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The ex-Ireland international who shared a screen with Pele, Bobby Moore and Sylvester Stallone

Kevin O’Callaghan recalls the filming of ‘Escape to Victory’ 40 years on.

Kevin O'Callaghan pictured during his Ipswich days.
Kevin O'Callaghan pictured during his Ipswich days.
Image: EMPICS Sport

NOT MANY PEOPLE get to beat Brazil, win the Uefa Cup and feature in a beloved Hollywood film by a legendary director, but former Ireland international Kevin O’Callaghan did all three in the space of a couple of years.

It’s 40 years since the release of ‘Escape to Victory,’ a 1981 John Huston film starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Pelé and shot in Budapest.

As well as the Brazilian superstar, a host of notable names from the world of football appeared, including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, Kazimierz Deyna, Paul Van Himst, Mike Summerbee, Hallvar Thoresen and Werner Roth.

And unusual as it may seem in a modern context, there were also several Ipswich Town footballers involved — O’Callaghan was given the most prominent role of the contingent, but John Wark, Russell Osman, Laurie Sivell and Robin Turner also appeared onscreen, while Kevin Beattie and Paul Cooper stood in for Caine and Stallone respectively during some of the football scenes.

With a $10 million budget, the film grossed a respectable $27.5 million at the box office but has become increasingly popular in the intervening years. 

It’s the type of movie you can easily pick up midway through and it’s worth watching for the spectacular climactic football game alone. With an entertaining, if more than a little implausible plot not dissimilar from other prisoner-of-war pics such as ‘The Great Escape,’ it was the type of film that soon became a staple of Saturday afternoon TV.

The story concerns a group of footballers who are interned in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. They agree to play an exhibition match against a German team in exchange for better living conditions, all the while secretly plotting an escape plan.

The inclusion of many Ipswich footballers may seem very random at first glance, but less so when you consider they were one of the best teams in Europe at the time.

Two months before the film’s US release, they beat AZ in the Uefa Cup final. They also finished second in the English top-flight that season, only four points behind champions Aston Villa, while they would go on to repeat their runners-up finish the following season.

“Basically, [then-Ipswich manager] Bobby Robson just came in the dressing room one day,” O’Callaghan tells The42. “He said they’re making this film, they want some players. We were only going to do the football. ‘Does anyone want to go?’ Quite a few of us volunteered and that’s how we ended up going out there.

“We went out there and [other] footballers that had the talking parts, they were foreigners and it was broken English, so the director said: ‘Look, we need some English-speaking boys.’ We all had to do voice tests, so that’s how I got my talking part.”

Source: The Popcorn Drop/YouTube

Aged just 18 at the time of filming, O’Callaghan suddenly found himself in the company of some of the most famous names in football.

“I got to know them really well. I got to know Bobby Moore. My house is probably a mile away from West Ham. Everyone sort of idolised Bobby. The first day there I got a picture, I’ve still got it now. It was me and Bobby Moore on one side and Pele on the other side. So I got to know him really well. I got to know Ossie really well. Mike Summerbee was there, so I got to know him quite well. It was brilliant. For a young lad, it was surreal really. One day, I’m sitting next to Pele and Bobby Moore and having a chat and playing football with them — it was fantastic.”

He continues: “Bobby Moore was at our hotel. Pele was counted as a big star and at another hotel. But he came out a couple of nights with us. If we wished to go to this restaurant, his manager would just get him a bottle of brandy or whiskey, then he’d get his guitar out and we’d have a sing-song. And he was brilliant when we weren’t filming. He’d want to play football with us and muck around — that’s all he wanted to do. Bobby Moore would just sit down and watch everyone. I don’t think he was as fit. I think his knees were a bit dodgy. 

“But Pele was amazing. To have him like that was just fantastic, just watching him do the film. He had the bit where he does the overhead kick. The story was that, back in those days, the slo-mo camera cost something like £5,000 a second. They said they had two or three takes max. And when you see him do that overhead kick, it was [a case of] first take into the back of the net. For him to do that at his age, he was [on the verge of turning 40], the ball hits the back of the net before Laurie Sivill dives. Everyone just looked at each other and went: ‘Wow, that is unbelievable.’”

