Sean Fallon – From Glenavon to Celtic and into the Eye of a Political Storm

George Ruddell brings us another of his fascinating in-depth looks back into Glenavon’s history.

Seventy years ago this Easter Sean Fallon joined Glasgow Celtic in one of the most sensational transfer deals in Glenavon’s history. The 27 year old went on to wear the famous green and white hooped jersey more than 250 times and win every honour in the Scottish game. Later he became Jock Stein’s assistant during the Glasgow men’s glory era, winning nine consecutive Scottish League Championships between 1966 and 1974 and, of course, capturing the European Cup in 1967. The Sligo man, who died in 2013 at the age of 90, spent a total of 28 years at Parkhead. He is rightly regarded as one of the club’s all-time greats.

Sean pictured with legendary Celtic manager, Jock Stein.

Fallon put pen to paper for Glenavon in July 1949. He was bought from Sligo Rovers for £200 after the Connaught men had defeated the Lurgan Blues 4-2 in a friendly match. He made the move from the League of Ireland to the Irish League in the hope that it would be a stepping-stone to a career in England or Scotland. Indeed, it had been Sean’s ambition to play for Celtic since the son of Parkhead legend Jimmy McMenemy saved his sister, Lily, from drowning at picturesque Lough Gill, the setting for W. B. Yeats’ famous poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Celtic had, of course, an historic connection with County Sligo through its founder, Brother Walfrid.

Although football was Fallon’s favourite sport, he also excelled as both a swimmer and Gaelic footballer. By 1947 he had won the Henry Cup twice by swimming the punishing course from the Atlantic Ocean at Rosses Point to Sligo via the Garavogue River. In 1948 he scored two goals against Kerry for his county’s GAA team. “Whereas I was a completely natural swimmer, I had to work hard at ball games,” he explained. “Initially, I was almost entirely right footed, but I concentrated so much on improving my left that it became my stronger side.”

Fallon’s move to the Irish League forced him to leave Ireland’s beautiful Atlantic Coast. “Glenavon arranged for me to stay with a Mr. and Mrs. Dynes at 107 Union Street,” he recalled. “They were great people and looked after me well.” The Mourneview club also found him employment with Filbins, a family-run bakery located on Lurgan’s Shore Road. “I was a confectioner by profession,” added Sean. “My speciality was decorating cakes. I took great pride in my work.”

The Sligo man cycled from Union Street to the Shore Road at 7-30 am every morning in time to start work at 8 am. Filbins were model employers. “They were great people to work for,” he added. “If I needed time off because of football commitments, I only had to ask.” In January 1950 Fallon had a lucky escape when he was thrown from his bicycle. “I was returning to my digs after work. I had decided to bring a cake as a gift for Mr. and Mrs. Dynes. It was perched in front of me. Suddenly, the front wheel of the bike hit a divot and I was thrown headfirst over the handlebars. The cake was ruined but, fortunately, I didn’t break any bones.”

Glenavon took Fallon to Sligo to visit family and friends on an almost fortnightly basis. “Every time Sligo Rovers had a weekend home match, Billy Kennedy, Billy “Didley” Walker and I travelled from Lurgan. We watched the game and then my mother served us dinner. After that we chatted for a few hours before driving back.”

Fallon made his Irish League debut in mid-August 1949 when Glenavon drew 1-1 with Cliftonville at Solitude. Although ostensibly a full-back, he was thrust into the attack after finding the net five times in a trial match. From August until early November 1949 he played as a centre-forward, scoring ten times in his first eight games. His impressive goals haul included hat-tricks at Mourneview Park against both Ards and Derry City. In early December 1949, following Gilford man Charlie Gallogly’s transfer from Glenavon to Huddersfield Town, Sean reverted to his more accustomed right-back position where he remained until his transfer move to Celtic. In all he played 35 successive games for the Lurgan men and was selected in no fewer than five positions – centre-forward and right-back plus right-half, right-wing and inside-right.

Fallon’s team-mates included Wilbur Cush, Jackie Denver, Maurice McVeigh, Alex Moore, Albie Parks and Ambrose Wilson. During most of the 1949-50 campaign the Glenavon eleven was selected by a small committee comprising secretary Billy Walker and two directors. Former Irish international defender Jack Jones and club stalwart Eddie Magill, father-in-law to the late Bobby Cush, took charge on training nights and on matchdays. “Jack kept things very simple,” Sean recalled. “He often warned us about the danger of being ‘hurt’. He meant by that giving the opposition a chance to put us under pressure. ‘Don’t get hurt boys’, he used to say. ‘Think about what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’ll get hurt’.”

Glenavon, despite Fallon’s goals, spluttered through the 11-match early season City Cup, finishing 9th of twelve clubs. It fared much better in the League Championship and was challenging near the top of the table until Sean’s departure. However, in late March and April 1950 defeat followed defeat. In fact, the Lurgan men conceded 21 goals and collected only two points from a possible twelve in their final six outings to finish a disappointing fifth. In the cup competitions Glenavon progressed to the semi-finals of both the Ulster Cup and Gold Cup but suffered an embarrassing Irish Cup first round knock-out at the hands of Linfield Swifts.

In early March 1950 Fallon was selected to play right-back for the Irish League against the League of Ireland at Dalymount Park. Although the North lost 3-1, he performed well. Afterwards Celtic boss Jimmy McGrory, Doncaster Rovers manager Peter Doherty and representatives of Fulham and Leicester City declared an interest. Three days later McGrory returned to Ireland from Scotland and met “Didley” Walker and other Glenavon officials at Mourneview Park. The following evening the Lurgan club’s Board of Directors approved Celtic’s offer of £5,000 plus £1,000 after six first-team games and a further gratuity if he should be capped at international level.

