Manchester United: Derry’s links with the Old Trafford giants

Legendary Manchester United manager, Matt Busby.
Legendary Manchester United manager, Matt Busby.

Following news that Derry woman Orlaith Meenan has landed a top job with Manchester United F.C., here is another Journal article that links the city to the world famous Old Trafford Club. First published back in 2011, it is the story of Waterside man Jimmy Shiels whose career was cut short by injury and who was on the cusp of breaking into the first team at the time of the Munich air disaster.

Jimmy Sheils was about to break into the Manchester United first team when a training ground accident ended his career with the Red Devils. Despite this setback, Derry man Jimmy went on to become a successful business man and is best friends with Republic of Ireland star Johnny Giles

It’s been more than 50 years since Jimmy Sheils’ dream of a career with Manchester United ended in tragic circumstances.

Jimmy, who is originally from the Strabane Old Road in the Waterside, signed for Manchester United in 1956 and enjoyed a weekly wage of eight pounds per week. However, disaster struck in 1959 during a training match when he collided with team goalkeeper Gordon Clayton.

Jimmy was a left-back and abounded in pace. It was during the aforementioned training match that he tried to stop an opposing player from scoring a goal. He raced back into his own penalty area, lead into the tackle with his left leg but Clayton collided with Jimmy and he was left writhing in pain.

“I can still remember it to this day,” says Jimmy. “It was an awful injury. I tore ligaments and severely damaged cartilage in my left leg - I was injured for about two years.”

Orlaith Meenan who begins a new job at Old Trafford next month. See for her story. DER1415-147KM

Orlaith Meenan who begins a new job at Old Trafford next month. See for her story. DER1415-147KM

After an intensive recovery period, Jimmy lined out for the reserves against Liverpool, Sheffield United and Huddersfield respectively two years later.

“I remember I didn’t feel 100 per cent after those games so it was then that I joined Southend United.”

The devastation Jimmy experienced as a result of the clash with Clayton is still visible on his face when he talks about his time with the Old Trafford club. Despite all this, he has reason to be cheerful as he went on to become a successful business man and his best friend is none other than former Manchester United, Leeds United and Republic of Ireland international Johnny Giles.

Jimmy was born and reared in Derry and was the fourth eldest of 11 children. Jimmy’s father, Francie Sheils, worked in a local bookies and his mother, Susan, whose maiden name was Houston, was from Elmwood Street.

Sport, never mind soccer, was not prevalent in the Sheils household. Jimmy claims that it was through his involvement with the Waterside Boys’ School that his love affair with football blossomed and at the age of 17 he lined out for Northern Ireland before representing the Waterside Boys in a cup final in Portadown the very same day.

“I guess that football just came naturally to me,” says Jimmy smiling.

When Jimmy was 17, a teacher at the Waterside Boys’ School wrote a letter to the Irish Football Association recommending they let the young Jimmy try out for the team.

“I had played three games for Derry City FC when I was 16 or 17.” says Jimmy. “But I stopped playing for them because, if I played more than three games, it would have meant that I would have become a senior player and I wouldn’t have been able to play for the Waterside Boys’ team in the final of the Smith Cup.”

Jimmy was called up to the Northern Ireland team to play against England at Lisburn Distillery’s ground at 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. However, there was a car waiting for him at the ground to whisk him away to Portadown to represent the Waterside Boys in the final of the Smith Cup later that day.

“I always joke that I got an international cap before I played in the final of the Smith Cup for the Waterside Boys,” he laughs.

“Playing for Northern Ireland against England was a great experience - we won the match 1-0 and Derek Dougan scored the winning goal.”

After a series of impressive performances, Jimmy started to attract attention from football clubs in England and Scotland.

Celtic and Manchester United led the charge for the Derry teenager’s signature and, at the age of 18 in 1956, he signed his first professional contract with the Red Devils.

Jimmy still has a copy of the contract and it shows that he was paid eight pounds per week during the 1956/57 eason; by the time he finished his career with Southend United, he was earning £29 per week.

“There wasn’t the money in football then that there is now,” says Jimmy. “When I hear some of the money the players are getting now I think to myself that this can’t last forever - it’s not a bottomless pit.”

Jimmy wasn’t the only new arrival at Manchester United in 1956. He was joined by a 15 year-old youngster from Dublin and the pair went on to forge a friendship that has lasted for over 55 years.

“Myself and Johnny Giles hit it off immediately - I don’t know why, but we just did,” explains Jimmy.

“Johnny is three years younger than me but we’ve been life-long friends ever since and I was his best man at his wedding. We talk to one another on the phone every day and I always try to get down to Dublin to have a few pints with him as often as I can.”

Giles, who went on to become one of Ireland’s most revered footballers, won honours with Manchester United and Leeds United. He also made 59 appearances for the Republic of Ireland and went on to manage the team for seven years during the 1970s.

“Johnny was an amazing player,” says Jimmy. “He had everything - he was the complete player and not only that - he is a really decent person, too. Johnny is one of Ireland’s greatest players but he’s a real down to earth person and I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.

“Johnny understands football like no one I’ve ever met. Some people have a go at him and Eamon Dunphy when they appear on RTE but I’m not just saying this because he’s my friend but Johnny knows his football inside out.”

Jimmy was playing for Manchester United when the Munich air disaster happened in February 1958. Jimmy was on the cusp of breaking into the first team when the plane crashed, killing 23 people, seven of which were Jimmy’s team mates.

“I wasn’t in the first team so I didn’t travel with them,” he says emotionally.

“I was heading into town in Manchester with a friend when we heard the news broadcast on the radio. Initially I thought it was a joke but we immediately went to Old Trafford where we met with the chief scout Joe Armstrong and he told us what had happened.

“It was a very low time and we were all young and didn’t know what to say. I remember when they brought the bodies of those who died home. They were put in coffins and laid out in the gymnasium at Old Trafford.

“It was a difficult time for everyone involved and it really affected Matt [Busby]. He had spent so long putting a great team together and then it was snatched away from him through the plane crash.

“The rebuilding process started but it wasn’t until the mid sixties that the team reached its true potential.”

Jimmy suffered his injury a year after the crash and, after several games for the first team, he was sold to Southend United.

“When I moved to Southend, I think I unofficially retired in my head. I spent a year with them and after that it was then that I decided that I wanted to become a business man.”

Jimmy witnessed firsthand how successful managing a franchise could be when he was in England. In particular, he noticed that fast food restaurants were very popular during the 1960s - so much so that he bought a franchise and opened a Wimpy restaurant in Galway.

“I was going to open the restaurant on the Strand Road in Derry but a friend convinced me to come to Galway, so I did. It was very successful and my son still runs the business to this day.”

As a result of his successful business ventures, Jimmy bought Andy Cole’s bar on the Strand Road off Andy Cole in 1983 and, after acquiring nearby houses, turned the bar into the Strand Tavern. He sold the bar in the early 1990s.

Jimmy also owned The Magnet Bar on the Culmore Road but he sold it in 2000 and has been enjoying his retirement ever since.

“I spend my days playing golf and I also go swimming. I still like watching football and I obviously have a soft spot for Manchester United.

“Derry has produced some amazing talent over the years. In terms of the players I knew growing up, I would say that Jobby Crossan was the best player to come out of the town.

“Tony O’Doherty, Jim McLaughlin and Fay Coyle were tremendous talents, too.

“If I was giving advice to any player starting out in the game now, it would be to enjoy it and not take themselves too seriously.

“A footballer’s career is a short one - I know all about it because I’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt,” he laughs.