Alex Stevenson – solving a football mystery?

Sending a message home

In a soccer column in the pages of a regional newspaper there is a short, sad story, based on a message passed onto the author by a local man. In among the snippits about Waterford’s form going into their game with Finn Harps and the need for more referees in the junior leagues, there is a report of a frail, ill man in his seventies, feeling lonely in a hospital in Liverpool. It ends with the line “and now comes word that he would welcome hearing from old friends in a difficult time”. It was a sad situation for anyone to find themselves in, but when one considers the man in question was one of the greatest footballers of his era, beloved by crowds for his skill, trickery and cheekiness then it seems even more strange that he should find himself in that situation.

The man in question was Alex Stevenson. Mention of his plight appeared in the pages of a Waterford newspaper in November of 1984, the heart issues with which he was suffering sadly didn’t abate and by September 1985 Alex Stevenson had passed away in Liverpool aged 72. One of those who did reach out to him before he passed away, and perhaps recorded the last ever media interview with the Everton legend was Irish journalist Seán Ryan.

Irish Independent headline on 3rd September 1985 – the day after Alex Stevenson died

This last interview was published in the Irish Independent the day after Alex’s death under the headline “The football mystery that Alec Stevenson never solved”. While Stevenson spoke with Ryan about various aspects of his successful career the main point of concern from Stevenson was addressing speculation as to why he had to wait fourteen years between his first and second caps from the FAI. As one of the most feared and skilful inside-forwards in Britain, a league winner in both Scotland and England, surely there must have been some other reason for his non-selection? Was it down to the clubs he played for? Was it down to his religion?

I was accused of refusing to play for the FAI because I was a Protestant… but religion never came into it for me. The funny thing was I was never picked by the FAI until after the War but I got all the blame for it!

Alex Stevenson quoted to Seán Ryan in the Irish Independent – 3rd September 1985

We’ll explore the reasons why but first some more background on Alex’s life.

In Dublin’s fair city

Alexander Earnest Stevenson was born in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital on the 12th of August 1912 as the fourth child of Alexander and Rosalina (often listed as Rosaline) who were living on Richmond Road at the time. While the family moved around quite a bit, with addresses at Cadogan Road, Fairfield Avenue, Northbrook Avenue they always remained close to that same North Strand-East Wall district. Both Alexander and Rosalina were from the area and they didn’t move far from their respective families who had been neighbours on Leinster Avenue. They were married in North Strand Church in 1905 in a Church of Ireland service. The Stevenson and Caprani families were deeply connected, Alexander’s younger sister Robina later married Rosalina’s brother Henry in 1914.

“Palace View” Terrace, Richmond Road – where Alex Stevenson was born

Alexander Senior (our footballer’s father) was the son of yet another Alexander, a Scottish Presbyterian who had likely moved to Ireland in the late 1870s or early 1880s and took up work in Dublin’s extensive printing trade. Rosalina was the daughter of Joseph and Anna Caprani. Joseph was a Catholic, born in Como, northern Italy who likely arrived in Dublin in the early 1860s, while Anna (sometimes listed as Hannah) was originally from Cork and was a member of the Church of Ireland. Their children seemed to be baptised into either religion without any particular pattern, some sons and daughters were listed as Catholics, others, such as Rosalina were Church of Ireland. Based on the current FIFA eligibility criteria Alex Stevenson could have played for Ireland, Scotland – through his paternal grandfather, or Italy – through his maternal grandfather. It is an interesting idea, Stevenson the Irish Oriundo, playing for the Italian world cup winning teams of the 1930s, he certainly had the talent.

Joseph and many of the Caprani family were involved in the printing and compositing trade, another connection apart from geography which linked them with the Stevensons, scions of the family would achieve levels of fame and notoriety for various reasons; Joseph Desmond (J.D.) Caprani (1920-2015) was captain of the Irish Cricket team, while Vincent Caprani (b. 1934) is a poet, writer and historian who has also helped to mythologise figures from Ireland’s sporting past in his stories. Alexander and Rosalina raised their children in the Church of Ireland, Alexander having migrated from Presbyterianism. He would later become involved with local football, with the St. Barnabas club who were based out of the Church of St. Barnabas on Sheriff Street, as well as with the Leinster Football Association, serving on various committees.

St. Barnabas Church of Ireland – Sheriff Street, Dublin

As a teenager Alex began playing with St. Barnabas, alongside his older brother Henry, it didn’t take long for them to find success. While still just 17 Alex, along with Henry, helped St. Barnabas to victory in the 1930 Leinster Junior Cup final win over Seaview after two gruelling replays. Within a year Alex was being called up for an Irish Junior international against Scotland in Falkirk. A battling performance saw Ireland lose 3-2, with Stevenson one of the stand-out performers. There were plenty of clubs interested in his signature including Shamrock Rovers and Hearts, but Arthur Dixon, the shrewd player-manager of Dolphin had spotted Stevenson and secured his signature before the Junior international match was played. Alex’s starting wage was £3 a week with a £1 bonus for win but it meant he got to leave work as a docker and focus on his football full time.

Swimming with the big fish… and Dolphins

Alex was to spend just a year with Dolphin but it was to be an eventful one. Dolphin were one of the glamour clubs of Dublin in the 1930s, originally founded in Dolphin’s Barn, but by Alex’s time playing out of Harold’s Cross they had a reputation for good football and for bringing in quality players from Britain. Arthur Dixon, an English man who had spent most of his career in Scotland with St. Mirren, Rangers and Cowdenbeath was obviously brought in as player-manager to help with this recuitment. Aside from Alex, most of the Dolphin side were Scottish players, usually paid £5 a week rather than the £3 Alex was getting. There were a few other locals in the side however, including Larry Doyle, capped that season against Spain, and Jeremiah “Sam” Robinson, another international who had been part of the all-conquering Bohemians team of the 1927-28 season.

The diminutive Stevenson soon began demonstrating his skills surrounded by these more experienced pros. A lightweight inside-forward who would later draw comparison with the likes Hughie Gallagher, Alex James and Patsy Gallagher, Alex possessed great ball-control, a range of passing, and bags of tricks. Also for a man only 5′ 5″ tall and weighing just 10 stone he possessed a deceptively powerful shot. In that one full season Stevenson helped Dolphin to a 3-0 victory over Shelbourne in the Leinster Senior Cup, while they also reached their first ever FAI Cup final. They lost a tight game 1-0 to Shamrock Rovers, with the mercurial Paddy Moore scoring the only goal of the match as Rovers extended their stranglehold over the cup.

Moore was from the same area around the North Strand as Alex and was only three years older, they likely would have known of each other growing up. Both men are emblematic of a certain type of Irish footballer – the small, skilful, flamboyant, “street footballer” of Dublin’s inner city. Perhaps the most recent comparable modern footballer in terms of size and style would be Wes Hoolahan, born some 70 years after Stevenson. Wes grew up in nearby Portland Row and would have honed his talents on the same streets as Moore and Stevenson.

Both Moore and Stevenson would line out for Ireland towards the end of that season, just weeks after the Cup final. Amsterdam was the destination and the Dutch national team were the opposition Paddy Moore had made a scoring debut for Ireland the previous year and would win his second cap, Alex would win his first and both played well in a 2-0 win for Ireland with Moore and Brideville’s Joe O’Reilly getting the goals in front of a crowd of 30,000.

Moore, O’Reilly and Jimmy Daly were all signed up by Aberdeen after their performances in that game, within weeks Alex Stevenson would be following them to Scotland.

An intrepid Ranger

In July of 1932 Arthur Dixon returned to Ibrox as a trainer to become part of Bill Struth’s backroom team. He had been part of a hugely successful Rangers side as a player in the 1920s, making over 300 appearances and winning six league titles with the Glasgow club, and he wasn’t returning to Ibrox empty-handed. A month after Dixon arrived back Alex Stevenson was signed on his recommendation. A fee of £250 was reported with Rangers also agreeing to play a game in Dublin against Dolphin with the proceeds being split.

To date he is the only player capped by the FAI at senior level to be signed by Rangers, a club whose Irish recruits had tended to come more from Belfast than from Dublin. It has long been alleged that Rangers, from the 1920s onwards had operated a policy of not signing Catholics, a policy, along with the strong Irish connections of their rivals Celtic that tended to make Rangers unpopular to many Irish football fans. Dixon when signing Stevenson would have known he was a Protestant due to his association with the St. Barnabas club and their connection to the Church of the same name. Among various theories suggested for the fact that Alex went so long before winning a second cap from the FAI was of an anti-Rangers bias because he had chosen to sign for the club.

Things started slowly at Rangers, there were suggestions that some thought him too lightweight for first team football, and he only made one league appearance for the first team in the season he signed. He did however, play in the match against Dolphin arranged as part of his transfer. This game was held in Dalymount in April 1933 and Rangers featured a strong starting XI including their stars Alan Morton, David Meiklejohn, goalie Jerry Dawson, and the Irish (IFA) international striker Sam English. It was Englist who scored twice in a 3-1 win for Rangers, though the scores were tied with less than ten minutes to go in the game.

The following season would prove more successful, in eleven matches at inside forward he scored seven goals and was described as having all “the craft that goes to make a star”, such was his success that interest soon developed from other clubs, especially Everton who were tracking him closely from the end of 1933. Initial reports on Stevenson had expressed concerns about his small physique but eventually these were dismissed as Stevenson continued to impress. While Everton were readying to make a move Stevenson was selected for all three of the Home Nations games by the IFA, the highpoint being a 2-1 win over Scotland, a game where he first lined out with his future Everton teammate Jackie Coulter.

Rangers meanwhile signed Scottish international Alexander Venters as a replacement for Stevenson as the latters move to Everton was being ironed out. It would take until the start of February 1934 for Alex’s move to Merseyside to be confirmed but the Toffees had finally gotten their man. After 18 months in Scotland his transfer fee had risen from the £250 plus a friendly paid by Rangers to £2,750 paid by Everton. He had also done enough that season to secure himself a Scottish League winners medal before his move. Some later reports incorrectly stated that the fee was a whopping £37,000, however this would have meant that the Stevenson transfer would have broken the then world record by £14,000!

Mickey Mouse goes to Dixieland

Alex was joining an elite side, Everton were F.A. Cup holders when he joined and had been league Champions the season before that, expectation was high. They featured the great Ted Sagar in goal, one of the longest serving players in Everton history, the classy wing-half Cliff Britton who had helped inspire them to the Cup, Irish international Billy Cook who had won both the Scottish Cup and F.A. Cup and of course there was William Ralph “Dixie” Dean, or just Bill to his friends.

The 1933-34 season was to be a tough one for Dean, he spent most of the year ravaged by injury, only managing twelve league appearances and nine goals, his lowest return for a full season with Everton. Dean would return as the team’s top scorer the following year and he and Stevenson developed a strong rapport, Dean feeding off Stevenson’s clever passes and returning the favour as Dixie nodded down crosses for Alex to unleash one of his trademark, cannon-like strikes. One other player to join just weeks after Alex was Jackie Coulter, who had featured at outside left in the game against Scotland. They were to become the first of a number of great double-acts during Alex’s career.

While Alex was small and lightweight, Coulter was a somewhat more imposing physical specimen especially with his huge size 12 boots. He was dubbed the “Jazz winger” by the Goodison faithful and he and Stevenson developed an excellent almost telepathic understanding. It also endeared them to the crowds that both men were born entertainers, full of individual skill and trickery that was magnified by their play as a duo.

A cartoon featuring Coulter and Stevenson from the Liverpool Echo

If Coulter was the “Jazz Winger” then Stevenson was dubbed “Mickey Mouse” because of his small stature. His Ireland teammate, the legendary Peter Doherty referred to Stevenson as the “Mighty Atom”, a sobriequet used for the another talented Irishman full of trickery from an earlier era, Celtic’s Patsy Gallagher. To many other Evertonians he was just “Stevie”.

Coulter and Stevenson combined in perhaps one of the most famous F.A. Cup ties in history, a fourth round replay against Sunderland in January 1935 witnessed by a crowd of 60,000 in Goodison Park. In a game full of incident the Irish left wing partnership of Coulter and Stevenson were on fire and with 16 mintues left to play two goals from Coulter and one from Stevenson gave Everton a 3-1 lead. Stevenson even provoked laughter from the crowd by trying to barge (the much larger) Sunderland keeper Jimmy Thorpe into his own net. Something still common in the rough and tumble English game at the time, (indeed tragically Jimmy Thorpe would die a year later after being kicked in the head during a game against Chelsea at Roker Park). With Alex this perhaps showed both his committment as well as his ability to play to the crowd. And while Stevenson “controlled the show, delighting the home crowd with his trickery and skill”, Sunderland began to rally, scoring two late goals to take the match to extra-time, Coulter got his hat-trick but Sunderland equalised again before two late goals from Albert Geldard sealed the victory for Everton.

In that first full season with the Toffees Stevenson played 41 games and scored 18 goals in all competitions. His signing was hailed as the bargain of the decade as he immediately cemented his place in the first team while making his name as one of the most skilful and entertaining inside forwards in British football. In the 1936-37 season as Everton were stuggling in the lower half of the table Alex had one of his best seasons, playing 44 games and scoring 21 goals, second only to Dean in the scoring charts. Everton were also a team in transition, the great Dixie Dean was slowing after years of injuries, from football and a motorcycle crash as a younger man. Tommy Lawton was brought in as his long term replacement. Jackie Coulter moved to Grimsby Town, a leg break while playing for Ireland against Wales took him out of the game for a year and sapped some of the magic from his game. T.G. Jones an elegant and skilful centre half was signed from Wrexham and a young Joe Mercer was establishing himself in the team.

After some mediocre seasons by their recent standards, towards the end of the 30s Everton were ready to challenge for honours again, and Alex Stevenson had a new partner at left wing, Wally Boyes, signed from West Brom and even smaller than Stevenson at only 5′ 3″ , they formed a fantastic new partnership, while Tommy Lawton was now securely installed as Dean’s successor at centre forward. The 1938-39 season would be one of Everton’s best, they would finish as league champions, Lawton scoring 34 from 38 league games and Stevenson finishing with 11 goals, the third highest scorer in the side. His teammate Lawton was in no doubt of Stevenson’s talents, describing him as:

A great player, greater to the player close to him than to the crowd perhaps… and is one of the finest footballers who have ever kicked a football on an English ground.

Lawton on Stevenson

The title race was tightly balanced with Wolves pushing Everton all the way. Coming into the final stretch the Toffees faced three matches in just four days during April. In the first game Everton beat Sunderland 2-1 in a Good Friday fixture at Roker Park. There then followed a lengthy train journey to London, where Everton faced Chelsea the following day. Everton laboured and with twenty minutes remaining the scores were still goalless. Then Stevenson intervened with what Lawton dubbed the ‘miracle’ of Stamford Bridge – . Alex had scored the opener after a knockdown from Lawton, before Torrance Gillick secured the victory with a late second. Two days later Everton trounced Sunderland 6-2 in Goodison with Alex again on the scoresheet. The title was all but secured 5 days later after a draw with Preston North End. Recalling Stevenson’s goal against Chelsea his teammate Gordan Watson remembered it as “a great moment because Stevie had played so well all season, he was probably our most consistent player – and that’s saying something because we were a great side”. That title-winning season with Everton was perhaps Alex’s career highlight.

