Belfast Celtic 1891 - 1949


The Man Who Taught Martin O'Neill the Game

In the 2004 BBC documentary Man and Bhoy, new Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill spoke about those who influenced his career, firmly setting the record straight! As he’d spent most of his professional football career under England’s standout manager of the age, Brian Clough, most commentators assumed that the two-time European Cup winning manager of Nottingham Forest left the most indelible mark on the Derry man’s career.

O’Neill was very clear – this was wrong – and a former Belfast Celtic legend was the man who Martin looked up to the most. He said frankly; I had a wonderful education under Brian Clough, there’s no doubt about it and people say ‘Well, he taught you the game!”  “Well, in actual fact, Jimmy McAlinden taught me the game! He realized my background - I had been playing Gaelic - in fact I’d never actually played a soccer game on grass until I’d joined Rosario (a Belfast youth team). Jimmy McAlinden had a supreme knowledge of the game, he had supreme knowledge of individuals.”

Reflecting on the makeup of Jimmy Mac’s Distillery side of the early 1970’s, with Republicans and Loyalists playing together in the same team, O’Neill believed; “McAlinden had the fantastic ability of bringing these boys together and being great mates - they would have died for him - and so would I!”

So what made ‘Jimmy Mac’ so special? Born in Lady St in the Falls area of Belfast on December 27,1917, McAlinden excelled at football at school in Milford Street, under the tutelage of international athlete Master Jack Myles.

Indeed, he was such a standout player at an early age that he was selected as a schoolboy international and Glentoran came in quickly to take him to The Oval at the age of 16, in 1934.

It was here that Belfast Celtic realized they would have to bring this Celtic supporter home and they gave him a £2.00 weekly wage - a handsome bounty for someone so young.

Around the same time, Elisha Scott was returning from Liverpool to manage Belfast Celtic and McAlinden flourished under him, becoming one of the most important players at Scott’s Celtic.

He won his first league title in 1935-36 (beginning an eight-in-a-row spell of Irish and Regional League wins) and in 1938, Jimmy lifted the Irish Cup after a 2-0 final replay win against Bangor.


Dripping with medals and having established himself as an internationalist, McAlinden was now receiving attention from big clubs in England. Tottenham Hotspur made an approach, but Portsmouth made him their record signing in December 1938, paying £7,500 to bring him to Fratton Park. After six months in England, the Twin Towers of Wembley beckoned and McAlinden’s team took on English aristocrats Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup Final. 99,370 spectators attended the game and watched underdogs Portsmouth shock the favourites in a 4-1 win. In 1939, the football world was at Jimmy Mac’s feet, but in arguably his finest hour, his career took a potentially destabilizing segwey with the outbreak of World War Two.

All football contracts were suspended and the crème of football talent now either went into the army, or became ‘jobbing footballers’, trying to get a game with any club managing to field teams during the emergency. There was only one option for Jimmy Mc – he was on his way back to Belfast to his beloved Celtic! A youthful face was following Jimmy McAlinden’s footsteps into Belfast Celtic’s first team - a scrawny and divinely gifted kid from nearby McDonnell Street. Charlie Tully took to the pitch for Celtic at Grosvenor Park and entered the football fray in 1942. Not given to modesty, Tully was found himself awestruck in a dressing room of heroes, so much so that he couldn’t even dress himself, recalling; “…Jimmy McAlinden pushed my first pair of shin guards down my stockings.”

Dalymount Park (1943) - Jimmy has the ball at his feet, beside Charlie Tully

Elisha Scott’s Celtic took no prisoners during the war - McAlinden helped them beat Linfield in the Irish Cup finals of both 1941 and 1944, as well as capturing the cup in 1943. As the war concluded, Jimmy was back in Portsmouth, but Shamrock Rovers paid £10,000 to bring him to Dublin where appeared in an FAI Cup final and re-established himself as an Irish international.

Spells at Stoke City and Southend United followed, but Jimmy was planning for a life after football and after coaching courses at Loughbrough College, he took the manager’s job with Glenavon in 1954, where Belfast Celts Jimmy Jones and Jackie Denvir were waiting for him. They did the ‘double’ in 1957 and the League title came again to Mourneview in 1960, with Irish Cups in 1959 and 1961.

Next, Jimmy joined Distillery, where he unearthed the future Glasgow Celtic manager Martin O’Neill and saw two Irish Cup finals, losing the replay to Ards in 1969 and taking a glorious scalp against Derry City in a 3-0 win in 1971. O’Neill was a pivotal figure in the team and Jimmy Mac explained how he discovered him, saying; “I came up one afternoon to watch the boys playing Gaelic…Martin was outstanding even in that. He could drop his left shoulder, which is indicative of a good footballer and, to me; it was only a matter of time.”