Johnny Fullam is a legend of Irish football. He won the FAI Cup a record eight times, two League of Ireland titles and was inducted into the Shamrock Rovers Hall of Fame in 1991. Here, SEAN RYAN looks back at Fullam’s incredible career…
There must have been something in the air in 1940 – apart from the whiff of the Second World War – for it was a great year for football. Arriving on the planet that year were legends Pele, Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves, and our own Johnny Fullam.
While plenty has been written about the first three, not enough has been written about Fullam. Part of the reason for that is that he chose to spend the bulk of his career in the League of Ireland, and part was due to his own modesty. If he never featured in the media, he was happy with that. He let his football do the talking.
And what a story there was to tell. He was 18 when he signed professional for Preston North End in October 1958. He made his breakthrough to the first team in the 1959-60 season, playing 12 times in the old First Division, alongside the legendary Tom Finney.
The following season he was practically an ever-present, playing 37 games in the League and scoring six goals. Unfortunately, in the absence of Finney, who had retired, Preston suffered the ignominy of relegation.
Before Fullam had time to think of a future in the Second Division, Shamrock Rovers approached him. At first they wanted him to guest on their summer American tour, but when he said that he’d be happier if they signed him, they did so, and so began a long association with the Hoops.
Johnny Fullam (right) in action against Brazilian legend Pele at Dalymount Park in 1972
While his first season was spoilt by an injury, which resulted in him missing out on an FAI Cup medal, Fullam more than made up for that loss in a career which saw him win the Cup a record eight times – six with Rovers and twice with Bohemians.
If ever there was a cultured footballer, it was Fullam. He never appeared flustered, no matter how the ball came to him. Left or right, in the air or on the ground, it was all the same to Johnny.
Once in possession, he had the composure only football geniuses possess. He always seemed to have time to make space for the right pass. While other players seemed to burst a gut, Johnny was always in control.
It was said of him that he could play anywhere, and do a good job, and that is probably true, for he lined out, at the highest level, at sweeper, wing-half and inside-forward, and was equally comfortable in all three roles.
Johnny also had the knack of scoring goals on big occasions. For instance, he scored the winner in the 1965 Cup final replay against Limerick, and he was also on the mark against Real Zaragoza in the Fairs Cup the same year. He scored against Spora Luxembourg in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1966, and against Randers Freja in the same competition in 1968.
He was an exceptional member of an exceptional Rovers team in the 1960s. Managed by Sean Thomas, they won all the major trophies in 1963-4, and when Thomas left for Bohemians, Liam Tuohy took over and guided them to more Cup glory, completing a six-in-a-row, with Fullam missing the last final in 1969 through injury.
Johnny was also making his mark at international and inter-League level. The League side hit a purple patch in 1963-4, with an historic win over the English League, another victory against the Irish League, and a thrill-a-minute 2-2 draw with the Scottish League. He contributed handsomely to all those results.
Fullam at the launch of the Official Book of the FAI Cup by SWAI member Sean Ryan in 2011 (Sportsfile)
At international level, his appearances were more sporadic, but he featured in two wins over Norway, and scored a vital goal in a famous 3-2 win over Belgium in Liege in 1966, at a time when away wins were rare as hen’s teeth for Ireland.
Johnny was a gentleman, who had the height of respect for his opponents. Donal Leahy told me the story of how they met after the 1969 final, in which Cork Celtic had lost to Rovers after a replay, and how he had remarked to Fullam how disappointed he was after 15 years in football to have no Cup medal, just two runners-up. Fullam said nothing, but shortly after Leahy received one of Johnny’s medals in the post, with the request that one of Leahy’s runners-up medals be sent in return.
If Johnny had a mentor in his playing days, it was probably Sean Thomas, under whom he won League, Shield and FAI Cup honours in 1964. When Bohemians went professional, Thomas signed him, and Bohs won the FAI Cup in 1970. In 1976, Thomas re-signed him for Rovers and, with Fullam as the old head on a young team, they won the League Cup.
Johnny was loyal to Thomas, and always felt that the manager wasn’t given enough time to develop his young team, which included future stars like Robbie Gaffney and Larry Wyse. He believed that Thomas would have produced another fine Rovers side if he had been given time and resources. Instead, the Board opted for a full-time experiment with Johnny Giles.
Success seemed to follow Fullam wherever he went. In his stint at Bohs, he won a second League medal under Billy Young in 1974-5. He was ever-present at the back in a season where Bohs conceded a miserly 12 goals in 26 games. The following year he won his seventh FAI Cup medal when Bohs beat Drogheda 1-0 in the final.
Then, when Thomas was succeeded by Giles in 1977, Fullam captained to Hoops to an FAI Cup triumph in 1978. It was an early success for Giles, and the eighth, and last, of Fullam’s record Cup medal haul.
Released by Rovers at the end of the 1978-9 season, he finished his career at Athlone Town, but it is at Rovers where he is most fondly remembered, and he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 1991. In the annals of that iconic club, Fullam must surely rank among the best players ever to wear the green and white hoops.
Fullam, who won the FAI Cup an incredible eight times, seen here with the trophy in 2008 (Sportsfile)