The life and career of Jimmy Dunne

The football highlights don’t do justice to the man but let’s recount them anyway. One of only three players in the history of the English top-flight to score 30+ league goals across three consecutive seasons, the most recent is Alan Shearer. The record for the longest scoring streak in English league football; scoring in 12 consecutive games, a league Champion with Arsenal, a League of Ireland and FAI Cup winner, national team record goal-scorer for 28 years. Not a bad football CV – it belongs to Jimmy Dunne.

But there is so much more to Dunne than a 90-year-old scoring records. He was born on Cambridge Street in Ringsend in 1905 the son of Thomas and Catherine Dunne. Thomas was a bottle blower in the nearby glass bottle works. The Dunne family’s life was far from easy, of the eight children born to Catherine only four survived, with Jimmy being the youngest.

A further blow to the family occurred with the death of Thomas from tuberculosis when Jimmy was just two years of age. To make ends meet the newly widowed Catherine took in lodgers to their small, two-room tenement home, while Jimmy’s older brother Michael was working at the glass bottle works by the age of 14. Local stories record that Jimmy himself got a job for a local bakery as a delivery boy, bringing fresh bread, and occasionally secret IRA communications, on his bicycle around the city.

As a teenager his Republican sympathies continued, and along with his brother Christy he took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, eventually being interned in both Portlaoise and the Tintown camp in the Curragh after being arrested during the “Bridges Job” of August 1922 when anti-Treaty forces sabotaged various roads and bridges throughout Dublin. The association game proved popular in the internment camps and playing with rag-balls in tight confines no doubt honed Dunne’s touch and control. Upon his release in 1923 he played briefly for junior club Parkview before he joined Shamrock Rovers and made his debut for Rovers “B” against Pioneers in the Leinster Senior League in December of that year. While he was a Shield winner with Rovers an extended run in the first team was limited by the dominance and scoring prowess of Billy “Juicy” Farrell at centre forward.

Frustrated at the lack of opportunities Jimmy joined New Brighton (on Merseyside not to be confused with Brighton on the South Coast) in the old English Third Division North for the 1925-26 season.

His time on Merseyside was brief however, he made an impressive start to his career, scoring on his debut against Rochdale and registering six goals in eight league games as well as scoring in the cup, this quickly brought him to the attention of Sheffield United’s secretary John Nicholson who signed him for a fee reported between £750 – £800. Apparently this swift turnaround for Dunne, who had gone from Leinster Senior League to the top of the English football pyramid in less than year, was completely unexpected and the modest Dunne had to be persuaded that his future lay in the First Division.

A young Jimmy Dunne after signing for Sheffield United – 1926

As before with “Juicy” Farrell the path to first team football was initially blocked, this time in the form of Harry Johnson. Dunne spent much of the next three seasons in the reserves, making only occasional appearances and at one stage was on the verge of being transfer listed. However, the 1929-30 season would be his breakthrough year, scoring 36 in 39 league games to keep Sheffield United clear of relegation by the old method of goal ratio. Dunne’s amazing run continued with the 1930-31 season being his best ever 41 goals in 41 league games (a record for an Irish player in the English top-flight) and 50 in all competitions. The following seasons brought more goals, significant improvements in United’s league positions and interest from other clubs, especially from Arsenal and their legendary manager Herbert Chapman.

Sheffield United rebuffed an initial approach of £10,000 as they wanted a record £12,000 for Dunne, however Chapman played the waiting game, and with the 1933-34 season underway United found themselves in financial trouble. Chapman boarded an early train and had Dunne signed up for a reduced fee of just over £8,000. Dunne went right into the team and helped Arsenal to the League title, though the manager who signed him, died suddenly in January 1934. Soon after Ted Drake arrived from Southampton, and it would be the goals of Drake, not Dunne that would propel the Gunners to the title again the following season. Drake’s excellent form effectively ended Dunne’s Arsenal career, and belatedly Jimmy Dunne would end up as Drake’s replacement by signing for a struggling Southampton for the 1936-37 season. He would be the club’s top scorer that season and helped them avoid relegation to the third tier.