Alex Stevenson wheels away after scoring against Arsenal (source @theleaguemag )

By this stage Stevenson has also established himself as first choice with the IFA selectors and by the mid-30s they possessed a formidable pair of supremely talented inside-forwards in the shape of Stevenson and Peter Doherty. By the time he had become a League champion with Everton, Alex had been awarded 14 caps by the IFA (who continued to select players born in the Irish Free State for a further decade) and had scored four goals.

Alex Stevenson was just 26 when he lifted the English league trophy, an established international and viewed by his peers and the public as one of the most skilful players in Britain. He must have felt confident that his best years were ahead of him. He had got married in 1937 and his with Ethel was pregnant by the beginning of the following season, a bright future on the horizon. However, with the 1939-40 season just three games old all football was suspended, the World was at War.

An Ireland XI (IFA) v Scotland 1938 featuring Stevenson and Coulter on the left of the attack.

Wartime action

With football suspended and the footballers of Britain effectively out of work there were few options for the players. Many joined the armed forces and fought during World War II, others found employment in war industries like munitions factories, there was also a newly appealing option for footballers who wished to continue playing League football. The League of Ireland continued, uninterrupted as the Irish Free State adopted the policy of neutrality during the War. Internationals like Willie Fallon and Bill Hayes returned from England to play for the likes of Shamrock Rovers and Cork United respectively. The later months of 1939 were full of rumours about which star player was next going to turn up in Ireland – Jackie Carey? Peter Doherty? And even Alex Stevenson?

While Carey would make a couple of wartime appearances for Shamrock Rovers, he Doherty and Stevenson would all joined the armed forces, in Carey’s case it was the British Army while in the case of Doherty and Stevenson, it was the RAF. Stevenson, who had been linked with moves back to Ireland to either Shelbourne or Limerick signed up with the Royal Air Force in November of 1940. A journalist with the Evening Express was moved to remark;

One of the finest inside-forwards football has seen in a decade goes to do his bit. I wish him the best of luck – and many more games with his beloved Everton.

Evening Express – November 14th, 1940

And there were indeed plenty more games, despite his committments as a ground crew member of the RAF Stevenson still played plenty of football during the war years, some 206 games (and 91 goals) with Everton in the war time competitions, as well as guesting for the likes of Tranmere and Blackpool and lining out for various representative sides as part of matches within the armed forces. Like many footballers Alex lost some of the best years of his career to the War, while competition could be haphazard and the standard of opposition clearly wasn’t as high he still competed against many of his former adversaries in the wartime leagues and Everton performed well. Observers at the time stated that Alex played some of his best football during this period.

Towards the end of the War Alex ended up based in India for a short time and didn’t return to England until the end of 1945. League football didn’t return until the 1946-47, and thought the 1945-46 season did feature a return of the FA Cup but league football was still regionalised.

Peacetime and the Greening of Goodison

As the 1946-47 season began Everton were in the unusual position of being defending Champions after a gap of seven seasons, they returned to the league with several of those who had been part of that title-winning team, however many of those players were now diminshed in their footballing capacities. Also several key men from the title-winning campaign had left the club – centre forward Tommy Lawton had moved to Chelsea, while Joe Mercer, then coming into his prime was was sold to Arsenal before the end of the season. Both of these moves were at least in part motivated by the prickly and divisive Everton manager Theo Kelly. Lawton, Mercer and Dean before them, had all fallen foul of Kelly with Dean describing him “an autocrat and despot“.

Despite his nature Kelly had done a good job as manager in maitaining Everton’s finances and he had recruited new, young players to boost the squad. With Lawton’s departure more firepower was required and Jock Dodds, a prolific scorer for Blackpool before and during the War was recruited after a short spell with Shamrock Rovers. Also recruited from Rovers were Peter Farrell and Tommy Eglington, for a combined fee of £3,000. Eglington would displace Wally Boyes on the left wing and he and Stevenson would form an all-Dublin left-flank for the Toffees.

Everton finished a disappointing 10th that year while their city rivals Liverpool compounded matters by winning the title. The 34 year old Alex Stevenson remained one of the side’s better players that year, playing thirty games and scoring eight times and helping Eglington establish himself in the first team, in what was perhaps his third, and final, great Everton partnership – Coulter – Boyes – Eglington. Stevenson even introduced his young Dublin partner to the joys of golf on Bootle golf course.

There was also a call-up from the FAI. Alex Stevenson would win his second cap 14 years after his first – still a record – and the opposition couldn’t have been more significant. It would be the first time that England would play against Ireland since the split from the IFA in 1921.

Rangers? Sectarianism? – and the exclusion of Alex Stevenson

But why was Stevenson not selected for 14 years? Already an international by the time he left Dolphin he had won a League title with Rangers and one with Everton while establishing himself as one of the most skilful and entertaining forwards in Britain. We can certainly rule out a lack of talent on Stevenson’s behalf. He had also been capped 14 times by the IFA in the intervening period.

We also know from later interviews that it was nothing to do with Stevenson himself refusing a call-up, he had approached both Theo Kelly of Everton and Joe Wickham of the FAI to seek clarity on the issue.

To clear up the mystery I remember approaching Theo Kelly who was Secretary-Manager of Everton and asked him if they would release me but he wouldn’t discuss the matter.,, in the 50’s I tried to clear the matter up by speaking to Joe Wickham but he never divulged anything. It’s still a puzzle to me.

Stevenson interviewed by Seán Ryan in the Irish Independent 3rd September 1985

The answer lies in the, now-digitised, records of Everton Football Club. The minute books reveal that the FAI made regular and repeated attempts to call-up Stevenson to international squads throughout the 1930s but at each point were refused by the club’s management. As early as February 1934, just a month after joining Everton, the FAI requested his release for the World Cup qualifying match against Belgium. This was the famous 4-4 draw in Dalymount where Paddy Moore scored all of Ireland’s goals. It had been noted in the Everton minutes that:

Irish Free State v Belgium. Application from the Irish Free State F.A. for release of A.E. Stevenson to play in this match on the 25th inst. was refused. Chairman reported that the Football League were not desirous of players to be release for this match.

Everton minute books

A further request was made by the FAI for Stevenson’s release which was again rejected. If, as suggested above, the Football League had issued a notice to the effect that players should not be released then it is clear to see just the sort of challenges that the FAI faced to putting out their strongest international team. The Chairman of the Football League at this time was in fact an Irishman, John McKenna, born in Co. Monaghan in 1855 he had moved to Liverpool as a young man he met John Houlding, and through him began an involvement with. first, Everton and later Liverpool F.C. that would later see him become, Secretary and then Chairman of Liverpool. In correspondence with Everton later in 1934 about the release of Stevenson for a match with Hungary, the FAI secretary Jack Ryder pointed out that FAI delegates had been assured personally by John McKenna that the Football League would not prevent players born in the Irish Free State (contrary to the message communicated to Everton, of which the FAI were no doubt unaware) from representing their country. These entreaties fell on deaf ears. Stevenson was not released and the true attitude of John McKenna and the Football League towards the release of players seemed to be against the release of players to the FAI.

The Belgium game was far from a one-off, applications had been made for Stevenson’s services by the FAI for matches throughout the decade. Release for games against the likes of Switzerland, Germany, Hungary and others were refused by Everton. This was not necessarily all that uncommon, as mentioned there was a general lack of support across many British clubs for the release of players to the FAI, Jimmy Dunne went six years between his first and second caps, this period coincided with the best football of his career with Sheffield United and Arsenal. He won the majority of his FAI caps when he was back in Dublin playing for Shamrock Rovers.

There was also the complicating factor that because the IFA continued to select players from the 26 counties the same players services could be requested for two different dates by two different Associations. In the 1930s and 40s there were not agreed international breaks and because the IFA continued to compete in the Home Nations Championship, which were held on dates agreed by the IFA, SFA, FAW and English FA, they were always likely to be the beneficiaries. Added to this mix was the personality of Theo Kelly the Everton Secretary-Manager, while his name might suggest an Irish connection Kelly’s father was from the Isle of Mann and his mother was from Cornwall. He also had a track record of complaining about losing players to international call-ups and even wartime charity matches!

While Theo Kelly would remain in charge of Everton until the early 50s the attitude towards the releasing of players for matches under the jurisdiction of the FAI changed after the War. Both Stevenson and Eglington were released for the game against England in 1946. By this stage the FAI were more than 25 years in existence and perhaps the fact that there were now several players in the squad who would want to play for their country changed the thinking of the Everton management? Another possible reason was an improvement in relations between the English FA and the Football League, with the FAI in 1946 after a conference meeting in Glasgow. Agreements were made at this conference regarding the regularisation of transfer of players between the leagues, the recognition of “retained players” as well as the scheduling of representative games between the various leagues and the League of Ireland. By 1950 the issue about the same player being selected by both the FAI and IFA had also ceased after the FAI requested FIFA’s intervention.

Whatever the precise reasoning Alex Stevenson was to make up for some lost time, he would make six appearances in two years, starting with that game against England in Dalymount. The English fielded a strong side featuring Frank Swift in goal and the likes of Billy Wright, Neil Franklin, Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion, Tom Finney and Alex’s old teammate Tommy Lawton. Ultimately, the English would triumph, a Tom Finney goal scored eight minutes from time was enough to secure a win that many in the English press thought would come easily (England had beaten the IFA XI 7-2 just days earlier). However, the Irish had rattled them, and Alex Stevenson had rattled the crossbar with a rocket of a shot which almost put Ireland ahead in the second half. Summing up the match Henry Rose wrote the in the Daily Express that

“If ever a team deserved to win Eire did. They out-played, out-fought, out-tackled, out-starred generally the cream of English talent, reduced the brilliant English team of Saturday to an ordinary looking side that never got on top of the job.”

Aside from the England game perhaps the most noteworthy of Alex’s subsequent matches was a 3-2 victory over Spain in 1947 in front of over 40,000 fans in Dalymount. Alex, joined by Everton teammates Farrell and Eglington battled back from a 2-1 deficite and defeated Telmo Zarra and Co. thanks to a goal from Paddy Coad and a brace from West Brom striker Davy Walsh. Alex, by then 36 played his final match for Ireland was in December 1948, in a 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in Dalymount.

Goodison goodbyes

Although he still appeared regularly for Everton the number of games became less frequent, over his final two seasons Alex played thirty-seven times for Everton and chipped in with five goals. He had also begun his coaching career, taking on duties with the Everton reserve team. One of Alex’s last significant matches for Everton was also Goodison Park’s biggest, literally. It was the Merseyside derby which set a Goodison attendance record that will never be broken. On 18th September 1948, Alex Stevenson, captain for the day, led out Everton in front of 78,299 people, thousands more were locked outside. In a tight game Liverpool took the lead through Willie Fagan but Jock Dodds equalised for the Toffees with the game finishing 1-1.

Alex (Everton, left) and Jack Balmer (Liverpool, right) lead out their teams at the record-breaking 1948 Merseyside Derby – Liverpool Echo

Alex played his final Everton match on May 7th 1949, a 1-0 defeat away to Bolton on the final day of the season. His Everton career in numbers was 271 appearances and 90 goals in all competitions. If wartime matches are included this totals as 477 appearances 181 goals. He most he ever earned while at Everton was £9 a week, the maximum wage paid at the time within English football. While he had the opportunity to stay with the club in his coaching role Alex still wanted to play, and by the following year he became player-manager of nearby Bootle in the Lancashire Combination while also running a newsagents. As a parting gift to Everton he had scouted and recommended the club sign a 17 year old from Dublin’s Bulfin United named Jimmy O’Neill, he was the man who would ultimately succeed Ted Sagar in the Everton goal.

A Dublin homecoming

Despite relative success with Bootle, as well as helping develop players for top-level football, he left the job in August of 1952 and returned to Dublin a year later to take over the role of Irish national team coach. A role that probably sounds more impressive to modern ears. When Alex was awarded the role the Ireland squad and starting XI were still selected by FAI Committee and with many senior international players based in Britain Alex got to do very little actual coaching, and what coaching he did do seemed to be limited to series of evening lectures. It was a role he soon grew tired of. Only months into the job and he was looking for a way out, one which was presented to him via the offer of a two year contract to be player-manager of St. Patrick’s Athletic. The FAI didn’t stand in his way and by the start of February 1954 Alex was player-manager of St. Pats with a longer contract than the one offered by the FAI as well as a residence in Dublin provided by the club.

His impact at Pat’s was instantaneous, in one of his first games they demolished Dundalk 6-1 with Stevenson scoring twice, his left wing partner, an 18 year old named Joe Haverty was also on the scoresheet. The Irish Independent called it a victory “urged on by the skill and football brains of Alec Stevenson”. By the end of the season young Joe Haverty had been signed by Arsenal and while Pat’s finished towards the bottom of the table they had made the final of the FAI Cup after hard fought victories over Jacobs, Evergreen and in the semi-final Cork Athletic. Stevenson did cause controversy however, when he dropped star striker Shay Gibbons for the final. According to Stevenson

“Shay had been playing but was not consistent. He had bags of speed and could hit the ball with his right foot but he wasn’t a great header and lacked heart so I left him out. I took a bit of stick over that. Even the chairman didn’t agree with my decision because Gibbons was a big favourite in Inchicore, but I did what I thought was right.”

Alex Stevenson on dropping Shay Gibbons for the 1954 Cup Final – from “The Official Book of the FAI Cup” by Seán Ryan

In the final and without Gibbons, Pat’s lost 1-0 to Drumcondra due to an own goal by centre half Dessie Byrne.

Despite that defeat this was a Pat’s team on the up for the 1954-55 season, and as with Haverty the focus was on bringing through younger players as well as developing those already at the club while adding one or two players in key positions. The signing of Tommy Dunne from Shamrock Rovers was something of a coup while Dinny Lowry became the first choice keeper, while Ronnie Whelan Snr. and Paddy “Ginger” O’Rourke came to prominence. Shay Gibbons had his best ever season for the club, scoring 28 goals to help St. Patrick’s Athletic to their second ever league title, perhaps making a point about his “consistency” as well. Twenty-eight goals in a league season remains a club record for St. Pat’s to this day. Stevenson himself continued to make occasional appearances as a player until at least 1955, at which point he would have been almost forty-three, some twenty-four years after his first league appearance for Dolphin. It also meant that Alex had now won leagues in Scotland, England and Ireland.

