Leeside Legends: Even when captaining Man United, Noel Cantwell never forgot his Cork roots

Dave Hannigan profiles one of Cork’s greatest sporting ambassadors
Leeside Legends: Even when captaining Man United, Noel Cantwell never forgot his Cork roots

Noel Cantwell, one of Cork’s greatest ever sporting ambassadors, leads Manchester United out at Wembley in the 1963 FA Cup final.

THE most famous photograph of Noel Cantwell shows him casually tossing the FA Cup above his head at Wembley. Having just led Manchester United to a 3-1 victory over Leicester City, there is a look of manic glee on his face. On either side, his teammates Bobby Charlton, Tony Dunne, David Herd and Albert Quixall appear visibly stunned by the brazen act of celebration.

They are staring wide-eyed, mouths agape, at their captain flinging about what was then one of the most revered trophies in English football. Moments after the snap was taken, Cantwell got a tap on the shoulder from a stadium commissionaire reprimanding him for his cavalier treatment of the precious silverware.

“Don’t worry,” replied Cantwell. “I knew I would be able to catch it, I play cricket for Ireland.”

That sort of innate self-confidence was one of the reasons Matt Busby had appointed him captain almost as soon as he signed from West Ham United in 1960. By the time three years later that United salvaged a disastrous season — relegation had been a real possibility for long spells — by defeating Leicester in the showpiece of the English season, Cantwell was leading a side that contained outsized characters like Charlton, Paddy Crerand, Johnny Giles, Denis Law, Dunne and Bill Foulkes. Nobody doubted he was equal to the task of leading them. At Upton Park, he’d practically been manager Ted Fenton’s first lieutenant for years.

“Basically, Ted let the players gets on with it,” recalled Vic Keeble, West Ham striker at the time. “Noel, our skipper, would always be the one to start off. We’d have a talk at the beginning of the week and talk about Saturday’s game. Ted would always ask Noel what he thought.”

On one occasion, Fenton had sought Cantwell’s counsel about a particularly thorny selection problem. A few weeks into the 1958 season, an injury crisis meant there were only two choices to partner Cantwell in the centre of defence. Newly-promoted to Division One, the manager was torn between recalling Malcom Allison, a veteran recently recovered from TB, or handing a first competitive start to an untried 17 year old called Bobby Moore. Cantwell and Allison were best pals but that didn’t colour his judgment. Moore made his debut that weekend and Allison never got to start a single match in the top flight.

Born on December 28, 1932, Noel Euchuria Cornelius Cantwell grew up near the Mardyke, an appropriate address for one who would become both a soccer and cricket international. Having cut his teeth in schoolboy football with Western Rovers, he captained the Irish Youths’ team before making a peculiar transition to the senior ranks. According to legend, he was working on his stroke in the nets at Cork County Cricket Club when a messenger from Cork Athletic was dispatched to offer him his first professional break. Athletic, for whom his older brother Frank played, were a man short for a Shield game against Waterford United and Cantwell’s proximity earned him his debut.

The move from Ireland to England came in equally odd circumstances.

“West Ham had two players from Cork, Tommy Moroney and Frank O’Farrell, who used to come home during the summer and play friendlies to boost the coffers of the local schoolboys’ associations,” said Cantwell. “I played with them for the representative team and used to do reasonably well, but I never had big ambitions or intentions. But they asked if I’d be interested in coming to England and recommended me to Ted Fenton. I was getting £3 a week playing for Cork when Ted came over to try and sign me. He negotiated a fee of £750, of which I got £150 and I felt like a millionaire.”

He must have felt like a millionaire because he’d been supplementing his football earnings with work in a Birmingham factory when Fenton came calling in the summer of 1952. Although in time it appeared the Londoners had picked up a bargain, the early going was tough. Living in digs with Moroney, the 19-year-old new arrival spent his first season failing to convince as a centre-forward in the club’s A team.

“I didn’t have many qualities as a centre-forward other than aggression,” said Cantwell. “I was thin and skinny and there was nothing to excite anybody so I spoke to Tommy about my lack of progress and said I was probably more suited to being a defender. Ted Fenton gave me a try at left-back, I showed promised and he blooded me in the first team at the end of my first season.”

How quickly he progressed in the course of 12 months was demonstrated by his selection at centre-half for his international debut against Luxembourg in October 1953.

Over the course of eight years at Upton Park, Cantwell played 263 first-team games and scored 11 goals. He captained the side that won the old Division Two in 1958, and the same year, played on a star-studded London XI (including Johnny Haynes, Danny Blanchflower and Jimmy Greaves) that was beaten in the two-legged final of the Fairs Cup by Barcelona. In those fledgling days of European competition, it was a tournament so novel and prestigious that the games at Stamford Bridge and the Camp Nou were watched by over 100,000.

