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A (very) brief history of football in Ireland

By Tom Keogh

The history of soccer in Ireland may not bulge with long lists of great achievements on International playing fields but it sparkles with a cast of wonderful people who have helped to make it the fastest growing sport in the country, a credit to its humble beginnings.

Some of our current crop of players might have difficulty finding the Football Association of Ireland headquarters at 80 Merrion Square but the hundreds of volunteer officials who trooped through that green door over the years have built an organisation of which we can be proud.

But National sports associations are seldom judged on their legislative records, improvements in the running and development of the game at domestic and International level are largely unsung but the quality of the game in the League of Ireland improves with each passing season while the grounds are rapidly becoming a pleasure to visit, models of hygiene and comfort.

However those in search of Herculean deeds on or off the field of play, may search in vain for even one magnificent defining moment of greatness. Defeats of England were of course as memorable as they were rare but only a handful of headings are needed for a modest soccer summation.

And while this is a very personal choice, I would list them as follows:

1. The formation of the Football Association in 1921.

2. The breakaway from the Irish Football Association in l959.

3. The appointment of Liam Tuohy as the first Republic team manager with the power to select teams.

4. The appointment of Jack Charlton as Republic team manager.

Those fans who began to follow the Republic's fortunes seriously during the reigns of Tuohy, John Giles and Eoin Hand were augmented by a massive surge of enthusiasm during Charlton's tenure. He led Ireland to the World Cup Finals twice and to the European Championship Finals on one unforgettable occasion.

The recent "revelations" by Tony Cascarino that he was a "phoney" Irishman and not qualified to play for the Republic, was, I consider a cheap publicity trick by the former player and the author of his book to boost sales. It diminishes the efforts of other great players and is not worthy of further comment.

The vast majority of Charlton's army of support knew little about football and cared less, they simply wanted to travel, to be at the all singing, all dancing party which was the backdrop to Ireland's efforts during those merry and in the main successful years.

But whether Charlton was the saviour of Irish football or the man who tore the soul out of the Irish game, got away with it and a great deal of money in the process remains to be seen. Was he a genial genius or a cute country boy with a ruthless streak who bullied a generation of footballers and bent them to his will?

He was certainly an enigma a smiling giant one moment, a brusque dictator the next, a man who could not tolerate criticism, who found debate uncomfortable, had a selective memory and could be churlish, canny or charitable as the mood swings took him.


But more of this craggy Geordie anon, first let us glance through the pages of F.A.I. history and the men who carried it through its difficult early years with dignity but not without a great deal of hard work.

The great moments at club and International level are inevitably linked with the names of great players, wonderful performers, extraordinary entertainers, proud and honourable men. And it all began when the F.A.I was formed at a meeting in Mary Street, Dublin on September l7, 1921 when A.J. Ryder was elected its first secretary.

The League of Ireland had already been formed the previous June, Ireland had competed in the Paris Olympics of 1924 and long before that - on March l7, 1900 - England had played an All Ireland team at Lansdowne Road.

The Republic played their first International in March l926, losing by three goals to Italy in Turin. They also lost their first home International to the Italians at Lansdowne Road the following April by two goals to one.

And in that same year, Drumcondra alas now defunct but always remembered as the Prole family's club had won the F.A.I. Cup, the only non league club to do so and Bohemians, then true blue amateurs won every domestic competition in 1928 - League Championship, F.A.I. Cup, Shield and Leinster Senior Cup.

And in the same year Ireland had their first International victory when they beat Belgium 4-2 in Liege. It is only in recent times that the Republic has qualified for the World Cup Finals under the baton of Jack Charlton in Italy l990 and the United States four years later.

But it was on February 24, l934 that Ireland made a World Cup debut and with it a little bit of history when they drew 4-4 with Belgium at Dalymount Park with Paddy Moore getting all four goals.

He was the first player to score four goals in a game in the history of the World Cup. And Moore was undoubtedly the first super star to appear on the Irish scene, a cult figure, a bit of a rebel, a hard drinker and alas dead before he reached his 42nd birthday.

