We spoke to Falkirk Bairn and Liverpool legend Gary Gillespie on getting his start at his local club as well as a career that saw him win three league titles and a European Cup with The Reds.
Gary was successful within football from an early age as part of the Graeme High School football team that won three successive Scottish Cups.
“We had a very good team, and a lot of the guys that played with the school team played locally as well with juvenile sides, so we all knew each other from a very young age. There was a heck of a lot of good players, probably better players than I was in school! Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good!
“Right from day one we were pretty successful, from the 13/14s to 15/16s we won the Scottish Cup three years on the spin with the same school team. It was a record, I’m not sure if it still is today!”
The youngster started with The Bairns while still in school and can still remember how it felt to make his first steps in the world of football.
“I started in the first team at a very young age. Now you have youth teams and academies, then it was a case of signing S-Forms with teams and that’s how I started off. We got taken in during school holidays or whenever we were off to train and then I signed my semi-professional contract as soon as I left school. I worked down at the Bank of Scotland in Bainsford and played for Falkirk part time, which all the boys were at that time.
“There were some great times. I always remember going down and training on a Tuesday and a Thursday, then after training we’d stay back and play table tennis in the little tearoom we had. The table tennis table doubled up as a buffet table when games were on!
“We’d be playing a game and they’d chuck the keys to us and tell us to lock up when we were finished! We finished our game, locked up and sauntered up the road to get fish and chips on our way to get the bus home!”
Gary began supporting the club as a child and is extremely proud to have played for Falkirk.
“From a very young age I was indoctrinated into Falkirk and I was lucky enough to go on and play with the club. Billy Little was the manager that gave me my chance and my opportunity in the first team.
“I used to go and watch Falkirk on a regular basis when I was younger, my grandad always took me from a very young age to watch them. Being that young, when I was nine or ten, it was intoxicating with all the smells, the liniment, the Bovril, the pies. It was always fantastic, I used to sit on my grandad’s knee!”
The defender came into the first team at a very young age during an extremely difficult time for the club. The Bairns had recently been relegated into the third tier of Scottish Football for the first time and the uncertainty of those times allowed a young Gary to get his chance.
“In a way it probably helped. We weren’t the best team in the world, we were in the lowest division at the time and we were struggling a bit, so that probably helped get me a chance in the first team. When you’re young you don’t fear too many things and it was a fantastic opportunity that I got, I never thought much of where we were playing.”
Despite only just making his debut Gary was in for a surprise when he was made captain of Falkirk at only 17. This was a record at the time for the youngest captain at a Scottish club, a record that appears to stand to this day.
“I went in to see the manager one day and he told me he was going to make me captain. I was quite shocked about it to be honest with you because I’d literally just broke into the first team and at such a young age as well.
“Whether it was because I was the local boy or what I don’t really know, it was probably because I was one of the only players that was guaranteed a game, because of how we were doing at the time. It was a great honour to have and I still talk about it today.”
The Falkirk captain soon found himself a wanted man down in England and soon left for South of the border and Coventry City after only 25 games for The Bairns.
“Billy took me into the office and told me West Brom had made an offer, for around £35,000, and that the club had rejected it. He took me in again shortly after and said that Coventry had made an offer as well for around £40,000 with another £35,000 on top when I’d played a certain amount of games. The club accepted it because it was quite a big sum for Falkirk at the time.
“I had a little trial with Coventry then packed in my job at the bank to sign! It was something I always wanted to do, I didn’t see myself working at the bank the rest of my days, although I’d probably have been better off if I did!
“The opportunity to go down to Coventry, who were in the English First Division at the time, was just too good to pass up. I moved there in the March and come the start of the next season I made my debut at age 18 in the English First Division. It was a bit of a baptism of fire I have to say, being just a young guy from Brightons getting thrust into that kind of spotlight.”
Gary played for The Sky Blues from 17 to 23, picking up nearly 200 league appearances in the process. Coventry was a place that still holds many good memories as the place that developed him as a player.
“It was great at Coventry. They were a very forward-thinking club that gave their young players opportunities, and there were a lot of them down there. It was always a bit of a battle to stay in the First Division, we weren’t in the upper echelons of the league, but it was a great place to grow up from when I was 17.”
Aged 23 Gary wanted to make the step up in his game and joined Liverpool, however it was nearly another top English club that captured his signature.
“It was a funny time at Coventry around the time that I left. There were nine of us players that all had contracts up, how that happened I’m not sure. They did want me to stay, they offered me a contract, but I went out and I talked to some clubs including Arsenal.
“I was more or less ready to sign for Arsenal, it was the time where Charlie Nicholas had just come down and joined them and they had very big plans. I had told the Arsenal people I’d spoken to that I’d give them a call the next day, but when I got home I got a call from the club saying Liverpool wanted to talk to me. I told Arsenal I’d had another offer and went up to talk to Liverpool.
“They were League Champions then and had a fantastic pedigree and team. I thought it was the next big step for my career and it was quite an easy decision. I would’ve actually made more money signing for Coventry but going to Liverpool was something I thought I had to do.”