It was during his stint in East London that Cantwell spent the close-seasons indulging his other sporting interest and earning that rarest of accolades, international honours in two codes.

“Two of his brothers, Frank and Gerry, played interprovincial cricket for Munster,” wrote Ger Siggins, Irish cricket historian. “But he picked up five Ireland caps from 1956 to 1959 when he was summering back home in Cork. A left-hand bat with Bohemians, his second cap against the 1957 West Indians saw him record a glorious dismissal — caught Frank Worrell, bowled Garfield Sobers 0. His highest score came against New Zealand the next summer when he made 40.”

There was a contract offer to play county cricket for Essex but Cantwell reportedly turned it down because it would have meant spending 12 months a year in England and deprived him of his restorative summers in Cork. In any case, he was blossoming on and off the field at West Ham. He had fallen in with a cerebral bunch of footballers who thought seriously about the game they played, had certain ideas about changing it and time on their hands to debate the process.

After training, the West Ham players would repair to Bienvenuto Al Café Cassettari, an eaterie near Upton Park, for which the club had provided them with vouchers. At various times, the members of what became fondly known as the West Ham Academy included Cantwell, John Bond, Dave Sexton, Malcolm Allison, fellow Corkonian Frank O’Farrell and Jimmy Andrews, all of whom would go on to manage, with different degrees of success. Using salt cellars and pepper shakers, they questioned every orthodoxy and changed prevailing attitudes in the English game.

“We were getting away from the big hobnailed, toe-capped, dubbined boot and soon we were playing in lightweight boots and the day had gone when we had big shin pads,” said Cantwell. “Teams didn’t warm up before games — they got stripped five minutes before they went out and embarrassingly kicked the ball around — but we would go into the gym at quarter past two and have a fairly good workout and come back out then and get prepared. 

"The weight-training gave you tremendous confidence. You felt stronger and you felt good. How one looks and how one appears is always very important. I think it helped when we got away from the baggy shorts and got all the good gear.”

West Ham 1958: Back: Ken Browne, Malcolm Allison, John Bond, Ernie Gregory, Noel Cantwell, Andy Malcolm. Front: Mike Grice, Ken Tucker, Billy Dare, Vic Keeble, Malcolm Musgrove.
West Ham 1958: Back: Ken Browne, Malcolm Allison, John Bond, Ernie Gregory, Noel Cantwell, Andy Malcolm. Front: Mike Grice, Ken Tucker, Billy Dare, Vic Keeble, Malcolm Musgrove.

That holistic approach meant Cantwell took his own shorts to wear on Ireland duty because he reckoned the international kit was sub-standard. When Manchester United paid £29,500 to bring him to Old Trafford in November, 1960, they were getting somebody with a burgeoning reputation as a leader and a man of character. With United still in rebuilding mode after Munich, the new boy was shocked at the old-fashioned way the fabled club was being run. He had moved from the epicenter of a modern footballing revolution to a place firmly rooted in habits that were pre-War.

“One afternoon, Noel Cantwell started to talk to me in the bath after training,” wrote Eamon Dunphy in A Strange Kind of Glory. “ ‘Is that it,’ he asked of the training routine. I told him it was. He was incredulous. I was Irish, he could confide in me. Doesn’t anybody ever talk about the game here? Why isn’t the training organised? What about ballwork? Do you ever see Busby? Doesn’t anybody think about the game? Was that it? A bit of running, head tennis and ‘round the back’ for a bloody free for all. The frustration poured out of him. He shook his head in disbelief as I assured him that, yes, that was it, and, no, there wasn’t any talking about the game.”

Manchester United captain Noel Cantwell celebrates the 3-1 win against Leicester City. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
Manchester United captain Noel Cantwell celebrates the 3-1 win against Leicester City. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images

Cantwell overcame the initial shock and endeared himself to the fans by doing emergency service at center-forward, left-half, inside-left, outside-left and centre-half. Within a couple of seasons, he was being talked about in hushed tones as a possible replacement for Busby when the great Scot finally called it a day.

“He was almost like a general on the battlefield,” said Busby. “He was a great and versatile player, a wonderful marshall. He was one of the best informed theorists and thinkers in the game. His influence on other players ran right down the line, from the top internationals to the lads on the ground staff. He successfully ‘fathered’ such greats as Denis Law, Harry Gregg, Pat Crerand, Johnny Giles and Bobby Charlton. And talking of versatility, he was the personification of the word. One day he would be at full-back for United and, two days later, at centre-forward for his country. One day he is going to carve himself a new future as a great manager.”

