Dubliner Noel Greenhalgh has had a few different jobs. From Shamrock Rovers defender to fruit wholesaler to Melbourne Cup-winning horse owner, it’s fair to say Greenhalgh has diversified his CV since emigrating to Australia in 1987.
Last year he found himself in the winning circle of Australia’s “race that stops the nation” with his wife Maria thanks to being part-owners of Gold Trip, a horse that claimed the 4.4 million Australian dollar (€2.82 million) prize, something he describes as the “third best” moment in his life after getting married and having his two daughters.
His journey from semi-professional footballer living at home with his parents in Drimnagh to one of Australia’s prominent racing figures reads like an immigrant success fairy tale. And like all good fairy tales, it started in a pub in Crumlin over a few late night pints.
“This was 1986. Ireland’s economy was f**ked,” Greenhalgh sets the scene over the phone from his Brisbane office. “I had a good job working for Irish Industrial Gas, I was getting paid for playing football and I still couldn’t get by.”
By this stage, Greenhalgh had sensed his best chance of getting ahead would be by getting away and he had applied for a US green card. His sights were firmly set on the United States until a chance meeting with an old friend at Eleanora’s pub on Drimnagh Road.
“I hadn’t seen Kieran Cooper [the former Bray Wanderers forward] for five or six years and I asked him where he had been. He said Brisbane. I asked him where that was and he said just up the road from Sydney,” laughs Greenhalgh.
Brisbane City FC, a mere 9½ hour drive from Sydney, were recruiting players. Cooper asked Greenhalgh if he was interested in coming over.
“I thought f**k yeah! The club chairman at the time was a lovely fella but he didn’t understand time differences. The phone would ring at 3am and my mother would think the house was burning down.”
A month later the club had organised Greenhalgh’s visa, contract and flights. He arrived on April 1st, 1987.
“I got off the plane and it was a balmy 28 degrees. I thought to myself ‘I’m not going back’,” he said. Still Greenhalgh acknowledges that it was a “huge risk” for a 24-year-old to move to the opposite side of the world at that time.
The eldest of six, Greenhalgh grew up in a close family and a tight-knit community. He describes being ‘’really torn” when having to choose between St John Bosco, his local team and the Shamrock Rovers which could offer semi-professional opportunities. It took “John Giles and Eamon Dunphy sitting in my mother’s little two bedroom house on Clonard Rd” to convince Greenhalgh to sign for Rovers when he was 17.
He stayed for four seasons before a stint at Drogheda and then Shelbourne before securing his Brisbane City FC contract.
While Greenhalgh went on to captain Brisbane FC to a premiership and was selected for the Queensland state team, he says one of his greatest achievements in a football stadium was a chance meeting after a game.
“That’s where I first saw my wife Maria; she was there with her sisters.”
He married Maria Alati in February 1989, an Italian-Australian who Greenhalgh says has blessed him with “30-odd years of happy marriage and two beautiful daughters”.
Maria’s father Nick Alati had bought RW Pascoe, a fresh produce wholesale business at Brisbane markets in 1977. He began to lobby Greenhalgh to join him as soon as the couple got engaged. At the time Greenhalgh was working as a credit controller at an advertising company “trying to get money out of b*****ds to pay their bills”.
After his father-in-law “plagued” him for months, Greenhalgh finally relented and took two weeks leave from his job to join Nick at the Rocklea markets in 1989.
“It was 3am starts. I hated it,” said Greenhalgh.
There was also another snag for the Dubliner.
“I hadn’t seen half of these things before. I didn’t know the difference between an apple and an orange. We didn’t know anything about fresh fruit and veg growing up with six kids on one income,” he laughs. But, with his fathers-in-law’s encouragement, Greenhalgh persisted.
“I just asked as many questions as I could and I started to put the business together. The Irish accent was hard at first when you’re trading. I’d say 30 dollars but they’d hear ‘turty’ and think it was 20.”
He describes his father-in-law as a “great friend” who he had “a lot of good times with”. “On Friday we would drive or fly all over to get better growers, better product. I didn’t have a day off for 15 years really.”
Greenhalgh was looking for ways to improve the business and found it in “simple stuff” like promising buyers the stock would be delivered to their truck in 30 minutes allowing them to continue shopping unencumbered.
The advent of mobile phones saw Greenhalgh ring customers before they arrived into the markets so he could have their order ready to go.
“One of the most crucial things I did was offer growers better payment terms,” said Greenhalgh. “I had to convince growers to send to me when there’s 53 other wholesales in the same market selling the same things.”
By offering growers payment in 10 working days instead of the standard 21 to 28 days, he was able to attract more business.
“The growers were talking to each other about the crazy Irish man at Pascoe’s who can sell anything.”
The business diversified into growing with the company producing 17 per cent of Australia’s blueberries. Greenhalgh estimates the business has grown ‘14 times’ from what it was.
Sadly as they started to enjoy success, Greenhalgh’s father-in-law passed away at the age of 63. Maria and her three siblings continue to own the business, employing Greenhalgh as a managing director.
“I have the greatest relationship with my in-laws. It’s been the most beautiful thing and I’m still able to be respectful of my father-in-law in the way I manage.”
His father-in-law’s love of racing inspired Greenhalgh’s own involvement.
“Nick was an astute punter. We thought he had an interest in five or six horses but after he passed, we realised it was more like 46 that no one knew anything about.”
By teaming up with former fruit market rival Peter Tighe and working with legendary trainers such as Chris Waller and Ger Lyons, Greenhalgh has seen plenty of Group One wins. As a part-owner he’s enjoyed wins at the Cox Plate, the Melbourne Cup and the Everest.
Greenhalgh insists racing is “not my greatest business enterprise but it is the greatest enjoyment” for him and Maria, with the couple’s owning interests taking them to Ascot and Saratoga.
Greenhalgh’s distinctive racing colours, green with a shamrock, are also a family affair. He commissioned his daughter Sarah to design them with crayons when she was just six. Sarah Greenhalgh is now an award-winning foreign correspondent living in London while her sister Laura is an accomplished musical theatre actress.
Greenhalgh said he had “the itch” to return home to Ireland when the girls were little but ultimately has “no regrets” about remaining in Australia.
“I love Ireland but economically it hasn’t done me any favours.
“It’s been a wild ride. I think my life has been made up of about three or four sliding door opportunities like resigning from my good job and moving at 24,” he said. “But I’ve had the balls to take those opportunities when they came.”