I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Football Crazy

Andy Pollak


Soccer and Society in Dublin: A History of Association Football in Ireland’s Capital, by Conor Curran, Four Courts Press, 352 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-180151-0394

When I was a half-Irish boy growing up in London in the 1950s and 1960s, I was football-mad. And the thing that distinguished me from my soccer-obsessed school and club mates was that I was a mad supporter of two of Europe’s weakest international teams, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. My Co Antrim birthplace and Northern Ireland’s exploits in the 1958 World Cup – when a team led by Tottenham Hotspurs’ magisterial Danny Blanchflower reached the quarter-finals – ensured that the North was my first love. I still contend that this largely forgotten team, which beat Italy, Portugal and Czechoslovakia on the way to the last eight, and also featured players like Harry Gregg, Jimmy McIlroy, Peter McParland and Billy Bingham, was the finest Irish football team ever.

However, despite their undistinguished record in that era, the Republic of Noel Cantwell, Charlie Hurley, Joe Haverty and the young Johnny Giles was also close to my football-crazy heart. I used to listen to matches on a crackly Radio Éireann signal from Athlone, and the voice of match commentator Philip Greene. Greene was the broadcaster who in 1955 had refused to commentate on a match against Yugoslavia after the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, urged people to boycott the event because of the Yugoslav Communist government’s alleged persecution of a controversial pro-fascist Catholic cardinal. Twenty-two thousand people turned up anyway. The following year I attended my first international at Wembley Stadium, England versus Yugoslavia, along with my father, who had worked with the Yugoslav communists in the early years of the Second World War. I was shouting for Yugoslavia.

As a teenager I was less concerned about Greene’s politics and religion, and more about the fact that for me he represented the voice of failure. Between 1958 (when I was ten) and 1970, the Republic played fifty-five international matches: they won fourteen and lost thirty-one. There was the occasional astonishing result: a 1-0 defeat of West Germany in Düsseldorf in 1960 and a 1-0 defeat of Spain at Dalymount Park in a World Cup qualifier in 1965. After the latter match there was a real chance of first-time qualification for the World Cup finals, but the cash-strapped Football Association of Ireland, in true John Delaney style, agreed that the play-off should be held in Paris (rather than London) in return for receiving the gate receipts, with the result that 30,000 French-domiciled Spaniards cheered their team on to the World Cup finals in England in the following year.

Two years earlier there had been another extraordinary result. In those days the League of Ireland used to play an annual round-robin of matches against the Football League, the Scottish League, the Welsh League and the Northern Ireland league (started in the 1920s because the four UK footballing unions refused to play full internationals against the Irish Free State). In October 1963, this extremely unbalanced competition – unbalanced because the professional English and Scottish teams were in a different constellation to the three other outfits – saw the League of Ireland inflict a 2-1 defeat on the mighty Football League, containing four players who three years later would be part of the England team that would win the World Cup. Eddie Bailham of Ringsend and Shamrock Rovers scored one of the goals. Who remembers Eddie Bailham now? That was his one glorious night: he went on to play for non-league teams in England: I remember being on the terraces at a grubby Plough Lane sometime in the early 1970s watching him play for Wimbledon. In a funny way he was one of my boyhood heroes.

Overall this was a barren period for success-starved followers of the Republic of Ireland international team, and it would continue. There were a few bright glimpses. I remember my first international match at Dalymount Park on my return to Dublin in the autumn of 1972: a World Cup qualifier in which the Republic beat France 2-1, the first home victory for six years. Terry Conroy of Stoke City and Ray Treacy of Swindon Town were the goalscorers, but with Johnny Giles in midfield and Don Givens leading the line there seemed to be some real hope for the future.

