Escape to Victory: Irish Winger to Hollywood Goalkeeper

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It’s bound to be shown on TV screens over the festive period but do you know the story of Escape to Victory’s only Irishman? Cian Manning profiles Kevin O’Callaghan and explains how his Euro 88 dream was destroyed by an international teammate.

Born in Dagenham on 19th October 1961 to Paddy (a Cork man) and Barbara, O’Callaghan’s footballing apprenticeship was a success with Millwall achieving victory in the FA Youth Cup in 1979. Capped at under-21 international level for the Republic of Ireland, it was not long before he came to the attention of a future England international manager. Thankfully it was a club move rather than a saga like the recent Jack Grealish international allegiance debacle.

January 1980 saw Ipswich Town under Bobby Robson pay a fee of £250,000 for O’Callaghan’s services. It was a bridesmaid season with the Tractor Boys finishing runners-up in the First Division and the FA Cup. The following season the Tractor Boys repeated second place in the league but a winner’s medal in the UEFA Cup was O’Callaghan’s first senior silverware with victory over Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. During his five years in Suffolk, the winger earned the majority of his caps for the Republic of Ireland (17 out of 21). In total, he played 148 games, scoring 5 goals for the Portman Road club.

Perhaps his greatest performance in international football came in 1982 against Spain in a qualification game for the European Championships. The winger set up the Republic of Ireland’s equalising goal scored by Frank Stapleton; coming from 3-1 down in the process.

In January 1985, Kevin O’Callaghan moved to Portsmouth in the Second Division for a transfer fee in the region of £80,000. After gaining promotion to the First Division, he was deemed to be surplus to requirements. This led to his return to his first club Millwall in 1987. It was a dream comeback with the Republic of Ireland international finishing the season by scoring the goal which guaranteed the London club promotion to the top flight (overtaking Portsmouth in the process). It was the London side’s first promotion to the top tier in their then 102-year history.

His pursuits with Ireland hadn’t finished either. In 1987, he played in the side which defeated Brazil at Lansdowne Road by one goal to nil, Liam Brady scoring the winner. Sadly, for both Brady and O’Callaghan neither would make the squad for the Republic of Ireland’s historic first international tournament at Euro ’88 in Germany, the Dagenham man missing out due to an injury to the shin. This was a result of Ronnie Whelan who deliberately raked his studs down O’Callaghan’s shin in retaliation for kicking the Liverpool player earlier in an English First Division game. Whelan’s autobiography Walk On: My Life in Red admits ‘I regret it to this day…But I was sorry I did Cally because he was a friend and a real nice bloke as well…It was typical of the footballers’ mentality…’

After two years with the Lions in the First Division, O’Callaghan made his final club move to Southend United in 1991; playing ten games and scoring one goal over the course of two years. A persistent knee injury led to his retirement aged just 32.

Yet an interesting footnote to O’Callaghan’s career was his role in a regular film on television during the Christmas period, Escape to Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and former Brazil international Pele in 1981. Further Hollywood lustre was added with the film being directed by Academy Award winner John Huston. While with Ipswich, O’Callaghan played the role of Allied goalkeeper Tony Lewis.

The film focuses on a match between an Allied POW team versus a German line-up. This English language version was based on the 1960s Hungarian film, Two Half-Times in Hell, inspired by the ‘Death Match’ in 1942 between German soldiers and a Ukrainian side made up of players from Dynamo and Locomotive Kiev. Other Ipswich Town players involved in the film were John Wark and Kevin Beattie. Soccer stars such as England 1966 World Cup winning captain, Bobby Moore and World Cup winner with Argentina in 1978, Ossie Ardiles were in the film.

Beattie would make the most lasting impression on set. He performed the duties of Michael Caine’s legs in the film while he is also rumoured to have defeated Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in an arm wrestling contest, which prompted the American to ignore the Ipswich Town contingent of the cast. Perhaps this is why Escape to Victory serves as Beattie, O’Callaghan and Wark’s only Hollywood film. Hell hath no fury like an action star scorned.

O’Callaghan’s role in the plot was for his arm to be broken for Stallone as USA Army Captain Robert Hatch to take his place in the starting eleven. Michael Caine and Stallone make certain of Lewis’ (O’Callaghan’s) side-lining by proceeding to break his arm; to which the Millwall winger utters the lines, ‘Try and make it a clean break’. As an aside, O’Callaghan’s brief acting triumph is undermined by his name being misspelt in the film’s end credits. However, this is a minor slight when compared to teammate John Wark’s mere two lines of dialogue being subsequently dubbed due to the apparent impenetrability of his Scottish accent to those in post-production.

A third spell with Millwall in the 1990s as a Youth team coach saw him instrumental in the development of players such as former Australian international Tim Cahill. Certainly, his experience would be beneficial to any young player trying to make their way in the professional game. O’Callaghan is one of eleven players to have won the FA Youth Cup in the 1970s to go on to receive international honours. Some of the names include Graeme Souness (Youth Cup winner with Tottenham Hotspur in 1970 and Scotland international), John Wark (Ipswich 1975 and Scotland) and Jerry Murphy (Crystal Palace Youth Cup winner in 1977 & ’78 and the Republic of Ireland).

To borrow a Shakespearian phrase “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” and O’Callaghan has had many an interesting career turn. It would be interesting to hear how one-time screen colleagues John Wark or Sly Stallone would mumble such words.

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