Former Republic of Ireland star John Dempsey only played for two English clubs in his professional career – the two he supported as a boy! “My father used to take me to Fulham one week and Chelsea the next,” he says. “So he was very happy the way my career turned out! It was a miracle I ended up playing for both of them, and even today they’re the two results I always look for first.”
A tough-tackling, no nonsense central defender, Dempsey started out as an apprentice at Fulham, moving on to Chelsea after making 171 First Team appearances at the Cottage.
“A move had been on the cards for a while,” he reveals. “It was Bill Dodgin who eventually decided I should go, when Johnny Haynes was caretaker manager he wanted me to stay. £70,000 was the deal, £50,000 plus Barry Lloyd, which was a lot of money then.”
He went on to win the FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup with Chelsea. Then it was three years in America with the Philadephia Fury, where, in 1979, he was voted Defender of the Year. Franz Beckenbauer was runner-up.
After a brief spell as player/manager with League of Ireland side Dundalk, and in charge at Maidenhead and Egham, Dempsey finally hung up his boots in 1984. For the last 19 years, he’s worked at the Broadfields Centre in Edgware.
“It’s a centre for people with learning disabilities,” he says. “There are over 100 people there, and I’m responsible for the PE and sport, as well as helping them with their personal care. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from doing that, as much as I ever got from football. The chance to do something for people who haven’t got much in life is very special.
“Coaching had been something that I thought I might be interested in if the opportunity arose, but then I got involved in the other side of things and that’s where I decided my future lay.”
In his time at Fulham, Dempsey made an astonishing 137 consecutive appearances. “I had the usual catalogue of injuries; twisted ankles and cuts and bruises and things,” he remembers. “But I was fortunate enough to be able to play through them. Then, against Newcastle, I went up for a ball with their centre forward, Wyn Davies, and he accidentally poked me in the eye. I played on, but later I had to go to hospital where they discovered I had haemorrhaging of the eye. That kept me out for four or five games and ruined my run.”
And remarkably, if it hadn’t been for the purchase of ace goal-sniffer Allan Clarke, Dempsey might well have gone on to forge a successful career as a striker. “Vic Buckingham was the manager then,” he says. “And we’d been going through a bad patch where we just couldn’t score. Buckingham happened to meet an old teacher of mine who suggested he try me up front because I’d scored a lot of goals at school.
“So in training that week, at Hurlingham, he put me up front in a First Team versus Reserves practice match. I got two goals and I played pretty well - I remember even Johnny Haynes complemented me. So I turned out at centre forward in the next game, against Northampton in the League Cup.
“We beat them 5-0 and I scored a hat-trick in 18 minutes! The next game was at home to Everton in the League and I got the winning goal from a Rodney Marsh corner – we won 3-2. Then we played Man United away; we lost 4-1, but I scored the equalising goal with a diving header. There were another couple of games, then I went back in defence, we signed Allan Clarke, and that was that. I enjoyed my time in the limelight, but I was happy to go back and concentrate on what I was best at – defending.”
And how does Dempsey look back on his time at Fulham?
“It was such a lovely club,” he says. “And I was very happy – I didn’t want to leave. I had very good friends there; Fred Callaghan and I were best men at each other’s weddings. And it was such a good atmosphere, the fans were very close to the pitch; not at all like Chelsea which had the greyhound track running around the pitch, so the spectators seemed like they were miles away.”
Evidence that he still follows the fortunes of his old club comes when he recounts a little tale that made him smile recently. “I happened to be looking on the website and it was talking about Fulham trying to sign Dempsey,” he recalls. “And some bright spark on the messageboard said, “What, John Dempsey? He’s 60 - things can’t be that bad!” It did make me laugh!”