NOEL Euchuria Cornelius Cantwell was born on 28 February, 1932, in the Mardyke area of Cork and was educated at St Joseph’s Primary School and later at the Roman Catholic Presentation Brothers College in his home city.
The young Cantwell was a talented footballer, an excellent cricketer, a good rugby player and an all-round athlete. He started his football career with Western Rovers in a local Cork-based League before moving to League of Ireland side Cork Athletic.
When he was growing up in Cork, Noel’s favourite team was Manchester United and he wanted to be just like United’s Irish captain, Johnny Carey. Whether it was playing football or rugby, the young Cantwell was a handful for most opponents, his broad shouldered frame standing 6 feet tall and weighing 13 stones, 3 lbs.
In January 1948, Frank O’Farrell, who was born in Cork, left Cork United and joined West Ham United. During the summer months O’Farrell would return home to Ireland and to keep himself fit he would often make guest appearances for Cork Athletic alongside his Hammers team-mate Tommy Moroney. Moroney was also from Cork and had joined West Ham United from Cork United in the summer of 1947. Following a friendly game against Birmingham City, a game in which O’Farrell, Moroney and Cantwell all played for Cork Athletic, the two Hammers suggested to their manager, Ted Fenton, that the East End club should take a look at Cantwell.
Fenton immediately contacted Noel’s father hoping to persuade Cantwell Snr. to allow Noel to travel to London for a trial. Noel’s dad wanted his son to become an insurance salesman. At the time Noel was playing rugby for Cork Constitution and was undecided what sport, if any, he wished to commit to.
In the end Fenton was able to convince Cantwell senior that Noel would be in good hands in London as he already had two other Cork men at the club. Fenton finally got his man after paying Cork Athletic £750 for Noel in September 1952 with Noel receiving £150 from the transfer.
When he arrived in London it was Moroney who took Cantwell under his wing and helped the 20-year old Irishman settle in at Upton Park by allowing him to live with him. Moroney became a mentor to Noel and all around him he was influenced by his more experienced team-mates including O’Farrell, Moroney, Malcolm Allison (club captain), John Bond, Malcolm Musgrove and Dave Sexton.
All of these players except Moroney and Musgrove went on to manage a club in the English First Division whilst two of them, O’Farrell (1971-72) and Sexton (1977-81), later became the manager of Manchester United. Meanwhile, Messrs Allison and Bond would later manage Manchester City. Noel was enjoying life in London and playing football for a club whose football philosophy was a stylish passing game.
Just over a year after crossing the Irish Sea he made his international debut for the Republic of Ireland on 28th October 1953 versus Luxembourg at Dalymount Park, Dublin. The Irish beat the visitors 4-0 in a qualifying game for the 1954 Fifa World Cup Finals in Switzerland. He scored his first goal for his country whilst still a West Ham United player, finding the net against the reigning World Champions, West Germany, in a memorable 3-0 win at Dalymount Park on 25th November 1956. Cantwell opened the scoring for the Irish from the penalty spot in the 62nd minute and was voted Man of the Match. In season 1957-58, he captained the Hammers to the Division Two Championship (33 League games, four goals) and promotion to Division 1.
Noel then represented a London XI side which participated in the 1955-58 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. In the two-legged Final, London XI drew 2-2 with FC Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in the 1st leg (Cantwell did not play) but the Spanish side won the 2nd leg 6-0 at Camp Nou, a game Noel did play in. FC Barcelona won the inaugural Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 8-2 on aggregate. In season 1958-59, he was extremely proud to be voted the Irish Footballer of the Year.
Whereas most professional footballers went on holiday during the close season, Noel liked nothing better than playing his second favourite sport, cricket. He learned to play cricket as a young boy on the historic Mardyke, a huge open space in Cork situated on the northern half of the long western part of the island formed by the two channels of the River Lee near the city centre. Noel would return home to Cork when the football season ended and play for his local cricket team, Cork Bohemians Cricket Club.
