Taking a Lax attitude- George & the magic magnetic board

 

The dim light of the training lamps strung along the old main stand illuminated the thin strip of touchline as the players sprinted by, full tilt. They were trying to impress the coach with their pace and athleticism before turning into the darkness of the shed end. The floodlights that would come to define Dalymount and become a landmark in the Dublin skyline wouldn’t be installed for another year and the majority of the pitch was in complete darkness. As the players, all amateurs, reached the Connaught Street side some of the more experienced ones stopped. Now subsumed into the darkness the only light was the faint amber glow of embers as they lit up their cigarettes. Their plan was to wait until the rest of the team had made their next lap of the pitch and save their energies for another sprint past their coach. The man that they hoped to impress, who unlike his charges was a professional football man, was a middle-aged Yorkshireman in thick glasses by the name of George Lax.

George had first encountered Bohemians as they encountered a period of comparative decline. In the opening decades of the League of Ireland Bohemian F.C. enjoyed more than their fair share of successes. Foremost among these triumphs was the “clean sweep” of the 1927-28 season when the Bohs won every competition available to them. Three further league titles, an FAI cup and an array of other trophies made their way to Dalymount of the following ten years but by the end of the 30’s things were beginning to change.

The end of the 30’s and into the 40’s other teams were coming to dominate the major prizes in Irish football, Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne, Drumcondra, Dundalk and especially a rampant Cork United side were collecting league titles and cups. Bohs were increasingly being left behind. After winning the league title in 1935-36 Bohs could only finish 7th the following year, and 9th the year after.

The Gypsies policy on remaining an amateur club was beginning to affect their performances on the pitch. While the club, even by this stage had a long and proud history, one of the best stadiums in the league, and a strong record of bringing through talented players, unsurprisingly many of these same players would leave for other clubs prepared to pay them.

While amateur on the pitch the Bohs management committee looked to take a more professional approach to training and management of team affairs. To this end they brought in an English coach not long finished his playing days, George Lax, for the beginning of the 1938-39 season. Important to realise was that while Lax would be responsible for training, coaching and physio work with the players, the starting XI was still primarily decided by a selection committee and this would remain the case until the 1964 appointment of Seán Thomas as Bohs first manager in the modern understanding of the word.

Early days

George Lax was born in Dodworth, a coal mining village near Barnsley in South Yorkshire in 1905. Unsurprisingly young George began his professional life with Frickley Colliery near Wakefield having come from a mining family. The Colliery, one of the deepest coal mines in Britain had a strong sporting tradition, they had swimming baths, cricket clubs, athletics clubs and of course a football club, Frickley Colliery F.C. founded just after George was born. A teenage George lined out for the team at right-half and in his early 20’s was spotted by the legendary Wolves manager Major Frank Buckley and signed by them for the 1929-30 season.

Lax immediately became the sides’ regular right half as Wolves finished in the top half of the second division and continued a good run of form into the next year. His good fortune continued and during his spell at Wolves he also got married, tying the knot with his fiance Kathleen Hill in the Spring of 1932. However, a series of injuries including a badly broken jaw and later a broken ankle began to limit his first team opportunities at Molineux. This saw George move back to his birthplace to sign for Barnsley in 1932 after making 66 appearance for Wolves, although it would not be his last time working with Major Buckley. Further moves, first to Bournemouth and later to non-league sides like Evesham Town and Worcester City. As his playing career wound down he was beginning to get involved as a manager and coach alongside his playing duties.

In 1938 Lax was on the move again, this time having hung up his boots, he was off to Dublin to take over the management of Bohemian Football Club from the former Liverpool star and Irish international Billy Lacey. Lax had benefited greatly from working with Major Frank Buckley, a character with a fearsome reputation who had led the Footballers regiment during the First World War and had fought at the Battle of the Somme. Buckley’s teams were well known for their robust and very direct, physical football but this belied the fact that he was also somewhat of a pioneer and moderniser in other aspects of the game.

Buckley had placed great emphasis on fitness and diet (and allegedly the use of stimulants and animal gland injections) and contrary to popular wisdom at the time had encouraged players to do plenty of ball-work in training. He had also helped Wolves gain promotion to Division One and greatly improved their scouting network and youth system which would help lay foundations for the success enjoyed by Stan Cullis’ Wolves teams in the 1950’s. Lax borrowed heavily from Buckley’s methods and was also one of the first participants in the FA’s early coaching courses.  While Bohs amateur status might have seemed a throwback to a bygone age, even by the 30’s, in their choice of trainer they were selecting a man in his early thirties whose coaching methods were cutting edge for their time.

Among the modern elements of the game that Lax brought to Bohs was his “magnetic demonstration board”. While such coaching aids as a tactics board are hardly unusual today its use in the League of Ireland in the 1930’s seems to have raised more than a few eyebrows. He also brought with him a number of other tactical innovations such as “The Switch” which entailed the swapping of roles between the outside-right (usually Kevin O’Flanagan) and the team’s centre forward (Frank Fullen at the time). While this may not seem that groundbreaking to a modern football audience, the idea of swapping a centre-forward with a right-winger as part of a usually rigid W-M formation employed by the vast majority of British and Irish teams was revolutionary. It no doubt helped that O’Flanagan was an exceptional and versatile sportsmen and one of the best forwards in the country. These tactical innovations bore closer resemblance to the type of tactical experiments being tried out by coaches in Hungary or Austria.

It is worth remembering that it was only in 1953 when Hungary’s wandering centre-forward Nándor Hidegkuti helped dismantle the English national teams defense as they destroyed Billy Wright and Co. 5-3 that such tactical experiments began to get greater credence in Britain and Ireland.

Such was the success of this tactical innovation ( no doubt worked out on the infamous magnetic tactics board) that other Irish sides soon started copying the ploy with Belfast Celtic using their international winger Norman Kernaghan in the O’Flanagan role.

Call of battle and the return to English football

Lax had two spells with Bohemians, joining in 1938 before leaving in 1942 at the height of the Second World War to enlist in the RAF. As someone resident in neutral Ireland at the time he could have conveniently avoided the danger of the conflict but instead chose to enlist. He was eventually demobilised some months after the end of the War in February 1946. The high-points of his first spell as coach of Bohs included a 3rd place league finish in the 1940-41 season as well as back to back League of Ireland shield wins (1938-39, 1939-40) and a Leinster Senior Cup win also in 1939-40.

George’s first spell at Bohs would see him succeeded by Sheffield United and Ireland legend Jimmy Dunne who had fallen out with Shamrock Rovers where he was previously player-coach. Once he was demobilised George was straight back into his sporting involvement, first with non-league Scunthorpe United where he was coach but also an occasional player and then onto second division Hull City as a “trainer-coach”.

George’s job at Hull was secured by the intervention of his former mentor Major Frank Buckley who wrote to club Chairman Harold Needler stating that Lax was a “grand servant, of irreproachable character, keen, willing and loyal”. Buckley also boasted that it was “on my recommendation that he went as trainer-coach to the famous amateur Irish club, the Bohemians of Dublin. He gave grand service to them and it was the war that caused their severance”.

George was joined by his mentor Buckley as manager at Hull just a month later in May 1946. Hull were stuck in the unglamorous world of the English Division Three North, however they certainly had ambition, over the course of the next few seasons Hull sought promotion to the second division, succeeding by winning Division Three North in 1948-49. By that stage Major Buckley had already moved onto Leeds United where he would help start the careers of John Charles and later Jack Charlton.

