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Old 18th March 2010, 14:42   #1
tomclare
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Default United Captains - Noel Cantwell

Noel Euchuria Cornelius Cantwell

Has there ever been a football player with a name as elegant as that of Noel Euchuria Cornelius Cantwell? Such was the name bestowed upon the son of Cork when he entered this world on February 28, 1932. He was educated at St Joseph’s school and then the Roman Catholic Presentation Brothers College in Cork, in what was then the Irish Free State.

Noel developed into quite the all round athlete whilst at the college excelling at football, rugby, cricket, and athletics. Early in his life he had never thought about a career in football. His father wanted him to go into the insurance business, and his very good friend Des Cashell, wanted him to join him working for the Norwich Union company.

But football was his first love and his favourite team was Manchester United, mainly because their inspirational captain, Johnny Carey, was Noel’s favourite player and who he tried to model himself upon. For this reason, whilst most of his young contemporaries had ambitions to play for Cork United, he always had the ambition to play at Old Trafford for Manchester United.

Nobody could have foreseen in those early formative years, just what an impact Noel Cantwell would have on the game of football in England, as a player, a union man, and a manager. However, after leaving college Noel began his career playing for Western Rovers in a local league before moving to Cork Athletic who played in the Irish League. At that time, Noel didn’t think that he had the skill or attributes to be considered as a player who was good enough to play in the English leagues. However, two men of Cork who played for West Ham United, Tommy Moroney (who also played rugby for Ireland) and Frank O’Farrell were regular visitors back to their home town, and quite often, would guest for the local club and in doing so would boost crowd attendance. It was after a friendly game against Birmingham City in which Noel had played alongside them, that they returned back to London and happened to mention to Ted Fenton who was then the West Ham United manager, that there was a big tall gangly full back playing for Cork, and that it might be worth his while to take a look at.

So Fenton got in touch with Cantwell’s father and explained to him that he would like to take young Noel back to London with him, and give him the opportunity of making the grade with an English club. At this time, Noel wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do as he also had eyes on a rugby career as he also played for Cork Constitution. However, the West Ham offer made him just a little more ambitious and so he agreed that he would join West ham United and try and make a go of it as a professional footballer in England. Fenton paid Cork Athletic 750 pounds (of which Noel got 150 pounds and he thought that he was a millionaire!) for his signature.

On arrival at Upton Park, Cantwell had something of an inferiority complex, and thought that within a year, he would be on the boat back home to his native Ireland. However, he went into digs with Tommy Moroney, and he became his mentor. Moroney helped him settle in London’s East End and was able to guide him through that first formative year as a West ham United player. Within that first year he was to break through into the first team and one of the biggest influences upon his early career was Malcolm Allison whom Cantwell thought was an exceptional coach. He loved playing for the West Ham club (which was then in the Second Division of the Football League) and also amongst his contemporaries in those early years were Frank O’Farrell, Dave Sexton, Malcolm Musgrove, John Bond – all of who went on to become First Division managers. At West Ham they were taught to play football in the proper way – the coaching staff there tried to teach their players the good principles of the game - pass the ball. The violence of the game was non-existent in their make up.

In the latter stages of the 1952/53 season, Cantwell made three first team appearances making steady progress, and the following season saw him become an established member of the first team. He was gaining experience all the time, so much so that in 1954, the Republic of Ireland selectors awarded him his first international cap and he also became established at that level. In 1957, having been at Upton Park for almost five years, Cantwell was made Club Captain. That 1957/58 season, saw the West Ham United team win the Second Division Championship and it would see them back in the First Division for the first time since 1930. Their first season in the top flight saw them finish in a very creditable sixth position, but in 1959/60 they slipped down to fourteenth position.

At this time Manchester United was having to rebuild after suffering the ravages of the Munich Air Disaster. Matt Busby had returned to manage the club and was trying to find the right blend of youth and experience to stabilize the club, and give it time to strengthen so that it would be able to challenge for honours, both domestically and in Europe, once again. Between 1960 and 1962, there was a lot of goings and comings of players as Busby strived to get the blend right. In October of 1960, Busby was successful in getting the likeable Irishman to sign for Manchester United. He joined new signings David Herd and Maurice Setters at Old Trafford. It was a real shock to his system.

