When you look through the history of Bohemian Football Club and you get down as far as the honours section there is, thankfully much to peruse – league titles, cups of various names and hues, some major, some minor, some now defunct.
One that sticks out though, its obscure French title jarring somewhat alongside lists of Leinster Senior Cup victories, is the Aciéries d’Angleur triumph of 1929. Many supporters may imagine this to be some sort of pre-Hanot era version of a European trophy, to be classified with the likes of the Mitropa Cup or Latin Cup which existed before the emergence of the European Cup in the 1950s. Unlike those other competitions, however, there is precious little information immediately available about the Aciéries d’Angleur, so for the benefit of the Bohs faithful, I offer this short account.
The Aciéries d’Angleur was a trophy contested by teams in and around Liege and Brussels, the term ‘Aciéries d’Angleur’ referred to the steel mills (aciéries) of the Angleur region around Liege, an area that had become heavily industrialised from the early 19th century onwards. Bohemians were invited to participate as a guest team in a competition involving , Standard Liege and Royal Tilleur FC but also played matches against a Royal Flemish XI and Charleroi Sporting Club as part of a wider tour of Belgium.
At the time, the national team of the Irish Free State was in its nascent phase. There had been an acrimonious spilt from the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA), and the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS) had sought recognition from FIFA in order to compete on the international stage.
They knew that this recognition was unlikely to come from the “Home Nation” associations of the UK, whose official line was to recognise the IFA as football’s governing body for the whole island. Though the FAIFS had split from the IFA in 1921 and had been recognised by FIFA in 1923, it would not be until 1924 that a team would take to the pitch under the Free State banner when they competed in that year’s Olympic Games. It would be a further two years before a full international match would take place, this time against Italy in Turin. The Italians would then send a strong side for a return fixture in Dublin, playing in Lansdowne Road in 1927.
The two fixtures against the Italians both ended in defeat – the next international games were against Belgium and were both somewhat more successful. The first game, in February 1928, took place in Liege, with the Free State XI gaining a win with a very credible 4-2 victory in a game that featured Bohs’ Jack McCarthy as captain, Jimmy White grabbing two goals, Jeremiah (Sam) Robinson on the wing and Harry Cannon in goal. The return fixture was held in Dalymount Park a year later with the Irish running out 4-0 winners, thanks in no small part to a hat-trick by John Joe Flood of Shamrock Rovers in a game that also featured Bohs winger Jimmy Bermingham on the right.
Some IFA observers north of the border saw this Free State side as a rump team, playing these early fixtures against other “Catholic” nations and excluded from the Home Nations championship which they viewed, somewhat arrogantly, as the true competitive measure of an international side. However, returning to Bohs, with the Belgian national team having twice played against Ireland, once in Dalymount, it should not perhaps seem so strange that Bohemians – Irish champions in the 1927-28 season – should be invited to compete for the Aciéries d’Angleur trophy.
The tournament was held as a pre-season competition before the beginning of the 1929-30 season, a campaign that would see Bohs again crowned as league champions as they reclaimed their title from rivals Shelbourne. It was contested by teams from the region around Liege and often featured a foreign invitee, the famous amateur English club Dulwich Hamlet had previously taken part, as had PSV Eindhoven.
The fixtures took place in August 1929, with the first match being against Charleroi on August 15th. A crowd of 15,000 was estimated to have attended, with the Bohemians players given a “splendid reception” on what was described as a day “too warm indeed, for football”. Although it was noted by Irish diplomat PJ O’Byrne (a Papal Count from his time as Irish Envoy to Rome) that the Bohemian party were warmly welcomed by the British Consul in Charleroi, there was an incident which caused a bit of a stir.
As Count O’Byrne noted:
“Proceedings were marred somewhat – from our point of view – by the heralding of the Bohemian team on the field under the colours of the Union Jack, which, apparently, was the cause of some manifestation by a section of the crowd, probably British ex-Service Men.”
If the Union Flag incident affected the Bohs players, it didn’t show in their performance, as they ran out 2-1 winners, with goals from a pair of Bills – Bill Cleary and the English-born Bill Dennis. The matches came thick and fast, with another game the following day (Friday 16th) against Royal Flemish select in Brussels with Bohemians winning 1-0 according to a report in the Irish Times.