St. Pat’s repeated the trick the following year, Gibbons topped the League scoring charts with 21 goals and won a recall to the Irish team, while his teammate “Ginger” O’Rourke chipped in with 17. One disappointment was that the League of Ireland teams chose not to enter into the earliest editions of the European Cup which denied Alex the chance of leading out Pat’s for their European debut.

After this success in Inchicore it was some surprise that in the summer of 1958 that Alex was prized away by Waterford to become their new manager. There was some newspaper speculation as to personal differences between Stevenson and the St. Pat’s board but the exact cause of his departure seems unclear. However, their loss was Waterford’s gain, newspaper reports confirming that Stevenson would “have complete control of selection, signing of players, training and coaching programmes etc.” – very much a manager in the modern understanding of the term.

Just as during his time with Pat’s success was almost instantaneous; Waterford triumphed in the first major competition of the season, winning the League of Ireland Shield, as well as finishing third in the League, they even made their way to the FAI Cup final. There they faced Stevenson’s old club, St. Patrick’s Athletic, and despite taking the match to a replay Waterford would lose the rematch 2-1. As with the Cup final in 1954 Alex made a controversial decision that had reprecussions for the final, playing star player Alfie Hale in a League match just before the final. Hale suffered a serious knee ligament injury and was out for six months. Alfie as well as being the team’s star was also its penalty taker, with him unavailable his brother Richard (also known as “Dixie”) took over spot-kick duties and fired a penalty over the bar in the final.

Headline in praise of Stevenson in the Waterford News and Star (1959)

Despite this initial success the following season was to be Stevenson’s last at Waterford and his last in football management at any significant level. Waterford finished the 1959-60 season with an average enough eighth place finish in the league and failed to replicate the initial season’s success in any other competitions. Key players like Peter Fitzgerald and Alfie Hale were leaving for new pastures as well, Fitzgerald joining Sparta Rotterdam and Hale joining Aston Villa. However, Stevenson was busy at work developing local coaching and scouting networks in Waterford to unearth the best young, local talent, he had a year left on his contract and must have been planning for the coming season. However, he was replaced in summer 1960 by the return of local hero Paddy Coad after his years of success with Shamrock Rovers. Coad and Stevenson had been international teammates and it was Coad who would eventually deliver a league title to the city on the Suir in 1966.

Later years

The Shropshire Arms – a pub in Chester was the next port of call. The footballer turned pub landlord is a well trodden path, Alex’s teammate Dixie Dean had run a pub in the same town some years earlier. But things didn’t go well.

That was a mistake. My wife hated pub life and we separated. Later we were divorced. I stuck the pub for four years then got an assembly line at Vauxhall’s where I had charge of the firm’s football teams too.

Alex Stevenson in The Liverpool Echo 15 January 1974
The Shropshire Arms, Chester (source Tripadvisor)

From the assembly line Alex turned his hand to labouring on construction sites (working on a block of flats was “the only time I got to look down on anyone”) and an eventual return to Bootle where he joined the local Council, laying flagstones, driving laundry vans and monitoring the canal banks for vandalism. In interviews the trademark wit that made him so popular with fans and teammates alike was still obvious, but there must have been some sadness, one of the great players of his generations spending his 60s looking for graffiti on canal bridges, with failed marriages behind him and living alone in small flat on Merton Road, Bootle. He wasn’t forgotten by Everton or its supporters however, He shared a table with Dixie Dean and Tommy Lawton at a dinner celebrating Everton’s league triumph in 1970, cracking up his former teammates with his jokes and stories. He was popular at Everton Supporter’s Club fuctions and a cabaret night was held in his honour in 1979 attended by Everton stars of a more recent vintage such as Brian Labone and Mike Lyons.

In 1984 Stevenson began suffering from heart trouble, he spent much of the next year of his life in hospital before passing away on the 2nd of September 1985. In the tributes to him that followed there were as many stories of his wit and humour as of his brilliance on the football field. His partnerships with Coulter and Boyes were often the subject of nostalgic reflection as was the Sunderland Cup match, the title winning season and the story of the day the diminutive Alex played centre forward against Arsenal and frustrated and taunted their towering centre half Leslie Compton so much with his skill and trickery that he provoked Compton into fouling him and giving away a penalty.

No less a figure than Brendan Behan, born a few years after Stevenson and only a few streets away, reminded Dublin’s inner-city Protestant community to “If you are a Protestant remember these are the people of Saint Barnabas’ parish homeland of your illustrious co-religionsits Sean O’Casey, Alex Stevenson who played for Barnabas soccer team and my friend, Ernie Smith who battled in the ring for Ireland in the Olympics.” Brendan’s brother Dominic recalled in his memoir “Teems of Times and Happy Returns” an Everton supporters club on Dublin’s Russell Street in the 1930s arranging trips to Liverpool to see Alex and Everton play. Though forgotten, or perhaps even misremembered today, Stevenson was one of Ireland’s greatest players. Every country has the mythology of its “street footballers” – Stevenson, from Dublin city, small, skinny, skilful, cheeky, a showman, seems to be the Platonic ideal of the Irish street footballer as espoused by the likes of Eamon Dunphy, born a generation later on the same street as Alex.

I’ll leave the closing words to an anonymous football fan in the letters pages and his description of Alex Stevenson. He said that “Everton without Stevenson… is just the same as Joe Louis without his punch.”

How the Belfast Boy became a Croppy Boy

At a conservative estimate there were at least 1,500 people perched on temporary bleachers hoping to catch a glimpse of the fading brilliance of one of the greatest players that Ireland has ever produced. They were crammed into the exercise grounds of Collins Barracks, known simply as the esplanade, where the soldiers of the oldest continually functioning army barracks in Europe exercised and played football. At least that was the case at the time, today the area is better known to the Dublin public as the Croppies’ Acre park, a public space and monument to the dead of 1798, some of whom are reputedly buried beneath the park. However, in April 1986 thoughts were not of the dead of two centuries ago but on the left foot of a 40 year old George Best, playing along the banks of the Liffey to help raise money for an old friend.

While Best was long removed from the brilliance of his Manchester United prime, when he had terrorised defences throughout Europe and been named Footballer of the Year, he was still a box office draw. He had spent the intervening years playing his trade mostly in the North American Soccer League (NASL) while also having spells with the likes of Fulham, Hibernian, Bournemouth and even a three game spell with Cork Celtic in the League of Ireland. While this peripatetic existence meant that he had played in a variety of interesting and unusual surroundings the military exercise grounds of an army barracks flanked by city traffic must be among the more unusual sites that he plied his trade.

The reason for Best’s appearance was the annual Liam Tuohy XI v Collins Barracks celebrity XI match which was a benefit game for his former teammate Shay Brennan. While in Dublin it was announced that a Testimonial match had been confirmed in aid of Brennan between Manchester United and Shamrock Rovers with the game due to take place in August of that year. Brennan was the first English-born footballer to play for the Republic of Ireland and had been a teammate of Best’s as part of the great Manchester United side of the 1960s which had won two league titles and the 1968 European Cup. Brennan had later enjoyed success as player and manager of Waterford, leading them to two league titles and an FAI Cup win. Brennan, who was a close friend of Best, and was known as a man who enjoyed socialising and the occasional bet, had been advised by Busby to take a “pension” of £15 a week from Manchester United in lieu of a testimonial in 1970 as Busby feared he would waste a sudden windfall from a benefit match. In 1985 Brennan had suffered a heart attack which likely prompted the push to fundraise on his behalf.

Best in action from the Irish Independent

In interviews in the lead up to the game at Collins Barracks, Best claimed he had been “on the wagon” for seven months, and that was staying fit by appearing in regular exhibition matches. Most of the reports and photos associated with the game commented on how relatively “trim and fit” Best appeared, though the Irish Independent described the Belfast man as being “fuller of figure”. Most were complimentary on his performance as well, describing some good touches, dribbles and demonstrations of the “full range of his famous skills”. Best was substituted in the game after 70 minutes as he had to get back to Manchester, which also meant that he had to forgo the after game reception and hospitality.

Best in the Evening Press with the crowds at Collins Barracks in the background

Best wasn’t the only prominent player involved, his former Manchester United teammate Pat Crerand was there on behalf of the club to announce the details of the forthcoming benefit match for Brennan and also featured in the match, alongside the likes of John Giles, Mick Leech, Eoin Hand, Mick Martin, Turlough O’Connor and Shamrock Rovers manager Jim McLaughlin. There were also stars from other codes including Dublin GAA goalkeeper John O’Leary, Roscommon footballer and Army Officer Dermot Earley and Rugby player Tony Ward. For the record the Collins Barracks XI won the game 2-1 with goals from Army Quarter Master Kevin Corcoran and Con Martin Jnr. cancelling out a strike from former Irish international Mick Leech.

While Best’s stay was brief he certainly made a splash, as well as the 1,500 or so who squeezed in to watch him by the banks of the Liffey there were the usual throngs of fans seeking autographs and photosgraphs at his hotel, while in interviews Best was his usual conversational, witty, acerbic self, he had been critical of the appointment of Jack Charlton to the Ireland manager’s job earlier in the year, and this continued to be a subject for humour and discussion while he was in Dublin.

Pat Crerand joked with Best that “Jack Charlton is waiting to meet you at the hotel”.

Best replied: “That’s good, I’m looking forward to introducing myself to Jack. I don’t think he ever saw me when we played. I’ll walk backwards so he can recognise me.”

Reported in the Evening Herald, 28th April 1986

Best would go on to say that he had questioned Jack’s appointment “on the grounds of his nationality and on his commitment to the game, that’s all”. Best and Crerand warming to their task also had some choice words on an array of other subjects, such as for the lack of quality in the British game, Brian Clough – “it’s sad when the biggest name in British football is Brian Clough and the media is prepared to pay him money to say ridiculous things” , as well as the treatment of meted out by the British press to sports “superstars” such as Lester Piggot, Alex Higgins or Ian Botham – “Who gives a damn what Ian Botham does off the pitch on tour, or how many beds he breaks doing it. I don’t.” stated Best.

Ian Botham in action in 1983

The much larger testimonial game for Shay “Bomber” Brennan was arranged for August 14th 1986, a pre-season friendly to be held in Milltown, which attracted a crowd of over 10,000. United travelled with a strong squad which included Irish internationals Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Frank Stapleton as well as seasoned internationals such as Jesper Olsen, Gordon Strachan and Mike Duxbury. Rovers saw the game as good practice for their upcoming European Cup tie with Celtic and impressed on the day, running out 2-0 winners with goals from Mick Bennett (loaned by Waterford for the match) and Liam O’Brien. United by their own account played poorly with one of the only stand-out players being substitute Joe Hanrahan who had been brought to Old Trafford a year earlier from UCD.

Liam O’Brien, who had won his first international cap earlier that year had obviously impressed United manager Ron Atkinson during the match as he made an offer for the young midfielder shortly afterwards for an initial fee of £50,000. However, O’Brien wouldn’t play under “Big Ron” who was sacked in November 1986 after a poor start to the season, He would have to wait until the arrival of Atkinson’s replacement, Alex Ferguson before he would make his first appearance in the red of United.

The cumulative crowds of around 12,000 across the two games no doubt helped Shay Brennan after his health setbacks. He would pass away in 2000 at the age of 63 while playing golf near Waterford. George Best who was experiencing his own health problems at the time was reported at being deeply upset at the passing of his good friend. Best himself would pass away just five years later. It is a testament to Brennan’s enduring popularity that the world of football was so quick to rally around him in his time of need, he was known for his easy-going nature and sense of humour, and was hugely popular in Manchester, where he had played over 350 games for Manchester United, and in his adoptive home of Waterford where he had helped deliver success but where he also enjoyed small-town life in Tramore and regular games of golf. After all it is not just anybody who could prompt George Best and Johnny Giles into playing a football match in a park on the banks of the Liffey.

Shay Brennan, Manchester United 1966

Bohs and Bloody Sunday

The FAI Cup quarter final versus Dundalk fell just a day shy of the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a day remembered in Irish history for actions that morning when Michael Collins’ “Squad”, supported by members of the Dublin Brigade carried out a series of assassinations across Dublin which helped to cripple the British Intelligence network in the city. It is also remembered for the brutal reprisal that took place in Croke Park later that day when a combined force of RIC, including the Black and Tans and Auxillaries along with British Army troops opened fire at a Gaelic Football match between Dublin & Tipperary in Croke Park, causing the deaths of thirteen spectators and Tipperary player Michael Hogan.

Though Dalymount Park sits only a short walk away from Croker any connections with Bohemians and the events of that day would appear remote or non-existent, though that is certainly not the case. Both in the streets of Dublin that morning and in Croke Park that afternoon there were men who were, or would become, players, coaches, administrators and supporters of Bohemians.

We’ll begin early that morning on the streets of the south inner city, Charlie Dalton the 17 year old Drumcondra native and IRA intelligence officer has been preparing the attack on 28 Pembroke Street, making arrangements with Maudie, a maid who worked in the house to gather intelligence on the six suspected British intelligence operatives residing there. At the appointed hour of 9am Dalton and several other Volunteers burst into the house. Dalton’s job was to ransack the house for documents and intelligence files. His colleagues were tasked with the other work. Lieutenant Dowling and Captain Price were shot to death in their beds. Four other British officers were also shot in a volley of bullets in the hallway, Colonel Montgomery was killed and though the other officers were badly wounded they survived. Dalton was a member of Bohemians and an occasional player for the lower Bohs sides. His older brother Emmet, a British military veteran had also joined the IRA by this stage and was also a member of Bohemians, playing for the first team as an inside-forward and becoming club President in 1924. Be the end of the War of Independence Emmet had become the IRA’s head of training.

Emmet and Charles Dalton in their National Army uniforms

Teenaged Jeremiah “Sam” Robinson was acting was out that morning as a lookout for was his friend Vinny Byrne, one of Collins’ famed “12 Apostles”. Their destination was 28 Upper Mount Street, their targets British Lieutenants Aimes and Bennett. This was a late change to the plans due to a recent piece of intelligence received Charlie Dalton. Byrne and fellow Squad member Tom Ennis led the party and in Byrne’s witness statement he mentioned that they were a party of about ten men and that the operation did not go as smoothly as hoped. The sound of shooting aroused the attention of other British military personnel in the area and the men keeping an eye on the entrance to Mount Street came under fire. Most of the party fled to the river and rather than risk crossing any of the city bridges back to the north side where they could be intercepted. They crossed by a ferry and Sam and the others disappeared into the maze of streets and safe-houses of the north inner city. Robinson would later become a member of the “Squad” when it was reinforced in 1921.

While Sam, along with his brother Christy (another IRA Volunteer) would go on to enjoy a stellar career with Bohemians as part of the all-conquering 1927-28 side and would be capped twice by Ireland. His cousin William “Perry” Robinson would not escape Bloody Sunday unscathed. He was the second youngest victim in Croke Park, perched in a tree near the Canal end of Croke Park, he was struck by a bullet through the chest and would die in Jervis hospital. He was 11 years old.