Old Trafford was in some kind of disarray although Noel admitted after he had retired that it was a very difficult time for everybody at United. He was to say in an interview with RTE:

“Matt had to do a big rebuilding job there. Although there was some exceptional kids there, they were still kids, and Matt must have thought; “I’ve got to get some experience in there.” It was a really difficult period because the memories of those great young players was still so prevalent – Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, and their great captain Roger Byrne. My first eighteen months was difficult and we weren’t a very good team. Things were a little disorganised.”

Eamon Dunphy who was an apprentice at Old Trafford at that time remembers Cantwell’s incredulous fury in his first few weeks in Manchester. “Doesn’t anybody actually talk, or even think, about the game here?” he’d fume. “Why isn’t it organized? Why don’t we ever see Busby? Just a bit of running, head tennis, then around the back for a free-for-all kickabout …… Then pre-match, Busby’s simplistic “enjoy it all lads and just give it to a red shirt. Give it to a ****ing red shirt! You don’t need to be a manager for that. How do you find a red shirt to pass to if you haven’t planned it, worked on it, thought about it and talked about it?” Busby’s eventual answer was to make his radical Irishman the Club Captain!

Noel went on to say that United were a “bitty team” a “fits and starts” team and one that relied on individual players to carry them. There were some good kids coming through but the club needed time. At the start of the 1962/63 season United signed Denis Law from Torino, and in January 1963, Pat Crerand arrived from Glasgow Celtic. These two players proved to be the catalyst which turned a “bitty team” into a “great team”.

In 1963 Manchester United won the FA Cup – their first major trophy since the Munich Air Disaster. Captaining the side was Noel Cantwell and he recalls that fine Wembley appearance as follows:

“Leicester were favourites to win it in actual fact and I think that Leicester were actually going for the “double.” But we always played in flashes, but we always thought that Wembley would suit us. It would be a day that the Laws, and the Charltons, and the Crerands, would play very, very well. We’d beaten Southampton in the semi-final, and Wembley then was a guaranteed 100,000. It was a lovely day and things went well for us. We played well, Pat Crerand was a star in mid-field, Johnny Giles played in that team, Albert Quixall, Herdy, and Denis. Denis played exceptionally well that day, and everything just seemed to come together and we won the Cup. I was fortunate enough to be Captain. I think that I’d only taken over the captaincy earlier in that season because Maurice Setters had been captain and before him Dennis Viollett. Again I think that it reflected the turmoil within the club in how many times we’d had to change captains.”

United did beat Leicester City by 3-1 and it was a proud Noel Cantwell that led his team up those famous 39 steps to receive the FA Cup from Her Majesty the Queen. After collecting his medal and leading the team back down on to the pitch his teammates looked on astonishingly as he hurled the famous old trophy high into the air. Cantwell was never sure what possessed him to do that. As he explained:

“It was a spur of the moment thing, an impulse. We were very, very happy. It had been such a wonderful day.” But soon afterwards, a commissionaire whose task it was to look after the old trophy walked across to him and said, “Excuse me, sir, but the FA Cup is not to be thrown into the air.” Cantwell’s response was, “Don’t you worry – I knew that I would be able to catch it because I play cricket for Ireland!” Noel reckoned that winning the FA Cup was the highlight of his career. “It had to be. I was the captain of the winning team, and as I have said many times, we had such a wonderful day at Wembley.”

Winning the FA Cup meant that the following season, 1963/64, Manchester United would appear in European competition for the first time since Munich – the European Cup Winners Cup. Everybody at the club was looking forward to it, and European fever once again affected Manchester. It was also the season that George Best emerge from the junior teams and become a regular first team player. It was a season which started so well for Noel Cantwell, but one that would eventually see him lose his first team place. United’s first European opponents since 1958 turned out to be Willem II the Dutch team. After a 1-1 draw away at the Feyenoord Stadion in Rotterdam, the Dutchmen were dismantled by 6-1 at Old Trafford with Denis Law claiming a hat-trick. The next round saw United draw the holders of trophy, Tottenham Hotspur.

The ‘Spurs team had become the first British team to win a major European trophy when they had demolished the Spanish giants Athletico Madrid by 5-1 in the previous season’s final. It was a team full of stars and they had a tremendous forward line in Cliff Jones, John White, Bobby Smith, Jimmy Greaves, and Terry Dyson. Behind them they had two fine wing halves in Danny Blanchflower and Dave Mackay, and the defence was as solid as you could get with Bill brown in goal, Peter Baker and Ron Henry at fullback, and Maurice Norman at centre half. They were a formidable outfit and had been for the three previous years having won a League Championship and two FA Cups.

