The split between the footballing associations of the FAI and the IFA has had many consequences for football on our island, many hours have been whiled away with “what if” scenarios with barflies imagining an Irish side of the 60’s featuring the likes of John Giles and George Best. Another less discussed consequence of the split between the two associations was for many the loss of any sense of identity with the all Ireland side that had competed from the 1880’s through to 1921. Any connection with the history of this 32 county team has for most football fans in the Republic, (and indeed some in the North) been severed and there is little sense of identification with the players and their achievements pre -1921.
I for one think that this is a great pity, it ignores the history of the sport and the rich and interesting personal stories of those involved. It also means modern fans in the Republic often feel little pride or connection to the victory by a truly representative Irish team in the Home Nations Championship of 1914. At the time the Home Nations Championship was viewed, in the British Isles at least, as the foremost International football competition in the world with the winners rating themselves as the best international side in the world. While this is obviously an isolated and arrogant viewpoint it is reasonable to say that the winners could legitimately claim to be among the very best international sides in the world.
The side that triumphed in 1914 was a young, impressive and truly representative team. While in previous years there had been a great deal of tension and legitimate criticism about Belfast based players being favoured ahead of Leinster based players, the squad for the 1914 Championship was a truly all island affair. It featured players from the footballing hotbeds of Dublin and Belfast but also players born in the likes of Wexford (Billy Lacey), Galway (Alex Craig) and even Lithuania in the case of Louis Bookman who was born in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Bookman’s family fled to Dublin when he was a boy to escape the persution of Jews then taking place, he began his footballing career for Belfast Celtic before moving to England with Bradford City, in course becoming the first Jewish professional footballer in Britain. Bookman was playing for Bradford when he was called up in 1914 but the squad was a mix of players who were plying their trade in both Ireland and Britain, it also included two players from Bohemians, William McConnell and Ted Seymour.
Both players were of course amateurs in keeping with the traditions in place at Bohs which meant that they were in a minority even by 1914 as most of the major teams in Ireland had already embraced professionalism by that time. The two main exceptions being Bohemians and Cliftonville. Seymour was an outside-right for Bohemians and one of the stand-out forwards for the Gypsies at the time, the son of an RIC officer who lived in the nearby Phoenix Park he won his first amateur cap for Ireland by 1912 scoring in a 3-2 victory against England, the same year he would win the Leinster Senior Cup with Bohemians. His lone senior cap would come in Ireland’s opening match of the Home Nations Championship, an away fixture against Wales which Ireland won 2-1 when he was called up as a replacement for Everton’s injured winger John Houston. Sheffield United forward Billy Gillespie got both goals in that game but Seymour obviously impressed over the course of the match as he was quickly signed up by Cardiff City on the strength of his performance.
William McConnell had a somewhat more extensive career at International level. Regarded as one of the best full backs in Ireland McConnell was a strong and physically dominant defender for Bohemians and Ireland. A member of the Bohemians team that lost out in the 1911 Cup Final to Shelbourne he also won a pair of Leinster Senior Cups with Bohemians and represented the Irish League on three occasions. At International level McConnell won six senior caps and was only on the losing side once, in a 2-1 defeat to Scotland in 1913. McConnell made his debut in 1912 in a 3-2 win over Wales and was part of an historic victory in only his second cap as Ireland beat England for the first time ever. Billy Gillespie grabbed both goals in a 2-1 victory in Windsor Park as McConnell lined out alongside his Bohs team-mate Dinny Hannon. Despite that landmark victory the Irish side still finished bottom of the Home Nations Championship but things were to be much different the following year. McDonnell was an ever present in the successful Home Nations campaign starting ever game at full back.
The campaign opened with the aforementioned 2-1 win away to Wales and was followed by another away fixture, this time against England in Middlesboro’s Ayresome Park. Proving that the previous victory against England was no flash in the pan the Irish trounced the English on home soil, two goals from the ever versatile Billy Lacey, then of Liverpool and a third from Billy Gillespie eased Ireland to victory over a stunned England. The Donegal born Gillespie would end the tournament as its top scorer with three goals and was arguably one of the greatest players in the world at this time. He would captain Sheffield United to victory in the 1925 FA Cup final and play on for them until he was more than 40, towards the end of his career his role at the heart of the Blades attack would be taken over by another Irishman, Jimmy Dunne who would later coach Bohemians in the 1940’s. At international level his 13 goals for Ireland/Northern Ireland would remain a record until it was eclipsed by David Healy in 2004.
However Gillespie would miss the final match that could guarantee Ireland the 1914 Championship, as Sheffield United had to replay an FA cup tie they refused to release Gillespie for the game against Scotland in Belfast’s Windsor Park. This would require a significant reshuffle on behalf of the Irish with Samuel Young of Linfield coming into the forward line and Billy Lacey taking over Gillespie’s role in the attack. McConnell continued as usual alongside Alex Craig (Greenock Morton) in a defence that had proven solid over the previous two games.
