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Winning the '4 in a row,' getting capped by Ireland and escaping a 2016 terrorist attack

Ex-Shamrock Rovers player Peter Eccles is the latest to feature in our League of Ireland Legends series.

Peter Eccles pictured during his time with Home Farm Everton.
Peter Eccles pictured during his time with Home Farm Everton.

PETER ECCLES COULD hardly have imagined what lay ahead when he first laced up a pair of football boots, lining out for Cabra side St Brendan’s.

The defender started playing organised soccer around the age of nine and was not an obvious contender to be a future footballer, with none of his family having any connection to the game.

“My dad died when I was six,” he tells The42. “He was a boxer. My other brother didn’t play any sport and I had three sisters, they played camogie and that was it.

“I suppose where I was brought up in Cabra, there was a play centre beside me and all we used to do there was play football.

“So that was probably one of the reasons why I was roped into it. You were given a football and you had to give it back at a certain time of the day.”

At the age of 18, Eccles signed for Shamrock Rovers. John Giles had been in charge of the Hoops for a few years by that stage, and the Leeds legend helped convince him to join, despite Billy Young’s Bohemians also being keen on the defender.

“I was totally in awe of Johnny Giles,” he recalls. 

“He had said he saw me play, he wanted me to sign and could see better things for me. He introduced me to a few of the players there and just sold the club to me.

“All the first teamers weren’t full-time, but we had a full-time set-up.

“We had a load of lads from Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada over playing with us. Gilesy at the time was going over there managing a team [in the summer].

“I was training with [former Leeds players] Peter Lorimer and David Harvey, guys who I looked at in the ’70s playing soccer on Match of the Day or midweek on BBC One.

“You look at these lads who are over, it was a total whirlwind and the complete opposite to where I’d come from, playing for schoolboy football.”

Hoping to become the dominant side in Ireland and also to make an impact at European level, under Giles, Rovers fell short of these goals — the 1978 FA Cup and the 1979 Tyler Cup were the only trophies they won in his six years in charge. However, everything changed once Jim McLaughlin was appointed the manager in 1983.

“Gilesy for me was way ahead of his time. He wanted to play pure football, passing the ball around the back, a bit like they’re doing now. 

“He had a team that was actually fit for that purpose, with good lads in the middle of the park, Robbie Gaffney, Ritchie Bayly, Kieron Maher, all these guys could get the ball down and play. But we were overpowered and outmuscled at times, and it probably didn’t suit at that time, because things were more physical. 

“Jim McLaughlin, who had more of a background in League of Ireland, came in and changed the personnel. Not that we got more physical, but we were built to take the challenge on of the physicality from any of the lads that came our way.

“Plus, Jim was a very good man manager and team manager. We could play football, but we matched anybody [physically as well].”

harry-kenny-paul-doolin-peter-eccles-pat-byrne-and-john-coady-with-the-cup-in-the-dressing-room Shamrock Rovers players celebrate with the FAI Cup in 1986. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

McLaughlin oversaw what some people regard as the greatest team to ever grace the League of the Ireland — the famous ‘four-in-a-row’ Shamrock Rovers side, who as the moniker suggests, won four league titles in succession, coupled with three FAI Cups.

“I consider myself lucky to have been always involved in it. We had some standout players in that team. We had an invincibility about ourselves as well. When we went away, we had that thing that we were going to win. It wasn’t: ‘Are we going to win?’ It was: ‘We’re going to win.’”

Around this era, Eccles represented Ireland at underage level and also featured in qualifiers for the Olympics, while most notably earning one cap at senior level. He came off the bench to replace Tottenham star Chris Hughton during a 1-1 draw with Uruguay for a 1986 friendly.

“It was a proud moment for me, absolutely. I always go back to my manager Sonny Carroll in St Brendan’s, my family, I was representing all of them.

“It was for less than half a game, but I made it. I didn’t get any more [caps] unfortunately. But I got there and I was so happy.”

This appearance came in just the second match of Jack Charlton’s reign, amid what would become the most successful period of Ireland’s football history.

“It was quite amusing to see how that thing happened. I was training with them and I was going in with all the stars, and Jack didn’t know half of them.

“It was funny listening to him, because he was getting the names mixed up. He was prompted by Mick Byrne at the back who would say: ‘You’ve got the wrong name there.’ But the players thought it was funny and it didn’t bother him. He was just there to do a job. You could see he was building a good team and a good atmosphere around the place. It was interesting times for me and good to get an insight into that.”

Unfortunately for Eccles and his team-mates, Rovers’ dominance was brought to a halt almost as quickly as it was established.

The controversial decision by the club’s directors to sell Milltown to property developers was effectively the beginning of the end. Fans placed a picket on home games at the club’s new stadium, Tolka Park, and a period of financial turmoil ensued.

As a result, the majority of the ‘four in a row’ side had to be broken up, with Eccles among the many players to reluctantly depart.

He moved to Australia and briefly played with Perth-based Kingsway Olympic during the summer months.

While over there, he received a call from David Pleat, manager of Leicester City, who were playing in English football’s second tier at the time.

