A phone call, a cup draw and how Leeds United's Stuart Dallas became the Northern Ireland star he was tipped to be

“There’s this brilliant young player you should take a look at, he’s a great talent.”

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 8th October 2020, 1:11 pm
Updated Thursday, 8th October 2020, 1:14 pm
LUCK OF THE DRAW - Stuart Dallas in Irish Cup action for Coagh United against Crusaders, who signed him later that year after being impressed with his talent (Pic: PressEye)
LUCK OF THE DRAW - Stuart Dallas in Irish Cup action for Coagh United against Crusaders, who signed him later that year after being impressed with his talent (Pic: PressEye)

Five years into his tenure as Crusaders manager, Stephen Baxter heard this kind of thing all the time from friends in the game.

“Look out for this kid.” “This is one you’ll want to see.” “Future star.”

So, two weeks after one such phone call, when the Irish Cup sixth-round draw pitted the Crues against a Coagh United side containing the young winger he’d just been tipped off about, Baxter saw it as nothing more than a coincidental opportunity to cast his eye over a player who might have something about him.

And although the Hatchetmen did a job on the second-tier side, winning 4-0, Baxter was a man on a mission at full-time.

“I had a half-decent right-back playing that day and the young winger was absolutely marvellous, balance off both feet, bit of pace, received the ball well, wee glimpses of talent – a player in the making,” he told The Yorkshire Evening Post.

“The manager of Coagh, Noel Mitchell was a friend of mine. I went over and asked if I could speak to the young fella before he left.

“A couple of other Irish League clubs were keen but I spoke to him after he’d finished in the changing rooms and, because he was so young, only 17 or 18, got his father Alan in too.

PROMISING TALENT - Leeds United and Northern Ireland star Stuart Dallas celebrating his 2010 move to Crusaders from Coagh United

“His father wanted to know where he would fit into my team and I told him to let me worry about that; he would fit in just fine.”

That summer Crusaders got their man and Stuart Dallas got his foot on the next rung of the ladder. A decade later he stands at the very top.

Only the eighth Northern Irishman to play in the Premier League for Leeds United, Dallas’ last 10 years of work have made him a poster boy for the Irish League and an ever-present name on the team sheet for both the Whites and the green and white army.

In Leeds’ Championship-winning season he missed just 207 minutes of league action, starting 45 of their 46 games and showcasing versatility that allowed Marcelo Bielsa to play him anywhere he needs a good player, in his system.

HISTORY MAKER - Stuart Dallas in action for Northern Ireland in the European Championships in 2016, where they beat Ukraine 2-0. Pic: Getty

Luke Ayling’s 2019 summer surgery gave Dallas the chance to start the season at right-back but, when Ayling returned, Bielsa simply swapped the Ulsterman to the left side of the back four. He played him in the centre of midfield too and dared to do so in the Premier League already this season, for the crucial final stages of the 1-1 draw with Manchester City.

Versatility has always been part of Dallas' game.

“I think he was playing left-wing when we saw him play,” said Baxter.

“He had an ability to receive the ball into his feet, back to goal, and he was able to spin off both sides. Not many players can do that. When he spun you and broke into open space he had electric pace and an eye for goal.

“He could play left-wing, right-wing, centre-forward or the number 10. People have had him playing left-back and right-back but any position works for him because of his great athleticism to get around the park and his brain.”

An ascent from the part-time game to prime-time games on Sky against Liverpool and Manchester City sheds a favourable light on the Irish League and illuminates a pathway for the youngsters dreaming of emulating him.

“For Stuart it’s a dream come true, but it’s also a dream come true for Northern Irish football that he can play in the Irish League then progress across the water,” said Baxter.

“It shows there’s a route to an international and Premier League career through the local game. It’s a big feather in our cap to get a boy into the Premier League and inspires new generations of young players to be the next player who can do that. It says so much about how much he’s developed as a person and a player. It’s fabulous.”

Ex-Leeds defender Nigel Worthington, another man who began his career in the Irish League before a move across the water, was the Northern Ireland manager who gave Dallas his 2011 international debut as a second-half substitute in the Nations Cup against Wales.

A four-year wait for another cap ensued but, once Michael O’Neill brought the then Brentford winger back into the international fold, he carved out a place for himself as a regular and remains so to this day.

Tonight he will win his 47th cap as Northern Ireland take on Bosnia and Herzegovina in the European Championships play-off semi-final.

He takes some recently-gained Premier League experience into a national squad boasting just four other players from English top-flight clubs.