The all-conquering 1927-28 Bohemian FC team. Sam Robinson is in the front row immediately to the right of goalkeeper Harry Cannon

On Ranelagh Road was Christopher “Todd” Andrews, a Bohemian fanatic, who would later become a senior civil servant and begin a political dynasty. His younger brother Paddy would enjoy success with Bohs in the 1930s, becoming club captain and would be capped for Ireland. However, for Todd his thoughts were with the headache caused by a clash of heads during a match for UCD the previous day as well as his duty that morning, the shooting of Lt. William Noble. As he later recalled:


“I had increasing fears we might be surprised by the Tans. If that happened and we were captured, we would have been shot or hanged. It is not an agreeable prospect for a nineteen-year-old psychologically unattuned to assassination.”

C.S. “Todd” Andrews – Dublin Made Me

In the end Andrews didn’t have to fire a shot, their target had escaped, Noble had left at 7am that morning. Andrews’ home was raided later than night, and his father, also Christopher, was lifted by the Black and Tans. Todd was forced into hiding, searching for a safe house in the south Dublin suburbs.

That afternoon in Croke Park, strange as it may seem, there was also a strong Bohs connection. Many of the Dublin side were taken from the O’Toole’s club from Seville Place in the North inner city, they would become the dominant club side of the 1920s in Dublin, winning seven county football championships over the course of the decade. Their trainer was Charlie Harris and he was also assisting the Dubs that day from the Croke Park touchline. A former athletics champion, Croke Park was familiar terrain for Harris, he had even raced against a horse there in 1912 (narrowly losing)! Harris had also been the trainer of Bohemians since 1916 and was involved with the club for over 30 years as an integral part of many successful Bohemians teams. He even coached the Irish national side on a number of occasions, including at the 1924 Olympics. Harris, like most of the Dublin team was likely among the group that was rounded up by the RIC and detained in the Croke Park dressing rooms before finally being released later that day.

One other Bohs connection was a steward at that day’s game, Joe Stynes. Already an IRA member Stynes was also an exceptional all round athlete, be it Gaelic Football, hurling or as a goal-scoring winger for Bohemians. Stynes would star for Bohs in the 1925-26 season (and would receive the first of a number of bans from the GAA for it) but back in 1920 he helped dispose of guns belonging to the Volunteers before escaping the ground, according to an account provided by his grand-nephew, the Aussie Rules footballer Jim Stynes.

A version of this piece appeared in the 2020 match programme for the Bohemian F.C. v Dundalk FAI Cup game.

Luke Kelly takes the biscuit

Raised on songs & stories Heroes of renown/ 
The passing tales & glories that once was DublinTown

The opening lines of “Dublin in the rare ould times” are a distillation of nostalgia at its purest for many Dubliners. The Pete St. John song found fame on the ballad circuit of the 1970’s and for my money the definitive version of the song will always be the Dubliners’ version with Luke Kelly on lead vocals. This song appeared on The Dubliners 1979 release “Together Again”, it marked the return to the band of Ronnie Drew and it would be the last album to feature Luke Kelly who would pass away less than 5 years later.

A rousing version of the song was performed in January of last year by Damien Dempsey accompanied by Kelly’s former bandmate John Sheahan on South King Street, a short walk from Grafton Street and Merrion Row and many venues that were home to performances by the Dubliners during the so-called “ballad boom”. This performance coincided with the 35th anniversary of Kelly’s death, aged just 43, but more positively it also announded the unveiling of a new bronze statue of the troubador and activist.

Statue

The unveiing of two pieces of public art celebrating the life and work of Luke Kelly provoked much fond reminiscence of him by friends and family, one area of his life that was discussed in detail was Luke’s love of football which was detailed in an excellent piece by David Sneyd in the Irish Mail on Sunday. The article had mentioned Kelly’s time as a schoolboy when he lined out for the famous Home Farm club, playing alongside future League of Ireland legend Billy Dixon.

It also mentioned the playing career of his father, Luke Kelly Senior who played in the League of Ireland for Jacob’s F.C. In a piece for the “Lost Clubs” series on this website I focused on the history of Jacobs and in the course of my research had come across Luke Kelly Senior. A talented half-back or “pivot” in the Jacob’s teams of the late 1920’s.  Reports at the time describe him as a “tireless worker” , a “typical tackler and spoiler” and “most consistent”, though he was mentioned as being a shade on the small side. He was however, no brutal hatchet man, plenty of reports mention his range of passing and ability to switch the play and begin attacks.

The “pivot” role so commonly ascribed to him was one which had developed as part of the old 2-3-5 formation. The “centre-half” was not yet a central defender, but played in a more advanced role as an instigator of attacking play who could also drop back and assist in defensive areas. Hence he functioned as the “pivot” between defence and attack. This would change gradually over the 1920s, especially after Arsenal had success with withdrawing a centre-half into a more definsive position of a third defended, helping create what became known as the W-M formation.

Luke Senior was born on 1st September 1904 in Ryan’s Cottages on Marlborough Place in Dublin’s north inner-city. He was the son of Paddy and Christina Kelly who had been married nearby in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral in 1898. Paddy Kelly had been born in Bealnamulla, Co. Roscommon just outside Athlone back in 1867, he in turn was the son of another Luke Kelly also from Bealnamulla. Luke Sr. married Julie Fleming in September of 1934 in St. Laurence O’Toole’s church which sits next to Sheriff Street, a part of the city to be forever associated with his son, Luke Kelly the singer who was born nearby in 1 Lattimore Cottages, Sheriff Street less than six years later.

Football was obviously deeply engrained in Luke Kelly Sr. from an early age, in an interview many years later when his son was at the height of his fame, he remembered playing football in Fairview Park when he and his pals spotted a brigade of the Scottish Borderers marching towards the city. Kelly recalled in the Irish Independent that he and his friends followed them all the way into the city, jeering at them and throwing stones.

What the young Kelly did not realise then was that the Scottish Borderers regiment had been called into the city centre on serious businesses. Earlier that day the Irish Volunteers had taken possession of a cache of weapons brough by boat into Howth harbour and which were en route to the city. The Dublin Metropolitan Police had been ordered to confront the Volunteers but many would have had sympathy with the Nationalist cause.

As prominent Irish Volunteer and IRB member Bulmer Hobson noted “A considerable number of the police did not move and disobeyed the order, while the remainder made a rush for the front Company of the Volunteers and a free fight ensued, in which clubbed rifles and batons were freely used. This fight lasted probably less than a minute, when the police withdrew to the footpath of their own accord and without orders.”

As a result the Borderers were sent to disarm the Volunteers, they also failed in this task and eventually a growing crowd stoned and jeered them as they marched back to Richmond Barracks along the Dublin quays. The troops opened fire on this taunting crowd on Bachelor’s Walk, killing three bystanders and injuring 37, including a 9 year old Luke Kelly as the youngest victim.

Kelly was shot in the back and a priest was called to administer to him as the staff in the nearby Jervis Hospital feared for his life. However Kelly was lucky and made a full recovery. A photo of him in his hospital bed even appeared in an edition of the Irish Independent a few days after the attack.

Indo hospital pic

Photo taken from the Irish Independent July 28th 1914: Luke Kelly, a little schoolboy, a victim of the Borderers fusilade, in a ward in Jervis Street hospital

Kelly joined the Jacobs factory as an employee at the age of 16 and continued working for them for 46 years, until his passing in 1966. During his time with Jacobs he was an accomplished athlete, he ultimately played seven seasons in the League of Ireland with Jacobs, and although at one stage he was linked with a move to Fordsons in Cork, he remained with the Biscuitmen as a player even after they dropped out of the League of Ireland and returned to the Leinster Senior League.

Though Jacobs struggled for much of Kelly’s time as a player there are numerous reports that mention Kelly as their stand-out individual performer. Such was the high regard in which he was held as a player he was also selected to play in a number of high profile friendly matches, such as a charity game in aid of St. Vincent de Paul at Christmas 1927 as well as being picked to play for Shelbourne as a guest in a benefit match against Linfield for their star player, the Irish international, Val Harris.

Jacobs were justifiably proud of the sporting achievements of their employees, apart from a football team they also constructed a swimming pool for employees, based on the example of a pool built by Heinz for their workers in Pittsburgh. Kelly was also an able swimmer, though it did get him into trouble on one occasion. In May 1932 Luke Kelly senior (then aged 27) was arrested by a Garda Burns and charged with attempted suicide by drowning in the River Liffey.

Kelly’s defence to this charge was that he had been out with friends for a drink on Sunday and after some significant alcohol consumption a bet was proposed as to whether Kelly could swim across the Liffey from Custom House Quay. As part of Kelly’s defence it was stated that he was an excellent swimmer as evidenced by the fact that although he was wearing a hat at the time it had remained dry throughout. The Judge at the hearing of the case let Kelly off on the condition that he took the pledge and kept the peace.

To return to the opening lines of this piece, the words of Pete St. John as sung by Luke Kelly, it always struck me that they apply equally well to how we hear about football’s and its players when we are young, father’s, olders siblings, relations and bar-room bores regaling youngsters about scarcely believeable feats of skill from years gone by. Luke Kelly Senior was a friend of John Giles’ father Dickie and one can imagine that both Luke and John heard many romanticised tales from their respective fathers about their exploits on and off the field.

Raised on songs & stories Heroes of renown/ 
The passing tales & glories…

Death in the Fifteen Acres

A hard tackle on a bare, wintry, public pitch and two players go down in a tangle of limbs. Both rising, angry words, then fists, are thrown – the referee intervenes and both players, one aged 17, the other 23, are sent from the pitch. Not the finest example of the beautiful game, but not exactly an uncommon occurence across the parks and playing fields of Ireland. It is what happens afterwards, the minute or two of frenzied violence that is unusual and shocking, moments of chaos that leave a young man dead and will see three amateur footballers stand trial in a Dublin court for murder. This is the story of the death of Samuel O’Brien.

The Fifteen Acres

The Fifteen acres of the Phoenix Park has a legitimate claim to be the footballing heart of the city. Located in the expanse between the Magazine Fort and the Hibernian Military School (now St. Mary’s Hospital) it occupies land that were once parade grounds and firing ranges of the British Army in Dublin. A short distance away at the North Circular Road gate-lodge the Bohemian Football club was founded in September 1890, those young founding members included members of the Hibernian Military School among their number. Bohs first pitches were at the nearby Polo Grounds, on the other side of Chesterfield Avenue.

In 1901 the Commissioner for the Board of Public Works agreed to lay out a number of playing pitches in the area of the Fifteen Acres. Out of the thirty-one available pitches twenty-nine were used for soccer. This meant that clubs with limited means or a pitch of their own had somewhere close to the city to play. Among those to host their early matches on the Phoenix Park pitches were St. Patrick’s Athletic from nearby Inchicore. The park pitches remain in almost constant use to this day, and their footballing significance has even made it into the public shorthand (perhaps unfairly) for poor or amateurish play, via the utterances of the likes of Eamon Dunphy declaring that “you wouldn’t see it in the Phoenix Park”.

Map held by the National Library of Ireland showing the layout of the park during the 1929 Centenary commemorations of Catholic emancipation.

This part of the park has also seen it’s share of violence. At the edge of the Fifteen acres close to Chesterfield Avenue and almost opposite to the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) on a spot of ground now marked by a discreet commemorative cross, one of the most infamous murders in Irish history took place. In 1882 The Invincibles murdered of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke with a set of surgical knives. Cavendish was the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, having arrived in Dublin just that day, while Burke was the Permanent Undersecretary, the most senior Irish civil servant.

During the 1916 Rising the Magazine Fort was targeted by the Irish Volunteers led by Paddy Daly. Hoping to sieze weapons and destroy British stocks of ammunition and explosives, the members of the Volunteers posed as a football team, passing a ball back and forth as a diversion, until they were close enough to rush the guards and secure the fort. One of the sentries of the fort suffered a bullet in the leg, while George Playfair Jnr. – son of the Commandant of the fort was killed by bullet wounds to the abdomen when he tried to raise the alarm. In more recent times the area just east of the fifteen acres near the Wellington monument was the site of one of the notorious GUBU murders carried out by Malcolm MacAthur when he bludgeoned to death a young nurse, Bridie Gargan, while she lay sunbathing on the grass on a summer afternoon in 1982.

The scene on matchday

Returning to the match in question – a Leinster Junior Alliance division four match between Glenmore and Middleton, two Dublin teams, playing in the Phoenix Park. Middleton held their club meetings at 35 North Great George’s Street in the north inner city but featured several players from the southside of the inner city. Glenmore (sometimes styled as Glenmore United) were from south of the Liffey and used 30 Charlemont Street as their address.

The game took place on the 7th December 1924, on pitch 28 of the Fifteen acres, an area that remains a focal point for amateur football in Dublin City. It was a fine, dry day for the time of year, though there was a strong breeze blowing in from the west.

Taken from Football Sports Weekly this plan from the 1920s shows the pitch layout of the Fifteen acres as the Glenmore and Middleton players would have known it.

The game itself seems to have been proceeding relatively without incident when according to referee James Rocliffe, with a quarter of an hour remaining, Samuel O’Brien of Middleton was going through with the ball when he was tripped by Patrick Lynam of Glenmore. The referee called a foul and O’Brien, obviously aggreived at the challenge got up in “a fighting attitude” and he and Lynam rushed at each other, trading blows. At this point Rocliffe separated the pair, sent off both players and prepared to restart the game.

However, his action in sending off both players hadn’t eased tensions. The pitches of the Fifteen acres not being served with individual pitch-side dressing rooms both players went behind one of the goals after being sent from the field. Here, tempers flared again with Lynam and O’Brien trading punches and other players rushing from the pitch to intervene, just as Rocliffe was trying to restart the game.

The fatal blow?

What happened next becomes a matter for debate, one which I will try to tease out and present for the reader based on the court testimonies of those present on the day. The version of the story changes with each retelling and with each narrator. What seems to be generally agreed on is that as Lynam and O’Brien set at each other again after their sending off, other players joined the fray, ultimately O’Brien was knocked to the ground and it seems it was then that he was kicked in the head, or possibly struck his head heavily off the ground as he was knocked over. This according to the medical examiner was likely the cause of his death, aged just 23.

In the aftermath the referee retreated to the relative safety of the nearby pavillion, while Thomas Ralfe, a teammate of O’Brien, seeing that his friend was badly injured rushed to the nearby Hibernian School, then in use by the National Army, and sought help. He returned with two army officers who gave O’Brien first aid as they waited for the Dublin Corporation ambulance to arrive to take the stricken footballer the short journey to Dr. Steeven’s hospital.

The approximate location in the Phoenix Park where Samuel O’Brien was assaulted. The buildings behind the tree-line are St. Mary’s Hospital, formerly the Hibernian School.