Eccles was in his late 20s at this stage and baulked at the offer of a trial, but after returning to Dublin, Pleat convinced him to train with the Foxes and he eventually joined the club on a two-year deal.

soccer-leicester-v-spurs Eccles worked under David Pleat at Leicester City. Source: PA

However, the short-lived experience in English football proved an unhappy one for the Dubliner.

“I was homesick coming from Australia and I really wanted to come back. My head was back in Ireland. I only was there about a week and I was loving every minute of it and I was off again. That affected me, I think. Mentally, I didn’t buy into it. Football-wise, I thought I was doing well. I was starting to get fitter as I was training, probably three or four months into it.

“I was very fit then, I was playing, I was coping. I had a chance to play in the first team, it was away to Blackburn. I came off at half-time. I pulled my hamstring and I never got in [to the starting XI] again then.

“I really wanted to go. Pleat knew I wanted to go. We had the conversation a couple of times. I said: ‘I don’t want to stay in England, I want to go home.’

“We came to an agreement that we’d sever the deal. He was happy and I was happy, and the two of us shook hands.”

Eccles continues: “Anybody that I played with wanted to go play in England, myself included.

“But I think the shine had gone off it. I was 27-28, I wasn’t a young kid anymore and it just didn’t go for me. I thought I was good enough to stay and play, to be fair. But I just didn’t want to do it. Mentally, I wanted to come home.”

Reflecting on it now, Eccles suggests the levels of support for young players coming in from different countries were inadequate during that era.

“People don’t realise, they’re only kids. They’re coming across, trying their luck, and they’re probably not getting the rub of the green.

“Some lads are lucky enough to hit the ground running and a lot of lads, who would be more than capable of playing football sometimes don’t get someone throwing an arm around them, saying: ‘Listen, are you okay?’ 

“You’re left to your own devices. You’re left into a big pool and off you go. If you come out the other end, well and good. That’s how it looked to me. It was ‘either you sink or swim here boys, it’s up to you.’” 

Both Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk wanted to sign Eccles following news of his return to Ireland. He ended up joining the latter, but quickly changed his mind, and switched to the Hoops after just a handful of appearances for the Lilywhites.

By then managed by Noel King, Rovers at first were a pale shadow of their great 1980s side, invariably finishing around mid-table.

Eccles puts their struggles down to financial issues and a lack of “marquee signings,” with inexperienced youngsters instead entrusted to perform to high levels.

The situation gradually improved after former Ireland international Ray Treacy became manager in 1992.

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rt Eccles had a falling out with Shamrock Rovers boss Ray Treacy.

Having finished eighth in the 1992-93 campaign, a number of important players were recruited and Eccles captained the club to their 15th league title the following season.

“I did appreciate it. I knew myself that the clock was ticking away [on my career]. So to win the league then was fantastic.”

And while everything was going well on the pitch, behind the scenes, the relationship between Eccles and the late Treacy became increasingly strained.

“Myself and Ray would have been good buddies off the park, but when it came to football, the two of us didn’t see eye to eye. Ray wanted the full-backs to call the shots, I wanted the centre-backs to call the shots [with regard to] standing in a line and how we pick up.

“I basically said to the full-backs, because I was the senior pro at the time, that I’d call the shots. It got back to Ray and he thought I was undermining him, which I wasn’t really. We were getting clean sheets and we were winning. But things developed then and there was a little bit of a falling out over that.

“Ray wanted to move in a different direction. I said I’d play until the end of the season and then [depart]. So it wasn’t a happy time. I didn’t leave on good terms, which was sad.”

Eccles’ career thereafter took an unfortunate turn. Shortly after joining Northern Irish club Crusaders, he suffered a broken leg, which kept him out of action for a year.

“I think I was short changed on the injury with Crusaders,” he says. “I probably should have been looked after a bit better. They were up there and obviously, I was training in Dublin.

“I should have been doing more things to build the leg up and got stuck into training. So it probably would have been down to me as well, but I should have got more physio looking back on it, because it finished my career really, the leg break, even though I did line out for teams after that.”

With his Crusaders stint over before it really began, Eccles joined Home Farm Everton in 1995, but still never really felt quite right physically.

“I probably should have got an operation on my ankle. But I was limping when I went to play for Home Farm. I was just going through the motions, trying to loosen the leg up. I was more or less trying to get myself fit rather than play.

“And about four or five games into that, I broke my foot. That knocked me for six, and then it just went downhill after that. The mobility in my ankle was gone completely, and my ligaments weren’t working properly. That really finished me. Home Farm Everton got a raw deal really, because they were paying my wages. I felt I short-changed them. I’m sorry for that. They brought me to play and I didn’t give what I should have given them at the time.”

Source: ShamrockRovers/YouTube

Late spells at Athlone and Shamrock Rovers (for a third time) proved similarly short-lived and unsuccessful.

“Looking back on it now, I wasn’t good enough maybe. I’d probably lost a yard, not being as mobile as I should have been. My ankle was holding me back a little bit and I was going into every game thinking: ‘I hope my ankle doesn’t give way.’ I was preoccupied with guarding myself from injury and trying to get fit, so I wasn’t really playing well.”

