Gillespie, William (Billy) (1891–1981), footballer, was born 6 August 1891 in Kerrykeel, Co. Donegal, the eldest son of seven children (four girls and three boys) of Robert Gillespie, an RIC sergeant, and his wife Eliza, a native of Co. Tyrone. The family were Church of Ireland. Robert Gillespie was a native of Portrush, Co. Antrim, and was stationed in Donegal town at the time of William's birth. On his retirement (c.1896), he moved to Rosemount Avenue, Derry city, where William played junior football. In 1907 he began playing with Institute FC, based in the Drumahoe area of Derry, and soon gained a reputation as a skilful forward. He played a trial match for Linfield in May 1910 and was about to join them but was spotted by a scout for Leeds City, then in the second division of the Football League, who persuaded him to sign professional forms. In doing so, he defied the wishes of his father who advised him to get a steady job rather than risk the short and uncertain career of a professional footballer.
Gillespie made his league debut in a defeat to Blackpool on 3 September 1910. Playing at either centre-forward or inside-left, he scored 10 goals in 24 games for Leeds (1910/11), but struggled to establish himself as a first-team regular. To ease their pressing financial problems, Leeds sold him for £400 in December 1911 to Sheffield United of the first division, who paid him the then maximum wage of £5 a week. He scored on his debut, away to Newcastle in a 2–2 draw, on 26 December 1911, and scored 11 league goals in his first season with Sheffield. Normally playing at inside-left, he was an exciting and skilful player who became a great favourite with the Sheffield supporters. He could swerve past an opponent with ease, had good ball control, a deceptively fast raking stride, and strong shot, but hated heading the ball. Perhaps his greatest attribute was his incisive passing, which set up many goals for teammates; he was particularly renowned for his long cross-field passes. His career was interrupted when he broke a leg in the first game of the 1914/15 season against Sunderland (2 September 1914), an injury that meant he missed Sheffield's FA Cup win in 1915.
Professional football was suspended after the 1915 cup final owing to the war, during which Gillespie served as a gunner in the Irish Horse Artillery, an experience that caused him to go prematurely bald. When on leave he occasionally returned to Sheffield to play for United in amateur regional league games. In 1919 he resumed his professional career with Sheffield United, and was one of their outstanding players for the next decade. As Gillespie aged he adapted, dropping deeper into midfield to allow himself to control the game with his clever distribution. He captained the team (1923–30), leading them to fifth place in the first division in 1923/4 and 1925/6, and helped them win the FA Cup in 1925, with a 1–0 win over Cardiff City in a game dominated by his precise passing. Most newspaper reports of the final singled out Gillespie as the outstanding player, with one mentioning that he should be appointed by the FA as 'a national instructor in football artistry' (cited in Guardian, 30 December 2011). He was the first Irishman to captain an FA Cup-winning team, and the 1925 FA Cup was the last major trophy won by Sheffield United. As Sheffield captain he was instrumental in assisting the career of the Dublin-born centre-forward Jimmy Dunne (qv), signed by the club in 1926. When, on 22 January 1927, the BBC broadcast a league match on radio for the first time, Gillespie scored in a 1–1 draw with Arsenal at Highbury. He left Sheffield United in 1932 aged 40, having played 448 league games for the club and scored 127 league goals; in total he played 563 games for Sheffield and scored 161 goals.
Gillespie also played 25 international games for Ireland (1913–31). His first appearance was against England on 15 February 1913 in Windsor Park, Belfast, and he scored twice in a 2–1 victory that was Ireland's first ever win over England. He scored again on 14 February 1914 when Ireland beat England 3–0 at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough (7 of his 13 international goals were scored against England). That year he also scored twice on 19 January 1914 in a 2–1 victory over Wales, with Ireland winning the British home championship outright for the first time. When Irish international football split between teams organised by the Belfast-based Irish Football Association and the rival Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland in 1921, Gillespie continued to play for the IFA team, which called itself 'Ireland' and organised its national team on an all-Ireland basis. All his 25 international appearances were in the British home championship, and he holds the record of the most-capped Sheffield United player, winning all his 25 caps with the club. His IFA international goal-scoring record of 13 stood for seventy-eight years; it was equalled by Colin Clarke in 1992 and finally overtaken by David Healy in 2004.
In June 1932 Gillespie was offered generous terms to become player-manager of Derry City in the Irish League. During this time Derry won the City Cup (an important competition confined to Irish League clubs) in 1935 and 1937; they were also runners-up on four successive occasions in the Irish League, and lost the 1936 Irish Cup final 2–1 to Linfield after a replay. Gillespie was held in great regard at Derry, and as a tribute to him in 1934 the club changed its strip to Sheffield United's red-and-white striped shirts and black shorts. Leaving Derry in May 1941, he returned with his wife Rosie and three children to live in Sheffield, where he worked at Hadfields munitions works. During the war his unoccupied house in the Abbey Lane district of Sheffield received a direct hit from a German bomb.
After the death of his wife, he moved in 1948 to Bexley, Kent. He remained a much-respected figure in football, and in 1966 returned to Derry to present medals to the players of Institute. He also continued to work as a scout for Sheffield United until his eightieth birthday. In May 1981, just two months before his death, he featured on BBC TV's Football focus programme as the oldest surviving player from an FA Cup final. He recalled: 'My proudest moment was receiving the cup from King George V in 1925. I still have my medal and the gold watch which Sheffield United presented to each of the players. It was a great day but we had an even better night – we all got sloshed' (Belfast Telegraph, 2 July 1981). Gillespie died in Bexley on 2 July 1981, a month short of his ninetieth birthday. His funeral and burial took place in Sheffield, the place he most regarded as home. In September 2013 a commemorative plaque was unveiled by his granddaughter Jane Bull at Rab's Park, Kerrykeel, the local sports field where he had first played.