By David Hennessy
After rising through the ranks at Manchester United with other future stars such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt, Northern Irish winger Keith Gillespie became a key player in Newcastle United’s exciting team of the mid 1990s.
In his new book, How Not to Be a Football Millionaire, Gillespie reveals all about his career, the gambling problem that cost him so much and the hell he went through when he and other Leicester City players were falsely accused of rape and had to spend time in a Spanish prison. His honesty and candour set the book apart from your average football autobiography, but then Keith’s is far from the story of an average footballer.
After scoring on his Manchester United debut, Keith impressed so much that he became a deal breaker in United’s £7 million pound move for Andy Cole when he went to Newcastle United in part exchange. So highly rated was the teenager that Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan believed the best deal to be his. This would be confirmed when Keith tore Premiership defences apart in a cavalier Newcastle United that also boasted players like David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla, as The Toon challenged Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in one of the most thrilling Premiership seasons in memory.
After leaving Newcastle, Gillespie plied his trade with Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United in the Premiership and played outside the top flight with Wigan, Leicester, Charlton, Bradford City and Darlington. More recently he has played in Ireland for Glentoran and Longford Town. Now at the age of 38, Keith has called time on an illustrious career making this the ideal time to release his story. He has not shied away from giving his honest opinions on managers he has played under with Sheffield United’s Kevin Blackwell particularly savaged.
“I found it therapeutic,” the Northern Irish international with 86 caps tells The Irish World. “I think the only way to write an autobiography is to tell the whole truth and I think it gives you more credibility then as well. I think that’s one thing people have remarked on: How honest and open it is so I’m glad that it’s been portrayed in that way. I’m not setting out to upset anyone, I’ll just say it how it is.”
Keith goes in detail about an incident at La Manga resort in 2004 where, while there on a training break, he and Leicester City team mates Frank Sinclair and Paul Dickov were accused of rape and spent time in a Spanish prison before all charges were dropped. Was this horrific to relive or a welcome chance to tell the full story: “It was probably a bit of both, mixed emotions because it was such a difficult time in my life but coming out the other side, I think going through that whole experience made me a better and stronger person. I was able to go through that and handle myself in the right way. It was difficult because it was something that should never have happened. I should never have spent any time in prison at all. The one thing about it is it’s something that is going to live with me forever because it’s always gonna stick with me and there’s always people who think there’s no smoke without fire but when I got out of prison, the first thing I made sure I did was go and sue three newspapers because there was no truth whatsoever in the allegations and I wasn’t going to have my name blackened to the extent that the papers had gone about it. Me suing three papers about it made me feel better because at least people then didn’t just think well the allegations have been dropped, there might have been something going on but we’ll never know whereas I went after newspapers and thought: ‘Do you know what? I’m clearing my name 100 per cent here’ And that’s what I did.”
Gillespie was enraged to learn that British newspapers had written false stories while he was behind bars in a foreign country. One report suggested he had attempted suicide which cut him deeply as such action indicates guilt. His court action was successful but in Keith’s book, he reveals his belief that the incident contributed to his increasing problems finding clubs with managers scared off by the reports: “It was obviously a massive story at the time, they’re going to write about it and there’s not an awful lot we can do because we’re stuck in a cell. I’ve seen all the newspapers from that time and I’ve sort of noticed a change in them after about three or four days where more and more evidence comes out and the papers then sort of backtrack. I think they realised after a few days there was no truth in the stories but by then, they had already written the rubbish that they had so the fact that they were backtracking, it was too late for me.”
There has been much written about the winger’s incredible gambling and Gillespie (conservatively) estimates that he gambled away £7 million during his high earning career. His addiction made headlines back in his Newcastle days when he blew over £40,000 in one day, a year’s wages at the time. However, Keith refutes the suggestion that he is weighed down with regrets now that he has outgrown the compulsive gambling of his past. As you read the book, you understand what possibly cost him more were poor investments, a film financing scheme that offered short term reward for long term cost and just trusting the wrong people: “Well, I go into detail about the film scheme and that maybe is a little bit boring to read in the book because it’s quite difficult to understand: The whole concept behind it. But basically it was something that a lot of footballers had done and I know myself now a lot of footballers are struggling with and I wasn’t alone in that one. At the time it looked like something that was worthwhile but hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I hadn’t got involved with that, things would have been a lot different but there were other investments as well. I had a financial advisor who told me to invest in property with his brother and he ran off with between four and five hundred grand. I think the fact that I was a very trusting person was my downfall as well: It’s one of those things that you learn the hard way and that’s what I’ve done.”