Despite joining Liverpool from a first team role at Coventry it took Gary several years before he truly began to make one of the defensive spots his own.
“It was a struggle, the first two years I thought I’d made a big mistake to be honest. I went from 18 to 23 playing on a regular basis in the First Division with Coventry to struggling to get into the squad at Liverpool.
“It was understandable, you obviously had Hansen and Lawrenson there, and Phil Thompson was there as well, so I was battling against three seasoned players for game time and the team was doing well. I played a bit more in my second season and six months after Kenny Dalgleish came in during the 85/86 season, I was getting a regular start.”
Despite not getting the game time he perhaps wished Gary’s first season at Liverpool saw massive success as the team won both the First Division and the European Cup.
“It was fantastic, we had a really good season that year. We won the league, won the League Cup, and went to Rome and beat Roma in their own stadium to win the European Cup. It was a special time, I had eight years at Liverpool, and we were always in contention to be winning things. It was certainly the most successful period in my football career.”
The 1987/88 season had Gary in his prime, with his place fully secure in the Liverpool first team. The season once again brought trophies for the team as the league title once again was once again brought back to Anfield.
“Looking back on a personal level it was probably my most successful season. I played a lot of games and was picked in the PFA Team of the Year. We won the league and really had a magnificent side; it was a wonderful team to play in and actually quite an easy team to play in they were so good!
“Confidence is so important in football and we had bags of it then. We went out thinking we were going to batter teams and we often did. It was a real pleasure to be a part of that team and it was the pinnacle of my eight years at Liverpool.”
Gary played another big role as Liverpool lifted the title again in 89/90. Little did anyone associated at the club know it would be 30 years before they would lift the league trophy, least of all Gary!
“If you told anybody that was at Liverpool Football Club 30 years ago it would be that long till they won a league title I think they would’ve locked you up! it was a fantastic achievement for them after they went so close last season.
“This team has the best opportunity to sustain that, they’re a very good team that has one of, if not the best, managers in the world. I think there’s very good things in the future for them and hopefully it can continue. It was in the waiting, and it’s been a hell of a long wait for Liverpool fans.”
After a great eight years at Liverpool it’s no surprise both the fans and the player hold each other in such high regard. Gary was named in the Liverpool fans 100 greatest players of all time and his post football career has seen him once again working at the club.
“I knew Anfield was special beforehand. I always remember going there to play Liverpool when I was at Coventry. We’d walk in at half past one for a three o’clock kick off and the Kop would be ram packed! It was a great place to play in with great memories and a great atmosphere.
“It’s always nice to be recognised and appreciated by the people that watch you. It’s a nice accolade to have, there’s obviously been far better and more influential players than me at Anfield but it’s something nice to look back on and show the grandkids.
“I still work at the football club with LFC TV. I cover all the games commentary wise and punditry wise, so I’m still involved in that manner.”
From Liverpool Gary moved back up to Scotland as he fulfilled a childhood ambition to play for the other club he supported in his youth, Celtic.
“In pre-season 1991 Graeme Souness was manager and, after we got back he said that Celtic had come in and wanted to buy me, and that the club had accepted the offer so it was up to me. Growing up Celtic were along with Falkirk as the team that I supported, mostly because they were the most successful side!
“It was a boyhood dream for me to go on and play with them, so I think my heart ruled my head a bit and I went up and signed for Celtic. I’d had my injury problems towards the end of my time at Liverpool, so I think they thought it was a good bit of business.
“I loved playing for Celtic, but we weren’t fantastic, and I wasn’t fantastic. I’d lost quite a bit from when I was at Liverpool and as much as I’d have liked to be successful there it just didn’t work out for us.”
There was time for one more club in a career that spanned 20 years and it was a return to Coventry, but Gary reveals he was quite close to a return to a different club from his past…
“My three years at Celtic had come to an end and I was 34 at the time so I’d had a good stint at it. Phil Neil was manager at Coventry at the time and he approached me and gave me the opportunity to go back to Coventry, to play if I could play but ultimately move onto the coaching staff. It didn’t quite work out and I left not long after he got sacked, but that’s what happens in football.
“I actually did at that time talk to Jim Jeffries about coming back to Falkirk. I met him in the Park Hotel after I knew I was leaving Celtic and he asked me to come back. I wanted to move back to England, because I had my house here, but I still swayed over it even though it was Coventry I eventually went to. If I’d have taken Jim’s offer who knows what would have happened, it was crazy times!”
Gary finished by discussing his 13 caps with Scotland, that saw him take his country to a World Cup, and summed up his career.
“I was quite late in years when I made my debut to be honest, I was maybe about 27 or 28 before I got my first cap. We were relatively successful; we went to the World Cup in 1990 which is obviously every young boy’s dream. Unfortunately, we didn’t get through to the latter stages but that’s no disgrace.
“To get the honour to play for your country is a fantastic thing. I’ve been very lucky as a footballer to play with my hometown club, the big team I supported growing up, to play for my country and to play for Liverpool who were such great champions.”