Stanley Matthews at Drums – A Ballon D’Or winner at Drumcondra F.C.

Fagan’s pub of Drumcondra is well known to many sports fans in the city of Dublin; in business since 1907 its close proximity to both Croke Park and Tolka Park means that it is regularly frequented by supporters of the both Dubs, Shelbourne F.C. and their various opponents. The walls of the pub bear witness to this, with many photographs and pennants of various sports teams but one that caught my eye on a recent visit were a collection of match programmes from Tolka Park’s former residents Drumcondra F.C.

Fagans
Fagan’s pub in Drumcondra, a short walk from Tolka Park

Surrounded by advertisements for tobacco, bingo halls and pubs are the starting XI’s for both Drumcondra and their visitors Glentoran of Belfast. To the left of the line-ups is a nice little action photo of former Bohemians player Amby Fogarty who had joined Glentoran from the Dalymount club in 1955. A date for the game didn’t appear on the programme page but a little research showed it had taken place on Wednesday October 24th 1956.

A few of the names on that Drumcondra side were familiar to me by reputation, in goal was Alan Kelly Sr.  who became a legend at Preston North End and won almost 50 caps for Ireland. Also in the side was Christopher “Bunny” Fullam, another former Bohs player who also tasted success with Shelbourne, as well as other Drums legends like Tommy Rowe, later a league winner and manager with Dundalk.

Drums v Glentoran
Drumcondra v Glentoran match programme inlay

One name I wasn’t sure of was the number 7, Matthews at outside right. A little more research revealed it to be none other than the wing wizard himself, Stanley Matthews. At the time of the game Matthews was 41 years old but was still an England international and had just enjoyed the best league season of his career, with Blackpool finishing as runners up to the Busby Babes of Manchester United. In fact less than two months after lining out for Drums Matthews would be named as the inaugural winner of the Ballon D’Or, defeating competition from Alfredo Di Stefano and Raymond Kopa to be named as the best player in Europe.

While another Ballon D’Or winner, George Best would later play a handful of games for Cork Celtic in his peripatetic later career, this was seven years after he had won Europe’s greatest individual honour and was sadly just another interlude on the downward spiral or his stellar career. Similarly an ageing Bobby Charlton, recently released from coaching duties at Preston North End, played a handful of games for Waterford in 1976 some ten years after his Ballon D’Or’ win. Despite Matthews advanced years for a footballer he was still in the elongated prime of his career. He would win his second Football Writers Player of the Year award in 1963 and played his final top flight game for Stoke City in 1965 at the age of 50.

Matthews was obviously the main draw for the game and provided much of the entertainment, “beating players with ease” and delivering “delightful passes”. Drums ran out 3-2 winners against Glentoran with a hat-trick coming from Drums other winger on the night, Dermot Cross. Glentoran’s goals came from brothers Dara and Cyril Nolan, both former Drumcondra players, with Cyril’s coming from the penalty spot. One other player of note for Glentoran was their thrice beaten keeper Eamonn McMahon, he had kept goal for Armagh in the All – Ireland Footfall final against Kerry in 1953. His talent in the Gaelic code attracted the attention of Glasgow Celtic with whom he had a brief spell before returning to Ireland to play for Glentoran.

A league of Ireland side with a future European footballer of the year playing for them might seem a bit odd nowadays (even for a friendly) but the game against Glentoran was in fact the third time Matthews had lined out for Drumcondra, having appeared for them twice in the late 40s in a pair of benefit matches played in Dalymount Park.

The first was in 1946 when he played in a benefit match for Drums’ Scottish trainer Jock McCosh (surely the most Scottish name since Hamish MacBeth).  The second game came a year later when he appeared in a match for Drums’ player Paddy Daly.

This first game to feature Matthews (for Drums trainer Mr. McCosh) was appropriately against Scottish opposition in the form of Greenock Morton. Drums were on an upward swing having just won the FAI cup for the third time in their history. However Greenock (who would narrowly lose the Scottish Cup final in a replay to Rangers later that year) were far too strong for Drums, riding out comfortable 6-0 winners. Matthews had chartered a private plane to get him to Dublin for the game but had a limited impact. His performance started well and he linked up nicely with both Kit and Jimmy Lawlor while keeping the opposing fully busy with his crossing and dribbling skills. However, he had not fully recovered from a recent injury and his impact waned as the match progressed with reports on the match describing him as “not at his best”.

If Matthews wasn’t at his best in the ’46 game it didn’t have an impact on the interest in the next game where he featured. The report of the Daly benefit match from April 1947 described Dalymount as almost full (at a time when attendances were on occasion reported around the 40,000 mark) and described Matthews himself as “the outstanding and most attractive players of his generation”.

Drums Matthews3
Irish Times headline from the 1956 match against Glentoran

This match was between a Drumcondra XI and a Distillery selection and there were plenty of other well-known players in attendance apart from Matthews. These included such popular names as Peter Farrell and Tommy Eglinton of Everton, both Irish internationals. Con Martin of Leeds United was also due to line out in goal for Drums but had to pull out at late notice due to injury. The Drumcondra selection ran out 1-0 winners in a poor game in which the Distillery tactics were described as “crude”.  As far as his personal performance Matthews stood apart among the standard front five although he wasn’t supported sufficiently and didn’t manage to get on the ball as much as expected. He obviously did enough to impress the reporters present with his talent when he did get on the ball being described as “well above the ordinary” and he was praised for his “excellent ball control and accurate passing”.

While it might seem strange that one of the world’s most famous players lined out on three occasions for a now defunct League of Ireland side it was far from uncommon at the time, especially for someone like Matthews. Having begun his career in 1932, and despite its longevity he was well into his 40’s by the time the maximum wage was abolished in England. Ever aware of the precariousness of a footballer’s existence Matthews had in his early years lived off his win bonuses and saved his regular salary, he developed sideline business ventures including running a guesthouse, signing an early boot deal and of course appearing as a guest player for what could be lucrative match fees for the time. Based for much of his later life in Blackpool, (even after a playing return to Stoke City) it was only short journey to Dublin and Drumcondra F.C.

One of Matthews final Irish involvements came a year after his last match for Drums. He lined out in a World Cup qualifier for England against the Republic of Ireland in Wembley. The English ran out 5-1 winners, with Manchester United’s centre forward Tommy Taylor grabbing a hat-trick. Taylor was born the year that Matthews had made his debut for Stoke. This was to be the second last of his 54 caps, his final one coming a week later in a 4-1 against Denmark. This final match meant that he was the oldest player ever to represent England, and despite having played in 3 of the four qualifying games Matthews was not selected for the England squad that travelled to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup.

Having played in many a benefit match Matthews had a testimonial of his own in 1965 when he finally hung up his boots professionally. The opposition was a star-studded World XI taking on a “Stan’s XI” who lined out in red and white, the colours of his beloved Stoke. The World XI won out 6-4 and Matthews was carried off the pitch by two of his opponents on the night Lev Yashin and Ferenc Puskas. Among the opposition that night were Raymond Kopa and Alfredo di Stefano, the two mean who had beaten to win the first Ballon D’Or nine years before.

