The life of O’Reilly

It all began in a two room house that no longer stands, on a street that no longer exists. In the summer of 1911, Joseph O’Reilly, a man who go on to be one of the greatest Irish footballers of his era was born at number 4, Willet’s Place. And, like the street where he was born, O’Reilly tends to be forgotten by history.

While Willet’s Place was just one of the many lanes and courts that snaked through Dublin’s impoverished north inner city, a place that many perhaps willingly forgot, Joe is someone who should be more familiar, especially to Irish football supporters. He was the first Irish player to win twenty international caps, a total that would have been significantly higher had the outbreak of World War Two not intervened. O’Reilly’s appearance record wouldn’t be broken until Johnny Carey won his 21st cap in 1949.

He was also a star of the domestic game, winning both a League and an FAI Cup with St. James’s Gate and represented the League of Ireland XI on many occasions. However, despite being a cultured half-back with a rocket of a shot, enjoying club success and scoring on his international debut in a win against the Netherlands, O’Reilly’s name provoked little response when typed into a search bar – a two line wikipedia entry being scant reward for an impressive career.

One reason that Joe O’Reilly is not a more prominent name in the history of Irish football could be down to the man himself. I spoke with Joe’s son Bob about his father and he stressed how little his father courted the limelight, describing him as a quiet and very humble man. Indeed the few articles and interviews that one can find on Joe O’Reilly see him focus praise and attention on his erstwhile teammates and rivals rather than on himself.

Map of Willet's Place

Ordnance survey map showing Willet’s Place (top centre right) c.1913 the Gloucester Diamond is shown bottom left.

Off the Diamond

To redress the balance I’ve tried to piece together a descriptive timeline of Joe’s life and career. In doing so let’s return to that two bedroom house in Willet’s Place, a back lane off what we know today as Sean McDermott Street. On May 27th 1911 a son is born to Michael and Mary O’Reilly, they christen him Joseph. This is an area that will become synonymous with Dublin football and footballers, Graham Burke, Jack Byrne and Wes Hoolahan are some of the more recent residents from the area who have worn the green, while the Gloucester Diamond became famous across the city for its 7-a-side matches that often featured the cream of Dublin’s footballing talent.

Diamond

The Gloucester Diamond and its famous 7 a side concrete pitch – photo from local historian Terry Fagan

However, the O’Reilly family would not remain in the area long, they moved to another hotbed of Dublin football; Ringsend on the southern banks of the Liffey. Michael was a soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the time of Joe’s birth and he was predominantly based out of Beggar’s Bush barracks, a short distance from the Ringsend/Irishtown area. The cramped house on Willet’s Place was the family home of mother Mary and shared with her parents Joseph and Mary-Anne Cooling. By 1916, when Joe’s younger brother Peter was born the family were living in one of the newly constructed houses in Stella Gardens, Ringsend. Named after Stella O’Neill, the daughter of local Nationalist Councillor Charles O’Neill these would have been an improvment on Willet’s Place and would have been highly sought after.

The family remained in the Ringsend area although the moved addresses at various times, being listed as living on the likes of South Lotts Road and on Gerald Street. Joe was the third child in a growing family that eventually would welcome seven children, four boys and three girls. Ringsend is of course an area synonymous with soccer, being the original home to both Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne as well as one of Dublin’s oldest football clubs, Liffey Wanderers. The district has supplied the Irish national team with literally dozens of international players over the years and should count O’Reilly among its number, although he didn’t make the list when the Sunday Tribune set out to map all of Ringsend’s footballers back in 1994 (see below).

Football map of Ringsend

Sunday Tribune 1994 map of Ringsend’s footballers

The Ringsend Cycle

While born on the northside of the Liffey, and later to spend much of his life living in the then rural village of Saggart, south county Dublin it would be Ringsend that would provide formative influences on young Joe O’Reilly. Ringsend was home to Jimmy Dunne, who O’Reilly played with on numerous occasions for the national team, a man that he would continue to tell tales about years after he had hung up his boots. Ringsend was also home to Bob Fullam, one of the bona fide stars of Irish football in the 1920s, when terraces used to echo to the chants of “Give it to Bob”, in the hope that his rocket like left foot would create something spectacular. We’ll come on to Fullam later in our story but let’s begin with Dunne.

Jimmy Dunne was born in 1905, six years senior to Joe O’Reilly and packed a lot into those early years. While still a teenager he was interned by the Free State forces in the “Tintown” camp in the Curragh due to his involvement with the anti-treaty IRA, his older brother Christopher was also involved. By that stage Dunne was already something of a footballing prodigy and fellow footballer, and internee Joe Stynes remembered playing matches with Dunne in the cramped confines of the camp. According to O’Reilly’s son Bob, the Republican exploits of Jimmy Dunne extended back even further. During the War of Independence he remembered his father saying that Jimmy Dunne (then no more than 15 or 16) was a delivery boy for a local baker, and would use this job as a way to bring IRA messages across the city on his bicycle, hidden inside a loaf of bread.

An additional layer is added to this when we turn to the life and career of Joe’s father Michael. As mentioned above Michael O’Reilly was a soldier with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. More than that he was a career soldier, having joined aged 18 and risen to the rank of Sergeant-Major and becoming and physical education instructor for the troops. He was a veteran of the Second Boer War and had an unblemished service record. Well – unblemished apart from one incident which caused him to be “severely reprimanded”. This reprimand related to a “disregard of battalion orders” when his battalion was based in Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin on the 24th of April, 1916. The day the Easter Rising began.

Reprimand sheet for MOR

Reprimand issued to Michael O’Reilly on the outbreak of the Easter Rising

The specifics of this incident remain unclear but it worth noting that Michael O’Reilly was not a callow recruit, he was a 29 year old Sergeant with over ten years service and battle experience. According to family history Michael gradually became disillusioned with life in the Army and even began training IRA volunteers during the War of Independence after leaving the British Army in early 1920. We do know that he would go on to join the newly created Free State army and would be based in the Curragh camp during the War of Independence, perhaps he even watched his son’s future teammate Jimmy Dunne play a match in the Tintown prisoner camp?

Debuts and defeats

Joe O’Reilly would follow his father into the Army as a young man and was a member of the Army No. 1 band as a clarinet player, however, it was clear that football was his first love. Aged just 18, Joe O’Reilly made his debut in the League of Ireland, helping Brideville to a win over Dundalk in October 1929. Joe started at the inside right position and scored in the win over Dundalk. Of his debut the newspaper Sport recorded –

“O’Reilly the newcomer, lacks training but he was responsible for many clever touches and a fine goal. He should be persevered with.”

And persevere they did. By the end of that seasons the teenage O’Reilly was a regular for Brideville as they finished fifth in the League of Ireland and was lining out in a Cup final  against Shamrock Rovers who were embarking on a famous Cup dynasty. O’Reilly remembered being somewhat overawed by the occasion. He was not yet 19 and here he was starting in front of almost 20,000 in Dalymount Park, facing off against Irish internationals. He recalled years later that he must have looked somewhat of a nervous wreck as Rovers’ star Bob Fullam, a fellow Ringsend man, had a quiet word saying “I know you’re nervous, just do your best”. A small gesture but one which stuck with Joe.

The match didn’t go so well for Brideville though, ending in dramatic and controversial circumstances. With the game entering the 90th minute and the score level at 0-0 it looked like a lucrative replay might be on the cards. Rovers had a late attack and a hopefully ball was lofted into the box. David “Babby” Byrne, the Rovers striker got in between Brideville’s Charlie Reid and goalkeeper Charlie O’Callaghan and leaping with all of his 5’5″ frame guided the ball into the goal with an outstretched arm. 56 years before the dimunitive Diego Maradona did it, the FAI Cup had its own Hand of God moment.

