1986 - 87 : HFC Haarlem (Netherlands)
Paul 'Ski' McGee was a journeyman Irish forward who represented more than 18 clubs in a 24 year career. His talents would take him to Canada, England, Northern Ireland and Holland, as well as spending various periods back in Ireland.
Hailing from Sligo, the Irishman began playing senior football for Sligo Rovers in 1970, at the age of 15. Unsuccessful spells with lower league English clubs followed before he made a name for himself at Finn Harps in the mid-70s, where he won the FAI Cup in 1974.
It was while with Harps, that he spent the summer of '74 on loan with Canadian side, Toronto Italia.
Now defunct, Italia competed in the Canadian National Soccer League, a predecessor to the modern Canadian Soccer League. Although Canada's best clubs at the time (Toronto Metros and Vancouver Whitecaps) played in the NASL, the CNSL was still a professional league drawing moderate attendances.
Football in Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s, was still an immigrant game, attracting mainly Italian, Jewish and Eastern European communities. This was reflected in the make-up of local teams including Italia, along with the Polish White Eagles, Toronto Croatia and Toronto Hakoah. However, as the immigrant community was more used to watching better quality football, club owners scoured Europe to find cheap summer loan deals.
Naturally, Italia was made up of predominantly Italian footballers, as well as a cluster of Argentinians. McGee was the only Irishmen with the club. Italia failed to win the Championship that season, but McGee did well, contributing 26 goals in 36 games making him the league's top scorer.
Back in Ireland, McGee returned to Sligo, winning the League of Ireland in 1977. While with Rovers, in the summers of 1976 and 1977 he moved across the Atlantic again, both times to line out for the Montreal Castors. The Castors were a French-Canadian club and played at the 9,500 capacity Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard (CSCR).
In his first season with the Castors, they came up against Toronto Italia in the Regular Season Championship, but sadly came up short. Life was tough in the CNSL for players back then. Although largely professional, facilities were below par, and McGee and his teammates would regularly have traveled by bus around the large span of continental Canada.
In the season of 1977 the Castors were victorious, claiming the Championship, by beating Italia in the final. With the Quebecois side, McGee contributed 67 goals in 93 games over his two spells. The club would win successive titles over the next two years but in 1979, after failing in a bid to join the more prestigious NASL, the Castors folded as a franchise.
McGee looks back fondly on playing in North America, telling the Irish Times, "My time in Canada helped me become stronger and fitter and I think it stood to me."
He signed for Queens Park Rangers after this last spell in Montreal, ending his relationship with Canada for good. While with QPR he made the first of his 16 senior international appearances for the Republic of Ireland. He scored on his debut against Turkey and would score 3 more goals between 1978 and 1980.
|30 April 1980; Ireland Players pictured from (left to right) are Tony Grealish, Gary Waddock, Gerry Ryan, Mark Lawrenson, Kevin Moran, Paul McGee, Gerry Daly, Chris Hughton, Dave Langan, Don Givens and Gerry Peyton. before the match, Republic of Ireland v Switzerland, Friendly International, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Soccer. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE|
Over the next 10 years, McGee wandered between Britain and Ireland, transferring regularly between clubs and achieving little. By 1985 he was with Galway United, and playing some of his best football since he left Canada, culminating in a League of Ireland Cup in 1986.
He was still with Galway at the beginning of the following season when they faced FC Groningen in the First Round of the UEFA Cup. Galway lost the first leg 1-3 at home and he second leg 1-5 away. Despite this large deficit, McGee had played well enough to earn the attentions of Groningen's rivals in Holland, HFC Haarlem.
(Groningen went on to beat Don Givens' Neuchatel Xamax in the 2nd Round).
Haarlem were established in 1898, and won their only National Title in 1946. They also had two Dutch Cups to their name, in 1902 and 1912. Playing home matches at the 3440 capacity Haarlem Stadion, their nickname was Red Shorts. Dutch legend Ruud Gullit began his career with the club, but had left by the time of McGee's arrival. Gregory van der Wiel and Arthur Numan would also spend time at the club, subsequent to McGee's tenure.
At Haarlem McGee would be afforded the opportunity to partner Dutch legend Johnny Rep up front, in the last season of his great career. Also in the squad was an Englishman named Keith Masefield, while another Irishman knocking about in Holland that year was Paul Bannon who was playing for NAC Breda in the Second Division.
Although McGee was never more than a squad player he enjoyed the change of pace that the Dutch game had to offer. "I enjoyed over two years in Holland. It was a fantastic experience and I thoroughly enjoyed my playing time there," he said.
Such was the interest in McGee, that the local paper, the 'Haarlem Dag Blag' came to Sligo to do a two-page feature on 'De Werld Van Paul McGee and W.B. Yeats' (the world of Paul McGee and W.B. Yeats), while Dutch t.v. stations also produced special programmes on 'Ski.'
In the Dutch (KNVB) Cup, Haarlem made it as far as the second round, only to be beaten by De Graatschap 2-1. In the league, the club were battling relegation, and found themselves amongst its contenders by mid-season.
So it was in January of 1987, that Dick Advocaat was appointed manager to the club, and McGee's chances in the first team would dry up. In all, he made only 14 appearances scoring 2 goals.
Advocaat's impact was soon felt and the club began climbing the table and found themselves in safety by May. McGee's time in Holland was over, however, and he left that summer. Nevertheless he had done his part in helping the club avoid relegation, and stay in the top flight with a 12th place finish.
That summer Frank Stapleton would arrive in the Netherlands to begin his ill-fated spell with Ajax.
|McGee in later years|
Haarlem would remain in the top flight for another two years, before finally falling from grace in 1989. In 2010, they filed for bankruptcy and became yet another extinct club in global football.
McGee returned to Galway as player-manager, winning the First Division Shield in 1992. Stints with Derry and Athlone either side of several more spells for Sligo followed before he hung up his boots in 1993. He obtained his UEFA Coaching badges and later managed Limerick 37 and Salthill Devon. He still maintains a close relationship with Sligo Rovers, whom he dedicated one of his Ireland shirts to, in 2012.
His career was a mixture of achievement and obscurity really. He created a record for an Irish player in transferring between clubs on a total of 34 occasions and never achieved as much as his 16 caps seemed to suggest. However, Paul McGee remains 11th all-time leading goalscorer in League of Ireland football with 143 finishes. A fine record for a decent footballer.