Final Lap: A ‘cultured footballer’, Finn Harps and Derry City folk hero, Eunan ‘Busty’ Blake

If football is played in Heaven, then God is now rubbing his hands, writes Chris Ashmore.

Eunan Blake (front, extreme right) with the Finn Harps 1974 FAI Cup winning side.

In April 1965, a Spanish national team beat a Derry City Select 3-1 in Madrid in what was effectively a build-up game in advance of the 1966 World Cup.

The following day leading Spanish sports newspaper Marca carried the usual report and reaction, and also published a cartoon which showed a hairy Irishman with a red beard looking down on the injured Francisco Gento.

The Real Madrid player, a six- times European Cup winner, who also won 12 La Liga titles, was a giant in European soccer. Capped 43 times, he played in the World Cup in 1962 and 1966, and following the death of the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, was appointed Honorary President of Real Madrid.

The Irish player alluded to in the cartoon, who was marking Gento in the game played at the old Estadio Metropolicano (which was Atletico Madrid’s home at the time), was Eunan ‘Busty’ Blake, who passed away last week in his native Donegal after a long illness.

Widely regarded as one of the best full-backs of his era, Blake played for Sligo Rovers, Derry City and Finn Harps. He also managed Harps and had a spell as assistant manager of Athlone Town. He won six inter-league caps for a League of Ireland representative side.

His best days were during his 10 years with the Brandywell club. Former City goalkeeper, club historian, and team-mate, Eddie Mahon, reckons Blake was right up there in terms of the club legends, and named the Letterkenny man as right-back in his all-time Derry City XI.

Mahon recalls how the Spanish wanted to prepare for the game. The Republic was drawn against Spain and Syria in a three-team qualification group. Syria withdrew in protest against the treatment of African countries by FIFA thus leaving qualification down to a contest over two matches between Ireland and Spain.

The Spanish initially invited Shamrock Rovers but there was rule that prohibited them from playing a side from a country that they had been drawn against. So Derry, who were one of the top sides in the Irish League at the time, fitted the bill instead.

“Busty was up against the great Gento and came off best. The Spanish striker had to go off injured after 18 minutes,” Mahon remembers.

Mahon says Blake was a “very clean player, with no airs and graces, and was one of the first of the over-lapping full backs – you could see him steaming up the wing.”

Blake was involved in many European adventures at club level, as a player, and then on the sidelines.

In 1975, Blake was assistant manager of Athlone Town who held the mighty AC Milan to a scoreless draw at St. Mel’s Park, before losing the second leg 3-0. Mahon takes up the story. “John Duffy was the captain of Derry at the time. Before the first game he exchanged pennants with the AC Milan captain. He wanted to hold on to it and put it in his sports bag. Busty said that he wanted it and John said that he could take the one out in Milan.”

Eunan Blake when he was boss of Finn Harps.

Over to Italy then for the pre-match formalities, but there was no pennant.

“The captains went up for the handshake and the Milan captain came up with a bunch of flowers. Busty was not a man for bad language, but there may have been an exception that day!” Mahon noted.

Blake also featured for Derry in the now defunct Texaco Cup, a competition involving clubs from England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland that had not qualified for European competitions.

Derry City and Ards represented Northern Ireland in the inaugural competition which had considerable sponsorship money at the time.

“Derry were drawn to play against Wolves, and that was Busty’s team,” Mahon reminisces. “Wolves won the match 1-0 (at the Brandywell) but Busty almost scored. Chang Smith crossed in a ball and Busty went up for it but it lumped off Danny Hale and the big chance was gone.” Blake was part of the Derry City side that won the Irish League Championship for the one and only time in the 1964/1965 season.

B

ut, as Mahon notes, Blake was “unlucky” not to have played in three major cup finals. He missed out through injury in Derry City’s Irish Cup final win over Glentoran in 1964, and then in the 1971 decider in which they lost to Distillery. He was also a member of the Finn Harps squad who won the FAI Cup in 1974, but injury curtailed his appearances that season to just four matches.

With The Troubles leading to Derry City’s departure from the Irish League, Blake – like several of their players – had moved to nearby League of Ireland side Finn Harps. This was a period when Harps were enjoying their glory days. Although the Ballybofey-based club had only joined the League of Ireland in 1969, they had soon defied their doubters and punched above their weight.

As a player, he was a member of the team that qualified for Europe for the first time. In fact, he made a total of just 25 appearances over two seasons before retiring from the senior soccer stage in the summer of 1974.

He was appointed as Finn Harps manager midway through the 1976/77 season and the following season guided Harps to the runners-up position behind champions Bohemians and in the 1978/79 season they played Everton in the UEFA Cup.

During his period, Blake was very proud to give a number of young Donegal born players their first start in senior football including Con McLaughlin and former Republic of Ireland and Celtic goalkeeping legend Packie Bonner.

Bonner had good time for Blake, and in his autobiography “The Last Line” recalled how he was invited to “guest” in a friendly at Finn Park against a Stoke City side that included Garth Crooks, Terry Conroy and Peter Shilton. Stoke won 2-1. Bonner got a six month contract with Harps.

“I loved Finn Harps but didn’t want to tie myself down,” Bonner states. “The fellow who handled the deal was the club’s manager Eunan ‘Busty’ Blake. Busty was a well-known figure who always acted with the best intentions for Harps and, although I could be considered to be a bit naive at that stage of my life, I knew that I had to make sure any agreement was flexible. To my surprise, Busty agreed if anyone came in for me during that period then he would personally tear up my contract.”

Bonner had already had trials with Leicester City. Some weeks later Celtic scout Sean Fallon made an approach. Blake encouraged Bonner to go and the goalkeeper became Jock Stein’s last signing as Celtic manager.

After leaving Harps, Blake returned to his hometown club Letterkenny Rovers, where he held various positions over the years.

In his homily at the funeral in Letterkenny last Saturday, Fr. Philp Daly said: “If football is played in Heaven, then God is now rubbing his hands. He now has a complete team, the last place taken by Busty, a grand and decent man.

“Busty was a cultured footballer.

“Busty made the game look simple and that is a sign of a good, true footballer – making it look simple.”


© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

More in this Section

Bray boost but trapdoor beckons for dismal Drogs

Wenger has ‘perfect’ answer

Poch wants Wembley wonders

Jose Mourinho: Blues still team to beat


Breaking Stories

You need to see this Nabil Fekir halfway line goal against Bordeaux

Eight goals unanswered in two games for Manchester United and the fans couldn’t be happier

Mayo ladies upset Donegal to book semi-final against Cork

Galway have no answer for rampaging Cork in ladies senior football clash

Lifestyle

Classical Review: Ensemble Marsyas

Album Review: Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins

In Vogue: Changing of the guard at iconic fashion magazine

Lidl and Heidi Klum - has the High Street reached peak collaboration?

More From The Irish Examiner