Ireland’s greatest football team?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Volume 13

As in other parts of the British Isles, ball games were a popular form of recreation in Ireland long before the modern versions of the games that became soccer and rugby were refined by English public schools during the nineteenth century and had their rules of play standardised by the Football Association (in 1863) and the Rugby Union (in 1871). Rugby had actually preceded soccer in establishing a foothold in Ireland and, after initial difficulties over separate governing bodies in Belfast and Dublin, unity in the ‘handling game’ was attained by 1879. This was the same year that Cliftonville, a club playing under association football rules, was founded by John M. McAlery, who had arranged an exhibition game in Belfast between two Scottish sides the previous year. Although perhaps the most influential club in the early history of Irish soccer, Cliftonville was not the first club to play under association rules. It was preceded by the football section of the Alexander Cricket Club, Limavady, which played the game during the winter months, and by the association football section of the Ulster Rugby and Association Football Club, Ballynafeigh, both dating from 1876.
McAlery became secretary of the Irish Football Association (IFA) in 1880, but the game seems to have grown slowly in popularity, in the initial stages at any rate. Only four clubs playing association football are listed in the 1880 Irish Football Annual, and when the IFA’s Irish Cup was contested the following year only seven teams took part. Heavy defeats by England and Wales in the first two internationals in 1882 suggest that the base of the game in Ireland was not strong enough to contest international matches against countries where the game had been much longer established. The Irish team continued to take part in internationals, however, and while the results against England and Scotland continued to be uninspiring, defeats by Wales were punctuated by the occasional win or draw.

British International Tournament

In the 1883–4 season the annual matches between the four countries became the British International Tournament, each country playing each other once, with two points awarded for a win and one for a draw. While Scotland had an edge over England in the early contests, England’s fortunes improved after the formation of the Football League in 1888–9. Scotland was able to field stronger sides when, from 1896, Scottish players in England were eligible for selection. The competition continued as a two-horse race for most seasons up to 1913, with Wales and Ireland normally left with nothing to contest but the wooden spoon. This was to be expected, given the widely different numbers playing the game in the four countries, the strength of the respective leagues and, most important, the small number of professional players Ireland and Wales had to call on compared to England and Scotland.
Soccer in Belfast, however, had much in its favour, not least the fact that in its industrial development and large working-class population it resembled many of the cities and towns in England and Scotland where the game was becoming firmly established. Entries for the Irish Cup increased annually and by 1890 there were more than 100 clubs in Ireland. These included many in Dublin, where the game was established shortly after its appearance in Belfast. Largely the preserve of the middle classes in its early stages, the game in Dublin had more in common with the gentlemen amateurs in the south of England than with the game played in the industrial cities of the north of England, Scotland or Belfast. Participation in the Irish Cup no doubt helped to improve standards. Nevertheless, it was the 1894–5 season before a Dublin club, Bohemians, reached the final, although Dublin University had reached the semi-final ten years earlier. An Irish League was formed in 1890 and professional football was accepted by the IFA in 1894.
The amateur Bohemians did not join the Irish League until 1902 but reached the final of the Irish Cup again in 1899–1900 and 1902–3. The 1902–3 season also marked Ireland’s first success in the International Tournament. Having lost to England in the first match, Ireland beat Scotland in Glasgow, largely through an inspired performance from Wicklow-born Johnny Kirwan, who had played for Tottenham Hotspurs in their FA Cup final win in 1900–1. While Bohemian’s Harry Sloan was also in the Irish team, the side was made up mainly of players from the Belfast clubs of Distillery and Linfield. A win over a depleted Wales team in atrocious conditions in Belfast the following week put Ireland level on points with England, who had still to play Scotland. Scotland’s surprise win left England, Ireland and Scotland all level on four points and thus all three countries shared the title. While Ireland’s success was admittedly a moderate one—only Wales finished below them in the table—they had to wait another ten years before they could look back on their international season with any comparable degree of satisfaction.

First win over England

Ireland’s win over England in Belfast in 1913 brought to an end a dismal run of 27 defeats and two draws in the 29 annual meetings of the countries in the International Tournament since its inception in 1884. While the win was undoubtedly an occasion for the kind of celebration that any win over England in any sport, then as now, evokes, it did not help Ireland’s showing in the International Tournament. England beat Wales and Scotland to earn four points, Wales and Scotland drew with each other and both beat Ireland, leaving England the winner with four points, Scotland and Wales second with three each and Ireland at the bottom of the table with two.
The win, nevertheless, coupled with the results of matches in the tournament over the previous few years, offered hope for the future. For in the twelve matches played from 1910 to 1913 Ireland, though losing nine, did so in most cases by narrow margins that represented a vast improvement on the heavy defeats to which they were regularly subjected in the early years. Few could have believed, though, that such a hope would be realised so quickly. It was all the more improbable in that there was a crisis in football in Ireland in 1912 that almost led to the IFA losing control of the game to a breakaway group.
Only three of the team that beat England in 1913 faced Wales in the first match of the International Tournament of 1914, eleven months later—full-back William McConnell (Bohemians), right-half and captain Val Harris (Everton), both Dubliners, and Donegal-born Billy Gillespie (Sheffield United), centre-forward. A fourth, Portarlington-born Jimmy McAuley (Preston North End), was selected but reported injured, while Belfast goalkeeper Fred McKee (Cliftonville) had been first-choice goalkeeper for the England match the previous year but had to withdraw. With the exception of Dubliner Ted Seymour (Bohemians) and Lithuanian-born Louis Brookman (Bradford City), the remainder of the team against Wales were experienced internationals. Belfastman Sam Young had made his debut as long ago as 1907, Galwayman Alex Craig (Glasgow Rangers) had played for Ireland since 1908, Wexfordman Billy Lacey (Everton) since 1909, while Dubliner Paddy O’Connell (Sheffield Wednesday) and Belfastman Davy Rollo (Linfield) first played international football in 1912.