His trusty lieutenant George Lax remained on Humberside working for Raich Carter who took over as player-manager. Carter had been one of the most highly-regarded and stylish inside-forwards of his era and over the coming years he brought some big names to Hull’s new ground at Boothferry Park. Joining Carter were players like England centre-half Neil Franklin, Danish international Viggo Jensen and an up and coming young forward named Don Revie.

Carter retired in 1951 and his role was taken over by Bob Jackson, a league winning manager with Portsmouth only a couple of years earlier. George Lax stayed on as part of his coaching team although Hull, despite all their ambition couldn’t do better than lower mid-table finishes in the second tier. After almost ten years with Hull as coach, trainer and physio among other roles George left for a new challenge. During his time at Hull he’d played second fiddle to some of the most famous and successful English managers in the game but perhaps he wanted to be in charge of himself again.

George had been a player-manager at Evesham before he had even hit the age of 30. During his time there he’d helped to launch the career of players like future West Brom and England forward Jack Haines. He was used to being his own man. Still it was with some surprise that in 1955 he moved the short distance to take over the management of Goole Town of the Midland league. During his brief tenure George led the club to the third round of the FA Cup, their best ever result in that competition.  George’s time in Goole was short and by 1957 he was heading back to Ireland, but this time not to Dublin but to a new club from Cork.

A return to Hibernia

In 1957 yet another Cork football club went the way of the dodo, this time it was the short-lived Cork Athletic. Although they had won back to back titles and two FAI cups around the turn of the 50’s, and had even coaxed George Lax’s old boss Raich Carter out of retirement to lead them briefly as player-manager, by 1957 financial difficulties saw them withdraw from the League. Their spot was taken by another Cork based club, this time it was Cork Hibernians. Their first manager was to be George Lax.

A tough first season for the Hibernians finish bottom of the 12 team division but gradual progress was made in the following seasons with Hibs finishing 9th and then by 1959-60 up to 6th place. George had set up a comfortable life in Cork, he ran a physiotherapy practice in the city and was on a considerable salary of £1,000 a year to manage the team. However despite the steady progress Lax was making he left Cork Hibernians to return to Dublin and to Dalymount to take on a Bohs side that had finished bottom the previous two seasons. By the time he left the press credited him with having “moulded Cork Hibs into a first class side”. Lax took the reigns again at Bohemians for the beginning of the 1960-61 season, some 22 years after he had first arrived at Dalymount.

While the side that George had inherited in the late 30’s had some genuine stars like the O’Flanagan brothers, Fred Horlacher, “Pip” Meighan, Kevin Kerr and Billy Jordan. The side of the early 60’s unfortunately wasn’t so blessed and the drawbacks of the enforced amateur ethos at the club was being keenly felt. Some genuine greats of Bohs history were to join not long afterwards, most notably centre-half Willie Browne who would go on to win three Irish caps during his time in red and black and became captain of the club in only his second season.

After two seasons of propping up the table, including the 59-60 season where Bohs had finished without a single win and with a paltry five points there was some modest yet clear improvements under Lax. Bohs finished 11th out of 12th in his first season back in charge and 9th the year after. The following year however Bohs once again finished bottom in a reduced 10 team division and bottom again the following season (1963-64) as the division expanded again to 12 sides. Despite the initial improvements and the fact that he had helped bring through players like Browne, Billy Young, Mick Kearin and Larry Gilmore the club felt it was time for a significant change.

Lax left the club at the end of the 1963-64 season and the club directors finally agreed to the abolition of the 5 man selection committee that still picked the starting XI. Full control of team affairs was to be entrusted to a team manager for the first time and Phibsborough local Seán Thomas was given the reigns. Thomas’s talent and the additional authority invested in his role had the desired impact and Bohs finished the following season in 3rd place and saw the emergence of future Irish internationals like Jimmy Conway and Turlough O’Connor.

During his less successful second stay George remained true to his footballing philosophy. Unlike his mentor Major Buckley the focus on Lax’s teams was always on trying to play good football even on the boggy winter pitches of the League of Ireland. He told the Evening Herald that “there is no substitute for good football and it only will draw the crowds”. He had a focus on discipline and skill, players were instructed strictly to never argue with the referee, a practice that certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. In training his focus was always on improving touch and ball control, often preferring to organise 5-a-sides with various handicaps such as players only taking two touches or only using their weaker foot so as to build technique.  Practices that might now seem commonplace but were certainly ahead of their time for the league in the 1960’s. His commitment to this footballing ideal wasn’t even shaken during times of duress. Commenting after a heavy 6-0 defeat to a strong Drumcondra side Lax rejected the idea that his team should have tried to spoil or play more direct, stating simply “I’ve made it quite clear, I want them to play football all the time”. In many ways despite the struggles of the team in the early 60’s George Lax certainly seemed to try to embody the three golden rules of Bohemian F.C.  “never say die, keep the ball on the floor and the best defence is attack”.

After leaving the Bohs George’s services were quickly in demand. He was  signed up by St. Patrick’s Athletic to replace Ronnie Whelan Snr but he would spend only a season in Inchicore before quitting. He would later take on a physio role at Dundalk and later at Shelbourne where he was working well into his 60’s. He continued to run a physiotherapy practice in the Phibsboro area and treated many prominent GAA players and other athletes in his private practice.

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Saint Saviours – searching for a Farrell

The above photograph features my grandfather and namesake Gerard Farrell. Well at least I think it does, I’m fairly sure he’s the guy in the back row, fourth from the left, standing next to the goalkeeper. The photo was found as with wider Farrell and Taylor clans sat in a pub in Cabra looking through various albums and mementos that had belonged to my grand-aunt Betty whose funeral we’d just attended that morning.

A close look at the crest on the jersey seems to confirm it is the now defunct Saint Saviours football team who were based around the Dominick Street area of Dublin’s north inner city. The crest relates back to the Dominican order and the impressive Saint Saviours church and priory complex that remain on Dominick Street to this day. The most notable success of Saint Saviours F.C. was their winning of the FAI Junior Cup in 1959 although the team would fold only a few years later.

My father played for Saint Saviours under-age sides in the 50’s before moving to Drumcondra F.C. and later Bohemians. From talking to both my Dad and my auntie Betty I know that my grandfather Gerard Farrell also played for Saint Saviours and was by all accounts a prolific centre-forward for them. This would have been somewhere roughly between 1937 and 1940. This would have been the era when the photo was taken.

Last week was the first time I’ve ever seen this photo. I don’t know of any other family connections who would have resulted in this photo ended up among my aunt’s belongings. I’d love to find out more about the members of this team and confirm for definite that it is my grandfather in the back row but there are so few people left who would remember or recognise members of a local side from more than 70 years ago.

If anyone does know more about the Saint Saviours team from this era, or indeed recognise and Farrell’s in the photo please do get in touch.

Oh commemorate me where there’s football

Do we make a political statement when we as a society decide who to remember and who to forget, whose home or resting place is commemorated, and those who remained unmentioned? This is an argument as old as portraiture and statuary, but one that seems especially relevant today.

Beyond our shores, the ‘Rhodes must fall’ protest movement in South Africa, and more recently in Britain, has campaigned for the removal of statues depicting Cecil Rhodes, as part of a wider protest against institutional racial discrimination. Protests in the United States, especially in the south, have focused on the commemoration of Confederate icons of their Civil War. This has included groups calling for the removal of statues of figures such as Jefferson Davis, while also sparking some counter-protests from torch-wielding white supremacists. This has recently culminated in the outbreak of deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia due to the local government’s decision to remove a statue of the Confederate General and slave-owner Robert E. Lee.

