'At the time I was devastated. It was the biggest moment of my career, my life. I was in shock'

Jimmy Holmes suffered a traumatic injury while on Ireland duty in 1979 and everything changed for him at the age of just 25.

Image: Sport and General

JIMMY HOLMES DOESN’T remember much about facing Denmark in Copenhagen in May 1978. 

But there’s a good reason for that: the entire period is tainted by one seismic incident. 

That game was the first of eight European Championship qualifiers for the Republic of Ireland in an extremely competitive Group 1. With just a solitary side progressing to the finals, John Giles’ team were pitted against England, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and the Danes.

But, the Irish were struggling early owing to a string of stalemates, including a 3-3 opening day draw with the Scandinavians, the guests unforgivably conceding twice in the last eleven minutes to surrender a commanding lead. 

In May 1979, the Irish won the reverse fixture against the Danes thanks to goals from Gerry Daly and Don Givens and another victory in Sofia a week later would put them firmly back in contention. 

That was the night Holmes’ career was ruined. 

“It was the biggest moment of my life,” he says.

“I’d been there (in the Ireland senior side) for eight years, really, at left-back and didn’t have much competition from other guys. It was a 60-40 challenge and perhaps I shouldn’t have gone for it but I did and the leg was snapped in half, basically.”

Decades later, Paddy Mulligan, who was watching from the bench, recalled the moment in precise detail.

“I was screaming at Jimmy from the touchline,” he said. 

“I could see what was coming down the tracks – the Bulgarian player was going for the ball with his studs showing. ‘Don’t go, Jimmy’ I shouted. It was never Jimmy’s ball, but he had made up his mind up to contest the tackle. He was too brave for his own good.”

It was a double fracture of Holmes’ left leg. But worse was to follow. 

“I was in shock, really,” he says. 

“I looked down and the knee was going the other way. For those first few seconds you think, ‘I won’t ever play again’. But the first person that got to me was our physio, Doc O’Driscoll and he was brilliant. He pumped some morphine into me to relieve the pain, I was stretchered off and was brought straight down the hospital. They wanted to put the leg in plaster but it was proving difficult to do so they finally found some old bloke to do it. It seemed to be okay but within an hour the pain was back and it was killing me. I couldn’t do what I wanted, which was to just take it off. They just kept saying they’d give me more painkillers.”

On the flight back home, we stopped in Geneva and I came off the plane and went straight to another hospital. They took one look at it and took the plaster off. It sprung open and the relief was just amazing. But it was very red and there was a lot of congealed blood. We stayed overnight and went back to London the following day but there was already an infection. It was a bit of a disaster but they we got it fixed in England and they stuck the plate in there and it must be okay because it’s still in there.”

Holmes was just 25 and had been at Tottenham for the previous two years, having built up a fine reputation at Coventry City. Spurs forked out £120,000 for the full-back and he was part of a side that also boasted Glenn Hoddle, Steve Perryman, Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa. 

Soccer - Friendly - England v Ireland - Wembley Stadium Holmes, wearing number three and with his back to camera, defends an English attack during a clash at Wembley in 1976. Source: S&G

After Sofia, he was out of the game for twelve months. And even though he managed to keep his career going for a number of years afterwards, he’d never play at an elite level again. When Spurs went on to lift successive FA Cups in 1981 and 1982, Holmes was thousands of miles away. 

“It was a long period out to reflect on my life and my football,” he says. 

It had a massive impact on my career, and myself. At the time I was devastated. But I was hoping just to get back on a pitch sometime. I did and on reflection I had a great career. It was my goal to get back playing and I was happy with myself that I managed it. Things like the injury happen in football so I just had to take it on the chin. You just get on with it. I never played at that level again, even though I did sign for the Vancouver Whitecaps when Gilesy was coaching them in the early 1980s. Peter Lorimer was his assistant and I think John had half his Leeds team there with him, like David Harvey in goal and Ray Hankin. It was a good time and I spent a few years over there.”  

“Keith (Burkinshaw) was manager of Tottenham at the time I suffered the injury and he said they wanted me to start coaching with the youth side and that they’d give me a testimonial. I was very tempted by that but Gilesy came along and said, ‘Look, we’d love to have you because you’ve still got it’. So I went out there and really enjoyed it. I was just so pleased to be able to play again.”

Whitecaps 82 Home Team Holmes, second from left in the middle row, with his Vancouver Whitecaps' team-mates in 1982.

Giles was an idol for Holmes, who was born and raised in The Liberties. He learned the game on Meath Street and around the Oliver Bond flats. His father, an obsessive football fan, adored Charlie Hurley and Noel Cantwell in particular and there would be regular pilgrimages to watch the Ireland team play at Dalymount Park.     

After impressing as a youngster with St John Boscos – a dominant force at underage level – Holmes was approached by Manchester United’s legendary scout Billy Behan. Very quickly, a deal was arranged.    

“I was all geared to go to Manchester United and had met Matt Busby at the Gresham Hotel,” he says. 

“It was all lined up. I shook hands with him and he said, ‘We’re looking forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks, son’. I was shaking when I met him. Afterwards I heard from Bunny Fulham, a Coventry scout and who was a drinking partner of my Dad’s, that Coventry were interested in me too. But I told him that I was going to Manchester United. Anyway, one night, there was a knock on the door and it was Noel Cantwell, then Coventry manager and my father’s main man. He was gobsmacked and didn’t know what to say. And I remember Noel having to duck his head down coming in the door.” 

He wanted me to sign for his team but I told him I didn’t want to go and that I’d already agreed things with Matt Busby. But my brother Paul took me out the back. He said, ‘They’ve come all the way over here to try and sign you and you’ll have to join them’. I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Because they’ve just bought the house’. So I didn’t go to Coventry, it was more like being sent to Coventry. But I was quite happy with that. It meant no more rent for my Mum and Dad. I think the club paid about £4,000 to buy them the house.” 

