Dunston UTS FC Legends
In this interview we talk to Billy Irwin about his remarkable time at Dunston UTS FC, his achievements as a player and a manager and what the club means to him.
As Dunston UTS FC legends go, Billy Irwin is up there with the best of them. Having the captained the club to back to back Northern League Titles and Northern League Cups in the 2003/4 and 2004/5 seasons, he has been instrumental in the club many successes. As a player he epitomised the clubs' ethos; hard work, determination, honesty and integrity.
As a Manager, Irwin would eventually lead the club to their famous FA Vase Final victory at Wembley Stadium in 2012 and is regarded by many as the greatest painter and decorator to have ever lifted a Trophy at the famous stadium.
What attracted you to sign for Dunston?
I’m a Dunston lad so I always wanted to play for the club. I joined from Durham City and I had wanted to join the season before but Durham had put the block on it. When I wasn’t playing I’d be down watching Dunston as I was living on their doorstep. Everything about the Club was superb, it’s a club that’s ran the right way with an outstanding committee behind the scenes and that had always been known throughout The Northern League.
I’d had a great time at Durham City and won a Northern League title, I’d been at North Shields before that and won the Senior Cup at St James’, but I knew that I always wanted to play for Dunston, so when the chance came I took it.
I went on to captain the club when we done the double two years running, I played in fantastic sides with some brilliant players, I joined with Keith Mills, what a player he was by the way, rest his Soul. From the moment I joined I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, it’s just a fantastic club.
Looking back on your illustrious career as a player you won back to back Northern League Titles and Northern League Cups in 2003/4 and 2004/5, you captained a side that went unbeaten in the league until the last day of the season, you won 8 trophies in your time as a player, you’re regarded by many as one of the best centre halves the club has had it its history and I can’t recall you missing a header in your career, any regrets?
Winning all those headers is probably the main reason why I’ve got no hair nowadays, but I never have regrets in terms of football, I’m not the type of person to have regrets.
I was never the type of player who’d take six players on and fire it into the top corner, but I was a hard-working player, I gave everything I could when I played and it was the same when I went onto to manage the club and you get out of it what you put in.
As a player, you always want to get the chance to play at Wembley, the Dunston sides I played in were always good enough to win the Vase in my opinion. We got to the 5th round in the 98/99 season, losing to at home Lymington and New Milton from down Southampton. Considering the players we had during my time, I always thought we were good enough to win it. But then you look at what we won during the time I played for club, in a league that was full of some really good sides and that’s something I look back on with pride.
When you did eventually retire from playing you took the role as coach. When Bobby Scaife stepped down you became assistant to Perry Briggs and then took the role as manager in 2009, was that a progression you seen yourself making?
If I could, I’d still be playing now, but in reality you get to your 30’s and you can feel the little niggles and injuries you’ve picked up over your years of playing more and more. Your recovery time after games just seems to take longer and longer.
I always still wanted to be involved because I love the game and the club. We had Bobby Scaife as manager and Pez (Perry Briggs) as assistant so where I could help out with coaching I would, so that was the next step for me, they were just two great lads to work with.
When Pez took the manager’s job on and Bobby had retired, I came in as his assistant. We had a great side at the time. Harra (Tony Harrison) came in as goalkeeper coach with Pez and myself. When Pez stepped down, Harra and I both jumped at the chance straight away and told the Committee that we wanted the jobs.
We’d come in part way through the 2008/09 season and got to work on things straight away. We got off to an absolute flyer; I remember we lost our first 3 games and never scored a goal in any of them.
Speaking to a few of your former players in previous interviews, the thing that stands out is what they had to say about the camaraderie and atmosphere you cultivated in the dressing room. That’s not something that happens out of sheer coincidence. How did you manage to create such a good dressing room environment?
We had a brilliant set of lads at the club when I was manager. Solid, hard-working, honest and experienced players who’d give everything for you and if you weren’t going to work hard and give everything you had you wouldn’t last at the club long with that dressing room.
Off the pitch everyone got on brilliantly, we formed friendships that will last forever. We still meet up now, three times a season and the craíc is quality.
You mentioned having Harra alongside you, for me he probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. How much of asset he was to the club?
I’d been with Harra at Durham City and he’s like me, he’s not one for all the plaudits, but what a man to work alongside. I could ring him now and ask who trained on a wet Tuesday night back in 2011, give him 5 minutes and he’d come back with the answer. His knowledge of the game and attention to detail is just outstanding.
He’s an ex-pro with a load of management experience behind him and he just lives for the game. When we didn’t have a game, we’d be on the phone talking football, out watching opponents; detailing their set pieces, where they ran, where their dangers were, just getting everything on them. Preparation wise he was just outstanding. We’d discuss every detail so that come the game, we were ready to go. Get the message to the players and they’d deliver for us.
When we weren’t doing that we’d be out watching players. He knew every player’s strengths, ask him about any player at the time and he’d just reel off everything you needed on him. Probably the best example of that is when we signed Macca (Lee McAndrew). We'd gone up to watch him and was in and out of the Morpeth side at the time, he wasn’t getting a chance, but Harra knew what he was capable of and how he’d fit in the side. When we put him and Tez (Terry Galbraith) together down the left they were unreal. Tez was another one, he came to the club as a kid and what a player he was and still is. He’s probably my most satisfying signing, just to see how he’s developed and grown, what he went on to achieve at Darlington and to have him back at Dunston now is fantastic.
