Mick Fairclough in his Dundalk days (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Did you ever hear the one about the man who went from Annagassan to Brazil via Huddersfield?
Having been told by medics that his career was over at the tender age of 22, Mick Fairclough was forced to return home to the Wee County.
Many would have accepted their fate and simply eased into the background, found a different career path and lived their life ruing what might have been.
However, a chat with Jim McLaughlin, a rub off Bobby McGregor and a Herald headline seemed to do the trick as Fairclough, with a dodgy left knee, came back with an almighty bang after six-years out of the game.
Fairclough took a break from his holiday in Spain to watch former club Huddersfield Town’s nail-biting Championship play-off final victory over Reading last Monday week, which saw David Wagner’s team return to the top-flight for the first time since the 64-year-old’s debut season at the club in 1971-72.
He was 18 when he left Irish shores to join the Terriers. It was a big move for a young man who had just completed his Leaving Cert, however, the West Yorkshire town will always have a place in Fairclough’s heart for a variety of reasons, with the friendliness of the people one in particular.
His career at Huddersfield was relatively successful on a personal level seeing as he got to play on some of English football’s biggest stages, before a nasty knee injury brought his time in the professional game to a sudden halt.
Doubling his tally of international caps, winning the league and cup with Dundalk and managing to extend what had looked a forlorn career for almost a decade were all notable milestones on his extraordinary comeback trail.
But, perhaps, Fairclough’s most memorable contribution came when equalising against Tottenham in October 1981. Or was it scoring on his debut against Shamrock Rovers in Milltown a year beforehand?
In any case, Fairclough endeared himself to the Oriel Park patrons. He had a knack of scoring goals at just the right time, Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers en route to the 1981 FAI Cup are others to stand out.
Despite his injury and the heartbreak of having his shot at a professional footballing career in England devastated, things seemed to fall nicely into place for Fairclough, he concedes.
“I do actually think things worked out for the best,” Fairclough told the Dundalk Democrat.
“I don’t know what would have happened had I stayed in England or how far I would have gotten. That’ll remain an unknown.
“But, when the injury happened I was young enough to come home and make a career for myself.
“I was still able to play the football and keep up that end of it, not at the same level as the English game but I still had a lot of success playing with good teams. I always felt privileged to be able to play and to be able to come back and get a new career.
“I often wonder if I had have continued on, I would have finished at 30 or 35, in the days where you wouldn’t have been making that much or enough to retire for the rest of your life so in,” he added.
Ian Greaves was manager at that time he joined Huddersfield in 1971, and Fairclough acknowledges the impact Greaves had in his early months in England.
“He was very good to me,” the two-time Irish international said.
“I was still only 18 and I hadn’t left home before. In those days, it was a big thing to go over to England and compared to now there weren’t really that many Irish players who went across the water.
“It was a big thing, moving away from home, but he set me up in digs and he would check in with me to see how I was getting on and that type of stuff. When you think of it like that, I suppose he helped me settle in the way I did.
“He seemed to take a little bit of interest in me too; probably because I was one of the younger lads and away from home which was different to all the other young lads who would have mostly been English.
“I was nervous, of that there was no doubt, but it was something that I always wanted to do. It’s something that all lads want to do and I had the privilege of making that happen,” added Fairclough.
Huddersfield were certainly not synonymous with signing Irish players at the time, indeed it was on the advice of his coach at Drogheda United, Mick Meagan, that Fairclough headed for ‘Leeds Road’, despite some interest from Everton.
He admits to not knowing very much about Huddersfield itself before joining the club, although it didn’t take him too long to find his bearings, both in the town and on the pitch. Included in his meteoric rise was a goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
“I hadn’t a clue where it was,” he chuckled. I went over that August and I was in the first-team in November. Then, I was in the team on and off for most of that season
“Wolves were the first team I played against, I came on as a sub, and then I played against Southampton, Stoke, Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Crystal Palace.
“I remember scoring against Chelsea, John Dempsey was marking me that day and he managed Dundalk after that, following Jim McLaughlin’s departure, and I was sat with him one day and chatted about some of the grief he gave me,” he said with a smile.
“That was a tough team Chelsea had in those days with David Webb, ‘Chopper’ Harris and Dempsey and all those guys.
“That was probably the highlight of my time there. It was one of those times where you kind of had to pinch yourself to see if it was real and to add to it all I got an international cap with the Irish team as well (against the West German Olympic team).
