The lost clubs – Drumcondra F.C.

DrumsAs a young lad the sporting geography of the city was always fairly fixed and familiar to me. You saw Bohs and maybe the odd Cup final at Dalymount. You saw Ireland in Lansdowne Road, the Dubs in the freezing expanse of Parnell Park in the league, and if things were going well, in Croke Park in the sun. Morton Stadium in Santry was an annual pilgrimage for the National Athletics championships and as for Tolka Park, well that was Shels’ home, and to the unquestioning mind of a child it was always thus.

But of course it wasn’t always so. Shelbourne were once of Ringsend and took their name from the Shelbourne Road next to the pub where they were founded. While they had spent seasons playing at Tolka in the past they only took over the lease of the ground in 1989. Tolka had originally been the home of Drumcondra F.C. a team that developed rapidly, whose success burned intensely, and who formed arguably one of Irish football’s most storied rivalries at the peak of the league’s popularity. And then almost as quick as their ascent, they disappeared from League of Ireland football.

The area around Drumcondra has always been fertile ground for sporting endeavour. As Dublin city grew beyond the traditional inner city district in the 19th Century the local and wider city population were also availing of greater freedom from the stresses of their work-life. Changes to the working week meant people finally had some proper leisure time, they had access to a growing rail network meaning that they could travel the country more easily. All this lead to the creation of many different local and national clubs and organisations, not surprisingly many focused around sporting activities.

In 1864 Alderman Maurice Butterly leased 21 acres near Jones Road, Drumcondra which for the next couple of decades would be known as the City and Suburban Sports Grounds and which could be hired out by a variety of sports clubs. In the early 1890’s these grounds were briefly the home of Bohemian F.C. they also were a venue for GAA matches. In fact the GAA liked the area so much that by 1907 they’d bought the lands and renamed them after their organisation’s patron Archbishop Thomas Croke.

As Drumcondra developed eastwards as a bustling suburb it should be no surprise that this sporting development continued as you crossed the river Tolka. By 1924 a group of enthusiastic locals including Tom Johnston, Christy Purcell, George Ollis, Paddy Dunne, Tom Cribben and Andy Quinn had founded Drumcondra F.C. and the club were quick to make progress. Even in their early years as a Leinster Senior League side Drums attracted prominent players, including former Bohemians stars Johnny Murray and Joe Grace. In 1926, despite still plying his trade for a lower league side Grace won his only Irish international cap against Italy in Turin. He remains to this day the only Leinster Senior League player to be capped by Ireland.

A year later, while still playing at Leinster Senior League level Drums began lifting serious silverware. They were winners of the inagural Intermediate Cup, then referred to as the Qualifying Cup as it qualified them for the 1st round proper of the FAI Cup. There followed wins over Jacob’s and Bohemians which saw the Drums through to the final where they faced Brideville. A 1-1 draw in the first game forced a replay, held in Shelbourne Park and an extra time winner from Johnny Murray secured the first of five FAI Cup wins for Drumcondra.

Drums got another cup final the following year, losing 2-1 to Bohemians before finally being accepted as a League of Ireland side a year later and shortly afterwards they moved away from their amateur ethos to paying players. It was later into the 1940’s before Drums began to emerge as a real force in the League of Ireland. These sides were built around a core of some exceptional footballers like Kit Lawlor, Benny “Rosie” Henderson and the young and ever versatile Con Martin. The final years of the decade also the emergence of their prolific centre forward Dessie Glynn. By the end of the 40’s Drumcondra had won two more FAI Cups (1942-43 and 1945-46) as well as their first two league titles (1947-48 and 1948-49).

It was perhaps this success that attracted new owners to the club. Father and son William and Walter Hunter had run the club up until the early 1950’s but they were soon to be replaced by another father and son team, that of Sam and Roy Prole. A younger son Robert Prole also became a club director while still a schoolboy and would later feature as a player for the club.