The match would be the only home game for Ireland that year taking place in Windsor Park, but under far from ideal conditions. Not only was Gillespie unavailable but there was a downpour the day before the game which continued through to the game meaning that both sets of players were ankle deep in mud. The view of the press at the time was that this would suit a more physically imposing Scottish side. Worse was to come for the Irish as the conditions and the hard-fought nature of the game began to take their toll and injuries on the Irish side began to mount. Paddy O’Connell, then of Manchester United and later manager of Barcelona picked up a knock as did McConnell who had to leave the field of play. However the Bohs man wasn’t out of the action long as the Irish keeper Fred McKee of Cliftonville suffered a broken collar bone during the first half. McKee managed to struggle on until half time but once the second half commenced McConnell took to the field in his place in a sodden goalkeeper jersey that was supposedly “two sizes too small” . As substitutions were not in use at the time Ireland were down to ten men with Lacey dropping back from the forwards to take McConnell’s place at full back.
This was not the first time Ireland had found themselves in this situation, Lacey had been forced off in the Welsh game yet Ireland had triumphed and now he was in defence helping protect McConnell in goal. Forced into making a couple of saves early on McConnell seemed to be doing alright in his unfamiliar position but a mis-timed run forward meant he gave possession to the onrushing Scottish forward Joe Donnachie who had a simple finish to give Scotland the lead. It seemed like all could be lost in the cruellest fashion. The team without its main goalscoring threat in Gillespie and down to ten men looked doomed but with just eight minutes remaining a fine pass from Patrick O’Connell sent Sam Young free and he blasted the ball home to send the crowd wild. Despite the terrible weather the huge crowd had been in full voice behind the Irish team and Windsor Park saw record gate receipts of £1,600 on the day. The supporters had gotten their moneys worth, the underdog team, shorn of their best player, having finished two of their three matches with only ten men were now outright Champions for the first time.
This victory was met with great joy and optimism on behalf of the footballing community throughout Ireland. Having defeated England in their last two outings and having won the Home Nations Championship outright there were high hopes that the team could push on from this achievement and defend their title the following year. Other matters were to intercede however.
While the outbreak of War did not bring about a halt to all football it did end international matches. Players were encouraged to set a good example to other young men and enlist. Football clubs in all parts of the country faced tough times losing both players and fans to the trenches of France and Belgium while the league would split for the course of the war creating regional leagues focusing on Dublin and Belfast.
By the time peace was restored to Europe several of the squad had passed their prime and although players like Lacey and Gillespie were still top performers for their clubs in England the split between the Irish football associations which led to the formation of what we know today as the FAI meant that the potential of a united Irish XI would never be realised.
For those players with a Bohemians connection their careers were varied. Ted Seymour’s stay in the Welsh capital was brief and included works in a Welsh munitions factory to support the War effort, he left Cardiff City in 1915 and returned to Ireland with Glentoran for whom he lined out for much of the War years. Despite twice winning the Irish Cup (once with Glentoran and later with Linfield) Seymour was never again selected to represent Ireland.
McConnell also transferred to Britain, signing for Bradford Park Avenue who were then in enjoying their best ever league season, finishing 9th in the Football League in 1914/15, McConnell would have a limited role however, making only 4 league appearances. He would spend a brief sojourn in Belfast with Linfield before returning to Bohemians in 1916 where he played a handful of games. This was not to be the end of his sporting career however, he found significant success as an amateur golfer being successful enough to triumph in the 1925 and 1929 West of Ireland Amateur Championships. Some Pathé newsreel footage even survives of McConnell playing a round at a new golf course in Dun Laoghaire.
Though the war would disrupt the career of Billy Lacey he would still go on to have considerable success in the 1920s as a player for Liverpool, winning back to back titles. Lacey would return to Ireland to finish his playing career at Shelbourne and then as player-coach of Cork Bohemians. It was in 1930 during this spell in Cork that he would win his final cap for Ireland at the age of 41, he remains to this date the oldest player ever capped by the FAI. With his playing career finally over Lacey brought his considerable experience to the Bohemians of the Dublin variety. During his five years at Dalymount Park (between 1933 and 1938) Lacey would lead Bohs to two league titles and an FAI Cup as well as a host of other minor honours. During this stint Lacey would also provide his coaching talents to the Irish national side.
While the split remains as wide as ever between the FAI and the IFA and relations between the associations have been strained over players like James McClean and Darron Gibson electing to play for the Republic, it is worth remembering a time when a truly all-Ireland team triumphed against the odds and the role that key figures in the history of Bohemians would play in that victory.
If you are interested in further reading on the subject I’d suggest David Owen’s article in The Blizzard Issue 8. Neil Garnham’s “Association Football and Society in pre-partition Ireland” and also Cormac Moore’s “The Irish Soccer Split”. Finally a special thanks to Stephen Burke of Bohemian F.C. for providing additional information on the career of Bill McConnell. For more on Louis Bookman and his fascinating life try “Does your Rabbi know you’re here?” by Anthony Clavane.