Thursday 20 July 2017

Extraordinary life that reminds us of the true value of sport

Sean Fallon - Sligo's greatest ever sporting ambassador

The late Sean Fallon and his grandchildren, Lelia, Dominic, Michael and Clodagh sporting their Irish international caps at Sean's home in Glasgow. The photograph was taken last week during RTE's filming of a special programme on Sean's life which will...
The late Sean Fallon and his grandchildren, Lelia, Dominic, Michael and Clodagh sporting their Irish international caps at Sean's home in Glasgow. The photograph was taken last week during RTE's filming of a special programme on Sean's life which will...

Sports Editor, Leo Gray, pays tribute to Sean Fallon, who died at his home in Glasgow last Friday

THE WORDS 'legend' and 'icon' are bandied about with such random indifference these days that they have lost much of their value.

But such terms don't even come close to doing justice to Sean Fallon, a man of extraordinary talent and humility who was unquestionably Sligo's greatest ever sporting ambassador.

A colossal figure on the playing fields - he excelled at both soccer and Gaelic football - he brought his outstanding leadership qualities into management at the highest level, serving as Assistant Manager and Manager with Glasgow Celtic.

As a player, he won all the top domestic honours with Celtic, had the distinction of scoring in the 1954 Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen, and also captained the famous club for a number of years.

He also won eight international caps for the Republic of Ireland, making his debut against Norway in November 1950, and scoring twice, against West Germany and France in subsequent years.

After his career was finished by injury in 1958, Fallon turned his attention to the managerial side of the game and played a central role in the greatest moment in Celtic's history, serving as assistant to the legendary Jock Stein when the Glasgow club became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967.

Not only did Fallon make an influential contribution to that historic occasion as part of Stein's backroom team, he was also responsible for signing many of the players who earned an indelible place in the hearts and minds of Celtic supporters everywhere. The 1967 team became known as The Lisbon Lions and Fallon's role in the creation of that wonderful side is still widely acknowledged to this day.

In his youth, he worked at McArthur's bakery in Sligo town. He was an avid sports fan and a very talented sportsman, participating in swimming, athletics, soccer and Gaelic football.

While he will primarily be remembered for his soccer exploits, he was also an outstanding Gaelic footballer.

He played for the Craobh Rua club in Sligo and was good enough to earn a call-up to the county senior side in 1947.

His most famous performance in the county colours was at the Showgrounds in 1947 when he scored two goals in a match against Kerry. The game has since attained legendary status and is often referred to as one of the greatest ever Gaelic football matches played in the county. Among Fallon's team mates that day were household GAA names such as B Wickham, JJ Lavin, M Gaffney, F White and M Christie

Despite his extraordinary career on and off the field, Fallon never forgot his Sligo roots and would frequently recall his youthful days playing junior soccer in his native town.

"Those were great days" he recalled in an interview with Jim Gray of The Sligo Champion.

"The facilities were sparse, we togged out in the bushes at the side of the field in Abbeyville Park, and we washed under a tap. But nobody complained. Football was all that mattered"

In the halcyon days of junior soccer, teams like Distillery, Bohemians, Stars, St. Mary's, MCR and Glenview Stars and Sligo United graced St. Anne's Park, the spiritual home of local football, and Fallon regarded those teams with the same respect he afforded to some of the bigger powers in European football which he would encounter face to face later in his life.

He loved the fierce rivalry which existed between what he termed the 'Children of the Abbey' and the 'Hillers' - famed matches between Distillery and Glenview Stars which would attract hundreds of spectators.

He greatly admired the players of those golden days - men like Jimmy Kilfeather, Arnold O'Connor, William Monaghan, Brendan and Gerry Wickham, ' Hopper' Kilfeather, Ned Scanlon, Jack Monaghan, Bernie ' Butch'Brennan, Seanie Melly, Mickey ' Slack' Rooney, Mickey Sweeney and Mattie Burns.

These names would be dropped into any conversation with Sean about his early days in Sligo. He never forgot the young men he grew up with or who had made such a lasting impression on him.

That was the type of person he was. Totally uncontaminated by fame or celebrity, his humility endeared him to all who met him, whether they were world famous soccer personalities such as Sir Alex Ferguson or Jack Charlton, or ordinary Sligo folk he would spend hours talking all things football with during his many visits to his home town.

Moving to Glasgow Celtic in 1950 was a dream come true but even though he was 28 years old at the time, leaving his beloved Sligo was still a huge decision.

He arranged to have The Sligo Champion sent to him every week, initially addressed to Glasgow Celtic Football Club at Parkhead and later to his home when he had settled down with his wife, Myra. And he also vowed to return to Sligo every summer for a family holiday. Both rituals were observed religiously right up to recent times.

He liked nothing better than a swim in the sea at Rosses Point or a round of golf at Co. Sligo Golf Club. A day fishing on Lough Gill or on the Garavouge River, or a visit to the Holy Well were other highlights of his annual visits to Sligo.

He loved to keep abreast of all that was going on in his native county. He came from a political family, his late father, John, was Mayor of the town on a few occasions and also served as Chairman of Sligo County Council. So his interest in local affairs spread beyond the confines of football but, understandably, he retained a particular fondness for Sligo Rovers and the local junior soccer teams.

The esteem in which he was held throughout football in the UK was graphically illustrated when Alex Ferguson, Jack Charlton, Packie Bonner, Neil Lennon, several members of the Lisbon Lions squad and a host of other top soccer personalities and civic leaders from Glasgow travelled to Sligo for a special week-end of celebrations to mark his 80th birthday in 2002.

In that year also, he was honoured with the Freedom of the Borough, the highest civic honour the Local Authorities can bestow on an individual.

Humility, decency, loyalty and a captivating sense of humour were Sean Fallon's greatest virtues.

In an age when the game he loved and served so well is soured by exaggerated celebrity and outrageous excess, Sean Fallon's extraordinary life and times are a glorious reminder of the real values of soccer and sport generally.

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