“There is only one way to go now,” he said to the press, “and that’s up!” He was true to his word. At the end of his first full season in charge, they won the Fourth Division championship. Contemporary newspaper reports describe him celebrating afterwards with champagne in hand and a massive cigar in his mouth. No matter how far he strayed off-Broadway, he never lost the flair for the big stage.
A famous photograph shows Cantwell casually tossing the FA Cup above his head at Wembley in 1963. Having just led Manchester United to a 3-1 victory over Leicester City, his team-mates Bobby Charlton, Tony Dunne, David Herd and Albert Quixall appear visibly stunned by the brazen act of celebration. They are staring wide-eyed at their captain casually flinging about the most revered trophy in English football. Moments later, Cantwell got a tap on the shoulder from a stadium commissionaire reprimanding him for his cavalier treatment of the precious silverware.
“Don’t worry,” replied Cantwell. “I knew I would be able to catch it because I play cricket for Ireland.”
That sort of self-confidence was one of the reasons Matt Busby appointed him captain almost as soon as he signed from West Ham United in 1960. By the time United defeated Leicester in the showpiece of the English season, Cantwell was leading a side containing Charlton, Paddy Crerand, Johnny Giles, Denis Law, Dunne, and Bill Foulkes. Nobody doubted he was equal to the task either. At Upton Park, he’d practically been manager Ted Fenton’s first lieutenant for years. It was Cantwell, famously, who advised Fenton to give an untried 17-year-old called Bobby Moore his Hammers’ debut.
His death earlier this week at age 72 marks the passing of the first Cork soccer player to write an autobiography — “United We Stand”, the only manager ever to take Coventry City into Europe, and an Irish international batsman once bowled out by Garfield Sobers. According to legend, he was working on his batting stroke in the nets at Cork County Cricket Club in the Mardyke when a messenger from Cork Athletic was dispatched to offer him his first professional break. (Much later he turned down an offer to play cricket for Essex.)
Athletic, for whom his older brother Frank played, were a man short for a Shield game against Waterford United and Cantwell’s proximity earned him his debut. Fenton later paid