 

 

On the Farrell family

Last year amid all the ceremony that surrounded the centenary of the 1916 Rising I set about researching some of the family history around that hugely significant event. I did of course throw in a bit about politics, football and a few other things and the resulting effort can be found here. That article had tended to focus more on the Kieran family; the family of my grandmother and some of their connections to the town of Dundalk.

The post was well received and seemed to be of special interest to family members as it jogged some recollections of long dead aunts and uncles, of half forgotten stories and the other various myths and tales that are told in all families. I was however admonished for not focusing enough on the Farrell side of the clan, after all theirs was a story worthy of telling as well. I’ve duly started to compile some information on the Farrell side of the family from around the same period (turn of the 20th Century) and the results compiled below.

But first back to the Kieran family! In the previous post I touched on the lives of Thomas Kieran and Jane Brennan, my great-grandparents. Thomas as mentioned had been born in Dundalk around 1889 and worked as an engine fitter at the Great Northern Railroad in Dundalk before moving to Dublin where he continued working as an engineer for the railways. He married Jane Brennan of Dominick Street in late 1915. Jane was born around 1891 to Jane and Michael Brennan.

Tom and Jane lived at 27 Blessington Street in the north inner city. As mentioned in the previous post Tom had been involved with the volunteers during the Rising in Dundalk and he maintained his republican interests while living in Dublin. On the evening of 16th December 1920 Tom was arrested at his residence in Blessington Street and the house was thoroughly searched for weapons though none were found. The arresting officer was one Lieutenant Percy Gerald Humfrey, who noted that upon being arrested Tom said nothing at all.

He wasn’t the only family member to be arrested around this time as I discovered tracing back the Farrell line. For reference here’s the basic family tree below because this can get a little complicated.

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My great-grandfather is Leo Farrell (who my Da is named after) and he was born in early 1893, one of eight children that survived (there were ten born in total) to Terence Bellew McManus Farrell and Mary Farrell (nee Byrne). Leo was a  railway engineer who worked in the CIE yards in Inchicore and was also an active Trade Union member. He was also quite an athlete in his younger days, he was a member of Clonliffe Harriers running club. I’ve recently found a reference to Leo winning a one-mile race for Clonliffe Harriers back in 1911 when he would have been around 18. There is a short report on the race from the Dublin Daily Express showing Leo comfortably finishing the race in a sub 5 minute time.

Leo runs a mile- Dublin Daily Express 06.11.11
Report in the Dublin Daily Express from 6th November 1911

 

Leo’s younger brother Terence Patrick Farrell was born in late 1898. The younger Terence is quite an interesting character and it was he who was also arrested in December 1920, the same time as Thomas Kieran and from very close by too. Terence had grown up in the family home on Anne Street North, just off the city’s north quays near to the markets area however, the family later moved to 32 Mountjoy Street, just around the corner from Blessington Street where the Kieran’s lived.

32 Mountjoy St
32 Mountjoy Street as it appears today.

Terence became involved with the Republic movement even before the Rising while still a teenager, he joined Fianna Eireann and turned up at Jacob’s biscuit factory as part of E company of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade during Easter week. However, he was only there for a few hours before being sent home due to his age (he could only have been 17 at the latest).

Terence rejoined E company of the 2nd Battalion in early 1917 and attended the various parades and drills required of an IRA member. By 1919 he had undertaken a first aid training course and was performing training classes for Cumann na mBan members once or twice a week in Finglas as well as in Summer Street just off Mountjoy Square.

Later in 1920 Terence was involved in an aborted rescue attempt for the recently arrested Kevin Barry. Interestingly Terence noted that it was a cousin of his (another Farrell involved perhaps? Another family store was that this was his cousin Rosie McGrane who smuggled Terence’s revolver out of 32 Mountjoy Square when he was arrested) who mobilised him for a the rescue attempt. He was armed with a gun and grenades and stationed at North Great George’s Street in what would have been a last-ditch, desperate attempt to liberate Barry from Mountjoy prison. Due to the large crowds gathering outside the prison and the growing number of military personal that were stationed there it was decided due to the expected carnage that would ensue that the rescue attempt would have to be called off. Kevin Barry was later executed by hanging.

42 North Great Georges St
A view from the spot on North Great George’s Street where Terence was stationed for the Kevin Barry rescue attempt

Undoubtedly the most significant incident in which Terence was involved was his role during Bloody Sunday, 21st November 1920.  He was one of the lookouts at the 22 Lower Mount Street where Lieutenant Henry James Angliss and Lieutenant Charles Peel were residing. Angliss, who was going by the code name Peter Mahon/McMahon, was a particular target due to his involvement in the murder of Sinn Fein Councillor John Lynch at the Exchange Hotel on Parliament Street in September 1920.

While Angliss was killed on Bloody Sunday, Peel managed to escape by barricading himself in his room. Terence was keeping guard in the hall when some passing Auxiliaries were alerted by the screams of the housemaids, they tried to escape from the back of the house but came under fire and they had to fight their way out through the front of the house. Terence was armed with a pair of revolvers and helped cover the group, expending all his ammunition as the rest of the party made their escape up Grattan Street. There is a wider account of the assassination here. Terence continued in other activities including the armed raid of the SS Clarecastle, a Guinness ship that was being used to transport weapons. The volunteers were successful in seizing arms from the ship. This must have occurred some time in 1918/1919 when many of the Guinness ships were under the control of the Royal Navy who had commandeered them after the outbreak of World War I, only returning them to the brewery in 1919.

SS Clarecastle
A view of the SS Clarecastle in front of Custom House Quay. Photo kindly provided by the Guinness Archives

Terence was arrested in early December 1920 at the family home at 32 Mountjoy Street. He was held in Ballykinlar, Co. Down, an army base turning internment camp, and was not released until December 1921. Terence’s autograph book which he kept during his imprisonment is held in the National Library’s microfilm collection.

terence-ira-membership
Certificate showing Terence’s membership of the IRA, signed by Oscar Traynor

After his release he had a varied and full existence. He was heavily involved in the Trade Union movement. Terence like his father Terence Snr. was a bookbinder by trade and he soon became head of the bookbinders Union. Through his leadership of the bookbinders union he became more prominent in the Trade Union movement later becoming a the last President of the Congress of Irish Unions (CIU), one of the main Trade Union confederations before their amalgamation to become ICTU. Terence represented the CIU at the 1958 International Labour Conference in Geneva where he spoke about the importance “educational activity in the field of labour – management relations”,  Terence remained active with ICTU and was one of the party who attended the new organisations first meeting with then Taoiseach Sean Lemass. Among his other work was a role representing the Trade Union movement on a government committee set up to advise on the establishment of a national television station in 1958, two years before RTE Television was established.

