Legendary Celtic player who helped put NI on world's footballing map

 

Bertie PeacockFootball legend Bertie Peacock, who has died aged 75, was a reminder of the time when Northern Ireland unexpectedly became a power in world football.

He starred on the team which reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup.

Northern Ireland got through a first-round group including Argentina, West Germany, and Czechoslovakia, by drawing with the Germans and beating the Czechs twice.

Peacock was also a legendary player at Glasgow Celtic, playing 450 times between 1949 and 1961, and captaining the team. Celtic have always been associated with Irish nationalism, but Peacock was a Protestant. Forty-three years after his last club game, tributes to him flowed onto the Celtic website from fans as far away as America, Canada, Australia and Nigeria.

Peacock was also the Northern Ireland manager who gave George Best his international début, against Wales in 1962. Perhaps apocryphally, he always claimed to have chosen Best without seeing the teenage prodigy play.

After returning from Glasgow, he managed his home-town side, Coleraine, for 12 years, bringing the club its only Irish League title. While only an older generation will have seen him as a player, thousands of younger people have benefited from his community work.

In 1983 he and two others set up the Milk Cup, a major cross-community and international youth football tournament held every summer in the Coleraine area, and recognised as one of the best tournaments of its type in the world.

It is, in reality, three tournaments, at under-19, under-16 and under-14 levels. The structure was designed so that every team plays to the very end. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville are among those who featured as unknown young players in past tournaments. This year, 56 teams from 22 countries took part.

Peacock was a director of community group West Bann Development, which covers his home district of Killowen in Coleraine. The group has a community centre, enterprise units and a computer suite.

A spokeswoman said he lived up to his football nickname, "the Little Ant", in his work for West Bann. "He would see what had to be done, and do anything from the most menial task," she said. "He worked in this place as a team man." Peacock was born and brought up in the mixed working-class Killowen area, in a family of five girls and two boys. His father worked as a water bailiff.

He began an apprenticeship as a plumber, but by his late teens was playing semi-professional football, first for Coleraine, then for east Belfast side Glentoran.

Inevitably, he came to the attention of a bigger cross-Channel club. His arrival at Celtic was so unglamorous he would have turned round and gone straight back home if he had been able to do so.

He arrived in Glasgow by boat at 6 a.m., clutching a piece of paper with the address of his digs.

"I was just a young lad lost in the big city," he said. "I walked around for two hours and finally summoned up enough courage to ask for directions from someone who put me on a tram car. When I got to the tenement block someone told me my landlady had been rushed into hospital ill." He stayed.

He is survived by his wife Ruby, son Russell, sister Sadie, daughter-in-law Jacqui and two grandsons.

Bertie Peacock: born 1928; died July 22nd, 2004