Alone, he did it? John McAlery and the origins of association football

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Volume 27

New evidence of early matches has necessitated a reappraisal of Irish soccer’s foundation story.

By Martin Moore

Above:John McAlery—credited with introducing association football into Ireland whenhe organised an exhibition match in Belfast on 24 October 1878 between Scottishteams Caledonian and Queen’s Park. But was he the only one involved and was itthe first game played in Ireland?

According to its foundation myth, association football was introduced into Ireland on 24 October 1878, when John McAlery organised an exhibition match in Belfast between two Scottish teams, Caledonian and the famous Queen’s Park. McAlery, known as the ‘father of Irish association football’, was a Belfast businessman who had apparently encountered the new code while on honeymoon in Scotland; he went on to establish Ireland’s first association club, Cliftonville, in 1879, and was instrumental in the foundation of the Irish Football Association in 1880. The code then grew rapidly in popularity in Belfast and other parts of Ulster, and later in Dublin.

Recent research, however, has identified three earlier association football matches—two in Belfast in 1875 and 1877 and one in County Cork in 1877—as well as evidence of activity in County Sligo in 1879–82 and possibly in County Westmeath in 1878 and King’s County in 1879. In addition, McAlery’s status as ‘founding father’ has been challenged, and a more nuanced account that recognises the efforts of others is overdue.

Early matches
The earliest recorded association football match in Ireland was played by members of the Ulster Cricket Club on its grounds at Prospect, Belfast, in front of some spectators on 11 December 1875. The match was recorded in the Belfast News-Letter and the Northern Whig, neither of which provided any description, although the latter was impressed by ‘the physique shown by the various players’. It was the intention of those playing to establish a football club to play both association and rugby rules in its first season before deciding which code to adopt. This does not appear to have happened, as the Ulster Football Club was not established until the 1877–8 season, and then only to play rugby.

Another match was played at Ulsterville, Belfast, on 3 March 1877 by members of the Windsor (rugby) Football Club, divided into two teams distinguished by blue and red ribbons worn on the left shoulder and involving at least four Irish rugby internationals. This was a trial match for a planned exhibition fixture against the Caledonian Football Club of Glasgow which was scheduled for 21 April but which, for reasons unknown, did not take place. It was arranged by James Calder, the secretary of Windsor, with contacts in Scotland, and was part of wider efforts by Scots to establish the association code in Ireland. There were also unsuccessful efforts by the Scottish FA to organise a match in Dublin, but it wasn’t until 1878 that efforts finally paid off, when Caledonian eventually made it to Ireland with Queen’s Park.

Separately from these developments, the Cork Constitution recorded a match played under association rules on 28 November 1877 in Mallow, Co. Cork, between a team from the local school, Penn’s, and Lismore College, Co. Waterford. It was played fifteen-a-side, with ‘unbroken good humour and hilarity’, and ended in a 0–0 draw. A return match at Lismore was anticipated, but if it did take place it wasn’t recorded.

McAlery: alone, he did it?
In a letter to Sport in 1885, responding to the suggestion that Calder had introduced association rules to Ireland, McAlery sought to ‘set [the editor] right’ by proclaiming, ‘Alone, I did it’, in answer to the question of who started association football in Ireland. From the 1920s the journalist-chroniclers of Irish football have mostly subscribed to this claim, and particularly since the publication of Malcolm Brodie’s centenary history of the Irish FA in 1980 the ‘McAlery-alone’ story has been repeated in numerous books, articles and the websites of the IFA and FIFA.

Above:Queen’s Park, 1873–4—one of the two Scottish teams invited by McAlery to playin 1878. (British Library)

McAlery, however, is not mentioned in any of the contemporary newspaper notices, reports or correspondence, which describe the 1878 match as being staged ‘under the auspices’ of the Windsor and Ulster football clubs. The Scottish Football Annual noted a year later that ‘at last’ efforts by the Scottish FA to introduce association football to Ireland had been ‘crowned with success’, and the Irish Football Annual, published two years later, also credited the Scots, and in particular J.A. Allen, captain of the Caledonian club. The Ulster Football and Cycling News in 1888, however, did identify McAlery as the Irish contact with whom Allen corresponded, and by McAlery’s death in 1925 he was being given the sole credit. The Belfast News-Letter’s obituary claimed: ‘To Mr McAlery … belongs the credit of having introduced the game of Association football into this country’. McAlery’s previous visit to Scotland is mentioned by the Belfast Telegraph at this time, and by 1979 Cliftonville’s centenary publication was describing the trip as a honeymoon. That aspect of the story is untrue, since McAlery did not get married until 1879. That on its own, of course, does not invalidate the rest of the story, but it does seem probable that the fully embellished tale of one man’s heroic endeavours is an exaggeration and that, while McAlery was involved, credit should be shared with others: the Scottish FA, Allen and Caledonian FC, Calder and Windsor FC, and Ulster FC, which hosted the match.