The game’s colourful, English referee Captain Albert Prince-Cox saw no infraction and blew for the final whistle shortly afterwards. Joe had been denied the Cup in his debut season in cruel circumstances. By the end of that season Joe had moved further back on the pitch and instead of playing outside right he had moved into the half back line and his favoured role.

Despite the disappointment of losing the 1930 final further success on the pitch was not far off. In May 1932, just weeks before his 21st birthday Joe O’Reilly made his debut in Amsterdam against the Netherlands. Things got even better when just twenty minutes in O’Reilly scored the game’s opening goal with a rasping, curling shot from the edge of the box, in the second half Paddy Moore, the man who had replaced Bob Fullam as the talismanic figure at Shamrock Rovers scored a second to give Ireland a comfortable 2-0 victory in front of a crowd estimated at 30,000.

That first game for Ireland was an important one in Joe’s career as directly afterwards he, Paddy Moore and Shamrock Rovers’ winger Jimmy Daly, who had also featured against the Netherlands were signed for Aberdeen manager Paddy Travers for the combined fee of just under £1,000. The British transfer record at the time was £10,900 paid by Arsenal for Bolton Wanderers David Jack back in 1928, so to get three internationals for under a grand can count as a canny bit of business by the former Celtic player Travers. Joe became a full-time pro and was paid the princely sum of £6 a week for his efforts.

To the Granite City and back to the Gate

Things started well in the granite city for Joe, he was a first team regular for much of the season, alongside his international teammate Moore. While Jimmy Daly made a mere four appearances before returning to Shamrock Rovers, Joe would make 26 appearances in all competitions that first season, while Moore started off spectacularly, scoring 27 goals in 29 league games (including a double hat-trick against Falkirk) to help Aberdeen to 6th place in the League in the 1932-33 season.

However, the following season would be less successful for both men, while Moore still scored a respectable 18 goals in 32 appearances his strike rate had decreased and he eventually ended up going AWOL after returning to Ireland for a match against Hungary in December 1934, blaming injury and a miscommunication with Aberdeen. It seems that Moore’s problematic relationship with alcohol was impacting his performances, to the point that manager Paddy Travers had effectively chaperoned him back to Dublin for an international match against Belgium. Whatever Travers did seemed to work as Paddy Moore would score all four goals in a 4-4 draw in that game.

Joe’s issues were more prosaic, he felt alone and deeply homesick in Aberdeen which affected his form, he also faced stiff competition for a starting berth from club captain Bob Fraser who often played in the same position at right-half. While he would technically remain on the Aberdeen books by the beginning of 1935 Joe O’Reilly had returned to Dublin and Brideville.

After a year with Brideville he relocated the short distance to the Iveagh Grounds to sign for St. James’s Gate and it would be with the Gate that Joe would enjoy his greatest success domestically. While his first season with the Guinness team was not hugely successful the 1936-37 showed significant promise. For one thing the side featured a versatile teenager by the name of Johnny Carey who would be spotted by Manchester United and go on to captain them to League and FA Cup success during his 17-year stint with the club. While Joe and Johnny would only spend a few months together in the Gate first team they would don the green of Ireland together on many occasions.

The season would also bring around another FAI Cup final for Joe O’Reilly, more mature now, with international experience under his belt, surely this would be different to that teenage cup final defeat against a heavily fancied Rovers side? Alas for Joe this wasn’t to be the case, it was Waterford who triumphed in the final 2-1, bringing the cup to the banks of the Suir for the first time thanks to goals from makeshift centre-forward Eugene Noonan (more accustomed to playing at right back) and Tim O’Keeffe, with the Gate’s Billy Merry scoring a consolation goal late on.

Two lost cup finals by the age of 25 – perhaps Joe thought he was cursed never to lift the trophy? But a year is a long time in football and 12 months later St. James’s Gate were back in the final again, and this time they would emerge triumphant, defeating Dundalk 2-1. Goals from Dickie Comerford and a second half peno from Irish international Peadar Gaskins sealing the win. Incidentally the consolation goal for Dundalk was scored by Alf Rigby, who had been a part of the St. James’s Gate side who lost the cup a year earlier, being on two different losing cup final teams, two years in a row is not a distinction that any player would enjoy.

That cup win in 1938 would mark itself out as an emerging high point in Joe’s career, not only had he won the cup, he had been the victorious captain, leading the Gate to their first win in 16 years. “A marvellous day and one I still treasure” recalled Joe in an Irish Independent interview decades later.

Gate cup winning team.jfif

Joe standing behind the cup he had lifted in 1938 as team captain. (Credit Ger Sexton)

At international level Joe’s career was entering its prime. When he had made his debut in 1932 international opposition was difficult for the Irish team to find, near neighbours in Britain were refusing to play the national team in friendly matches for example. 1934 saw the first qualifying matches for the World Cup, Ireland were drawn in a group with the Netherlands and Belgium with Joe playing in both games.

The Belgium match entered the annals of Irish football history as one of the all time great international matches held in Dublin (and would perhaps set a national precedent for celebrating draws!) when Ireland drew 4-4. with Joe’s clubmate Paddy Moore scoring all four goals. The game against the Netherlands would be a disappointment however, despite taking the lead a late onslaught by the Dutch saw them run out 5-2 victors.

For the remaining five years Joe was pretty much an ever-present in the Irish team, playing a then record 17 consecutive international matches. He would score a second international goal in a 3-3 draw with Hungary in Budapest. Jimmy Dunne, also in record breaking form grabbed the other two.

Budapest medal

A commemorative medal awarded to Joe after playing against Hungary in Budapest.

Joe also featured in both 1938 World Cup qualifying matches (home and away against Norway) however after a 3-2 defeat in Oslo a 3-3 draw in Dalymount wasn’t enough to get the side to France for the third installment of the tournament. Ultimately Joe’s international record read – played 20, won 8, lost 5, drew 7. This included some stand out victories over the likes of France, Switzerland, Poland and Germany.

The Germans

Two matches against Germany formed some of the clearest memories of Joe’s football career, which he discussed with both the Sunday World and Irish Independent many years later. The first of these matches took place in 1936 in Dalymount.

55398

Infamous match programme from the 1936 game against Germany as presented for sale at Whyte’s auctioneers.

It was in this game that the German team, and over 400 German dignitaries gave the Nazi salute at Dalymount Park. Given the lens of history it is understandable that these events have tended to overshadow the team performance but it was something that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Irish side ran out 5-2 winners with Oldham’s Tom Davis scoring a brace on his debut, and Paddy Moore, slower, less mobile, but still perhaps the most skillful player on the pitch pulling the strings from the unusual position for him of inside left and creating three of the five goals.

This was something of an Indian Summer in Moore’s career (a strange thing to say about a man aged just 26), he was back at Rovers and was instrumental in helping the Hoops win the 1936 FAI Cup and he lit up Dalymount that day against Germany. It was his second last cap for Ireland, followed by an unispiring display in a 3-2 defeat to Hungary two months later. Injury and Moore’s well- documented problems with alcohol had, not for the last time, derailed a hugely promising football career. He finished his Ireland career with nine caps and seven goals.

Joe O’Reilly knew Paddy Moore well, from their time in Aberdeen, their outings together on the Irish national team and from facing him in the League of Ireland. When interviewed in the 1980s by journalist Seán Ryan, he said this of Moore;

He was a wonderful footballer, a wonderful personality. The George Best of his time… He was a very cute player. If, in a match, things weren’t going his way, he could produce the snap of genius to turn the match around – and he was always in the right spot. I had a good understanding with him.