Truly an all-Ireland team

In a preview of the match the Dublin newspaper Sport remarked that in the history of association football in Ireland ‘we never had so many men in the service of cross-channel clubs’. Of the players in the side who were with Irish clubs, McConnell was shortly to return to Bradford Park Avenue, Rollo was to go on to a long and distinguished career with Blackburn Rovers, and Seymour, one of Ireland’s best players against Wales, went to Cardiff but made no impact there. Another interesting feature of the team was that it was a truly representative one geographically, with birthplaces from Galway to Dublin and from Belfast to Wexford.
As most of the players involved in the fixture were from the English league, Wrexham (on a Monday) was deemed a suitable venue for both teams, although a crowd of only 5,000 turned up at the Racegrounds. Gillespie scored twice in Ireland’s 2–1 win. Although it was Ireland’s twelfth victory over Wales since the International Tournament began, the win, combined with that over England in 1913, ‘raised hopes of victory to an even chance’, as Ireland’s Saturday Night put it in a preview of Ireland’s next fixture against England at Middlesbrough. The Irish Times was less sanguine. ‘There is much speculation about a second win over England’, it wrote, ‘but it is hardly likely that the team will be caught napping, as did the side who did duty for England last year.’
For the game at Middlesbrough Ireland made four changes: Harris was injured and was replaced by Dubliner Harry Hampton (Bradford City); Belfastman Micky Hamill (Manchester United), who had been ‘indisposed’ for the game against Wales, was recalled, as was Johnny Houston, previously a soldier in the Royal Irish Rifles but at that time playing with Linfield in the Irish League; and Frank Thompson replaced Brookman on Ireland’s left wing. Thompson, from Ballynahinch, had played a crucial role in creating the Bradford City goal that beat Newcastle in the 1911 FA Cup final replay. In the event, Houston did not start and Rollo, originally one of the players dropped, came back into the side at outside-right; he had been wing-half against Wales.

England 0–3 Ireland

Rollo adapted well to his unusual position before a crowd of more than 27,000 at Ayresome Park, except that he was frequently offside. Within five minutes of kick-off, however, he and Thompson had set up an attack that was finished off by Lacey with a shot past England goalkeeper Sam Hardy (Aston Villa). Hardy, winning his sixteenth cap, was judged to be England’s best player on the day, followed by his two equally experienced full-backs, Rob Crompton (Blackburn Rovers) and Jessie Pennington (West Bromwich Albion). The latter allowed a cross from Thompson to go over his head before half-time, however, and Gillespie got inside him to beat Hardy with a low shot to give Ireland a 2–0 lead at the interval. The Irish boys, wearing blue shirts—England were in white—continued to dominate the game in the second half, and when Gillespie got around Pennington again he set Lacey up to score his second for a 3–0 win.
England’s best chance was a shot against the post by inside-forward Danny Shea. Born in London’s East End to parents from Cork, Shea’s move from West Ham United to Blackburn Rovers the previous year was the first to break the £2,000 transfer barrier. England’s centre-forward, George Elliott, had scored 21 goals for Middlesbrough that season but made no impression on the game. Crowds had come from all parts of Cleveland to see him play for England, but the Middlesbrough Standard reported that, while they conceded that their hero was entitled to the occasional off day, they ‘were disgusted with the England team’.
The London Times agreed that Ireland was the better side and deserved to win, while the Manchester-based Athletics News, the voice of English football, agreed fully in its more detailed analysis of the game. In Lacey, it affirmed, Ireland had the best player on the field; Craig was ‘cool as a cucumber’ at full-back, Hamill ‘a tireless worker’ at wing-half and O’Connell ‘as steady as a rock at centre-half’. But as well as outstanding individuals, Ireland played together as a unit and worked harder, with ‘two blue shirts to one white one in the vicinity of the ball’. The Freeman’s Journal argued that two successive wins over England meant that Ireland was now a force to be reckoned with in international football. The Irish Times, while repeating its claim that the 1913 win had been a lucky one, acknowledged that ‘on this occasion full credit must be given to the Hibernians accomplishing what was a wonderfully fine performance’.

