Co-written with Michael Kielty
Given that Gibraltar are one of the newest members of UEFA you wouldn’t expect there to be much of a footballing history between the tiny British Overseas Territory and Ireland, but what if I told you there was a prominent footballer from Gibraltar playing in Dublin at the very dawn of organised football? That man was Gonzalo Canilla and he was a fixture on the Dublin sporting scene of the 1890s, lining out for both Bohemian F.C. and Freebooters F.C. as well as excelling on the cricket pitch.
Canilla was born in Gibraltar in 1876, he came from a pious Catholic family, with his uncle and namesake having been made Catholic bishop of Gibraltar in 1881. The younger Gonzalo was sent to England to further his education, where he attended the prestigious Catholic boarding school, Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, and this is where his connection with Irish football first emerges. Among his fellow classmates were many young men from prominent Dublin families, including Oliver St. John Gogarty and the Meldon brothers George and Philip.
Gogarty found his greatest fame as a writer but was also a talented athlete, he was a strong swimmer and was also a Leinster Senior Cup winner with Bohemians as an outside right, while Phillip Meldon, one of the founding members of Freebooters F.C, became an Irish international footballer. Freebooters, one of Dublin’s earliest clubs, were based in Simmonscourt, near the present-day Aviva Stadium and were also founding members of the Leinster Football Association.
Canilla, played for both clubs after leaving Stonyhurst for further studies in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. He even took his preparatory exams in Bell’s Academy on North Great George’s Street. Several students at Bell’s Academy had been among the founders of Bohemians in 1890. It’s during this time that an 18 year old Canilla first appears for Bohemians as a full back against Athlone in January 1895. By then Canilla was also playing cricket for Phoenix Cricket Club. This was quite common at the time and many of his footballing teammates were also colleagues or opponents on the cricket pitch. By 1897 there are reports of Canilla lining out for Freebooters and by the end of the following year he had formalised this by switching his registration to them, from Bohemians. The club, with Canilla in their side at full back finished in second place in the Leinster Senior League.
By 1899 however, having successfully completed his final examinations in the RCSI, Dr. Gonzalo Canilla departed Ireland for his native Gibraltar. Newspaper reports described him as someone “long and favourably associated with cricket and football” and that a “large crowd of sportsmen” gathered to see him off from Westland Row station to the strains of Auld Lang Syne. In total Gonzala Canilla’s Irish sporting career lasted about four years which saw him play at the highest level in Dublin at the time.
Canilla married his wife Antonia in 1904 and they had at least two children. Gonzalo practiced medicine in England until 1916 then becoming the Rio Tinto mining company doctor in Huelva, Spain. He played competitive cricket in Spain and then recreational golf until his retirement, he passed away in 1955.
His grandson David Cluett was also a successful footballer, he won 69 caps as a goalkeeper for Malta, including an appearance in a 2-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland in 1989 as well as winning numerous honours in the Maltese game, primarily for the Floriana club.
With special thanks to the Canilla/Cluett family for their assistance. This piece featured in the Ireland v Gibraltar match programme (June 10th 2019) and has also been shared on Bohemians.ie