Samuel O’Brien, arriving at the hospital unconcious, was met by the house surgeon Dr. W.A. Murphy just after 3pm that day. Murphy described O’Brien as being in a state of “profound collapse” and growing steadily worse. Despite medical intervention Murphy would pronounce O’Brien dead later that day at 7:45pm. In the post-mortem report the cause of death was identified as “paralysis of the respiratory centre caused by the compression of the brain by haemorrhage”. To the untrained eye O’Brien appeared to show just minor, superficial injuries; bruising to the right eyelid and a couple of minor abrasions around the same eye. There were no other obvious injuries or bruising to suggest trauma to major organs. It was only upon the opening of his skull that the violence he had suffered was laid plain. The entire of Samuel O’Brien’s brain was covered in blood. The haemorrhage that had killed him caused by significant trauma to the head.


Inquest

The following day, Monday, December 8th 1924 – Dr. Murphy had the opportunity to present his findings to an inquest held in Dr. Steevens’ Hospital chaired by City Coroner, Dr. Louis Byrne and a jury, to decide if the death of Samuel O’Brien should proceed to trial. When describing the injuries recieved by the deceased, Murphy stated that they could be caused by “a person being struck in the face and falling to the ground”.

Present at the inquest apart from Doctors Byrne and Murphy were a Mr. Clarke, representative of the Chief State Solicitors Department, Inspector Patrick Guinan of the Bridewell, Dublin Metropolitan Police and the three young men suspected of causing injury to Samuel O’Brien – they were Patrick Lynam, aged 17, a bookmakers clerk from St. Patrick’s Terrace off the North Strand, Michael Doyle, aged 18, at the time unemployed and living at 14 Richmond Cottages in Summerhill, and Thomas Lynam (no relation to Patrick), aged 17 from 2 Aberdeen Terrace, off the North Strand who worked in the printing business. At the inquest Patrick Lynam was at that stage the only one of the three with legal representation, in the form of a solicitor named Christopher Friery.

Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, site of the inquest

Also present at the inquest were a number of other witnesses including Samuel’s older brother William, the family member who had identified his brother’s body the previous day. He testified that Samuel had left in good health and spirits from the family home on Bride Street the previous day, which backed up the medical testimony which ruled out some underlying medical condition as being a possible cause for Samuel’s death. It was also at this point that Samuel’s profession was disclosed, he working for the Irish Independent’s distribution section. Indeed their sister paper, the Evening Herald carried extensive coverage of the inquest that evening on its front page.

Other witnesses at the inquest included a number of O’Brien’s Middleton teammates; Thomas Ralph (24) and Edward Maguire (20) who as well as being fellow players were also neighbours of O’Brien on Bride Street, and Edward O’Dwyer of Palmerston Place, Broadstone, the self-described “inside-right” of the team. The other key witness was James Rocliffe (30) of 18 Summerhill, the referee on the day of the match.

It was Rocliffe who next gave evidence after William O’Brien. He noted how he knew neither team nor the men involved personally, he had merely been tasked with refereeing the game by the Association. He detailed the foul on O’Brien by Lynam and their subsequent fight which resulted in both players being sent off. Rocliffe then testified that as he was restarting the match he noticed several player rush off the field in the direction of O’Brien and Lynam, at this point he stopped the game and went to the nearby pavillion. Rocliffe testified that there was only one spectator and his two linesmen at the game that day. Rocliffe did not see further blows struck by either man and had not seen anyone else apart from Patrick Lynam strike Samuel O’Brien as by this stage he had retreated to the safety of the pavillion. When asked if he had seen blows struck like this before he replied:

I often saw rows and blows struck by men fighting on the street. It did not very often occur at football matches.

James Rocliffe quoted in the Evening Herald – 9th December 1924

It was the subsequent testimony from O’Brien’s teammates that was to be most incriminating, Thomas Ralph swore that upon seeing players running towards O’Brien and Lynam he witnessed two opposition players knock O’Brien to the ground and kick him. These two players were identified by Ralph as Thomas Lynam and Michael Doyle, and Ralph would later describe the accused issuing two “unmerciful kicks” to O’Brien, which he would state “were meant” or deliberate though both Lynam and Doyle denied this. Edward Maguire and Edward O’Dwyer confirmed that that they witnessed Michael Doyle kick O’Brien which Doyle strenuously denied at points during the inquest, loudly interjecting to profess his innocence and deny that he kicked O’Brien.

Summing up, the coroner Louis Byrne was moved to say that there had been no pre-existing animosity between the teams or individual players, and he looked upon Samuel O’Brien’s death as,

a tragic result of the blood of these boys “getting up” in the excitement of the game. He would be slow to attach any guilt to any party there on the evidence. His only regret was that when these young men went out to play football that they had not a better spirit of sportsmanship

Freeman’s Journal – December 10th 1924

The inquest jury found that the death of Samuel O’Brien was the result of injuries sustained on the football field. The case was referred to the Dublin District Court where Patrick Lynam, Thomas Lynam and Michael Doyle were to be charged with murder.

The courts

The initial hearing took place later that day with Justice George Cussen presiding, all three were charged with murder and placed on remand for a week with a substantial bail set in each case. All three young men denied the charges with Thomas Lynam saying “I never laid a hand or foot on him”.

When the case reconvened the following week similar evidence to the inquest was presented, however this time all three of the defendants had legal representation and Justice Cussen referred the murder case to the Dublin Circuit Court.

Irish Times headline 10th December, 1924

The Circuit Court hearing took place in February of 1925 with Justice Charles Drumgoole presiding. The state prosecution was entrusted to William Carrigan.

A prominent barrister from Tipperary – Carrigan was later made chair of the Government’s Committee on the Criminal Law Amendment and Juvenile Prostitution Acts – the Carrigan Committee for short. Carrigan was entrusted with examining the “moral condition” of the country and he heard testimony that highlighted issues such as child abuse, prostitution and the suggestions of their root causes; overcrowded tenements shared by large numbers of men, women and children with little privacy or security. Little of this made it into Carrigan’s report, though it’s findings were still too much for the Government to consider publish – the report was shelved by the Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice James Geoghegan.

But in February 1925 this was all still ahead of William Carrigan, his priority the three young men on trial for the alleged murder of Samuel O’Brien. Carrigan begins by questioning the character and attitude of the accused, stating that

The attitude of at least one of the prisoners was far from showing any regret… Their demeanour towards the court showed very little respect. It did not redound to their credit that they should meet the case with such levity as had been observed.

Cork Examiner – 26th February 1925

What “attitude” or “demeanour” was presented or how they were disrespectful is not specified. Once again the key witnesses examined were Dr. Murphy, house surgeon of Dr. Steevens’ Hosptial, the referee James Rocliffe and Middleton team-mates Thomas Ralph and Edward Maguire. Ralph and Maguire both stated that O’Brien had been kicked when on the ground, that O’Brien had tried to rise but collapsed into unconsciousness from which he would never awaken. And significantly both agreed that Michael Doyle had kicked O’Brien, while Ralph said that Thomas Lynam had also kicked him.

The focus of the defence was on medical evidence, honing in on the limited visible, superficial damage to the face of Samuel O’Brien, they asked Dr. Murphy whether it was possible that a fall after being struck in a “fair fight” could have caused the trauma which led to his death, rather than a kick to the head. Something Dr. Murphy agreed was possible.

Patrick Lynam testified that after being sent off he went up to offer O’Brien an apology and “make friends”, which O’Brien refused with the words “We’ll settle it here” before adopting a fighting stance, Lynam claimed this was the cause of the renewed row on the touchline behind the goal.

Michael Doyle claimed in his defence that he had gone to Patrick Lynam’s aid, wanting to take Lynam’s place as he felt that the, smaller Lynam, was “not a match” for O’Brien. Doyle strenuously denied kicking O’Brien but did recall being hit twice about the head by Thomas Ralph, claiming this dazed him and left him unable to remember anything for several minutes.

Ralph for his part admitted to hitting Doyle but claimed that he only did so in an attempt to protect O’Brien after he had been kicked, it was Ralph who then ran to the Hibernian School and returned with two National Army officers who administered First Aid to the unconcious Samuel O’Brien. It appears upon the realisation that O’Brien was seriously hurt, with the attendance of the Army officers and the calling of the ambulance the riotous scenes quickly disappated. Thomas Lynam and Michael Doyle, perhaps suddenly realising the gravity of the situation even travelled in the ambulance with O’Brien and Ralph to the hospital.

Despite the earlier accusations made by William Carrigan about their demeanour the accused at both the circuit court trail and earlier had expressed their sorrow and commiserations on the death of Samuel O’Brien, and this was expressed by their Counsel in court. Carrigan, as prosecutor then decided to leave the case in the hand of the Judge rather than seek the verdict of a jury.

Judgement

This turn of events was one welcomed by Justice Dromgoole, saying that he was glad a jury had been “spared the necessity of trying to come to a conclusion in the case”, his judgement was reported as follows in the Irish Times:

These young men had no intention of inflicting any serious injury on the unfortunate young man, O’Brien; but at the same time, it was a pity that these games were not played in a little more sportsmanlike manner. These young men, he thought, had learned a lesson that would make them sportsmen and make them “play the game”. No one wanted to brand these young men as criminals, and it was greatly in their favour that two of them accompanied the deceased in the ambulance to hospital.

The three accused were bound to keep the peace by the judge and were charged the sum of £20 each, they were then discharged as free men.

A melancholy epilogue

Whether the family of Samuel O’Brien felt that they were served justice is unrecorded. We know that on the one year anniversary of his death Samuel’s family placed a remembrance notice to “our dear son, Samuel O’Brien… killed while playing football in Phoenix Park”, in the December 7th issue of the Evening Herald, their full notice readwhich reads:

Evening Herald – 7th December, 1925

A second notice appears beneath that of grieving parents Bridget and Samuel Snr. It is also in memory of Samuel and signed off “by his ever-affectionate Ann”, little other information is mentioned to help identify this likely girlfriend of Samuel’s but it contains a touching snippet of verse from “The Heart Bowed Down” taken from Michael William Balfe’s “The Bohemian Girl”.

Memory is the only friend,

That grief can call its own.

The O’Brien family had already suffered their fair share of tragedy by the time of Samuel’s death. His young cousin, Paul Ludlow, who also lived in the same Bride Street tenement building as the O’Brien family had died in February of 1924 of the pulmonary infection aged just 17. He was obviously particularly close to Samuel and Bridget O’Brien who continued placing notices in newspapers mourning their nephew years after his death.

OSI historical Map showing the section of Bride Street where the O’Brien family lived as it appeared in the early 20th Century

Further tragedy struck the family in later years, when, just after 10 o’clock of the morning of the 1st June, 1941, their home in 46 Bride Street collapsed with many of the O’Brien family still in their top floor flat at the house. Samuel O’Brien senior, by then 72 years of age and pensioned off from his job with Guinnesses was killed in the collapse by falling masonary. His wife Bridget and daughters Georgina and Elizabeth were also injured, and of the three only Elizabeth was well enough to attend her father’s funeral three days later.

Also killed in the house collapse were Bridget Lynskey and her six month old son Noel. Bridget’s husband Francis had applied several times to the Corporation for a new home, and in a cruel twist of fate the Lynskey family had just received keys to a new Corporation house on Cooley Road in Crumlin and were due to move there in the coming days.

Image of Bride Street from the Irish Times the day following the collapse

The story of the tenement collapse on Bride Street is perhaps less well remembered than similar events which occured on Church Street in 1913 or on Bolton Street and Fenian Street in 1963. Perhaps because the Bride Street collapse happened just a day after the bombing of the North Strand by the Luftwaffe which may have overshadowed events and dominated popular memory. Indeed the bombing of the North Strand and the impact of the Nazi bombs was cited as one possible cause for the collapse of the more than 100 year old buildings on Bride Street. Neighbouring buildings at 45 and 47 Bride Street were torn down by Dublin Corporation with many of the displaced residents moved to recently developed houses in Crumlin. An inquest extended sympathy to the relatives of the deceased and agreed that vibrations from the North Strand bombing coupled with the age of the house were the likely causes of the collapse, they found the landlords, the Boland family, not to have been at fault. The site of the collapsed tenement is now occupied by the National Archives building.

Almost 17 years apart Samuel O’Brien, father and son met their end in violent and unexpected circumstances, and cruel chance. One wonders if the O’Brien family having suffered so much felt they had experienced justice for their losses.

Tim Carey’s excellent book “Dublin since 1922” mentions both the Carrigan report and the Bride Street tenement collapse and is well worth a read. Michael Kielty was helpful as always in finding out details relating to Glenmore and Middleton football clubs. You can listen to this episode in podcast form here.

Who you calling scab? – Bohs, Shels and the 1913 lockout

I grew up always knowing never to cross a picket line. My father had been Chairman of a Trade Union, my mother had been a shop steward, they had both been involved in strikes during their working life, it was something I was instilled with from an early age and have always abided by. Which is why, when researching the history of Bohemian F.C. I was troubled by the accusations of scabbing levelled at players of the club during the momentous beginnings of the 1913 Lock-out. Despite this event occuring some 107 years ago the allegations still cast a small stain on the good name of the club and is invoked as an insult at regular enough intervals by supporters of rival teams, even to this day.

I did however, want to know more, who were the players involved? Could we speculate as to their circumstances? What happened to them afterwards? What had prompted Jim Larkin to call for action in a speech to the public during the early days of the lockout?

The more I researched these events, the harder it was to find definite answers to these questions, in fact, the more I researched the more confused things seemed to become. At this point it might be worth relating the story as conventionally told of the Bohs scabs accusations.

On Friday August 29th 1913, a day before Bohemians and Shelbourne were due to play a friendly match to inaugurate Shelbourne Park, James Larkin made a speech on Beresford Place to a crowd of almost 10,000 people, including many striking tram workers. Larkin had just learned that the proposed mass meeting scheduled for that Sunday (what would soon become known as one of Irish history’s many Bloody Sundays) had been banned by a Dublin Magistrate. Larkin burned the judge’s proclamation and in a lengthy speech, covering many topics he mentioned the upcoming football match with Bohs and Shels. Quoting Larkin the Evening Herald reported his words as follows;

Mr. Larkin said that Millar and Hastings of the Bohemians were scabs. “I want you” Mr. Larkin continued, “to assemble in O’Connell Street at twelve o’clock to-morrow, board the tram cars, go out as far as you can and pay no money. Then if they want to prosecute you give your name and address. Moral persuasion and pay no rents are our weapons”

There are other sources that report on this meeting and Larkin’s speeches, writing for the Come Here To Me blog, Donal Fallon shared the following extract from Arnold Wright’s first hand account of events in Disturbed Dublin ;

The opening scene, in what was to prove a prolonged and sanguinary drama, was enacted in the Ringsend district. In his speech on Friday night Mr. Larkin had referred to a football match which was to be played on Saturday on the Shelbourne Ground at Ringsend between two local clubs. ‘ There are ” scabs ” in one of the teams, and you will not be there except as pickets,’ he said, in language whose menacing character was understood by those who heard him. In obedience to the implied command, a large body of members of the Transport Workers’ Union gathered at the time announced for the match near the entrance to the grounds.

