Tuesday 20 February 2018

Gallery: A legend in the making

Sean Fallon pictured in the early 1950s with one of the eight caps he won for the Republic of Ireland
Sean Fallon pictured in the early 1950s with one of the eight caps he won for the Republic of Ireland
Sean Fallon, (third from left, back row) pictured with Sligo Rovers during the only season he played for his hometown club, 1948/'49.
Sean Fallon autobiography
Sean Fallon, extreme left, in action for Sligo Rovers at the Showgrounds during the 1948/'49 season
Sean Fallon, (3rd from left, front row) pictured with his local GAA club, Craobh Rua, before the infamous 'ban' ended his GAA career.

Throughout Sean Fallon's childhood, Sligo and Glasgow were linked by a direct steamer service. It was this boat that had taken his mother and father to Scotland, and undertaking the same voyage had become his great ambition. Then, in the 1930s, Sligo's harbour became clogged with silt and the route was closed. For Fallon, it must have seemed like a cruel metaphor.

Throughout Sean Fallon's childhood, Sligo and Glasgow were linked by a direct steamer service. It was this boat that had taken his mother and father to Scotland, and undertaking the same voyage had become his great ambition. Then, in the 1930s, Sligo's harbour became clogged with silt and the route was closed. For Fallon, it must have seemed like a cruel metaphor.

By the summer of 1948, fears were growing that his grand dreams had been no more than childish fantasies. And he was right to be worried. Not many players reach their 26th birthday without a senior club and go on to enjoy a stellar career. Of Celtic's other Irish stars of the 1950s, Bertie Peacock made the move to Glasgow when he was still 20. Charlie Tully was 23, but had already been starring in professional football for half a decade. Fallon, by contrast, was wasting his mid-20s in a regional Irish league, playing in front of a handful of hardy enthusiasts. He did not cut the figure of a legend in the making.

But how had he found himself in this predicament? The raw talent, the athleticism and the competitive spirit were all there, and he had also managed to steer clear of major injuries. It was difficult to understand, therefore, why his quest to join Celtic had fallen so spectacularly behind schedule. The problem, I soon learned, was that there was no schedule. A man for whom the glass was always half-full, Fallon had been savouring all that Sligo offered – friends, family and sporting excellence – without devising an exit strategy. In fact, he was drifting contentedly towards becoming another Jumbo McCarrick: a local celebrity, a fine man and an impressive athlete, but a perennial amateur.

It is true that he was also a victim of circumstance. In 1940, just as he was turning 18, financial difficulties forced Sligo Rovers to dissolve temporarily and withdraw from the League of Ireland. A potential avenue directly into senior football with his hometown team had closed and would not reopen for another eight years. By then, Fallon had spent close to a decade in near-anonymity with St Mary's Juniors, Distillery and Longford Town.

However, he hadn't gone completely unnoticed. Indeed, one of the most revelatory discoveries in researching Fallon's story came in stumbling across this Sligo Champion article from September 6, 1947. What it confirmed was that his sluggish progress through the ranks had been a problem largely of his own making:

"Sean Fallon has been asked to sign for Shelbourne, Dublin. Sean declined this offer, however, as he prefers to remain an amateur. This very sturdy player will again don the Longford colours during 1947-48, operating in the Leinster Senior League."

It was a story I re-read several times, convinced that its three short sentences had to contain a rational explanation. Here was a chance to sign for a team that, just a few months before, had been crowned champions of Ireland. Better still, it would have taken him away from the west coast, where talent scouts rarely ventured, and east to the capital, within easy reach of Britain's football hubs – Glasgow included. Only Fallon himself could explain the seemingly inexplicable.

"Looking back at it now, it seems a strange decision even to me", said Fallon. "Why would you turn down the Irish champions to stay an amateur? But at that time, I just wasn't sure about leaving Sligo. I had a trade, I was doing well in the soccer and the Gaelic, and I was a home-bird at heart.

"A lot of people were leaving the town in those days, many of them going to America – my brother Padraig included – but I never felt the urge to get out. I loved Sligo and had a great life there, so going to Dublin didn't appeal to me. It was tempting, of course, because I had this aim of furthering myself. But maybe I just lacked a bit of ambition and confidence at that stage. The idea of playing for Celtic probably seemed like one of those dreams that so many people have, which always stay unfulfilled. It was only when I started playing for Sligo Rovers and realised that I could cope in League of Ireland without any problems that I convinced myself I had to give it a go."

Fallon, of course, succeeded in making up for lost time, and snubbing Shelbourne did not prove costly. But this episode led me to reassess the GAA's role in his story. Suddenly, it became clear that the Gaelic authorities were not villains, but heroes – however unwitting.

The ban on 'foreign games' was ludicrous, of course, and the star of Sligo's full-forward line had not been its first or most high-profile victim. Almost eight years earlier, Ireland's newly inaugurated president, Douglas Hyde, had made the short journey to Dalymount Park to watch the national soccer team beat Switzerland 4-0. The GAA viewed his attendance as an act of treachery, and responded by removing the head of state from its list of patrons.

Few memories irked Fallon more than his experience of this absurd intransigence. He therefore took some convincing when I suggested the GAA was owed a substantial debt of gratitude. But the evidence is compelling. Before the suspension, and by his own admission, Fallon had been no closer to dedicating his energies to football.