Cantwell was a fine cricketer, a left-handed batsman and a right arm medium pace bowler. He was an opening batsman for Cork Bohemians and played middle order for his country making him a dual international. Noel was a better batsman than he was a bowler and could methodically build a large run rate as he selectively chose when to attack with the bat and when to defend. However, he also possessed an uncanny knack of being able to take vital wickets at key moments in matches for club and country. Given his athletic prowess he was no slouch and was an excellent fielder.
Noel played five times for Ireland between 1956 and 1959, making his international debut against Scotland in 1956. It was his solitary first-class match for his country and he scored 31 and 17. His fifth last appearance for the Irish came in 1959 versus Lancashire.
After making 248 appearances for West Ham United, scoring 11 goals, Matt Busby paid a world record fee for a full-back, £29,500, to bring Cantwell to Old Trafford in November 1960. Cantwell was 28-years old when he joined Manchester United and Busby not only bought him for his outstanding ability but because he was also very well respected by his fellow professionals. Noel was a gentleman on and off the pitch in the same mould as boyhood hero, the legendary Johnny Carey, was and Busby knew he was the right player to build his third great Manchester United team around alongside Munich Air Disaster survivors, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg and Dennis Viollet.
He made his debut for United at left-back on 26th November 1960 in a 3-0 First Division away defeat at Cardiff City. However, this was not actually his first game in a United shirt as he had played for United in a friendly against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford five days earlier, helping his new club to a 3-1 victory. His arrival at Old Trafford meant that Busby’s favoured left-back, Shay Brennan, was switched to right-back meaning a move to centre-half for the versatile Bill Foulkes.
In his first full season at Old Trafford, 1961-62, he only managed to play in 17 League games, scoring two goals. Strangely one of his two goals came wearing the famous United number nine shirt when he was played at centre forward in three of the last four League games of the season. Busby appointed Noel team captain for the 1962-63 season which proved to be an up and down campaign for both Noel and United.
The Big Freeze that winter did not help either with games up and down the country cancelled due to the severe weather conditions. Cantwell played in 25 of United’s 42 League games, scoring 1 goal, with United avoiding relegation to Division 2 thanks to a 1-1 draw with neighbours, Manchester City, at Maine Road on 15th May 1963.
City and Leyton Orient (who were playing the only season of top flight football in their history) were relegated at the end of the season. Ten days after the Manchester Derby, United were at Wembley for the end of season finale, the FA Cup final. Manchester United put their indifferent League form behind them on the day and beat favourites Leicester City 3-1. Two-thirds of the way through season 1963-64, Noel suffered an injury which saw fellow Irish international Tony Dunne take over his left-back duties. Noel only played in two League games in Manchester United’s Division 1 Championship winning season in 1964-65, both outings at centre forward.
He was as good a striker as he was a defender and scored in the first of these two games, a 4-2 away win over Birmingham City on 19th April 1965 in the fourth last game of the campaign. He had previously been used as an emergency striker by United in April 1961 and also by the Republic of Ireland. In February 1965, he joined the Management Committee of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the trade union for professional footballers. Noel was well respected in the corridors of power at the PFA HQ and in 1966 succeeded his old West Ham United team-mate, Malcolm Musgrove, as the Chairman of the PFA.
After Manchester United won the First Division Championship in 1966-67 (he only played four league games), Noel decided that after almost seven years at Old Trafford, 144 games and eight goals, it was time for him to try his luck in football management. In October 1967, he had to give up his position as Chairman of the PFA to become the new manager of Coventry City. When he walked through the doors of Highfield Road he had the almost impossible task of succeeding Jimmy Hill who had guided the Sky Blues to the Third Division Championship in 1963-64 and the Second Division Championship in 1966-67.
Hill had left Coventry City the day before the 1967-68 season kicked off to begin a new career in television. Cantwell stayed with Coventry City for almost five years, steering them to a sixth place finish in Division 1 in season 1969-70 (which earned them qualification for the 1970-71 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup; one year before this competition became the Uefa Cup).
