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Obituary: Christy Whelan

Sean Ryan recalls the former League of Ireland player and pillar of the sports community

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Football figure: Christy Whelan

Football figure: Christy Whelan

Football figure: Christy Whelan

Christy Whelan, who died aged 89 last month after a long illness, was a prominent figure on the Irish football scene for the last 60-plus years. It was inevitable, really, as he was the eldest of three boys who all had fine careers in the game, one of whom became a legend.

Christy and John were prominent in the League of Ireland in the 1950s and '60s with Transport and Drumcondra respectively - but Liam, who was four years younger than Christy, was a leading member of Manchester United's Busby Babes and tragically died, aged 22, in the 1958 Munich air disaster.

When the boys' father died in 1943, Christy took over as the man of the house, and John recalls being brought to Croke Park, Dalymount Park and Leopardstown by his big brother.

"I might have been in Croke Park for the primary school sports, but he brought me to see the big games."

Christy also took a special interest in Liam's career, attending all his games, and wondering what Liam had to do to get a move to England. He had been centre-forward on the Irish schoolboy team that beat England 8-4 in Liverpool in 1951 and saw most of his teammates signed by cross-channel clubs, but until Billy Behan called to the family home in Cabra in 1954, there had been no interest shown in Liam.

Christy adopted his father- figure role on that occasion, recalls John, making it clear to the Manchester United scout that Liam would not be going for any trials. United, who were in the FA Youth Cup final and had lost their star striker, agreed, and Liam was signed on a professional contract, helped United win the Youth Cup, and thus began his short but illustrious spell at Old Trafford.

Surprisingly, Christy never played schoolboy football, but he stood out in games on the playgrounds of the North City. He worked in Dublin Corporation and his first team was Cabra Rovers U-18s, before lining out for the Corporation team, Municipal.

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Christy Whelan's brother Liam, a Busby Babe who died in the 1958 Munich air disaster

Christy Whelan's brother Liam, a Busby Babe who died in the 1958 Munich air disaster

Christy Whelan's brother Liam, a Busby Babe who died in the 1958 Munich air disaster

 

"He was always a left-half," recalls John, "but he was a two-footed player, left or right was no bother to him."

Drumcondra signed him, promising that an amateur cap would follow, but when the cap did not materialise, Christy left the Tolka Park outfit and signed for Transport.

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Bunny Fullam, the hard-tackling Drums' full-back, who was never short of an opinion, once said of Christy: "If he could head a ball, he'd have been better than Liam."

Every chance Christy got, he went over on the Holy- head boat on Saturday to see Liam in action, and he became friendly with a number of the United stars as Bobby Charlton was living with Liam at that time.

The night of the crash, John recalled how a Fr Mulholland, who was a great friend of Liam, phoned through a neighbour two doors away that Liam had been found and he was dead. "Christy was bawling crying."

It was while working on the roads in Howth that Christy met his wife Hilda, who was a sister of Transport striker Johnny McGeehan.

"He'd see her going up and down to the shops and he'd say, 'Don't forget to bring me back something,' and that was the start of it," says John.

At the time, Hilda worked in the Theatre Royal and Christy and his pals were regulars at the Sunday variety show, so she got to know him through that.

Christy became player- manager of Transport and then manager-coach of Howth Celtic, and later manager of Killester Basketball when his girls played there, and he was also ahead of his time as manager and coach of the Castle United team when his daughter Bridget played for them in the Civil Service League, a forerunner to the Women's National League.

I will always remember him, though, as the Keeper of the Flame for the legend that was Liam Whelan. Liam had only four seasons with Manchester United but he won two league titles, was their Man of the Match in a losing cup final in 1957 when a reshuffle through injury to goalkeeper Ray Wood saw him playing left-half, and he had a phenomenal scoring record of a goal every two games.

A welcoming figure from his regular seat in the stand at Dalymount on match days, Christy was always available to remind us of Liam's feats, of what Matt Busby thought of him, of what Bobby Charlton thought of him, and of the kind of person he was, able to say, as the plane attempted to take off for the third and last time in Munich: "If we don't make it, I'm ready."

Christy is survived by his wife Hilda and daughters Bridget, Deirdre and Hilda, and he was pre-deceased by his son Christopher.


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