Eamon Dunphy on how he nearly joined the British Army…and turned down Bill Shankly — July 2010
DUBLIN at the close of the 1950s was a goldfish bowl.
That was especially true of the world of schoolboys’ football and it didn’t take long for a small, skinny Drumcondra lad to come to the notice of the many scouts in the city.
For a while, Eamon Dunphy was the hottest property around — with two of the biggest names in the history of football battling for his signature.
“I played for Stella Maris and did well in schoolboys’ football, was captain of the team and was selected for a Dublin representative side to go and play in Belfast,’’ recalled Dunphy.
“That led to me getting three schoolboy caps with Ireland and Billy Behan, Manchester United’s scout in Dublin, was keeping tabs on me.
“He started calling to our house. My mother was deeply suspicious of me going away but my father understood that this was a great opportunity
“Tolka Park was just across the road from where we lived and Billy came along with Matt Busby’s assistant, Jimmy Murphy, to watch me there and make it clear that United were keen.
“But Bill Shankly had taken over as manager of Liverpool not long before and he turned up at the game as well.
“After the match, Shankly went to my father and told him Liverpool wanted to sign me.
“That would have been the wiser thing to do but Liverpool were a Division Two club at the time and Shankly didn’t have anything like the reputation that he would have a few years later.
“So I turned down Bill Shankly! That was hardly my finest hour.”
Dunphy actually came close to taking the Queen’s shilling before Matt Busby made a magical intervention.
“I had left school at 13 to be a van-boy and had had very little education,’’ he explained.
“In effect, there was an apartheid system in place in Ireland where it was very difficult for working class people to get a decent education.
“I wanted to be a printer but it was made clear to me that it was a closed shop.
“Printers only took on the sons of other printers.
“So I had zero prospects in Dublin and I was going to sign a nine-year contract with the British Army if I didn’t succeed at the trial with United.
“I knew I had to escape Ireland as it was a brutal and oppressive society for working class people — and it still is.
“That was the backdrop to me heading to Manchester for a week’s trial.
“I missed my family hugely but Ireland was a prison camp for anyone of intelligence and sensitivity.
“United got all the best schoolboys from the UK and Ireland together and had one trial match.
“Matt Busby turned up on the sideline and we knew this was it.
“It was 30 minutes each way and I played like I’d never played before. The hand of God was on my shoulder.
“I played amazingly well against really good opponents and Murphy called me into Busby’s office a day later to tell me that the club were going to take me on.
“I nearly fainted but I grabbed the pen as quickly as possible.
“My whole life was determined by that one hour on a wind-swept pitch in Manchester. It’s an extraordinary thing.”
Dunphy was an innocent abroad in Manchester but it didn’t take long for the bright lights of the English city to draw him in.
“Manchester was liberating for me in many ways but I was so immature,’’ he said.
“Irish young lads were way, way behind in terms of self-assurance. Certainly, I was.
“We were left to our own devices.
“Barry Fry, who later cut a colourful figure in management, became a great pal of mine and we started knocking around together.
“We ended up staying in digs with a Mrs Scott and she was sound.
“My wages were seven pounds a week. You’d cough up four quid for digs, send £1.50 home and have £1.50 to live on.
“They had just introducted the system of the apprentice footballer which meant that you didn’t have to do so much of the rubbish like painting walls and cleaning terraces and all of that.
“We would finish at 12.30 so we had a lot of time on our hands.
“We’d be dossing around betting-shops and doing all kinds of nonsense.
“I remember I was at the dog-track in Salford with Barry when an announcement came over the tannoy that President Kennedy had been shot.
“George Best came across the year after me and he became a victim of that gambling and boozing in the afternoon culture.
“It wasn’t that United didn’t care, but they should have known that this wasn’t a healthy situation.
“But, in those days, football was quite primitive.
“The best players were on £20 a week until the maximum wage was abolished in 1961.”
Anyone who watches Dunphy on RTE will be familiar with his frequent digs at his own footballing ability during his days as a player.
But, in fact, he did have plenty of skill and talent and Busby placed a lot of faith in him before the manager eventually decided after five years that the Dubliner was physically too lightweight to make it.
“After you signed as an apprentice at 15, the next big question was whether you’d be signed as a pro at 17,’’ said Dunphy.
“I did very well for two years with the youth team. I did have talent but I just wasn’t physically strong enough and that’s what done for me in the end.
“I didn’t have the strength to be a real top player.
“The youth team was very strong. I played alongside George Best, John Sadler and John Aston — and they all went on to win the European Cup with United.
“I did enough to be signed at 17 and, year later, I travelled as 12th man for one game at Nottingham Forest. That was as close as I got to the first team.
“At that time, I was being described as the new Denis Law — because I looked a bit like me and he was a role model.
“I was being billed as the next big thing for a while but my lack of strength always went against me.
“I was told I could leave. A few clubs showed an interest in me and eventually I decided to go to York City.
“That was the beginning of my career as a journeyman footballer.”