Brendan Crossan: Joe 'the Goal' Gormley is back at his spiritual Solitude home

Joe Gormley is a local hero at Solitude

A FUNNY thing happened at Solitude one Saturday afternoon a couple of seasons ago.

It was during the halcyon days of Boyce, Gormley, McMullan and Johnston. I can’t remember how many goals Joe Gormley scored that particular day, but he’d produced another sublime performance in the Cliftonville attack.

Press reporters were asked to pick their man-of-the-match. It was a no-brainer. Joe 'the Goal' was the unanimous choice. It's routine for TV to interview the man-of-the-match at pitch-side after the final whistle. But there was a slight problem.

Gormley avoided media interviews like the plague. It's not that the Ardoyne goal machine suffers from some kind of inverted ego and likes to give reporters the run-around. It was quite the opposite.

Joe’s innate shyness means rolling television cameras and a posse of tape-recorders don’t really mix. David Begley, Cliftonville’s press officer, was left with the impossible task of trying to convince the man-of-the-match to do a post-match interview.

From the enclosed press box at the back of the stand, it was like watching a silent movie as Begley nabbed Gormley at pitch-side, asking him to talk to the media. From our vantage position, we could see the sense of dread etched on Joe’s face.

A struggle ensued. Like an insistent parent, Begley had the player by the arm. But Joe was having none of it. The striker escaped the desperate clutches of the club's press officer and ran away. He literally ran away from the prospect of talking to the media. He was like a kid who had somehow dodged a visit to the dentist.

Joe has always done his talking between the white lines. That effervescence, charisma, poise and swagger ended as soon as the final whistle sounded.

Joe would retreat into his shell and politely, almost apologetically, dodge interview requests as he left Solitude. As time rolled on, he was persuaded to do one or two interviews.

The everyman appeal of my good friend, Irish News colleague and loyal foot soldier of the Red Army Kevin Farrell was one of the first journalists to carry out an in-depth interview with the shy striker. In the piece, Joe spoke movingly about his late father and how family was his raison d'être.

On the field, Gormley just got better and better. His former Crumlin Star manager Eamonn Hawkins once observed Gormley couldn’t head a ball, but it was his finishing and goals-to-games ratio that netted him a move to English league club Peterborough United at the end of the 2014/15 season.

“He never panics in front of goal,” said Hawkins.

“He will let the ‘keeper make his mind up before he makes his mind up.”

In all the years following Irish League football, there hasn’t been a better finisher than the 27-year-old. Nobody is better in one-on-one situations. Goalkeepers of the Irish League always looked doomed when Gormley was bearing down on them.

He planed the rough edges off his game, his touch became better and more intelligent, he struck the ball so true, was brilliant at rolling defenders and had strong pace to get clear of them. More importantly, he became mentally tougher.

Gormley has signed a three-year deal with Cliftonville

Many games stand out for Irish League supporters. Two stand out for me that were gold-plated guarantees he was good enough to make it in England.

He came off the bench in the 2012 Stephen's Day derby against Crusaders and hit the winner from a tight angle. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It was further evidence Joe Gormley was made for big days and tight games.

Although the 2014 League Cup final against Crusaders finished scoreless and was a night when defences were on top, Gormley showed an insatiable appetite for hard work.

For 120 minutes, he never stopped running and asking questions of Colin Coates. It was a masterclass of a different, more virtuous kind. By that stage, he'd ticked all the boxes for prospective cross-channel clubs.

I've interviewed Joe a few times. The first time was on the day he'd secured his "dream" move to Peterborough United and a shot at full-time football.

For a young man who's uncomfortable under the media spotlight, he spoke with such eloquence: "For a home bird like Joe Gormley, Monday morning will feel like he's leaving for Ellis Island," the interview began.

"It's all he ever dreamed. To be a footballer. To score goals. To make his parents proud."

Joe's father had passed away some 13 years earlier, but his spirit was as tangible and real as the road in front of him: "I'd love to see what he would be like now, how he would feel about it... if he was here," said Joe.

"I know he'd be happy with what I'm doing."

Joe was 25-years-old when he got his move - old for someone wanting to make their mark in England. There's no doubting he had the skill set to be a success - but he needed everything to go right.

At his age, he couldn't afford any unlucky breaks. Everything had to be perfect. A few games into his fledgling full-time career, disaster struck. Playing against Norwich City reserves, Gormley was clean through on goal, but the ball took an odd, high bounce.

“The ball was high and I had to jump a bit to try and hook it over the ’keeper and my left leg hyper-extended and I fell.”

He knew immediately it was bad. As he walked towards the bench, his leg collapsed under him. That precise moment was the beginning of the end for the Ardoyne man, in full-time football at least.

It took him a full year before he played competitive football again. A loan move to St Johnstone had potential - but homesickness had taken a firm grip. There was genuine sadness among many Irish League fans that Joe's dream never quite worked out the way he had imagined.

Earlier this week, he re-signed for Cliftonville. The red part of north Belfast celebrated. Joe still has plenty of road in front of him. The most important thing is that he savours the journey.

After the last 18 months, that's all that matters.

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