A talented Gaelic footballer, having lined out for Naomh Fionnbarra in Cabra as a youngster, after finishing soccer, Eccles went back to play GAA with Clonee-based club Erin Go Bragh for a couple of years.

He was never tempted to go into coaching at League of Ireland level and these days, his main link to football is through watching his 17-year-old son Ciaran playing for local side Castleknock Celtic.

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Now 58, Eccles has long appreciated having the opportunity to lead a good life and being one of the lucky few to experience a career in football, and particularly so in light of one fateful day, which served as a reminder of how fragile existence can be.

He arrived on a family holiday to Nice on 14 July 2016, amid an evening that would come to be remembered as one of the most tragic in France’s history.

“The thing about it is we got there and as you do, you throw everything into the apartment and off you go,” he remembers. “Just as we got out the door, you see about six armed guys walking around with big guns. You think: ‘Jeez, I’m on my holidays, what’s going on?’

“I just sort of dismissed it. I thought maybe it was security and the way it was done over there. But I saw a car being pulled in by armed police. They took no prisoners, they took the people out of the car and were searching the car. Again, I just thought ‘security’ and I didn’t know what was going on. I thought they were making sure everything was going okay. But seeing what happened, I’m nearly sure now that they knew there was something going to happen that day.”

The country was already on high alert, with the Paris attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 137 people, only taking place a couple of months earlier.

During the evening, while celebrations for Bastille Day were well underway on the Promenade des Anglais, a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people.

The incident resulted in the deaths of 86 people, while 458 others were injured. The driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France, was ultimately shot and killed by police.

terror-attack-in-france Flowers, candles and toys lie at the scene in Nice, France, July 16, 2016 where a truck drove into a crowd during Bastille Day celebrations. Source: DPA/PA Images

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which sent shockwaves across the world. A state of emergency was extended in France, having been instigated in reaction to the Paris attacks, while six people were arrested in connection with the incident, which prompted three days of national mourning.

“We went out for a meal, myself, my wife, my daughter and my son,” Eccles recalls. “We got there and there were fireworks on the beach.

“We were just sitting down and bang. I tell you now, I was a whisker away from being caught, the truck nearly caught me. I had to push Ciaran and Kathleen, my wife, out of the way. Grainne had walked ahead. I thought Ciaran would have been hit by the truck, but thank God, he moved out of way and I was sort of trying to outrun the truck. But it was all panic. The truck turned, hit a pole, and off he went then. He caused nothing but mayhem there. The scenes after weren’t too nice either.”

While Eccles and his family managed to escape without suffering serious physical harm, he says the emotional impact of the tragedy lasts to the present, and he is often reminded of it during his day job working for the Irish Coast Guard.

“Sometimes, I’m sitting in traffic and I can still see the vehicle coming towards me. I work up in Ballycoolin in the industrial estate and the same man with the black grille [truck] comes around every so often and it reminds me of Nice.

“But again, you manage that. You try to put it one side. But it was a shocking time for me and the family.”

He continues: “I don’t want to go into it too much, but I saw a lot of people dead. I saw an American girl turn around after the policeman, who was actually shooting at the thing, just trying to tell him that her dad was after being run over. Her dad and brother were killed. They were the same age as me and my son.

“You’re sort of sitting there and thinking: ‘God.’ It puts a lot into perspective.

“You just see people coming in in bad ways.

“We ran into a restaurant. They didn’t want us to enter, but we just burst in. We said: ‘Look, this is going on.’

“Initially, when it happened, no one knew what was going on. They didn’t know if it was an accident or whatever. But for me, it was quite clear that it was deliberate.

“We tried to get shelter. They weren’t letting us, and tried to put us back out, and I wasn’t having that. I was staying where I was, and they soon realised [what was happening].

“The police killed [the perpetrator] less than 100 yards away from us after going by us. But there was shooting still going on and everybody was texting and [there were claims] there are people around shooting everybody in the hotels and all that. We were stuck in a hotel and heard all this lark on Twitter. Everyone was starting to panic.

“Suddenly, all the people went to their rooms and all the people who were out on the street stuck there [were allowed in], and we were trying to communicate that we want to get out of here, trying to get somewhere safe.”

terror-attack-in-france Police secure the area in Nice, France, July 15, 2016 where a truck drove into a crowd during Bastille Day celebrations. Source: DPA/PA Images

Following an incredibly tense period of waiting for the situation to become calmer, Eccles and his family ran out of the Negresco restaurant and managed to get back to their apartment safely, before cutting short the holiday and returning home the next day. 

“After about an hour, they said: ‘Listen, get out the side door.’ They did it in small group runs. So it was me, the family and a couple from Antrim, they were next to run out the door, and then you go where you have to go. And that was it. It was a shocking time and hard to put to bed for a long time after.

“So it puts things in perspective and I appreciated again, how lucky I was to be involved in soccer. It gave me a good life, playing it and seeing the world. I made a lot of good friends and feel grateful for the career I had.

“All the people that played their part in me playing and representing my country, county, Leinster and all that — I appreciate everything.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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