It was not to be. We would have to wait another fifteen years before our team would qualify for the finals of a major tournament, the 1988 European Championships. Then famine became a sort of feast, largely thanks to a big, bluff Englishman called Jack Charlton. Beating England in Stuttgart, qualifying for the World Cup quarter-finals in Genoa, beating Italy in the Giants Stadium in New York – we were on a six year roll, and enjoyed every uproarious minute of it. I remember drinking in a Roman square at four in the morning with a farmer from north Cork after Italy had narrowly knocked Ireland out of the 1990 World Cup, and agreeing that – quarter final defeat or not – this was one of the most marvellous nights of our lives. Nine days earlier there had been another phenomenal all-night session: I had watched the dawn rise in a village square in the hills above Palermo along with my good friend and Irish Times colleague, the late Sean Flynn (and around a thousand other Irish fans), after we had seen Niall Quinn score an equaliser against the Netherlands to qualify for the last sixteen.

If I have a criticism of Conor Curran’s meticulously and exhaustively researched book, it is that it does not feature enough of the sheer joy of that and similar experiences. Indeed, he tends to skim over some of the triumphs – many of them almost totally unknown – of Republic of Ireland international, club and schoolboy teams over the years. For example, has anyone heard of the Ireland Schoolboys team that beat England Schoolboys 8-3 at Dalymount Park in 1947, and followed it up with a 1-0 victory in London in the following year? George Cummins of St Patrick’s Athletic, who would later play for Luton Town in an FA cup final, scored four goals in the first of these wins. And this was before the Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland had even been formed! It would have been fascinating to learn more about that extraordinary double victory.

Among the long procession of humiliating club defeats against European teams (it took Dublin clubs twenty years to win a match in a European competition), there were occasional astonishing victories. Shamrock Rovers beat Red Star Belgrade 5-1 in a tournament in New York in 1961 (‘They must have been at a party the night before,’ Rovers’ Frank O’Neill sugested). In 1964-65 Shelbourne beat top Portuguese club Belenenses 3-2 on aggregate. In 1966, in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Shamrock Rovers were eliminated 4-3 on aggregate by the eventual winners, Bayern Munich, who featured players like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller. Having drawn the first leg at Dalymount, they were level at 2-2 with five minutes to go in the return match, and on the brink of  causing a huge upset by going through to the quarter-finals on the away goals rule, before losing to a late goal from Müller.

Does anyone remember that the Republic of Ireland schoolboys won the 1982 European Schoolboys Championship, beating Italy in the final? I would have appreciated more than one line about this striking success from a country that was still a Cinderella in European football. In 1998 Brian Kerr coached the Republic of Ireland to victory in the European under-18 championship, following success in the under-16 championship earlier that year. The under-19 team had previously finished in third place in the World Championship under Kerr. I would have loved to see an assessment of the contribution to Irish soccer of this quintessential Dub and thoroughly decent man whose career as Irish senior manager was cut short by John Delaney’s antipathy to him. It was Kerr who nurtured the early development of world-class players like Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff.

Then there were the extraordinary exploits of Anne O’Brien from Inchicore, who was Ireland’s first full-time female professional footballer and the twentieth century’s most successful Irish woman player. She won the Italian championship with Lazio in 1979 and 1980, and by 1990 had won the European Player of the Year three times and was earning almost £40,000 a year at Reggiana. Amazingly, in their mean-minded way, the FAI were unwilling to pay her trips home to represent her country, with the result that she won only four Irish caps.

Unfortunately, the author tends to devote relatively little space to such significant individual people and their achievements in favour of granular detail about every aspect of the development of soccer in Dublin, much of it very interesting, some of it not so much. Along the way there are some fascinating findings. Not surprisingly, association football began as a middle class pastime in the 1880s and 1890s but quickly spread to the working class. At the beginning it was slow to grow, given the competition from other codes. In 1888 there were just two Dublin clubs affiliated to the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (which showed little interest in the game in the Irish capital), compared to fifteen clubs registered with the Irish Rugby Football Union and an estimated 120 Gaelic football clubs. By the turn of the twentieth century this had grown to around 200 ‘neighbourhood teams’. However, in 1905 came the GAA’s notorious ban on its members playing ‘foreign games’, a measure which would last for the next sixty-five years, and which did nothing to help the spread of the ‘beautiful game’ in Ireland.