In Ireland the contested nature of symbols and artwork has been especially prominent in recent years. The 12th of July commemorations by sections of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland continue to be a highly sensitive issue with occasional flashpoints, while last year saw the huge state commemoration of the 1916 Rising. While there seemed to be broad public support for the tone and content of the commemorations, they have not been immune from criticism. The commemorative wall in Glasnevin Cemetery which listed all the dead from the Rising, and included not just Irish Volunteers and civilians but also British soldiers, was vandalised with paint only a few months ago. Similarly, the statue of Irish Republican Sean Russell that stands in Fairview Park has been repeatedly been vandalised over the years by various groups, including its decapitation, due to his wartime links with Nazi Germany and indeed the Soviet Union.

These historic events and personages are marked either by significant commemorative events, like the 12th of July “festivities” with marches and bonfires, or by physical monuments, like the remembrance wall in Glasnevin, or the statue of Russell. There is also much to be said about the nature of a society in showing who is not commemorated in word, art or celebration. The Tuam babies story, of over 800 children buried in an unmarked grave in a former septic tank has dominated public discussion and forced the nation into uncomfortable reflection about our recent past.  For decades, the remains of these babies and toddlers from the Sisters of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway, were disposed of as though they were detritus. It was only the work of local people, especially the meticulous research of amateur historian Catherine Corless that brought this story to national attention and meant that these deceased children could at least be remembered and perhaps suitably commemorated.

To try and consider all physical points of remembrance or indeed collective amnesia in a country, or even a city like Dublin would be a lifelong task, but living around Dublin 9 and having a particular interest I’ve decided to focus my modest talents on how our city commemorates something a little more trivial, though still important to many: its footballers.

Dublin has long been the hub for football in the Republic of Ireland, producing more international players than all other counties combined. Areas like Cabra or Ringsend could field full international XI’s out of players born in those suburbs alone. The city is also home to the main stadiums used for international matches, Lansdowne Road, which hosted its first football international in 1900, and Dalymount Park, home to Bohemian F.C. since 1901 and for many years the main home stadium for the Republic of Ireland national team after the FAI/IFA split in 1921. Other stadiums from the past and present such as Drumcondra’s Tolka Park and Glenmalure Park in Milltown also feature prominently in Irish football history. Yet the sport has also seemed controversial to some, viewed as an un-Irish, “garrison game” that was not truly representative of a post independent Ireland. My focus is on who and what we as a supposedly football-loving city have chosen to commemorate.

Plaque build-up

From a quick examination, the commemoration of football in Dublin street signs and plaques is fairly limited to ex-Ireland internationals of prominence, or those sites associated with the creation of the most well-known city clubs.

In terms of playing personnel, there are three men commemorated publicly that I could find; John Giles, Liam Whelan and Patrick O’Connell. Giles, who was the first of these three to receive a commemorative plaque, is also the youngest of the three and the only one still alive. His plaque is located in Ormond Square, Dublin 7, just off the city quays close to the house where he was born.

Giles collage
John Giles Irish International Footballer was born and raised in Ormond Square – Heroes come from here

The square of houses surrounds a playground area and, appropriately, the plaque is mounted on a low wall surrounding this space. It was unveiled in 2006 and the intention of the message seems to aim as inspiration for children living in this part of the city. It seems to suggest that if Johnny Giles could make it as an elite player for Manchester United and Leeds United, play for and manage Ireland then the future should likewise be wide open for other children from this area.

Giles is of course something of a national institution, rightfully regarded as one of the country’s greatest ever players. He also managed Ireland for seven years, and later became known to successive generations due to his extended service as a newspaper, radio and television football pundit through the many highs and lows of the Irish national team.

Giles seems to still be held in affection by the vast majority of Irish football fans despite his playing or managerial involvement ending almost 40 years ago. As a player he was one of our most technically gifted and sought to encourage a more expansive style of play when Irish manager. He found success in England as a cup winner with Manchester United before his move to Leeds United, where he won two league titles, an FA Cup, League Cup and two Fairs/Uefa cups.

Liam Whelan bridge
Liam Whelan Bridge, Connaught Street, Cabra, Dublin 7

Not a great distance from either of the two spots in Dublin that John Giles called home stands a plaque to another ex-Manchester United star, Liam Whelan. The plaque in question is on the east side of a bridge that links Connaught Street across the old railway lines, now part of the extended Luas green route, to Fassaugh Road. The bridge has been known as Liam Whelan Bridge since an act of Dublin City Council gave it that name in 2006. It’s is a fitting location, as the bridge is just a few seconds walk from St. Attracta Road, where Liam was born.

While Liam was an exceptional player, a back to back league winner with the stylish Manchester United side of the mid-fifties, it is more his tragic death in the Munich air disaster at the tender age of 22 for which he is most remembered. Whelan made but 98 first team appearances for Manchester United and won only 4 four senior caps for Ireland, two of those appearances made in Dalymount Park, located just yards from the bridge that bears his name.

Then as now, Manchester United were a hugely popular team in Ireland. They had been captained to FA Cup glory in 1948 by Irish international Johnny Carey, and a year later 48,000 fans packed out Dalymount Park for a testimonial match for Bohemians’ legendary trainer Charlie Harris, between Bohemians and Man Utd .

The “Busby Babes” team were famed not just for their youth but for the appealing, attacking style of football they played. Liam had been their top scorer when they won their second consecutive title in the 1956-57 season, scoring 33 goals in all competitions. His loss, and that of his team-mates symbolised the unfulfilled potential of a group of young men cut down before even reaching their prime.

Patrick O'Connell
Patrick O’Connell plaque at 87 Fitzroy Avenue, Dublin

The most recently unveiled football related plaque in Dublin City is in remembrance of Patrick O’Connell. He was born in Dublin in 1887, growing up on Fitzroy Avenue in Drumcondra, just a stones throw from Croke Park. Patrick was a successful footballer for Belfast Celtic before moving across the Irish Sea with spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and Manchester United. He also made six appearances for the Irish national team and was a member of the victorious Home Nations Championship winning side of the 1913-14 season, Ireland’s first victory in the competition.

Despite a relatively successful and eventful playing career (captaining Manchester United, becoming embroiled in a betting scandal, winning the Home Nations), O’Connell is best remembered for his managerial achievements. He began his managerial career as  player-manager with Ashington before moving to Spain in 1922. During more than 25 years in Spain he managed a host of clubs, including Racing Santander, Real Oviedo, Barcelona and both of the major Seville clubs; Real Betis and Sevilla. O’Connell even lead Betis to their sole league title in the 1934-35 season. Strangely, despite the influence of Irish players and managers in Britain, this is success is more recent than the last time an Irish manager won the League in England, Belfast’s Bob Kyle with Sunderland in 1913.

O’Connell is revered as a hero in Betis for this championship victory, and is similarly lauded in Barcelona as the man who saved the club from going bankrupt during the tumult of the Spanish Civil War by arranging a series of lucrative foreign tours that kept both the club coffers full and the players out of harm’s way.

The tireless activities of O’Connell’s descendants and enthusiasts has meant that this previously forgotten footballing pioneer is now commemorated not only in Dublin but in Seville, Barcelona, Belfast and in London where he is buried. The efforts of this small group has seen television and radio documentaries commissioned as well as a biography being published. In this regard O’Connell is the 3rd Manchester United player commemorated in Dublin, but the only manager. His unique achievements in Spain and his crucial role in the history of Barcelona setting him apart in an Irish footballing context.