Of that 5-2 win O’Reilly remembered it as the highlight of his playing career, telling Robert Reid in the Sunday World many year later;

The highlight for me was our 5-2 win against the Germans in 1936. Their ultra-nationalism acted as an incentive for us… what they weren’t going to do to us… and we beat them 5-2!

The second game against the Germans was even more controversial and took place three years later in May 1939, it would be the last international match played by the German national team before the outbreak of the Second World War. Similarly it would be the Irish team’s last international match until 1946. Of the eleven Irish players who took to the pitch in Bremen in 1939, only two, Johnny Carey and Kevin O’Flanagan would play for Ireland again.

The match was also a personal landmark for Joe O’Reilly as he became the first player to win 20 caps under the stewardship of the FAI. I’ve written previously on the details of that game in Bremen, the views of the FAI, and more widely about Ireland’s sporting relationship with Germany at this time.  It was Joe’s recollections that however, provided one of the quotes that has endured, and it wasn’t even a direct quote from Joe, but rather his memories of Jimmy Dunne.

Dunne, who had never lost his socialist, Republican ideals, gave the Nazi salute under duress. As Joe recalled:

As we stood there with our right arm outstretched, Jimmy kept saying to me ‘Remember Aughrim. Remember 1916.’ By the time the anthem finished, I wasn’t quite sure who was more agitated the Germans or us.

As well as an interest in politics Dunne obviously seemed to have some interest in Irish history. O’Reilly recalls ahead of a game against Norway the usually laconic Dunne riled up his Irish teammates with references to Brian Boru’s victory over the Norse at the Battle of Clontarf. However, Dunne’s attitude in Germany stood in contrast with the official view of the FAI was recorded in the words of Association Secretary Joe Wickham. who said, “In Bremen our flags were flown though, of course, well outnumbered by the Swastika. We also, as a compliment, gave the German salute to their Anthem, standing to attention for our own. We were informed this would be much appreciated by their public which it undoubtedly was.” That the Irish athem was even played was in part down to Joe. On learning that the German band didn’t have the right sheet music Joe was able to write the notation to Amhrán na bhFiann from memory, thanks to his days in the Irish Army band.

Reflecting on his last cap more than 50 years later Joe felt the benefit of hindsight, appreciating things he perhaps didn’t as a sportsman in his 20s. He told Robert Reid;

But war was in the air. You could see it all around you, although you didn’t fully appreciate the extent of what was about to happen. How could anyone have known?

The anti-semetic feeling was already evident. But it was difficult to fathom what was really going on.

I remember the German soldiers. The shouts of “Heil Hitler” and the way we reciprocated their gesture. It was done in pure innocence. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. I remember the young faces. I still remember them and wonder whatever happened to most of those young people, Germans, Jews, all the nationalities…

This match would be the last that Joseph O’Reilly played for his country, his international career ended, a week before his 28th birthday and three months before the Schleswig-Holstein battleship fired the first shots of World War Two.

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Above are the panels on an international cap awarded by the FAI reprepsenting games that Joe O’Reilly played for Ireland in 1938 and 1939.

Epilogue

While Joe’s international career had come to a premature end his club career continued unabated. Unlike many European leagues the League of Ireland continued in as close to a normal capacity as was possible, during the years of the Second World War.

The 1939-40 season was to be one of great success for Joe as he captained St. James’s Gate to the league title. The men from the brewery finishing six points clear of nearest rivals Shamrock Rovers, while the Gate’s Paddy Bradshaw (who had scored in the 1-1 draw against Germany in Bremen) would end as the league’s top scorer with 29 goals.

Joe continued with the Gate until the 1943-44 season when the club disappointingly finished bottom of the league and failed to gain re-election, the club announcing that they were to revert to an amateur status thereafter. This wasn’t quite the end of Joe’s top flight career, as the club that replaced St. James’s Gate was his former side Brideville, returning to the League of Ireland after one of their periodic absences. Joe, now in his mid 30s signed on for one more season with the men from the Liberties before eventually hanging up his boots.

By this stage Joe had relocated to Saggart in south county Dublin and was working with Swiftbrook paper mills, a well established business who made official paper for the likes of the Irish Government, and according to historian Mervyn Ennis, James Connolly used the paper milled in Saggart for the publication of the Socialist Magazine, and when it came time to print it, the 1916 Proclamation. By this stage Joe had met and married his wife Helen and together they would eventually have six children; Geraldine, Helen, Maureen, Patricia, Bob and Brian.

Joe and Peter

Joe and Peter O’Reilly

Sport remained an interest throughout the family, from Joe’s father Michael, the physical education army man who later trained Kildare’s footballers for All-Ireland success in 1928 to his brother Peter who won an All-Ireland with Dublin in 1942. Even his son Bob made the Dublin GAA team league panel in the early 80s as well as playing soccer on the books of Shelbourne.

By all accounts a quite and humble man who preferred to amplify the achievements of others, Joe did gain some wider recognition later in life, being a recipient in 1991 of an Opel Hall of Fame award alongside Paddy Coad and Dundalk’s Joey Donnelly.

 

Opel crystal

The Opel hall of fame award presented to Joe in 1991.

Joe passed away in October 1992 just a year after the receipt of this award. While he surprisingly remains little remembered in many Irish football circles he was one of the most talented and technically astute players for Ireland and an early international record breaker.

 

A special thank you to Bob O’Reilly for sharing memories of his father as well as many of the photos that feature in this article.

Bohemians in America (Podcast)

A podcast recorded with sports researcher Michael Kielty – a lively discussing which covers early patterns of emigration by Irish footballers, the emergence of  the New York Bohemians in the 1920s, as well as the stories of unique characters like Billy Synott and Joe Stynes.

 

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Ray Keogh – a pioneer in Irish football (Podcast)

Recordings of my talk on the life and career of Ray Keogh from January 2020. This talk took place in Drumcondra Library and I would like to thank Conor Curran and Emma Kelly for their assistance in organising everything on the night.

Also discussed are topics like the demise of Drumcondra FC as a league club, as well as the career of other players of colour in the League of Ireland and the Irish League. Also heard at the end of the talk is Ray’s former Drumcondra teammate Alf Girvin who shares some of his memories of Ray and Drums.

Some photos included below are provided by Ray’s family as well as some images from the evening of the talk.

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Barefoot in the (Dalymount) Park

In 1957, at the dawn of its history as a post-colonial, independent nation Ghana chose its flag. The defining symbol of any nation, it shows three colours; green, representing the nations lush, tropical vegetation, red, representing the blood of those who had died in the nation’s struggle for independence, and gold, representing Ghana’s mineral wealth. This mineral wealth had led Britain to formally name it the colony of the Gold Coast when they formalised their colonial rule in 1867.

The flag was designed by Theodosia Okoh, a young woman in her mid 30’s who was also a keen sportswoman. Theodosia became President of the Ghana Hockey Federation and such was her influence on the sport that the national hockey stadium in the capital, Accra was named after her within her own lifetime. Sport and national identity intertwined from the very beginning.

The newly independent country adopted the name Ghana, a word meaning “warrior king” harking back to the glory days of the Ghana Empire. The new President, Kwame Nkrumah wanted Ghana to be an inspiration to other African nations, they had become the first of Britain’s African colonies to gain majority-rule independence and their flag consciously invoked a spirit of Pan-Africanism with its use of a Black Star in the middle above the stripe of gold.

This symbol referenced back to the Marcus Garvey founded, Black Star Line. Garvey was a Jamaican-born writer and politician whose philosophy was to inspire a global mass movement and economic empowerment focusing on Africa, the Black Star shipping line aimed to facilitate this by supporting African trade and assisting people of African descent in returning to the Continent.

