As you go for a pint in the members bar you may on occasion glance upward and notice the Bohemian F.C. honours list spelt out handsomely in gilt on a dark red background. It makes for impressive reading and is testament to the proud history of our club. Right in the middle of the bar, between the list of League Titles and FAI Cups is a sign that reads “Setanta Cup Champions 2010”. The Setanta Cup is, at the time of writing, our most recent honour. Few of us will forget Anto Murphy’s goal versus Pats in Tallaght Stadium, and it added a little extra relish that Bohs had managed to win a trophy in the enemy’s back- yard so to speak. It is worth noting, however, that though the Setanta Cup is the latest All Ireland soccer competition, it was by no means the first, nor was it the first such competition where Bohemians emerged victorious. To learn about this other, much earlier victory we must go back 70 years, to a time when the most violent conflict in human history still raged, to the first cross border competition since partition; the Inter-City Cup.
The Inter-City Cup, or to give it its full title, the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup was conceived as a way to provide much needed income during the turbulent years of the Second World War. When the First World War had broken out in 1914, the general and oft-repeated assumption was that the war would be over by Christmas, so the sporting calendar continued on much as it had done in peace time. Bohemians and Shelbourne, the only two clubs from outside the six counties, continued to play in an pre-partition league season into 1914-15, but the growing realisation that the war was going to drag out meant that the Football League in Britain was suspended, while the Irish League was reduced to a “Belfast and District League” of only six teams with no room for Bohs and Shels. Many players, especially in Britain came in for heavy criticism for playing on into 1915. Some viewed it as a dereliction of patriotic duty that fit and healthy young men should stay at home and be paid to play football rather than volunteer to fight at the front. This led to the formations of “Football battalions” where prominent footballers were used as promotional tools for enlistment. Some football fans joining up were encouraged by the fact that they would have the chance of serving with their sporting idols.
When the Second World War broke out, the mistakes of the past were avoided. The league season was suspended immediately in Britain while Northern Ireland completed the 1939-40 season (Belfast Celtic won their 13th title) before suspending the Irish League and playing on with a diminished Northern District League. The League of Ireland, being in a neutral country, continued on as usual during the War years. It would prove to be a particularly successful era for Cork United, who would win five titles between 1939 and 1946.
However, gone from the fixture calendar were lucrative games against touring British sides. The lack of income was obviously a significant concern for the clubs north of the border, robbed as they were of regular gates and a full league programme which ultimately led to the creation of the Inter-City Cup. The tournament would run for eight seasons between 1941-42 and 1948-49, and despite the name, did include clubs from outside of Dublin such as Limerick, Cork United, Dundalk and Derry City. While matches were spread around various grounds in Belfast, all games south of the border were to take place in Dalymount. Another interesting feature of the tournament was the significance of corners. If two sides were tied on aggregate in the final, the side who had won the most corners were deemed to be the winner. Bohs learned this to their cost during the 1942-43 competition when they lost the final on corners to Shamrock Rovers having drawn 2-2!
Despite that setback Bohs, would eventually triumph in the competition. The 1944-45 season would be one of highs and lows for Bohemians, but it did at least end in some silverware. Bohs’ league form during the War years was poor; a third place finish in 1940-41 being the sides’ best placing and the 44-45 season would see Bohs finish bottom of the eight team league but would also see them reach two cup finals. An epic, three game semi-final win over Team of the decade, Cork United, would get Bohs into an FAI Cup final against Shamrock Rovers, where in front of the biggest ever Cup Final crowd of almost 45,000 they would lose out to a Podge Gregg winner. Gregg, a native of Ringsend had just returned to Dublin after a spell with Glentoran where he had won the Inter-City cup the previous year.
Bottom of the league, having lost a final to Shamrock Rovers, its fairly obvious that Bohs’ season needed a pick-me-up, and the Inter-City Cup could provide it. So as not to clash too much with regular games, the Inter-City competition was held around April and May each season when most games were coming to an end. In that particular year, Bohs lost the FAI Cup final to Rovers on the 22nd of April, but less than a week later were in action in round one of the Inter-City.