Terence didn’t live quite long enough to see the first television broadcast of the new station on New Year’s Eve 1961, he had passed away in February of that year. The chief mourners at the funeral were his wife Elsie and and his six children. His brothers and sisters were also in attendance as were Taoiseach Sean Lemass and Minister for Justice Oscar Traynor who had known Terence from his days in the IRA. He was accorded full military honours at his funeral.

Terence funeral cap

Terence’s father Terence Farrell Snr. who was briefly mentioned above was also a printer by trade which gives us a hint how the younger Terence ended up becoming general secretary of the bookbinders union. He was born in May 1864 in Faithful Place to Patrick and Catherine Farrell. Patrick was a  wine barrel cooper while we don’t know if Catherine Farrell (nee Brady) had a job outside the home as this wasn’t recorded at the time.

Terence birthcert
Birth certificate of Terence Farrell Senior

The area where Terence Snr. was born is mentioned as 12 Faithful Place which no longer exists today. However in 1864 it was located in a the area marked by the red “x” in the centre of the map below on an area now just off Railway Street currently by City Council social housing complexes.

Faithful place map
Map of the area around Faithful Place. Lower Gardiner Street is visible to the left.

By the end of the 19th Century this area had become synonymous with vice and prostitution, it was the infamous “Monto” area, named after nearby Montgomery Street (now Foley Street), it was the “Night Town” of James Joyce’s Ulysses however around the time of Terence’s birth it had not quite become the red light district of the city, only becoming a focal point from the 1870’s onwards. While perhaps not the as infamous as it would later become it was a far from wealthy area, the photo below shows the condition of Faithful Place in 1913. While the area had originally been developed by the Gardiner family who had laid out and developed Mountjoy Square as one of Dublin’s finest addresses the area had declined in the early decades of the 19th century leading to the once opulent Georgian houses becoming tenements for the city’s struggling working classes.

Faithful Place - Monto
Faithful Place in 1913 (source http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie)

While Terence would go on to have a certain distant connection to the literary world of Dublin as he worked as a bookbinder but we know less of his parents Patrick and Catherine Farrell, the seem to have been married in April of 1843 in St. Andrew’s Church on Westland Row.  Their fate is a little less certain so if anyone comes across any other information on them please let me know.

I’d like to finish with a little bit on the Scully side of the family. Leo Farrell married Margaret Scully in 1916. Leo would have been 23 at this stage while Margaret would have been about 20 years old. Margaret was the daughter of Louisa and Michael Scully who lived in rooms in 70 Benburb Street in Dublin 7. Michael was born around 1869 and was listed as a general labourer. He died at the young age of only 30 on St. Stephen’s Day 1899 with the cause of death listed as pneumonia and heart failure, only two months earlier they had registered the birth of their baby daughter, also named Louisa. In the 1901 census Louisa Scully (nee Gavigan) had moved a short distance from Benburb Street, across the river to nearby Watling Street. She had been a widow almost two years by that stage and worked as a laundress and supporting her four daughters; Mary Ellen 15, Bridget 12, Margaret 7, and baby Louisa not yet 2.

Farrells & Scullys
Seated in front, Leo Farrell & Margaret Scully on their wedding day in August 1916. At the rear is Margaret’s sister Louisa Scully (aka Francie) and Terence Farrell. Thanks to my cousin Lisa Taylor for the photo.

Although Louisa could neither read nor write she was listed on the 1901 census as being able to speak both English and Irish, her place of birth was listed as Kildare. All her daughters were still in school and were literate. In the later 1911 census Margaret is the only daughter listed as being able to speak Irish as well as English, then in her later teens she was working as a shirt maker. This connection with the textile industries is something that was obviously passed on to her children, her older sister Bridget also listed her job as “ladies tailoring”, so there is a certain fashion connection in the family.

While in the 1901 census the family were all listed as Roman Catholic by 1911 all or Louisa’s daughters listed under the religion heading their devotion to the Roman Catholic sodality of the Sacred Thirst. This was part of the wider temperance movement at the time and was based in Father Matthew Hall on Church Street, the family were at this time living nearby at 144 North King Street. There was widespread interest in these Church led campaigns against drinking beginning in the 1880’s, especially in the working class communities of Dublin. There is some more information about the hall and the sodality here. I have wondered whether the death of their father Michael at the age of 30 might have had an impact on the girls and their devotion to the temperance movement. Deaths listed as pneumonia and heart disease (Michael’s listed cause of death) were often the result of alcohol abuse, might this be have been the root cause for their devotion?

Sacred Thirst Margaret Scully
Publications by the Sacred Thirst sodality based in Fr. Mathew Hall on Church Street.

I’m ending this particular chapter of the familial research in a familiar address, 15 Fassaugh Road. A location known to all the family, it was where Louisa Scully Sr. passed away on the 1st of July 1938. She was 72 years old and had at that stage been a widow for more than 40 years. Her causes of death were listed as senility and cardiac arrest, with the witness on her death certificate being her son-in-law Leo.

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As with any family history there is always more to be told. Please let me know if I’ve missed out on anything, it certainly won’t be the end of my research, I’m already on to the print museum in Beggar’s Bush about the two Terence’s and am doing more digging on Leo’s association with the Trade Unions and on his sporting career. A big thank you to my second cousin, once removed Helen Farrell for all her assistance, her existing research has opened a lot of doors for me. Anyway I’m proud to be a ninth generation Dubliner, who knows what else we’ll find!

The mystery of Bohs captain William H. Otto

The 1923-24 season was to signal the first of Bohemian Football Club’s 11 League of Ireland title wins. That maiden title was captured in the penultimate game of the season, a 2-1 victory over St. James’s Gate in Dalymount. The goals that day came from English-born centre forward Dave Roberts and Dubliner Christy Robinson at inside-left. Between them they would score 32 of the Bohs’ 56 goals that season, with Roberts finishing as the League’s top marksman with 20. But while strikers tend to get the glory this maiden victory was of course a team effort. A number of those league winning Bohs players were selected for the Irish squad that travelled to the 1924 Olympics. Men like full-back Bertie Kerr, Paddy O’Kane, Jack McCarthy, Ned Brooks and Johnny Murray would win caps for Ireland and are still remembered for their contributions for the club. However, one man who was central to those achievements but leaves less of a trace is William H. Otto, the versatile Bohemians half-back, better known as Billy, who captained the team. This piece is as much an appeal for information as the summary of a career.

Finding Billy

Anyone who has ever trawled through Irish newspaper archives or through any number of online census returns or genealogy sites will appreciate the difficulty in trying to track down a relative from the distant past. Particularly if that relative has a rather common name and without having specifics to hand working out if that John O’Sullivan or that Mary Byrne is your ancestor can be a thankless task. It is for some of these reasons that researching someone with the surname Otto in 1920’s Ireland is that bit more intriguing. However detail on the life of Billy Otto of Bohemian Football Club initially proved illusive and some of his story remains untold.