It is also brave of Keith to talk about his depression. Just two years after the suicide of Wales manager Gary Speed, who Keith shared a dressing room with at both Newcastle and Sheffield United, it is still few soccer players who have spoken about the dark feelings that can come when they need to think about life after the game that has been their life and all they know for so long: “I think depression, you can attach a bit of embarrassment to it. People are maybe embarrassed to say they’re depressed or something. It probably is quite common in footballers but not too many have spoken out about it. I know Stan Collymore spoke about his side of things. It’s one of those things with footballers because it is a career where when you’re coming towards the end, you know it’s coming but I don’t think you can ever be prepared for it. You think: ‘What am I going to do next?’ That can lead you into bouts of depression so it’s something that I think a lot of people will be able to relate to when they read my story.”
Keith was one of the players referred to “Fergie’s Fledglings”. Coming through the Manchester United youth system with Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles, the group were nicknamed “The Dream Team” by the senior professionals of the time: While many went on to feature for Manchester United in their 1999 treble winning season, Keith and Robbie Savage would find success with other Premiership clubs. When did it become apparent that this was truly an exceptional group? “We obviously won The Youth Cup in our first year but you’re still only 16, 17 years of age and there’s still a long, long way to progressing to first team status. I think we were getting a lot of publicity and media attention at the time and even the first team players sort of nicknamed us ‘The Dream Team’ so we kind of knew that we were a half decent side but there was still a long way to go. Once we started progressing and we were in and around the first team at young ages, we sort of realised we were a better team than we initially thought we were.”
What some may not realise is that after allowing Gillespie to leave for Newcastle in order to land goal scorer Andy Cole, Alex Ferguson tried to buy the winger back in the summer of 1995. Willing to pay £4 million (£3 million more than we was rated when he left for St James’ Park), Ferguson wanted Keith to replace Andrei Kanchelskis. When the bid was turned down, Fergie turned to David Beckham and the rest is history. Does Keith ever allow himself to wonder what it would have been like to be at Manchester United when they were so successful? “No, no, he put a bid in and Newcastle turned it down but that was the start of 1995/96 and that was the season I was at Newcastle and we came so close to winning the Premiership. I wouldn’t have changed that for anything because that was just a real memorable time in my career, playing in that great Newcastle team nicknamed ‘The Entertainers’ and we effectively became known as everyone’s second favourite team and everyone was willing us on to win the league. People remember Kevin Keegan’s rant and the fact that we actually came second that season. People still talk about that because they remember it. I think if you spoke to somebody about who came second in the premiership three years ago, people will struggle to remember whereas they always remember that Newcastle side and that’s because of the attractive football that we played.”
It was a thrilling season where Newcastle stormed an unbelievable 12 points clear at the top of the league only for Manchester United to launch an impressive comeback. Did it sting more for Keith to see players he was playing with before his move deny him a Premiership medal? “Not at all, Man United came up with an unbelievable run. At the start of that season, no one would have thought Newcastle could have mounted the challenge that they did so it was disappointing because we let slip a huge lead. I wouldn’t have changed it for anything and even the scenes after the last game of the season, you would have actually thought we won the league. That’s because of the Geordie fans: How passionate they are and I think they realised they had witnessed a great Newcastle side who gave them so much enjoyment that season. For me, it was just so great to be a part of that.”
Keith is sure when it comes to naming the best game he ever played, choosing the night that he destroyed Spanish international full-back Sergi in 1997 as Newcastle beat European giants Barcelona at St James’ Park.
“That’s something that always gets brought up when I speak to Geordie fans. It was just one of those nights where everything you do comes off but for me it was more special because of who we were playing as well. If you’re going to save the best game you were ever going to play, you would probably pick a club like Barcelona,” Keith laughs. “It’s great that people are still reminding me about it today and we’re talking 16 years ago.”
Did that experience in the Champions League make up for how Keith was unfortunately never able to play in a World Cup or European Championship? “Of course, it’s always been very difficult with Northern Ireland because we’re such a small country. It would have been amazing to have played in a major finals but on reflection it is always difficult now for Northern Ireland to qualify because of the size of the country and the resources that we have.”
Keith also had magic nights representing his country, including a 1-0 defeat of England in 2005 and the night that Fernando Torres and the Spanish team that would go on to be champions of Europe came to Windsor Park to taste defeat. Keith writes about the bad feeling he was left with. After an impressive career and 86 caps, Keith was frozen out by new boss Nigel Worthington with Worthington even asking Keith to announce his retirement from international football to help the Northern Irish manager explain Keith’s absence from his squad: “Yeah, I was disappointed how my international career ended. We did have some amazing nights, the highlight’s obviously beating England and beating Spain and it wasn’t that we beat an England team that had a lot of players missing. It was a full strength team and the same with Spain. Spain went on to win Euro 2008 so it was an amazing time but a little bit sour the way it ended with Nigel Worthington.
For the full interview, see the October 26 Irish World.
How Not To Be A Millionaire: Keith Gillespie, My Autobiography (Trinity Mirror Sport Media) is out now.