The first leg was played at White Hart Lane on December the 3rd 1963, and some 57,000 people saw the ‘Spurs win by 2-0. United had not performed too well that evening and the popular press didn’t give them any chance at all of recovering the deficit in the home leg which would be played just a week later.

Normally, a European evening such as this would have seen Old Trafford full to capacity, but with a two goal deficit to make up, it seemed as though some fans also seemed to think that the tie was over as the official attendance was just 50,000. After just 8 minutes of play there was an incident which changed the whole course of the game. Dave Mackay the ‘Spurs half back, and Cantwell, hurled themselves into a challenge for a 50-50 loose ball. The result was that the impetus of the tackles ended up with Mackay breaking both the tibia and fibula bones in his leg. It was an horrific injury and as they carried him from the field, his toe was actually touching his knee. There was no substitutes allowed in those days, and United went on to win the tie by 4-1 and 4-3 on aggregate.

Whether the tackle on Mackay affected Noel’s performances is a matter of opinion. But it does seem to have some relevance because just a few weeks later, he was to lose his first team place at Old Trafford and never reclaim it again. Busby moved Tony Dunne to left back and brought Shay Brennan into the team, and they cemented a partnership that would last another five years.

Cantwell played in the Reserves and at this time he began to look ahead and where his career was going. He had become Chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association. In his own words:

“Well, I was in the Reserves and Tony Dunne had taken my place at left back, and I was playing at centre half but only getting the occasional first team game. I’d passed all my coaching badges and all that business, I was Chairman of the PFA. I was thinking ahead and thinking that it was time to move on and I remembered Matt telling me that he wanted me to be coach at Manchester United, and I was very, very excited. There had been numerous times when I had taken the training when somebody wasn’t available, and I’d always had it in my mind that the training could have been better and more entertaining and exciting for the players. But unfortunately things never materialised. The reason being I think, that although Matt appreciated me, and thought that I knew something about the game, and could lead men, I don’t think that he wanted to upset the balance of the whole club. The Jack Cromptons, the Jimmy Murphys, and the rest of them. I think that he might have thought that by bringing in this young upstart might just upset the rest of them and the balance. He used to have long conversations with me in his office. He’d call me in and it would be friendly but secret, and we’d talk about the club and the game and it would never go any further. And he did say to me: “Noel, you can stay at Old Trafford.” He wanted me there, but I was ambitious and I didn’t want to play in the Reserves for too long.”

“Eventually I did receive an offer from Aston Villa, but I turned them down. However, shortly afterwards Malcolm Allison ‘phoned me and said that he had got the Coventry City job and asked me if I would go as his assistant. I’d known Malcolm well during my West Ham days and it was always our ambition that one day we’d have our own football team. So Malcolm ‘phoned me on the Tuesday evening and I told my wife Maggie, “I’m going to go with Malcolm at Coventry City” and she thought “Oh!no – this is the end!”

It wasn’t to be what he expected however as Allison moved on to Manchester City to team up with Joe Mercer, and Noel took over as manager of the Sky Blues. It was always a battle at Highfield Road to keep the team in the First Division but this he did until he was controversially sacked in 1972. From there he moved to Peterborough United. The London road outfit were rock bottom when he took over but he managed to keep them afloat and one of his memories was taking his team back to Old Trafford in 1976 for an FA Cup Fourth Round tie against Tommy Docherty’s emerging young team. Noel recalled:

“I remember the sense of disbelief around London Road when we drew Manchester United at Old Trafford. But we couldn’t get too carried awa as we still had to beat a very good Nottingham Forest team in a replay to get there. Luckily we managed that and we went on to enjoy one of the best days in Peterborough United’s history. United were an excellent side managed by “the Doc”, but we also had the best team we’d had in years, so we went there hoping to give a good account of ourselves. Obviously, you can’t expect to beat United at Old Trafford, but we had a damn good go and most importantly we gave everybody a great day out.

I think that they shut Peterborough that day because it seemed like everyone had travelled up to Manchester and we received fantastic support. They didn’t even mind when we went 2-0 down in the first ten minutes. John Cozens did pull a goal back and we actually looked like getting an equaliser when Gordon Hill scored with a fantastic volley to clinch the win.

