Billy Gillespie, Goalscorer

Photograph from Billy’s lengthy playing career. Gillespie was the first Irishman to captain an English FA Cup winning team.

By Gavan Bergin

Billy Gillespie was born in 1891 in County Donegal. He was raised in Kerrykeel, a tiny village on the north coast that had its own football club, whose grounds happened to be just around the corner from the Gillespie family home.

It was on that same ground that Billy started to play. On that local pitch, day after day, and year after year, Billy learned the game. It turned out that he was a natural with a ball and had a determination and a work ethic that was the perfect combination for a boy who wanted to be a footballer.

By the time he was twelve, he was considered one of the best schoolboy footballers in Donegal. And when he was just sixteen he started being paid to play football with the Derry club, Institute FC, in the NorthWest Junior League.

Billy stayed with Institute for three years until the end of the 1909/10 season, by which time he was known to be one of the best young forwards in Ireland and in May 1910 Billy signed for the English Division Two club, Leeds City.

He went straight into the Leeds team and showed right away that he was good enough to play well against the hardened professionals. Billy scored 10 goals in his first 24 games and that quickly got him noticed by scouts from the big clubs in Division One.

Leeds were in trouble, the team was struggling and looked likely to be relegated, so they certainly didn’t want to let Billy leave the club, but they were also in serious financial bother and so they were forced to entertain offers for Billy.  

On December 22nd 1911, the Yorkshire Post reported that “We are informed by Mr Scott-Walford, the Leeds City manager that he has transferred W. Gillespie to Sheffield United 

At what is stated to be a record fee for the Leeds City club, Gillespie has been regarded as one of the most useful of the Irish brigade at Elland Road. He was secured from the Londonderry Institute club at the beginning of last season, and has played regularly for Leeds City, either in the centre-forward or inside-left position, and with such success that his transfer in the present critical state in the club’s affairs may occasion surprise, but the management felt, in the circumstances, that they could not reasonably refuse Sheffield United’s offer for his transfer”.

The move worked out fine for Billy. Sheffield put him on top wages of £5 a week. He scored in his very first match for the Blades, against Newcastle on the first of January 1912. He was a model of consistency for Sheffield and in his first few seasons he scored 31 goals in 72 league games.  

Billy wasn’t a big man, he was five foot nine and 11 stone, but judging Billy on his size was a mistake few were foolish enough to make twice and anyone who tried to push him around was quick to regret it. He was a tough, wiry little fellow with a fierce countenance, and an expert at making his presence felt on the pitch. He was an ace in attack, he could score in a trice with left foot, right foot and headed more than a few goals in as well.  

As Sheffield United embarked on the 1914/15 season, Billy was at the top of his game, an integral player in the team and a popular player with the supporters at Bramall Road. There was no reason to think that this new season wouldn’t be even better than the last one. And then, on an August afternoon, not long into United’s opening match of the season, in a split-second it all went badly wrong. Billy had his leg broken – he didn’t finish that game – and he didn’t play another one for the rest of the season. 

Billy had to watch as his team won the 1915 FA Cup Final. It could have been so much worse for him. At that time, a broken leg often meant the end of a player’s career, but he made a full recovery and he was fit and ready to play by the start of the 1915/16 season. Due to the war, the Football League was suspended, so Billy made his comeback for Sheffield playing in the Midland League.

It may not have been the same, but it was football and Billy must have been glad to be playing again. He certainly seems to have given it his all, and began to find his form again. In the first two seasons of wartime football, he played 54 matches and scored 16 goals. Then he went into the British Army for two years of service as a gunner between 1916 and 1918.

After the War, the Football League started up again for the 1919/20 season. And, after five long years, Billy was back playing Division One football. He had a new position in the Sheffield United team, having moved from attack to midfield at the start of the season.

The switch worked out well as Billy proved that there was more to his game than scoring goals. He was comfortable in possession, neat and incisive in passing and almost as good at making chances for others as he was at taking them himself. Unsurprisingly, when playing deeper he scored fewer goals than usual but his value to the team was evidenced by the way he racked up the games, hardly missing a match for years to come. And, after a couple of seasons his scoring rate did creep back up into double figures

Billy was appointed Sheffield United’s club captain in 1923. He turned out to be an excellent choice as skipper; he had plenty of experience and knew the game inside out, plus he was still doing the business on the field as a player.

From his first year as captain, the team began to do much better, steadily improving their league position and going on a couple of good runs in the Cup. And in 1925 they made it all the way to the FA Cup Final.

On the 25th of April 1925, in front of a crowd of 92,000, Billy led his team out for the Cup Final against Cardiff City. He ran the show that day, and United won the match 1-0 to take the Cup.

