John Cleary, right, scored the winning penalty in the FAI Cup final
Today, May 1, marks the three-decade anniversary of Dundalk FC's FAI Cup final victory over Derry City at Dalymount Park, where John Cleary's 72nd-minute penalty not only claimed the Cup, but completed only the second double-winning season in the club's history.
Cleary, in his second stint at Dundalk having been sold in 1986 by manager Turlough O'Connor, only to be brought back from St. Patrick's Athletic a year later, dispatched perhaps the most controversial spot-kick in Irish football history in front of over 20,000 in Phibsborough.
“I remember everything, absolutely everything,” says Cleary when asked. “Martin Bayly on Larry Wyse,” he quips.
Despite the fact that there were no appeals in the ground, match referee John Spillane deemed Bayly to have impeded Wyse as he chased a ball which was spinning out towards the touchline. And, much to the surprise of all present, he shrilled firmly on his whistle as Derry went ballistic.
“Being honest with you, it was harsh,” adds the scorer, who wrote his name into club folklore as a result.
“I had a drink with Martin Bayly about a year ago and he actually brought it up, slagging. He said: ‘You done me out of it, a Cup medal’.”
Stepping up for the penalty, Cleary remembers a fair bit of “heckling”. This, added to the fact that he faced the Derry end, applied further pressure to him. But, then again, could he really have been doubted? The club's penalty-taker, he never missed one.
“I just concentrated and says to myself, ‘make sure this goes in because it might be the last chance of the game’. Lucky enough I stuck it away and it was pure ecstasy, the place erupted and I turned to the Derry end first before I turned to the Dundalk end,” he chuckles.
He ranks that victory above any other in his career, mainly as it completed a unique double for a team he greatly admires. Having name-checked almost every component of the squad, he pinpointed their leadership qualities as their most significant trait.
Originally signed by Tommy Connolly, via the input of Mick Leech, in 1985, he would spend just the solitary season at Oriel Park. However, his debut came against Glasgow Celtic and he impressed. He even recalls Danny McGrane calling him one of the toughest men he had ever faced.
But little did he know that the Scottish giants had made an offer for him which The Lilywhites refused, believing it to be below the player's value. Leech later told him of the interest, which sparked an understandably frustrated reaction from Cleary.
“I asked myself: ‘Why would they hold me back over a few quid’. I'm sure they would have got a few quid for me.”
However, he later accepted their choice.
By the time the 86/87 campaign had arrived, O'Connor had replaced Connolly as manager and new investment had come onboard at the club. Cleary's face didn't fit, though, and O'Connor pulled him aside at training in Sandymount to tell him he was surplus to requirements.
Jimmy Jackson had made an offer to him to rejoin St. Pat's - the club of his father - and so Dundalk and Cleary parted ways. Though he would come back to haunt his former club that season and it wasn't long until O'Connor swallowed humble pie, asking him back after a chance encounter.
“He (Turlough) has a relation that lives around the corner from where I live. He saw me in the garden one of the days he was around and he pulled in.
“We were sitting there, just me and Turlough, and he asked me what would it take to get me back to Dundalk. I said to him in no uncertain terms, ‘what the f'**k are you talking about’ because Jim McLaughlin was after being on to me as well to go to Rovers.
“Turlough was very frank and I'm very straight like that too so I said to him ‘sure you only got rid of me last year’. He said: ‘I know, I made a big mistake’. I told him that Jim McLaughlin was on to me and he just said: ‘Whatever he's offering you, I'll match it’.
“It was decent of the man to admit that he made the mistake and come back for me, and I was only too delighted to head back.”
This was the start of a very colourful three-and-a-bit seasons under O'Connor, as is expressed vividly through a tale from the decider of 30-years-ago.
Cleary, fond of a “few drinks” on a Saturday night, was asked especially by O'Connor at training the morning before the Sunday final to ‘keep himself easy’ that night. To which the Ballyfermot man responded: ‘Turlough, you know the agreement that I have with you, I have a babysitter’. He says: ‘It's just tonight’.
“I liked a few pints and he knew that, but it never interfered with my performances. If I was bad on the day, I was bad. It wasn't down to any excess alcohol.”
And, so, the Clearys, John and wife Carmel organised their babysitter and headed for the local before turning in at 10:30pm. However, walking home they came across O'Connor who had been delivering tickets to the aforementioned relations. They stopped and had a chat with O'Connor's last words being: ‘I'll see you in the morning!'”
Cleary picks up on the story: “At the breakfast in the Ashling the next morning I told the lads (about the night before) and with that Turlough called me out. All the lads thought straight away that I was getting ‘bombed’ for the match.
“He says to me: ‘I've something disappointing to tell you’. ‘What's that,’ says I. He says, ‘you're not playing centre-forward today, you're playing centre-half. Owen Da Gama,’ he says, ‘don't give him a kick unless it's up the arse’.
“I walked back in and all the lads were looking at me, trying to get my eye and find out what the story was. I started laughing because with that Turlough called out Mick Shelley. He put Mick on the bench and all the lads were like, ‘what's the story, what's the story’.”
To which Cleary, in a fit of laughter, replied: ‘I'm just playing centre-half today’.”
By all accounts, the 88/89 season “wasn't as good” as Dundalk lost out on the league title to Derry City in a close-run battle.
An offer would come for his services from Galway in 1991, and from his former team-mate, a certain Joey Malone, who had already recruited the winner of that Cup final penalty, Larry Wyse.
O'Connor didn't stand in his way and Cleary accepted the move before claiming his second FAI Cup medal later that year as the Tribesmen overcame Shamrock Rovers.
However, resoundingly, it's that day at Dalymount Park, and the double-winning triumph, which shines above all else in a unique League of Ireland career.