Interview: John Dempsey

Image: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

John Dempsey made 171 appearances for Fulham between 1964-69 experiencing the highs of the top division, our original Great Escape and back to back relegations. A centre back by trade, he even played the odd game as a striker and scored a hat trick in his first game up front! With plenty to discuss, Daniel Smith spoke to John to reflect on the Republic Of Ireland Internationals career in SW6…

DS – Which club did you support growing up and who were your footballing heroes?

JD – When I was six years old my father used to take me to Fulham one week and when they played away he took me to Chelsea the next as that’s what happened back then.

My favourite players for Fulham were Johnny Haynes and Bobby Robson. Both great players and I loved watching them on the terraces by the Riverside. For Chelsea, Roy Bentley and Jimmy Greaves who were really great forwards to watch.

DS – Did you always want to be a centre back?

JD – When I was young (aged 8) playing in my local team, I was a centre forward and that continued at Comprehensive School where I was also a centre forward. It was only when I joined Fulham straight from school at the age of fifteen that George Milton who was in charge of the youth team turned me into a centre half. So, he is someone I have to thank for my career which I enjoyed.

DS – How did you get the opportunity to sign for Fulham?

JD – I was playing Sunday football for my local team in Regents Park and someone who was connected to Fulham asked if I would like to go training two nights a week after school at Fulham. I was fourteen when I started going and when I turned fifteen, I signed as an apprentice.

DS – Do you remember much about your first-team debut, a 2-0 defeat away at Millwall in an FA Cup replay?

JD – Arthur Stevens was caretaker manager and he told me on the day of the match in the morning that I would be playing. I was really excited to be playing and so were my parents. I was nervous but the players in the team made me feel good and gave me a lot of encouragement.

The game itself I enjoyed even though we lost it. It was a cold wet evening at a packed out Den. The atmosphere was so noisy.

DS – Who were the biggest personalities in the dressing room during your time at Fulham?

JD – The big personality in the dressing room was Tosh Chamberlin. He was such a funny man. Maurice Cook was also a character.

DS – Other than Haynes, who was the best player that you played with at the club?

JD – George Cohen was a great player and a great person as well.

DS – I’ve been told by a couple of fans who saw you play that you mastered the art of the slide tackle. Was this something you practised often in training and do you think it’s easier for modern-day players to perform a slide tackle with the better condition of the pitches?

JD – I learned the slide tackle when I was playing for the youth team and did it in games when I felt confident it would be successful. The pitches in those days were poor and there was hardly any grass as they cut up so bad and tended to be really muddy. Today they play on pitches that are like bowling greens so it is a lot easier to do for modern players.

DS – People often refer to the club’s top-flight survival in 2007/08 as ‘The Great Escape’ but you were part of the Fulham side who performed the original Great Escape in 1965/66. What do you remember about that final run in?

JD – The great escape was a miracle really because we were having problems winning games for most of the season. Then all of a sudden we beat both Liverpool and Leeds and went on a great run. Beating Northampton away was a really important result and that got us safe.

Dave Sexton was our coach and the person who should take all the credit for how we survived that season because he made us in to better players and a better team.

DS – Another question recommended was to pick your brains over a specific match against Spurs on the 11th February 1967 (we lost 4-2). Fred Callaghan was involved in a fight with Terry Venables and you had to intervene. It resulted in them both being both sent off. Do you remember what started it?

JD – What happened was Venables took a dislike to the way Fred tackled him. There were fisticuffs between the pair and I jumped in to separate them. The referee sent them both off which I was not happy with as I thought Venables caused the whole thing. So I started having a go at the ref and he booked me.

DS – You played as a centre forward on a handful of occasions during your spell at Fulham. As a centre back by trade, what was it like to score a hat trick against Northampton?

JD – Yes I played centre forward for a few games and that came about when my school teacher met Vic Buckingham and told him I used to be a centre forward in the school team. At that time we weren’t scoring a lot of goals and Vic said that he was going to try me up front while they looked for a new centre forward.

My first game as a forward was the game you’ve mentioned, against Northampton Town in the League Cup. I scored a hat trick in nineteen minutes which was a great feeling. I remember the player marking me was called Branson and I had him in a right pickle!

I scored against Everton in the next game which we won 3-2 and then played a handful more up front where I got another couple of goals. Then they signed Allan Clarke from Walsall and I went back to centre half. I enjoyed the brief spell I had as a forward.

DS – What was your relationship like with Vic Buckingham?

JD – Vic Buckingham came with a good record but he could be weird to work with sometimes. You could be walking past him and he would say what is one half times two or how long is a piece of string?