On 12th March 1972, Coventry City handed him the sack with the Chairman citing the club’s recent run of poor results as the reason for showing Noel the door at Highfield Road. “We want jam today, not tomorrow” said the Sky Blues Chairman whilst a deflated Cantwell, experiencing failure for the first time in his career said: "The sack came as quite a shock. I had no idea what to do for a living. For seven months I was kicking my heels."
However, what Cantwell did at Coventry City may never be repeated having led the team to their highest ever League finish (sixth in Division 1 in 1969-70) and managing the club for their first, and to date, only ever season in European football (1970-71). Although the Sky Blues won the 1987 FA Cup Final they were denied a place in the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup because of the five year European ban imposed on English clubs by Uefa following the Heysel Disaster in 1985.
Cantwell was also the boss of Coventry City when Ernie Hunt famously scored his 'Donkey Goal' against Everton in October 1970.
Next up was Fourth Division Peterborough United in October 1972 with Cantwell guiding The Posh to the Championship in his first full season at London Road, 1973-74, and promotion to the Third Division. Noel was idolised by the Peterborough United fans who nicknamed the genial Irishman 'The Messiah' during his five years with the club. He left Peterborough United on 10th May 1977 and decided to follow a number of former players from the English Leagues across the Atlantic to America and try his luck in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Cantwell made his to Foxboro, Massachusetts to coach the New England Tea Men from 1977-78 followed by a coaching stint at the Jacksonville Tea Men (NASL, 1980-82).
Whilst at the New England Team Men Cantwell’s assistant coach was Dennis Viollet who was in the Manchester United side when Noel made his debut for the club. On 20th November 1986, he made a return to The Posh for a second spell as their manager i (serving as General Manager from July 1988-89). After his football career ended, Noel managed the New Inn public house in Peterborough for 10 years and retired in 1999. He had also previously taken over the landlord tenancy at The Bull and Swan in Stamford, Peterborough.
During his playing career, Noel won 36 full International caps for the Republic of Ireland (the vast majority at left-back and a few at centre forward, 19 of them when he was a Manchester United player). His final appearance for his country was an away game in Turkey on 22nd February 1967 in a qualifying match for the 1968 European Championships to be hosted by Italy.
Noel scored a late consolation goal for the Irish (89th minute) in their 2-1 loss. In total he scored 14 international goals which was a record number of goals for his country at the time, including five from penalties giving him a very impressive goals to games ratio of 39%. Noel also captained the Republic on 22 occasions including a match versus England at Wembley Stadium on 8th May 1957. England won 5-1 in a qualifying game for the 1958 Fifa World Cup Finals in Sweden.
He also managed the Republic of Ireland national side from 1967-68 and was regarded as a natural successor to Sir Matt Busby for the job of Manchester United manager when the Great Man decided to retire in 1969. Noel Cantwell died aged 73 on 8th September 2005, after a long battle against cancer. All of his former teams each held a minute of silence in memory of him before their next games. He was the first player from United’s triumphant 1963 FA Cup winning side to die.
Following his death, John Delaney the Chief executive of the FAI, said: "Noel Cantwell was one of the great characters not only of football but of Irish sport in general. He was a great inspiration to those who played alongside him whether for club or country. On behalf of the FAI and the family of football in Ireland I extend sincere sympathy to Noel's family and friends. May he rest in peace."
His funeral service at Peterborough Cathedral witnessed one of the largest ever crowds gathered in the city, with numerous football legends in attendance such was the high esteem he enjoyed in the game and in his adopted home city.
In his autobiography Bobby Charlton remembered his former team-mate fondly saying: "The signing of Noel Cantwell from West Ham United in November 1960 was one of the club's more positive and successful moves. Noel was a big handsome man, a natural sportsman. My appreciation of Noel Cantwell was much more straightforward.
"I liked him as a man and, if there was such a thing, I thought he was a United type. I also admired him as a player... sometimes the quality of his playing ability was overlooked, but he was a defender of considerable class, strong on the left side and with a very nice touch. When he led us out for the 1963 cup final, I thought, 'This is good - we have a real captain'."