Name: William McCleery
Born: 25 January 1902, Belfast
Representative Honours: Ireland: 10 Full Caps (1922-1932), 1 Amateur Cap (1922); Irish League: 11 Caps (1929-1935); League of Ireland: 1 Cap (1927).
Club Honours: (with Queen’s Island) Irish League Champion 1923/24; Irish Cup Winner 1923/24; City Cup Winner; Co. Antrim Shield Winner 1923/24; (with Linfield) Irish League Champion 1929/30, 1931/32, 1933/34, 1934/35; Irish Cup Winner 1929/30, 1930/31, 1933/34, 1935/36, Runner-Up 1931/32; Gold Cup Winner; City Cup Winner; Charity Cup Winner; Co. Antrim Shield Winner 1928/29, 1929/30, 1931/32, 1932/33, 1933/34, 1934/35.
Club Career:Clubs........... --Seasons-- League FA Cup
University...... (Belfast Minor League)
Queen’s Island.. 22/23-24/25
Linfield.. guest 24/25
Blackburn Rovers 24/25-25/26 23(0)/5 2(0)/0
Shelbourne...... (League of Ireland)
A multi-talented sportsman, Billy McCleery played both football and cricket for Ireland. On the cricket crease he was a classy all-rounder, playing in fourteen Irish Senior Cup Finals between 1929 and 1952, winning nine.
So too on the football field was McCleery as capable in defence as attack. In his early days with Cliftonville and Queen’s Island he was an accomplished inside-forward, earning a move to Blackburn Rovers on the strength of his performances in that role. Later in his career, with Linfield and Ireland, he was part of one of the Irish game's most renowned half-back lines, alongside Jack Jones and Tommy Sloan. His Irish League career yielded over twenty major trophies, many as captain.
Capped at Amateur level and in the inexperienced Full Irish side that played Norway in 1922 while with Cliftonville, McCleery had to wait seven years for further international caps. The second match of his international return saw him line-up in an all-Linfield half-back line (with Jones and Sloan), providing the bedrock for another Linfield player, Joe Bambrick, to score a double hattrick in a famous 7-0 win over Wales. He played eleven times for the Irish League; notable results being two wins over the Scottish League, a 2-2 draw with the Football League at Windsor and a 6-1 hammering of the League of Ireland at Dalymount Park. He also turned out once for the League of Ireland in a 5-1 defeat by the Welsh League.
Malcolm Brodie records McCleery’s career thusly in his book, Linfield – 100 Years (1985):
Billy McCleery, second youngest of a family of four boys and two girls, was born in Rutland Street on the Ormeau Road and it was in the “Holy Lands” and “The Plains” area of Belfast that he learned his football with 9th Boys’ Brigade (Fitzroy Avenue Presbyterian Church), a team called University, which competed in the Minor League; small in stature his inherent ability gradually developed at Cliftonville.
After playing for Ireland against Norway in Bergen, a match watched by the King and Queen of Norway, McCleery came back to Belfast and signed for Queen’s Island at £2 per week plus the bonus of a job in Harland and Wolff. He flourished even more among the Island giants Tucker Croft, Joe Gowdy, Sammy McKeown and Charlie Cowan; he won an Irish Cup medal with them, the first of six, the others, of course, coming as a player with Linfield.
Towards the end of the season, Linfield asked permission to play the Queen’s Island left-wing of Morton and McCleery against Blackburn Rovers in a friendly at Windsor Park, a match which was to change his life. He was scintillating but McCleery drove a hard bargain and it took two meetings before he agreed to join Blackburn with £500 given to him in cash on the spot.
He enjoyed his football, played the game on his own terms and the tangle of new experiences, impressions and excitement in the big time did not affect him.
For three years the young Ulsterman maintained a first-team place but in a trial match damaged his knee in a tackle which everyone at Ewood Park thought heralded the end of his English career so he was placed on the transfer list at £500. Clubs steered clear of him .. they didn’t want a crock player, one “with a bad knee”. With no managers showing interest, McCleery, disappointed and dejected, returned to Ireland, joined Shelbourne and, within a season, all his artistry and skill had returned.
The denizens of Linfield had been watching his progress. They asked him to sign but he declined. Then Davy Emerson met him at Castle Junction one Saturday morning as McCleery, carrying his cricket bag, was en route to Woodvale (his then cricket team). He invited him to play for the Blues in a Charity Cup Final against Celtic at Cliftonville. “If you play we’ll send a subscription to Woodvale”, promised Emerson. McCleery agreed, played a big part in the 4-0 triumph and so began a nine-year spell at Windsor park where he won all the honours and Ireland caps; on one occasion he took over in goals in an emergency!
He retired in 1936 and on April 1, 1939, became manager of Linfield but war work prevented him continuing for long and, after a dispute over sole control of team selection, he resigned to concentrate on cricket. His association with Linfield remained until his death; he acted in many capacities but perhaps his moment of great triumph was on April 25, 1956 when he managed the Irish League team which defeated the Football League 5-2 at Windsor Park.
Ireland Cap Details:25-05-1922 Norway.. A L 1-2 FR
19-10-1929 England. A L 0-3 BC
01-02-1930 Wales... H W 7-0 BC
20-10-1930 England. A L 1-5 BC
21-02-1931 Scotland H D 0-0 BC
22-04-1931 Wales... A L 2-3 BC
19-09-1931 Scotland A L 1-3 BC
05-12-1931 Wales... H W 4-0 BC
17-10-1932 England. A L 0-1 BC
07-12-1932 Wales... A L 1-4 BC
Summary: 10/0. Won 2, Drew 1, Lost 7.