While at Coventry, Holmes – the kid from Meath Street – was handed a senior debut at just 17 years of age, a record that still stands. At the end of May 1971, he trotted on to replace Don Givens in a qualifier defeat to Austria. At Dalymount Park. 

Soccer - Football League Division One - Coventry City Photocall - Highfield Road The legendary Noel Cantwell, who signed Holmes for Coventry during his stint as manager. Source: PA Photos

In the stands were his beaming parents and a litany of boisterous cousins, all screaming him on. 

“I couldn’t get enough tickets,” he says. 

“Aunts, uncles, cousins – they jumped the turnstiles, the lot of them. I used to go there all the time and watch Bohs play and you’d walk over from The Liberties. To be on the pitch with all those players was just amazing. Steve Heighway was starting to come through at that stage too and it was some experience. Alan Kelly in goal, Eamonn Rogers, a young Don Givens, Ray Treacy, John Giles, Joe Kinnear, all these players. Great memories.

“Mick Meagan was the manager and I was getting warmed up. He said to me, ‘Go in and tell Joe (Kinnear) to push on into midfield and you’ll slot in at right-back’. So I said, ‘Hang on, Mick – I’m a left-back’. But he says, ‘No, I’ve seen you play right-back before – you’ll be fine’. I ran on but went straight across to Tony Dunne and told him Mick wanted him to swap to right-back for the last 20 minutes. It meant I slotted in at left-back for that first game.”  

In total, he’d play 30 times and certain games stand out, like the 1-1 draw with England in 1976 and the tour of South America two years earlier that included a memorable clash against Brazil at the Maracana. 

“I’d watched Jairzinho in the World Cup on the telly and he was a big, powerful right-winger, scored amazing goals,” Holmes says. 

“And I felt, ‘Right, I’m up against it today’. And I was really up against it because he ran me ragged. Early on, I shouted to Eoin Hand, ‘I saw this bloke on the telly, you’ve gotta give me a bit of cover here’ and Eoin said, ‘I don’t think so, Jim – I’m picking yer man up’. And I went, ‘Who’s that?’ And he says, ‘Rivelino’ and we both started laughing. At half-time, Gilesy said to me, ‘You okay, Jim?’ and I told him, ‘No John, I’m absolutely knackered.’ So Tony Dunne went on and I didn’t go out for the second half. I was absolutely shattered but what an experience. I loved it. To be playing at the Maracana stadium at such a young age – 18 or 19 – was just amazing.”

Jairzinho Holmes didn't have the happiest of experiences when he faced a formidable Jairzinho in 1974. Source: DPA DEUTSCHE PRESS-AGENTUR

“We had so much pride in the team, it was amazing. Giles said to us, ‘Right lads, anywhere we play in the world, we face the flag wherever it may be’. Sometimes the other team would be looking at us because the flag might have been behind us but we’d all turn around in a line and face it for the anthem. An amazing feeling. It still gives me goose pimples just thinking about it.” 

His family were understandably proud. His father, such a keen student of the game, would hold court for hours in various watering holes and provide updates on his son’s latest game or trip to all and sundry.   

“I used to catch him sometimes,” Holmes says. 

“I’d walk into a pub and he’d always be talking about football and it would be, ‘Alright Da’, are you talking about me again?’ He had five brothers and they were just as mad as him. Always at the matches. Good times.”

He’d ring me every Friday at about 5 o’clock, when he’d knock off work with the Corporation. He’d call from the GPO on O’Connell Street and he’d have all his money lined up and would just pop the coins in and we’d have a chat for about 20 minutes or so. He’d do it religiously. Every Friday, right up until he passed away, bless him. He didn’t come over here many times but when he did he loved going to Coventry to watch me and later he’d come to Tottenham too.”

“Just to be able to go to some places as a young person and taking all of it in was amazing. To be at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and gazing out at the city and the beaches was just incredible, especially for me coming from The Liberties. The family were always excited about what I was doing. ‘Look at yourself, Jim – it’s a long way from Meath Street’. I was a choirboy and altar boy in John’s Lane Church in Thomas Street and knew all the pubs in Meath Street that my Dad used to go into. Bohan’s, The Clock on Thomas Street and Ryan’s – his favourite – on Meath Street. Then there was The Coconut shop where I used to get all my toys at Christmas time and Fusco’s fish and chip shop too. It was like a booming little city. An amazing place. It made such an impression on me and my life as a kid. It’s dead easy to remember all the names. I played most of my football with my mates down in Oliver Bond because they had a big square. Where I lived in Meath Street there was a similar, smaller square but there were steel poles for hanging the washing so you’d run into those bloody things and they’d catch you when you’re chasing the ball.”

Coventry City v Peterborough United - Sky Bet League One - Ricoh Arena Holmes, seen here at Coventry in 2017, is a regular visitor to the club. Source: Scott Heavey

Holmes later shunned a career in management and coaching. Instead he went to police college and served as a Coventry-based copper for 23 years, which he loved. Based in nearby Nuneaton these days, he’s still not quite retired and is a chauffeur for the local mayor.

He doesn’t dwell on the injury anymore. But he does have one regret about his international football career: the lack of a major tournament appearance.  

“It was very disappointing,” he says. 

“We had the players – Liam, Gerry Daly – guys that could walk into any team. Paddy Mulligan, Joe Kinnear. They had experience but were ready for the next step. And there was John, who had been there and done it with Leeds and who was a calming influence. Don Givens, Ray Treacy, Stevie Heighway – great players. There was a great mixture so it was very disappointing and I was quite jealous when the team did reach the Euros and the World Cup. But, I’m lucky to have such fond memories regardless.”              

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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