There is very little information about this game or about who made up the Royal Flemish side but later that same day the Bohemian Football Club party met with Count O’Byrne and arranged to lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honour the Irish dead of the First World War. The Free State international side had performed this same ritual the year before with some diplomatic assistance from the impressively named Count Gerald Edward O’Kelly de Gallagh et Tycooly, who had since relocated to Paris.
This simple ceremony, the laying of a wreath, which was a large floral harp in the Saorstát colours, was preceded by a short speech from Joe Wickham, secretary of Bohemians (and later to be General Secretary of the FAI). The diplomatic Free State flag was given to the team for the rest of the tour, so that it could be displayed in the stadium on match days and avoid any further incidents like the one in Charleroi. The wreath-laying ceremony had added significance for Bohemians, as the club had,according to one source, lost up to 40 playing members to the military during the Great War. One such Bohemian who would not return was the club’s early star forward Harold Sloan, who was killed in action on the Western Front in 1917.
On Saturday 17th the third game of the tour took place against Royal Tilleur FC. Royal Tilleur were a moderate side from Liege who had been relegated from the Belgian top flight the previous season. The club went through several mergers, and now exists as part of RFC de Liege, a club most famous for its refusal to release Jean Marc Bosman once his contract had expired and allow him to join French team Dunkerque. Again Bohemians ran out 1-0 winners, and once again Cleary was on the scoresheet.
The final game of the competition was against Standard Liege, to win what the Irish Independent referred to as the Royal Angleur Cup. The match was hard-fought, with the sides level at half-time at one apiece, Bermingham getting the first strike for Bohs. The Gypsies got on top in the second half, finishing as 3-2 winners, with Bill Dennis and Johnny McMahon getting the crucial goals. From there it was swiftly off to Ostend to catch the boat to London, and then back to Dublin to finish preparations for the new season.
Just over two weeks after the return of the triumphant Bohemian side, there was a meeting of the FAIFS Council. At this meeting, PJ Casey of Dundalk FC paid tribute to Bohs on account of their successes in Belgium. The Association agreed to officially record these achievements, and this motion was supported by “various members” of the Council. It was further agreed at this meeting that the Association should endeavour to arrange another match against Belgium (and others against Holland, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain).
The game with Belgium was duly arranged for May 1930, and heralded another victory for the Irish, this time a 3-1 win in a game that featured the final international appearance of Bohemians defender Jack McCarthy (then 32), and the debut of 20-year-old forward Fred Horlacher, who was beginning his journey to becoming a club legend.
We often think of European club football as being insular in the years before the European Cup, especially in Ireland of the 1920s and 30s, where the association game was restricted to the hotbeds of Dublin and Cork, separated from the major clubs in the Belfast area, and effectively ostracised by the “Home Nations”.
The Aciéries d’Angleur however, showed that a team like Bohemians, true to their name, were more connected to mainland Europe than one might expect. The journey to Belgium was in its own small way an important step to identify the Free State, its Football Association, and clubs as separate and distinct entities, capable of competing in the international arena.
The issues around the Free State flag and the visit to the grave of the Unknown Soldier show that Bohemian Football Club, in a minor way, did its part to acknowledge the past (such as the contribution of Irish soldiers during the Great War) and herald the future of a small nation in flying the flag of the Free State. It is not far-fetched to assume that many of those attending the matches in Belgium would never have seen the Irish tricolour flown before, or perhaps even been aware of the emergence of this new state.
This was not to be the last engagement between Bohemians and teams from other nations. It is noteworthy that throughout the 1920s and 30s, long before official UEFA club competitions, Bohemians were competing against sides from all over the world. Although the Free State national teams’ victories over Belgium show that Belgian sides were perhaps not world beaters, it is worth remembering that they had been Olympic Champions on home soil in 1920, and players from that victorious side were still featuring against the Irish in 1928.
Bohemians, as a completely amateur side, also had to undertake a boat journey to Belgium via Britain, and play games on consecutive dates in blistering August weather against the local sides and in front of partisan crowds. Their victory is still worthy of respect from the Bohemian faithful to this day, even if the tournament may seem obscure and archaic to modern fans.
Many will already know about Bohs’ historical victories in Europe against Rangers, Aberdeen, Kaiserslautern or BATE Borisov, though some may not be familiar with these earlier games in Belgium or indeed against sides from as far afield as South America, but then that’s a story for another day.