Arnold does not mention the players by name as the report in the Herald does and neither does it identify which team was accused of having scabs. After the meeting had ended there were clashes with those attending the rally and the Dublin Metropolitan Police which set an ominous tone for what was to unfold over the coming days.

Writing in his excellent and authoritative study of the Lock-out, Lock-out, Dublin 1913, Padraig Yeates writes the following, also citing the Irish Times,

The trouble began outside the new grounds of Shelbourne Football Club. About six thousand spectators had come to watch a match with Bohemians, the team that Larkin had accused of using ‘scabs’. A picket of about a hundred tramway men stood outside the gate and were jeered by some of the football crowd. The pickets retaliated in kind and were in joined by growing numbers of sympathetic locals. ‘The members of the Bohemian team, who pluckily drove to the scene of the match on outside cars through a hostile crowd of roughs were assailed with coarse epithets’, the Times reported.

The historian Neal Garnham in his history of football, Association Football and Society in Pre-partition Ireland, also mentions the match but sows the first real seeds of doubt as to the identity of the scabs and the teams they played for, he writes;

On 30 August 1913 the Irish Worker, the official newspaper of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union denounced two Dublin players – Jack Millar of the Bohemian club and Jack Lowry of Shelbourne – as scabs.

Here, for the first time we see mentioned the full names of the two supposed scabs, the Millar mentioned in the Herald report is revealed to be a Jack Millar while the other player is identified not as a Bohemians player, but as a Shelbourne one, Jack Lowry, there is no mention of a “Hastings”. Crucially Garnham also mentions a new source, the Irish Worker, the newspaper of the ITGWU, the Union that represented the tram workers, and a paper that Larkin had founded, edited and featured in regularly. Having read the relevant issues of the Irish Worker cover to cover (it’s Covid, what else would I be doing) I found the reference to Jack Lowry of Shelbourne in the edition of the 30th September and a mention of a Jack Millar in the edition on the 27th. Under the heading “Retail dept. O’Connell Street (scabs)” it includes among a list the name “Jack Millar, Phibsboro’ Bohemian AFC”.

Clipping for the Irish Worker on 30th August 1913 from a article entitled ‘scabs’ which identifies Jack Lowry of Shelbourne

It is important to note that Lowry is not mentioned as being a Shelbourne player, merely a “prominent member” while no further information is given on Millar other than the fact that he lives in Phibsboro. In-club trial matches were played by both Shelbourne and Bohemians a week before the game, and before any scabbing accusations – there is no mention of a Lowry nor Millar (or Hastings) among the forty-four players used by both clubs across these games, or in the final line-ups selected for the much anticipated game to inaugurate Shelbourne Park on Saturday August 30th 1913.

Shelbourne had become the first Dublin side to begin the practice of paying players, though the club was not full time and would have still featured amateur players and others who would have day jobs away from the football field. The new 1913-14 season had seen them invest heavily in cross-channel talent, signing defender Oscar Linkson from Manchester United, David Neave from Merthyr Town, Robert Carmichael from Clyde while Andrew Osbourne, a British soldier had signed up as their new centre forward. Osbourne was part of the 16th Queen’s Lancers who were then based in the Curragh.

Images from the game as published in the Irish Times

As Yeates noted in his account there was indeed trouble outside the ground, pickets were formed, and those on the pickets tried to force entry to the ground at one stage, and some even successfully gained entry and “hurled vile language” at the players. It was also claimed that incidents involving a crowd attacking trams was only brought to an end when “one of the passengers jumped from the tram, produced a revolver, and effectively dispersed the crowd.” as the Irish Times reported. A Sergeant Keane of the DMP spoke about crowds of perhaps 1,000 gathering in Ringsend who were “hostile to the club” in all reports in which Keane is interviewed the week following the riots there is no mention of Bohemians and the hostility is stated to be directed towards Shelbourne, or perhaps Keane not appreciating the nature of the game and just assumed this as they were the home team?

But who were the players subjected to this “vile language”? While I have introduced some of Shels new signings, English and Scottish professionals among them, there were of course no professionals in the Bohemians team as the club was at that point still strictly amateur. Could one of the Bohs players have been the Millar mentioned by Larkin, but merely called out under a mistaken name, could there still have been a scab?

The starting XIs for both Bohemians and Shelbourne as reported in the Freeman’s Journal on 30th August 1913

After much research I believe I have identified all the Bohemians players listed and their occupations, this is based on earlier research on players who served during World War I as well as reviews of the players listed at Bohemians in 1913 from their team line-ups. I have given them a quick biographical outline below:

Goalkeeper: J. Cooke – an interesting one to begin with as this is an alias, Cooke was the name of the Bohemian trainer, George Cooke, usually the trainer’s name would be used as a cover as Bohs players did on occasion miss work duties to play a match. Could this be the Millar that was mentioned by Larkin under an assumed name? This would be highly unlikely. Bohs two main goalkeepers at the time were Jack Hehir and Fred Chestnutt-Chesney. Hehir, who had won an international cap in 1910 and was club captain for 1913 and well established at Bohs, he worked as a Civil Service clerk in the estates office and later in 1915 was transferred to London to work in the War Office.

Fred Chestnutt-Chesney was a Trinity College student studying Divinity. He later became a Church of Ireland Reverend in Belfast and then London. Chestnutt-Chesney had also commanded a company at the battle of Passchendaele and reached the rank of Major. In 1920 when working in the parish of Ballymacarrett in East Belfast he helped organise volunteer groups to try and stop rioting and protect Catholic residents during the riots after the shooting of RIC Inspector Oswald Swanzy.

Full back: William George McConnell was a commercial traveller in the drapery trade at the time. He and his family established the McConnell’s advertising agency in 1916 which continued to trade up until 2010. McConnell won six international caps for Ireland and was an important part of the squad that won the Home Nations championship of 1914. McConnell also found significant success as an amateur golfer being successful enough to triumph in the 1925 and 1929 West of Ireland Amateur Championships.

Full back: Joseph Irons worked on the staff at the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) and was a member of the Army reserve and on the outbreak of the First World War was called up. He didn’t go far initially, being was on guard duty at the Viceregal Lodge during Easter 1916 though he later served time in the Dardanelles campaign. He was also a useful cricket player.

Half back: Jocelyn Rowe was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1886, he had briefly played for Manchester United. He was a professional soldier and was a Sergeant in the 1st Battalion, East Surreys Regiment and was wounded in action during World War I.

Half back: Alfred J. Smith, born in Ireland, Smith was a professional soldier (rank of Sergeant Major) in the Army Service Corps and was wounded in action during World War I. He had been capped at amateur level by Ireland in a 3-2 win over England in 1912. He scored in that match along with his Bohs teammates Johnny McDonnell and Ted Seymour.

Centre back: Bartholomew “Battie” Brennan, was a railway clerk for the Great Southern & Western Railway. This means that Brennan is the only player with any connection to the transport industry. However, the Great Southern was a completely separate company to the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC) whose drivers and conductors were on strike. William Martin Murphy the owner of the DUTC used his own former drivers and office staff to fill the roles of the striking workers. Brennan’s name also bears no similarity to the names Millar or Hastings and is unlikely to be confused with them. Brennan was a high profile member of the Bohs squad, he had been a regular for the club since 1910 and had scored against Wales in a 3-2 win for Ireland in 1912. He later set up his own company, Dublin Wholesale Newsagency, who imported and sold newspapers, they were based on Abbey Street.

John Bartholomew “Battie” Brennan

Outside right: Thomas William Gerald Johnson, only 20 at the time of the match was a medical student from Rathmines. He was another fine sporting all-rounder with a talent for both cricket and golf. During the First World War Johnson became a Lieutenant in the 5th Connaught Rangers and later brought his professional talents to the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Gallipoli. He received numerous citations for bravery, for example at the Battle of Lone Pine during the Gallipoli campaign the Battalion history notes “Second-Lieutenant T.W.G. Johnson behaved with great gallantry in holding an advanced trench during one of the counter-attacks. Twice he bound up men’s wounds under heavy fire, thereby saving their lives”. After the War he worked as a GP in both Ireland and England.

Inside right: Fred Morrow was born in Belfast but grew up in Sandymout, Dublin, one of the youngest men on the pitch at only 17. He was still at school and would later play for Shels while also briefly working as a clerk before joining the British Army (Royal Field Artillery) in 1915. Corporal Fred Morrow died of his wounds in France in October 1917 aged 21.

Centre forward: Johnny McDonnell, not the popular former St. Pat’s manager but the prolific centre-forward of Bohemians. McDonnell had won his fourth and final Irish cap in January of 1913. He also scored more than 150 goals for Bohemians during his career. He was originally from Athlone and was a talented Gaelic footballer and hurler for Westmeath. McDonnell worked for more than fifty years in the Post Office, transferring from Athlone to Dublin and later becoming Private Secretary to the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and by 1926, after the formation of the Free State, he ended up in charge of programming for Raidió Éireann.

Inside left: Johnny “Dodger” West was 24 at the time of the match, he’d been playing for Bohemians since at least 1909. West was born in England, but grew up in Glasnevin, Dublin, his father was a Cork man who worked in the Ordnance survey and John followed in his father’s footsteps in this regard. In the 1911 Census his job is listed as an Ordnance Survey Temporary Civil Assistant Computer. In the early 1920s, owing to his fine baritone voice he pursued a singing career and would tour England and Italy while also featuring on the stage of major Dublin venues like the Theatre Royal.

A clipping of West from the Freeman’s Journal in January 1920

Outside left: Harry Willits was born in Middlesborough, England in 1889 but moved to Dublin in 1908 to take up a Civil Service post and quickly joined Bohemians, staying involved with the club as a player and administrator for decades. Willits initially worked in the Post Office stores before eventually moving to work in the Registry of Deeds where he stayed until retirement. For further reading on Willits see here.

As is demonstrated there is no Millar and no Hastings in the Bohs first team, nor one in the wider squad either that played in the earlier trial game ahead of the season opening friendly match. There are no Millars or Millers or Hastings in the Bohs “B” team which played in the Leinster Senior League system that I could find either. Nor are there any Millar/Millers or Hastings listed in any senior management or committee role at the time with the club. Digging deeper and going back to the previous seasons the only mentions I could find are of two players (perhaps brothers) with the surname Millar occasionally playing for Bohemian “C” and “D” teams, though neither ever progressed higher than that level and are not recorded in any match report that I could find for the 1913-14 season even at “C” , “D” and “E” team level.

Each of the players who played that fateful day in Shelbourne Park was in another form of employment, mainly as clerks and civil servants with a couple of soldiers and students thrown in. None were in any role or profession that could lead them to being accused of scabbing during the tram strike.

Further mysteries then? Well, one more tantalising lead appears in the 20th September 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, some three weeks after the Bohs match, under the heading “Shelbourne Football Grounds”, this short article seems to be an attempt to explain, apologise or simply win back fans to Shelbourne games. No players are mentioned by name although the “engagement of players who were blacklegging” is mentioned. It further states that an “understanding has been arrived at, and we may state that Shelbourne Football Club were in no way to blame for what occurred.” No detail is given on what “understanding” was reached while the line stating that the club were in no way to blame is vague and unspecific.

Did this mean that Shels are denying that there were scabs on their team? This seems unlikely as they acknowledge that players were engaged “who were blacklegging” ? It perhaps seems more likely to be a move to show that the club was unaware of any players blacklegging/scabbing and to excuse themselves of any blame? The message is not signed off on behalf of any club director or member so its specific origin is unclear, though it ends with the rousing call to arms – “Comrades, assemble at all matches.”

Taken from the 20th September 1913 edition of the Irish Worker

The exact truth of what happened may never be known. Larkin and the ITGWU were, by the end of August 1913, already in a fierce battle with William Martin Murphy, and soon other major employers, the courts and the media, much of it controlled by Murphy himself. The pages of Murphy’s newspapers revelled in reports which painted pictures of full trams heading to the RDS for events around this time, staffed by scab labour and patronised by an apathetic Dublin populace. The Irish Worker fought back denouncing Murphy and anyone viewed to be in league with him, or sympathetic to him. Many of those who are accused of scabbing are not only named in his paper but given small pen-pics, with nicknames and personality traits being described in cutting detail.

All we know of the Jack Lowry that is mentioned is that he was a “member” of Shelbourne, and of Millar that he lived in Phibsboro, there is little biographical detail to work with. It should be noted that the Irish Worker did get things wrong, there are also retractions in the paper with individuals or businesses called out in the pages of the Worker that are later found to be fair employers or to have been unjustly labelled as scabs. Could this be the case here?

Was the mention of the football players as scabs perhaps part of a protest tactic by Larkin? Consider that he had just heard that a court proclamation had been issued preventing him from holding a meeting and he knew the following day that a major sport event, well-serviced by trams would be taking place. The opening of Shelbourne Park had been well publicised and thousands were expected. Was this Larkin seeing a clever way of creating a scene, of challenging the employers’ cabal by focusing on a large public event for maximum publicity. Did he create the scab footballers? Or perhaps exaggerate a claim or hearsay? Or were there people who were scabs associated with Bohemians and Shelbourne, perhaps not as first team players but prominent in some other way, members, former players, other well-known supporters?

We may never know but I would be interested to hear from any reader who has more information on this historic match and the tumultuous scenes that surrounded it. Despite these remaining uncertainties I hope I have done justice to the names of the eleven Bohemians who took the field over a hundred years ago, they may have been many things but scabs they were not.

My thanks to the following for their assistance in researching this piece, Donal Fallon, Ruaidhrí Croke, Stephen Burke and Aidan Geraghty. The work of Padraig Yeates has also been of significant benefit.

The life and career of Jimmy Dunne

The football highlights don’t do justice to the man but let’s recount them anyway. One of only three players in the history of the English top-flight to score 30+ league goals across three consecutive seasons, the most recent is Alan Shearer. The record for the longest scoring streak in English league football; scoring in 12 consecutive games, a league Champion with Arsenal, a League of Ireland and FAI Cup winner, national team record goal-scorer for 28 years. Not a bad football CV – it belongs to Jimmy Dunne.

But there is so much more to Dunne than a 90-year-old scoring records. He was born on Cambridge Street in Ringsend in 1905 the son of Thomas and Catherine Dunne. Thomas was a bottle blower in the nearby glass bottle works. The Dunne family’s life was far from easy, of the eight children born to Catherine only four survived, with Jimmy being the youngest.