The first round game saw them drawn against fellow amateurs Cliftonville in Solitude on the 28th of April, with a return leg in Dalymount a week later. A 3-2 victory in Belfast with two penalties from full-back Frank Glennon and a Pat Waters goal gave Bohs too commanding a lead for the return leg, which ended as a 1-1 draw. The following round would see them matched with Glentoran; competition winners the previous year, Glentoran had been beaten on corners in the previous round by Limerick and only qualified as the best loser, their luck was out again as the tie finished 3-3 on aggregate so Bohs advanced as winners on corners 10-9 and thanks to an excellent performance by Collins in goal. Victory over Glentoran meant a meeting with Distillery, now based in Lisburn but then firmly ensconced in Grosvenor Park, West Belfast. Bohs would comfortably beat Distillery 8-3 on aggregate, a dynamic 5-1 victory in Dalymount was capped by a stunning strike from Kevin O’Flanagan, who beat the opposing keeper with a shot from out on his own touchline. The Irish Independent correspondent was moved to describe it as “the greatest goal seen in Dublin for years” and very topically likened the speed of the shot to that “of a V2 rocket”. O’Flanagan had the Distillery defence bewildered, and Bohs could have won by an even greater margin, as he finished with two goals. His brother Mick at centre-forward got one, while Noel Kelly and Waters got the other two. Despite going 2-0 down early on in the second leg in Belfast, the Gypsies rallied, and goals from Mattie Burns, Kevin O’Flanagan and Noel Kelly ensured there was no chance of an unlikely comeback.
The other semi-final between Belfast Celtic and Linfield was also a high scoring affair, finishing 7-5 on aggregate to Celtic. As a two legged semi-final the first leg was held in Belfast before both sides travelled to Dalymount Park for the second game. With the tie balanced at 2-2 from the first leg, the Linfield goalkeeper and captain Tommy Breen (once of Manchester United and a seasoned international) elected to kick off defending the tramway end of the famous old ground. Due to heavy rain, Breen and his defence were ankle deep in water at that end of the ground which had cut up much worse than the opposite school end. 7 of the 8 goals scored on the day went into the tramway goal and Linfield were out. Breen’s former team, Belfast Celtic, were through to the final and were eager to make up for their defeat to Glentoran the previous year. Celtic had beaten not only Linfield, but Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne en route to the final. The first leg was to be played in Belfast on May 30th with the return leg in Dalymount on June 2nd. VE day had taken place on May 8th and the laws and censorship brought in during the “Emergency” were lifted shortly afterwards. For the first time in six long years, football fans both North and South could genuinely look forward to the first real cup final in “peacetime”.
It is worth a brief diversion from our narrative to outline the merits of the Belfast Celtic side. Although the club has not existed in any real sense since the end of the 1940’s, they were at the time unquestionably one of the biggest sides on the island of Ireland. By the time the club was dissolved in 1949 they had won 14 league titles, second only to Linfield who by that stage had 19 to their credit. Former players included Mickey Hamill later of Manchester United and Manchester City, former President of the FAI and Government minister Oscar Traynor, Paddy O’Connell who would also play for Man Utd and later managed Real Betis and FC Barcelona, and Louis Bookman, the Lithuanian-born Irish international who became the first Jewish player to play professionally in Britain. Their coach at the time was Elisha Scott, a former player with Belfast Celtic and also Liverpool’s longest serving player ever. Scott was considered with some justification to have been one of the greatest keepers Ireland has ever produced and won ten league titles and six Irish Cups as Belfast Celtic manager. Their starting XI at the time of the Inter-City cup final was also on par with any of their previous sides. They would win the first official Irish League title after the war in 1947-48, and the team that Bohs faced included the likes of midfielder Charlie Tully, who would later join Glasgow Celtic and once famously scored against England direct from a corner in an international, attacker Jimmy McAlinden (an FAI and IFA international) an FA Cup winner with Portsmouth, and fellow international centre half Jackie Vernon who spent much of his career at West Brom.
