Who's that with Blondie Carroll?

Who's that with Blondie Carroll?
 Bandon's John Carroll

Bandon's John Carroll

It's 23 April 1969 and bad night for John Carroll and his future team mate, George Best.

Not only were Best's Manchester United, the reigning champions, beaten 2-0 by eventual winners AC Milan in the first leg of their European Cup semi-final, but a game Cork Celtic were thrashed 4-1 by an imperious Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup Final replay at Dalymount Park.

 John Carroll (left) lining out for Cork Celtic with George Best

John Carroll (left) lining out for Cork Celtic with George Best

Best's name might ring a bell but unless you followed League of Ireland football back in the last sixties and seventies, Carroll's name might not be familiar.

Just ask any Cork Celtic fan from the 1970s about "Blondie" Carroll, and they will recall how the Glasheen man's 25-yard bullet put them one-nil up against a star-studded Rovers side seeking a sixth successive FAI Cup win Dalymount Park the previous Sunday afternoon only for former Hoops legend John Keogh to put through his own net six minutes from time.

It was a miscue that denied Cork Celtic and Carroll his moment of glory and while he would go on to claim a league winner's medal in 1973-74, Mick Leech took his tally for the season to 50 with two goals in that 4-1 FAI Cup final replay.

For the golfers, Carroll is a little less blonde now but still a familiar figure on the national and international scene.

And Ireland's elite amateurs will be seeing a lot more of him for the next three years after he was chosen, following the first open recruitment process in the history of GUI, to succeed the hugely successful Tony Goode as Irish senior team captain.

It's a huge honour for Carroll and a role he's relishing.

 John Carroll in his footballing days with Cork Celtic

John Carroll in his footballing days with Cork Celtic

After all, being part of a team is second nature to a man who didn't pick up a golf club until his he was almost 20.

A natural talent, he went on to become a scratch player, winning the Home Internationals and the European Senior Team Championships alongside such household names as Liam MacNamara, Adrian Morrow and Arthur Pierse in 2008.

Golf represented a wonderful outlet for Carroll, who was a no-nonsense midfielder for Cork Celtic for almost a dozen years from the late 1960s to the late 1970s before eventually swapping his football boots for golf spikes at his beloved Bandon Golf Club nearly 40 years ago.

His "choice" of club was a "purely accidental" and it's no surprise that to hear him tell how the former soccer correspondent for the Cork Examiner, played a key role.

"As was always keen to see good golf and I went to a Barton Shield semi-final or final between Bandon and Tipperary in Thurles in 1978 and Billy George, a neighbour and friend of mine, was covering it for the Examiner," Carroll explained this week.

"So off we went for the spin, and after Bandon won, Billy was invited in for something to eat with the officials but explained he couldn't as he had come with a friend. Of course, Bandon said to bring me in for a bite too.

"'By the way,' Billy pipes up during the meal, 'John wants to join Bandon.' 

"Well it was true I wanted to join a club and the upshot was that I was told that for £45 I could join and it's been wonderful."

A former captain and president of the club, his first handicap was 14 and he was down to six by year's end, eventually getting down to scratch. 

He played at every level for the club bar the Pierse Purcell Shield, winning a hanful of Senior Scratch Cups, the Irish Mixed Foursomes and the 2010 Irish Senior Cup.

It was a far cry for going to war with the likes of Alfie Hale and former Chelsea stalwart Bobby Tambling at Cork Celtic and light years from the time he played a handful of games alongside the mercurial Best during the 1975-76 season, swiftly followed by former England skipper Geoff Hurst for an equally brief spell the following season.

"We had George Best for six or seven games," Carroll recalled. "He was a lovely, quiet lad. Didn't say much and left straight after the match. He had a little bit of his skill left but it was clear he was long past his best at that stage. Mind you, he certainly drew the crowds."

Carroll was already a keen golfer at that stage, playing often in summer before gearing up for another gruelling League of Ireland season in the winter.

"I was always interested in golf," he said. "My first game was with Denis O'Sullivan, the European Senior Tour pro, who was a neighbour of mine growing up.

"I played for Cork Celtic at half-back or midfield for 11 or 12 years before they went out of football and I had one season with Cork Utd and went back to my old club and played alongside the great Barry McGann.