Much of the build up to the game revolved around me going back to Old Trafford and I received an amazing ovation from the United fans before the match.”
After Peterborough, Noel had a short spell in the NASL coaching the New England Tea Men. When he returned back to England, together with his wife Maggie, he opened a pub in Peterborough, but also did the occasional bit of coaching. Looking back on his career in football, Noel was to say:

“I don’t think that looking back upon my career I could have achieved much more than captaining West Ham, and being a friend of Bobby Moore who was a dear, dear friend of mine. Also at Old Trafford, captaining them, and then of course the great fun of playing for Ireland at that time. We could never ever win very much. It was so different than today.”

“Irish football was ridiculed for its unprofessionalism at the time, but we still enjoyed it. Joe Wickham was the Irish Secretary at the time and you would get a ‘phone call from him, or a letter from to say that you had been selected. I could show you an itinerary now that told you to bring your own soap, your own towel, in fact your own everything, and it would tell you what time to report and that was it, and you made your own way. Then you got your expenses at the table after the game. We used to get 50 pounds a game and they would give you a cheque for 45 pounds and five pounds in cash. That was the deal!
And then you’d make out your expenses, and if you were lucky, they’d pay for a taxi for you, but there was many a time that they would query your expenses and tell you that you were claiming too much, and you wouldn’t get what you had laid out! So that was the scene as far as the financial side of things was”

“The strip that we used to be made by Elverry’s, and the shirt was like a rugby jersey. The shorts were something else – I don’t know who they thought played for Ireland! But if you put Johnny Giles and Joe Haverty together in a size 44” pair, and they used to do this sometimes in the dressing room, they could pull them over their heads and tie them, just like a sack! We got to the stage where fella’s like myself and Charlie Hurley, felt better in better gear and we’d bring our own pairs of shorts, so we wouldn’t accept it. You would often see Gilesy in a rolled up pair of shorts, tucked in. How he could ever play in them I just don’t know. Little Joe Haverty was a tiny little man and he looked like a slapstick comedian off the stage when he put on the Irish strip, it was the funniest thing to see.

Well we put up with it for a while. Johnny Carey was the Irish manager, and he was a smashing fellow, but he just didn’t want any problems – just peace and quiet. He didn’t want to upset anybody at all. He just loved the game and just wanted to sit there and smoke his pipe. All he ever told us was “Just fizz it about, fizz it about.” He loved us to just pass the ball.”

“So we used to assemble at the Gresham Hotel at 12 noon on match day. So Charley Hurley, Pat Saward, and myself would travel over the night before on the boat. In those days they couldn’t afford flights. If the crossing was rough well you didn’t get much sleep. We’d arrive in Dublin early morning and check into the hotel – The Forecourt and we’d try and grab 3-4 hours sleep before going down to the Gresham and assemble there. We’d have what was a so called team talk and Johnny would tell us about fizzing the ball about but he would also tell us to “get the ball up in the air at them and charge into them, make yourselves known.” That’s how it was playing for Ireland in those early days.”

Talking about the honours that he won in the game it was sad to hear Noel recount what happened to his medals and memorabilia which he used to have on display in his pub.

“I had medals and I’d always had stuff hanging around here, and it worried me as there was always the chance that they could be stolen. Unfortunately, my son Robert was killed in a car crash. I also have two daughters, and I did speak to them about my memorabilia, but neither of them showed any inclination to having any. Medals are medals to me and so are a lot of other things. So I thought why shouldn’t I, or my wife, gain the benefit of the value of the medals. Or else share it with the girls. So having the medals sitting in a draw for thirty odd years, and really, they don’t mean anything to me because I’ve achieved my goals, I’ve been there. So if I can get some money for them I don’t see why I shouldn’t. If Rob had been alive and he had said to me, “Dad I want the medals” then it would have been a different matter, and there would have been no question, I wouldn’t have sold them and he would have got them. I think it’s better than leaving them sitting in a drawer.”

Noel Cantwell achieved so much in the game both on and off the field. As Chairman of the PFA it should be noted that he was instrumental in starting and overseeing the Provident Fund, the Benevolent Fund and the PFA Education Fund. Sadly he lost the biggest battle he ever had to face when he succumbed to cancer on September 8th 2005. He was 73 years of age.

For West Ham United he made 248 appearances and scored 11 goals.

For Manchester United he made 146 appearances and scored 8 goals.

He was capped 36 times for the Republic of Ireland and scored 14 goals.
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