1914-15 was a tumultuous time in Ireland, but amid the backdrop of civil unrest and disharmony, its national team came together to defy the odds as JOHN O’SULLIVAN explains.
The island of Ireland, in the momentous year of 1914, was a country teetering on the brink of anarchy. Dublin was in the last throes of the “lockout” – when over 20,000 workers were locked out by their own employers to prevent them unionising – which had come to a head the preceding August, when police brutally suppressed a demonstration in O’Connell street by baton charge, leaving hundreds injured. A year of protest had the poor of Dublin reduced to a state of extreme penury, barely surviving in the disease ridden slums where, in a matter of months, child mortality rates had jumped by 50%. In 1912, the Liberal government in Westminster had, for the first time, seen expenditure on Ireland far outstrip incoming revenue and were anxious that the third Home Rule bill, devolving power to Ireland, be pushed through the Commons as quickly as possible.
Outrage followed, in the largely Protestant north of the island, which quickly escalated into further protest and the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to defend the island from “Rome rule and Popery”. With the formation of the Irish Citizen Army in the south, the prospect of a prolonged and bloody civil war looked inevitable. Set against this depressing backdrop, the fortunes of the Irish football team were banal to say the least, important only to the Irish Football Association and a few die hard enthusiasts.
The home nations International Football Championship had started in 1884 and Ireland, along with Wales, were perennial favourites for the ignominy of the “wooden spoon”. There had been a faint glimmer of hope in 1903 when Ireland had finished joint top with England and Scotland, but in the 10 championships that followed, Ireland had finished bottom in six. Ireland’s 1914 team did have some players of note - Bill Lacey of Liverpool, Billy Gillespie of Sheffield United, Louis Bookman (the first Jewish player to play in the top flight of English football) of Bradford, Patrick O’ Connell of Hull City (later to become Don Patricio of Barcelona fame), the Everton duo of Harris and Houston and Seymour and McConnell of Bohemians. However, they began the championship with the expectation that they might just beat Wales; although they would have to beat them away, which they had never managed to do before.
Preparations for the game at Wrexham were dealt a significant blow, when Manchester United refused to release the Irish captain Mickey Hammill for the game, claiming he was injured - although some commentators claimed he was being punished for not putting in a shift for United in their weekend game, his mind too much on the impending encounter with the Welsh. As a consequence, the Irish took to the field in January 1914 in pessimistic mood. The absence of Hammill had forced them to move their full back, Davy Rollo of Linfield, to wing half and the subsequent positional changes had left the side weakened and unbalanced. Things went from bad to worse when the opposite wing - half Harris, had to retire with a torn ligament. The Irish forward, Billy Lacey, had to drop into Harris’ position and Ireland were down to ten men. The Welsh wasted a number of good chances before Ireland took the lead against the run of play; a hopeful punt forward from O’ Connell, confused the Welsh defence and when Gillespie looked to be getting on the end of it ,he drew away the Welsh backs and the ball fell to the unmarked Young who smashed the ball home. The ten men of Ireland took control of the second half with their “thrustful and imaginative football”, Gillespie eventually making it 2-0 in the 68th minute, and while the Welsh managed a consolation penalty late on, Ireland held their nerve and ran out 2-1 winners.
Just a month later, on February 14th, Ireland faced the daunting prospect of facing England at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough. As always, the English would field an extremely strong side with players like the Blackburn Rovers duo of Bob Compton and the gifted forward Danny Shea - of whom Patsy Gallacher said “one of the greatest ball artists who has ever played for England... his manipulation of the ball was bewildering." They also had talent like Hardy, Pennington, Cuggy, Wallace and Latheron. Although initially buoyed by their victory against Wales the gap between the games had led to the inevitable doubts and insecurities in the minds of the Irish. Bookman was unavailable for the game so the unfortunate Rollo was moved even further up the pitch, from full back to wing half, to outside right where, according to the esteemed football commentator W.G. Gallacher, “he showed a complete lack of knowledge of the offside law!” Significantly, Ireland won the toss and played with the wind and the sun on their backs and the English were “outplayed and outgeneralled”. Lacey put the Irish a goal up after just five minutes firing in a low shot through a crowded penalty area. England fought back with Shea hitting the post before Gillespie dribbled through the English defence and blasted the Irish into a two goal lead. By the time the teams took the field for the second half, the wind had dropped and the sun had gone in and the Irish took control of the game; Lacey scoring again with five minutes remaining to make it 3-0 to the Irish. Liverpool’s Billy Lacey was man of the match; the Wexford man’s performance described as “irrepressible and masterful.”