And O’Callaghan actually had a small role to play in this memorable moment.

“I was the one who pinged the ball out to Bobby Moore and he crossed it for Pele,” he explains.

And despite being acutely aware of both the literal and figurative cost of messing up this scene, he adds: “I didn’t feel the pressure, I was confident that I could do it.”

Of the two major Hollywood stars in the film, O’Callaghan says: “I had to do a scene with Michael Caine and obviously, I was really nervous, and he was brilliant with me. And because I played for Millwall — I’d just gone to Ipswich obviously — but he was from Elephant and Castle, which is near Millwall, so he loved that I had played for Millwall.

“And he really settled me down. We did the scene in one take, so he was really good.

“When you’re filming, obviously you have to break up and some of the cabins [in the film] were canteens, so Caine would go in there and chat with us. Stallone wouldn’t. But he would. He was such a nice bloke.”

On Stallone, O’Callaghan adds: “He was the big star, wasn’t he? He’d just done the first two Rocky films. Once or twice he sat with us, but most of the time he’d just go back to his caravan and if there was a break, we’d have a game of football with Pele, two in the middle around a circle. But Stallone wouldn’t mix with us much really.”

film-escape-to-victory Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine star in Escape to Victory. Source: DPA/PA Images

Despite having virtually no knowledge of football (as was the case in real life), Stallone’s character Robert Hatch manages to convince West Ham footballer John Colby (played by Caine) to let him join the team, initially as the trainer, to facilitate his own plans to escape the camp.

Without delving too deeply into the plot, at one point, it becomes necessary for Hatch to be in the starting XI for the team. Despite being a winger in real life, O’Callaghan is the side’s goalkeeper in the film. To get Hatch out of solitary confinement, Colby tells the Nazis that he is their backup goalkeeper and is needed because their regular number one has broken his arm. The Germans want proof of this injury, so in one memorable scene, Caine’s character is forced to actually break the arm of Tony Lewis (played by O’Callaghan) and ensure Hatch can compete instead.

“A story about that is when I came back, we started the season, and I’d been a sub for the first six or seven games. I went in to see Bobby Robson and said: ‘I want to play in the reserves.’ He went: ‘No, you’re not playing. We’ve got a game at Norwich, we need you in case we have to bring you on.’ I said: ‘I want to play, I’m sick to death of being a sub.’ He said: ‘Alright, you can play the first half.’ So I’m playing the game, I get through, the ‘keeper comes out and I have a bit of a clash with him. I spun around and heard a crack. I thought we’d clashed shinpads, but when I look down, my arm that I ‘broke’ in the film was snapped in half. So it was such a coincidence, it was eerie. It was a nightmare, Bobby Robson wasn’t too happy. But it was funny that I broke the arm I broke in the film.”

O’Callaghan was ultimately paid a flat fee of £6,000, choosing that option over royalties, which in hindsight looks like an unwise decision given how frequently the film has been replayed on television.

“When we got the talking parts, we found out that the boys who were on the talking parts originally were on more money than us. It was Freddie Fields who was the producer, quite a hard-nosed businessman. We went in there and asked for more money. He went: ‘None of us have any.’ We said: ‘Well, we’ll go home then.’ We had already done some scenes by then. And he gave us a spiel about: ‘Who’s the best actor, Caine or Stallone?’ We said, Caine. He said ‘Stallone is on twice as much as Caine.’ We said: ‘We don’t care.’ Anyway, we ended up getting our money but he wasn’t too happy about it.

“To be fair, there were only three of us who got talking parts: me, Russell Osman and Johnny Wark. But we were negotiating for all the other boys as well. So they said to us: ‘What about royalties?’ But to be honest, we didn’t know it was going to be such a big film and become probably one of the most replayed films ever. It seems to be on every other week. But how it works, I would have thought it would be 0.01% [of the profits] or something like that. So we took the money and ran.”