He was first capped against Spain in 1931 when he was a Shamrock Rovers player, later when he joined Aberdeen and again when he returned to Shamrock Rovers in 1937. His was a glittering but tragically short career, he was capped only nine times but scored seven goals.

But if Moore was the first of Ireland's great football heroes, there was another in the wings ready to move centre stage and grace the game at the highest level for an astonishing fifteen years, Jackie Carey.

Dublin born Carey began his career with the great Guinness Brewery team, St.James's Gate and was transferred from there to Manchester United for £250 in 1938. There were, of course, no International games played during the Second World War but Carey played for the Republic 29 times between l938 when he made his debut against Norway and 1953 when he bowed out after a game against Austria.

Carey was one of those elegant, gifted players who always appeared to have lots of time on the ball and his professionalism, skill and qualities of leadership were well used by Matt Busby who made him club captain. Carey played a vital role in the reshaping of United under Busby and was skipper in 1948 when they bet Blackpool 4-2 to win the F.A. cup for the first time in almost forty years.

Between them Busby and Carey transformed United from a moderate middle of the table team to serious challengers for a League title. And having finished runners up four times between l947 and 5l, they became champions for the first time since 1911 the following season.

During his seventeen years with he club, Carey played in nine different positions and although he was best known as a fine right full back he was just as comfortable at centre half or wing half. Pipe smoking Carey achieved just about everything in his career, captained Ireland l9 times including on that memorable day at Goodison Park in l949 when Ireland bet England 2-0, the first "foreign" country to beat England at home.

He was Footballer of the Year in 1949, captain of the Rest of Europe v Great Britain in 1947 and Sportsman of the Year in 1950. He was also capped seven times for Northern Ireland when it was possible to play for both Associations and later managed Blackburn Rovers, twice, Everton and Leyton Orient.

And of course he also managed the Republic in those difficult days when players came over to Dublin on the mail boat on Saturday night after playing for their clubs that afternoon. His managerial style was just as laid back as he had been as a player.

He usually ended his team talks by telling the players to go out, play their natural game and enjoy themselves.î He once told goalkeeper Alan Kelly senior to, "kick the ball up the field lad, it will take longer to come back."

Not the sort of sentiments which would be acceptable to day but those were the bad old days before the threat of strike by International players brought about a revolutionary change in the management structure of Republic of Ireland teams.

And while the fledgling Football Association was finding its feet at International level, the first League Championship was won by St.James's Gate. But the following season newcomers Shamrock Rovers won the title at their first attempt, scoring a record seventy seven goals in he process.

They continued to break records on a regular basis, winning the Championship fifteen times - no other club comes near - and the F.A.I. Cup on 24 occasions, six times in succession from 1964 to '69, again an astonishing feat which may never be equalled much less surpassed.

And those early days were good for League of Ireland clubs who invariably supplied most of, if not all the players. In fact all he players in Ireland's first international - against Italy away in 1926 were home based.

The team was: Harry Cannon (Bohemians); Frank Brady (Fordsons), Jack McCarthy (Bohemians); Mick Foley (Shelbourne) Capt., Denis Doyle (Shamrock Rovers), James Connolly (Fordsons); John Joe Flood (Shamrock Rovers), Joe Grace (Drumcondra), Fran Watters (Shelbourne).

Harry Cannon, Billy Lacey, Bob Fullam and William "Sacky" Glen were all local heroes, crowd pleasers for years. Fullam was the league's top scorer with 27 goals in the season 1922 -23 a figure which was not passed until 1931 when Alec Hair got 29 for Shelbourne.I rather fancy that the wags on the terraces had some fun with that surname.

The Republic team which played and beat Belgium 4-2 at Dalymount Park in 1929 saw Tom Farquharson of Cardiff City replace Cannon in goal and Charlie Dowdall (Barnsley) and Mick O'Brien (Walsall) make their first appearances. But sadly such romantic club names as Fordsons, Jacobs Bray Unknowns and Brideville, soon drifted off the scene.

Gradually and only gradually players from clubs such as Bury, Aberdeen, Glasgow Celtic, Manchester City Arsenal (Jimmy Dunne)Leeds United and Notts County began to appear on Ireland team sheets.