What we do know is that Billy Otto was born around 1898, son of another W. H. Otto, most likely in Cape Town, South Africa. There is no mention of Billy on either the 1901 or 1911 census of Ireland. In fact the only Otto residing in Ireland is a Friedrick Otto, impressively a Professor of Literature, Geography, History, French, German. Friedrick was 33 in 1911 and was born in Hannover. Although he was married with children he was resident in Ranelagh by himself. This would seem to give us no connection to Billy and here the trail runs cold so we don’t really know for definite when he first came to Ireland.

Billy appears first as a sportsman for Bohemians in 1920, and featured regularly from 1921 as Bohemians competed in the first season of the newly formed Free State League. Billy usually played in a half-back (midfield) position in the team though did he feature in a number of other roles and proved an occasional goal-getter.

In April 1923 he features in the Bohemian XI that take on touring French side CAP Gallia in Dalymount, in what was the first visit by a continental side to Ireland since the split with the IFA. In late December 1923 Otto captained the Bohs side that travelled to Belfast to take on Linfield. Bohs won the game 4-2 in one of the first matches played against northern opposition since the split. He was then part of a selection under the Shelbourne banner (a composite side made up from several clubs) that took on members of the 1924 Olympic football team in a warm up game prior to their departure for Paris. Here he featured against his regular midfield teammates John Thomas and Johnny Murray. Other prominent games were to follow in 1924, rather appropriately for Billy Bohemians took on the South African national team as the debut game on their European Tour.  Billy once again captained Bohs as the South Africans ran out 4-2 winners. Tantalisingly the Pathé news cameras were at the ground that day and recorded some of the footage of the game and the teams posing before the match. As captain it is Billy we see receiving a piece of South African art from his opposite number. Tall, slim and dark-haired Billy would have been around 26 years of age when this footage was shot.

Billy was Bohemian captain for the 1923-24 season, a time of progress for the club as they were crowned League champions and Shield winners thatyear with the club also finishing as League runners-up the following year. He continued as a regular team member through to the first half of 1927 when he disappears from the match reports of the club. We know that during his time in Dublin he more than likely worked for the the revenue service as we know he lined out for them as a footballer in the Civil Service League around the same time that he was on the books of Bohemians. This wasn’t too unusual as a number of Billy’s other team-mates would have also been civil servants (i.e. Harry Willitts) at what was then still a strictly amateur club.

Billy sets sail

While Billy Otto might have been finishing up at Bohemians he was about to begin another chapter of his life. On the 24th November 1927 he boarded the steamship Bendigo (shown above) on the London docks bound for a new life in Cape Town, South Africa. Billy was by this stage 29 years of age and listed his residence as the Irish Free State, more specifically at 28 Hollybank Road in Drumcondra. On the ship’s passenger the stated country of his future residence was South Africa and his profession was recorded as bloodstock. There is a possible Bohemian connection here as one of Billy’s former teammates, Bertie Kerr was already by this stage and established bloodstock agent who would go on to purchase and sell four Aintree Grand National winners.

Billy and Bertie were known to be good friends outside of football. Is it possible that the Kerr family may have introduced Otto to the business? Perhaps, although there is strong evidence that there may have been a familial connection. Billy’s brother Johnny was a champion jockey in South Africa and later worked as a steward at the Jockey club.

28-hollybank-road
28 Hollybank Road as it appears today. In the 1920s it was home to Bohs captain Billy Otto

In his personal life it must have been during his time living in Drumcondra that Billy was to meet his future wife Christine. Born Christina Quigley in Dalkey on 8th December 1900 to a Policeman; Thomas, and a housewife, Maryanne, by the 1911 census Christine was living on St. Patrick’s Road in Drumcondra. She is not listed as a passenger on Billy’s 1927 voyage and they did not marry in Ireland. However, we know that they did indeed get married and had three sons, tying the knot in December 1929 in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Records show that she had travelled to South Africa via Mozambique aboard the SS Grantully Castle just one month earlier. Christine Otto (nee Quigley) did make return visits to Ireland later in her life. She came back to Dublin via Southampton for a visit in 1950, the stated destination for her visit was  to 25 Hollybank Road.

Billy departs

In March 1958 a small obituary in the Irish Times noted the passing on the 13th of that month of William H (Billy) Otto at his residence of Wingfield on the Algarkirk Road, Seapoint, Cape Town. “Beloved husband of Chriss (Quigley) late of Drumcondra, Dublin. Deeply mourned by his three sons and members of the Bohemian Football Club”. Billy’s passing occured within a week of the deaths of two other team-mates, Ned Brooks and Jack McCarthy, from that same championship winning team. Christine remained in South Africa though she is listed as returning again to Ireland in 1960, two years after Billy’s death. The address that she was to stay at for an intended 12 months was, on this occasion, in Foxrock, Dublin.

One other interesting item to note was that another obituary mentioned that Billy had served with the South African infantry during World War I, its reports stated that Billy returned to Ireland in 1920.

At present this is as much information as I can glean on the illusive Billy Otto. What remains a mystery is when he first arrived in Ireland, the details of his military career, and indeed some aspects of his later life. What is intriguing is that Billy may have been the first footballer born in Africa to lead a European side to a league title. Another first for Bohemians perhaps? As a former league winner and club captain I’d love to find out more about him. If you have any information on William H. Otto, or indeed on Christine Quigley or any of their three sons please get in touch.

With thanks to Simon O’Gorman and Stephen Burke for their assistance and input.

A few thoughts on Millennial bashing

To begin with, a quick admission of potential bias, depending on which definition you read I am either just about a Millennial or just outside of this supposed generational, cultural catchment, born as I was in the early 1980’s. I finished school and started University around the turn of the Millennium and I grew up with the rapid, progressive changes in technology through that time so for the purposes of this piece I’m considering myself an old Millennial.

The dominant view of this generation is a pejorative one which views us as weak. We are lacking in focus, painfully sensitive to criticism or indeed any disagreement to our world view, naively idealistic and basically existing in some phase of arrested development where we forever remain overgrown children who cannot face, understand or process the realities of daily life. This tends to be joyfully prodded home on social media through things like memes contrasting a generation that came of age in the 1940’s going off to fight a war and a current generation who are upset by even the slightest challenge to them and who must then flee to their “safe spaces”. In this context we must understand that safe spaces are “bad” and only exist to coddle adults who should just learn to “pull it together” and get on with things.  Let me know if I’ve covered all the bases here folks.