Although Sean was desperate to join Celtic, the move almost collapsed because McGrory was only prepared to offer him a wage of £8 per week. “I was already earning £8 working for Filbins plus £6 from Glenavon,” he explained. “I was never motivated by money. However, most of my earnings were sent to my family in Sligo so I had to take that into account. When I explained the position to Mr. McGrory he increased his offer to £10 per week. That was still less than I had been offered by two of the English clubs which made approaches, but I accepted it. Looking back, it is hard to believe that I moved from Mourneview Park to Parkhead and took a £4 reduction in wages!”

Sean Fallon in Celtic’s famous hooped jersey.

In mid-April 1950 Fallon made his Celtic debut at left-back in a 2-2 draw with Falkirk. Although an ankle injury ended his season prematurely, four and a half months later he was back in the team for a 3-2 “Old Firm” derby success. In September 1950 he played for “Ireland” in a scoreless draw against the British Army at Windsor Park. The Irish team included Glenavon’s Johnny Matthews and Wilbur Cush. The Army eleven featured John Charles, a young Welsh centre-half. “After the match the I.F.A. asked me if I would represent Ireland against England in the opening British Championship fixture. I gave them my word that, if selected, I would play,” said Sean.

Representatives of the I.F.A.’s International Committee, which picked the Northern Irish team, had asked Sean about his availability because it was embroiled in a dispute with the football authorities in the South about its entitlement to continue selecting players from every part of the island. During the 1940s the likes of Dubliner Johnny Carey and Waterford-born Davy Walsh had distinguished themselves playing for both associations. However, in 1949 F.I.F.A. tried to prevent the I.F.A. choosing players born south of the border. Nevertheless, in March 1950, the International Committee had fielded a quartet of southerners against Wales.

The F.A.I. responded with vigorous protests and a declaration of intent to require all professional players born in the 26 counties to sign an undertaking not to represent “other associations.” The row between North and South reached a crescendo at the end of September 1950 when the I.F.A. announced its team to face England at Windsor Park on Saturday 7th October 1950. Sean Fallon was named as Ireland’s right-back in a side which included another debutant, Glenavon’s brilliant left-half, Wilbur Cush. Fallon was the only southern-born player selected.

“I was shocked by what happened after the team was made public,” explained Sean. “The Cunningham family, which ran Shamrock Rovers and was very influential within the F.A.I., publicly criticised the North’s decision to pick me. In fact, Joe Cunningham wrote to me to warn me against playing. Then he telephoned me and repeated what he had said in his letter. I told him that I had already represented the North against the British Army and had given my word that, if I was chosen, I would play against England. I told him that I was not prepared to renege on that commitment.”

The pressure on Sean to withdraw increased when a threat was made against his family. His father, John, was Mayor of Sligo. Wounded whilst fighting with the Connaught Rangers during the First World War, he was also secretary and treasurer of the town’s branch of the British Legion. “My father had seen action in Gallipoli and Serbia,” said Sean. “In fact, he had almost been killed by a dum-dum bullet. He was very proud of his service and the men he had fought alongside. When the threats were made, he told me to ignore them.”

Nonetheless Fallon agonised about what he should do. “I was genuinely torn because I thought so highly of everyone who had helped me in the North and didn’t want to let them down. However, because my family were in danger, I eventually decided to pull out. It was the most difficult decision that I ever had to take. I still often think about it and wonder if I did the right thing. But I could not have lived with the worry that someone might attack my parents or my brothers and sisters.” Ironically, Sean’s place in the team was taken by former Glenavon right-back Charlie Gallogly.

The controversy robbed Fallon of the chance to play against England’s Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright and Wilf Mannion. It also denied him another opportunity to play alongside his former team-mate, Wilbur Cush. “Wilbur and I became very close when I was living in Lurgan,” he added. “Apart from training and playing, we went to dances and films together. We looked out for each other. He became a great friend.”

Fallon’s admiration for Cush extended far beyond his personal qualities. “He was an outstanding footballer,” said the Sligo man. “I played with and against some of the greats of the Scottish game, and I include in that my other great friend from the North, Bertie Peacock, but if given the choice I would not pick anyone ahead of Wilbur to play in front of me. I could not pay him a greater compliment than that.”

Sean quickly became a firm favourite with Celtic’s legions of supporters. He won his first Scottish Cup medal in his debut season and collected a League Championship crown two years later. By 1952 he had become club captain. Two months after his ill-fated call-up for Ireland’s British Championship fixture against England, he played the first of eight internationals for the Republic of Ireland.

Although Fallon enjoyed a successful playing career in Scotland’s First Division and later became a distinguished scout and coach, unearthing gems such as Danny McGrain, Kenny Dalglish, David Hay and Packie Bonner, he never forgot the eight months which he had spent at Mourneview Park. “I have very happy memories of my time in Lurgan,” he said. “Everyone connected with Glenavon made me feel welcome. It was a privilege to represent the club.”

Sean Fallon

George Ruddell

This article is based on an interview which George conducted with Sean Fallon in 2002. George is presently writing a biography of Glenavon legend Wilbur Cush. His book is nearing completion. He hopes that it will be on sale in time for Christmas. George is keen to find out more about the Dynes family who provided Sean Fallon with accommodation during his time in Lurgan. What was their connection to Glenavon? If you can help, please contact George by telephone at 07739 260726 or by email at [email protected].