The Leeside Legends series: Irish captain Noel Cantwell was a star for West Ham and Man United

The Leeside Legends series: Irish captain Noel Cantwell was a star for West Ham and Man United

Sir Matt Busby and Noel Cantwell lead Manchester United out at Wembley prior to 1963 FA Cup final against Leicester City.

NOEL CANTWELL was one of the best defenders ever to play for the Republic of Ireland and he began his rise to fame with a Junior club in Cork called Western Rovers.

In 1952 the sturdy full-back joined English first division club West Ham United for a fee of £750 and thereafter began to make his mark.

Over the next 14 years, Cantwell became one of the most outstanding defenders in England and attributed his remarkable success to the colourful influence of Malcolm Allison.

Cantwell never felt he would make the grade with West Ham but under Allison’s influence, he made huge strides in a short time.

Allison, the first player to take the FA coaching course at Lilleshall, shared his education with West Ham team-mates Cantwell, Dave Sexton, John Bond, Frank O’Farrell and Malcolm Musgrave.

All subsequently became successful managers and in 1958 Cantwell captained West Ham to the English Second division title.

It seemed that the affable Corkman was all set to spend his career at Upton Park but Manchester United had other ideas and put in a bid for him that the Hammers could not refuse.

Picture: Connolly collection/SPORTSFILE
Picture: Connolly collection/SPORTSFILE

When Cantwell moved to United in 1960 he did so for what then constituted a British record fee for a full back of £29,500 for a full-back.

Out of the transfer, Cantwell only received a mere £650, a miserly reward for eight years of dedicated service to the east London club.

Cantwell’s arrival at Old Trafford coincided with the creation of a new side to replace many of those who had lost lives in the Munich air crash.

It was not an easy time at Manchester United as players like Bobby Charlton, Shay Brennan and Wilf McGuinness had all seen their friends killed.

Alongside Noel Cantwell, players like Maurice Setters and David Herd were brought into fill the gap.

The new boys could sense that some of the players and many of the fans were wishing that it could be like the old days again.

During his eight years with Manchester United Cantwell captained them to FA Cup glory in 1963.

Noel was captain again when they won the league title two years later before he retired from United in 1966.

Cantwell also won 36 caps for the Republic of Ireland and was joint-highest scorer for his country with 14 international goals despite playing at full-back for most of his career.

England captain Bobby Moore and Republic of Ireland captain Noel Cantwell in 1964. Picture: Connelly Collection/Sportsfile
England captain Bobby Moore and Republic of Ireland captain Noel Cantwell in 1964. Picture: Connelly Collection/Sportsfile

Soon afterwards, he was appointed manager of Coventry City and in the 1969/70 season he led the Sky Blues to sixth place in the English First Division — their highest ever placing that guaranteed them a place in the UEFA Cup for the first time.

He was sacked by Coventry and was immediately snapped up by fourth division Peterborough United where the supporters regarded him as a local with his name getting chanted regularly on the terraces.

In 1977, Cantwell departed from Peterborough with two and half years of his contract to complete as along with his wife he wanted to run a hotel that the board of Peterborough felt would interfere with his football interests.

Much to the anger of the fans that board had given him the ultimatum and although he moved to America for a couple of years he eventually came back to Peterborough.

In 1986, when he was still only 54, he returned for a second stint at Peterborough staying for a couple of years before moving upstairs as General Manager until 1989.

Later, England’s Manager Sven Goran Erickson acknowledged Noel’s knowledge when enlisting his help as a scout.

Cantwell was back on Leeside for a nostalgic night of Cork soccer in January 2003 where he was guest of honour and speaker on that famous night.

In his autobiography, Bobby Charlton remembered his former teammate by saying: “I liked him as a man and if there is such a thing, he was a United type as sometimes his playing ability was overlooked but he was a defender of sheer class.”

Noel sadly passed away in September 2005 at the age of 73 and for a man who had a glittering career and fame he never forgot his roots in his beloved city of Cork.


Noel Cantwell was born in Cork in 1932 and began his soccer career with junior soccer club Western Rovers.

Cantwell joined West Ham in 1952 for a fee of £750 and won 36 full senior international caps for Ireland.

Cantwell joined Manchester United in 1960 from West Ham for a record English fee of £29,500 for a full-back.

He resided in Peterborough and was a member of English scouting panel under Sven Goran Eriksson.

Noel died in September 2005 at the age of 73.

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