1987 - 88 : PAOK (Greece)
1988 - 89 : Larissa (Greece)
Paul Bannon was born in Dublin in 1956. Excelling as a young striker, he was signed by English club Nottingham Forrest as a teen but failed to make an appearance for the club. At the age of 22, he moved to Carlisle United where he made over 150 appearances in 5 years at Brunton Park. In 1983, at the age of 27 he moved to Bristol Rovers, where he spent three years (including loan spells at Cardiff and Plymouth).
At the wise age of 30, Bannon made the unusual move of crossing the English channel and signing for a continental club, Holland's NAC.
Founded in 1912, NAC hail from the Southern Dutch city of Breda. The club have won a solitary league title, in 1921, as well as one Dutch Cup in 1973. Today, they play home matches at the Rat Verleigh Stadion, a modern 19000 capacity ground. However, when Bannon signed in 1986 they were still playing at the NAC Stadion, their spiritual home since 1939, which held roughly 10000 fans.
In 1986, Dutch coach Leen Looyen brought Bannon to the club, with the intention of the Irishman becoming the club's main attacking threat. The club were then playing in Holland's 2nd Division, the Eerste Divisie. Having been relegated twice in the 1980s, the club were keen to get back to the top flight and remain there, and Bannon was intended to be a part of this project.
|The old NAC Stadion|
However, the season ulitmately finished in dissappointing fashion, as NAC ended up in 8th place, missing out on promotion. The domestic Cup was also a disaster for NAC, as they fell to a 1-0 defeat to minnows SC Enschede in the First Round.
Bannon himself failed to settle or even establish himself in the squad, making only 9 appearances all season, although his did manage to score 6 goals.
So, in the summer of 1987, he was on the move again, this time moving further South to Greece, where he signed for PAOK FC.
Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstantinoupolitón, or PAOK as they're better known are one of Greek football's biggest clubs. Based in Thessaloniki, they have won the Greek Championship twice and the Greek Cup 4 times. Home matches for PAOK are played at the Toumba Stadium, which holds 29000 spectators. The club's nickname is the Gypsies.
Bannon was the second man from the island of Ireland to work with the club, after Northern Ireland great Billy Bingham briefly managed them in 1977.
Bannon's new manager at PAOK was another Dutchman Thijs Libregts, previously of Feyenoord and PSV. Some of Bannon's new teammates were Greek internationals Stefanos Borbokis and Nikos Karageorgiou. Bannon was one of only two non-Greek players in the squad, alongside Yugoslavian Nikola Nikić.
Bannon got off to a good start, scoring and setting up goals. In October however, he received his first red card in Greece, getting dismissed in a league match against Levadiakos.
In December, Libregts switched to fierce rivals Olympiakos. Greek coach Michalis Mbellis was appointed as his successor.
Later that month, Bannon became part of PAOK history when he scored the opening goal of a 6-1 home win over Olympiakos at the Serres Municipal stadium.
|PAOK 6-1 Olympiakos|
Bannon heads PAOK's first goal
Bannon was also in the first XI on April 17th 1988, when PAOK grabbed a 2-1 away win over local rivals Aris Thessaloniki. PAOK were still fighting for the league title, although a 2-1 loss to Olympiacos two weeks earlier had left them trailing Larissa and AEK Athens. In Charilaou, in front of 20.000 spectators, PAOK fell behind on the 57th minute when Vassilis Dimitriadis scored the opener for Aris. The reply was swift, just two minutes later, through Giorgos Skartados. PAOK secured victory on the 86th minute courtesy of a Sotiris Mavromatis’ strike.
The season went well, as the Gypsies finished in 3rd place, behind Champions Larissa and capital giants AEK. Libregts' Olympiakos ended up in 8th.
Bannon's season was a success, as he played 20 matches and notched up 9 league goals, making him the club's top scorer. Despite this, and despite his popularity with fans, Bannon was released that summer.
He wouldn't wait long to find a new club however, as Champions Larissa came calling that July.
Athletic Union of Larissa 1964, AEL or Larissa for short, hail from Larissa in the Thessaly region. They are thre only club from outside Thessaloniki or Athens to have won the Greek Championship, having won the title the previous season. In 1985 ans again in 1987 they lifted the Greek Cup. Their nickname is the Queen of the Lowlands.
His new coach was Vladimír Táborský, who was capped 19 times by Czechoslovakia and playing alongside Bannon was Polish international Krzysztof Baran.
In the Greek Cup that season, Larissa topped their opening group, before hammering Niki Volos in the Second Round. In the Quater Finals against OFI Crete, Bannon headed a goal in the first leg in a 2-1 win. They would go as far as the Semi-Finals that year before succumbing to Panionios 2-0 on aggregate.
Larissa's first foray into Europe ended prematurely. In the First Round of the 1988-89 European Cup, they were drawn against Don Givens' former club Neuchâtel Xamax, of Switzerland. They overcame the Swiss 2-1 in the first leg, but fell to the same scoreline away. The match went to penalties, and Larissa lost 3-0. The Cup that year was won by AC Milan.
Bannon missed his penalty against Xamax
On the League front; club finished in a disappointing 6th place, missing out on European Competition the next year.
Bannon was released that summer. He was by now 33 and was in the winter of his playing career. With this in mind, he returned back to Ireland after 15 years to sign with Cork City. 4 years with them, and 2 with Cobh Ramblers would see out the rest of his time, and he retired in 1995.
He was never capped by the Republic of Ireland, which seems harsh until one considers the arguably better talent Ireland had up front during his time, in Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino and Frank Stapleton. Playing in Greece, Bannon was always going to be a peripheral figure in Charlton-era Irish football.
In later years, he would be followed to Greece by other Irishmen. Ronnie Whelan would coach there in the late 1990s, while Ian Daly would endure a short spell with Aris in 2009.
In 2012, Irish international Liam Lawrence would follow Bannon through the gates of the Toumba Stadium and play for PAOK. He would spend two years at the club before returning to England in 2014.
Paul Bannon was the first Irish professional footballer in Greece.