The Sporting Chronicle match report said “Sheffield United were led throughout the Final by the supreme strategy of Gillespie, the first ever Irishman to captain a Cup-winning team, and whose influence has played such a vital part in his side’s capture of the Cup.” 

Billy was 35 years old when he won the Cup and he played for another seven seasons before he retired in 1932, having scored 161 goals in 448 games for Sheffield United.

Billy also had a lengthy and impressive international career for Ireland. His first match for his country was against England, in Belfast on February 15th 1913. At that time England had never lost to Ireland. In 1881, the first game between the teams ended with a 13-0 win for England, and things had not got much better since then. 

With such a miserable history, there was little reason for anyone to expect anything but another bleak day of Irish failure. There was more cause for pessimism when five of Ireland’s first choice players were ruled out of the team before the game.

Despite all that, droves of Irish supporters made their way from all over the country to watch the match. According to the Evening Herald, “Special train after special train deposited its load in Belfast for the game and by the kick-off, the crowd at Windsor Park was close to 30,000, the biggest ever seen at an international match in Ireland.” 

It did look like things might be going the way of Ireland when they won the toss but the advantage was lost when England won the ball and, through clever passing, made their first attack. They kept pressurising Ireland, and three times came dangerously close to scoring.

Ireland did have their moments early on, but their efforts quickly fizzled out and they posed only a minor threat, while England always seemed ready and able to spring a dangerous counter-attack. But the Irish players never let their heads drop and Billy was soon forcing his way into the game, running hard and making a nuisance of himself as he jockeyed for space in attack.

As the half went on, Ireland started to do well, giving hope to the multitudes, but England didn’t back off, they kept the pressure on all the time and, after thirty minutes it looked like things were taking a turn for the worse for Ireland when they lost a man to injury. No substitutes were allowed, so Ireland went down to ten men, and then, with nine minutes of the half left, England scored a goal.  

That could well have been the cue for Irish despair, but they didn’t buckle and with Billy scrapping for every possible opportunity, the English defenders could not rest for a minute.

Then, a minute before half time, Ireland managed to make a break forward and they earned a corner kick. The kick was taken, the ball was floated high but soft into the England penalty box. The task of getting it clear should really have been child’s play for any self-respecting English defenders, but, with Billy causing havoc in the area they made a total mess of it and ended up putting the ball into their own net to make the score 1-1 at

Having played his part in Ireland’s equaliser, from the start of the second half Billy got right back in the thick of the action. A couple of minutes into this half, he wriggled free into the danger zone, he was fouled in the box just as he looked certain to score, but the referee kept his whistle in his pocket. No goal.

Then, twelve minutes later Billy darted clear of the English defenders, hared into the area, and, right in the chop of his stride, he laced the ball into the goal, “causing an indescribable outburst of cheers from the crowd” according to the Herald. 

Soon after Billy’s goal, England lost a man to injury, making it ten men a side and giving tentative hope to the crowd that perhaps at long last fortune was smiling on the Irish. And, though England continued to pose danger on the break, time inexorably slipped away, the Irish lead stayed intact, bringing the possibility of an end to the hex, before at long, long last, there came the gloriously welcome sound of the final whistle, and victory. 

Scoring the winner that day was a wonderful way for Billy to start his career as an Ireland player. It turned out to be the start of a long period of time when he could be counted on to be England’s tormentor. For the rest of his international career, he had the knack of scoring against the old enemy and when he did so, Ireland usually won. 

In the very next match between the two countries, Billy scored twice to give Ireland perhaps their most important victory ever, one that secured their only major trophy, the 1914 British Championship. 

Billy had scored four goals in the tournament, but his creative skills were almost as important to Ireland’s success, and according to Ivan Sharpe, a leading sports columnist of the day: “Gillespie’s generalship for Ireland exceeded even his successes with Sheffield United, he proved in the championship that he had the golden gift of piercing a defence with one long, accurate pass”

Throughout his international career, Billy was a fantastic player for Ireland. He played for seventeen years, scoring 12 goals in 25 games. He scored his last goal for Ireland at the age of 35, in October 1926… against England of course!

When Billy retired from playing in 1931, he began coaching the youth team at Sheffield United, and in 1932 he was appointed the manager of Derry City. He managed them to great effect for nine years, winning two City Cups and getting them two second-place finishes in the Irish League.

In 1941, he moved back to England where he spent the next forty years living in Bexley, Kent. Billy died at the grand old age of 90. He was mourned, in England and Ireland, as a genuine football legend: Billy Gillespie,