While there has been a lot of talk of “hard borders” recently on a relatively small island like Ireland of just over 6 million people there has always been plenty of movement between north and south, for family, for trade and indeed for football. Ever since the the split from the IFA in 1921 and the subsequent political partition of the island a brisk two way traffic of footballers plying their trade North and South of the border has remained.
Of course Derry City exemplify this having been League of Ireland members since 1985, the “Candystripes” adopted their familiar red and white jerseys from Sheffield United, who wore the pattern and was introduced by their manager, the Donegal-born Billy Gillespie who was a legend in the Steel City after his playing exploits with the Blades.
Of course cross-border traffic isn’t limited to the border counties like Donegal and Derry, Billy Hamilton who had starred for Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup found himself as a player-manager in Limerick in the late 80’s. A similar role had been filled a few years previously by Tommy Jackson at Waterford. Jackson had won 35 caps for the North and represented the likes of Everton and Manchester United before he wound up on the south coast. He subbed himself on in the 1980 FAI Cup final to help Waterford beat St. Pat’s and lift the cup for the first time in over 40 years. Even the greatest of them all, the Belfast Boy, George Best popped up in the rebel county with a short cameo run of three games for Cork Celtic in the mid 1970’s.
In terms of record breakers one need only look at the name at the top of the League of Ireland’s all-time top scorers list, at the top with 235 strikes sits Derryman, Brendan Bradley. Despite having two spells at his home-town club at either end of his career Bradley scored the vast bulk of his record-breaking haul while on the books of Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers. Bradley topped the league’s scoring charts on four separate occasions but was not the only Northerner to finish the season as top scorer. Omagh’s Dan McCaffrey was top scorer as he helped Drumcondra to the title in the 1960-61 season, he hit total of fifty goals in all competitions that year. In that same era the likes of Belfast’s Jimmy Hasty was banging them in for Dundalk despite having lost an arm in an industrial accident as a teenager.
At the other end of the pitch there have been plenty of successful Northern Irish net-minders who’ve plied their trade in the League of Ireland. Alan Mannus has recently returned to Shamrock Rovers for his second spell at the club, he’ll be hoping to replicate his achievements when Michael O’Neill (now managing today’s opposition) was in charge at the Hoops, when Mannus picked up two league winner medals. Two other curious goalkeeping cases involve former Northern Irish international Trevor Wood lining out for St. Patrick’s Athletic, Wood won a single cap for the North but had little connection there having been born on the island of Jersey and using lax regulations to declare for another UK country. The most famous goalkeeper in the history of Irish football is the great Pat Jennings. Born in Newry, Jennings holds the Northern Irish international appearance record with 119 caps, while he never played in the League of Ireland his son Pat junior has represented the Shamrock Rovers, Athlone Town and most recently St. Patrick’s Athletic. Pat junior was born in England when his father was lining out for Arsenal and was never capped by Northern Ireland.
The traffic hasn’t been one-way of course, Michael O’Connor recently scored the winner for Linfield in the derby game against Glentoran, he follows in the footsteps of the likes of Kurtis Byrne, Pat Fenlon and Davy Walsh in starring for the Windsor Park club. There are many others who’ve enjoyed success north of the border.
The continued prominence of players born in Northern Ireland in the League today can be seen today in the success of Dundalk. Would they be league champions without the abilities of their Derry triumvirate of Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney and Dean Jarvis? With all the talk of borders and division in the League of Ireland there will always be the common market of football.
This piece originally appeared in the Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland match programme November 2018