"The crowds were great in the League of Ireland back then and I still meet people up and down the country who remember the good old days. People in Cork would follow GAA in the summer and soccer in the winter and it really was a great time in many ways.  

 The victorious record winning Irish Home International Golf team arrive at Dublin Airport this morning (19/08/2017). At back back (from left) Conor O'Rourke (Naas), Robin Dawson (Tramore), Colin Fairweather (Knock), John White (Team Manager, Co Armagh), Tony Goode (Team Captain, Lucan), John Carroll (Team Selector, Bandon), Alex Gleeson (Castle), Paul McBride (The Island) and Peter O'Keeffe (Douglas). In front (from left) John Ross Galbraith (Whitehead), Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk), Rowan Lester (Hermitage), Conor Purcell (Portmarnock), Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) and Neil Manchip ( GUI National Coach).  Picture by  Pat Cashman

The victorious record winning Irish Home International Golf team arrive at Dublin Airport this morning (19/08/2017). At back back (from left) Conor O'Rourke (Naas), Robin Dawson (Tramore), Colin Fairweather (Knock), John White (Team Manager, Co Armagh), Tony Goode (Team Captain, Lucan), John Carroll (Team Selector, Bandon), Alex Gleeson (Castle), Paul McBride (The Island) and Peter O'Keeffe (Douglas). In front (from left) John Ross Galbraith (Whitehead), Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk), Rowan Lester (Hermitage), Conor Purcell (Portmarnock), Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) and Neil Manchip ( GUI National Coach).  Picture by Pat Cashman

"There was nothing else to do — no Sky Sports or golf on TV. But there were great players back then too, like Frank O'Neill, Paddy Mulligan, John Keogh, Donie Wallace, Ben Hannigan, the late Frank McCarthy...."

It was not until he was nearly 60 that he donned the green blazer for the first time in 2008, winning European Senior Team Championship and the Senior Home Internationals. 

Now 69, he's the man tasked with leading Ireland's elite amateurs in all the big team events for the next three years and he makes no secret of the fact that he'd love to see Ireland make the podium when Ireland hosts the World Amateur Team Championships for the Eisenhower Trophy at Carton House next year.

"I am absolutely delighted to get the captaincy," he said after beating off stiff competition for the job of following up on an unprecedented run of success that saw Ireland win a fourth successive Home Internationals this year.

"It is a great honour and a hard act to follow Tony Goode after all the success of the past few years.

"We had some great talent, including five lads who played Walker Cup in 2015.

"They've all turned pro, and many more since, but we have some excellent young players coming through because the standard now is so high, especially at Boys and Youths level."

 John Carroll at St Andrews

John Carroll at St Andrews

A former captain of the Irish Schoolboy and Under 21 soccer teams as well as a winning Munster interprovincial team captain, Carroll knows it will all come down to the players in the end.

"I can't change a whole lot, but I will be meeting the National Coach, Neil Manchip and the CEO of the GUI, Pat Finn, early in the New Year to make plans," he said. "The Eisenhower Trophy is obviously the big one for us next year.

"There will be pressure playing at home but the boys know the course very well, and they will be well up for it. 

"We have a wonderful bunch of players both here and in the US and having been involved in three of the four teams that won the Homes — I was ill the year they won at Portrush — they all get on famously together, and there's never a problem.

"They are great lads, all different in their own way, but with a great fighting, Irish spirit as we have seen over the past few seasons.

"Sometimes I wish they might stay amateur for a little longer and go professional when they are a little bit older, but they all want to follow in the footsteps of Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy."

He has a tough task to match his predecessor, but he's not afraid of a challenge.

"Hopefully, we can pick up another win or two in our three-year term and obviously I'd love to see the boys do very well again in September and get among the medals again," he said. "That would be super. 

"We look after our players very well, far better than most countries in fact, and Neil does a superb job with the players.

"It will mean a lot of travel this year, but I am looking forward to it. Tony called me when I got the job to give me his best wishes, and it won't be long before we start the new adventure.

"You never know who is going to come through and you also need a little bit of luck now and again. But given the talent that has gone before them, our young players are keen to follow in their footsteps and make their mark too."

This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's weekly Tee to Green golf supplement on 14 December 2017