry Gregg, Pat Crerand, Johnny Giles and Bobby Charlton and talking of versatility, he is the personification of the word - one day he would be at full back for United and two days later at centre forward for his country; One day he is going to carve himself a new future as a great manager.”
The funeral mass for Noel Cantwell, for whom bad words didn’t exist, was held in Peterborough Cathedral. It was moved from St Peter and All Souls Church to the Cathedral to accommodate the hundreds who wanted to pay their respects. They came from everywhere - former players, managers, directors, ground staff, tea women and ordinary fans. Noel’s wife Maggie, daughters, Kate and Elizabeth, and brother Frank were overwhelmed with the expressions of grief.
This solemn occasion attracted over 1,000 mourners , including some of sports biggest names past and present.
The stately presence of World Cup winner, Sir Bobby Charlton, sat comfortably alongside other Man Utd superstars, West Ham heroes, former Peterborough and Coventry greats, Republic of Ireland Internationals and dear sporting friends from his beloved Cork. Everyone wanted to pay tribute to Noel, a man equally at home with the great, the good and the man on the street.
International superstar Denis Law choked back his tears as other former team-mates let theirs flow.
Denis, one of his closest friends, was still emotional at the end of the requiem mass. The mass was naturally sad but also included moments of laughter and an impromptu ovation for Noel’s boyhood
friend Ray Hennessy, inter - pro rugby player, who delivered a marvellous eulogy about their days growing up together in Cork.
Ray talked about Noel’s generosity of spirit, about how he never lost touch with his roots, about how he never displayed any airs or graces, despite his professional success, and about why Noel was loved by everyone who came into contact with him.
Denis Law said: “Ray’s tribute summed Noel up perfectly, I knew him for the best part of 50 years and he was simply a great man, a lovely man, with time for everyone. It says everything for Noel that he was and still is remembered as much for his personality, as for his playing skills.
He was a great player, but was a magnificent man and I will miss him greatly. I admired him so much. Even when it was obvious that he was ill from cancer, he remained cheerful and demanded that everyone be cheerful around him - you were, because he had an infectious personality”.
Bobby Charlton, winner of 106 English caps, said Noel was a great captain who had the respect of everyone in the dressing room. The roll call at that beautiful anniversary mass ten years ago read like a who’s who of football.
Another English World Cup hero Martin Peters was there, as were old Liverpool striker, Ian St John, the charismatic manager, John Bond, and a host of other bosses like Frank Clarke (Notts Forest), David Pleat (Spurs), John Sillet (Coventry), Barry Fry (Peterborough), Chris Turner (Sheff Wed), John Giles (Ireland), Dave Sexton (Chelsea), Frank O’Farrell (Man Utd), and Tommy Docherty who was accompanied by Pat Crerand.
Tina Moore, first wife of the late Bobby Moore, was another present at the poignant ceremony. While the Cork contingent was led by British and Irish rugby Lion, Tommy Kiernan, a neighbour of Noel’s from Cork’s famed Mardyke.
Noel’s professional successes referred to by Denis Law and well documented over the decades included his 36 Irish caps (equivalent to 100 with current schedules), leading West Ham to promotion, captaining Man Utd FA Cup winning team in 1963 and his recognised role in helping to rebuild the club after the Munich crash, his achievements with Coventry, Peterborough and the New England Teamen, not forgetting, of course, his international cricket career.
Noel was much more than the sum of his milestones and medals. Even though he became a colossus, respected and adored by players (he was chairman of the PFA), managements and fans, he never sacrificed modesty or courtesy to demands of fame and wore his honours with dignity and gentility.
This chastened scribe experienced that courtesy when meeting Noel, in rather embarrassing circumstances for the first time in Easter 1967, after yours truly organised a mini five day tour for Greenmount Rangers (Cork) to Southport during which the plan was, to attend three big matches in Lancashire over the holiday period.
A 25 strong, naïve, touring party checked into a Southport Hotel without match tickets in the belief that everything would be alright on the day. All efforts failed to obtain those precious tickets, particularly ones for a Liverpool game with Man Utd at Anfield.
Taking the bull by the horn a phone call was placed to Noel Cantwell at his Manchester address. And I can tell you when he heard a stranger with a Cork accent on the other end telling him that our group, only 25 “mind ya”, were looking for tickets for the Liverpool /United game, he actually screamed.
Holding the phone well away from my ear we (there were several of us around the phone booth) listened as he went into overdrive questioning our sanity and enquiring if we had escaped from a big grey building on Cork’s Lee Road.
To make a long story short he calmed down and asked us to meet him an hour before the game in the Anfield car park.
The Noel Cantwell we met outside Anfield on Easter Saturday was a charmer, pure Cork with a heart as big as his stature, not just because he brought us all through the pass - gate but for the genuine efforts he made to accommodate a group of Leeside mad hatters.
Noel, an underage star with Western Rovers, signed for Cork Athletic in 1950 and plied his trade with the reserves. One Sunday afternoon a first teamer failed to show for a Shield match versus Sligo at the
Mardyke. Apparently, the missing player went for a nap and his alarm clock failed to go off. With time of the essence and Noel being the reserve residing nearest the venue on Mardyke Walk, bagman John Coughlan was sent cycling off to find him.