In this spirit of aspirant self-confidence, sport would play a huge role in this new government of Nkrumah’s. By the time of independence football was already the most popular sport in Ghana and the country boasted the oldest football association in Africa which dates back to 1920. For much of that time they were known as the Gold Coast XI but the name was officially changed to Ghana in 1957, their nickname became the Black Stars, the symbol that adorns both the national team jerseys and the country’s flag.

This football team soon became a sort of ambassadorial service for the nascent Ghanaian state. As other African nations began to look to the example set by Ghana in casting off the strictures of colonialism the Black Stars began to receive invitations from around the continent. As their star forward Osei Kofi recalled “We were invited by Jomo Kenyatta in the 1960s. When we met them, we beat Kenya 13-2. We destroyed their independence celebrations”.

However, this touring was not a new phenomenon for the Black Stars. The man who coached the national side on that visit to Kenya, and who later became the most successful manager in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations, managing Ghana to three titles, had been the main attraction in a Gold Coast XI that toured to Ireland and Britain as far back as 1951. Back then Charles Kumi Gyamfi, better known simply as “CK” was a 21 year old striker with Asante Kotoko S.C. when he wasselected as part the touring squad.

The rationale for this tour was in part related to political motives, a subtle piece of PR at a time when the Gold Coast’s colonial rulers were celebrating the Festival of Britain, focusing on the achievements of British culture, technology, and indeed sport. There were many football matches with an international dimension including several Irish clubs who were invited to play friendly matches with teams throughout Britain as part of a sporting element to this festival.

In Northern Ireland a rare international game against non-British opposition was played when France visited Windsor Park in May of 1951 for a “Festival Match”, several Dutch sides played friendly games against the likes of Cliftonville, Ards and Glentoran, and an invitation was extended to the Gold Coast to send a selection to tour Ireland and Britain with the first games of their visit arranged for Belfast in August of 1951 before taking in a quick game in Dublin, then catching the boat to Wales and later, London.

It was hoped that this would demonstrate the harmonious relationship that supposedly existed between Britain and the Gold Coast, especially after violence witnessed in Accra just three years earlier when British colonial police had opened fire killing three demobbed World War Two soldiers after Gold Coast war veterans had marched protesting the lack of jobs and unfulfilled promises regarding their military pensions. In the days of rioting that followed in Accra those viewed as leaders of the United Gold Coast Convention, a pro-independence political party, including Kwame Nkrumah, were arrested and held for a month before finally being released in April of 1948.

By early 1951, in part as a response to the violence of the 1948 riots there was a free election held under universal suffrage, Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party would win 34 of the 38 seats available. In this context a touring Gold Coast football team visiting Britain would show that all was well, peace restored, free elections, and present an image of benign colonial rule…

Belfast was to be the first stop for the squad of twenty players, in all the Gold Coast XI would spend just under a month playing ten leading amateur sides around Ireland and Britain, including the amateur international sides of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In both cases the two Irish FAs selected all home-based XI’s for those games.

Things did not start well for the Gold Coast tour, playing their first game in Glentoran’s home ground, the Oval in east Belfast they took to the field in their green shirts, white shorts and bare feet. They were a goal down by half time and would lose the game by a three goal margin, succumbing 5-2 in the end and having lost their impressive goalkeeper Tommy Wilberforce to injury with 15 minutes left to play. Wilberforce left the field with his leg bound with a corner flag as a makeshift splint with the cheers of the near 10,000 crowd ringing in his ears.

While the scoreline would suggest the Northern amateurs had enjoyed a comfortable victory that was far from the truth, newspaper reports rated the Gold Coast as the better side in the first half and called the Irish win “flattering”, the Northern Whig praised the “smart football” of the Ghanaian players and said that of the Gold Coast side there were “a number of players who would be assets to any Irish League clubs”. This turned out to be more than a mere idle comment, Tommy Wilberforce the injured goalkeeper would later join Cliftonville after winning a scholarship to study electrical engineering in the College of Technology in Belfast, he was on the books of the Belfast club between 1958 and 1960 before a heart condition forced his early retirement.

Two days later the Gold Coast faced amateur side Cliftonville, again they played in bare feet and were somewhat hampered by an August shower towards the end of the game, but once again they were deemed to have played some of the best football, “showing the crowd a number of touches not often seen here” and playing “delightful, open football”, according to the Northern Whig. Though the Gold Coast side lost 4-2, the reports raved about the skilful play of inside left James Adjei and several of his teammates.

Adjei would become one of the stars of the independent Ghana national team, indeed Stanley Matthews encountered Adjei on a visit to Ghana some years later and rated him the equal of any player in the English league at that time.

The Gold Coast’s final game in Ireland was a trip south to Dublin to take on the Republic of Ireland amateur side in Dalymount Park. This was a considered a full international game for the Irish amateurs who were all drawn from League of Ireland sides, including Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, Waterford, Cork Athletic and another Cork side, Evergreen.

Despite this being an amateur game Dalymount Park was very well attended for what doubled up as a pre-season run-out for many of the League of Ireland players. Some 17,000 supporters turned up for a midweek game in August and they weren’t to be disappointed. Though once again the Gold Coast side were on the losing side of the scoreline, their skill and talent was obvious. The Irish Times declared them “glorious in defeat” and praised a “display of delightful football and teamwork”.

Interestingly there is some discussion about the tactical layout of the Gold Coast side in the various match reports, they are described as playing with an advanced centre-half. This type of tactic is one which would be more common in the formations of the 1920s, when teams played with two full-backs in front of the goalkeeper, while the centre half played in front of them as a type of pivot between defence and attack, rather than as a third defender. This third defender formation was popularised by Herbert Chapman as Arsenal manager and became known as the W-M due to the formation of players on the pitch. It also suggests that this formation perhaps wasn’t common in Ghana in the early 50s and why the touring Gold Coast side seemed to concede more heavily despite their all-round play being routinely praised. Many years later CK Gyamfi recalled “while we were busy dribbling well and passing nicely, our hosts were mechanical and precise. They used the W-M on us.”

According to the match reports the Irish side were fortunate to come away with the win, scoring twice in quick succession on a counter attack when the scores were tied at 2-2, first a quick break from Cork Athletic’s pacey winger John Vaughan and then just a minute later another quick counter led to Waterford’s Dinny Fitzgerald getting his hat-trick and the game finishing 4-3 to the Irish amateurs.

Among those players who impressed in this game were Oscar Gasper, who despite playing in bare feet struck a ferocious free-kick to level the scores at 2-2, while CK Gyamfi also caught the eye. Gyamfi would end up as the top scorer of the tour, scoring 11 of the Gold Coast’s 25 goals. Among the other starters in that game was the impressive defender Emmanuel Christian Briandt. Both Briandt and Gyamfi would play important roles in modernising the game in their home country.

By the end of the tour the Gold Coast side had played ten games in total and lost eight of them, only defeating Barnet and an Athenian League selection, however Sid Ackun the team secretary had blamed wet weather and treacherous pitches for many of those defeats. They returned home in September of 1951 and using the small fees that had been paid to them for participating both Gyamfi and Briandt came home with a pair of football boots. Gyamfi played for Asante Kotoko, while Briandt lined out for Hearts of Oak in the capital Accra, two of the country’s biggest clubs.

Despite both men only being in their early 20s they became evangelists for the use of football boots in Ghana despite resistance from many of their teammates. Gary Al-Smith who interviewed Gyamfi for The Blizzard noted that it was Gyamfi’s view that football  boots were kept from local players deliberately noting “the colonial masters taught the locals football, but never with boots. CK Gyamfi told me it was just one way in which the British decided to delay the black man’s progress”.