Ulster: growth and organisation
The exhibition match was a success. Several hundred people witnessed a strong Queen’s Park team, including five Scottish internationals, win 3–1, and sufficient interest was sparked to begin a process that by November 1880 had led to the establishment of the Irish Football Association.

The next step was another exhibition, arranged for April 1879, after the rugby season had ended, when a team of local rugby players billed as ‘Belfast FC’ played another visiting Scottish team, Lenzie, and lost 3–5. A few days later teams representing Ulster and Queen’s College, Belfast, drew 3–3. The first Irish association club, Cliftonville, was formed in September, and Caledonian returned to Belfast in October to defeat the new club 9–1. Other clubs soon formed in Belfast, and that first season of association rules in Ireland saw eight clubs play the new code, including two from outside Belfast: Moyola Park, Co. Londonderry, and Banbridge Academy, Co. Down. Four new teams, all from Belfast, were active in the 1880–1 season, and significantly these included three workplace teams: Oldpark, Distillery and Avoniel, formed respectively by workers at the Oldpark Printworks, the Royal Irish Distilleries and builders constructing the Avoniel Distillery. These new clubs represented the future working-class character of Irish soccer.

A close relationship with Scottish football was evident. As well as Caledonian, there were visits from five other Scottish teams during the first two seasons, and in January 1880 Cliftonville became the first Irish club to play a match outside Ireland, journeying to Glasgow to play a return match against Caledonian. Scottish migrants were also involved in establishing each of the three workplace teams mentioned above.

On 18 November 1880, at the invitation of Cliftonville, seven clubs met and formed the Irish Football Association to organise, govern and promote the association game in Ireland. The Scottish FA rules were adopted, and soon the fledgling association would receive from the Scottish FA a £5 subscription towards the cost of procuring the Irish Football Association Challenge Cup. McAlery was elected as the first secretary. The ‘Irish Cup’, organised on the same knockout basis as the FA Cup and Scottish Cup, began in February and Moyola Park were the surprise first winners in April 1881. An Irish international team was fielded for the first time in 1882, and later in the same year the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh associations founded the International Football Association Board.

Above: Moyola Park, Co. Londonderry, surprise first winners of the IFA Challenge Cup in1880–1, when they beat Cliftonville 1–0 in the final.(British Library)

Elsewhere in Ireland
The successful establishment of association football in Belfast and its subsequent growth from that centre has meant that until recently little attention has been paid to contemporary activity elsewhere in Ireland. New research, however, has revealed that association football was being played in other parts of Ireland, contemporaneously with, and independently of, developments in Ulster but without the same success.

In addition to the 1877 match in County Cork, an association football scene existed in Sligo from 1879 until at least 1882, and there is evidence of possible matches being played in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, in 1878 and in Tullamore, King’s County, in 1879. Two teams drawn from the Sligo Foot Ball Club (presumably a club originally established to play football under rugby or its own rules) played an association match in Sligo on 17 March 1879, and association matches involving this and other clubs were played regularly until 1882. In November 1878 an association match between a local team called Beverley Rovers and a team from the town’s military garrison was advertised in Mullingar; there is no record of the match’s taking place, but it is possible that it proceeded unreported. In October 1879 the Northern Whig reported that ‘at St Stanislaus College, Tullamore, there has been a good team organised to play Association Rules, and who are anxious for a few matches’. This followed the ‘annual match’ between the College and Tullamore FC on 18 October, which the College won by ‘two goals to one’—perhaps an indication that it had been played according to association rules (although it is also possible that the goals referred to were converted tries under rugby rules). St Stanislaus was listed the following year in the Irish Football Annual as an association club. These developments were all independent of each other and unconnected to contemporary events in Belfast.

The origins of association football in Ireland are more complex than the traditional foundation story centred on the heroic endeavours of John McAlery. It is now without doubt that football under association rules was played in Ireland before 1878 and that McAlery was not solely responsible for its introduction.

Martin Moore is an independent sports history researcher from Belfast.

P.I. Gunning, ‘Association football in the Shamrock Shire’s Hy Brasil: the “Socker” code in Connacht, 1879–1906’, Soccer & Society 18 (2017).
M. Moore, ‘The origins of association football in Ireland, 1875–1880: a reappraisal’, Sport in History 37 (2017).
D. Toms, Soccer in Munster: a social history, 1877–1937 (Cork, 2015).


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