Above: Johnny nabs the ball.

By Gavan Bergin

Johnny Gavin was born in 1928 in Limerick. By the time he left school he had become one of the top footballers in Limerick and at the age of 19 he was playing with the League of Ireland team, Limerick FC. After one season with them he was signed up by the English Third Division club Norwich City, who paid £1,500 for him in the summer of 1948.
At that time Norwich were trying to recover from a long spell of poor results that had seen them finish second from last in the Third Division for two seasons running and had almost cost them their status as a Football League club. They managed to avoid that fate and now that they had Johnny Gavin on their side, things were looking up for Norwich.
From the start of his time in England, Johnny did very well: he played brilliant football and quickly became a hero to the Norwich supporters, who could see that he was a special player.
Johnny was an all-round attacker who always wanted to get into the game instead of waiting for the ball to come to him. He was versatile and effective when playing on the left or through the middle, as well as on the right side, and when he got forward into the other team’s penalty area he was a handful for any defender to face.
Most unusually for a winger, he was also exceptionally good in the air and fearless, with a real eye for goal. Kevin Nethercott, the Norwich goalie, said: “Johnny could jump and was an excellent header of the ball. Most of his goals came from his head, and he wasn’t afraid to get hurt. He had a few broken noses scoring goals. He was very fast too.”
Johnny put in some superb performances for Norwich during the 1948/49 season and his great form helped Norwich to their best league position in years. In the next few years he continued to play extremely well for the team and over the next five seasons he scored 79 goals in 221 games and Norwich consistently finished in the top ten of their division. It was no surprise that other clubs started to take an interest in signing Johnny and in October 1954 he moved to First Division Tottenham Hotspur.
They were famous as the team of ‘push and run’ football. The Cassell Soccer Companion book describes push and run as “a tactic in which attacks are mounted on bursts of speed and short accurate passes, it was developed by the Tottenham manager Arthur Rowe, who brought the club its first ever League Championship titles, in 1950 and 1951. The push and run team of the early 50s set the benchmark for success at Tottenham and earned the club a reputation for stylish attacking play
Such a reputation meant that Spurs was surely the ideal team for a skilful, inventive forward like Johnny, and sure enough when he arrived at Tottenham he went straight into the team. According to ‘The Spurs Alphabet’ by Bob Goodwin, “Johnny Gavin quickly settled in at White Hart Lane, and with his speed, strength and positional sense became a great crowd favourite”,
Johnny made his First Division debut at Newcastle on the 16th of October 1954. He gave the Spurs a new dimension in attack with his relentless right wing charges, tearing into opposition defences, making chances for team-mates and regularly scoring goals himself. He got his first goal for Tottenham against Chelsea on November 13th 1954, and by the end of the 1954/55 season he was Spurs’ top scorer with 13 goals in 29 league games.
When the the 1955/56 season started, Johnny kept banging in the goals. It appeared that he had a a bright future with Tottenham, but it was not to be. A few months into the season he asked for a transfer back to Norwich, and he rejoined them in November 1955.
On his return, Johnny showed amazing form for Norwich: in his first game back, against Southend, he scored four goals and then notched up hat-tricks in four more games, against Bristol, Torquay, Gillingham and Reading. Then, in September 1956 against Plymouth Argyle, Johnny scored his one hundreth goal for Norwich.
His super scoring feats at that time even earned him notice in the Irish newspapers, which usually paid scant attention to English Third Division football, when in the December 15th issue of the Sunday Independent it was reported that “against Crystal Palace Johnny Gavin got Norwich’s goal with a 25-yard shot”.
His fine play and goal-scoring continued through to the end of the 1957/58 season, by which time he had scored 132 goals in 338 matches for Norwich. Johnny was thirty years old, by then but there was life left in his legs still and he was ready for a change of scene.
He left Norwich for another crack at life in old London Town, moving to Fourth Division Watford FC. He scored 12 goals in 43 matches for them during the 1958/59 season and then for the 1959/60 season Johnny moved to Crystal Palace, which had just been relegated from the Third Division. He scored 15 goals in 66 matches for Palace and helped them win promotion from the Fourth Division at the end of the 1960/61 season
That success provided a good end to Johnny’s last season in professional football. He left Palace to play a couple of seasons in non-league football. He spent the 1961/62 season with Cambridge City then moved to Newmarket Town for the 1962/63 season, which was his last as a player.
As well as his long club career in England, Johnny also played international football for the Republic of Ireland team. He made his debut in Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Finland, in Dublin on September 8th 1949. That was Ireland’s second qualifying match for the 1950 World Cup. In their first game they’d been soundly beaten in Sweden. To have any chance of making it to the World Cup, Ireland needed a victory in their home game against Finland.
In the lead-up to the match, the newspapers considered Johnny to be vital to the team’s hopes, despite his inexperience at international level, and the Irish Press said “much will depend on winger Gavin of Norwich, of whom reports recently have been glowing”.
And Johnny did not disappoint, he gave a typically fine performance, driving forward in attack from the kick-off, and not letting up as he went on to make a decisive contribution to the Irish cause.
Midway through the first half, Ireland broke down the left side and won a corner kick which Johnny took. He struck the ball perfectly, and sent it whipping and curving, right past the desparately grasping Finnish goalkeeper and directly into the net to put Ireland ahead 1-0. That spectacular score was on its own enough to justify his presence in the team, but he contributed plenty more than the goal to the cause.
Although he’d suffered an injury early in the match, Johnny worked like a demon for the entire ninety minutes. His relentless running caused havoc in the Finnish defence and opened the space for Ireland to score twice more, and to take complete control of the game. When the full-time whistle sounded on a final score of 3-0, the Republic of Ireland had their first ever victory in a World Cup qualifying match.
Johhny’s great play that day ensured his selection for the Republic’s next match of the qualifiers, against Finland in Helsinki on October 9th 1949. In that game, Johnny played a clever, hardworking game, helping his team to achieve a quietly splendid 1-1 draw that meant Ireland had avoided defeat in a World Cup qualifying game away from home for the first time.
The flawless nature of his first two international appearances surely meant that Johnny would be an Ireland regular for years to come, but it was not to be. The fact that Norwich were only in the Third Division seemed to count against him. Most of the players in the Ireland team were with clubs in the First and Second Divisions.
So Johnny was not in the Republic of Ireland team for their last match of the qualifying group, against Sweden in Dublin on 13th November 1949. If Ireland had won that game, they would have qualified for the World Cup Finals in Brazil the following summer. But they lost, 1-3.
The Irish would have to wait a few more years to get to the World Cup, and Johnny had to wait for another chance in the Ireland side. It wasn’t until he was playing First Division football with the Spurs that he got a decent run in the team.
In total, he played seven international matches, signing off with a goal against Denmark in his last game, on October 3rd 1956.
Johnny finished with football in 1963, after fifteen years in English football, during which time he scored 165 goals in 463 league matches, including 132 goals in 338 games for Norwich City. Nobody has ever scored more goals for Norwich.
Johnny retired to run a pub in Cambridge, and he lived to a grand, happy old age.