Despite strong initial resistance both Gyamfi and Briandt were successful in getting the local game to move away from barefoot football and with independence in 1957 Ghana soon became a continental footballing power in Africa. Many of the side that toured Ireland and Britain were part of a Gold Coast team that destroyed Nigeria 7-0 in Accra in 1955, which remains a record defeat for the Super Eagles.

In 1963, Ghana won their first ever African Cup of Nations, defeating Sudan 3-0 in the final which was held in Accra. This was to be the first of three tournament wins for their coach CK Gyamfi. He was a history maker in many fields, becoming the first African player to play in Germany when he starred for Fortuna Düsseldorf in the early 60s,  before coming home to take up his coaching role with the Ghana FA. Of Gyamfi’s success one of his proteges Osei Kofi, a talented and skillful winger, could see the hand of Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah who always said “the black man was capable of managing his own affairs” , Kofi contrasted the success of Ghana with a domestic, black local manager with many other African nations who paid large salaries for European coaches who often could not deliver.

The 1951 tour by the Gold Coast XI should not be underestimated. They became the first African touring side featuring black players to come to Ireland since the Orange Free State team visited Belfast back in 1899 and by all press accounts won over the Irish crowds in Dublin and Belfast with their skill and creativity. It was also important for the development of football in modern day Ghana, with players and future coaches learning a great deal tactically during their month touring Britain and Ireland and bringing back ideas that within a decade would make the newly independent Ghana champions of Africa.

 

Bohs in Europe – the early years (podcast)

A recording of the talk I gave on Bohs in Europe – the early years in Liberty Hall in December 2019, now available on all the main podcast platforms for you to listen to below. Also enclosed is a slideshow of photographs relating to the games and personalities that are mentioned. With thanks to Dubin City Council Libraries, Bohemian F.C. and Simon in Con Artist events.

 

 

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Bohs in the time of influenza

We’re all stuck at home, talking a good game about catching up on our reading or perhaps finally completing that DIY project, more likely if you’re anything like me you’re mindlessly scrolling on your phone, or binge-watching lurid TV series on Netflix. Things are obviously a lot different if you are a frontline worker, in one of our hospitals, a member of our emergency services or working in essential retail businesses. The stress is very real. But this is not unique or unprecedented. This too shall pass.

Just over 100 years ago Ireland faced a not dissimilar epidemic. While the Spanish Flu was something of the misnomer, it was very real, and very deadly. Conservative estimates place the Irish death toll from the virus at over 20,000 from Summer 1918 to Spring 1919. Consider also that this came towards the end of the First World War which claimed the lives of perhaps 50,000 Irish people and saw a country in a state of turmoil on the topics of nationhood, conscription, poverty and on the brink of a violent War of Independence. We can perhaps sympathise with their plight.

Unlike today however, the people of Dublin in 1918 and 1919 had football. Despite schools closing, and many businesses shutting due to illness and self-quarantine measures, football continued in something akin to its usual patterns. To set the scene; at the end of the 1914-15 season due to rising costs, loss of players and supporters to the war-effort and the general disruption brought by the War, the Irish League split into regional competitions for the rest of the War. Bohemians and Shelbourne, the two Dublin sides in an eight-team league dominated by the main Belfast clubs, returned to the Leinster Senior League, and this in effect was our main league for the War and its immediate aftermath. The main Irish Cup competition still ran on an all-Ireland basis, though the early round draws were regionalised, while other trophies such as the Leinster Senior Cup were major priorities.

If anything, the years 1918 and 1919 brought almost a return to normality for Bohemians, the club had lost dozens of players to the War and many more in terms of supporters. At a conservative estimate some 50,000 Dubliners ended up in the battlefields of the First World War and perhaps 8,000 of them never made it home. This impacted not just Bohemians but every football club in Ireland. The Leinster Football Association (LFA) saw a reduction in affiliated clubs which declined by 50% during wartime and by 1919 the LFA had to go cap in hand seeking a grant or loan from the IFA to try and keep the Association afloat. A major concern for Bohemians (and many other clubs) was getting players released from their regiments in order to play for the team. In several games Bohs were hamstrung because of missing key players due to the refusal of the British armed forces to release players for matches, even after the armistice.

Willits army updated

A clipping from Sport showing Bohemian FC player Harry Willitts in army uniform in 1917

Despite all this upheaval there were still notes of optimism to be found, Bohemians won the Leinster Senior League – the highest level played by clubs outside of Belfast, in the 1917-18 season and came second to Shelbourne the following year. It should be noted that Bohs, despite the loss of numbers due to the War, were still fielding at least two teams at the time, with a Bohemian “B” side competing at Leinster Senior League Division Two against the like of St. James Gate and Glasnevin F.C.

The influenza epidemic first noticeably hit Ireland in early summer of 1918 as the football season was ending, but arguably had its peak in Dublin in October and November 1918, as well as continuing into the Spring of 1919. There were perhaps three different peaks of the epidemic. One theory for the surge in cases in November 1918 was that people congregated en masse to celebrate the end of the War and inadvertently helped spread the virus. Unlike most of the Covid-19 cases at present the “Spanish flu” (thus described because neutral Spain reported the first cases, it had been rife in the trenches of France and Belgium months earlier) seemed to affect younger, healthier people, with many in their 20s and 30s dying and leaving young families without parents.

One report in The Irish Times on November 16th 1918 noted that between September 28th and November 9th some 756 people had died of the influenza virus in Dublin City alone. Two days later Shelbourne beat Bohs in the league in front of what was described as “a record crowd of the season”. It was a good time for Shels at this point, they seemed to have the upper hand over their main Dublin rivals, the famous Bohemians, in both 1918 and 1919 they knocked Bohs out of the first round of the Irish Cup. In February 1919 they won their Cup match in Dalymount (at another resurgent point for the flu epidemic) in front of a crowd of over 8,000, which was described as a record attendance in Dublin since the outbreak of War.

Indeed, not happy with just the usual run of fixtures Bohs decided to host an alternative Cup final on 29th March 1919. On the same day that Linfield were playing Glentoran in the first of three finals (two drawn games followed by an eventual Linfield victory on the 7th of April) Bohs agreed to host beaten semi-finalists Belfast Celtic in front of a bumper crowd in Dalymount. The Bohs would triumph 2-1 on the day.

thumbnail_Belfast Celtic 1918

Belfast Celtic teams of the era

While the Dublin public were waylaid from all sides by death, whether from War, revolution or disease, somehow football continued, in the case of Bohemians the club saw suffering and death in the war, former players like Fred Morrow, Harold Sloan, Francis Larkin and others had died in action and many more were seriously injured. But during the Spanish Flu epidemic, partially spread by the return of so many soldiers from the front in 1918, while some quarantine measures and closures of businesses and schools did take place football continued as usual.

 

This article originally appeared in the Bohemian F.C. lockdown match programme which you can read in its entirety here.

When the Paper man came to town (podcast)

One of Bohemians greatest victories against European opposition, a thrilling game that finished 5-4 in Dalymount. So much excitement in fact that a spectator had a heart attack at the match!

This also covers the story of Austria Vienna and their triumphs and tragedies in the 1930s as they went from one of the finest teams in Europe to a club targeted by the Nazis after the annexation of Austria.

The Lost Clubs – Reds United

The thing about close relationships is that after years of being together one partner builds up an intimate knowledge of the other, while this is usually beneficial, bringing closeness and trust it also means that you know how to push each others buttons, sometimes even going for the nuclear option in the heat of the moment. While these rash impulses can pass their impact can sometimes be felt for years. As in personal relationships so it was with Shelbourne and the football authorities in Dublin.

