Charlie O'Leary still giving time and taking pleasure from the game he loves

O'Leary was named as the 21st recipient of the FAI's Special Award this week
Charlie O'Leary still giving time and taking pleasure from the game he loves

One of the great frustrations and misfortunes to arise from the FAI's long history of conflict is the fact that it has so often overshadowed the trojan work contributed to Irish football by an extraordinary legion of ordinary souls up and down the country.

Charlie O'Leary was named as the 21st recipient of the association's Special Award on Thursday but the moment was lost amid the latest bout of internal wrangling, this time between the body's elected board members on one side and it's interim CEO and chairperson on the other.

It was a moment already stripped of its stage by Covid-19. The 96-year old should have been dressed in black tie and looking out on a sea of appreciative faces in a swanky hotel, not receiving the award at a near empty HQ in Abbotstown.

That didn't matter to Charlie. He said as much himself. That there were people out there who thought him worthy of the recognition in the first place was enough. They weren't just words, you could tell.

Old friends in the form of Paul McGrath and Niall Quinn were on hand to share the moment and he received a similar honour 20 years ago when Jack Charlton handed the crystal over at Lansdowne Road on a day Ireland played Scotland.

That was appropriate at the time.

He is remembered chiefly for his role in Charlton's backroom team during the glory days of Euro '88 through Italia '90 and on to USA '94, but his life in Irish football spills far beyond the boundaries of Big Jack's time at the helm.

A former player, O'Leary established himself as a leading referee across three decades and took charge of the 1972 FAI Cup final between Cork Hibernians and Waterford when Miah Dennehy scored his celebrated hat-trick at Dalymount Park.

“Perhaps I'm one of the luckiest people,” he said. “Refereeing has done an awful lot for me. I would recommend refereeing to anybody because it is an education in life itself. First of all, if you keep fit you'll get paid. On top of that, you'll learn man management. You'll learn how to control, how to command respect without being arrogant.

“You learn all of that. You don't get it in any university. On top of that, through refereeing, I was lucky that I was on the Fifa panel so I got many trips abroad. I saw a fair amount of Europe that I could never have afforded in the job I worked in.” If that sounds like the perfect recruitment campaign for the many sports out there desperate to beef up thinning refereeing stocks then it gets better again.

When O'Leary put the whistle away he was asked by the FAI to be a liaison officer to teams coming to Ireland. He looked after Italy's World Cup champions when they came to Dublin for a famous friendly at a packed Dalyer in 1985. And Spain when they played in Cork's Flower Lodge.

He was liaison again when Wales came to Lansdowne Road for Charlton's first game in charge in 1986. That was when he caught the Englishman's eye as O'Leary had taken charge, and been on the line, for games when Charlton was a player with Leeds United.

Mick Byrne told Charlton what O'Leary's role was and added that Ireland had no equivalent themselves. Bugger this, Charlton thought. O'Leary was duly dragooned into the service of the home brigade where he would have the official title of kitman until he stopped in 2000.

“So it was through refereeing I got that. And I never looked back after that.” Quinn spoke warmly of him this week, describing Charlton as the father figure for that Irish squad and Byrne and O'Leary as their “two Mammies”. O'Leary, he said, looked out for them all and he is still looking out for the game he loves.

A life vice-chair of the Leinster Football League, last Thursday found him at a meeting where part of the agenda was taken up by the influx of a dozen new teams into their embrace. Still giving of himself. Still taking so much pleasure from the game he loves.

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