It can’t be stated enough that the League of Ireland truly is something special. The fan base may be relatively small compared to others, but it is mighty in the pride it takes in the domestic game. If a player gives their all every time that they wear the shirt of our local clubs, we will all hail this mere mortal as a local hero.
It’s particularly special when a local lad goes on to become a hero at his local club. Its something that makes our league more relatable to the working-class fan. That someone from your local area can step up and become a beloved figure.
This doesn’t happen to often anymore in major European leagues. In our league that dream is still very achievable for any young player rising through the ranks of their local League of Ireland team. Many players have played for their hometown club and are beloved for it.
Today we will look at the career of one of these players by the name of Tommy McConville. A Dundalk native that represented his hometown club a record 580 times at senior level. With that number almost reaching 700 if you take friendlies and youth games into consideration.
He wasn’t a one club man as you will see but home is where the heart is. His heart truly belonged in Dundalk and he always returned home. A very athletic and smart defender on the pitch and a gentleman beloved by the town of Dundalk off it. Let’s look at the career that made Tommy McConville a local hero.
Born on the 19th of March 1946 in Dundalk Tommy was born into a working-class family and was one of four boys growing up. He was very involved in sports from a very early age with GAA being his original sport of choice at school. He would play football out on the streets with his friends. Thankfully for us League of Ireland fans football was the sport that quickly began to gain his interest the most. Tommy was first involved with a football team in his early teens playing with a local team Rangers FC at Minor and Summer league level.
He spent most of his youth playing with Rangers FC even winning the Dundalk Summer League double winning the league and Harp Cup in 1964 ages only 18.
That success would catch the eye of people at Tommy’s local League of Ireland team Dundalk. A man called Colm Bellew was a coach at Dundalk at the time and invited a few of the players from Rangers FC including Tommy to Oriel Park.
This was to give him his first spell at the club at youth level. Not much really came of it at first but in the summer of 1964, Tommy would make his first senior appearance. It was in a League of Ireland Shield game away to Cork Celtic in Turners Cross in a 2-2 draw. Tommy and some fellow former Rangers FC players made their senior debuts.
He would spend the rest of the season down in the reserves squad where he picked up his first honour with Dundalk winning the first ever Castrol Cup. Tommy would spend many years at reserve level for Dundalk struggling to really make a name for himself in the first team.
Players would come into Dundalk from the Dublin leagues pushing the local players down the pecking order. It would help having his brothers around him at this stage. With his older brother Brian being on the fringes of the Dundalk first team too. Along with his younger brother Walter or Wally was playing for the Dundalk youth team.
Despite this commitment a young Tommy McConville needed first team football. He was told to contact former Dundalk player Ted Harte who was managing Bangor in Northern Ireland at the time. Tommy explained his frustrations and got himself an offer to play for Bangor. A few days later he was collected by one of his new teammates Eamon Farrell. A Dublin man playing for Bangor at the time and father of famous actor Colin Farrell.
After all that, the move to Bangor didn’t really work out either with Tommy only playing seven times. He received word that Dundalk wanted him back in 1967. Tommy agreed to return once he was guaranteed a chance in the first team and not to just get selected in the squad and sit in the stand like he did in the past. He returned home to Oriel Park for the following 1967/68 season.
His first senior winners medal came shortly after in January 1968 in that seasons Dublin Cup final against Shamrock Rovers. He played in the replay of the final which once again couldn’t separate the teams. He only had to wait a week until Dundalk beat Rovers in the second replay in Tolka Park to get his hands on his winners’ medal. His first professional contract wasn’t far behind and was given to him by then manager Liam Tuohy. By then Tommy was beginning to hold down a place in the first team and being tipped as quite the prospect in the league.
More of a boost came as in 1969 Tommy had his first taste of European Football. He played against Liverpool of all teams in the first round of the UEFA Inter Cities Fairs Cup. It wasn’t a good night at all in the first leg in Anfield with Dundalk getting battered 10-0. Then comfortably beaten at home in the second leg 4-0. It was bittersweet for Tommy. His father was born in Liverpool and was proud to see his son start a game at Anfield regardless of the result.
Plus, after the first leg Tommy got to meet the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly in a bizarre way. The story goes that the Dundalk players went into the dressing room wanting to be left alone after such a defeat. In walks Bill Shankly. Pushing in a trolley with a crate of beer on it for the Dundalk team telling them to keep the spirts up and just enjoy these experiences.
It was soon time for McConville to once again leave Dundalk. The club was struggling financially. So, decided to go amateur and let go of all their top players to avoid going extinct with Tommy being on the list of players to leave. It worked out very well for Tommy as top dogs at the time Waterford were highly interested in signing him. He got himself a nice deal of £100 a week excluding bonuses and had travel and accommodation expenses paid for when he travelled down to Waterford for matches. This allowed Tommy to still live in Dundalk and train with Dundalk while making an excellent wage for those times.
The deal isn’t all that went well. During his first season Tommy won his first League of Ireland title during the 1972/73 league campaign. Along with a Presidents Cup the following season. He scored seven goals with Waterford. With two of them coming against Dundalk in a 5-0 league win during their title winning season on Tommy’s first game back at Oriel Park.
During this time, the career of Tommy McConville was going unbelievable well and attracted interest from a big team over in England. Waterford manager at the time Shay Brennan a former Manchester United player. Worked out a deal with Manchester United manager Frank O’Farrell for Tommy in a deal worth £28,000. It was a huge move that Tommy was ready for. Unfortunately, it never materialised and soured the relationship between Tommy and Waterford.