In 1921 the disregard shown to Shelbourne by the IFA in the scheduling of a cup match replay for Belfast rather than in Dublin as custom dictated was the final straw for the Leinster Football Association which split with the IFA and formed what we now know as the FAI. In this case the Dublin footballing authorities rallied behind Shelbourne and their sense of injustice at the treatment by the Belfast based IFA.

Shelbourne were trendsetters in the Irish game, they were one of the first clubs outside of Belfast to pay players professionally, they were the first Dublin side to win the Irish Cup, and after the split they backed the fledgling FAI and took part in the first season of the Free State League and contested one of the first finals of the FAI Cup. However by the 1930’s relations had soured. Shelbourne were accused of poaching players in early 1934 and were fined, Shels denied the charge and ignored the fine. Things continued to escalate and in March 1934 Shels went nuclear. They wrote to the FAI (the FAI of the Free State as it was then) and informed them that they were leaving and had applied to rejoin the IFA.

Shels further refused to fulfill their fixtures in the League of Ireland Shield competition, the FAI responded by fining the club £500 for failure to play the matches. The situation reached a head in June of 1934 when at a special meeting of the FAI Council, Shelbourne were suspended from football for 12 months and the members of the Shelbourne committee were “suspended from ever taking any part in the management of any club
or affiliated body in football, under the jurisdiction of the Football
Association of the Irish Free State”.

The departure of Shels & the emergence of Reds United

With Shelbourne removed from football for at least a year (they had been blocked from joining the IFA though whether that was ever really Shels intention is doubtful) and their place in the league was awarded to Waterford, returning to the league after a gap of a couple of seasons. However, in the Leinster Senior League another club appeared, they drew their support from the same Ringsend district as Shelbourne, the featured a number of former Shelbourne players and also like Shels, they wore red. They were Reds United.

Such was the prominence of the club that some 14,000 turned up at Shelbourne Park for one of their early games, to see Reds United of the Leinster Senior League take on Bohemians in the first round of the FAI Cup in January 1935. While the side was still quite raw they surprised many by securing a 3-3 draw and a replay against the far more seasoned Bohemians.

Although still a junior club the Reds featured a core of players with league experience and had a sizeable following as demonstrated by the crowd attending the Bohs cup game. Among those players who lined out for the club was John Joe Flood who was a Ringsend local. Flood was most associated as a talented forward for the successful Shamrock Rovers teams of the 1920’s but had also featured for Leeds United, Crystal Palace and Shelbourne. He had also been capped five times by Ireland scoring four goals, which included a hat-trick on his debut against Belgium. By the time he was lining out for Reds United Flood was already in his mid-30’s but he continued to be a threat at inside forward. Indeed, even later in his career while coaching TEK United John Joe made a brief comeback as a player at the age of 51!

Joining John Joe Flood on the team was his younger brother Patrick, who played in goal, as well as former Shamrock Rovers player Tommy “Nettler” Doyle who was the younger brother of Dinny Doyle, an Irish international who ended up playing for much of his career in the United States. Incidentally all of the Doyle family (as far back as Tommy’s grandfather) had the nickname “Nettler” apparently deriving from the fact that if you gave one of them a hard tackle you would get a stinging “Nettler” of a challenge in return. Doyle had also played for Shamrock Rovers and had done well at centre forward for them after the departure of the prolific Paddy Moore to Aberdeen. He mainly featured as a forward during his time at Reds United as well.

Also signed for Reds were Maurice Cummins and Paddy Lennon two prominent half-backs who both had lined out Cork F.C.  Cummins was also talented at lawn-bowling in his native Cork, he would later sign for St. James’s Gate and was part of their side that lifted the FAI Cup in the 1937-38 season. While there was a strong contingent of players from the greater Ringsend area the signing of Cummins and Lennon shows that the club were looking beyond the local, indeed two players were brought over from the Scottish Leagues.

Jimmy TurnbullAlong with a winger named Wright who was signed from Alloa Athletic the Reds signed Willie Ouchterlonie who had enjoyed successful spells at Dundee United and Raith Rovers. Prior to joining the Reds he had been signed by Portadown F.C. but his spell up north didn’t last long before his unwieldy surname was troubling the Dublin press. He hit an impressive 20 goals for the Reds in his only season there, finishing as the club’s top scorer and third overall in the league behind Cork’s prolific Jimmy Turnbull (pictured right, scorer of a record breaking 37 league goals) and Ray Rogers of Brideville on 23.

By the time Reds United were signing up players from Scotland they had already triumphed in their debut season in the Leinster Senior League, as a result they and Brideville were accepted into the League of Ireland for the 1935-36 season. This might have been different had Shelbourne been successful in their application to have their suspension lifted. A motion was put before the FAI Council in June of 1935 to try and resolve the dispute between the club and the Association but this was defeated. As a result it was to be another season in the wilderness for Shels but a chance for Reds United to mix with the best.

1935-36 was to be Reds United sole season as a League club although this short spell wasn’t down to a lack of success on the field, on the contrary the Reds finished fourth in a twelve team league and ahead of the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and Waterford. This must have come as a surprise to Rovers who had the new club as a tenant at Glenmalure Park in Milltown and who featured a couple of their erstwhile players. The lease for Shelbourne Park was held by the still-banned Shelbourne so there was no chance to replicate the bumper crowd that had seen the cup game against Bohemians there the year before.  One other compromise was that for games against Rovers rather than play in Milltown these matches were moved to Dalymount Park instead. This saw a strange sort of Ringsend local derby being played out in Phibsboro on the north side of the city.

The Reds opening their league campaign with an impressive 2-0 victory over Cork with goals from Tommy Doyle and Ouchterlonie. There were several other highs to their singular league season, they did the double over their Ringsend rivals Shamrock Rovers as well as securing good wins over the likes of Drumcondra, Brideville and two wins, including a 5-0 demolition job, over Bray Unknowns. Several of their players shone during the season, along with the goals of Doyle, Oucherlonie and the veteran Flood there was talk that their Cork-born midfielder Cummins was in line for a national team call-up against the Netherlands due to his stand-out performances at left half-back.

The departure of Reds United and a Shelbourne return

Despite this impressive debut season there was to be no follow up. In June 1936 after the season had finished the league met to discuss the possible amalgamation of Reds United and Shelbourne. This didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Just a few weeks later Reds United resigned from the league, they had been unable to secure a stadium for the coming season after attempts to agree a lease on the Harold’s Cross stadium fell through.

With Reds United gone there were applications from Shelbourne and from Fearons F.C. (based in the Dublin suburb of Kimmage) for election to the league. Shels had been playing in the AUL during Reds United’s league season and in July 1936 a motion for re-admittance put forward by Shamrock Rovers was accepted unanimously at the FAI Council meeting. Similarly those Shelbourne committee members banned by the FAI were accepted back into the fold.  These representations from Shamrock Rovers were important to helping Shelbourne in successfully re-applying for a place in the league for the coming season while the unlucky Fearons club were told that their day had not yet come and that they should continue their good work with a view to being elected at a future date.

While Reds United were gone from the league they did continue life as a non-league side, they played out of Ballyfermot for a time and help develop the early careers of several prominent players. The club still had strong links with Shelbourne and the wider Ringsend area, even in the late 40’s club meetings of Reds United were taking place in the Shelbourne Sports Club off Pearse Street. A club who got their league opportunity because of a falling out between Shelbourne and the FAI may only have experienced that one league season but they continued developing footballers long after the original dispute was put to bed.

 

 

Early football players of colour in the League of Ireland

As some readers may be aware I’ve had the opportunity to write a number of articles on the life and career of former Drumcondra footballer Ray Keogh. Indeed recently I was lucky enough to be asked by Dublin City Council libraries to give a talk on the subject, which I hope to have up here as a presentation and podcast shortly.

