A famous photograph shows Noel Cantwell casually tossing the FA Cup above his head at Wembley in 1963. He had just led Manchester United to a 3-1 victory over Leicester City. His teammates Bobby Charlton, Tony Dunne, David Herd and Albert Quixall appear visibly stunned. They are staring wide-eyed at their captain flinging about what was then one of the most revered trophies in English football. Moments after the snap was taken, Cantwell got a tap on the shoulder from a stadium commissionaire reprimanding him for his cavalier treatment of the precious silverware.
“Don’t worry,” replied Cantwell. “I knew I would be able to catch it, I play cricket for Ireland.”
That sort of self-confidence was one reason Matt Busby appointed him captain almost as soon as he signed from West Ham United in 1960. The side he led out at Wembley fifty years ago included Charlton, Paddy Crerand, Johnny Giles, Denis Law, Dunne and Bill Foulkes. Nobody doubted he was equal to the task of leading them. At Upton Park, he’d practically been manager Ted Fenton’s first lieutenant for years, once famously advising him to give an untried 17-year-old called Bobby Moore his debut.
Cantwell was the first Cork soccer player to write an autobiography, United We Stand, the only manager to take Coventry City into Europe, and an Irish international batsman once bowled by Garfield Sobers. According to legend, he was in the nets at Cork County Cricket Club in The Mardyke when a messenger from Cork Athletic was dispatched to offer him his first professional break. Athletic, for whom his older brother Frank played, were a man short for a Shield game against Waterford United and Cantwell’s proximity earned him his debut.
Fenton later paid £750 to take him to London in 1952. How quickly he progressed in 12 months there was shown by his selection at centre-half for his international debut against Luxembourg in October 1953. With Ireland, whom he managed as interim boss for one game in 1968, his popularity arguably peaked on the occasion of his 30th cap at Dalymount Park on May 5, 1965.
Up to the 63rd minute of a World Cup qualifier against reigning European champions Spain, Cantwell had struggled to make an impact. Pressed into service from the outset as an emergency centre-forward -a tactic so successful he finished his international career with a stunning 14 goals in 36 appearances -he waited in the penalty box for Frank O’Neill to send in a free-kick from the right. O’Neill put the ball too close to the keeper, Jose-Angel Iribar, but Cantwell made a play for it anyway.
As was his style when in the opposing area, he had earlier charged into Iribar and got a mouthful of abuse back. This time he ran straight at the Spanish keeper, shouting insanely as he did so and causing the visitor to fumble the match winning goal into the net. The Spaniards were outraged at the manner of the defeat and the embarrassment caused to Iribar, a player reckoned at that time to be second only to the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin in his position. They exacted sweet revenge later that year, beating Ireland 1-0 in a playoff in Paris, ending Cantwell’s last hope of reaching a major finals.
Ireland’s progress at that time never matched his own. From the day he set foot in England, he had been learning. After training, the West Ham players would repair to an eaterie near Upton Park. At various times, the members of what became fondly known as the West Ham Academy included Cantwell, John Bond, Dave Sexton, Malcolm Allison, fellow Corkonian Frank O’Farrell and Jimmy Andrews, all of whom would go on to manage, with different degrees of success. Using salt cellars and pepper shakers, they questioned every orthodoxy and changed prevailing attitudes in the English game.
“We were getting away from the big hobnailed, toe-capped, dubbined boot and soon we were playing in lightweight boots and the day had gone when we had big shin pads,” said Cantwell. “Teams didn’t warm up before games – they got stripped five minutes before they went out and embarrassingly kicked the ball around – but we would go into the gym at quarter past two and have a fairly good workout and come back out then and get prepared. The weight-training gave you tremendous confidence. You felt stronger and you felt good. How one looks and how one appears is always very important. I think it helped when we got away from the baggy shorts and got all the good gear.”
That holistic approach meant Cantwell took his own shorts to wear on Ireland duty because he reckoned the international kit was sub-standard. During his last season at Old Trafford, his leadership qualities were acknowledged in another forum when he was elected chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). He relinquished the union job in 1967 to succeed Jimmy Hill as manager of Coventry City. Essentially, his task was to keep a newly-promoted but very average City side in Division One. He promoted fellow Corkonian Pat Saward from coach to assistant manager, and, having avoided relegation in his first two seasons, Coventry finished sixth in 1970, their highest league position, which gave them a ticket to the Fairs Cup.
In 1972, he took over as manager of Peterborough, an outfit then rooted to the bottom of the old Fourth Division, the worst-placed club in England. Cantwell brought some brio even to that humble role. “There is only one way to go now,” he told the press, “and that’s up!” He was true to his word. At the end of his first full season in charge they won the Fourth Division championship. Newspaper reports tell of him celebrating afterwards with champagne in hand and a massive cigar in his mouth. No matter how far he strayed off-Broadway, he never lost the flair for the big stage.
An unsentimental character who auctioned most of his football medals in 1995, Cantwell had one constant in his peregrinations, his home town. He once turned down a contract to play county cricket for Essex because it would have deprived him of his restorative summers in Cork. Cantwell never forgot where he learnt the game. Despite Busby occasionally preventing him travelling to Ireland for internationals, he did once persuade the United manger to allow him home to play in a friendly match against a Jerry Lane XI at the schoolboy pitch in Togher. No better example of his silver-tongue and common touch.