The Proles had a long involvement with Dundalk F.C. having made their money through the Great Northern Railway which had its works and a main station in Dundalk. In progressive moves they improved Tolka Park, levelling the pitch, adding roofs to stands, introducing pitch-side advertising boards and in 1953 Tolka became the first stadium to introduce floodlights when Drums played an exhibition game against St. Mirren in March of that year. The Proles also placed a major focus on developing young players and among the early managers that they appointed was Billy Behan. He was Manchester United’s eyes in Ireland, helping discover a plethora of great young talents from Liam Whelan to Paul McGrath. Perhaps the words of George Orwell may have stuck in the minds of Drumds fans of the time, If There Is Hope It Lies In The Proles. 

With Tolka Park now being developed into one of the better club grounds in the League there was plenty of drama on the pitch to keep supporters entertained. The 1950’s and into the early 1960’s in some ways signified a high watermark in the popularity of the League of Ireland. In an often grey and economically deprived Ireland the game offered a cheap and enjoyable spectacle and a stylish Drumcondra side were at the forefront. To this day recollections of their decade long rivalry with Shamrock Rovers has a misty-eyed effect on Irish football fans of a certain vintage and it’s not hard to understand why.

With little access to the English game apart from occasional touring sides and newsreel footage the League of Ireland was amplified in its sporting significance. It helped that there was a strict wage cap in England up to 1963 so many talented Irish players had less financial incentive to cross the Irish sea. Drums managed to develop and keep many of their talented players for longer than many League of Ireland sides could do today. During the 50’s they could call on Irish International Alan Kelly Senior in goal, “Bunny” Fullam in defence and an array of other young talents like Ray Keogh, Jimmy Morrissey, Stan Pownall and Tommy Rowe while club legend Kit Lawlor would return after a spell in England with Doncaster Rovers.

In just over ten years Drums picked up another two titles (1957-58 and 1960-61 while finishing runners up on a  number of occasions) and two more FAI Cups and by this stage European competition had begun. Here again Drums were quick in making progress. In only their third season in Europe (1962-63) they became the first League of Ireland side to win a tie over two legs when they defeated an Odense city XI  6-5 in the Inter-city Fairs Cup. Jimmy Morrissey and Billy Dixon were prominent among the goals which secured Drums a tie with Bayern Munich.

Bayern weren’t yet established as the behemoths of European football that they are today but they were still an impressive side, many of whom would go on to win titles and cups with the Baverians. Drums lost 6-0 in the first leg in snowy Munich, German international Willi Giesemann as well as Bayern’s 3rd highest scorer of all time, Rainer Ohlhauser among those getting on the score-sheet. Drumcondra did manage to save some face in the return leg when the beat Bayern in Tolka Park 1-0 thanks to another goal from Billy Dixon.

The Drums had something of a habit of facing German sides, in their five seasons in European football they faced three other German sides as well as facing Atlético Madrid in that famous sides first ever appearance in European football. While never again progressing beyond the opening rounds as they had done against Odense there were other credible individual results such as a 1-0 home win against East German champions Vorwärts Berlin.

There would be one final, major trophy for Drums, a league title in the 1964-65 season but it was to be somewhat of a twilight victory. Within five years they would be bottom of the league and a couple of years after that, Drums as we would know them, were gone. After back to back last place finishes Sam Prole agreed to sell up, in a strange turn of events, Drums, a professional side were taken over and replaced by the amateur Home Farm side. A hybrid team name of Home Farm-Drumcondra lost its Drumcondra suffix after a single season and after 45 years of league football Drumcondra F.C. were gone.

It had been an eventful existence, five league titles and five FAI Cups had the Drums name etched against them. There were famous European nights under lights and the club had always tended to punch above their weight, whether as a Leinster Senior League side lifting the cup, or in their famous rivalry of the 50’s and 60’s with Rovers that lit up the league, or even going to toe to toe with some European heavyweights.

A Leinster Senior League club under the name Drumcondra F.C. reformed about ten years ago, wearing the traditional yellow and blue. They’re even based across the street facing their former home at Tolka Park. The memory of the glories of the Drums still lives on, preserved in the name Drumcondra F.C. that adorn a modest the clubhouse on Richmond Road, back where it all began. Up the Drums! 


This piece first appeared on the SSE Airtricity League website and can be found here.



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.

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

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

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

Drums v Glentoran
Drumcondra v Glentoran match programme inlay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drums Matthews3
Irish Times headline from the 1956 match against Glentoran

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

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

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

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