Also, if you were not fit to play he would say you are deadwood. I got on with him okay but when we did play well under him it was because Dave Sexton was the coach.

DS – How did the team take to Bobby Robson as manager? Was he given a fair chance at Fulham?

JD – Everyone loved Bobby Robson as a player and when he came back as a manager I was delighted. I didn’t feel he was given enough time and believed he could have done a good job as it was proved when he went onto Ipswich.

DS – The club suffered back to back relegations from the top flight and then you left to join Chelsea. Who’s decision was it for you to leave and did the relegations play a part in why you moved?

JD – The decision for me to leave was the managers at the time, Bill Dodgin. Chelsea had bid for me a while earlier before Dodgin was appointed. Johnny Haynes was the caretaker manager at the time and he refused to let me go. They came back in when Bill Dodgin had taken over and he agreed to sell me.

On the morning that I was signing for Chelsea, Bill Nicholson of Spurs phoned the club with a bigger bid but it was too late as I had already signed for Chelsea. But I was happy to go to Chelsea having supported both clubs when I was a boy. It was sad when I left Fulham because that’s where I started as a 15-year-old and I loved every minute of my time at the club. An era I will never forget.

DS – Having experienced playing for both clubs that you used to watch as a boy, do you feel a stronger personal connection to one more than the other?

JD – I feel close to both clubs as Fulham gave me my chance to be a professional footballer which I will never forget and I loved being part of the club. I was lucky to play with so many great players.

Chelsea was a big club to join and I was fortunate to play in a team that won the FA Cup in 1970 and the European Cup Winner in 1971. We beat Real Madrid 2-1 and I scored 1 of the goals.

I have happy memories from my time at both clubs.

DS – After Chelsea, you spent a few seasons in the States with Philadelphia Fury. How did that experience and lifestyle compare with the fourteen years or so that you’d spent in West London?

JD – I had three seasons playing for Philadelphia Fury. It was a massive change from playing in England as the country is so big and when you played back then it was really the start of a new sport for people in the USA as they had so many different sports. We played on astroturf and shared a stadium with the Baseball team, the Phillies and a football team called The Eagles.

We got crowds of 20,000 people which was not bad for a new sport and at the time, the New York Cosmos were the big team with top players. They were getting crowds of 40,000 at home games and were owned by Warner Brothers big film company. When you had to play away, most of the time you had to go by plane as a lot of games were a long way to travel, we even played in Canada for some games.

I enjoyed my time in the USA and was pleased that I got to experience living in another country. I was also pleased to come back to England because I did miss our way of living. In the States, it was a much faster way of life.

DS – What was your favourite match for Fulham?

JD – My favourite match has got to be Northampton away when we did so well to stay in the top division. It was such a crucial game to win. I still remember Steve Earle running 70-80 yards with the ball, going past players and scoring a great goal. What a moment and one which I will remember forever.

Scoring a hat trick against Northampton in the League Cup has to be a close second.

DS – Who were your closest friends at the club and have you managed to keep in touch with anyone from your Fulham days?

JD – My closest friend was Fred Callaghan. We were best man at each other’s wedding. We really got on well together but we have not really stayed much in touch which is a shame.

Les Barrett and Steve Earle were also good friends of mine. All three of them were really great players. It’s a shame that we can’t go back to when we were all together, that would be great.

DS – Who was the most difficult striker to play against in your whole career?

JD – The most difficult player to play against would have to be George Best because you did not know what he was going to do next when he attacked you. He was such a great player and could turn a game in a split second with his movement.

DS – Having been born in Hampstead to Irish parents, was it a difficult decision choosing to represent Ireland and not England at international level?

JD – Yes it was difficult decision to make between the two. I thought I may have a chance of playing for England at some point in my career and Vic Buckingham told me to wait and see if the call up would come. Eire had asked me on and off for a year about playing for them and eventually I agreed which made my parents very happy. I did not regret my decision at all and enjoyed my time playing for Eire.

DS – What have you been up to since retiring from football?

JD – When I finished playing football, I worked in a Centre for people with learning disabilities in Edgware for 25 years which I thoroughly enjoyed, it was so rewarding. I loved this job as much as I did playing football as I felt I was given something back to people that did not have much in life. It was a Centre that had 130 people, some with Down Syndrome, Autism, Challenging Behaviour. We had groups that ran in the Centre like Drama, Art, Pottery, Woodwork and Sport which I was in charge of.

DS – Finally John, pie or pasty – which filling?

JD – Steak and Kidney.