Ray’s life and career were filled with plenty of drama and highlights which would have been worth recording no matter his background, but the fact that initially I thought that Ray may have been the first person of colour to play in the League of Ireland meant that I felt that his story really needed to be recorded and told while he was still with us. Sadly Ray died in August 2019 but I was lucky enough to meet him before he passed away, I was also fortunate enough to speak with members of his family, former teammates and others who remembered him from his playing days.

In the course of this research I learned that although Ray was one of the first people of colour to play football in the League, he was not the very first. This short article will give a little bit of background on some of the other players who featured, albeit often fleetingly, in Irish football in the years before Ray made his debut. Ray played that first senior game for Shamrock Rovers in 1959 but there was at least one other player who appeared for a League club before then.

One such player who was brought to my attention by Bohemian FC historian Stephen Burke was Francis Archibong, who had a brief career with Bohs more than ten years before Ray made his debut for Rovers. Francis Archibong was born in Nigeria and came to Dublin in the late 1940s to study English in University College Dublin. During his spell studying in Dublin he lived on Coulson Avenue in Rathgar but found time to line out for the Bohemians on a number of occasions during the 1948-49 season.

In total Francis Archibong’s Bohs career amounted to four games; two for the Bohemian “B” team in the Leinster Senior League and two for the first team in the League of Ireland Shield, a competition played ahead of the commencement of the main league season. Bohs lost all four matches in these competitions:- to Shamrock Rovers “B”, Jacobs, Waterford and Sligo Rovers respectively, with Francis playing as centre-forward in these games but failing to find the net in any of the contests.

I’ve made the assumption that Archibong may also have lined out for UCD AFC who were not a league side at the time but I’ve yet to find any definite evidence of this. While there are newspaper reports of his Shield appearances for Bohemians against Waterford and Sligo which mention the novelty of a black African footballer appearing in the game, most reports are not particularly complimentary about his performances, or that of the Bohs side as a whole. The Munster Express was perhaps the most generous in their appraisal of Archibong’s performances who noted the warm welcome afforded to him by the Waterford crowd.

Archibong snippet

Munster Express 15th October 1948

While Francis’s Bohs career was short he did feature alongside players of note such as Brendan O’Kelly who would represent Ireland in football at the 1948 Olympics and Frank Morris. He also played against the likes of Ireland internationals Fred Kiernan and Sean Fallon who were lining out for Sligo. And if his football career didn’t perhaps live up to hopes then his professional life saw huge success.

He graduated with a degree in English from UCD in 1950, his thesis was entitled A history of the criticism of King Lear from Condell to Coleridge. Francis returning to Nigeria in October 1950 on board a plane packed with European missionaries, thereafter he devoted his career to educating young people in his home country. Francis Archibong ended up working for the Nigerian Ministry of Education and was involved in large scale literacy projects in the 1960s and even represented Nigeria at meetings of UNESCO.

Apart from Francis Archibong there were a number of subsequent people of colour with UCD connections who appeared in Irish football in the years after Francis’s brief sporting career.

UCD tended to be a Leinster Senior League side who also featured in the FAI Cup early

Pic of Obakpani

Francis Obiakpani

rounds, it would be 1979 before UCD AFC would be elected to the League of Ireland. UCD generally had a small number of foreign students at this time, including several from West Africa. A few years after Francis Archibong had graduated the UCD football team featured two Nigerian players in a Metropolitan Cup semi-final against Jacobs in 1956; they were Frank Obiakpani and Fidelis Ezemenari. They lost that game 3-1 with Ezemenari getting the consolation goal.

By that time Obiakpani was a medical student who had just graduated, he had been starring for the UCD side since 1953 and had helped the college to triumph in the Collingwood Cup.  While Ezemenari was studying Zoology. It was mentioned in one report that the two young men had known each other before their arrival in Ireland.

Among their teammates for UCD was a talented attacker named Brian Lenihan who won an amateur international cap for Ireland and who would later become Minister for Finance and run for office as President of Ireland, also on the side was Willie Browne, an accountancy student who would later win three caps for Ireland and captain Bohemian Football Club.

Back in 1953 Obiakpani had faced off for UCD against a friend who was playing for UCC, listed as A. Ezenwa who was described as a talented centre-half who had played football with Obiakpani back in Nigeria, he was also a useful athlete away from the football pitch, excelling in the Long Jump. While in Cork he was studying Science. That UCC side were captained by Tommy Healy who was a star player for League of Ireland side Cork Athletic. Writer Cian Manning has written previously for Póg mo Goal about Francis/Frank Obiakpani and what happened to him after his graduation, he has suggested that Obiakpani may have been killed during the Biafran War in 1967.

I would love to know more about these players, while they did not feature at League of Ireland level they were playing at a high standard and alongside present and future League of Ireland stars. However, the information I’ve been able to find still leaves unanswered questions, even down to simple details like the first name of players like Ezenwa.

If you know more I’d love to hear from you.

The Hungarian Revolution?

At the beginning of the 1950’s the Hungarian international side were the great ascendant football team of the era, it was a period that would deliver them an Olympic Gold medal in 1952 and see them become runners-up in the 1954 World Cup in somewhat controversial circumstances as the German nation team pulled off on of the all-time sporting shocks.

Hungary’s international exploits was at somewhat of a remove from the League of Ireland where a Englishman, Welshman or Scotsman was usually as exotic as things got in terms of playing personnel, however the huge political changes that took place in post- War Hungary ended up having an unexpected, tangential impact on the League of Ireland as within ten years or each other two men, apparently Hungarian internationals, were lining up for League of Ireland clubs like Limerick City, Sligo Rovers and Drumcondra.

The first of these two was Siegfried Dobrowitsch who arrived in Ireland in 1949 via France after leaving his Hungarian homeland in 1947. Siegfried or “Dobro” and many of his Irish team-mates nicknamed him had left Hungary as the Hungarian Communist party were growing in power, becoming the dominant party in the short-lived Second Hungarian Republic before, in 1949, declaring Hungary a single party Communist state; the People’s Republic of Hungary.

Dobrowitsch claimed that he had heard about Sligo Rovers as part of a recruitment advertisement for new players brought to his attention by his French wife, not that far fetched when you consider only ten years earlier the club had persuaded an ageing “Dixie” Dean to sign up for a short stint in the north west. In fact the Sligo Champion newspaper went as far to lead with the headline announcing his signing with “First Dean, Now Dobrowitsch”.

Dobro image 2

Siegfried Dobrowitsch

In various reports it was stated that Dobrowitsch had been capped either five, or six times by the Hungarian national team and there was much comment about this being something of a coup for Sligo Rovers who were anxious to get him into their starting XI. However, Siegfried’s first game was delayed several times as Rovers had to seek international clearance for him to make his debut, there seemed to have been long, drawn-out correspondence with the French Football Association as Dobrowitsch had  most recently been plying his trade for Strasbourg.

More information on Siegfried’s early life has come to light through the research of his daughter Alda Cornish, who recently visited Ireland and met with representatives of Sligo Rovers. In a piece in the Sligo Weekender where she filled in some scant details of her father’s early years, noting that “he was born in a part of what was Hungary and we understand he lost both of his parents by the age of seven. He was put in a Jesuit Boys Home, but it was a very cruel place where he grew up. The next thing I could find was he was playing football and working as an electrician. He ended up in France around 1947 and played with Strasbourg, where he met his first wife.”

Newspaper reports at the time state that Dobrowitsch was born in a part of Yugoslavia that had come under Hungarian control and that his multi-lingual French wife acted as his interpreter. In an interview published in February 1949 in the Irish Independent, presumably with his wife acting as translator Siegfried got to explain something of his personal story. Born around 1920 he claimed to have won six international caps for Hungary between 1938 and 1942, after which point he was drafted into the Hungarian army to fight for the Axis powers during the Second World War.

