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The Wind That Shakes The Goalposts: The Split In Irish Football

Our look at the establishment of Irish football continues as Conor Heffernan delves into the ramifications of the Easter Rising for the future of the game.

“Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity” -Edwin Hubbell Chapin

We finished up last week’s article with the establishment of the Irish Football Association and Ireland’s first forays into international football in the late 1800s. It was a time of great optimism, it was a time of joy and it was a time of relative calm. It was alas a fleeting calm. Trouble was on the horizon.

This week we’re going to move, as time often does, forward. Specifically to the 1920s when the great Irish football experiment encountered its first major shock, which ultimately tore the game in two. This is a story of nationalism versus unionism, of nationalities versus identities and of similarities versus petty differences.

This is a story of how the Irish political divisions that emerged after the partition of Ireland in 1920 led to the partition of Irish football. But fear not readers, this story is not entirely demoralizing. Indeed if one looks at the early 1900s, the future of Irish football was bright, very bright.

A New Hope?

Yes the early 1900s saw Irish football pioneering how the sport should be conducted. Irish football was at the forefront of football, not something we can always claim in modern times. What were we doing in Ireland that was so groundbreaking?

Ireland was the first team in the history of modern football to employ a national coach. This may seem a small gesture at first but the reality is that it was a historic moment in the development of football. Why? National coaches provided stability to a team, and were a stepping-stone in the slow crawl towards professionalization of the game. That’s right, Irish football helped modernize the game as we know it all thanks to a decision in 1897 to hire a national coach.

The Irish Football Association, the governing body of both the North and South of Ireland, employed the services of Billy Crone to manage the national team. Billy seemed to many the perfect choice. He had played 12 times for the national team during the 1880s and 90s and had proven himself capable at the highest level. Coupled with this Billy was an all round sportsman, having a reputation for being a devastating cricketer and adept long distance runner.

That the man was an athlete was a given, but could he coach?

That was the question and the answer unfortunately appeared no. His first match in charge of Ireland set the tone for his time in charge. England crushed Ireland 6-0. Whilst performances improved under Billy, results did not. Billy was soon replaced by Hugh McAteer who experienced greater success than his predecessor, coaching Ireland to victories over Wales in 1898 and ‘99.

While success on the pitch was greatly welcomed, changes off it under McAteer were arguably more important. In 1899 the IFA changed its rules governing the selection of non-resident players. Like the decision to employ a national coach, the decision to select non-resident players for the Irish National Team was a pivotal moment in the development of Irish football.

Before this ruling the Irish team selected its players exclusively from the Irish League, in particular the three Belfast-based clubs Linfield, Cliftonville and Distillery, something that caused resentment amongst Southern teams. Now players plying their trade in England or elsewhere were eligible for the Irish National Team. How big an influence has this ruling had on Irish football? Think of a Northern Ireland team with no Jennings, Best or Healy? What about a Southern Team without the likes of Giles, Brady or Keane?

Even today this decision influences both teams. The squad lists of Northern Ireland and the Republic are filled almost entirely these days with non-resident players. So it’s safe to say it’s had an effect. Its effect in 1899 was equally important. On 4 March 1899 McAteer used the new decision to his advantage, including four Irish players based in England for a match against Wales. Ireland won 1–0.

Incidentally three weeks later, on 25 March one of those four players, Archie Goodall, aged 34 years and 279 days, became the oldest player to score at international level in the 19th century when he scored for Ireland in a 9–1 defeat to Scotland. Goodall was an important player for the team, playing in the centre of defence until he was almost 40. He also started the 20th century on a positive note, scoring in Ireland’s 2-0 win against Wales on 28 March 1903, aged 38 years and 283 days, thus becoming the oldest goalscorer in Ireland’s history.

So the early 1900s were indeed a bright time for Irish football, Yet the greatest success was still to come.

In 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, McAteer, in his second stint as National Coach, led Ireland to the British Home Championship. This was Ireland’s first international title and signalled a golden period for a Nation that had only been playing football since the late 1880s. Ireland clinched the Championship with a 1-1 home draw with Scotland in what would be their last match until the end of the First World War. The future seemed bright, yet when the guns of Europe had silenced in 1918, Irish football was in turmoil.

The Wind that Shakes the Goalposts

When the Great War of 1914-1918 ended, the social and political life of Ireland had drastically changed compared to 1914. The issue of Irish independence from Great Britain had caused tension between those who wished to remain part of the British Empire and those who wanted an independent Ireland. This tension between the two groups led to the formation of forces on both sides of the dispute.