Though his ability in and enthusiasm for such a variety of sports was laudable, he was spreading himself too thin. The Gaelic hierarchy forced him into a decision he would never have arrived at unaided.

By Sunday, May 16, 1948, a month on from the fateful Kerry encounter, the benefits of his suspension were already becoming apparent. Sligo GAA were once again in action, although Fallon was naturally conspicuous by his absence as they were beaten by Donegal. Fortunately, he was otherwise occupied. That same afternoon, he found himself back in front of another big crowd at The Showgrounds, only this time as part of a Sligo soccer select drawing 2-2 with Dublin outfit Transport. The Sligo Champion singled him out for praise, remarking that he had been "a splendid partner for D. Rogers (previously of Shamrock Rovers)" and "played a great game".

This was encouraging. The mere fact that he was now featuring in the sports pages for his soccer exploits represented a significant development. Yet had this fixture clash arisen before his suspension, one wonders in what sport he would have represented his county. Would he have voluntarily walked away from Gaelic after his heroics against Kerry and the adulation that followed? Even Fallon had to admit it was as well that his hand had been forced.

He said: "The suspension will always annoy me, just because it was so stupid. But I can see it probably was a good thing because it played a big part in the way everything worked out over the next couple of years. It was after finishing with the Gaelic that I really started to focus on the soccer, and it was then that things started to take off for me. I was a late starter in senior football, so it can only have helped that I was able to focus completely on making the most of the time I had."

Nor could the streamlining of Fallon's options have come at a more opportune time. Sligo Rovers were within weeks of returning to the League of Ireland for the coming season, and a recruitment drive would soon be under way for this historic campaign. Fallon might have been better known in the town for his exploits in Gaelic football, but he had nonetheless been Longford Town's captain and star player for the past two seasons.

He had also been called up to play for a Leinster Senior League select against an equivalent team from the Scottish Intermediate League. And his father was on the Sligo Rovers board. If ever a transfer was inevitable, surely this was it.

Yet it spoke volumes that, less than two years before he joined Celtic, Fallon's status was such that he did not feature among the reformed Rovers' first batch of recruits. It was only on August 14, a fortnight after his 26th birthday, that he was belatedly signed up, albeit on amateur terms.

"After five months at Sligo Rovers, I'd played in six different positions. By the end of the season, I'd played every role bar goalkeeper and wing-forward. That wasn't good for my development because, by that stage, I was looking to nail down a position and perfect it as much as I could. But that was the nature of things that season, with the club still finding its feet. I just got on with it and, although I wasn't there long, I felt I did a decent job."

That assessment is borne out by the reports. Though his early progress at The Showgrounds was hampered by an ankle injury that would haunt him for years, he was quickly earning plaudits from the local press. By late September, playing in defence, he was described by The Sligo Champion as having "complete control of the inside-forwards" in a win at Limerick. A week later, he was patrolling the midfield and gaining positive reviews for his "well-manoeuvred passes".

Rovers ultimately ended the season second from bottom, although their campaign was regarded as a promising first step – and Fallon as one of its most striking success stories. A tireless and versatile player, he had made 34 appearances and scored five goals, leading The Sligo Champion to declare him "a certain for next season". Fallon, though, had his own, more ambitious plans.

An escape route presented itself following a 4-2 friendly win over Glenavon. Such was the impression Fallon made on Rovers' visitors that he was approached immediately after the match about a transfer. The offer entailed professional football, a significantly increased wage and, most enticing of all, a move to a region frequented far more often by British scouts. Yet, still, the home-bird wasn't quite ready to fly the nest.

Concerned that joining the Lurgan outfit might represent a move sideways, the 27-year-old advised Rovers that he would be prepared to spurn the northerners' advances. There was only one condition: he wanted a pay rise. The princely sum of ten shillings was all it would have taken to keep him at The Showgrounds.

"They knocked me back. Can you believe that? Instead of giving me those extra shillings, they went looking for a transfer fee of £200 from Glenavon, which they had a cheek doing since I was an amateur. At least I can laugh about it now.

"But you do wonder what might have been had they given me the rise I was looking for. I might not be talking to you now. I might never have left Sligo."

Like the GAA before them, Rovers ultimately found themselves in the role of accidental heroes. But while their parsimony prevented Fallon from staying, it was an act of great generosity that finally convinced him to leave.

"I was worried about giving up my job in the bakery. Work wasn't easy to come by in those days and if things at Glenavon didn't work out, where would that have left me? But Mr McArthur, Alec, God rest him, took me aside and told me not to let anything hold me back. He said he had faith in me, that I would make it, but that if for whatever reason I didn't, my job would be waiting for me when I came back. That was a tremendous gesture, and it put to rest the last few doubts I had.

"So I went back to Glenavon and told them, 'Ok, I'll sign – as long as you can get me a job in my own trade'. They agreed and were good to their word, fixing me up with a job as a foreman confectioner in Lurgan. By the time it was all agreed, I was actually looking forward to leaving Sligo. I would always miss it, and I was very homesick in those first couple of years away. But I wanted to test and improve myself, and I felt it would help me to finally stand on my own two feet."

Mature and motivated, Fallon had made a decisive move in leaving behind all that he held dear. It was to prove a step in the right direction, and a giant leap towards fulfilling his dream. Sligo's old steamer service to Glasgow never did resume, but another route to Scotland was about to be forged.

Sligo Champion

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