Northern Ireland

Jackie Vernon: Scrapbook shines light on forgotten footballing great

Jackie Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption Jackie Vernon played for Belfast Celtic and West Bromwich Albion

Jackie Vernon may be one of the greatest Belfast footballers you've never heard of.

Mention his name to a Northern Irish football fan under the age of 50 and you're likely to draw a blank.

But the family of Jackie Vernon remember his successes very well and a scrapbook of his glory days, put together by a close friend, is a treasured tribute to him.

Vernon played for Belfast Celtic and West Bromwich Albion, and had more than 20 caps for playing at international level for Northern Ireland, Ireland and a Great Britain XI.

The painstakingly assembled wooden book has everything from cartoons and photographs to clippings and original letters, and dates from 1942 when the centre half was playing for the now defunct Belfast Celtic club.

The scrapbook, which has been looked after by the family since Jackie's death, has been lost and misplaced many times but always found its way back to Jackie's nephew Jim Peel.

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption The scrapbook was put together for Jackie by a friend

Not only does the book track Vernon's rise through the ranks of football from the 1940s to the 1950s, but it is also a portal in to the world of football before champagne and Ferraris were the norm.

Footballing butcher boy

John Joseph Vernon was born in Belfast in 1918 and was destined to become a butcher, not an international centre-half.

But a little thing like the family business wasn't going to stop "Sausage" Vernon, as the press took to calling him.

He learnt his trade in the family butchers on the Springfield Road, all the while playing for local clubs Spearmint FC and Dundela.

Vernon turned down the chance to sign with Liverpool in the early 1930s, and instead bided his time until Belfast Celtic came knocking.

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption The scrapbook features many memorable moments from Jackie Vernon's career; the bottom right photo shows Jackie introducing the Irish XI to the Duke of Abercorn

By 1939, he was playing for Belfast Celtic's first team and was a constant on the pitch.

Padraig Coyle, the Chairman of the Belfast Celtic museum, says that Jackie probably turned down Liverpool because he was waiting for the opportunity to play for Belfast Celtic.

"Everyone wanted to play for them then. It's hard to explain now what that team meant to people in west Belfast," he said.

"The best way to sum it up is with the supporters phrase: 'when we had nothing we had Belfast Celtic, and then we had everything'."

It was around this time, in 1942, that Vernon's career began to be chronicled in the meticulous wooden scrapbook.

Paper cuttings and photos show the centre-half's success with Belfast Celtic and his move in 1947 to West Bromwich Albion, when he was sold for £10,000.

That doesn't sound much when you compare it with the recent world record signing by Manchester United of Paul Pogba for £89m.

But the Vernon signing to West Bromwich Albion was a club record at the time.

Paper cuttings from the scrapbook proclaim that the fee was well deserved as Vernon was "the best pivot in Britain", "the greatest centre-half in present-day football".

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption A newspaper cutting hailing Vernon's defensive qualities

In the present day, Padraig Coyle calls Vernon "one of the most talented defenders to ever come out of Irish football, he would definitely be playing in the Premier League today".

He adds: "He had a footballing brain that was ahead of his time. He was a tactician when no one else was."

Jim Peel says his uncle would have earned about £10 a week at West Bromwich:

"It was a small fortune for a former butcher's boy, it was five times what a tradesman would have earned."

Today the average premier league footballer earns £22,000 a week.

Big draw

At West Brom, Vernon captained the team to promotion into the English first division.

During his time in the West Midlands Jim Peel says Vernon would have been a big draw.

"The Irish immigrants living around Birmingham would have flocked to see Vernon, he was a hero and would have been very well known to them."

By 1952 Vernon was back in the Irish League as a player-manager at Crusaders, guiding the team to victory in the Ulster Cup in 1954.

He returned to his work as a butcher at the end of that season.

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption Jackie Vernon passes on his knowledge to local children

Truly international

Throughout his club career Vernon also played internationally and was one of the few footballers to play for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Great Britain teams.

Appearing as he did for these teams meant he played with and against some of the brightest stars of his day.

Matt Busby, Stanley Matthews, Charlie Tully; these were Jackie's contemporaries.

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption Jackie with the 1947 Great Britain team, which included Stanley Matthews and Frank Swift

This international career also meant that Vernon had the opportunity to travel, playing in Portugal and Spain in 1946.

It was on this trip that Jackie would play in front of Franco.

The book

The extensive scrapbook detailing Vernon's footballing career has gained something of a cult reputation in Belfast Celtic circles and with those fascinated by Belfast's football history.

Jim Peel is clearly proud to be the keeper of the book.

"It's so unusual because it's a record, there were no videos of players then, no internet," he said.

"I've looked after it over the years.

"People would ask for a lend of it and it would end up God knows where, we've lost it a few times but we've always gotten it back.

"The book has just about survived over the years."

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption He was hailed as one of the greatest centre-half's of his day

Padraig Coyle has looked after plenty of footballing memorabilia as it has passed through the Belfast Celtic museum, but nothing to equal the scrapbook.

"I have never seen anything like this, it's so detailed, and it's such a resource," he said.

"The condition that it's in is incredible.

"For a football fan it's just beautiful."

Image copyright Jim Peel
Image caption Holding court at Belfast Celtic's ground

After Vernon retired he was still a local celebrity, his nephew remembers the effect he had on people.

"When I was very young I used to go scouting with Jackie and everyone in the crowd would shout and wave at him," he said.

"When he was in the shop the world stopped and waved at him as they went by.

"He was a humble man. Jackie Vernon, Tommy Breen, Charlie Tully, these people lived among their communities."

Mr Peel explained why he has treasured the scrapbook over the years.

"I was a history teacher for a while, I know the importance of holding on to these kinds of things, someone needs to remember," he said.

"But as the old song goes 'year after year their numbers get fewer and fewer'."

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