While Ireland would have home advantage for the championship decider against the Scots, the choice of Belfast’s Windsor Park as the venue was decidedly odd to say the least. The furore caused by the Home Rule bill made it feel like a city under siege. Churchill, annoyed by the recalcitrant attitude of the Unionists, had hinted that he would call out the Army to bring them to heel, and the UVF began smuggling in modern weaponry to arm themselves in anticipation. This led to a near mutiny among British officers stationed at the Curragh, where 60 out of the 77 officers let it be known that they would take no part in punitive action against the Unionists, which in turn led to the War Secretary, Col Seeley resigning his post. Increased activity by republicans in the south led to the notion that civil war was now an inevitability. Nevertheless, over 26,000 people turned up to watch the decider, a record for football in Ireland at the time, paying a record sum of £1,600.
The night before the game had seen a ferocious storm lash the north of Ireland with gale force winds and persistent, heavy rain that continued through the day, leaving the pitch in a terrible state with large pools of standing water. Hard as it is for us to imagine these days, there was no thought given to the game being called off, purists at the time considering it to be “ideal weather for football”.
From the kick off Ireland took the game to the Scots and were unlucky not to be a goal up when the Scottish keeper fumbled at a shot that looked to have crossed the line; the ref waved play on. A key player for the Scottish team was the “tough as teak” centre forward, Andrew Wilson. The Sheffield Wednesday man, who would go on to be the Wednesday’s highest goal scorer with 216 goals in 545 appearances, would have a substantial part to play in the ensuing battle. O’ Connell was his first victim when Wilson stamped on his arm after a tackle forcing the Hull City man to leave the field “in great pain”, then McConnell – the Irish full back – collided with him and had to be carried off with Bill Lacey moving to full back negating the Irish forward threat. Then the Irish keeper Fred McKee rushed out to block a Wilson attack and bounced off him, badly injuring himself in the process, he would limp on until half time. McConnell rejoined the team for the second half, taking McKee’s place in goal, with O’ Connell also taking his place in the forwards while Lacey continued at full back. The “nine and a half” Irish soon found themselves in a “struggle of thrilling intensity” as the game flowed from one end to the other. Disaster struck with just 20 minutes left when the makeshift keeper rushed from his area to clear the ball leaving Donnachie of Oldham free to roll the ball into an empty net – the Scots were a goal up and all looked lost for the unfortunate Irish. Against all odds the depleted Irish laid siege to the Scottish goal with attack after attack foiled by the visitors, especially the redoubtable centre half, Charlie Thomson of Oldham. The breakthrough finally came in the 82nd minute when Linfield’s Sam Young finally found a gap in the Scottish defence to score an unlikely equaliser. At full time the crowd swarmed on to the pitch “seized their heroes, and bore them in triumph to the dressing-rooms.” Ireland were champions.
Although Ireland’s victory was greeted with understandable euphoria in the football community, it went largely unnoticed by the general population. Once again political events overshadowed everything else. The Unionists had continued to arm themselves and tensions had continued to rise on the island, however, it was another nation’s desire for independence that made the headlines, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian Nationalists. In July, the Germans sold a consignment of arms to the Irish Volunteers and then tipped off the British that they had done so, which led to the British Army shooting dead 4 and wounding 40 at a demonstration in Bachelors Walk in Dublin. The Germans were relying on a civil war to keep the British neutral in the upcoming war on the continent, the British had informed the Russians that they would need to keep at least 100,000 troops to deal with “domestic unrest”, which emboldened Germany’s imperial ambitions. The leader of the Irish Nationalists, John Redmond, then pledged the Irish Volunteers to any war with a promise “to defend these islands” and an entreaty to the Unionists to do the same. The threat of civil war was lifted, and from August to February, more than 50,000 Irish men volunteered for the British army.
Within a couple of months, Europe would be plunged into bloody war. The Irish Volunteers, disillusioned by the postponement of the Home Rule bill, would finally turn against Redmond and set off on a course that would result in the rising of Easter 1916 and the War of Independence - which would ultimately lead to the Treaty and formation of the Free State and the setting up of the Football Association of Ireland. Too often we look back at those troubled times with the opinion that these were intransigent men with irreconcilable differences. Yet, on the football pitch, a small band of men, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist; players from Linfield, Belfast Celtic and Bohemians, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United; heroes all, from both ends of this troubled isle, united in ambition, purpose and ultimately victory.
The Irish Players: McKee (Belfast Celtic); McConnell, Seymour (Bohemians); Hampton, Bookman (Bradford City); Thompson (Clyde); Harris, Houston (Everton); Craig (Greenock Morton); O’ Connell (Hull City); Rollo, Young, Nixon (Linfield); Lacey (Liverpool); Hamill (Manchester Utd); Gillespie (Sheffield Utd).
JOHN O’SULLIVAN - @clockend5