Pubs, clubs and housing estates

Many League of Ireland fans understandably feel that our domestic game gets a raw deal in wider Irish society, and with the FAI and the Irish media in particular. John Delaney’s description of the league as the “problem child” of Irish football only seemed to confirm this to the die-hard supporters of clubs around the country. However, it was not always thus. In the early days of the FAI, domestic clubs held significant sway and grandees of League of Ireland sides made up many of the committees of the FAI, including the selection committees for the national team.

Dublin has always been at the forefront of the game in this country. Again, the capital alone has comfortably provided more international players than every other county combined and the Dublin clubs have generally tended to be among the predominant clubs in the league, regardless of the era.

Upon creation of the Free State League in 1921 after the split from the IFA, the entirety of the eight-team division were Dublin based clubs. Prior to that, the only non-Ulster based clubs to compete in the Irish league came from the capital. Bohemian F.C. and Shelbourne, two clubs formed in the 1890s who remain in existence today and both their founding locations are commemorated.

Gate lodge
The gate lodge at the North Circular Road entrance to the Phoenix Park. Bohemian FC were founded here in 1890.

Bohemian F.C. were founded on the 6th September 1890 in the Gate Lodge at the North Circular Road entrance to the Phoenix Park. Those forming the club were young men in their late teens from Bells Academy, a civil service college in North Great Georges Street, and students from the Hibernian Military School, also located in the Phoenix Park.Gate lodge plaque The early matches of the club were played on the nearby Polo grounds. By 1894 the club had its first major piece of silverware, the Leinster Senior Cup, defeating Dublin University 3-0 in the final. It was to be the first of six consecutive victories in the competition. Less than two years after that first victory John Fitzpatrick became the first Bohs player to be capped at international level, captaining Ireland on his debut against England.

The club continued to grow, purchasing Pisser Dignam’s field in Phibsboro as their new home ground. Dalymount Park, named after the nearby line of terrace houses remains the club’s home to this day. It also played host to dozens of cup finals and hundreds of international matches. Bohemians were founder members of the Free State league, becoming champions for the first time in 1923-24. The club have proceeded to win the title on a further ten occasions.

Shels collage
Shelbourne F.C. plaque on Slattery’s Pub

 

Shelbourne were founded in what is now Slattery’s Pub at the corner of South Lotts Road, Bath Avenue and Shelbourne Road in 1895 by a group of dock workers from the local Ringsend/Sandymount area. Their name was reportedly decided upon by a coin toss between the various nearby streets. By the 1902-03 season they were champions of the Leinster Senior League and by 1905 they had become one of the first Dublin clubs to begin paying players, with James Wall receiving the princely sum of a halfpenny per week!

Paying players seemed to pay dividends because by 1906 the had become the first side from outside of Ulster to win the IFA Cup beating Belfast Celtic in the final. Other triumphs would follow and to date Shelbourne have won 13 league titles and seven FAI Cups.

 

Rovers5
Commemorating the founding of Shamrock Rovers in 1901. The building is located on Irishtown Road.

Shamrock Rovers, as with Shelbourne mentioned above, took their name from a street in the local area around Ringsend, in this case Shamrock Avenue. The street as it was then no longer remains, but is roughly located where the Square is today, a small side street off Irishtown Road. The first home ground of the nascent Rovers was Ringsend Park, just to the rear of Shamrock Avenue. The club was formed at a meeting held at number 4 Irishtown Road, the home of Lar Byrne, the first secretary of Shamrock Rovers. The plaque shown above commemorates this event, and can be found on Irishtown Road near to the corner with the Square, opposite the Ringsend public library.

Ringsend map collage
Irishtown Road past and present

Ringsend Park would not remain Shamrock Rovers’ permanent home for too long, as the club moved to a number of grounds in their early years and withdrew for competitive football completely on a number of occasions. However, by the early 20s, they were on the rise. They finished as runners-up in the inaugural FAI Cup final in 1921, and would win the league title a year later. By late 1926, Rovers had begun playing their matches in Glenmalure Park on the Milltown Road, and they had been playing on other pitches nearby in the years immediately preceding 1926. Glenmalure Park would remain Rovers’ home until 1987, when it was finally sold for redevelopment as a housing estate by the club’s owner, Louis Kilcoyne. The Rovers support had strongly opposed this move, and formed the pressure group KRAM (Keep Rovers At Milltown) to fight this decision. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful and the intervening years would see Rovers lead a peripatetic existence, moving to Tolka Park, Dalymount Park, the RDS and Morton Stadium amongst others, before finally relocating to their present home in Tallaght in 2009.

Glenmalure Park retains a strong significance for Rovers fans, and more than a decade after leaving, a monument commemorating their time on the Milltown Road was unveiled in 1998. In credit to Shamrock Rovers, a particularly active brand of their support have been prominent in recording and marking their heritage and history, not just with the plaque above, but also with initiatives like the fundraising for a new headstone for their former striker Paddy Moore.

Monument collage
Monument to Glenmalure Park on the Milltown Road at the former site of the stadium

This is pretty much the sum total of the football commemorations that I could find, although I would appreciate any other suggestions. For clarity I’ve excluded and plaques, monuments and such that exist within football grounds and clubhouses. A quick review shows that despite the long football heritage of the city, very little of this is marked physically.

Statues of other sports stars adorn other parts of the country, from the recently unveiled statue of Sonia O’Sullivan in Cobh, to numerous GAA stars remembered in bronze in other parts of the country, hurlers Nicky Rackard in Wexford Town and Ollie Walsh in Thomastown being two personal favourites. There is a statue of Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros at Heritage golf club in Co. Laois, and even our four-legged friends have been immortalised, with the legendary racing greyhound Mick the Miller getting pride of place in the centre of Killeigh, Co. Offaly and another of his ancestor Master McGrath just outside Dungarvan. In terms of football, there is a statue of big Jack Charlton in Cork Airport, but if you didn’t know him as the former Irish manager you might think it commemorates a noted angler.

So what have we learned? In Dublin, to be a footballer and receive a physical commemoration, it really helps if you’ve played for Manchester United! Apart from the three mentioned above, the city’s three biggest clubs are all remembered at their places of birth, while Rovers’ home ground at their peak has also been commemorated in granite and bronze. Perhaps Tolka Park will receive similar treatment if and when it is redeveloped? I for one would certainly hope so.

I’ll end on one final commemorative plaque. This one is on Parnell Square East and marks the birth place of the inimitable Oliver St. John Gogarty. The plaque commemorates Gogarty as a Surgeon, Poet and Statesman. Plenty more terms could be added. He was the inspiration for the character Buck Mulligan in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and he was also a fine sportsman, in swimming, cricket and indeed football. Gogarty was a Bohemian F.C. player from 1896 until at least 1898 and featured as a forward in the clubs first XI. It may not be as a footballer that he is best remembered but it was certainly another string to his bow.Gogarty2

Ernie Crawford he’s our friend

Regular attendees to Dalymount Park may have noticed a new flag appearing around Block F. It features a bare chested man with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and bears the legend Ernie Crawford – He’s our friend, he hates Rovers. But who, you may ask was Ernie Crawford?

