GAA Football

One European Cup, eight Sam Maguires... Pat Spillane and the Celtic connection

The Lisbon Lions. Celtic's European Cup winners in 1967
Andy Watters

WHEN the car rolled up outside their house in Templenoe, the Spillane brothers Pat, Mick and Tom (they’d go on to win 19 All-Ireland medals between them) came tumbling out through the front door.

Pat, the oldest, got to it first and he greeted the driver, his uncle Canon Michael Lyne, with a cheery ‘Hello’ as he peeked past him to see what he might have brought along. ‘Canon’ was back home in Kerry for a holiday from his parish in Glasgow and his car was Aladdin’s Cave for his football-mad nephews.

He opened the back door to reveal a treasure trove of green and white gear that was beyond any young lad’s wildest dreams and there was more, lots more, in the boot. Going through it all was one joyful surprise after another: Stevie Chalmers’ boots, Billy McNeill’s jersey, Tommy Gemmil’s shorts and socks… All piled in a heap and each new find seemed better than the last.

Look at this…

LOOK at these…

That’s mine…

No, I called it…

I said first…

Maaaaaaaa-meeeeee…

But there was plenty to go around.

Until he broke into the Kerry minor squad in 1972, the only gear Pat Spillane ever owned was kit that had been worn by Celtic legends and, from 1965, it came every summer by the car-load from Glasgow.

“My uncle was the Parish Priest of St Michael’s in Parkhead, Glasgow for years,” Pat explained.

“My father (Tom) died in 1964 and every summer, when Canon would come home for a visit, he would fill – and I mean fill – his car with all the Celtic gear from the end of the season. The boot was full and the back seat of the car was full!

“He had nephews in Killarney as well - there was a couple of families there - and he would go there as well with all the Celtic gear from the Lisbon Lions - the boots, the socks, the togs, the jerseys…

“Everything that was being thrown out by the kitman, Canon brought over to Kerry, every single thing. When he came to our house in Templenoe it was like Santa coming because it meant we got all our boots, our socks and our jerseys.”

THE late Canon Lyne, a man Pat describes in the Kerry vernacular as: “The blackest (most partisan) Kerry man and Celtic man you ever met in all your life”, was his mother Maura’s eldest brother. Like his brothers, he had been a superb footballer himself in his day and is still regarded by some as the most stylish forward ever to come out of Killarney where he played with the town’s famous Legion club.

Despite never playing a game in the National League, he won minor and senior All-Ireland medals during an intermittent 12-year career with the Kingdom.

For over four decades Canon Lyne was based in Glasgow but he remained a legend in Killarney and, as honorary club president, wrote a foreward to the Legion’s club’s history ‘A Legion of Memories’ in 1979.

“My first game for The Legion had a disastrous beginning,” explained Canon Lyne.

“I slipped out of St Brendan's Seminary, Killarney to play with my club and this led to my expulsion from the College. In the eyes of many, I had brought disgrace and shame on my family and friends, a complete failure. Today I am proud to say that expulsion from The Seminary (AKA ‘The Sem’) was my salvation.

“I went back as a day boy, worked harder than ever, passed all my examinations, entered All Hallows College (Maynooth) in 1935 and was ordained in 1941.”

He won an All-Ireland with Kerry the year he was ordained but had missed out on the 1937 All-Ireland final when, perhaps chastened by his experiences at St Brendan’s, he opted to stay put in Maynooth.

“He was a brilliant footballer,” says Pat.

“He got two All-Ireland medals but he could only play when he was on holidays from the seminary in Maynooth and if you were training to be a priest you weren’t allowed to go out to play football.

“If you were inside in the seminary training to be a priest, that was it, you couldn’t be let out.”

Canon Lyne’s Gaelic Football days came to an end when he was posted to Glasgow and he transferred his allegiance from Kerry’s green and gold to the green and white of Celtic. He became club chaplain and struck up an enduring friendship with legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein.

“He had his own seat behind the dugout in Parkhead for all the matches when Jock Stein was there,” says Pat.

“Every Monday himself, Jock Stein, Sean Farrell, the assistant-manager, and Dr Gemmill (Celtic doctor) went for a round of golf.”

Pat remembers sitting around his family’s recently-acquired television set to watch black and white footage of the 1967 European Cup final in which Stein’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ beat Inter Milan 2-1.

“We had that connection with Celtic all our lives,” he says.

“From 1965 to 1972 the only gear we ever had was Celtic gear, we never had to buy anything. When you think of it, back then the only football boots you could get in Ireland were Blackthorn boots from Dundalk so to be getting the boots worn by soccer players from Scotland was unreal.

“The ones I can remember were Stevie Chalmers, Bobby Lennox, Bobby Murdock, Tommy Gemmill, Billy McNeill and the great thing about the Celtic gear then was the togs were brilliant because they had the number on them.

“Until I got into the Kerry minor squad in 1972 the only gear I wore was the Celtic stuff and it was mainly from the Lisbon Lions players. We were the boys and sure when we went up for training we had the best gear in the Parish!”

THE kit his uncle brought home every summer from Parkhead isn’t Pat Spillane’s only link to Celtic. Indeed, had it not been for the Canon’s football connections, Pat’s career with Kerry might have ended at the age of 26 with five All-Ireland medals instead of the eight he finished with a decade later.