The idea of successive generations being weaker than their forebears is one that is as old as history. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing somewhere between 750-650 BC makes this clear in his works like the Theogony  and Works and Days; here the descent of the “Ages of Man” sees mankind descend from a near-immortal co-habitation with the gods, a life filled with leisure, to the gradual indignity of short lives full of toil and suffering. This is echoed the epic poems The Iliad and the Odyssey which are ascribed to Homer. In these works Nestor, an aged Greek King often lectures the younger characters about the glories of his past and compares sufferings of the current generation of Greek heroes like Odysseus, with those of his youth, often emphasising his own bravery and that of his deceased contemporaries.

This focus on a glorious past makes a certain sense in these Greek texts, they were written around the 8th Century BC when the authors and audiences would have seen the gargantuan ruins of the vanished Mycenaean civilisation which had collapsed around 1100 BC. These abandoned palaces and citadels were testament to a vanished age of heroes, their knowledge and technologies having been lost by the time of the composition of the heroic epics of Homer. Surely the ruins of such a civilisation were the works of greater men, those closer to the divine?

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The remains of the mighty Lion gate at the entrance to the citadel of Mycenae

This theme is not just confined to writings and myths of ancient Greece. The idea of the decline of mankind from a position of heroic, near godlike status appears in Irish mythology as well. Well known mythological figures like Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn possessed supernatural abilities in strength and cunning, in the case of Fionn this is passed down the generations to his son Oisín. In one of the many tales told around the world about the pursuit of the fountain of youth, Oisín is taken by his new wife Niamh a daughter of a god, to the island of Tír na nÓg. Oisín stays on the island for what he believes to be only three years but then returns to the mainland to find that 300 years have passed. Fionn is gone and the sites of the Fianna’s power are in ruin. The people who inhabit Ireland at this point are not of the heroic vintage of Oisín, they are seen as lesser specimens and Oisín has to stop to help them with the building of a road as they are too weak to move a boulder. When Oisín tries to help he falls from his enchanted horse and ages rapidly before dying.

The parallels appear again and again in different cultures, an idealised heroic past contrasting sharply with a fallen, degenerated present. This trend persisted. Across Western Europe the Roman empire may have retreated and eventually fallen but the immutable objects of their power and engineering genius remained, theatres, aqueducts, temples and villas dotted the landscape even centuries after the legions had left and in their vacuum contests for power, war and plagues later emerged. The knowledge and organisation of Roman rule moved eastwards and it was only during the middle centuries of the last Millennium that swathes of western European rediscovered the writing and learning of this Classical past. Only with this Renaissance could western Europe return to rediscover this connection with a near forgotten past.

In these instances we can see societies to some degree living in the shadow of earlier triumphs, inhabiting ruins whose creation they cannot fathom. In a way it made sense to view current or successive generations as somehow a decline of previous standards. As people and societies not evolving but degenerating. But this is a world away from modern experience.

Present generations can see technological progress before our eyes, we are more advanced and connected in these regards than any previous generation. In societal terms the last two centuries or so has seen progressive social movements that have helped lead to the abolition of chattel slavery and a spread of democratic government including the enfranchisement first of working class men and later women. The last half of the 20th century witnessed a growing independence movement among those nations that remained colonies of European powers. There was also the rise of a global civil rights movement that began to agitate against repressive regimes and legislation from places as diverse as South Africa, Northern Ireland and the United States.

The so-called Snowflake generation do not look back on the past cowed by the looming monuments of fallen empires that they are unable to recreate. They simply do not need or want to recreate them. We can see through our historical prism that we have moved on in many ways from our previous generations, we acknowledge and cherish the rights that previous generations fought to secure in the knowledge that there is a distance yet to travel, that there is further progress to be made, rights to be secured so that they may be bequeathed to the next generation.

In the United States the generation of men who went to fight in World War II were often referred to with the moniker of the “Greatest Generation”, they had survived the poverty and want of the 30’s and helped to defeat the scourge of fascism in the 40’s. In the process  they protected American interests and ensured that the United States emerged from the war as the pre-eminent western power.

Their generation assumed a gravitas that subsequent generations could not match, yet as the last members of this group disappear, it is their children and grandchildren who seek to objectify the Millennial generation as “Snowflakes”. This “baby-boomer” grouping enjoyed the peace that followed WW2, and the benefits that this brought. This is not to say that everything from 1946 onward was plain sailing but the scale of horror of the preceding decades was not to re-emerge.

In Ireland the most recent decades have seen a cessation of wide scale sectarian violence, a far greater social liberalisation than a post war generation could ever have imagined and rapid economic growth (at times far too rapid). It would be disingenuous for any Irish baby-boomer to say that the country is in worse shape now than when they were born in the 1940s/50s/60s. Can anyone really hark back to the days of Catholic Church dominance, subsistence farming, car bombs, and a beer and biscuits economy? It was not better back in the old days but nor is it perfect today.

For Millennials items like sky-rocketing rents, increased costs for education, lack of job security and the remaining anachronisms of an Irish theocracy, such as the 8th amendment, are legitimate issues of concern. But yet speaking out about something like the quality or security of your lodgings is seen being a needy Snowflake. Not as being a continuation of an Irish tradition that dates back to at least the land agitation of the 18th Century through to the housing protests against tenement conditions that continued well into the 1960’s in Dublin.

The ancient Greeks looked back into the murky mists of history through the ruins that dotted their landscape and invented the stories of great heroes. As Patrick Kavangh put it in his poem Epic

Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Today it is baby-boomer Donald Trump who leads America, his rhetoric harking back to an idealised past that never existed. In his clumsy, repetitive speech he makes his heroes and myths. He invokes the past, the dead, and flanks his Oval Office desk with portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, harking back to an ideal of America that ignores slavery, the Civil War and the Trail of Tears. His rallying cry remains “Make America, Great Again”, which implies it is not great now, it can only become great again by going back, by undoing. The future of a nation rests on the nostalgia for a world that never existed among a dying generation. This is the Millennials’ inheritance.

In Britain likewise an exit from the EU voted for overwhelmingly by middle-aged and older Britons. When old securities vanish, when a minority can vote in Trump, when a gerontocratic block ensures that a majority of young Britons who want to be a part of the EU won’t have that opportunity then yes a Millennial generation will feel aggrieved.

Every human generation has been compared unfavourably to its predecessors, even when every measure of progress suggest that this is baseless and unjust. Millennials are in good company and have a growing means to express themselves. As the stakes get higher, as far-right forces gain prominence in more nations generation snowflake won’t be melting away. In the end I think future generations might even be thankful for that.

 

The main photo image is of the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold death mask of an unknown Greek discovered at Mycenae. It was named the mask of Agamemnon by Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

 

 

A 48 team World Cup -reasons to be supportive

The confirmation by FIFA that it is to restructure the World Cup to accommodate 48 teams has been met with a largely negative response, especially across Europe. The most prominent arguments being as follows; that a 48 team world cup is bloated and will diminish overall quality. That it will be impossible for a tournament this size to be held reasonably in any one country and in any case it’s simply part of a cynical exercise on the part of FIFA to rake in more money. There have been some arguments put forward as well that the proposed three team group stages will be unworkable and might need the introduction of penalty shoot-outs to avoid arranged draws like the infamous West Germany v Austria game at the 1982 World Cup.