Born in Belfast in November 1891 Ernie was perhaps best known for his endeavours on the Rugby pitch. He starred for Malone in Belfast and later Lansdowne Rugby Club and won 30 caps for Ireland, fifteen of them as Captain between 1920 and 1927. After retirement he was heavily involved in administration as President of Lansdowne Rugby Club between 1939 and 1941 and President of the IRFU in the 1957/58 season as well as being an Irish team selector between 1943 and 1951 and again between 1955-1957. His obituary in the Irish Times listed him as one of the greatest rugby full-backs of all time, he was honoured for his contribution to sport by the French government and even featured on a Tongan stamp celebrating rugby icons.

He was also a successful football player who turned out for Cliftonville, for Bohemians and on a number of occasions for Athlone Town. He was even a passable cricket player. Ernie was a chartered accountant by trade and moved to Dublin to take up the role of accountant at the Rathmines Urban Council in 1919, and this facilitated his joining Bohemians. Despite his greater reputation as a rugby player, Ernie, as a footballer for Bohs, was still considered talented enough to be part of the initial national squad selected by the FAIFS (now the FAI) for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. In all, six Bohemians were selected (Bertie Kerr, Jack McCarthy, Christy Robinson, John Thomas & Johnny Murray were the others and were trained by Bohs’ Charlie Harris), but when the squad had to be cut to only 16 players Ernie was dropped, though he chose to accompany the squad to France as a reserve. The fact that he was born in Belfast may have led to him being cut due to the tension that existed with the FAIFS and the IFA over player selection. However, even as a travelling supporter, he caused some controversy. He was stopped by customs officials en route to Paris and had to explain the presence of a revolver in his possessions. Ernie’s reply was merely that he brought the gun for his “piece of mind”. Not that this was Ernie’s first experience with firearms.

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Ernie in military uniform, appearing on a Tongan postage stamp and in rugby kit

Ernie had served and been injured during the First World War. That he could captain the Irish Rugby Team and be selected for the Olympics is even more impressive when you consider that during the Great War Ernie was shot in the wrist at Arras, France in 1917 causing him to be invalided from the Army and to lose the power in three of his fingers. He had enlisted in the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons in October 1914 and was commissioned and later posted to the London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), becoming a Lieutenant in August 1917. After his injury he finished his war service on the staff of the Ministry of Munitions. He was a recipient of both the British War medal and Victory Medal.

Ernie later returned to Belfast where he became City Treasurer in 1933. It was in Belfast in 1943 that Ernie encountered Bohs again, as he was chosen to present the Gypsies with the Condor Cup after their victory over Linfield in the annual challenge match.

One of the reasons that his memory has lasted nearly a century with the Bohemians faithful and why a group of us decided to get a flag made up bearing his image centres around a minor cup tie. Ernie, due to his Rugby and also his professional commitments tended to not be a regular starter for Bohemians, his appearances tended to be because of the injury or suspension of other players or as part of reduced strength sides in smaller cup competitions.

As we all know however, when it comes to games against Rovers there are no “smaller ties”. After one particularly tough cup game against Shamrock Rovers an angry Crawford removed his jersey challenged Rovers star forward Bob Fullam to a fight in the middle of the pitch. It’s this moment that the image on the flag imagines!

Fullam himself was no shrinking violet, as well as being an accomplished footballer who was capped twice by Ireland he supplemented his income as a docker in Dublin Port. He finished the 1922 FAI Cup final amid a mass brawl after Rovers were beaten by St. James Gate. The fighting only ceased when the brother of the Gate’s Charlie Dowdall reportedly confronted Fullam with a pistol.

Ernie himself seemed to have been one of those “larger than life” characters, quite aside from bringing a gun to the Olympics and bare-chested on-pitch scraps he also fell foul of Rugby referees one of whom complained about Crawford’s back-chat and claimed that such was the roughness of his play “that the definition of a “tackle” should be sent in black and white to him”. On another occassion an English rugby opponent remembers Crawford treating him and his wife to dinner and giving them a lift back in his car which didn’t happen to have any working headlights. Ernie in an attempt to beat traffic tried to get between a tram and the pavement without much success, badly denting the side of his car and scratching up the paintwork of the tram car. The angry tram driver jumped from the vehicle but on recognising that the other driver was non other than Irish rugby captain Ernie Crawford he let the car pass unhindered, taking off more paint as he went.

In 1932 he became the first man from Britain or Ireland to be awarded the silver medal of honour by the French ministry of sport and physical education for his contributions to the world of sport. Apart from sport he was obviously professionally successful, being City Treasurer of Belfast until his retirement in 1954, he was also trained as a barrister and took an interest in economics. He died in 1959 and was survived by his wife and three children.

Ernie Crawford, he’s our friend.

 

Useful resources on Ernie’s career include Paul Rouse’s History of Irish Sport, Tadhg Carey’s When we were Kings and David Needham’s Ireland’s first real World Cup and the Dictionary of Irish biography.

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.

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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”.

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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.

 

 

The remarkable life 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 Henry Otto, the versatile Bohemians half-back, better known as Billy, who captained the team.

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 surname, without having the 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 as his story developed it brought me on quite an unexpected journey.

What we know about Billy Otto begins with his birth in December of 1898, son of another William Henry Otto, in Robben Island just off Cape Town, South Africa. Robben Island is most famous for being the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years from the 1960’s to 1980’s. However in 1898 it was a leper colony. William Henry Otto Snr. was a pharmacist which explains his presence on the island, though it was hardly the ideal place for a new born baby as part of the growing family. Billy being the 2nd born of a large family of 10 children.

In 1915, before he had even reached his 17th birthday young Billy had volunteered to join the 1st South African Infantry Regiment and was off to fight in World War I under the command of Brigadier General Henry Lukin. The Regiment was part of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force which was a volunteer military organisation that fought on the British side against the Central Powers during the war. Billy’s regiment was colloquially known as the “Cape Regiment” as this was the area that provided the bulk of their manpower.

Early on the regiment fought along with the British in North Africa and Billy was involved in the Action of Agagia in Egypt in February 1916 as part of what was known as the Senussi campaign. The Senussi were a religious sect based in Libya and Egypt who had been encouraged by Ottoman Turkey to attack the British. The engagement at Agagia led to the capture of one of the Senussi leaders.

But by May 1916 the 1st South African Infantry had left Africa and had been transferred to Europe and the Western Front and where they were joined into the 9th Scottish Division. They would take part in some of the many epic and bloody engagements of the Battle of the Somme at Longueval and at Delville Wood. Brigadier-General Henry Lukin and his South African troops were ordered to take and hold Delville Wood at all costs. The battle was for a tiny and ultimately insignificant sliver of land as part of the huge Somme offensive and began on 15th July of 1916. By the 18th of July Billy had been injured in a massive German counter-offensive, the Germans shelled the small section of the Wood for seven and a half hours and over the course of day, in an area less than one square mile, 20,000 shells fell. One account described the trees of the woodland being turned to matchsticks by the end of the bombardment.

The South African soldiers would continue to be shelled and sniped at from three sides until the July 20th when suffering from hunger, thirst and exhaustion they were led out of the wood. The Battle of Deville Wood would be the most costly action that the South African forces on the Western Front would endure, of the 3,153 men from the brigade who entered the wood, only 780 were present at the roll call after their relief.

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Deville Wood South African National Memorial (source wikipedia)

The injured Billy would ultimately be sent to England to recuperate and it is likely that from here he got the idea to travel to Ireland. What prompted this we simply don’t yet know.

What we do know is that 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 that year with the club also finishing as League runners-up the following year, he would also become a member of the club committee. 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 return to 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 list 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.

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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.

