Smash hit: Former footballer Frankie Moffatt's new book a tale of love and learning

Frankie Moffatt became a Coleraine and Cliftonville hero after bagging cup final goals, but it is pigeons rather than past glories which help tell the story of his early days in new book, The Penzance Smash
Neil Loughran

FOR followers of Cliftonville, and in particular his beloved Coleraine, Frankie Moffatt will always hold a special place in the heart.

The man affectionately known as ‘Basher’ overcame serious injury to become a Bannsiders legend, the image of the 22-year-old – number 11 on his back - chipping home the third goal in Coleraine’s 4-1 1977 Irish Cup final defeat of Linfield forever lodged in the memory bank of those watching on.

Moffatt inflicted more pain on the Blues three years later when, having joined Cliftonville, he scored in the Reds’ 3-1 Gold Cup final triumph at Windsor Park. So, when he finally got around to writing a book, there were a couple of ready-made places to start surely?

Except the stories that had been rumbling around Frankie Moffatt’s head for years had nothing to do with football. Across 70 pages, there is little more than the odd passing reference to his love for the game.

Because The Penzance Smash, which was officially released on Tuesday, is about all different kinds of love. The unspoken love between father and sons, the love for a mother who was gone too soon, and the love between man and bird that brought so much joy to a family finding their way in the 1960s.

Joe Moffatt is pictured on the front cover holding one of his prized racing pigeons, and the part-autobiographical book centres largely around him and the influence he brought to bear on Frankie and his older brother Adrian.

The Penzance Smash is a memoir about their life in Coleraine’s Calf Lane estate at a time when pigeon racing was a hugely popular endeavour, with Moffatt skillfully re-imagining and embellishing tales told to his own children and grandchildren, with echoes of the English children’s author Dick King-Smith as key parts of the narrative are told using the family’s feathered friends.

Had it not been for the first Covid-19 enforced lockdown, which came shortly after his retirement, the book may never have seen the light of day. But with time at last on his hands, the story soon took on a life of its own.

“I’d always been very interested in writing, and it’s something I’d thought of through the years that I’d like to do.

“I have twin grandchildren, Sara and Jon, they’re 21 now, but when we used to mind them I’d have lay on top of the bed with one in the crook of either arm and made up these little stories to try and get them to go to sleep – stories about my father, about the racing pigeons and how they would talk to each other.

“Obviously kids enjoy that sort of thing, and then Sara said to me about a year ago that she remembered those stories and actually recounted one to me. In all families there are these kind of stories handed down generations, so I thought it would be nice to capture these for posterity and possibly get them printed up locally and give them to family as a surprise Christmas present.

“I’d no intention of it being any kind of commercial venture or anything like that, but in many ways it ended up becoming a labour of love. As soon as I finally started, the book really wrote itself.”

It was a process he enjoyed, and which – despite the loss of his mother Minnie when he was just seven – brought Moffatt back to a happy childhood full of fun and devilment.

“My father brought us up more or less on his own.

“There were no self-help groups or no manuals then… he had to make it up as he went along, and to teach us good values, about right and wrong and, importantly, the value of never giving up. No matter what happens, you have to face it head on.

“I’ve thought often, looking back, that there’s nothing worse could have happened to a young man than to lose his wife at such a young age, holding down a full-time job while making sure two young boys full of life and full of energy were independent and able to cope.

“We learned very quickly how to iron our own clothes, how to cook, how to look after the house as best we could, do the weekly shopping… he wasn’t a strict taskmaster, he never shouted at us, he never raised a hand to us, but in many ways he showed us by example.

“People think it was a sad time. Of course it was a tragic and a sad event, but it wasn’t a sad household. It was a happy time, he ensured it was.”

And while tending pigeons or cleaning out lofts were not on the radar of a boy whose dreams would be played out on a football field rather than in the skies, Moffatt’s memories of the bond those pigeons helped create are vivid.

Adrian took to it early, and loved to sit on the floor and listen when the local fanciers would gather to discuss the next big race. In his mind’s eye, Frankie can still see Adrian and his father – cup of tea in one hand, cigarette in the other – standing by the scullery window, patiently waiting to catch sight of the first swarm of black dots that told them their pigeons had made it home safely.

“At that time, in housing estates like ours, the skies would’ve been black with racing pigeons circling. Where we lived, there was seven pigeon lofts.

“My grandfather had pigeons, my father, my brother… it played a big part in our lives. Yet while this was all going on,” he smiles, “I was lying dreaming of scoring for Coleraine in the Irish Cup final.”

Some dreams do come true, but it was the life lessons handed down by Joe Moffatt that helped get his youngest son through some tough times away from the game’s glory days.

“I missed two-and-a-half years when I suffered a double compound fracture of my leg. The only time Coleraine ever won the Irish League [in 1974], I was out the full season injured. The leg had to be reset, I was told I wouldn’t play again.

“I think back to things in my life such as that injury, and the length of time it took to get back, but I kept working at it. I had cancer when I was 53 and that same principle applied – this isn’t going to get me, I’m going to beat this. And here I am 15 years later.

“So the wee book is a chance to say thank you to my father for the work he put into bringing me and my brother up, and for teaching us the qualities we needed to get on in life.

“We could never repay him for what he taught us and the love he showed us.”

The Penzance Smash can be ordered through and elsewhere online, or purchased at Waterstones.

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