The most prominent criticism seems to be simply that people don’t like change and the current 32 team format is widely popular. But how fair are the criticisms about the bloated nature of the tournament and the expected drop in overall quality? Does a 48 team tournament devalue it through a cheapening of the qualification process? That if it isn’t hard to get there is it really worth being there? First let’s look at qualifying history over time and what other options have been explored.

The first World Cup was an invitational tournament held in Uruguay, all the games took place in capital city Montevideo with 10 of the 18 overall matches taking place in the Estadio Centenario. While certainly handy for getting around this is obviously not something that anyone expects us to return to. The first post war World Cup in 1950 could have been Ireland’s first ever appearance after a number of withdrawals by other teams. Scotland had been one of the teams to withdraw as they had only finished second behind England in the Home Nations Championship (a defacto qualifying group), they had pledged to only attend if they won the tournament even though second guaranteed qualification. The FAI turned down the offer due to the expected cost of travelling to Brazil. The peculiar layout of the 1950 tournament meant that hosts Brazil only needed to draw against Uruguay to win the tournament as there was no straight knock-out format. If a three team group stage is being cited as one of the major drawbacks of an expanded tournament then it would still be considered superior to these previous formats. No one is suggesting that these previous formats and haphazard qualification routes would be preferable but those who site history and tradition tend to refer to the period in their own lifetimes.

Regarding the 3-team groups and the introduction of automatic penalty shoot-outs for draws was something that did exist previously in leagues like the NASL and the early years of the MLS. While certainly a break with tradition they would reduce the amount of dead-rubber games and reduce the risk of a repeat of West Germany v Austria ’82 or dare I say a Republic of Ireland v Netherlands 1990 game.

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1950 World Cup poster featuring the flags of competing nations.

The first World Cup of my lifetime was in 1982. This was the first World Cup to use the 24 team format that would remain in place until 1998. At the time of qualifying for Spain ’82 there were 109 members of FIFA competing for those 24 places. For a number of reasons, not least the collapse of the Soviet Union into its individual constituent nations in the early 1990’s by 1998 the number of FIFA members had risen to 174, an increase of almost 60%. At present FIFA has 211 member associations, meaning it now has more members than even the United Nations.

Understandably as membership has grown so have the numbers of teams participating in qualifying and the World Cup proper. This poses the question as to what is the purpose of the World Cup? I’d propose two answers.

First, To determine which national team is the best in the world. Second to provide a genuine opportunity for the most global of team sports to be represented at one competition and to raise the levels of quality and competitiveness around the world.

The World Cup has only ever been won by teams from either Europe or South America, they have well established and highly competitive football leagues and advanced infrastructure, however few pundits would suggest that the World Cup should be open only to teams from these Confederations. A weighting is applied so that 13 teams qualified from UEFA and 6 (including Brazil as hosts) qualified from CONMEBOL for the last World Cup. We can see this as an attempt to genuinely have the best teams while also being representative enough by including sufficient teams from other confederations to truly be a World Cup. Within FIFA of course this is also tied to networks of power. While qualification may be weighted to feature the strongest teams the votes of all associations are equal, something that many, though not all FIFA Presidents have appreciated. Access to the World Cup and the prestige and wealth on offer have swung elections in the past, as was the case in 1974 when the incumbent FIFA President, the Englishman Stanley Rous lost to João Havelange. The Brazilian Havelange had toured over 80 nations during his campaign, occasionally accompanied by Pelé, and promised greater access to an expanded World Cup. At the time African teams had only one place available at the 16 team tournament, Asian and Oceania teams had to compete for a single place. In purely sporting terms the the performances of nations from outside of Europe and South America at the 74 World Cup had been poor to say the least. Zaire had lost all three games, including one match 9-0 to Yugoslavia, Haiti likewise had lost all three games including a 7-0 hammering to Poland, only Australia managed to gain a single point, a scoreless draw with Chile.

On the basis of their performances at the tournament there seemed little argument that the representation of teams from Africa, Asia, North America etc. should be expanded, however Havelange saw that football could grow in each continent by allowing a realistic opportunity for teams outside of Europe and South America to get elite level competitive experience against the world’s best. His promises of an expanded World Cup were understandably well received, especially in Africa. For decades many of Africa’s best players ended up representing European teams, many players from Algeria representing France, stars from Angola and Mozambique representing Portugal. By the 1970’s with most African nations newly independent from colonial rule there was a feeling that African football gave a sense of pride to a nation on a world stage, in FIFA throughout the 1960s these newly independent African nations began to seek membership of FIFA. By 1974 the CAF was the second largest confederation in terms of members, and crucially votes.

Havelange by expanding the world cup to 24 teams in 1982 and bringing in massive new commercial sponsorship to supplement the expansion of the tournament was delivering for whole continents who rarely had the chance to sit at football’s top table. While many, many corruption allegations would later emerge about Havelange he came offering change compared to a man like the eurocentric Stanley Rous who, for example, had strongly opposed any bans on South Africa competing in international football due to their refusal to integrate their football teams and the brutal system of apartheid much to the opposition of other African FAs.

By the end of the 1982 World Cup Africa’s two qualified nations had impressed, the quality a significant improvement on the showing of Zaire in 1974. Cameroon went home unbeaten, after three draws they were unlucky not to make it out of a tough group with goals scored was all that separated them from eventual champions Italy. As previously mentioned only the infamous West Germany v Austria match, where each side knew a 1-0 win for the Germans would see both nations through, prevented the Algerians from advancing.

As with African teams from the 1980s onward it has to be acknowledged that an expanded World Cup can give smaller nations or those from confederations beyond Europe and South America a chance to develop and improve in competitive environments, the best teams will still qualify and the dominant nations will likely continue to win for the foreseeable future but an expanded World Cup will be truly global and be more representative of a larger and growing FIFA membership. To paraphrase Charles Stewart Parnell no man should have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation. FIFA’s remit in theory is to grow the game of football globally, in expanding the World Cup and allowing more nations experience high-level competitive football they are simply following this course, by not expanding the tournament in line with an expanding membership would they not be fixing the boundaries a little too tightly?

The tournament itself will still take the same amount of time to complete and the winners will still play seven games in total. The elite clubs of the world will therefore not really be any more affected than they are now by the change in terms of duration or fatigue though they may loose more players to international tournaments as more nations now qualify. However more tournament places could eliminate a certain number of play-offs thus reducing the overall amount of qualification games.

