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A Child Is Born: John McAlery & The Birth Of Irish Football

“Ah, Ireland… That damnable, delightful country, where everything that is right is the opposite of what it ought to be.” -Benjamin Disraeli.

Ireland is a place of wow and wonder, of ups and downs, of success and failures. This is none more so true than of our national football team. We’ve gone from World Cup ’02 to Euro 2012. How times change. Being an Irish fan often leads one to ask is there any rhyme or reason to Irish football? Are we destined to go from success to failure over and over again? Have we ever really been a force in world football?

To answer these questions, or at least attempt answering them, we have to look backwards. We cannot know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been. In this weekly series, we’re going to examine the birth, growth and establishment of Irish football beginning today with the origins of the game in the 1870s.

Be warned, we’re in for a bumpy ride. The history of Irish football is one of politics, religion, success and failure. And it all began with the man we’re examining today. Whether you love or loathe Irish football, the man we’re focusing on today is the instigator of all our success and our defeats.

Like many things Irish, football in Ireland had humble beginnings. Football was imported into our fair isle by none other than a tweed salesman named John McAlery from Down. Not the most glamorous of starts I grant you but we must remember that a Scottish dye worker brought football to Brazil. And look how that worked out!

Anyway, back to our story. Our tweed salesman John McAlery was a young man in 1870s Ireland that had had fallen in love. Such was the passion John felt for his female companion that in 1878 the two eloped and went to Scotland on honeymoon to celebrate their new love.

However, this honeymoon was no ordinary honeymoon, for on this trip John decided to attend something called a football match. Football in its modern form was still a relatively new concept. The English FA had only been established a decade previously and the game was in its early stages. Sadly we don’t know exactly what happened in the match to catch our young John’s eye but he saw something he liked. We also don’t know what his wife thought about John spending their honeymoon watching football.

Potential marital discontent aside, we know that John became convinced that football could become popular in Ireland. Sports were becoming all the rage at this time. Men were being encouraged to kick, catch, punch and run in a variety of ways. For the men of John’s time, manliness came from physical endeavours. John was no exception, being a cricketer of some distinction.

Sports like Rugby and Cricket were popular in Ireland, and something called the GAA was soon to be born. Sport had been the pastime of the middle and upper classes, but John’s new love football had the potential to become a working class game. John soon set about bringing the game to Ireland.

As a tweed salesman, John had an eye for importing and exporting, and this extended to his promotion of football in our fair isle. His first move upon returning back to Belfast was to invite two Scottish teams, Queen’s Park and Caledonians to play an exhibition game at the Ulster cricket ground in Ballymafeigh to test football’s popularity in Ireland.

Would this new game of football be popular? The local’s reaction would decide. Just think, had the locals of Ballymafeigh rejected soccer, Niall Quinn may have stuck with the GAA. Imagine a world with no “Niall Quinn’s Disco Pants” chant.

Luckily for football fans everywhere, the Ballymafeigh faithful took to the game. In fact, so encouraging was the response that the very next year, 1879, saw McAlery found Cliftonville club in Belfast. Cliftonville became Ireland’s first dedicated football club. All they needed now were players. McAlery placed the following ad in the ‘News Letter and Northern Whig’ hoping to attract players.

“Gentlemen desirous of becoming members of the above Club (Cliftonville) will please communicate with J. M. McAlery, 6 Donegall Street or R. M. Kennedy, 6 Brookvale Terrace, Antrim Road.”

The response was positive enough to form a starting eleven and club football had begun in Ireland. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Things began to slowly progress.

One year later the Irish Football Association was born and our young newlywed John was at the centre of proceedings. McAlery became secretary of the new Irish Football Association (IFA) and would later captain the Irish team in international matches. If you’re going to establish a sport, you may as well be the star.

By the end of 1880, four clubs were playing association football. The next year saw the inauguration of the IFA’s Irish Cup in which seven teams took part. Things were progressing. Not rapidly admittedly but progressing nonetheless. The game had certain popularity but struggled to establish itself in the hearts of the wider Irish public. There were many reasons for this but part of the problem came down to location.

Football’s early bases in Ireland were predominantly in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the new Irish Association had been created in Queen’s Hotel, Belfast, and the several founding clubs predominantly came from the North. Every other Irish sport however had its headquarters in Dublin. This was to cause friction in later years, but you’ll have to wait until next week to find out about that.

Growth of the game was slow and predominantly Northern but matches were taking place around the country. The next ten years would see clubs like Cliftonville tour Ireland playing exhibition games, showcasing what this new sport called football had to offer. Exhibition games made up the staple of Irish football fans’ entertainment for over a decade, mainly because an Irish football league didn’t emerge until the 1890s.

Yet, despite not having an established league, the new Irish Football Association signed Ireland up for a number of international matches. Such enthusiasm is infectious. Our first ever game came in 1882, just two years after the establishment of the IFA.

Our opponents that day were none other than England. The day of the game was tense. The Irish players’ veins were flowing with a desire to beat England. It was Ireland’s first ever game. It would set a benchmark from which future Irish teams would be measured. Expectations were high. Captained by John McAlery, Ireland lined out at Bloomfield Park in front of 2,500 fans, ready to take on the big boys of England.

Ireland was primed, ready and able. So too unfortunately was England, who notched an incredible 13 goals against Ireland. Ireland’s first ever match saw her lose 13-0. This remains Ireland’s heaviest defeat in international football and was a sad reminder to McAlery that his new sport had some growing to do.

“You’ll Never Beat the Irish”

The famed “You’ll Never Beat the Irish” chant may be a recent creation but the never say die spirit was there early on in Irish football. One week after losing to England 13-0, Ireland stepped out onto the football field yet again to show the world what she could do. This time her opponents were Wales. Could Ireland improve? Or would Wales beat Ireland by a huge margin?

Sometimes a week can make all the difference in football. This time Ireland was more tactically aware, more cautious in defence and more outright in attack. Ireland’s Sammy Johnson was a menace for the Welsh defence throughout the game, evidenced by his well-taken goal. Compared to England, Wales were lacklustre in attack, scoring a measly seven goals against the Irish. Only losing by six goals this time, Ireland was undoubtedly on the road to success. She only needed more time and experience. Victory or at least smaller margins of defeat were on the horizon.

Ireland got her chance to avenge her 7-1 defeat against Wales the following year in 1883. This time William Morrow from Moyola scored for Ireland, but more importantly than that, Wales only scored once. Ireland had her first draw! Quite a feat when one considers Ireland’s humble beginnings.

Remember, it would be another ten years before Ireland had a football league. Ireland having experienced losses and a hard fought draw, wanted a win. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. This became the maxim for the Irish football team, who after 16 matches, notched up their first win, beating Wales 4-1 in 1887.

The future was bright for the Irish football team but Ireland’s political situation was becoming more uncertain by the day. Ireland’s march to independence was slowly taking off in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tensions were creeping into every aspect of Irish life and sport was no exception. Ominously for football, tensions were growing between North and South. What would this mean for Irish football?

Join us next week when we will examine the implications of Ireland’s changing political situation and the first great crisis in Irish football. But for now, let us be thankful for John McAlery and his wife for choosing to honeymoon in Edinburgh. For without them, football in Ireland may never have taken the course it did. And at the very least we can say that it’s been an eventful journey to date.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.