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Friday 23 March 2018

Meet the Leicester player who had career destroyed by wrongful arrest over IRA murder

Gerry McGowan with Stephen Crumlish (left)
Gerry McGowan with Stephen Crumlish (left) Newsdesk Newsdesk

A Derry man - who had signed a professional contract with Leicester City and played alongside a young Gary Lineker - has spoken of how his career on the football field was snuffed out by his wrongful arrest over the murder of a soldier.

Gerry McGowan was one of the so-called Derry Four - a group of teenagers charged with the murder of Royal Welch Fusiliers officer Lieutenant Steven Kirby, who was shot dead by the Provisional IRA in February 1979 at Abercorn Road in the city.

Gerry, along with Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerard Kelly, was forced to a sign confession before skipping bail and crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland.

Protesting their innocence, they waited almost two decades before all charges were dropped and they could return home.

In that time, Mr McGowan saw his dreams of becoming a top-flight footballer snatched away.

Considered a real prospect, Gerry trained alongside future England striker Gary Lineker. Both were given contracts by Leicester City and shared the same digs.

Indeed, many who saw them play described the Creggan native as a better footballer. A left centre midfielder he was of a mould similar to Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs or former Northern Ireland international Keith Gillespie.

His prospects ended when he became homesick and was given permission to go back to Northern Ireland in January 1979.

It was on Valentine's Day 1979 that Fusilier Kirby was killed.

Mr McGowan, arrested for the murder,  subsequently went on the run, his mother dying while he was in hiding in the Republic.

Speaking on Thursday morning's BBC Stephen Nolan show, he said being offered a professional contract three days into a trial with Leicester City was "beyond his wildest dreams".

He said he could never forget his time with Lineker and Leicester "everytime he bought a pack of crisps or watched Match of the Day".

He spoke of how "it all came crashing down very abruptly" when at 17 he got homesick and went back to Derry.

He woke up in bed in 1979 surrounded by soldiers and RUC officers. He and the other three were taken to Strand Road police station and allegedly interviewed by 12 officers.

He said he laughed when police said they were arresting him for "being a terrorist".

And that coming from the Creggan area it was considered a "right of passage" being arrested and that he would be telling the story to his mates by lunch time that day.

But with threats made against his family and intimidation he later signed a false confession to murder of a soldier.

He said it was a "great solace to his parents" that they knew he was not involved, because at the very time of the murder he was sat with them watching This is your Life featuring the footballer Kevin Keegan.

"Later I apologised to my parents for signing that false statement and all that that brought upon our family," he said.

"The minute I was arrested it was all gone. I've got over that my soccer dream has gone. But the case hasn't been resolved after 38 years.

"Someone has to say sorry, they know they were in the wrong."

Belfast Telegraph

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