It seems that a tri-nation bid for the 2026 World Cup from Mexico, USA and Canada is already among the hosting favourites, they certainly would have the facilities to host 48 teams. But considering the expanded size there is no reason why say a single nation like England not host such a tournament. The Premier League boasts 20 modern stadia that could be suitable, add in Wembley and other grounds from outside the top flight (St. James Park, Villa Park etc.) and this could certainly meet the criteria without much additional investment in stadium infrastructure. If not, then the re-emergence of joint-bidding for the tournament means that the expanded competition could still be accommodated while  two or more  nations share the burden of hosting the games. The World Cup in Japan/South Korea were successful from a fan point of view and led to fewer “white elephant” stadiums than subsequent single-host World Cups that took place in South Africa or Brazil.

Finally, the other great complaint is that this is a cynical exercise from FIFA to curry favour and increase revenue. Well of course it is. Few would be naive enough to believe an expanded World Cup is purely for some idealised “good of the game”. Due to the deluge of scandals in recent years it is hard to view FIFA as anything other than a corrupt plutocracy, but the greatest test of its new leadership will be if the expected increased windfall of a bigger tournament finds its way back to the associations and into funding for new facilities, coaches and youth tournaments and not siphoned off into the back pockets of dodgy administrators.

 

Building football at the halfway house – The story of Vincent O’Connell

Debate is raging at present as to whether the current Dundalk F.C. team are the greatest that has ever been produced in the history of the League of Ireland. There is plenty to recommend this Dundalk crop for that accolade; they’ve won three consecutive league titles, they won a double in 2015 and most notably they have had (by Irish standards) significant success in European competition. In terms of overall trophies Dundalk are second only to Shamrock Rovers in the medals table, having won 12 league titles and 10 FAI Cups. In this regard I’m sad to say that in recent seasons Dundalk have overtaken my own dear Bohemian F.C. in terms of League titles won despite Bohs having been 13 years longer in existence than even the earliest incarnation the Louth team.

However Bohemian F.C. as one of the earliest founded and most prominent clubs certainly played a role in the growth of football in Dundalk. For example it was a former Bohs player, Steve Wright who led Dundalk to their first league title way back in the 1930s. The

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Steve Wright – source Dundalkfcwhoswho.com

focus of this article is another former Bohs player was one of the a number of men instrumental in helping to organise the sport of association football in that town and with helping to found one of the first proper leagues there. That this is the case shouldn’t be too surprising, in research for this piece I came across a Sunday Independent article from 1956 which declared of Dundalk that “Soccer stopped at the half-way house” as Dundalk occupied the geographic midpoint between the early footballing hot-beds of Belfast and Dublin, it seems only reasonable that Dublin would have some baring on the games development. As well as its location there were plenty of other reasons for football to take root in the town, the presence of a British Army barracks staffed with many active young men, many of whom would already have been familiar with the game, and the growth of the railway industry, specifically what became the works side of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) from which the present Dundalk F.C. developed. One of the biggest games in early Dundalk football history was the arrival of the Bohemian F.C. side to take on a local Dundalk AFC side in the Leinster Senior Cup on St. Stephen’s Day 1895. Bohs emerged as the victors from a 3-1 scoreline, however the Dundalk side had competed well and the significant crowd despite the particularly cold winter weather had shown that there certainly was an audience for the sport in the Louth town.

One of the Bohs men who had an influence in shaping the football landscape of Co. Louth was Vincent J. O’Connell. A local lad, Vincent was born in Dundalk around 1882 or 1883 as fourth son of Henry O’Connell a grocer, of Dundalk, and his wife, Mary. Vincent was a good student and pursued a career as an architect which was what brought him to Dublin to study with the Hague & McNamara firm who were based on Dawson Street. He had been involved with various scratch teams in Dundalk around the turn of the 20th Century and also featured with a side named Dundalk Rovers F.C. who competed occasionally in the Leinster Senior Cup. Vincent would have been roughly 20 by the time he moved to Dublin to study with Hague & McNamara and continued to pursue his interest in the sport by joining Bohemian F.C. in 1902. There is mention of him lining out as a half-back for Bohs in a December 1903 match against the Dublin University club from Trinity College. The Bohs starting XI was described as “not at full strength” and they suffered a heavy 6-1 defeat. O’Connell remained a Bohemians member until 1907 by which stage he had returned to Dundalk and had set up his own architectural firm on Earl Street in the town.

Like many Bohemians of this area his talents weren’t limited just to football and he was also a well know cycling enthusiast. In the business world Vincent prospered and in 1909 he was appointed to the position of engineer at Newry Port, he even branched out by opening a new office in Newry by 1911. As an architect he designed the stores along the Albert Basin not too far away from the Showgrounds where Newry City AFC currently play. Despite these increasing work commitments his

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Vincent J. O’Connell in 1909

interest in football maintained and he was recorded as the Vice Captain of the St. Nicholas football team for the 1910-11. St. Nicholas had been training at the Dundalk polo grounds and had competed in local leagues and in the Leinster Junior Cup for a number of years by this stage and by 1910 were a well enough established side on the local football scene.

Vincent continued this involvement with local football when he served on the board of the of the Dundalk and District league in the tumultuous year of season of 1920/21. The War of Independence was raging in Louth and in the sporting boardrooms the Leinster Football Association had formally decided to cede from the IFA. At the AGM of the Dundalk and District league the member clubs were encouraged to align their loyalties to the Leinster association, Vincent was at this stage the Dundalk and District League vice-president. Perhaps most surprising to note was that the league that season consisted of six teams, three of which were representatives sides drawn from British Army regiments in and around the town.

By 1926 the Dundalk GNR (Great Northern Railway) club had become a League of Ireland member and in 1930 they renamed to became the Dundalk F.C. we know today. In the 1932-33 season they had become the first provincial side to take the title out of Dublin but they had done so at great financial cost to the club. Led by former Bohemians player Steve Wright as their trainer/manager Dundalk had taken advantage of the fact that the FAI were not recognising player registrations of clubs in Britain or Northern Ireland meaning that players could freely move to Ireland without Irish clubs having to buy out these registrations. Effectively free transfers.  Dundalk brought in a number of British pros, men like forward Jimmy Bullock who had lined out for Manchester United before moving across the Irish Sea or the veteran former Celtic star Joe Cassidy. These signings, won through the charm of Steve Wright and the bankbook of Dundalk F.C. coupled with the beginnings of a generation of young local players such as Joey Donnelly had begun to bring success; a Cup final appearance in 1930/31 with a league title following in 1932/33. However a number of factors such as the professional wages to these new players, the unpopular entertainment tax levied on football matches by the Irish government, a loss of revenue due to the cancellation of previously popular cross-border matches with Northern clubs and the continuing effects of the Great Depression meant that money was extremely tight and there was some chance that the club might go under.

By the time all this was taking place Vincent O’Connell was busy operating his main business premises out of 15 Earl Street in Dundalk, one of his most recent projects had been the design of the new chapel for St. Mary’s College in 1933, a school that had been central in popularising the game of football in the town. Vincent had maintained his own interest in football long after his playing days were done. In January of 1934 he joined a fundraising committee to keep Dundalk F.C.at their time of need and going and he personally was one of the largest donors donating a guinea, a similar sum to that donated by Dundalk board members like Bob Prole and, my own great-uncle, Peadar Halpin. Through their fundraising efforts sufficient finances were raised to keep the club afloat.