Sometimes we had to play good cop bad and you can probably guess who got the bad cop role
You lead the Club to arguably the finest moment in their history, winning the FA Vase at Wembley in 2012. After years of hard work, considering that the seasons before that you’d continually performed well in the competition, what was it like to eventually win the FA Vase?
One of the proudest moments in my life, to lead your home town team out at Wembley and then go on the lift the trophy, it’s beyond words. It’ll be spoken about and remembered by everyone at the club forever.
We were brilliant on the day, we won 2-0 but to be honest we could’ve won by 5, we were that good. West Auckland Town were a quality side but on the day the lads were just unbelievable.
To get to play at Wembley, you know it’s going to be a huge occasion but it was a 1000 times bigger than I thought it would be.
Even before the Final, when you look back at the games we played, there was some huge occasions. The semi-final 2nd leg away to Staveley MW was just a huge game, Peterborough Northern Star away, just massive games and the belief that we could go on to win it was always there.
The seasons before when we’d gone on big runs but just missed out, the Final was years of hard work from everyone involved at the club and to see everyone on the committee celebrating in The Royal Box, thousands of Supporters celebrating in the stands was just something that will last with me forever. There’s probably a space of 10 minutes during the day that I don’t think about it.
What was the secret behind that side?
Trust, simple as that. We trusted the players to be able to go out and do the job. Lads like Clarky (Andy Clark), Preeny (Steven Preen), Robbo (Michael Robson), Ben Cattanach, we trusted everyone one of those players in that dressing room and they trusted each other.
You stepped down as manager in October 2016, how hard of a decision was that and what led you to leave the role?
Stepping down as manager was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in Football. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I could still be in the role now but it wouldn’t have been the right thing for the club and that always came first.
I’d given it 100% since I joined and I felt I wasn’t able to do that any longer, so it wasn’t right for me to continue as it wasn’t the best thing for the club. I could never walk away from the club completely, but I felt that if I couldn’t give everything I could then I wasn’t doing right by everyone associated with Dunston. I sat down with Mal James and Alan Stott, and I explained my position, they asked me to take a few weeks to think about it, but I knew deep down that it was the right thing to do. Having to announce that I was stepping down to everyone on the committee was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.
Having to replace you as manager when never going to be an easy task, considering what you’d achieved in your time. You were instrumental in bringing Swaz back to the club as manager. You’ve known him since you were bairns, why did you think he was the right man to replace you?
Swaz is cut from the same cloth as me. He doesn’t over complicate the game. He’s not one to be putting out 600 cones for a drill, he keeps it simple. There was no doubt in my mind that he was the right person to manage the club. His experience in the game and his knowledge are top class and he puts everything into the job. He’s another one who just lives and breathes football.
In his first full season at the club he took us to two cup finals, then the season after he won the Northern League by 17 points with 6 games to go. That’s an outstanding achievement, to win the title by such a margin, in a league with the quality that it has, unreal. He’s put together a brilliant side and this season he’s put us in a brilliant position.
I seem to recall your time away from the club lasting all of two weeks after your retirement as manager, before you were back at the club and watching from the terraces. I think you came in just to help out on a few odd jobs around the ground then you were thrust into the realms of the committee.
I could never step away from a Club like Dunston, it’ll be with me forever. I’ll always give 100% in everything I do. Mal had asked me to come onto the committee and I was always going to get involved and the help club out in any way I can.
You’ve played a massive part in pushing the club forward off the field, for those who don’t know what you do behind the scenes ,give us an idea of some of the things you’re involved with and what you’d like to see the club achieve.
You look at how the ground's developed recently, in my opinion we’ve got one of the best grounds in the league and I’ve been involved with that. A lot of time and effort has been put in by the likes of Alan Stott and Tony Cleugh in applying for grants and funding and I’ve been involved in seeing a lot of the ground improvement jobs getting completed. Cleughy, you and I are were asked to form a development committee and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes there, bringing in sponsors, the development of the club shop, all ways that we can help to push the club on. Now we’ve stepped up a level you do everything you can to support the club.
There’s a load that goes on behind the scenes at the club and it goes unnoticed sometimes. You get yourself down to the ground any day and you’ll see half a dozen of the committee working away on jobs. Mal’s never away from the place and he’s been a superb Chairman and I think a lot of credit should go to him along with the rest of the committee. Some of the committee have been involved with the club from the start, 40 odd years of solid graft, that’s a lifetimes worth of work which is unbelievable. We’ve got a superb committee, we always have had and that makes this club what it is. It’s like a Workingmen’s Club, just honest, hard working men who’ve put everything into developing Dunston UTS FC.
When The Federation Brewery pulled out there was a lot of uncertainty around the Club and we were looking at moving up then. Shaun Sadler came in with UTS Engineering Ltd and there is no way would be in the position we are now without the outstanding support he’s given us so there’s a lot of credit to go to him for what he’s done. It’s helped us massively to progress the club which is what we want to be doing.
Last season was declared null and void and with this season in limbo what are your personal thoughts on what should happen in regards to this season?
You look at the current death rates, the fact that two people at our club have already been affected by the virus. You want to see football return when it’s safe to do so and stop starting the League is no good. Combining last season’s results and this seasons results, when last season was declared null and void makes no sense. We’ve played something like 7 League games, and there’s sides in our League who have played less, you could say we’re in the play-offs but there’s not enough of the season played, so for me it’s a case this season being declared null and void and starting next season when it’s safe to do so.
Match report by Danny Whalen
Images courtesy of Ken Fitzpatrick and Kelvin Shell