A further blow to the family occurred with the death of Thomas from tuberculosis when Jimmy was just two years of age. To make ends meet the newly widowed Catherine took in lodgers to their small, two-room tenement home, while Jimmy’s older brother Michael was working at the glass bottle works by the age of 14. Local stories record that Jimmy himself got a job for a local bakery as a delivery boy, bringing fresh bread, and occasionally secret IRA communications, on his bicycle around the city.

As a teenager his Republican sympathies continued, and along with his brother Christy he took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, eventually being interned in both Portlaoise and the Tintown camp in the Curragh after being arrested during the “Bridges Job” of August 1922 when anti-Treaty forces sabotaged various roads and bridges throughout Dublin. The association game proved popular in the internment camps and playing with rag-balls in tight confines no doubt honed Dunne’s touch and control. Upon his release in 1923 he played briefly for junior club Parkview before he joined Shamrock Rovers and made his debut for Rovers “B” against Pioneers in the Leinster Senior League in December of that year. While he was a Shield winner with Rovers an extended run in the first team was limited by the dominance and scoring prowess of Billy “Juicy” Farrell at centre forward.

Frustrated at the lack of opportunities Jimmy joined New Brighton (on Merseyside not to be confused with Brighton on the South Coast) in the old English Third Division North for the 1925-26 season.

His time on Merseyside was brief however, he made an impressive start to his career, scoring on his debut against Rochdale and registering six goals in eight league games as well as scoring in the cup, this quickly brought him to the attention of Sheffield United’s secretary John Nicholson who signed him for a fee reported between £750 – £800. Apparently this swift turnaround for Dunne, who had gone from Leinster Senior League to the top of the English football pyramid in less than year, was completely unexpected and the modest Dunne had to be persuaded that his future lay in the First Division.

A young Jimmy Dunne after signing for Sheffield United – 1926

As before with “Juicy” Farrell the path to first team football was initially blocked, this time in the form of Harry Johnson. Dunne spent much of the next three seasons in the reserves, making only occasional appearances and at one stage was on the verge of being transfer listed. However, the 1929-30 season would be his breakthrough year, scoring 36 in 39 league games to keep Sheffield United clear of relegation by the old method of goal ratio. Dunne’s amazing run continued with the 1930-31 season being his best ever 41 goals in 41 league games (a record for an Irish player in the English top-flight) and 50 in all competitions. The following seasons brought more goals, significant improvements in United’s league positions and interest from other clubs, especially from Arsenal and their legendary manager Herbert Chapman.

Sheffield United rebuffed an initial approach of £10,000 as they wanted a record £12,000 for Dunne, however Chapman played the waiting game, and with the 1933-34 season underway United found themselves in financial trouble. Chapman boarded an early train and had Dunne signed up for a reduced fee of just over £8,000. Dunne went right into the team and helped Arsenal to the League title, though the manager who signed him, died suddenly in January 1934. Soon after Ted Drake arrived from Southampton, and it would be the goals of Drake, not Dunne that would propel the Gunners to the title again the following season. Drake’s excellent form effectively ended Dunne’s Arsenal career, and belatedly Jimmy Dunne would end up as Drake’s replacement by signing for a struggling Southampton for the 1936-37 season. He would be the club’s top scorer that season and helped them avoid relegation to the third tier.

Dunne, from the numerous reports and descriptions of him as a player, and the very limited footage of him in action, appears as a complete centre forward, he had a good touch and ball control, no doubt honed as a teenager during times of confinement, he was strong and robust, quick off the mark and could shoot with power with either foot. He was versatile enough to drop deeper and play in the more creative role as an inside forward, however, all sources describe his greatest asset as his heading ability. Despite his height being listed as 5’10” the blonde head of Dunne struck fear into defences across Europe. He once scored a hat-trick of headers in a game for Sheffield United against Portsmouth and the innovative coach Jimmy Hogan (himself the son of Irish immigrants) chose Dunne as the player to demonstrate the skill of heading in an instructional coaching film that he made in the 1930s. In an interesting article with Dunne in the Sunday Pictorial while at Arsenal he even mentions having watched the famously skillful and scheming Austrian centre-forward Matthias Sindelar play, nothing the effectiveness of his “withdrawn striker” or “false 9” role as we would know it today. This demonstated Dunne’s keen eye for positioning and tactical possibilities.

While Dunne could have stayed an extra season at The Dell he chose to return home to Dublin and Shamrock Rovers as a player-coach. Though now into his 30s Dunne’s passion was undimmed and helped Rovers to back to back league titles as well as victory in the 1940 FAI Cup. Despite his advancing years these would be his most productive days in the Green of Ireland, in fact, Dunne won 14 of the 15 caps awarded to him by FAI after the age of 30. While Sheffield United released Dunne for seven IFA games during his time with them they would not release him for any FAI squads, this was mainly due to the fact that IFA matches coincided with the English national team game while FAI games had to work to other schedules that made English club reluctant to release players. Despite this Dunne amassed 15 caps and scored a record 13 goals which stood until broken by Noel Cantwell in 1967.

jimmydunne

One incident of note was that Dunne was released to the IFA by Sheffield United for a game against Scotland in Ibrox. The goalkeeper Tom Farquharson, born in Dublin, withdrew from the squad and wrote to the IFA stating that he only recognised the FAI as the representative Association for Ireland. Dublin-born Harry Duggan followed suit and there was some expectation that Dunne, another Dubliner would do likewise. Without any guidance from the FAI about whether he should play or not Dunne travelled to Scotland.  However, Dunne received a letter, sent to Ibrox from Belfast which called him a “traitor to his country” and threatened him with death for playing for an IFA selection. Dunne started the game and duly scored in a 3-1 defeat to the Scots.

If fixtures had been different or UEFA dictats that today require clubs to release players for internationals had existed magine what he could have achieved had he worn the jersey for Ireland in his goalscoring prime with Sheffield United? Perhaps he could have made the difference in qualifying for the 1934 World Cup? Dunne continued playing into the 1940s, although the War had put an end to his international career. His final game for Ireland being a controversial match against Germany in Bremen in May 1939. Dunne was injured in the game but returned to the pitch and had a huge influence as Ireland drew 1-1.

His playing career finished in slightly acrimonious fashion, when aged 37 he was pressured into not playing in a FAI Cup semi-final by the owners of Shamrock Rovers. Dunne, hung up his boots and left the club to take the reins as coach across the city at Bohemians in 1942. Dunne would improve the fortunes of the Gypsies and led them to victory in the Inter-City Cup in 1945, before eventually rifts were healed with Shamrock Rovers and he returned to them as coach in 1947. Dunne was now a full-time coach with Rovers and gave up his job with boiler manufacturers Babcock and Wilcox.

The Irish football world was plunged into mourning in November 1949 when Jimmy Dunne passed away suddenly. His day had been a usual one, and he even spent time watching the Swedish national team train in Dublin ahead of their match with Ireland. Dunne was keen to talk football with their English coach George Raynor before he passed away suddenly after returning to his home on the Tritonville Road and suffered a heart attack.

It is no exaggeration to say that his footballing legacy endured, whether at Rovers in the form of the likes of Paddy Coad who succeeded him, or with his own family with his sons Jimmy Jnr. and Tommy becoming footballers, as well as his nephews, another Tommy Dunne and Christy Doyle.

While almost always referenced as being quiet, mild-mannered, and gentlemanly in demeanour Dunne in his playing style was robust and fearless. It is worth remembering he had been part of a revolutionary movement in his youth, he was the man who roared “Remember Aughrim, Remember 1916!” to psyche up his teammates before that match in Bremen against Nazi Germany in 1939 and who left his beloved Rovers because of interference from the Cunningham family, he even defied death threats to play for the IFA selection against Scotland in 1931, he was certainly a man who knew his own mind and could stand up for himself. He should also be remembered as one of the greatest strikers this island has ever produced.

The cover of a match programme from a Jimmy Dunne memorial game in 1952 featuring the two teams that Dunne had coached (courtesy Ruairí Devlin)

Shutting the open door – when the League of Ireland tried to poach Britain’s best

Jock Dodds was a larger than life character, a man known to swan around Depression era Sheffield in an open-top Cadillac, wearing a silk scarf and fedora hat, a man who ran greyhounds (and casinos) among an impressive number of side-projects, he was also one of the most powerful, dashing and effective centre-forwards of his era, though his prime years were robbed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Dodds’ extrovert personality and determination to make a buck often brought him into conflict with the powers that be, one such occassion led to him spending a short but significant spell in Dublin, and in the process changing the sporting relationship between Ireland, Britain and FIFA.

Ephraim “Jock” Dodds (pictured above) was born in Grangemouth, Scotland in 1915, his father died when he was just two years of age and he moved with his mother to Durham, England when she remarried in 1927. Jock, the name he was known by for the rest of his long life was a particularly unoriginal nickname due to he Scottish birth and upbringing.

As a teenager he was signed up by Huddersfield Town but it wasn’t until he joined Second Division Sheffield United in 1934 that he enjoyed an extended run as a first team player. United had just been relegated from the top flight and had lost their top scorer, Irish international Jimmy Dunne, to league winners Arsenal the previous season, Dodds, not yet 20 had big boots to fill but he enjoyed an impressive debut season for the Blades, scoring 19 goals in 30 matches. His good form and scoring touch for United continued over the following four seasons, to the point that in March 1939, Blackpool, then in the top flight, spent £10,000 to bring Dodds out to the coast. The fact that this represented the second-highest fee ever paid for a player in British football, (just behind the £14,000 price that Arsenal had paid Wolves for Welsh international Bryn Jones), shows just how highly rated Dodds was at the time.

Dodds was an immediate success at Blackpool, scoring 13 goals in his opening 15 games, but on the 3rd September 1939, just days before Dodds’ 24th birthday, Britain declared War on Germany after the latter’s invasion of Poland. League football was immediately suspended. During the War Dodds was employed by the RAF as a drill sergeant and physical training instructor in the Blackpool area, spending most of his time working from a repurposed Pontin’s holiday camp. Dodds continued playing for Blackpool during the Wartime Leagues and also featured eight times for Scotland in Wartime internationals, including scoring a hat-trick in front of over 90,000 fans in a 5-4 victory over England

The 1946-47 season represented a return to the traditional English football calendar after the Wartime suspensions and Blackpool and Dodds were gettting ready for a return to the top-flight. Almost 31 years of age at the beginning of the season Dodds had starred for Blackpool and Scotland during the War and was surely hopeful of continuing his career with the resumption of League football. However, Dodds was quickly at loggerheads with the Blackpool hierarchy who only offered him £8 a week if he was dropped to the second team but the maximum wage of £10 if he played for the first team. Other reports suggest he was offered even less than the maximum wage. Dodds felt slighted, as a star of the Blackpool side during the War years, that regularly played to home crowds of 30,000 he thought he was worth more and refused to sign. He was placed on the transfer list at the stated price of £8,000.

With Dodds transfer listed, it was reported that Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were among the clubs interest in signing him. At this point it is worth giving some further explanation of player registration and transfer arrangements at the time. Jock Dodds was out of contract with Blackpool. In today’s game this would make him a free agent an allow him to sign for the club of his choosing. However, this was not the case in 1946 when clubs held far greater sway, and as Blackpool were the club who held the player’s registration Dodds could not move to another club without their cooperation in transferring this registration to the new club. This meant that Dodds was on the so-called “retained list” , a player out of contract but with the club keeping their registration as they viewed the player as being worth a transfer fee. This system was recognised throughout Britain and Northern Ireland, but importantly not in the Irish Free State.

This arrangement had usually benefitted clubs in Britain and Northern Ireland where players on the “retained list” of League of Ireland clubs were signed up without a transfer fee changing hands. In several cases clubs in Northern Ireland signed players from the League of Ireland for nothing but sold them on to English or Scottish side for a sizeable profit after short periods. The process could of course also work in reverse, League of Ireland clubs could sign players of sigificance for nothing from British clubs. This policy was popularly known as “The Open door” and was something that League of Ireland clubs exploited especially in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne in particular were keen to sign up well known players from British clubs retained lists in these immediate post war years. Rovers had experienced a disappointing 1945-46 season, finishing 4th in the league and losing the FAI Cup final to Drumcondra, several of their star players had also departed, Davy Cochrane and Jimmy McAlinden – both capped by the IFA, returned to England on the resumption of post-War football, rejoining Leeds United and Portsmouth respectively, and the Cunningham family sought to recruit some big-name players who would generate an increase in crowd numbers and have Rovers back in contention for honours.

Rovers’ historian Robert Goggins notes in his history of the club that Hoops players would have been earning in or around £2 a week at this time, but the Cunninghams were prepared to go far beyond this level to attract prominent players from the other side of the Irish Sea. First of all they signed Tommy Breen, Manchester United’s Irish international goalkeeper through the “open door” system. Not to be outdone, rivals Shelbourne signed Manchester United’s other goalkeeper, Norman Tapken as well as former Liverpool and Chelsea forward Alf Hanson who finished as Shels top scorer that season.

Alf Hanson during his time at Liverpool (source playupliverpool.com/)

Rovers then turned their attention to Jock Dodds who was reportedly offered £20 a week and a signing on fee of £750. Huge money at the time but considering Blackpool were looking for a transfer fee of £8,000 still something of a bargain. Despite the objections of the Blackpool Chairman, Colonel William Parkinson there was no stopping Dodds who remarked,

Whatever happens I shall fly to Dublin a week from now, I intend to see it all through to the end.

The Blackpool chairman complained that the movement of footballers to Ireland was an “absurd traffic” and expressed concern that he and other clubs could continue losing out on significant transfer fees if the situation continued.

While Parkinson was understandably concerned about losing one of his best players who he valued at £8,000, for nothing it was a bit rich hearing this coming from a senior figure in British football. The “open door” of course swung both ways, and the wealthier clubs in Britain and indeed Northern Ireland exploited it readily when it suited them to sign players without paying a transfer fee, from clubs in the League of Ireland. The Shamrock Rovers chairman Joe Cunningham was quick to point this out when pressed on the issue. The Irish Independent’s football columnist W.P. Murphy went further and listed several players who had been signed from League of Ireland clubs by sides in England or Northern Ireland without a fee being paid, the most recent case cited was that of Eddie Gannon. Rated as one of the best half-backs in the league, the 25 year old Gannon had been signed for nothing by Notts County from Shelbourne earlier in 1946.

Notts County FC 1946-47 – Gannon is in the middle row, sixth from the left

Gannon would make over 100 appearances for County and become a regular for Ireland before being signed by Sheffield Wednesday for £15,000 (a massive fee at the time) less than three years later. Shelbourne would be right to have been aggreived as this would have been a record transfer fee for an Irish player yet the Dublin club saw none of it. As mentioned, clubs in Northern Ireland also did well from these arrangements, in those immediate post war years players of the calibre of Thomas “Bud” Aherne (Limerick to Belfast Celtic) Con Martin (Drumcondra to Glentoran) Robin Lawlor (Drumcondra to Belfast Celtic) and Noel Kelly (Shamrock Rovers to Glentoran) all moved north of the border without fees being paid, in many cases these players later moved on to clubs in England for significant sums.