Noel’s brother Frank , a Cork Athletic regular, suggested to the messenger that he should try the cricket grounds where Noel was likely to be practising .The kid must have done ok against Sligo as he featured several times afterwards.
At the end of that season Noel was chosen to play in a testimonial against Birmingham. Also playing on that occasion were Tommy Moroney and Frank O’Farrell, home on holidays from West Ham. The Hammers duo were impressed by Noel’s ability and informed their manager Ted Fenton. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Noel, conscious of that lucky break and the importance of those end of season testimonials for the Cork public who loved to see the cross-channel stars in the flesh, never afterwards refused an invitation from the stalwarts who were to benefit from the testimonials.
A greatly admired pro across the channel, he became the contact man, who helped bring England’s biggest stars to the Mardyke and Flower Lodge. Schoolboy's League Chairman, Jack Cooke’s friendship with the Man Utd and West Ham legend, bore great fruit as the charismatic Cantwell brought greats Denis Law, Pat Crerand, Denis Violett, Colin Bell and Jim Baxter, to mention but a few, to Flower Lodge, Cork.
The greatest galaxy of stars ever to grace Flower Lodge, Cork, were assembled by Noel for Jackie Morley’s
Testimonial in 1964. The respect for Noel in England transcended all club rivalries as evidenced by the calibre of former rivals – England genius Johnny Haynes, the amazing German, Bert Trautman (Man City), Pat Crerand,
Tony Dunne, Pat Dunne and Maurice Setters(all Man Utd) and John Bond (West Ham) attracted over 22,000 fans to Flower Lodge in 1964.
As captain of West Ham, he demonstrated his powers of persuasion in 1958 when he led their newly promoted team out at the Mardyke against a Cork Selected side just 24 hours after the Hammers played a League of Ireland selection in Dalymount in a benefit match for Evergreen Utd. trainer Florry Crowley.
In February 1963, during a big freeze in England, Noel skippered the Man Utd team which played Bolton Wanderers in Flower Lodge, Cork. He must have had amazing influence over his managers, one of whom Ted Fenton (West Ham) allowed his skipper, who was soon to become the most expensive full back in English football history, play an exhibition match in the old Togher Schoolboy pitch in Cork.
The venue, a mecca for a generation of Cork’s future stars, was a sloping bumpy undersized grassless pitch where his selected side played a Jerry Lane eleven with the proceeds going to the Cork Schoolboy's League.
In recalling for nostalgia the lineups were as follows:
Noel Cantwell’s XI:
Mick Coady (Glasheen now FAI), Noel O’Mahony (Tramore), Noel Cantwell (West Ham), Billy Neville (West Ham), Patsy Dorgan (Blackburn), Liam O’Flynn (Cork Athletic), Blondie Ahern (Glasheen), Jack Higgins (Douglas), Jackie O’Connor (Cork Athletic), Donie Wallace (Cork Athletic), Frank McCarthy (Evergreen).
Jerry Lane’s XI :
Bobby Brohan (Evergreen), Jerry Lane (Rockmount), Frank O’Sullivan (Tower), Eddie Goggin (Rockmount), John “Langton” Fitzgerald (Ringmahon), Jack Morley (West Ham), Gerard O’Sullivan (Tower), Jerry O’Brien (Glasheen), Donie Leahy (Evergreen), Teddy Murray (Rockmount), John “Bootsie” Lynch (Glasheen).
The weather gods sent the rain down in buckets and as a consequence the gate suffered. However, the rain compensated in large measures in enabling the players to serve up a first class exhibition of football.
Noel had a soft spot for schoolboy soccer and whenever he returned to Leeside (which was almost annually to his mobile home in Owenahincha) he attended games at Togher. He even donated a trophy, The Noel Cantwell Cup, to the league for competition amongst the u15 grade.
Our hero was a man who couldn’t say no and as a consequence, was often requested to fulfil after-dinner speaking engagements. Yet, Noel never looked for a fee for his services to Cork clubs or associations. He was a great raconteur and storyteller and loved nothing better than to regale anyone who wanted to listen about the funny side of football and in that regard customers at his pub, The New Inn, in Peterborough, drank their tears along with the pints.
A great friend of Noel’s was Bobby Moore, at whose wedding he was best man, which surely didn’t give him the privilege of crashing the honeymoon in Majorca. But, much to Tina’s (Bobby’s new wife) disgust, Noel and his sidekick, Tommy Docherty, arrived at their hotel to drag her husband out to get ‘plastered’.
Another of Noel’s yarns was of the day during a five mile training run when John Bond and himself jumped on a bus and hopped off to run the last 200 yards and finish first back at the training ground to the amazement of the trainer, who knew quite well they were the slowest runners at the club.
Noel was always a great ambassador for Cork and was honoured posthumously when the City Council named a walkway “beneath the green leafy shades on the Banks of his own lovely Lee” - Noel Cantwell Walk – a kick of a football away from his former home at Ilen Villas, The Mardyke, Cork.
Tribute & Profile by Cork Sports Historian