When I was a teenager, Bertie Peacock was a hero and idol in my part of Ireland. He was born in Killowen, in Coleraine, played a few games for the local football club in 1947, before being transferred to Glentoran, in Belfast, and on to Glasgow Celtic in 1949. There he made 450 appearances, together with 31 caps for Northern Ireland during 1952-62. He played in the 1958 World Finals in Sweden, when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals, a feat not since repeated.
In 1961, he returned to Coleraine as player/manager, culminating with winning the Irish Cup in 1965, at which I was present. Soon after, I migrated to Canada and lost touch with the exploits of the team, which had several more cup and league successes. Bertie retired in 1970, continued for a few years as manager, and eventually bought a local pub, which he named as ‘Bertie’s Bar’. He died in 2004.
When I recently visited the Coleraine graveyard, my brother showed me Bertie’s grave. He told me that there was now a statue of Bertie in the Diamond in the town.
It was my great-uncle Bill and Ronnie Wilson who first took me to see a Coleraine football match. Apart from the once-a-year North-west 200 motor cycle race and the horse racing in the fields beside Hopefield hospital, there was only local football to watch. Television was in its infancy and, apart from the FA Cup final, no football was broadcast live.
Ronnie used to work with my father. He was a few years older than me, and Uncle Bill used to drive us the four miles to Coleraine in his little Morris Minor 1000. Uncle Bill used to set off more than an hour before the kick-off, despite that there was never a crowd capacity of much more than 2000. We used to race along at about 30 mph, only slightly faster that uncle Bill would have driven his horse and cart; there was always a long line of reluctant followers behind us. He always parked in the same spot on Union Street. And the ground was practically empty when we took the same seats on the back row at the corner of the stand. Sometimes we had to wait outside until the man who operated the turnstile arrived. We never missed a kick-off.
My brother dropped me off near the town centre and I strolled the rest of the way along the pedestrian mall. The town centre that I remembered had much changed; it had been extensively rebuilt after the IRA bombings in the 1970’s. I stopped opposite the building where I used to work and took a photo of it. The quantity surveyors that I worked for – Dalzell & Campbell, probably no longer exists.
Close by, was the statue of Bertie Peacock, and reading the attached plaque was an older man. We started to talk, as do most Irish. I asked him what all the flags around the town were in mourning for. He told me that they had been put up to celebrate Coleraine being in the Cup Final on the coming Saturday. When I remarked that they all seemed to be in mourning at half-mast, he laughed and said that the men who put up the flags only had a short ladder.
It turned out that the man I was talking to used to play football and he had known Bertie Peacock. Not only that, he used to play for Coleraine. And to cap it all, he played in the Cup Final of 1965, which was the last game I saw, before I migrated to Canada. I was talking to Johnny McCurdy, the famed defender of the sixties and seventies, who still holds the club record for appearances at 634. After he retired from playing, he managed the club for a time.
We chatted for a long time about this, that and the other, and when we went on our separate ways, I felt as if I had never been away, and that all my wandering for the past fifty-two years had been but a dream. It was the same strong feeling of nostalgia that I always experience when I revisit my home country; of memories of happy and perhaps simpler times, tinged with a sadness that those days are gone forever, together with most of the people that I once knew.
I crossed the bridge and walked slowly back to my hotel, along the beautiful riverside walk.