In the case of Bohs, it would be a last hurrah of sorts. After the end of the Inter-City final, several of the winning side left for pastures new, including young goalkeeper Jimmy Collins, Frank Glennon and Noel Kelly, who would all switch to Shamrock Rovers. They would be joined a year later by their coach Jimmy Dunne, the former record breaking striker and soft-spoken coach, returning to Rovers after patching up his differences with the Cunninghams. Kevin O’Flanagan, a medical doctor was offered a job as a GP in Ruislip, London where he would spend his free time playing for Arsenal at football and London Irish in Rugby. While Bohs would make another FAI Cup final in 1947 (which they would lose after a replay to Cork United) the Inter-City cup would be the last trophy that Bohs would win apart from a pair of Leinster Senior Cups until the Cup final victory over Sligo Rovers in 1970. Bohemians’ insistence on remaining strictly amateur had served them well, as they won Leagues and Cups in the 1920s and 30s, but by the 40s, key players were being picked off by other clubs offering a few pound a week. While Bohemians continued to find and recruit excellent young players, they struggled to keep them for any length of time, the few exceptions being those whose day jobs allowed them the freedom to play without care for additional wages.
The two-legged final would be a close and often controversial affair. In the first leg there was nothing to separate the teams, not even corners as the sides finished level with two goals apiece, six corners each and both sides down to ten men. Kevin O’Flanagan for Bohs and Douglas for Celtic were the men sent off after coming to blows after Douglas kicked the ball out to touch when O’Flanagan was about to take a free. Bohs had taken a two goal lead thanks to an own goal and a finish by Smith, but the free scoring Bohs full-back Glennon ended up getting a roasting from Celtic outside left Paddy Bonnar, who grabbed two second half goals to tie the game. The return leg was no less controversial. Bohs named an unchanged side for the second leg (almost identical to the one which had lost to Shamrock Rovers just over a month before apart from Smith coming in for Frank Morris).
The Bohs side read: Jimmy Collins (GK), Frank Glennon, Billy Richardson, Ossie Nash, Peter Molloy, Pat Waters, Kevin O’Flanagan, Noel Kelly, Mattie Burns, Robert Smith, Mick O’Flanagan.
Belfast Celtic had suffered some injuries in the first leg with Peter O’Connor and Charlie Currie coming into attack for Johnny Campbell and Tommy Byrne. The second leg remained tight with few opportunities, Jimmy Collins in the Bohs goal being called into action in the first half to deal with chances from both Tully and Bonnar, but it was in the 67th minute that things became more heated when a cross came in from Smith which was trapped by Kevin O’Flanagan and passed into his younger brother Mick who when controlling the ball had a “Thierry Henry moment” and appeared to handle it before firing past Celtic keeper Hughie Kelly. This started furious protests from the Celtic players and led to an altercation between Captains Kevin O’Flanagan and Jimmy McAlinden who both had their names taken by the referee. Despite the Celtic players’ protests, the goal stood. Celtic’s disjointed attack, with the enforced changes since the first leg, had struggled to get past the Bohs defence, with Richardson and Glennon coming in for particular praise. Bohs successfully defended their lead, and after a season of disappointment, were All Ireland champions. It was particularly sweet for the star player Kevin O’Flanagan, who despite his sending off in the first leg, had been key in Bohs’ advancement to the final in much the same way that he had been key during the FAI Cup run scoring three goals by the time they reached that final. By setting up the goal for his brother Mick he had managed to make amends for his below par display in the earlier final versus Shamrock Rovers. Despite being a qualified GP the “Flying Doctor” had failed to diagnose himself with a bout of flu and upon returning home after the defeat to Rovers took his temperature and found that he had played a cup final with a 103 degree temperature!
It would be the last major trophy that Bohs would win for some time and the Inter-City cup was in some ways was the farewell of the Corinthian era of Bohemians and of Irish football as they signed off as Champions of North and South. Belfast Celtic, meanwhile, would remove themselves from League football only four years later, a mixture of sectarian violence, financial troubles and mismanagement forcing them out of senior football. While the Celtic board believed the withdrawal would only be a temporary measure it would transpire that their successful tour of North America, where they played to packed stadiums and famously defeated the Scottish national team, would in fact be their good-bye to the world of football. Guesting at centre forward for that touring side was none other than Bohs’ Mick O’Flanagan, his “hand of Mick” moment forgotten as he starred for Belfast Celtic as they slipped into history.
*special thanks to Martin Flynn and the Belfast Celtic Society for their assistance with some research for this article.