Billy had lived out his days in his native Cape Town, he and Chriss had three sons, another William Henry, Brian Barry and Terrence John. Whatever about his interest in bloodstock and horse racing Billy also had other business interests running an off-licence (locally known as “bottle stores”) up to the time of his death in 1958. In just 60 years he had led quite the life and defied the odds in many ways. Born in a leper colony, as a teenager he had survived the horrors of the Somme to go on and become one of the first prominent South African born footballers in Europe. He captained his club to a League title and faced off against the national team of his home nation in one of their earliest games. He built a life, friendships and family across two continents and I hope I’ve done a small part in restoring him to the consciousness of the Bohemian fraternity.

With thanks to Simon O’Gorman and Stephen Burke for their assistance and input and a special thank you to Maryanne and all of the Otto/Calitz family for sharing information about their late grandfather.

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. These included 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 were won through the charm of Steve Wright and the bankbook of Dundalk F.C. and coupled with the beginnings of a generation of young local players such as Joey Donnelly had begun to bring success. There was 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 paid 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 even 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. going in their time of need and he personally was one of the largest financial 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. He had remained active as an architect into the 1950’s where he was joined by his son Daniel (trading as V.J. O’Connell & Son), and 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.

 

 

 

Before they were famous: Bayern Munich

One of Pep Guardiola’s last acts as manager of Bayern Munich was to lift the DFB Pokal trophy, it had already been announced that he was on his way to England and Manchester City but the delight on Guardiola’s face showed that he hadn’t checked out just yet. He was enjoying the occasion; he was, after all, a serial winner relishing his last trophy as manager of one of world’s biggest clubs. The league title had been wrapped up nearly two weeks earlier when the Bayern players raised the famous “salad bowl” trophy. This made it Guardiola’s second double of his Bayern tenure and marked a record breaking fourth consecutive Bundesliga title. Despite this unprecedented success there were some who felt the club should have won more; for some, only reaching three consecutive Champions League semi-finals meant they had fallen short. Under previous coach Jupp Heynckes they had enjoyed even greater success winning a treble of League, Cup and the European Cup.

Such is the dominance of the very elite clubs in various European Leagues it can feel that the league winners have been as good as decided before we even reach September. Perhaps this season will bring some surprises but in Italy, Juventus are heavy favourites to once again retain their title. Likewise, Paris Saint Germain in France and Bayern Munich in Germany. However, while Bayern’s dominance might seem preordained it was not always thus.

Formed in 1900 Bayern had enjoyed “early” successes, winning a couple of regional titles in the 1920’s before winning the last National title (1931-32) before the German sport system was taken over by the Third Reich. This maiden title for the club was contested in a knock-out format between the top two sides from each of the regional leagues and at the time, football in Germany was still technically an amateur sport. It would be over 35 years before the Bavarians would win another league title.

When the first Bundesliga season began in the late summer of 1963 Bayern Munich were not even among its member clubs. A decision had been made the year earlier to do away with regional leagues and to institute a proper, professional, national league and the winners of the Oberliga Sud (Bayern’s regional league), were their city neighbours TSV 1860 München. Although Bayern finished third that year which should have been enough to qualify them for the new national Bundesliga, the German FA did not want two teams from the same city represented so 1860 progressed at their neighbours’ expense.

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TSV 1860 München had been founded as a sports club, not as their name suggests in 1860, but as a gymnastics club in 1848. Due to a political decree during tumultuous times they were disbanded but officially reformed in 1860 with their football division beginning a year before Bayern in 1899. The club enjoyed great popularity in their debut season in the Bundesliga, averaging a respectable average attendance of 34,000 at the Grünwalder Stadion which they shared with Bayern. In fact, they had been Bayern’s landlords there from 1925 until the Second World War when the stadium was bombed and badly damaged in 1944. During the debut Bundesliga season, they would win the German Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt and went on to contest the following year’s Cup Winner’s Cup final, losing 2-0 to West Ham.

Far from being one of Europe’s leading clubs Bayern at this stage were not even the biggest club in their city. They were eventually promoted to the top flight for the 1965-66 season and managed to win the German Cup that year while finishing a very respectable 3rd place in a league that was eventually won by their city rivals 1860. That Cup win was Bayern’s first major trophy in almost a decade. In the final they defeated Meidericher SV by 4 goals to 2, the fourth was scored by one of the club’s precocious young talents, a twenty-year-old by the name of Franz Beckenbauer.

Beckenbauer was not the only young star making waves for this upwardly mobile Bayern team. The club’s shrewd President Wilhelm Neudecker, a wealthy construction magnate had begun investing in the side to turn them from a regional yo-yo club into one that could deliver success. In 1963 the Croatian Zlatko “Čik” Čajkovski, who had starred as a player for Partizan Belgrade and Yugoslavia in the 40’s and 50’s, was brought in to coach the then second tier side. This represented something of a coup as Čajkovski had coached FC Köln to the title in 1962 yet here he was taking a step down to coach a side that hadn’t yet made the Bundesliga. But Bayern had some exceptional young talent coming through; Beckenbauer had joined as a youth in 1959 having stormed out of the youth ranks of 1860 after a row broke out during the final of an under-14’s tournament. A teenage keeper named Sepp Maier had made his debut the year before Cajkovski’s arrival and then in 1964 President Neudecker presented his new coach with his latest young prospect, an 18-year-old called Gerd Muller. To begin with Cajkovski was unimpressed, dismissing the somewhat tubby 5’9” striker with the following statement to his club President: “I’m not putting that little elephant in among my string of thoroughbreds”. The little elephant, however, knew where the goal was.

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During the late 60’s and into the early 70’s Bayern either developed or signed from lower the leagues players of the calibre of Beckenbauer, Muller, Maier, Paul Breitner, Franz Roth, Uli Hoeneß and Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck. Not only would all of these players win multiple leagues, cups and European Cups but they would also help the West Germans defeat the great Dutch team in the World Cup final of 1974. They had hardly cost Bayern a penny in transfer fees.

After the success of their debut Bundesliga season Bayern had the added distraction of a first European campaign to deal with due to participation in the Cup Winners Cup. They managed to out-do the previous efforts of their neighbours 1860 by going on and winning the competition defeating Rangers in a tight final after extra time. The winner came in the 109th minute from 21-year-old midfielder Franz Roth who would develop a habit of getting crucial goals in major finals.

By the end of the 60’s Bayern were truly in the ascendancy, there were coaching changes with Cajkovski departing for Hannover and being replaced by Branko Zebec, his former Partizan and Yugoslavia teammate. Zebec had coached Dinamo Zagreb to victory in the Inter City Fairs Cup in 1966-67 and introduced a more structured defensive approach with Bayern. During Cajkovski’s last season in charge the club had scored an impressive 68 goals in 34 games but had conceded the worryingly high number of 58. In Zebec’s first season they scored 61 (30 coming from Muller) but conceded a miserly 31. They finished eight points clear of Alemannia Aachen to comfortably win the league title. They followed this up with a 2-1 Cup win over Schalke (two more goals from Muller) to win the first double in Bundesliga history. Zebec also made Beckenbauer captain that season and the young midfielder began experimenting with his distinctive sweeper type role with which he would become synonymous.

A three in a row run of league titles at the beginning of the 70s showed how this young group was maturing, they added to their ranks bringing in a young, attacking full-back named Paul Breitner, and in attack Uli Hoeneß, who would help shape the club on and off the pitch for the next five decades. But Europe was a learning curve for the young side. In the 1972-73 season, they were well beaten 5-2 on aggregate by eventual winners Ajax at the Quarter final stage. The following year they were almost eliminated in the first round by Swedish champions Åtvidaberg before narrowly beating East German champions Dynamo Dresden in the next stage. They met Spanish champions Atletico Madrid in Brussels in the final, which was forced to a replay after a nervy 1-1 draw. In the replay, however, Bayern showed a devastating competitive edge, hounding the Spaniards in possession, counter-attacking at pace with a frightening directness, with Muller and Hoeneß scoring two each.