He damaged his cruciate ligament in 1981 and, although he played sporadically in 1982, there was a very real concern that the injury would finish his career.

“At that time, if you did your cruciate ligament in Ireland, your ACL, that was the end of you,” he explains.

“They didn’t do the operation (to fix it) in Ireland and even in England it was unheard of. It was the Celtic connection that got me sorted out. Canon got talking with David Hay, the former Celtic great and, believe it or not, he had information that an operation had just been done successfully and ’twas on George Burley (former Scotland manager).

“George Burley was with Ipswich Town at that time and David Hay found out that he had done his cruciate and had the knee reconstructed by a surgeon called David Dandy in Cambridge. David Hay gave my uncle the information and I got in touch with Dandy and I went to England, got my cruciate sorted out and so I was the first person in the GAA who went back to playing football having done my ACL.”

The surgery opened the door to recovery and Pat worked his way back to full fitness with a ferocious, single-minded zeal. For two years, he put his body “through hell”.

“I trained twice a day Monday to Saturday,” he says.

“I did 30 laps of the field with 10 pound weights around my ankle… In GAA because you're an amateur, when you're injured you are gone, you are out of sight. I was bitter about that and was hurt. So, I was driven by the thought: ‘I'm not coming back for Kerry, not for my club, I'm coming back for myself.’”

Fully fit again, he burst back on the scene and in 1984 won a second National League medal, his eighth Munster title and a sixth All-Ireland in the Centenary final against Dublin in 1984.

Another Sam Maguire in 1985 meant Spillane had a record-equalling seventh All-Ireland winners' medal.

In 1986 a horizontal Spillane punched Ger Power’s pass into the back of the net to spark the Kingdom’s dramatic comeback from six points against Tyrone. The Red Hands never recovered and Spillane was named man of the match as he collected a third All-Ireland medal in-a-row alongside his brothers Mick and Tom.

The great Kingdom side faded and Cork took over in Munster but Spillane won an 11th provincial title in 1991 before he bowed out after Kerry lost to Down in the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final.

WHAT a career he had. That he wouldn’t have made his name as one of Gaelic Football’s greats is an unfathomable thought but he did have the opportunity to go down another path.

The nine-team Allstar played a bit of a soccer in his time studying PE at Thomond College in Limerick and it’s a surprise to learn that Kerry’s legendary attacking half-forward was a centre-back in the other code.

“I was invited to play for the Irish Colleges’ XI at centre-half against the England Polytech XI in Liverpool in 1974,” he explains.

“Kerry were playing a challenge game the same day. I had a choice to make whether I’d go to the soccer or Kerry and I played with Kerry. I was blessed because I came along just when Kerry were about to take off.

“I came along at the same time as a great bunch of footballers and you could see that a very special group was taking off so I stuck with Kerry and, by Jesus, am I glad I did because it was a magic carpet ride for 10 or 11 years.”

AFTER that magic carpet ride finished he hopped nimbly onto another that lasted three decades. Until last summer he was a fixture on RTE’s Sunday Game but he decided to call it quits after Kerry – with his brother Tom’s sons’ Adrian and Killian in the side – ended an eight-year wait for the Sam Maguire by beating Galway in the All-Ireland final.

“It was the perfect way to bow out,” he said.

“You couldn’t write the script. But I’m not going to retire fully – if I’ve an opinion to give, you can read it in the paper! Maybe some day I might work somewhere else? You’d never know and I’d never say no. Thirty years was long enough with the Sunday Game. Thirty years on the one show is a good innings so it was time for a change and time to move on.

“Now, would I be as confident for Kerry next year? Jesus, I’m not too sure. When Dublin were dominating there for a few years they were by far the best team but now there are about five or six teams and you’d say: ‘None of them are far away from it at all’. Tyrone, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Dublin…

“But Dublin are the most dangerous because they have Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion back for next year and if the Dubs had had Con O’Callaghan this year they probably would have beaten Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“They didn’t and we got one but we mightn’t be as lucky next year and, as Tyrone found out, when you’re the champions you have a target on your back and, secondly, when you’re the champions and you do all the celebrating it’s hard to replicate the hunger and the workrate from the previous year.”

Keeping the hunger up was never a problem for his Kerry team. After all, they won a four in-a-row (it would have been five only for Seamus Darby) and a three in-a-row.

What was your secret? I ask.

“Ah (Mick) O’Dwyer drove us and the men in that team were different animals,” he says.

“Once the game was over it was, right, what’s next. The planning for the next year started the day after the All-Ireland final. It was: A-win-is-a-win-is-a-win or a-loss-is-a-loss-is-a-loss, end of chapter, close the book and start again.”

That’s the way he operates – always the next challenge, the next goal ahead. He doesn’t seem to be a great one for keepsakes or mementoes but surely he must have kept something from the Canon’s Lisbon Lions deliveries?

“Jesus, no,” he says, slightly embarrassed.

“You know, I don’t even have the jerseys I played in for Kerry. I’m terrible, my kids are always looking for souvenirs from my time but it’s all gone, I haven’t a clue where it is.”

Only memories of one European Cup and eight Sam Maguires.

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