The united Irish football team: a history of unique progress and dreams of resurrection

The united Irish football team: a history of unique progress and dreams of resurrection

To this day, England’s record victory stands at 13-0. The rout was achieved in February 1882 against an opponent playing its first-ever international fixture: the Ireland national football team. Even following the division of Ireland in 1920, this united team would continue in some guise for another three decades. 

The pre-partition side was only the fourth national team to be formed, following in the wake of England, Scotland and Wales. The fledgeling state of the international scene meant that opponents were limited, with Ireland exclusively competing against the Home Nations for the majority of its existence. The game was also still in its infancy domestically, particularly when compared with the flourishing leagues of England and Scotland, so the national team had to be creative. 

Ireland turned to youth. Following a 13-0 drubbing in their first match, the team got off the mark in their next fixture against Wales courtesy of a player who remains the youngest goalscorer for an Irish side of any description. Samuel Johnston bagged an equaliser at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground at the age of just 15 years and 160 days: in the intervening 137 years of international football, there have only been two younger goalscorers.

The goal didn’t prove significant in the context of the match, as Wales went on to win 7-1, but this innovative spirit would eventually prompt a change in Ireland’s fortunes. They had to endure a galling run of 14 defeats and a draw, including a demolition in the inaugural British Home Championships in 1884, but this was a team still finding its feet.

The first win finally came in 1887 thanks to a 4-1 triumph over Wales in Belfast. Within the next few years – at the 13th attempt – Ireland avoided defeat to England for the first time. In a bid to build on this burgeoning success, the Ireland national side took a bold step. 

In 1897, for the first time ever, a coach took charge of the team. Ireland turned to Billy Crone, a former defender who had played 12 times in their earliest days, to oversee a meeting with England. It didn’t pay immediate dividends, with Ireland suffering a 6-0 defeat, but in the next game Crone presided over a 4-3 triumph against Wales.

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A defeat to Scotland followed, meaning the national side once again propped up the Home Championship standings, but the appointment of a dedicated national manager some 57 years before England or Scotland followed suit undoubtedly contributed to Ireland becoming more competitive. 

Further radical steps followed. In 1899, the IFA lifted the restriction on selecting players not based in the domestic leagues, thus opening up a wider talent pool for selection. Four years later, they had broken the duopoly on the British Home Championship: up to this point only England and Scotland had triumphed, but with a manager and English-based players at their disposal, the Irish were able to force a three-way tie. Much of this can, of course, be attributed to the absence of a goal difference rule at the time, but it was nevertheless still a notable achievement. 

The pinnacle of the Ireland national team, however, came 11 years later. In the last British Home Championships before the First World War, Ireland – managed by Hugh McAteer – upset the odds to win the tournament outright. England, who they had only defeated for the first time the previous year, were brushed aside 3-0.

A brace from Billy Gillespie then secured a 2-1 win over Wales. This wouldn’t have been possible prior to the IFA reforms at the turn of the century, with Gillespie playing his club football in England for Sheffield United. A 1-1 draw with Scotland then confirmed their status as champions, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years previously. 

It was a cruel twist of fate that this would be Ireland’s last international fixture for five years. The outbreak of war undid much of their progress, and in the Home Championships immediately following the end of the conflict they finished bottom. They suffered the same fate in the 1919/20 iteration of the competition, despite only falling to one defeat. It would be the last time a sole and undisputed all-Ireland side would compete together.

By 1920, the Government of Ireland Act was passed. This followed bitter fighting between the British and the Irish Republican forces in the south. While the legislation initially saw both parts of the island remain under British control, republicans had already gone about establishing a parliament and assembling a functioning state. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921 duly provided for the official establishment of the Irish Free State. In fact, Northern Ireland were included in this arrangement but were provided with an opt-out. This they exercised and, in 1922, Ireland became an island divided. 

Almost in parallel to the political developments, the FAI emerged as football’s governing body in the south a year prior to the split becoming official. It had gained official recognition as the association representing the Free State by 1923; the sectarian divisions that pervaded so many aspects of life in Ireland had reached football and there was now a team for the north and a team for the south. 

Even so, there was far from complete segregation in the early years of the competing federations. Players would routinely play for both national sides: the IFA in particular continued to select on an all-Ireland basis, and there was generally little reluctance from those in the Republic to accept a call-up.

This was highlighted in September 1946 when England played both teams in the same week. The IFA ignored a request to only pick players from its own jurisdiction, and two men consequently featured against the English in both fixtures in the space of three days. 

This willingness to turn out for both sides was a rare display of unity at a time when cultural divisions were deepening. It showed, perhaps, that at a human level there were far more similarities than differences amongst the people of the island of Ireland. Nonetheless, from a purely sporting perspective, the situation was unsustainable.

The 1949/50 season saw both sides enter qualifying for the World Cup. The Republic played in a group with Sweden and Finland, while Northern Ireland sought to gain qualification through the Home Championship. Ultimately neither country made it to Brazil, so the two teams didn’t meet, but the same players representing multiple countries in a single World Cup campaign was obviously problematic. 

It was clear that such a situation would cause far more major problems in the future. Furthermore, the IFA’s repeated selection of what was essentially a continuation of the all-Ireland team engendered resentment from the FAI, if not the players – they questioned why it should be Northern Ireland who carried the gauntlet for the whole island.

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A rule was duly introduced by the Republic that effectively prohibited players from turning out for the IFA-run side, and with this the all-Ireland side truly came to an end.

The elusive question of Irish identity would, of course, go on to cause far deeper divisions, and it was to produce one more problem in a footballing context. In the years following the split, both national teams competed under the name Ireland. When players were moving freely between the two this was an oddity more than a significant issue, but with the two teams entering the same tournaments with different players at their disposal, it became imperative to differentiate them. 

FIFA’s solution was to prohibit either team from calling themselves Ireland. Both nations objected, but perhaps surprisingly it was Northern Ireland who most stubbornly clung to the name. Again, that both countries felt so fiercely Irish is evidence of a common thread transcending all of the various differences.

As late as the 1970s, the north continued to defy FIFA through use of the name Ireland on match programmes and other official literature. This decade saw a significant shift, however, and the IFA abruptly shed the ‘Ireland’ moniker. Save for Northern Ireland’s vaguely reminiscent emblem, the last vestiges of the all-Ireland team were gone. 

Both sides have gone on to experience their own various highs and lows as independent footballing nations, but the nagging question remains of what could be achieved if they were to unite. The political question remains fraught, but sport has a unique way of bridging the gaps: if the early days of the all-Irish IFA team didn’t prove this, the current rugby union setup certainly does.

The time may not be right for such a move – and ultimately it is something that can only be achieved with a significant appetite from both of the national associations – but 106 years on from Ireland’s last tournament triumph in the Home Championships, it certainly provides something to think about. 

By James Martin @JamesMartin013

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