Vincent maintained his interest in football and many other sports for the rest of his life, the 1956 article quoted above described him as the “prominent Dundalk architect whose enthusiasm for all forms of sport has left him with an invaluable store of memories.”  Less than a year after that interview Vincent passed away in July 1957, he was survived by his wife and three children. While he had remained active as an architect into the 1950s where he was joined by his son Daniel (trading as V.J. O’Connell & Son), over the course of his more than 50 year career he worked on projects as diverse as monasteries, to hospitals to cinemas. However at his passing the various obituaries tended to spend as much time discussing his many sporting successes, especially his time at Bohemians and his early role in helping to develop the sport in his native Dundalk.

 

 

 

World Cup of Hockey- Toronto 2016

If your old enough you might remember a bit of a fad in the early to mid 90’s for Ice Hockey in Ireland, well when I say Ice Hockey I really mean roller hockey; kids on roller-blades in oversized Chicago Blackhawks jerseys skating around suburban cul-de-sacs with hockey sticks. There were a few possible explanations for this fad, the growth in popularity of inline skates, the Mighty Ducks film franchise, as well as hockey cropping up in the likes of Wayne’s World, even that brief moment when super-baggy Ice Hockey jerseys were fashionable for about a month in 1995. For me the hook was the Sega mega-drive and the video game classic that is NHL 94, all Hockey Organ music and 16-bit power play bliss. The game was so popular it even crops up in the Vince Vaughan/Jon Favreau comedy Swingerwhere Vaughan’s character notes the exceptional video game talent of Chicago’s Jeremy Roenick.

Following actual live, non-sega based American sport was a bit harder for an Irish kid in the 90’s. There was the time difference, there was trying to find NHL or the NBA on television. For basketball there was sporadic coverage on Channel 4 and I seem to remember Eurosport(?) showing the NCAA Basketball championships for a couple of years. Dial-up internet wasn’t exactly ready for live streaming of sports so anything else tended to be going around to friends houses where they had good Sky Sport packages to see the odd game.

However I’d always kept a passing interest in the NHL and have been known to indulge in slightly boozy hockey conversations with Canadian tourists in some of Dublin’s finer hostelries. On that basis I had to try and catch a game on a recent trip to Toronto. It was mid September and most days were balmy mid 20’s so not exactly Ice Hockey weather and it was still a few weeks out from the start of the NHL season so no chance to see the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs are one of the “Original Six” founding members of the NHL and have 13 Stanley Cups to their name, though they haven’t won the title in the fifty years since the expansion of the League.

The Maple Leafs play their home games in the impressive indoor arena of the Air Canada Centre, located in downtown Toronto just behind Union Station. The arena also hosts Canada’s only existing NBA team, the Toronto Raptors. They can apparently change over from one sport to another in the space of just six hours. During my visit the Centre was also hosting the Ice Hockey World Cup, that’s the entire World Cup schedule, kind of like the idea for the Centenario in Montevideo for the first football World Cup in 1930.

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Toronto Maple Leafs hall of famers

The hockey World Cup isn’t really comparable with the current version of the FIFA World Cup however, it features only 8 sides for a starter, it occurs somewhat irregularly and features a couple of what you might term hybrid teams. This edition was the first World Cup held since 2004 and only the third ever overall. The World Cup itself was a successor to the invitational Canada Cup tournament that had been held from the 1970s onward. The idea is that in future the World Cup will be held regularly in four year cycles in the month of September. There are a few obvious advantages to this, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) annual World Championship tends to take place during the playoffs of the NHL season meaning that many top players are not released to take part. As the World Cup is organised by the NHL before their pre-season begins it will avoid this conflict and in theory ensure the best players can compete.

Those taking part in the tournament include International Hockey’s “Big Six” of the USA, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland as well as “Europe” a team made up of the best of the rest European players from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. The eighth side was North America, a Canada/USA selection of players aged 23 or under which also had the effect of making the individual Canadian and USA teams to be made up of players aged 24 and over.

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Swedish fans singing before the game

It was refreshing to be in a North American city and experience something close to the atmosphere you might find in a European city ahead of a big qualifying game in football, if not quite a full-on tournament atmosphere. There were plenty of yellow and blue clad Swedish fans along with reds of the Czech Republic and the blues of Finland populating the bars and patios of downtown Toronto and they were in full voice. Any game involving Canada, the USA or indeed the North America side were all sold out but we did manage to get tickets for the nosebleed seats for the Sweden v Finland game.

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The puck drop was set for 3pm and it felt we were swamped with Swedish fans. This being a modern 20,000 seat venue in North America there were plenty of places to grab merchandise and a drink. They do of course allow you to supersize that, you could get a 25oz beer which is a close to about two pints I think.

As I said the arena capacity is just under 20,000 so it was disappointing that the crowd was only around the 12,000 mark. I’d blame the pricing, we’d been cheapskates and got tickets for about $30 each and the seats all around us were full with a fair few locals in among the Swedes and Finns. However the more expensive seats, in the $100+ price range remained mostly empty.

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Team line-ups

Both squads (apart from a couple of Russian based players in Finland’s party) were comprised of NHL based players. The most prominent probably being the Swedish twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin who both play for the Vancouver Canucks and for Finland it would probably be Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu or goaltender Tuukka Rask.  The Finns started the brighter and seemed to play the better hockey in the first period but we weren’t to be provided with a goal. We were kept interested with another round of beers and some chanting from the predominantly Swedish crowd.

In the second period the Swedes came into the game a bit more with the Sedin brothers combining to set up Anton Strålman for the first goal. While Finland came back into the game and forced Sweden’s goal-tender, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers into a number good saves. The Finns continued to press for an equaliser in the final period, even committing Rask their goalie forward only to be caught out by a very late Swedish counter-attack with Loui Eriksson of the Vancouver Canucks scoring into the open goal. The win guaranteed the Swede’s progression from the group stages while Finland needed a miracle, something their crestfallen fans seemed well aware of.

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Some disappointed Finland fans

Sweden would be knocked out the semi-final be the Europe selection, who would be defeated in the final by the heavy favourites Canada. It gives a Canada some what of a clean sweep as they are now World Champions, World Cup winners and Olympic Gold medallists and clearly the most dominant hockey team in the World. If the World Cup does gain some traction and some manages to become a regular fixture and not just a glorified warm-up to the NHL season then it could be the international competition with the highest player quality levels.

While not quite a global festival of sport it was still a chance to see some of the best players of the sport in international competition. Watching and reading the media coverage of the tournament there did seem a genuine pride and indeed novelty for the players taking part, many of whom had previously had scant opportunity to represent their nations.