Back at home in the Bundesliga, Bayern’s great rivals of the 1970s, Borussia Mönchengladbach, were the dominant team as Bayern struggled domestically, the demands of Europe taking their toll. In 74-75 when Bayern defeated Leeds in a controversy filled final the Bavarians finished a disappointing 10th. But midfielder Rainer Zobel described how, despite struggling to beat average Bundesliga sides, Bayern could raise their game in Europe. Leeds fans still feel aggrieved when the final of 1975 is mentioned, often highlighting the stunning Peter Lorimer strike that was disallowed as evidence of their bad luck. What is seldom mentioned is that Bayern lost two players to injury caused by rough tackles from Leeds players, defender Björn Andersson after two minutes and Uli Hoeneß just before half-time. Watching the footage back, an aging Leeds side had no answer to the stylish build-up to Roth’s goal in the 71st minute or when, ten minutes later, Müller got goal-side of his marker and scored at the near post from six yards out.

 

Having defeated first the champions of Spain and then the champions of England in their consecutive finals, Bayern then faced St. Etienne, the champions of France, and one of the finest sides in the history of the French League. Hampden Park was the venue in 1976, but there was to be no repeat of the 1960 final goal-fest. St. Etienne were unlucky with Bethanay hitting the cross-bar and Santini hitting the famous “square posts” of the Hampden goals. Bayern however, while not dominant, displayed the sort of mental toughness and doggedness that have become synonymous with German teams. Muller had a goal ruled out for offside, before Beckenbauer squared for Roth to score in his second consecutive final.

The bulk of these successes were won by a core group of players who had come through the club ranks as youngsters, however the club were not averse to splashing the cash when necessary; Jupp Kapellmann was brought in for a German transfer record from FC Köln in 1973, the same year the club snapped up Swedish international Conny Torstensson after he impressed against Bayern in the early rounds of the European Cup. Parallels with a modern Bayern can be seen with a locally developed core of players (Lahm, Thomas Muller, Alaba, and even a returning Mats Hummels) complemented by the best talent bought in from Germany and further afield.

Nowadays, Bayern are based in the ultra-modern Allianz arena which was initially shared and co-owed with neighbours 1860. However, in 2006 Bayern’s one-time landlords were forced to sell their share of the stadium rights to deal with their financial problems. While construction magnate Wilhelm Neudecker is long gone the Bayern boardroom is now filled with former players and blue-chip commercial partners; alongside Executive board members like Karl Heinz Rumminigge sit Triple A corporate representatives from Adidas, Audi and Allianz which helps explain the club’s rude financial health. The massive financial clout of Bayern and their ability to cherry-pick the best of their opponent’s players has meant that it is sometimes hard to envision a Bundesliga that was not the domain of the Bavarians, but thanks to strong support from an ambitious club president, excellent scouting networks, improvements in coaching and a once in a lifetime group of players Bayern went from the Second Division to European powerhouse within the course of a decade.

This post originally appeared on the Football Pink

Celtic connections

They came across the narrow channel from the Antrim coast in the north-east of Ireland to the island of Iona in a wicker currach leaving behind conflict and bringing their religion to the neighbouring land. It was the year 563AD and their leader was Columba, a man now venerated as a Saint whose patronages include the lands of Ireland and Scotland and with him he rather appropriately brought twelve followers.

He certainly wasn’t the first Irish man to make this crossing. The Dál Riata kingdom of north Antrim had been expanding into western Scotland since the early 5th Century, even before that in the 3rd Century the Picts who lived north of Hadrian’s Wall had sought help from their Irish neighbours in their campaigns against Roman imperial might. Back then the Romans had referred to the tribes of northern Britain as the Caledonians, they called their Irish allies the Scotti.

In time Iona, where Columba landed became a great centre of learning and religious devotion and a prestigious Abbey was founded there. From Iona, the Picts were gradually converted to Christianity as were the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria. In the centuries to come the name of the Scotti would become the name of the Gaelic speaking land north of the River Forth; Scotland – the land of the Gaels. Iona remained a focal point for centuries, it was a burial place for Scottish Kings who traced their power and authority back to the sacred island.

Iona monastery
The medieval Abbey church on Iona

But if the Irish gave Scotland its very name and the beginnings of the Christian faith then the Scots can lay some claim to giving Ireland football. In 1878, so the story goes, John McAlery, a Belfast businessman was on his honeymoon in Scotland and went to watch a game of Association Football. The views of Mrs. McAlery on this matter are not recorded. Greatly enamoured with the game the sporty Mr. McAlery arranged for an exhibition game to take place later that year in the Ulster Cricket Grounds in Belfast between Scottish sides Queens Park and Caledonians with Queen’s Park running out 3-2 winners.

A year later he formed Cliftonville Association Football Club in his home city and they advertised for new players as a club playing under the “Scottish Association Rules”. By the end of 1880 McAlery, along with  representatives from six other clubs had formed the Irish Football Association (IFA). Cliftonville F.C. exist to this day, while the IFA remains the 4th oldest Football Association in the world. While football had existed in Ireland before John McAlery it was he who set about putting in place a proper organisation and structure around the game. Had John taken his honeymoon somewhere other than Scotland then the history of football in Ireland may have been very different.

The game had grown quickly in the north east of Ireland and began in time to gain popularity in Dublin as well with the formation of clubs like Bohemian F.C. (1890) and Shelbourne F.C. (1895). A league was duly formed as well as cup competitions. But despite the good works of John McAlery and other early pioneers of the game Ireland’s early record in international competition makes for some harrowing reading. The international highlight in the early years was a 1-1 draw with Wales in 1883 sandwiched between a 7-0 loss to England and a 5-0 loss to Scotland. It would be 1914 before the Irish would win the annual Home Nations Championship outright, defeating Wales and England before facing Scotland knowing that if they avoided defeat they would triumph. Despite the match being held in Belfast Scotland remained the favourites, the Irish papers noting especially that the Scots were the more physically imposing side. However, in a torrential downpour a weakened Irish side managed to secure a draw and with it their first outright victory in the Home Nations Championship. They hadn’t beaten the Scots but they had won the day.

It was to be the last victory as a united Ireland though, not long after the end of the First World War the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) was formed as a breakaway association from the IFA.. The FAI eventually secured recognition from FIFA and, grudgingly, from the Home Nations as the Association representing the 26 counties that would become the Republic of Ireland. What they could not secure however was favour from the Home Nations who refused all fixture invitations from the nascent organisation. Eventually over two decades later England agreed to a friendly in 1946, Wales waited until 1960 before playing the Republic. Scotland refused all invitations and only played the Republic when drawn against them in a qualifier in 1961. Despite their breakaway from the IFA the FAI remained in awe of the Home Nations and valued games against them more than any other, they fervently craved not only the money that these games would bring but also some sense of acceptance from their neighbours. Naturally this made the cold shoulder that they received all the more painful.

This desperation for acceptance can be encapsulated in a single game. In 1939 Ireland were due to play the Hungarians, who had been runners up to Italy in the 1938 World Cup and had played against Ireland twice before in the recent past. On both occasions the matches took place in Dalymount Park in Dublin. However on this occasion the match took place in the smaller Mardyke grounds of University College Cork and home to League of Ireland side Cork F.C.

