On the 5th March 2013, Ryan Giggs made his landmark 1,000th appearance for Manchester United at the age of 39. It was a monumental achievement which left football fans to ponder whether we will witness such a feat again.
However, while making 1,000 appearances for the same club throughout an entire football career seems as rare as the coming of a Millennium itself, the same feat was actually achieved only three years ago. And ironically - like Ryan Giggs - this player also wore the iconic number 11 shirt for his club.
As a follower of Northern Irish domestic football, I feel compelled to highlight the story of another special individual to reach the 1,000 milestone; Noel Bailie.
For those who are unaware of the former Linfield FC skipper, Bailie surpassed the 1,000 appearance landmark and similar to Ryan Giggs, solely represented one club throughout his entire playing career and also wore the number 11 jersey.
Whilst both players have many similarities as highlighted, their respective playing careers are strikingly different.
Ryan Giggs is respected for his outstanding service and ability to remain playing at the highest standard in competitive football possible, and marking your 1,000th appearance against Real Madrid in the Champions League is one way to illustrate that.
In contrast, Noel Bailie was also respected for his outstanding service, but he applied his trade in a league that is today ranked 47 out of 53 in the UEFA standings. Nonetheless, what made the centre back’s achievement even more remarkable is that he balanced his football career playing within the top tier in Northern Ireland along with his full time occupation, as he did not have the luxury of a full-time contract. And despite this, he has just as many winners’ medals to show for as Ryan Giggs does.
While the standard of the domestic league may not be one of the strongest in Europe, it certainly cannot thwart Bailie’s dedication, service and love of the game.
Having joined Linfield as a 15 year old in 1986, Noel Bailie cemented his place in the first team by 1989. He would embark on a football career that would span 22 years as a first team regular for Linfield, which saw him claim a total of 34 competitions - including 10 Irish League titles and 7 Irish FA Cups - and captained his side to a domestic clean sweep of trophies in the 2005/06 season.
On 24th April 2010, at the age of 39, Noel Bailie made his 1,000th appearance for Linfield in a crucial encounter against Belfast rivals, Crusaders FC, and entered the playing arena to a guard of honour from both sets of players.
While partaking in an interview with talk Sport after making his 1,000th appearance for Linfield, Noel stated that the most talented player that he had come up against in a competitive game was ‘a young Georgi Kinkladze.’
The former Ajax and Manchester City midfielder came up against Bailie’s Linfield in the preliminary stages of the European Cup where goals from Shota Arveladze had initially saw the Belfast side out of Europe in 1993.
However, the Belfast outfit were granted a life line as it had transpired that Dinamo had previously attempted to bribe the match officials prior to the game. UEFA acted to withdraw the Georgian side from the competition and were replaced by Linfield.
In the next round, Linfield met FC Copenhagen where they defeated the Danish Champions 3-0 in the home leg. However, victory soon turned to despair as the Belfast Blues lost out in the return leg 4-0 in the Danish capital. If Bailie and his Linfield side were successful, they would have met the previous year’s finalists, AC Milan in the next round. But it was not to be.
Only days after making his 1,000th club appearance for Linfield, Bailie captained his side to another League title, thanks to a 1-0 victory over Cliftonville at Windsor Park.
Midway through the following season, Bailie announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2010/11 Irish League campaign and his final bow for the club was in a 4-0 victory over Lisburn Distillery where Linfield secured their 50th league championship. In total, he had racked up a stunning 1,013 appearances for the club before retiring at the age of 40.
When asked by BBC Northern Ireland after the game to reflect on which achievements stood out throughout his 22 year playing career with Linfield FC, Bailie stated that captaining the side to the 2006 Irish Cup was most special as it completed a domestic clean sweep for the club.
There had always been much nostalgia when looking back at the Linfield sides of 1922 and 1962 - commonly known as ‘The Seven Trophy Winning Teams’ - who managed to complete a domestic clean sweep of trophies.
However, with the three of those competitions now defunct and only four domestic trophies remained, Bailie laid claim to lifting them all as captain throughout the 2005/2006 season.
While taking his final bow in April 2011, Bailie received a special presentation from Linfield for his outstanding service and the club announced that the number 11 shirt would be retired in honour of the faithful skipper. Praise from his peers was not just reserved for his record breaking service, but also for his humble character, approach and model professionalism
One club players are today rare to come by. Even more so is representing that one club over one thousand times. And while no one deserves as much praise for his astounding achievements and services to football as Ryan Giggs at the moment, let us not forget the man who reached that terrific milestone first.