Three records in one day

A new record of two hours and one minute was set on Saturday 14 March 1914 by a Great Northern ‘special’ train from Dublin to Belfast. Some of those on board were bound for the international rugby match between Ireland and Wales at Balmoral Showgrounds. Others, despite the alternative football attraction of Glentoran against Shelbourne in the third replay of the Irish Cup semi-final at Dalymount Park, were on their way to Windsor Park for Ireland’s last match against Scotland in the International Tournament. Originally the fixture was arranged for Cliftonville’s ground but, with a large crowd expected, it was switched to Windsor Park. While there were different estimates of the number who came to Linfield’s ground for the match, there was agreement on the record gate receipts of £1,600. The third record of the day was established shortly before five o’clock, when a blast on referee H.S. Bamlett’s whistle brought a tense game to an end.
Ireland’s plans for the game were disrupted when Billy Gillespie, the centre-forward who had scored in both previous games, was unable to play because of Sheffield United’s FA Cup semi-final replay against Manchester United. McAuley was first-choice replacement, and, failing him, Coleraine-born John McCandless, who was enjoying a good season with the Bradford Park Avenue side who were on their way to gaining promotion to the First Division of the English League. On the day neither played. Instead, Young moved to centre-forward and team trainer Rob Torrans had to accept as his replacement at inside-forward the Monaghan-born Bob Nixon (Linfield), who, though he had played a prominent part in Linfield’s run to take the Irish League title that season, had no experience of international football. Houston took over on the right wing for his first international of the year, although he had been a regular in that position for the two previous seasons.

Ireland reduced to ten men

Scotland had fielded a home-based side against Wales in their first international of the year and had to settle for a 0–0 draw. For the match against Ireland, which they had to win if they were to stay in contention for the championship, the Scottish selectors called on their strongest side, which included several English-based players. These included Joe Donnachie (Oldham Athletic), who gave his team the lead in the second half when he beat the Irish goalkeeper McConnell from close range. Selected at full-back, McConnell had taken over when goalkeeper McKee had to retire through injury.
Reduced to ten men, with Gillespie missing and with Lacey having to take over McConnell’s place at full-back, an Irish equaliser seemed unlikely. However, in the words of the Freeman’s Journal, the Irish team ‘buckled to with a spirit which sent the crowd into ecstasy’. The reward for players and spectators alike came with eight minutes to go when Young levelled the scores. Ireland had got the point they needed to win the International Tournament for the first time in the 30 years of the competition, and the results of the remaining fixtures, England v. Wales and England v. Scotland, could only have a bearing on the minor placings.
At the final whistle, the Freeman’s Journal reported, ‘there was a remarkable scene of enthusiasm’. Ireland’s first success in the International Tournament, the Athletics News declared, was due reward for a country that had for long accepted defeat with a smile ‘and for the buoyancy of sportsmanship they have shown year after year in face of much discouragement. Ireland will never be despised again.’ When the remaining games were played, the final table read as follows:

P    W    D    L    F    A    Pts
Ireland    3    2    1    0    6    2    5
Scotland    3    1    2    0     4    2    4
England    3    1    0    2    3    6    2
Wales    3    0     1    2    1    4    1

Whether the ‘veritable blaze of triumph’ with which Sport hailed Ireland’s win over England could have been maintained is something that will never be known, as World War I broke out in August and the International Tournament did not take place for five years. By the time the Tournament was resumed, Craig, Harris, McKee, Thompson and Young were well into their thirties, although Harris was still good enough to play at a high level. McConnell, O’Connell, Lacey and Hamill were in their early thirties. McConnell was no longer in top-class football after the war, and O’Connell was taking the first steps on the road to a successful management career that included several seasons in charge of Barcelona. Lacey was in several successful Everton teams in the 1920s and retained his place in the Northern Ireland side after the war, as did Hamill.
Of the younger players, Gillespie and Rollo went on to achieve the highest honours in English football, as well as playing a prominent part in Northern Ireland teams in the five years following the war. Some new players did, of course, come through, and Billy McCracken, missing from the 1914 team because of a prolonged dispute over match fees, was accepted back into the fold after the war. What was needed, perhaps, to maintain the standard set in 1914 was a greater amount of new blood, which was not forthcoming. The formation of a separate football association for the Irish Free State in 1921 could hardly be blamed for this, as players born in the Free State and playing with English and Scottish clubs were readily available for the Ireland team that continued to contest the International Tournament, an arrangement that continued until 1950. By this time several of the players who were to form the next Irish team to gain acclaim in international football—the team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 1958—had been identified as promising young footballers.
Northern Ireland’s performance in the 1982 World Cup in Spain and the more recent achievements of the Republic of Ireland teams in European and World Cup competitions have continued to keep Irish football in the international limelight. While the performances of these teams in international football were undeniably on a wider stage than those of the team of 1914, the achievements of the latter should not be underestimated. They were, after all, clear winners of the only international competition open to professional players at the time, and as such deserve consideration for the title of ‘Ireland’s greatest football team’.

Colm Kerrigan’s Teachers and football has just been published by RoutledgeFarmer.

The author is grateful to George Glass for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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