Dunne, from the numerous reports and descriptions of him as a player, and the very limited footage of him in action, appears as a complete centre forward, he had a good touch and ball control, no doubt honed as a teenager during times of confinement, he was strong and robust, quick off the mark and could shoot with power with either foot. He was versatile enough to drop deeper and play in the more creative role as an inside forward, however, all sources describe his greatest asset as his heading ability. Despite his height being listed as 5’10” the blonde head of Dunne struck fear into defences across Europe. He once scored a hat-trick of headers in a game for Sheffield United against Portsmouth and the innovative coach Jimmy Hogan (himself the son of Irish immigrants) chose Dunne as the player to demonstrate the skill of heading in an instructional coaching film that he made in the 1930s. In an interesting article with Dunne in the Sunday Pictorial while at Arsenal he even mentions having watched the famously skillful and scheming Austrian centre-forward Matthias Sindelar play, nothing the effectiveness of his “withdrawn striker” or “false 9” role as we would know it today. This demonstated Dunne’s keen eye for positioning and tactical possibilities.

While Dunne could have stayed an extra season at The Dell he chose to return home to Dublin and Shamrock Rovers as a player-coach. Though now into his 30s Dunne’s passion was undimmed and helped Rovers to back to back league titles as well as victory in the 1940 FAI Cup. Despite his advancing years these would be his most productive days in the Green of Ireland, in fact, Dunne won 14 of the 15 caps awarded to him by FAI after the age of 30. While Sheffield United released Dunne for seven IFA games during his time with them they would not release him for any FAI squads, this was mainly due to the fact that IFA matches coincided with the English national team game while FAI games had to work to other schedules that made English club reluctant to release players. Despite this Dunne amassed 15 caps and scored a record 13 goals which stood until broken by Noel Cantwell in 1967.


One incident of note was that Dunne was released to the IFA by Sheffield United for a game against Scotland in Ibrox. The goalkeeper Tom Farquharson, born in Dublin, withdrew from the squad and wrote to the IFA stating that he only recognised the FAI as the representative Association for Ireland. Dublin-born Harry Duggan followed suit and there was some expectation that Dunne, another Dubliner would do likewise. Without any guidance from the FAI about whether he should play or not Dunne travelled to Scotland.  However, Dunne received a letter, sent to Ibrox from Belfast which called him a “traitor to his country” and threatened him with death for playing for an IFA selection. Dunne started the game and duly scored in a 3-1 defeat to the Scots.

If fixtures had been different or UEFA dictats that today require clubs to release players for internationals had existed magine what he could have achieved had he worn the jersey for Ireland in his goalscoring prime with Sheffield United? Perhaps he could have made the difference in qualifying for the 1934 World Cup? Dunne continued playing into the 1940s, although the War had put an end to his international career. His final game for Ireland being a controversial match against Germany in Bremen in May 1939. Dunne was injured in the game but returned to the pitch and had a huge influence as Ireland drew 1-1.

His playing career finished in slightly acrimonious fashion, when aged 37 he was pressured into not playing in a FAI Cup semi-final by the owners of Shamrock Rovers. Dunne, hung up his boots and left the club to take the reins as coach across the city at Bohemians in 1942. Dunne would improve the fortunes of the Gypsies and led them to victory in the Inter-City Cup in 1945, before eventually rifts were healed with Shamrock Rovers and he returned to them as coach in 1947. Dunne was now a full-time coach with Rovers and gave up his job with boiler manufacturers Babcock and Wilcox.

The Irish football world was plunged into mourning in November 1949 when Jimmy Dunne passed away suddenly. His day had been a usual one, and he even spent time watching the Swedish national team train in Dublin ahead of their match with Ireland. Dunne was keen to talk football with their English coach George Raynor before he passed away suddenly after returning to his home on the Tritonville Road and suffered a heart attack.

It is no exaggeration to say that his footballing legacy endured, whether at Rovers in the form of the likes of Paddy Coad who succeeded him, or with his own family with his sons Jimmy Jnr. and Tommy becoming footballers, as well as his nephews, another Tommy Dunne and Christy Doyle.

While almost always referenced as being quiet, mild-mannered, and gentlemanly in demeanour Dunne in his playing style was robust and fearless. It is worth remembering he had been part of a revolutionary movement in his youth, he was the man who roared “Remember Aughrim, Remember 1916!” to psyche up his teammates before that match in Bremen against Nazi Germany in 1939 and who left his beloved Rovers because of interference from the Cunningham family, he even defied death threats to play for the IFA selection against Scotland in 1931, he was certainly a man who knew his own mind and could stand up for himself. He should also be remembered as one of the greatest strikers this island has ever produced.

The cover of a match programme from a Jimmy Dunne memorial game in 1952 featuring the two teams that Dunne had coached (courtesy Ruairí Devlin)

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