After his army discharge in 1946 he returned to his farm before it was seized by the government the following year, fleeing across the country he was assisted in crossing into Austria and from there into France, where he met his wife and eventually relocated to Dublin, commuting to Sligo with the club’s other Dublin-based players and using Dalymount Park as a personal training ground. He was even in the stands at Dalymount, awaiting his international clearance when Sligo met Bohemians in early March 1949, going so far to sign a match programme for a star-struck fan, obviously impressed by the presence of a supposed Hungarian international. (You can see his signature in the header image of this article).

His international clearance eventually arrived and on March 27th, over a month after his signing was initially publicised Siegfried Dobrowitsch made his debut for Sligo Rovers in a 1-1 draw with Limerick in the Showgrounds. While the reports describe a tight game where Dobrowitsch, the starting centre-forward had to survive on scraps, he did manage to score Sligo’s only goal of the game, a well dispatched, powerful penalty kick early in the second half.

Despite a good start there was misfortune only a couple of weeks later when Dobrowitsch was involved in a car crash on his way from Dublin to a match in Sligo. Travelling up for a match against a Sligo local league selection, Dobrowitsch, along with goalkeeper Fred Kiernan and winger Stephen Leavey crashed into another vehicle. While luckily nobody was seriously injured Siegfried did suffer a dislocated shoulder and missed a number of games as a result.

Perhaps as a result of his injury, work commitments in Dublin, or merely through inconsistent form Dobrowitch’s stay in Sligo was relatively short-lived, by November of 1949 he had been released by Sligo despite boasting a relatively successful strike rate and had been signed by Drumcondra in Dublin.

Things started relatively well for Siegfried at Drums, scoring twice on his debut against Shelbourne in a Shield game which Drumcondra won 4-1. Despite this initial success only a year later Seigfried had dropped out of senior football and was lining out for Larkhill in the AUL.

When interviewed many years later Dobrowitsch’s former teammate Pa Daly recalled playing alongside him. While he was referred to as “Dobro” when in Sligo the Drumcondra players had instead dubbed him “drop-a-stritch”, and in Daly’s opinion Dobrowitsch had never been a Hungarian international as they had been led to believe. While he praised Siegfreid for his dedication to training, recalling the exasperated Drums groundsman Peter Penrose calling in Dobrowitsch from training with the words “come on in or the pubs will be closed!” he was of the opinion that his claims to have been a Hungarian international were exaggerated.  Any research in relation to the matches that Siegfried Dobrowitsch claimed to have played in for Hungary show no similar names on the historic teamsheets. Ultimately Siegfried would leave Ireland around 1956 bound for Zimbabwe where he spent much of the remainder of his life before he passed away in 1994.

While the story of Seigfried Dobrowitsch may seem unusual he was just the first supposed Hungarian international footballer to play in the League of Ireland in the 1950s. The second was Laszlo Lipot who enjoyed a brief spell at Limerick after arriving in Ireland as a refugee around the time that Seigfried Dobrowitsch was leaving Ireland.  Lipot, who lined out at right half for a short time with Limerick in 1956-57 had ended up as one of a small group of refugees taken in by Ireland after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was crushed by the state authorities with the backing of the Soviet Union.

What had begun as a series of protests in Budapest in October 1956, mostly from students, journalists and writers seeking reform of the system of government, and a move away from the influence of Moscow quickly turned violent,  the Hungarian government sought military support from the Soviet Union which was speedily dispatched. The revolutionaries stood little chance against the might of the Soviet military. The newly installed Hungarian government quickly carried out mass-arrests numbering in the tens of thousands, it was estimated that upwards of 200,000 refugees fled Hungary in the aftermath of the failed revolution and among their number was Laszlo Lipot.

Of the thousands who fled Hungary more than 300 refugees found themselves in the far from glamourous surroundings of the Knockalisheen army camp just outside of Limerick City on the far side of the Clare border. While the refugees were broadly welcomed by the local people life in the army camp was tough and there was even a threatened hunger strike by some of the refugees at the conditions they endured.

Laszlo Lipot is first mentioned in December of 1956, less than two months after the Hungarian Uprising had been suppressed. In the December 8th edition of the Limerick Leader there is a cryptic reference to Lipot under the pseudonym “Janos” who is described as a Hungarian international right back who had only recently represented the national team against Czechoslovakia and had been an international teammate of no less a luminary than Ferenc Puskás. It states that “Janos” has been training with Limerick and had impressed the team management and was hopeful of making his first team debut in the near future. He did make his debut shortly afterwards, in a game against Shelbourne, which ended in a heavy 6-1 defeat, though match reports say that Lipot/Janos was one of the better Limerick players on the pitch. He was unable to add to this single start as his playing registration still lay with the Hungarian FA.

Newspaper reports named his club as “Tata” which according to Hungarian football expert Gergely Marosi was a reference to Hungarian club Tatai Vörös Meteor SK who have since merged into umbrella club Tatai AC. This would mean however, that he certainly was never an international as his club would have been in the third tier at the time. The closest he would have ever come to this standard was playing for his county in inter-region exhibition matches so the talk of an “international” seems to be another tall tale.

Back in Limerick it would be August 1957 before he would get to play another game for the Shannonsiders when the issues with his playing registration were finally resolved, and he was able to line out for Limerick under his own name of Lazslo Lipot. His Limerick career was shortlived however as by the end of the summer of 1957 most of the few hundred Hungarians who had been living in the Knockalisheen camp had left the country, many left to start new lives in Canada and the United States while Laszlo and his wife took the shorter journey to England in September of 1957. His Limerick playing career had amounted to a single league game against Shelbourne in the 1956-57 season and a handful of Shield games in August and September of 1957.

What exactly became of Laszlo after he left Ireland is something that I’ve been unable to find out, there is a death notice for a Laszlo Lipot in the town of Caerphilly in South Wales from 2004. This Laszlo had been born in 1931 and would be the correct age, perhaps he was the same man who once graced the Markets Field?

The cases of Seigfried Dobrowitsch and Laszlo Lipot are striking in their similarity, both were refugees from the post-War turmoil that engulfed Hungary, in Dobrowitsch’s case as an orphaned former soldier he claimed to have fled after the loss of his farm to the new emerging Communist rulers in the late 1940’s, for Laszlo it was the violent events of the 1956 Uprising that led him to leave his homeland. Whether he had been directly involved and feared reprisal or simply wanted to escape a harsher regime after the direct military intervention of the Soviet Union that spurred him to leave we simply don’t know.

We do know however, that both men had some talent for football, and in the days before Youtube highlights videos and professional scouting software both men were able to embellish their playing careers, adding international caps that almost certainly never existed to their playing CVs. While neither player had the longest or most successful League of Ireland career they are examples of a subgroup rarely mentioned in Irish football or indeed, Irish society, namely political and economic migrants who came to Ireland to make a better life. While we might think this is a recent phenomenon the stories of Siegfried and Laszlo shows that is dates back decades. It also shows that we perhaps haven’t learned from the mistakes of the past, while several of Laszlo’s fellow refugees in Knockalisheen did remain in Ireland and built new lives the majority left after less than a year in Ireland, often after protests and threatened hunger strikes about the poor quality of their accommodation. Today Knockalisheen is used as a Direct Provision Centre.

With both men there are many unanswered questions about their lives and careers, especially back in their native Hungary, if any readers have any further information I’d hope they would get in touch so that I can better separate the truth for the stories told about them.

Programme image provided by Stephen Burke. If you enjoyed this article you may also find this piece on the life, career and tragic death of Hungarian international Sandor Szucs of interest.