But it was not until l937 that the first Manchester United player appeared, that was goalkeeper Tommy Breen. How times have changed. But six months later a young Jackie Carey, now a Manchester United player made his Republic debut at inside left against Norway in a World Cup qualifier which finished 3-3 at Dalymount Park. Kevin O'Flanagan, then a young medical student and playing with Bohemians also made his debut that afternoon and went on to play with the great Arsenal side and with his brother Mick also played rugby for Ireland, the only brothers to play rugby and soccer for Ireland.

Kevin was also a noted athlete and was in time to be a distinguished President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, having previously been medical officer to that organisation.

Ireland's last game before the war was a l-l draw with Germany in Bremen, the great Paddy Bradshaw scoring Ireland's goal. Ireland opened its International campaign after the war with games against Portugal and Spain away and against England at Dalymount Park. The O'Flanagan brothers played for Ireland and the late great Paddy Coad made his debut, the first of his eleven caps, all of them as a Shamrock Rovers player. Had the war not intervened Coad would surely have blossomed in England.

One time England coach Walter Winterbottom reckoned that had Coad played in England in his youth he would have become a greater player than Peter Doherty.

Coad has often been described as the "greatest player who never left Ireland". But Liam Tuohy who played for Shamrock Rovers, Newcastle United and also played for and managed the Republic disagreed.î He was Ireland's greatest player," he insisted.

Praise indeed when one considers, Jackie Carey, Charlie Hurley, Noel Cantwell, John Giles, Liam Brady and Roy Keane. But whatever picture history paints of Paddy Coad, he undoubtedly played a major role in making Shamrock Rovers the best ever League of Ireland club when he took over a player - coach in the mid fifties.

The Shamrock Rovers roll of honour is quite something. League Championship Shamrock Rovers 15;Dundalk 9. F.A.I Cup Shamrock Rovers -24; Dundalk 8.League of Ireland Shield - Shamrock Rovers 18; Shelbourne 8.Dublin City Cup :- Shamrock Rovers 10; Drumcondra 6.

While Rovers won their fair share of Championships, they were recognised as the Cup specialists, appearing in 38 semi finals and 31 finals. They have won the Cup six times in succession 1964 to 69, five times in succession 1929 to 33 and three times in succession l985 to 87. They also had back to back victories in l944 - 45 and l955-56.

The only other clubs to have retained the Cup were Cork Hibernians and Shelbourne. And in the process of compiling these impressive statistics Rovers produced players of the highest calibre, men like Paddy Moore and Sacky Glen before the Second World War. Later there was Coad, Peter Farrell and Tommy Ellington, Pat Dunne, Noel Peyton, Paddy Ambrose and Liam Tuohy.

But the "Hoops" did not have it all their own way, far from it. St.Patrick's Athletic won the Championship when they made their debut in 1951 and then in successive years in l955 and '56.

Shay Gibbons, three times the Championship leading goal scorer was the Inchicore hero in the early to mid fifties but those years also produced Dessie Glynn (Drumcondra), Jimmy Gauld (Waterford),Tommy Hamilton (Shamrock Rovers), Donal Leahy (Evergreen United) and Austin Noonan of the same club. Then in the early sixties came headline grabbers and goal scorers like Dan McCaffrey (Drumcondra), Mick Lynch (Waterford), Eddie Bailham (Shamrock Rovers), Jimmy Hasty (Dundalk), Johnny Kingston (Cork Hibernians) and Johnny Brooks of Sligo Rovers.

Exciting days, great players and the decade which saw the emergence of Waterford as League Champions four times, three times in succession from 1967 to '70. But before these happy days when Jimmy McGeough, John O'Neill, Al Casey. Alfie Hale and their happy band brought renewed glory to the Blues, there was another historic chapter in the F.A.I. story.

But before we get carried away with tales of swashbuckling football at League of Ireland level, we must consider another event of major importance in the annals of the F.A.I., the final break with the Irish Football Association, the definitive parting of the ways.


The F.A.I. had been formed in 1921 but until 1950 players from the Republic or as it was known in its early days the Irish Free State were free to play for Northern Ireland if selected. And many did.

To be continued....


© Tom Keogh 2000/2001

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