Famously in 1916 those wishing Ireland to gain independence from Great Britain began a rebellion in Southern Ireland. While the rebellion failed, the legacy of the rebellion further fuelled nationalist desires and strengthened unionist resolve. It was hoped that a political solution could provide an answer but unfortunately none was found.

In January 1919 the first shots of the Irish War of independence were fired, by 1920 Ireland had been partitioned between Northern and Southern Ireland, with the North remaining part of Great Britain and the South gaining nominal independence by 1922. The political scene in Ireland in the late 1910s and early 1920s touched every aspect of life in Ireland. Football was no exception.

Whereas 1914 had seen a united Irish team win the British Home Championship, by 1921 the Irish football federation had been torn in two, never to be reunited. What was the cause for the split between Northern and Southern football? Was it political or personal? The answer appears to be both. As mentioned in the previous article, Irish clubs based outside of Ulster were often dissatisfied with the decisions of the administrative body.

All the other major sports in Ireland had their headquarters based in Dublin. The belief existed amongst Southern football federations that football should follow suit, ignoring the fact that football was predominately Ulster based because that’s where the game originated.

Southern clubs held on to the belief that the Belfast based clubs exerted undue influence, especially when it came to selecting teams for international matches. There was therefore a personal element in the split. But politics too were important. Ireland’s political developments proved to have been the catalyst needed to push the tension in Irish football into overdrive.

The rise of Nationalism after the Easter Rising of 1916 undoubtedly exerted an influence on the southern affiliates and provided another point of contention between Northern and Southern clubs.

Matters came to a head in 1921 when three Dublin clubs, Bohemians, St. James’ Gate, and Shelbourne withdrew from the All Irish League. This was the first shot in the footballing civil war. All was not lost at this point however. The Dublin clubs continued to compete in the Cup competitions against teams from the North. This was a small sliver of hope for those wishing to retain a united Irish footballing structure.

If the South had its own league it could be justified based on travel concerns during Ireland’s War of Independence or on pragmatic grounds (less travel etc.). As long as Southern clubs remained in the IFA Cup there was hope. Alas like so much else in Irish history, the peace was not to last.

Matters reached crisis point when Glenavon of Belfast played Shelbourne in the final of the IFA Cup in May 1921. The encounter ended in a draw, and the IFA declared that the replay would take place in Belfast. In light of the political climate of the time, Shelbourne refused to play in Belfast and instead demanded that the match take place in Dublin.

This request was met with derision from the IFA. Either play in Belfast or don’t play at all. Sadly for Irish football, Shelbourne chose the latter. They refused to play a second match in Belfast and forfeited the opportunity of winning the trophy.

On June 1st, 1921, the Leinster Football Association and the Munster Football Association met in Molesworth Hall in Dublin. The clubs and associations who attended the meeting voted to establish the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) to develop and administer the game throughout the 32 Counties of Ireland.

There are two things to note about this decision. Firstly, it separated the game of football in Ireland between North and South, a decision that still carries ramifications for Irish football. Secondly, it claimed to administer the game throughout 32 counties in Ireland even after Ireland had been partitioned between North and South. This was an inherently political statement. Personal infighting had adopted political language.

Many saw the decision as an expression of the spirit of Nationalism that was intensifying at the time. Others saw it as an expression of petty personal ambitions between those who wanted Irish Football’s headquarters to be in Dublin and those who wanted it to remain in Belfast.

The reality is certainly much more complex. We’re dealing with humans after all. Regardless of the motivations behind the split, the decision from the Southern Associations to forge a separate path was final despite repeated efforts by the IFA to restore the peace.

While the IFA’s attempt to restore a united Ireland was admirable, it was in the end futile. The South was determined to create a separate identity.

It is interesting to pause here and discuss the full ramifications of the decision to establish a separate Southern footballing body. The decision meant that Ireland had two football associations claiming to represent the whole of the island, each competing internationally under the name ‘Ireland’ and selecting players from both the rival national leagues, which were also split at this time.

It is at this traumatic point that we shall end.

We began the piece optimistically discussing Ireland’s great triumph in 1914 and have sadly ended with a story of division and political tensions.

Next week we will look in depth at the attempts of both federations to lay claim to the Irish footballing landscape. It is a story of external intervention, Olympic games and great disputes. Ultimately it is a story of how the Northern and Southern football federations exist in their current form. It is a story that fans of Irish football both North and South cannot afford to miss.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

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