It all happened in the space of about six-months,” he marvelled.
Huddersfield were relegated that season and, it was to get worse, with demotion to the third-tier to follow the year after; he could have been forgiven for looking to move elsewhere.
However, the Port Togher man denies, despite interest from Bolton and his former manager Greaves, a concrete offer was ever put on the table – this, all prior to his ‘career ending injury’.
Eight-days before Huddersfield visited Walsall, a game which would turn out to be his last for the club, Fairclough scored in a 1-0 win over Chesterfield – his final goal in professional football.
“I hadn’t considered going home but I was offered the chance to join Bolton the week I got the injury.
“Ian Greaves had moved to Bolton and he was actually watching me the day I got the injury and, as a fella says, ‘that was that for me’.
“It was just a very bad tackle. I did a full turn heading down the line and one of their guys came in way over the ball and caught me on the side of the knee. The knee collapsed sideways and damaged everything.
“I was in treatment for a long, long time and I never really got to come back after that. I went to see the surgeon and basically he told me that playing contact sports was something I shouldn’t do again,” reminisced Fairclough.
Coming home with nothing but his Leaving Cert, and his memories, Fairclough worked in every industry from selling insurance to roof cladding before coming across Jim McLaughlin one day; a meeting which he remembers fondly.
“I happened to meet Jim McLaughlin in Drogheda one day, it would have been around 1978, and he asked me what I was doing,” Fairclough recalls.
“Nothing, I said, which was true because I hadn’t played anything since I finished with Huddersfield. He told me to go up and see Bobby McGregor in Belfast, ‘he’s very good at that kind of thing’.
“So, Jim arranged for me to go up and see him, I met him and he didn’t seem to think my knee was as bad as I thought it was. I went up to see him for nearly two-years and he helped me get back to some sort of state where I could play football again.
“I only wanted to play again, I didn’t mind for who, and I ended up joining a team called CIE, at the back of the station in Drogheda.
“I scored six goals in one of the matches, I think we won 6-0, but there was a little piece in the Herald about it and the next week who appears on the sideline only Jim McLaughlin.
“He came over to me and asked if I’d be interested in joining Dundalk, which I was of course,” said Fairclough.
Asked what March 2, 1980 meant to him, an away day to Shamrock Rovers, the ex-attacker laughed.
“I put a lot of work in before that,” Fairclough chuckled.
“I think I played three or four games in the reserves before he put me on the bench for that game in Milltown. I came on and everyone knows the rest, I scored and it was another of those pinch yourself moments.”
As was his equaliser in the European Cup Winners’ Cup tie with Tottenham Hotspurs at Oriel Park, a goal he vividly recollects scoring.
“I’d a great time with Dundalk and there were some great European nights, especially the Tottenham game. That was probably the highlight,” he said.
“We actually should have won it. We were unlucky on a few occasions on that night too. Martin Lawlor would have won it on another night.
“The crowd were amazing, there were people sitting out on the track, I mean you’d never get away with it nowadays with health and safety.
“ I don’t know how many were there that night but there were a lot more than I think official figures said.
“Graham Roberts and Paul Millar were the two centre-backs and they were pressing us down along the area to the left of the stand.
“They were pushed up and Martin Lawlor won the ball and knocked a brilliant ball up the line for me to run in behind. Roberts was after me but I was pretty quick and got away from him, Clemence came out and I think I just hit it.
“It went in anyway and it was just fantastic, unbelievable. The place went crazy, just mad,” the IT manager with IBM said with a glare.
He could hardly have imagined things getting any better, however, they did when Eoin Hand chose him to tour South America with the Irish team in 1982 – a trip of a lifetime which saw him amass his second international cap against Chile. Infamously, Ireland were handed a 7-0 drubbing by Brazil on that trip too.
“I was over the moon to even get playing again but to get another international cap when playing for Dundalk was beyond my wildest dreams.
“The likes of Liam Brady was in the team and Eoin Hand was the manager. That was a privilege and, to me, the second time around was all the more sweeter because I was able to savour it.
“When you’re younger and it’s all happening around you, it’s all kind of happened before you really know. But, when you have time to actually savour it, the second time was that bit better,” Fairclough said.
And that was just it, his career was based on second chances. A career unlike many others.