On the pitch the signing of Dodds by Shamrock Rovers had the desired impact, on September 8th 1946 he scored twice on his debut, a 2-2 draw with Drumcondra in a City Cup game. He also paid back part of his sizeable wages and signing on fee, Milltown was packed for the match, the crowd was estimated at 20,000 and many of them there to catch a glimpse of the dashing Dodds. Rovers lost their next City Cup game against Shelbourne 2-1 which effectively ended their challenge for that trophy, although Dodds was once again on the scoresheet and proved a star attraction; Shelbourne Park had recorded its highest gate receipts in fifteen years, totalling £718.

There were reports that Rovers were looking to add to their star names with new cross-channel signings to further boost their gates and improve on some indifferent performances. Among the names mentioned were Stanley Matthew, who was in dispute with his club Stoke at the time, as well as Peter Doherty, one of the great inside-forwards of his era and someone that Rovers tried to sign on more than one occasion, he had fallen out with the directors of Derby County after they objected to his taking over the running of a hotel. Neither deal would materialise in the end but the move of Dodds to Rovers, and to a lesser extent the signings made by Shelbourne were a significant point of controversy. It brought the issue of the maximum wage (then capped at £10 per week) into the pages of the press, with columnists asking if it were not reasonable for a top player, whose presence alone could add thousands to attendance figures and hundreds of pounds to ticket takings, to be paid a higher amount? The Reveille newspaper was moved to write the following on the Dodds transfer;

Unless some satisfactory agreement is reached before very long on the question of a player’s wage, I forsee one of two one or two other prominent stars crossing to Eire

Dodds time with Rovers was to be relatively short-lived, Blackpool had complained to the FA about the situation, and the FA in turn complained to FIFA, an organisation that they had just re-joined after one of their periodic absences. The Britsh press reported that Dodds had even approached the Blackpool Chairman, William Parkinson in late October stating that he had made an “unwise move” and wished to return to England. In all Dodds would only play in five games for Rovers scoring four goals over the course of just over six weeks. This included two games in the City Cup and three in the League of Ireland Shield. Dodds would ultimately join Everton at the beginning of November 1946, having signed off for Rovers with another goal against Drumcondra just days earlier. The agreed fee would be £8,250 between Everton and Blackpool although the Irish Independent reported that some payment was made to Rovers by Everton as they recognised the contract Dodds had with them, and that this was crucial to Everton getting in ahead of Sheffield Wednesday in the bidding war. The minute books of Everton confirm that Rovers did receive payment in the amount of £550 which Everton noted that they felt “was not obligatory” but that there was “a moral responsibility in ratifying the payment”.

This idea that Rovers would have received financial compensation is slightly surprising, along with Dodds desire to return to England, the FAI had also apparently received a letter from FIFA seeking a resolution to the “open door” system. Before the month was out a conference was arranged in Glasgow to regularise transfer arrangements, delegates from the League of Ireland and representatives of the Scottish and English Leagues were present and on the 27th November Jim Brennan, secretary of the League of Ireland was in a position to telegram Dublin to advise that “full and harmonious agreement was reached for the mutual recognition of retained and transfer lists” – the open door had finally closed. The following month the Irish Football League met and agreed that they would also abide by the Glasgow agreement which ceased the practice of the major Belfast clubs signing players from south of the border without fees being paid.

Dodds would go on to have a productive couple of seasons for Everton before moving on again, this time to Lincoln City for a fee of £6,000 in 1948. He continued to find the back of the net for the Imps before finally hanging up his boots in 1950, aged 35. He did however, have one more brush with officialdom over the breaking of contracts and transfers abroad. In 1949, a Colombian football association called DIMAYOR had broken away from FIFA following a dispute with an amateur football association, as a result this association was banned by FIFA but an independent Colombian league offering huges salaries to entice the best players from abroad was formed. Nicknamed “El Dorado” due to the wealth on offer, the league’s clubs signed the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano from River Plate but were also keen on British professionals and ended up enticing top players like Manchester United’s Charlie Mitten and Stoke City’s Neil Franklin to Bogotá. Jock Dodds was also in the mix, acting as a recruiter and go-between for the Colombian league, and getting a cut for himself of course. Dodds ended up being banned by the Football Association in July 1950 for bringing the game into disrepute for his role in the “Bogotá bandits” affair, but was later cleared.

As for the League of Ireland, well it was a qualified victory, Hanson, Tapken et al would leave Shelbourne after a successful season and return to England. Tommy Breen left Shamrock Rovers, moving to Glentoran for a fee of £600, though this was paid to Manchester United, the club that held his registration. The fears of the British press, that big money contracts could entice the cream of their footballing talent across the Irish sea without a transfer fee never materialised, nor where they likely to. Astute businesspeople like Joe and Mary Jane Cunningham at Shamrock Rovers saw the benefit of offering big money to the likes of Dodds to come to Milltown. For the £900 or so they invested in his signing on fee and wages they probably made as much back in increases to gate receipts generated by his presence in the team and seem to have made at least some money out of the Everton transfer. Such signings and wages were not sustainable overall and can be seen as part of an ongoing pattern of League of Ireland sides signing up big name players (usually coming towards the end of their careers) on short term contracts to boost crowd numbers and generate interest and media coverage for the club. The likes of George Best, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Gordon Banks and even Uwe Seeler would appear in the League of Ireland for a handful of games in the decades to come, and usually ended up putting extra bums on seats, at least in the short term.

More positively it put the League of Ireland on an equal footing with the Irish, Scottish and English leagues, no more could the best talent in the league be snapped up for absolutely nothing (though plenty of British clubs still try), transfer fees had to be paid and over the intervening decades this proved crucial in keeping many League of Ireland clubs afloat. Another benefit of the Glasgow conference was that the Scottish and English leagues agreed to start playing inter-league games against the League of Ireland. Previously these games had mostly been restricted to matches against the Irish or Welsh leagues, but now the best the English and Scottish Leagues had to offer would begin coming to Dublin while the League of Ireland selections would journey to Celtic Park, Goodison, Maine Road and Ibrox among others. These games were highly prestigious and importantly the large crowds they attracted to Dalymount were significant revenue generators.

For so long League of Ireland fans have become used to a certain condescening attitude towards their clubs from their British counterparts, especially in relation to transfer fees for players, many of whom have gone on to have excellent careers. Everton fans still sing about getting Seamus Coleman from Sligo Rovers for “60 grand” as just one example. With this in mind it is interesting to look back at post-war stories in the British media where sports columnnists and football club officials fretted about the spending power of rogue Irish clubs enticing away the best of British talent.

Don’t you remember? They called me Al

Quiz question – no phones, no Google – who is the oldest player ever to feature in a UEFA club competition?

Think about it… Champions League, oldest player… must be a keeper, Dino Zoff maybe? Someone from the Cup Winners Cup back in the day, lying about their age maybe?

Well the answer gets a little complicated, the records for the Champions League/European Cup show several players in their 40’s who featured in preliminary qualifying rounds, including Pasquale D’Orsi and former Roma midfielder Damiano Tommasi who both featured for teams from San Marino at 47 and 44 years old respectively. Sandwiched in between them is Northern Irish goalkeeper Mickey Keenan who lined out for Portadown FC against Belarus side Belshina Bobruisk back in 2002 aged 46.

In all these instances these players were on the losing side of a qualifying round game, however another Irishman played in UEFA competition proper, at the age of 43 years and 261 days, breaking a record held by Italian World Cup winner Dino Zoff. That man was Al Finucane and he set this milestone when he lined out against Bordeaux in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup in September 1986.

This was no mean Bordeaux side, they were in the middle of one of their most successful periods under the stewardship of future World Cup winning manager Aimé Jacquet. That same season they would win the French league and cup double to add to their French cup triumph from the previous year. Their squad included the likes of classy midfielder Jean Tigana and fellow French internationals René Girard, Patrick Battiston and the unfortunately named goalkeeper Dominique Dropsy. There was an international element to their line-ups as well with Croation twins Zoran and Zlatko Vujovic who were both Yugoslavia internationals at the time, they even had a German international, striker Uwe Reinders. A stern challenge for a Waterford side who were only in the Cup Winners Cup as losing finalists after Shamrock Rovers had won the league and cup double the previous season.

Not that Waterford were without international experience themselves. Al Finucane had won 11 Irish caps, granted the most recent of those had come some 15 years earlier, but there were also Noel Synott and Tony Macken, both veterans aged 35 and 36 respectively who had previously been capped by Ireland. There was a dash of youth in the Waterford side with a teenage Paul Cashin in midfield making a name for himself by nutmegging Jean Tigana during the home leg of the tie.

Finucane also had plenty of experience in European competition in addition to his international caps, during his long League of Ireland career which stretched back to his Limerick debut in 1960, Al had featured against the likes of Torino, CSKA Sofia, IFK Göteborg, Southampton, Dinamo Tbilisi and even scored a goal against Hibernians of Malta at the age of 37 as he helped Waterford through to the second round of the 1980-81 Cup Winners Cup.

Michael Alphonsus Finucane was born in Limerick in 1943 and by the age of 17 had made his League of Ireland debut for his local club against Shamrock Rovers in 1960. He would go on to make a record 634 appearances in the league across 27 seasons and win three FAI Cups. He began his career as an attacking, left footed midfielder but would spend most of his career as a classy, ball-playing defender.

He had the rare honour of captaining Ireland while still a League of Ireland player in a game against Austria in 1971. He also represented the League of Ireland XI on 16 occasions. He came from a family with a strong association with football, including with his uncle John Neilan who had played full back from Limerick in the 1950’s.

Finucane had two spells with both Limerick and Waterford before winding down his league career with another Limerick side, Newcastlewest during their short tenure in the League of Ireland first division. He was 45 when he finally left League of Ireland football, though he didn’t hang up his boots, he continued playing football regularly and also indulged his passion for golf.

But returning to that record breaking game with Bordeaux, as with many European nights for League of Ireland sides it was a story of bravery and determination before eventually succumbing to overwhelming odds. A competitive first leg tie in Kilcohan Park in Waterford saw Bordeaux take a two goal lead thanks to French internationals René Girard and Philippe Vercruysse before veteran defender Noel Synott got Waterford back in the game with a late goal. The away leg in front of a relatively small Bordeaux crowd of around 10,000 finished 4-0 to the French side but that tells only half the story. Waterford, and in particular young goalkeeper David Flavin, put on a fine display and striker Bernard Lacombe missed a number of chances, it was only in the 79th minute that Bordeaux broke the deadlock. A tiring Waterford defence, once breached, could stem the tide no longer. three more goals followed in last ten minutes.

That defeat remains the last time a Waterford side have competed in Europe. Finucane still holds that record more than 30 years later. At more than 43 and up against a top French side packed with internationals Waterford manager Alfie Hale, (a former team-mate of Finucane) kept faith with the veteran star, saying simply, “if he wasn’t playing well, he wouldn’t be in the side”. While Irish players don’t hold too many European records Al Finucane’s achievement as part of a remarkable career is one that League of Ireland fans can take pride in.

Bohs in Europe

The following is a condensed version of the talk given in the Jackie Jameson bar on December 7th 2019

After a gap of eight years the 2020 season will see Bohemian FC return to European competition, given the club’s name and its history it could be argued that this is merely a return to its rightful position as for more than a century the Bohemian Football Club has looked beyond the borders of Ireland for challenge and opposition.

Bohemian internationalism really dates back to the development of Dalymount Park as the club’s permanent home. This base allowed them to invite the cream of British talent to Dublin to try their luck against the Bohemians, in those early years Preston North End, Aston Villa, Celtic and Sheffield United were among the early visitors. In 1908 Bohemians played Queens Park in Glasgow on New Year’s Day in an annual fixture which was the world’s most prestigious amateur club match usually contested by English side Corinthians. With them being unavailable to travel Bohemians were asked in their place and contested the game in front of over 20,000 spectators in Hampden Park.

After the split from the IFA the footballing landscape for clubs based in the new Free State was very different, the emerging FAI sought membership to FIFA and clubs like Bohemians also began to look to the Continent. In 1923 the first Continental side to play in Ireland since the split from the IFA arrived to take on Bohemians and an FAI XI, they were Gallia Club of Paris who played out a draw with Bohs.

From further afield came the South African national team, embarking on a tour of Britain and Ireland, the first opponents on this tour were Bohs in Dalymount Park and the unusual situation arose as two South African captains faced off against each other. Because the captain of Bohs for that 1924 season was Billy Otto, born on Robben Island he had left South Africa as a teenager to fight in WWI before ending up working in Dublin as a civil servant. A talented and versatile footballer he captained Bohemians to the League title before moving back to South Africa with his Irish wife in 1927.

By 1929 Bohemians were embarking on their first European tour themselves, competing in the Aciéries D’Angleur – an annual invitational tournament held around Liege in Belgium. Bohs played four games in all including friendlies, winning every one and emerging victorious in a tournament which also featured Union Saint Gilloise, Standard Liege and RFC Tilleur. During this visit to Belgium the club also performed diplomatic functions on behalf of the Irish State such as flying the tricolor (at the first game the club had been mistakenly introduced under a Union Jack) and laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

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Further continental success would follow three years later in the 1932 Tournois de Pentecôte held in Paris in the Stade Buffalo ahead of the first full professional season of the French League. Bohemians triumphed again by beating Cercle Athlétique de Paris (aka CA Paris/Gallia who we encountered earlier) and Club Français and winning the tournament and securing a second European trophy in three years. These were no mean achievements as both sides featured a number of French internationals who had competed in the 1930 World Cup and who had scored a stunning victory over England only a year earlier.

A year after the trip to France Dalymount Park welcomed the first ever South American touring side to visit Britain or Ireland. This was the combined selection from Peru and Chile – the “Combinado del Pacifico” who also visited Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Italy and Spain

There was significant interest and media attention paid to the game, official reception by the Lord Mayor of Dublin etc. Success of Uruguay in recent Olympic games and at the 1930 World Cup had sparked interest in South American football and despite the talent within the squad, including several future Copa America champions Bohs were able to hold out for a more than credible 1-1 with the touring side.

Bohs didn’t even taste defeat on European soil until April 1st 1934 when they were made to look the fools, losing the opening match of another European tournament against Dutch side Go Ahead in Amsterdam. The tournament also featured Cercle Bruges and Ajax. While the Gypsies bounced back and defeated Cercle Bruges 4-1 and secured a draw against ADO Den Haag there was sadly to be no match against that emerging force of Dutch football, Ajax.

While it would be the 1970-71 before Bohs would enter an official UEFA competition let nobody tell you that we don’t have a long history in Europe.

This piece first appeared in the Bohemian FC v Fehérvár match programme in August 2020.