Dallas has taken the jump in standard from the Championship to the Premier League in his stride, excelling against Sheffield United in particular and taking the game to Pep Guardiola’s men at Elland Road in another performance that will have been met with great pride and excitement back home.

“The more Northern Irish players we can have in the top flight is going to benefit the international team,” said Worthington.

"If you go back many years you probably had 20 players playing in the top flight, nowadays due to the influx of foreign players it’s become less and less. You can play in League One, the Championship and it’s a good level of football but the Premier League is a league of its own.

“You play against the elite every week and the experience Stuart will gain from that will be immense for him and the national team.

“I’m not surprised he’s got to where he’s at; he’s got very good abilities and the lad’s attitude is spot on as well. Where he’s at is very fitting for him.”

Baxter agrees that Dallas’ personal progression is beneficial for Ian Baraclough’s national side.

“I’m 55 years old now, I go back to the Sammy McIlroys and Jimmy Nicholls, Norman Whiteside was a year older than me and I played against him,” he said. “It’s vital that we continue to have Northern Ireland internationals playing at that level in the game, it’s so important for the Northern Ireland manager to have that kind of quality in the squad. They’re the people we’re relying on.”

Five years ago today Gareth McAuley started alongside Dallas as Northern Ireland secured qualification for the 2016 European Championships with a 3-1 win over Greece at Windsor Park. The pair made history, helping their country to a first major tournament finals in 30 years. A 2-0 win over Ukraine in the group stage of the finals, in which McAuley scored and Dallas very nearly followed suit, sparked pandemonium and gave a new generation their very own Gerry Armstrong versus Spain in 1982 moment.

"Stuarty came in during that qualifying campaign and just started playing like he'd always been there," said McAuley, who ended up in the Premier League with West Brom having played for Crusaders in the Irish League.

"He was comfortable with the level. Since then he's just grown and grown in everything he's done, his fitness, changing position for Leeds - it's important for Northern Ireland that he can play in a few positions as we obviously don't have a deep pool of players."

In the 28 years since the Premier League was founded only 63 Northern Irishman had played in it, until Dallas' top flight debut at Anfield this season. He carries a huge amount of responsibility within Barraclough's squad.

"Some of us older ones have left so he's one of the voices, one of the leaders," said McAuley.

"The other boys look to them, even in training. It's up to the Premier League boys to drive the standards in training and try and lift the levels. Everyone aspires to that level but unfortunately not everyone can get to it. There is a responsibility to be at that level and try and bring everyone with you. Stu will have found that Northern Ireland has helped him, going into the Premier League because he has experience of playing against that top quality player in the Euros and qualification campaigns."

In Northern Ireland there is a general consensus that if the national team are doing well then they're punching above their weight and perhaps because so few of the international players feature in the top flight, there's a lack of the club tribalism that has reared its head in the discussion surrounding the England team on these shores. Dallas is simply seen as 'one of our own' by the green and white army, whether their pre-COVID Saturday morning flight took them to Manchester or Leeds.

His newfound Premier League status can help Leeds to entice more of his countrymen onto flights bound for Yorkshire by boosting the club's profile in a country that already boasts a significant Whites following and a country that has supplied the club with important players throughout the years, players like Wilbur Cush, John McClelland and David Healy.

"Our supporters follow the players with great passion," said McAuley.

"You see how important it is for the next generation. It gives the club exposure in Northern Ireland with Stuarty doing so well and Charlie Allen going there from Linfield, when he had other suitors, because usually the kids are always looking at Manchester United and Liverpool and Man City. Leeds United are a massive football club and when I was growing up Leeds were in the Premier League and the Champions League. To have the boys at Leeds, especially the way they play, is really refreshing and it's good for the club's following over here."

Dallas will walk out at Stadion Grbavica in Sarajevo tonight with a nation's hopes on his shoulders and a Premier League football club's support right behind him.

Baxter, still in charge at Seaview, will be watching with pride and thinking of that phone call about a young winger with promise and the cup game in which he shone. But he's adamant that the luck of an Irish Cup draw has nothing to do with where Dallas finds himself 10 years on, having become the 'great talent' he was predicted to be.

“It wouldn’t have mattered, Stuart Dallas would have found his way through,” he said.

“He’s the same as Gavin Whyte [ex-Crusaders striker now at Cardiff City], players like that can cope with playing with men because they’re so very talented in their feet and their brain.

"Stuart had it.

"When we watched him as a young boy coming out of Irish League football and getting a senior international call up it was brilliant. But to see him develop as a regular and one of the most experienced players in the squad, the real key men in the squad, it’s an incredible thing."