The actual filming didn’t clash at all with the players’ footballing commitments. It took place during the summer of 1980 over the course of five weeks, with O’Callaghan and co back at Ipswich in time for pre-season training.

“We had a premiere in Ipswich. That was the first time we’d ever seen any of it. It was received quite well. The [Ipswich] boys that didn’t go, I think, were a bit disappointed that they never went.”

escape-to-victory The Allied Soccer Players: Osvaldo Ardiles, Paul van Himst, Bobby Moore, Pele, John Wark, Sylvester Stallone, Co Prins, Michael Caine. Source: DPA/PA Images

And did the accomplished likes of Huston, Stallone and Caine ever get frustrated at having to work with so many non-professional actors?

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“I don’t remember all of us who had scenes mucking up or anything like that, so I think it went alright. Everyone was fine.

“The funny thing was when we’d finished, we had to go back into London to do some voiceover work. ‘Over here, on the head,’ and bits and pieces for the film. When it showed Johnny Wark’s clips, his voice had been dubbed. So he wasn’t too happy about that, while we were laughing our heads off. [His accent] was a quite broad Scottish.

“But most of it went alright. With Stallone, it was like the saying, he couldn’t catch a cold, we had to teach him how to catch the ball, so it went both ways really.”

Despite being mistakenly referred to as ‘Kevin O’Calloghan’ in the end credits, the former player now looks back on the experience fondly.

“For a young lad like me to be out there, I was star-struck really as just an 18-year-old making my way. It was just the best experience ever.

“I can remember so much about it, it’s just amazing really.

“I was at the premiere and saw bits and pieces on telly [down through the years], though had never really watched it. But the year before last, a fella in Ipswich did a question-and-answer show for us and that was the first time I had watched the film in 38 years. So it was interesting to see. 

“I’m a member at my local golf club, and [people say] ‘I saw you on TV last night,’ or someone was talking about it on the radio, so I always get reminded about it.

“God knows how many times it’s been played, it must be one of the most played films ever made I think.”

O’Callaghan would make over 100 appearances for Ipswich, in addition to playing for Millwall, Portsmouth and Southend, before a knee injury brought a premature end to his career in 1993. So what has he been up to since?

“I coached the kids at Millwall for four or five years. I brought a few good players through like Tim Cahill, Paul Ifill and Reidy [Steven Reid] who played for Ireland and then I came out of that. I was going to emigrate when my daughter was going to university, but it didn’t pan out, she wasn’t very well, then I got a job at the engineering company and I’ve been working at that ever since.”

paul-mcgrath-kevin-ocallaghan-john-byrne-and-liam-obrien Paul McGrath, Kevin O'Callaghan, John Byrne and Liam O'Brien in the Irish wall during the 1987 friendly against Brazil. Source: INPHO

Born in Dagenham, O’Callaghan had a Cork-born father and a mother from East Ham. Owing to the familial link, he represented Ireland on 21 occasions, including two games against Brazil. He was part of a heavily depleted Boys in Green side under Eoin Hand that suffered a thrashing, while he also took part in the famous 1-0 win under Jack Charlton in Dublin five years later. Somewhat surprisingly, he almost speaks more fondly of the former fixture, given the calibre of player they were up against.

“We played Brazil out in Brazil before the ’82 World Cup. We were beaten 7-0. I played against the best team I’d ever seen in my life — Eder, Socrates, Zico, they were just amazing. And we could have been winning at half-time. Second half they just blitzed us. Also, I played in the game when we beat Brazil in Lansdowne Road. Liam Brady scored the winning goal. I never played again after that [for Ireland]. [Jack Charlton] kept ringing me up. I kept getting injured, I couldn’t get fit. He wanted me to go to the World Cup, but it was just a nightmare, I was having so many injuries then.

“[The 1-0 win] would have been a highlight, but I played against the best team I’d ever seen in my life [in '82]. I know we got beaten 7-0, but it was just mind-blowing what they did. And to be fair, they should have won that World Cup if it weren’t for [Paulo] Rossi scoring a hat-trick [against them], they should have cruised to victory, they had so many good players.”

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Paul Fennessy

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