So why were the World Cup runners up being asked to play in a University sports ground rather than at the larger capacity Dalymount? Well because there was a bigger game taking place in Dalymount just two days earlier on St. Patrick’s Day 1939, when the League of Ireland representative side were taking on their Scottish league counterparts.

Even a game against a Scottish League XI was viewed as a huge mark of acceptance from their Scottish peers. While the game in the Mardyke would attract 18,000 spectators, a respectable return, over 35,000 would pack into Dalymount Park to see the stars of the Scottish League. At the time commentators were moved to describe the match against the Scottish League as “the most attractive and far reaching fixture that had been secured and staged by the South since they set out to fend for themselves” before adding that “for 20 years various and futile efforts have been made to gain recognition and equal status with the big countries at home. Equality is admitted by the visit of the Scottish League”. For the FAI a game against any Scottish team was a game against giants.

Giants, funnily enough, feature prominently in Celtic mythology. Fionn MacCumhaill is arguably Ireland’s most famous character from myth, famed for his size and for his prodigious strength. He is credited with having created the Isle of Mann by scooping out the land of Loch Neagh and hurling it into the Irish Sea. However even a man of this power was no match for the Scottish giant Benandonner. In myth Fionn learns that Benandonner is coming for him in combat from Scotland and Fionn does the only sensible thing, he runs to his wife for help. Benandonner is so huge that Fionn fears that even he won’t stand a chance in a fight so he does what any man would do, he has his wife dress him up as a giant baby and put him sleeping in a cradle in front of his fire. When Benandonner arrives demanding to know where Fionn is, Fionn’s wife Oona tells him that he is out but will be back shortly. She introduces the “baby” as her and Fionn’s infant son. Seeing the size of the baby and not wanting to meet the enormous child’s father Benandonner flees back to Scotland, on his way he destroys the bridge that links Scotland and Ireland behind him. Folklore tells that Antrim’s Giant’s Causway was a left as the remnants of this destroyed bridge.

For the FAI the Scots remained giants. Like Benandonner they could not be beaten by force but only by cunning. In 1963 a 1-0  victory by Ireland over Scotland in a friendly was greeted with elation by the Irish football public as one of its greatest ever  despite the narrow nature of the win.

While the awe in which the Scottish national team were held has faded significantly over the intervening decades the affection and devotion to one of her clubs remains as strong as ever. Writing as a Dubliner it sometimes seems impossible to avoid the prevalence of Celtic jerseys in my home city. In many ways this is understandable, while the island of Ireland might be grateful to John McAlery for bringing Scottish footballers to Ireland, the Irish in turn had a significant impact in creating the footballing landscape of Scotland. Beginning with the foundation of Hibernian F.C. in 1875 and continuing with the foundation of clubs like Dundee Harp, Dundee United and Celtic the Irish immigrant community and their descendants helped to create some of the most significant football clubs in Scotland.

This came about largely because of a period of mass migration of Irish people to Scotland from the 1820’s onward. Scotland’s industrial towns provided jobs, while Irish counties like Down, Antrim, Sligo and Donegal provided willing seasonable labour for Scottish factories, shipyards and farmers and this mass influx across the Irish Sea gathered apace after the Potato Famine began to grip Ireland in 1845. The parentage rule as introduced by FIFA has meant that the Irish national team have continually benefited from this immigrant connection even at the recent Euros two members of the Irish squad were Scottish born players; Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy.

Domestically clubs like Hibs and Celtic would emerge from these immigrant communities, often forming a charitable focal point at the centre of new Irish communities. While Hibs still prominently wear green and white and their current logo includes an Irish harp as a nod to their foundation (though it was removed from the crest for a period after the 1950s) they seem to be less defined by an Irish identity. Celtic however are for many the Irish club. This does have the tendency to cause some confusion for those fans of clubs actually based in Ireland.

Celtic’s Irish credentials are indeed impeccable. Founded in 1888 by Andrew Kerins an Irish Marist brother from Co. Sligo, (better known as Brother Walfrid), the club was created to support the poverty stricken Irish community in Glasgow. When Celtic Park was being opened in 1892 it was the Irish Nationalist and Land reform agitator Michael Davitt who laid the first sod,  the turf brought over from the “auld sod”, Co. Donegal. Davitt would be made an honorary patron of Celtic,  a position he also enjoyed in the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) who in 1905 would issue a ban on any member either participating in or even watching ‘foreign’ games.

“Foreign Games” meant anything that could be construed to be English, or indeed Scottish and as such obviously included Association Football which may have put the ageing Davitt in an awkward situation. The club have also had many prominent Irish players and managers associated with them throughout their long history; men such as Neil Lennon, Seán Fallon, Martin O’Neill and Packie Bonner, while even the likes of Roy and Robbie Keane have had brief Celtic cameos during their careers. In terms of ownership Irish businessman Dermot Desmond is the club’s largest individual shareholder. The early successes of Celtic helped prove that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery as in 1891 a group of Belfast sports enthusiasts from the Falls Road area formed Belfast Celtic F.C. Their early Chairman James Keenan noting that they chose their name “after our Glasgow friends, and that our aim should be to imitate them in their style of play, win the Irish Cup, and follow their example, especially in the cause of Charity.”

While all of this provides a strong basis for the popularity of the club in Ireland the other major aspect is of course that Celtic have been successful, from being the first British winners of the European Cup in 1967 to their 47 Scottish League titles theirs is a level of dominance, at least at domestic level, that is rarely seen. While as recently as the 2002-03 season Celtic reached the final of the UEFA Cup the fortunes of the club and the Scottish League in general have struggled recently when it has come to progress at European level. Despite this, support remains strong for the club in Ireland and their presence ubiquitous. Celtic flags and banners fly from Dublin city pubs while a musical treatment of Celtic’s history plays at present in one of the city’s most prominent theatres. In the commemorations to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising the imagery of Celtic has been invoked as somewhat apocryphally one can purchase a “replica” Celtic jersey emblazoned with the name “Connolly” where once a Magners cider logo appeared. A reference to the Scottish born labour activist James Connolly who was among the leaders of the Rising; son of Irish immigrants he was born in the Cowgate area of Edinburgh and was a passionate Hibernian fan.

Celtic collage
“Celtic the Musical” in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre, an Irish tricolour next to a Celtic Flag at a restaurant in Temple Bar, a “replica” Celtic jersey featuring the name of executed 1916 leader James Connolly.

The stories of Fionn and Benandonner, the competing giants of Ireland and Scotland remain prominent stories in Irish folklore however they enjoyed a new lease of life in the 18th Century when Scottish poet James Macpherson compiled and re-framed the ancient myths into a book of poetry. The publication of his work was a literary sensation at the time but also caused debate and controversy as Irish historians felt their literature and history were being appropriated. The truth is that as we’ve seen with the historic patterns of movement and the shared culture between the two islands; from 6th Century monks to the Ulster plantations and the Famine migrations of the mid 19th Century, the two nations share far more similarities than some political groups and indeed football fans would care to admit. It was from Scotland that the original Irish football organisers took their inspiration but even by that stage the Irish in Scotland were already creating clubs that would help to dominate the Scottish football landscape. In a confused and confusing identity relationship it becomes hard to separate the interwoven strands of our social and sporting DNA. Where the Irish ends and the Scottish begins.

This article originally appeared in the Football Pink issue 14, they’re a great publication and well worth a subscription.