11 May ~ Linfield secured a fifth league and cup double in six years by beating Crusaders with two late goals in the Irish Cup final last Saturday. But the victory represented more than just another addition to an already over-burdened trophy cabinet in South Belfast. Next season Linfield will have to manage without the services of stalwart centre-back Noel Bailie who first played for the club in 1986. The 40-year-old will retire having made his 1,013th appearance for the club against Portadown in the final league game of the season.
Bailie’s haul of appearances and longevity at the club led the German magazine Sport Bild to feature him in an article entitled The World’s Most Loyal Footballer. Basing the claim upon the retirement of Paolo Maldini in 2009 and the solitary year spent away from FC Twente by Sander Boschker, the man who will have his No 11 jersey retired by Linfield is often credited with being the longest-serving player among FIFA-recognised associations.
Unlike Maldini and Boschker, Bailie did not receive international recognition although Linfield team-mates were capped by Northern Ireland during his heyday. Similarly, Bailie was never got the chance to play as a full-time professional, an offer from Glasgow Rangers having been turned down by Linfield in the mid-1990s.
Even after the introduction of professional players to the Irish League, Bailie remained semi-professional and combined his duties as captain of the country’s most successful team with a job at the Inland Revenue. The "end of an era" is an overused phrase but it really does apply to the retirement of the man recently voted as the third best player in the club’s history – behind strikers Tommy Dickson and Newcastle legend Jackie Milburn who played together for Linfield in the 1950s. Jonathan Bradley