The 1963 Cup final victory was followed by a row over money, perhaps inevitable at a notoriously low-paying club where all first-teamers on £25 per week plus a fiver for every league match played. Later the following season, Cantwell was involved in a personal showdown with the team trainer Jack Crompton, the dispute stemming from dressing-room unrest about the primitive training techniques.

“It was a strange dressing-room when you think about it,” said Cantwell of United the '60s. “You’d be standing, stripping and talking to people every day, maybe five days a week and half of them did not get on very well together.”

In any case, his influence was fading. In 1965, he became the first Cork soccer player to write an autobiography, United We Stand — but by then he had been relegated to the status of a fringe player, managing just two starts in the league-winning campaign that season. Although his tally of 144 appearances over seven years tells the story of an Old Trafford career that began to fade over time, he had done enough to be commemorated in song, his personal hymn rendered to the tune of The First Noel.

“The great Noel…Matt Busby would say….would captain United on cup final day…in ’63 we beat Leicester City…Noel Cantwell our skipper that day…Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel…that was the name of our hero Cantwell.”

24 May 1964; Noel Cantwell, Republic of Ireland, in action against Jimmy Greeves, England. Picture: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
24 May 1964; Noel Cantwell, Republic of Ireland, in action against Jimmy Greeves, England. Picture: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

With Ireland, whom he managed as interim boss for one game in 1968, his popularity arguably peaked on the occasion of his 30th cap at Dalymount Park on May 5, 1965. Up to the 63rd minute of a World Cup qualifier against reigning European champions Spain, Cantwell had struggled to make an impact. Pressed into service from the outset as an emergency centre-forward -a tactic so successful he finished his international career with a stunning 14 goals in 36 appearances — he waited in the penalty box for Frank O’Neill to send in a free-kick from the right. O’Neill put the ball too close to the keeper, Jose-Angel Iribar, but Cantwell made a play for it anyway.

As was his style when in the opposing area, he had earlier charged into Iribar and got a mouthful of abuse back. This time he ran straight at the Spanish keeper, shouting insanely as he did so and causing the visitor to fumble the match winning goal into the net. The Spaniards were outraged at the manner of the defeat and the embarrassment caused to Iribar, a player reckoned at that time to be second only to the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin in his position. They exacted sweet revenge later that year, beating Ireland 1-0 in a playoff in Paris, ending Cantwell’s last hope of reaching a major finals.

“Matt Busby didn’t always approve of us going off to play for Ireland, especially if it was a friendly and United had a midweek match,” said Cantwell, by way of explaining a few of his untimely absences from squads. “You might develop a twinge you never knew you had.”

During his last season at Old Trafford, his leadership qualities were acknowledged in another forum when he was elected chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). He relinquished the union job in 1967 to succeed Jimmy Hill as manager of Coventry City. 

Then Coventry City manager Noel Cantwell.
Then Coventry City manager Noel Cantwell.

Essentially, his task was to keep a newly-promoted but very average City side in Division One. He promoted fellow Corkonian Pat Saward from coach to assistant manager, and, having avoided relegation in his first two seasons, Coventry finished sixth in 1970, their highest league position, which gave them a ticket to the Fairs Cup.

Their stint in the Fairs Cup wasn’t enough to save him from the sack in 1972. Later that year, he took over as manager of Peterborough, an outfit then rooted to the bottom of the old Fourth Division, the worst-placed club in England. Cantwell brought some brio even to that humble role. “There is only one way to go now,” he told the press, “and that’s up!” He was true to his word. At the end of his first full season in charge they won the Fourth Division championship. Newspaper reports tell of him celebrating afterwards with champagne in hand and a massive cigar in his mouth. No matter how far he strayed off-Broadway, he never lost the flair for the big stage.

After close to five years at Peterborough, Cantwell followed a lot of veteran players of that era out to America to sample the opportunities on offer in the country’s then booming North American Soccer League (NASL). He managed the New England Teamen and Jacksonville Teamen before returning to Peterborough for two more stints in the late eighties, Having served for one match as interim Ireland boss in 1968, he was interviewed for the job the time Jack Charlton edged out Bob Paisley. He later sampled life as a professional publican before Dave Sexton made him part of the English FA’s scouting team whose job it was to run the rule over players and opponents for Sven-Goran Eriksson.

An unsentimental character who auctioned most of his football medals in 1995, the one constant in Cantwell’s peregrinations appears to have been Cork.

Right up until his death, following a battle with cancer in 2005, Cantwell never forgot where he learnt the game. Whether it was to play a testimonial for a League of Ireland player or to present trophies for the Cork Schoolboys’ League, he was always readily available to fly home. Back in his pomp at Old Trafford he’d once persuaded Matt Busby to allow him represent a select XI in a friendly against a Jerry Lane XI at the schoolboy pitch in Togher. No better example of his silver-tongue and common touch.

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