The most remarkable character I ever met
An appreciation by Vincent Butler
( First published in the Irish Independent newspaper on Saturday 27th September 2008 )
Back in the 1960s and 70s, newsagents in Dublin regarded soccer players as intellectual, well-read people.
This was due to the fact that every month more than half the individuals who purchased the 'Readers Digest' were regular players.
Little did the newsagents know that the said magazine was the correct shape and thickness to act as a shin-guard.
These frayed quite rapidly and when the kicks from opponents penetrated to page 38, you purchased another copy.
Frequently, while travelling to games, players would thumb through their 'shin-guard' to pass the time.
The article I always read was one entitled 'The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met'. This appeared every month and was usually written by some minor celebrity about someone who had a big influence on his or her life.
The most unforgettable character I ever met was Noel O'Reilly.
I first met Noel in 1971 in the Gloucester Diamond. which was sandwiched at the back of Sean McDermott Street, Gardiner Street and Summerhill, a natural tarmac amphitheatre for seven-a-side football.
I was helping organise a local underage competition run by Belvedere Youth Club from 4.30 to 6.45 each day, while Noel was running an adult tournament on behalf of Lourdes CYMS from Buckingham Street, which went from 7.00 to 9.30 in the evening.
We co-operated in the running of both tournaments and at the end, being very impressed by Noel, I asked him would he like to run an U-12 team in Belvedere for the coming season.
He readily agreed. Noel had never coached and up to that stage, his football involvement was as a player, mainly goalkeeper, with a number of north inner-city junior teams.
As a coach and as a motivator of players, Noel was exceptional. His outgoing enthusiasm and knowledge of the game were such that he inspired and brought the best out of all his players.
Noel applied to do any coaching course available to him and in a short time was awarded the English FA's full badge, the highest award available at that time.
Noel was born and raised in North Charles Street, just off Mountjoy Square. He was a printer by trade, but had become disenchanted with that and was unemployed for the first few years I knew him.
Out of the blue, I was contacted by St. Joseph's School for the Blind, as it was called then, looking for a reference for Noel, who had applied for a job as a recreation officer for the young boarders in the school during their time out of the classroom.
Noel got the position and revolutionised it, turning it from the staid, traditional, disciplined regime he inherited into a fun-filled, inventive and exhilarating situation.
Whenever there was a mid-week game at Tolka Park, you would see a chain of visually impaired kids, led by Noel, winding their way down Grace Park Road to the ground.
Noel would sit among them and give them a colourful commentary on the game. If the game was dull and boring, he would turn it into a fantastic contest and the boys would see it as such.
Noel must have spent over 20 years in 'The Blind' before leaving to become No 2 to Brian Kerr when he was appointed international youth team manager.
Noel's long association with Brian began when they assisted, Liam Touhy, who was manager of the Irish youths teams in the '80s. It continued at St Patrick's Athletic and then with Ireland.
For a long time, football was the only interest in Noel's life. He ran teams for Belvedere in the Dublin and District Schoolboy League, simultaneously coaching in the National League.
He played in goal for ESSO in the Leinster Senior League alongside me and a few other team managers from Belvedere.
Every summer for over 10 years, he would spend six weeks coaching in San Antoine in the USA, where he made many friends.
Two events occurred that broadened his life activities. He learned to play the guitar and he linked up with Rose.
After a slow start with the guitar, when we were subjected to constant renderings in Molloys of Talbot Street of the two songs for which he knew the chords, he took lessons, practised, studied and became a brilliant guitarist.
Noel brought his guitar to all football tournaments around the world and, with it, created a great atmosphere to help players and officials alike relax.
He became an expert in the songs of contemporary Irish singers like Jimmy McCarthy, and particularly Christy Hennessey.
Rose, who also ran a team in Belvedere and is a former Irish women's international, was the perfect partner for Noel.
She shared his interest in football and music and they also shared a love of Donegal -- so much so that they bought a house in Culdaff on the Inishowen Peninsula. They spent a lot of time there and were regarded as part of the local community.
Noel was recently appointed head coach of the FAI's coach education department and was looking forward to revolutionising coaching in Ireland.
Sadly he was not given time to achieve this.
Everybody has their own idea as to what kind of after-life they would like. I am sure Noel's would be have a giant soccer academy where he would coach during the day. Then, at night, everyone would sit around singing.
No doubt, he is presently organising a Kick-Start One coaching course for some aimless souls and is telling Christy Hennessey how he could improve his songs.
Everyone who knew Noel loved him for his enthusiasm, his wit, his larger than life persona, but mainly for his humanity and kindness that was apparent to those who knew him well.
He will be missed in soccer circles, not least in his beloved Belvedere; in Dublin's north inner-City; in Culdaff and particularly by his partner, Rose, his 'step-daughter' Roisin, his brothers Shay and Kieran, his sisters Monica and Deirdre, all his nieces and nephews and all his pals who would regard him as the most unforgettable character they have ever met.
May he rest in peace.