Monday 26 September 2016

Johnny Fullam

Rovers star played during arguably Irish football's greatest era

Damian Corless

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Three-in-row: Fullam holding the FAI Cup in 2007
Three-in-row: Fullam holding the FAI Cup in 2007
Admired: Fullam in action for Bohemians against Pele

Johnny Fullam cut his professional teeth in England with Preston North End in the late 1950s, but arrived back to Ireland just in time to participate in a spurt, when the so-called "garrison game" was hitting record heights of popularity.

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Encounters between the likes of Cork Celtic and Shamrock Rovers as the '60s cusped on the '70s could attract crowds upwards of 30,000. In today's super-funded, hyper English Premier League, many sides would gasp in envy at those provincial numbers.

Johnny Fullam came into his prime as an Irish footballer at a time - one we'll never see again - when it was possible to play at the top level in England and then decide that it made better sense to come home, earn much the same, and still pit your very best against the very best.

Returning from Preston to Shamrock Rovers, who, at the start of the 1960s were Ireland's glam team, he became the heart of a side that went into contests with the best of Europe as burly equals. He provided a memorable sign of his times when he played a leading role in Rovers' 2-2 draw with the top Spanish side Valencia, shunting away a nasty bout of food poisoning and just getting on with it.

The '60s were a glittering decade for Johnny Fullam. In the 1963/64 season, his Shamrock Rovers side were unstoppable at home, and he began collecting what would become a handsome mantlepiece of awards.

He figured prominently on the 1966 Rovers' side that had lifted the FAI Cup three years in a row and took on a formidable, world-beating, Bayern Munich. The German side featured three of the greatest players ever to grace the game of football - goalie Sepp Maier, midfield maeistro Franz Beckenbaur, and the tiny goal-poaching assassin that was Gerd Muller. And Johnny Fullam's Rovers matched them play for play.

That was the home leg, in an era when an away side, no matter how distinguished, could always expect the unexpected. The exceptional note to Fullam's team was that they went to Germany, scored twice, and came within five minutes of a draw before the miraculous Gerd Muller did his thing and scored the winner. League of Ireland football has never been that close to the top.

Johnny Rowan Fullam, who was born in Dublin on March 22, 1940, grew up in a place where Official Ireland just didn't like what he did. At the age of 15, in October 1955, already recruited as a bright prospect by the Home Farm football factory, he listened as Dublin's Catholic Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, warned his congregation not to attend a game at Dalymount Park set against communist Yugoslavia.

The message sounded by the prelate was as much against soccer as communism. The 'friendly' was turned into a testing point for Ireland. With precisely one week to go, the Department of Justice phoned the Football Association of Ireland. The FAI were informed that they'd need written permission to bring the Yuogoslavs into Ireland.

The FAI expressed astonishment. The President of Ireland withdrew his customary invitation to attend the match, and so did the Irish Army's Number One Band, as also did Radio Eireann's top commentator.

A body announcing itself as 'The Catholic Association for International Relations' wrote an open letter to the visiting footballers saying: "You will, no doubt, be cordially greeted by (those) who gather at Dalymount Park. You will hardly guess by the demeanour of the crowd that the great bulk of the Irish people are unhappy about your visit."

Some 22,000 turned out to welcome the visitors, as an emboldened Johnny Fullam turned his mind to a career across the water. He returned, however, to the warmest of welcomes.

Johnny Fullam played at home during arguably Irish football's greatest time. In the '60s, crowds of 30,000 would not attract too much comment. By the early 1970s, TV coverage on Match Of The Day and ITV's Big Match began to severely deplete the numbers at domestic matches, but this trend was reversed for a brief time when big stars nearing the end of their careers, including George Best, Bobby Tambling and Bobby Charlton, energised the League of Ireland on a pay-per-play basis.

All of them played against, and came to admire Johnny Fullam, who died on June 10.

Sunday Independent

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