Our trip to Formartine on Saturday wasn’t the first time we have played in Aberdeenshire. In the article below George Ruddell, editor of Glenavon’s award-winning matchday programme in the 1990s and early 2000s, looks back on an earlier historic visit to Scotland. George is presently writing a biography of Wilbur Cush, Glenavon’s greatest ever player. He hopes that the book will be published next year.

The Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Scottish Challenge Cup third round tie at Formartine last Saturday brought back memories of Glenavon’s historic trip to the north-east of Scotland 70 years ago to play Aberdeen. It was the first time that an Irish football team had travelled by air to a match inside the British Isles.

On Saturday 6th February 1949 a party of fourteen comprising three officials and eleven players flew from Newtownards airfield to Dyce, near Aberdeen, on two Ulster Aviation Company twin seven-seater private charter Rapide planes. Only two members of the party, Maurice McLafferty and Eric Malley, had flown before. Both had served in the RAF during the War. Malley, the full-time organiser of Lurgan Boys’ Club, was a last-minute replacement for injured inside-forward, Albie Parkes. Goalkeeper Hugh Kelly was also unable to travel. He was replaced by Glenavon Reserves’ custodian Bertie Wilson.

Back Row: John McAuley, Wilbur Cush, Alex Moore.
Front Row: William Adair, Joe Beckett, Billy ‘Didley’ Walker, Eric Malley, Billy Hill, Jimmy Kelly, Maurice McLaverty, Paddy Cronin, Ambrose Wilson, Bertie Wilson, Sammy Ashwood.

Alex Moore, Glenavon’s centre-forward, remembered the flight well. He sat next to Wilbur Cush. “Neither of us enjoyed it. There was a lot of noise inside the cabin and we both felt sick. Everyone was relieved when we landed safely.” Moore, tall with striking blonde hair, was one of Irish League football’s outstanding strikers of the immediate post-war era. In the summer of 1949, he took the injured Jimmy Jones’ place in the Belfast Celtic squad which toured the U.S.A. Moore scored the second goal when the Grand Old Team defeated Scotland 2-0 in New York.

Cush, born in Lurgan’s Mark Street, was then a precocious 20-year-old wing-half. He had played his first representative game for the Irish League against the Scottish League three months earlier. He would go on to play over 850 games for Glenavon, Leeds United and Portadown and make over 50 appearances at inter-league and full international level. He scored the crucial goal when Northern Ireland defeated Italy in the decisive match of the 1958 World Cup qualification series and then scored the Irish team’s winner in its opening fixture against Czechoslovakia in the finals themselves.

Other notables in the visitors’ line-up included ex-RAF man McLafferty, a Scottish central-defender who defied the conventions of the time with his languid gait and slick passing style; Paddy Cronin, a Cork-born inside-forward who wore tiny size 4 boots; and Jimmy Kelly, a pacey left-winger who was transferred from Glenavon to Tottenham Hotspur at the end of the 1948-49 season. McLafferty, Cronin and Kelly lived in a house in Union Street owned by the club.

Glenavon was captained by Ambrose Wilson, a Lurgan-born wing-half / inside-forward who had started his career at Celtic Park.

The Lurgan club’s manager, Archie Livingstone, a Scotsman, made the journey by boat on the Thursday beforehand. His position had been under review for some months. He resigned in March 1949 when he learned that the Board of Directors was about to dispense with his services.

The three officials who accompanied the team were directors Billy Adair and Joe Beckett and secretary Billy “Didley” Walker. Joe Beckett, Glenavon’s long-serving I.F.A. representative, was a member of its influential International Committee.  Walker, one-time trainer of Shankill Young Men, joined Glenavon in the summer of 1947 and almost immediately became the club’s most important back office figure. A knowledgeable football man, he recruited some of the club’s best players of the 1950s decade himself. He served as Secretary until his death in 1964.

Glenavon started the game at Pittodrie Stadium positively. Cush, playing in his usual left-half position, ensured that inside-left Cronin and outside-left Kelly saw plenty of the ball.  Glenavon’s outside-right Sammy Ashwood, a Belfast man, had an excellent scoring chance but lost control of the ball as he readied himself to shoot. Before half-time the visitors almost took the lead when Cronin’s header from Cush’s pinpoint cross struck the underside of the crossbar. In the second-half Aberdeen had most of the possession but failed to break down the Glenavon defence. The match finished in a scoreless draw.

Wilbur Cush was the outstanding player on the field. The Aberdeen Evening Express commented on his keen tackling and described him as a “stylish” half-back. Maurice McLafferty also had a fine match. After the Glenavon party had returned to Northern Ireland David Halliday, the Dons’ long-serving manager, telephoned Didley Walker to inquire about the availability of the two players. When Glenavon’s Board of Directors considered the approach, its members decided to ask £5,000 for McLaverty but inform Aberdeen that Cush was not for sale. The Board then increased Wilbur’s weekly wage from £4 to £5.

Wilbur Cush, Glenavon’s outstanding performer against Aberdeen.

The historic importance of Glenavon’s trip by air to the Scottish Highlands was acknowledged by all the Irish newspapers of the time. A supporter, proud of his club’s enterprise, wrote to the Lurgan Mail in the following terms:

“Permit me in these few lines to pay tribute to the initiative shown by the directors of Glenavon in arranging the friendly fixture with Aberdeen. Let every supporter give them the credit as pioneers in this wider field of sport.

History has been made and the fame of the club has become more widely known.

The team has also to be congratulated on a really good sporting game and the result justifies confidence in them.

One way in which supporters can show their appreciation is by giving whole-hearted and loyal support during the season and by encouraging not ridiculing players and officials.

I hope that all future projects will carry with them the same amount of success.”

The game in Aberdeen was one of four specially arranged friendlies which Glenavon played during the calendar year of 1949. The others were against Barnsley at Oakwell (0-2), Sligo Rovers at the Showgrounds (2-4) and Blackpool at Mourneview Park (2-2).

The Lurgan Blues finished the 1948-49 League Championship in eighth place with six wins and eight draws from its 22 fixtures. Three years later, boasting the famous triumvirate of Cush, Jones and Denver, they became the first provincial club to win the title.

The Glenavon team which played against Aberdeen was R. Wilson, Hill, McAuley, Malley, McLafferty, Cush, Ashwood, A. Wilson, Moore, Cronin, Kelly.