The Waterford directors went behind the handshake agreement made between the two managers demanding double the price for Tommy. Manchester United said they wouldn’t do this. Not because of the money but because Waterford went back on a handshake agreement.
Waterford would later tell United that they would accept their original offer but once again the Manchester club didn’t like the practice of Waterford going behind their managers back. So, the deal fell through. Understandably Tommy was furious and went on strike never playing for Waterford again.
A few weeks later in 1973 Tommy joined up with former manager Liam Touhy who was managing Shamrock Rovers at the time. He was allowed move for free as even Waterford admitted they made a mess of the Manchester United deal. He played with Rovers for 18 months during a spell when the time was having trouble with their home in Milltown.
In 1974 Tommy would make a big move over to America to play in the North American Soccer League (NASL) with Washington Diplomats. Once again Tommy couldn’t say no earning £250 a week with free accommodation and travel. It was also during the months of April and August so he could go home to work for the winter or even play League of Ireland football.
Tommy done this for two years from 1974 until 1976 during the summer of that year traveling over and back. He even became captain of his Washington club. The peak of his time came when he came up against Pele when Washington Diplomats faced New York Cosmos who Pele was playing for at the time. Tommy even walked away with the match wore jersey of Pele. He would also spend a spell in America with New York Apollo on loan from Dundalk in 1978.
There was even a time when Tommy did balance playing for two teams as he signed back for his beloved Dundalk for the 1975/76 season. The club just about got the money together for the centre back and wing back, but it was money well spent as this was the beginning of a highly successful run for both parties.
Over the next eight years under manager Jim McLaughlin Dundalk would dominate. In his first season back at Oriel Park Tommy would pick up his second League of Ireland winners medal. His first at Dundalk making it that much sweeter. This would bring more European appearances for Tommy against PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham later down the line.
He was also due to play against Hajduk Split but controversial decided against travelling to Split to play. He asked for his passport back from a club official at the boarding gate in Dublin Airport. After comments the official made about people who don’t want to try better just stay home due to the players been annoyed about paying for their own expenses.
The fallout was bad with two players been moved on from Dundalk, but Tommy was safe even though he was prepared for the worst. Things calmed down due to a very sad and sudden tragedy. Tommy’s older brother Brian passed away just hours after the pair played a game away to St. Patricks Athletic. Brian took a massive heart attack in his home in Dundalk at the young age of 34. Tommy even played the very next game in honour of his brother.
Although he would never forget his brother better times came for Tommy. During the 1978/79 league season Dundalk won the double winning the league and FAI Cup beating Waterford 2-0 in the final in Dalymount Park. A bittersweet win for a few reasons in the eyes of Tommy McConville. This would give Tommy more European experience. Playing Linfield in a red-hot tie beating them 3-1 on aggregate in the 1979/80 European Cup. Eventually losing to Celtic in the round of 16 of the tournament.
Dundalk and Tommy would continue to pick up silverware into the early 80s. Winning the league cup in the 1980/81 league season beating Galway Rovers on penalties. They would also win the FAI Cup in 1981 beating Sligo Rovers 2-0 in the final at Dalymount Park. Tommy also got his hands on his fourth and final League of Ireland title in during the 1981/82 season.
Tommy finished with Dundalk after the 1985/86 season under manager and former teammate Turlough O’Connor. He was almost 40 years old and his time was coming to its natural end in the game as a player. He moved to Finn Harps as a player manager for the following 1986/87 season. Tommy made 15 league appearances for Finn Harps but after a poor end to the season Tommy and his team finished 4th. While still a decent finish it was enough to see Tommy lose his job as player manager.
Tommy would go back to Northern Ireland to give Newry Town some experience at the age of 42. Helping them achieving a 4th place finish that year. He even returned to the Dundalk Summer League winning the 1992 league with Park Celtic and making a final appearance in the FAI Cup for Bank Rovers aged 47. He was playing in legends games well into his 60s proving age really is only a number.
During his Career Tommy was capped six times for Ireland at senior level. He made his debut against Austria on the 10th of October 1971. He would go on to play against the likes of Russia, New Zealand and Brazil where he got a jersey off Zico to match his Pele one.
Sadly, Tommy McConville passed away on the 25th of October 2013 aged 67. Thousands came out the day of his funeral to pay their respects. Tommy was a Dundalk man through and through even supporting the club after he hung up his boots professionally. He loved Dundalk and Dundalk loved him back with all its heart. He was legend at Dundalk FC and a legend of the League of Ireland.
Tommy McConville’s honours include:
4 League of Ireland Titles
1x with Waterford in 1972/73
3x with Dundalk in 1975/76, 1978/79 & 1981/82
3 FAI Cups
3x with Dundalk in 1977, 1979 & 1981
1 League of Ireland Shield
1x with Dundalk in 1971/72
2 League Cups
2x with Dundalk in 1977/78 & 1980/81
1 Dublin City Cup
1x with Dundalk in 1967/68
2 Leinster Senior Cups
2x with Dundalk in 1976/77 & 1977/78
4 President Cups
1x with Waterford in 193/74
3x with Dundalk in 1979/80, 1980/81 & 1981/82
SWAI Personality of the Year in 1981/82
Three Time Dundalk POTY Winner
FAI Cup Hall of Famer