Curran is particularly good on soccer in Dublin after the establishment of the Irish Free State and during the inter-war years. There was considerable prejudice against soccer among the ‘pure Gaels’ of the new ruling political establishment. The game was banned in the new state’s army in the 1920s. President Douglas Hyde was removed as a GAA patron in 1938 after attending an international game. In 1927 the GAA had been exempted from paying income tax on its profits, and despite representations to the government from the Free State soccer authorities (including former Belfast Celtic player, republican leader and future Fianna Fáil minister Oscar Traynor), no equivalent concession was forthcoming.

However one Dublin TD noted in 1932 that there were ‘some 60,000 people who go to witness soccer football matches every week and they come from the masses of the people, the ordinary everyday working people’. Being working class and passionate about a British-invented game was not the road to either prosperity or popularity in the early years of the independent Irish state. And soccer by this time was overwhelmingly a working class game: for example, it is an extraordinary fact that up to 1994 thirty-eight Irish internationals had come from the small working class dockside enclave of Ringsend alone.

Perhaps because of this, soccer has been traditionally starved of government financial support: as late as 1971 there were over 10,000 players in the Dublin and District Schoolboys League, yet government funding amounted to a miserable £400. An Evening Herald reporter noted that ‘although soccer is one of the most popular games in this country, especially in the cities, facilities have never been on a par with several of the lesser sports’. This didn’t stop that schoolboys league claiming in 2010 to be the biggest of its type in Europe, with over 2,000 affiliated clubs and over 16,000 registered players.

One of the most successful schoolboy teams was Belvedere FC, which attracted working class boys from the inner city where unemployment was high, and poverty and drugs recurring problems. This was a classic way up and out for sporting young men from such an area: in 1989 one reporter noted that no fewer than fifteen Belvedere players were on US soccer scholarships.

Interestingly, back in the early 1920s there had been a flourishing Boys Brigade league in Dublin, with one reporter noting that ‘it was in the Boys Brigade teams that many of Ireland’s best were found’. Curran doesn’t explore the obvious sectarian implications of this, since Boys Brigade teams were inevitably attached to Protestant churches. Perhaps in response, there was a rapid growth in ‘altar’ and ‘sodality’ clubs set up by Catholic priests. Home Farm was established in 1928 as a member of the Altar Societies Football League. Later, in the mid-1950s, following the row over the FAI resisting pressure from the hierarchy to cancel the match against communist Yugoslavia, Archbishop McQuaid was to initiate an abortive attempt to set up a committee of priests ‘to consider the means of apostolate among the association football followers’.

Given the later explosion of interest among schoolboys, it is noteworthy that schools in the early years of the independent Irish state were less than enthusiastic about the game, with Christian Brothers schools fanatically attached to Gaelic football and the elite southside Dublin schools committed to rugby (although there were a few ‘crossovers’). This made the Irish schoolboys thumping double victory over their far better-organised and longer-established English counterparts in 1947 even more impressive, but also (on the face of it) somewhat inexplicable. Some elucidation of the circumstances by Curran would have been particularly welcome here.

The greatest Dublin player of the inter-war period was probably Paddy Moore, who in 1936 starred for Ireland in a 5-2 victory over mighty Germany, even though some people thought he was under the influence of drink at the time. He was a tragic figure who suffered from alcoholism and died in 1951 at the age of forty-two. His Scottish club, Aberdeen, gave his family £100 on his death, but the club whose colours he had worn with the most distinction, Shamrock Rovers, gave nothing.

There was another fascinating figures in the 1930s whom Curran surprisingly passes over with only a bare mention. Patrick O’Connell from Drumcondra was a member of the only all-Ireland team to have won the British home championship (in 1914) and played for Belfast Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City, Manchester United and Dumbarton ‘before becoming a manager’. Curran fails to mention that it was as manager of Barcelona FC in the mid-1930s that O’Connell found real fame. On the eve of the Spanish Civil War he took that great club, which was strongly identified with Catalan republicanism and therefore opposed to fascism, away on a lucrative tour to Mexico and the USA, thus guaranteeing its postwar future. There is a bust of O’Connell in the Barca museum and he is well-remembered in Spanish football circles.

Curran is also good on what he calls the ‘golden era’ of the domestic game in Ireland: the 1950s and early 1960s. This saw 33,000 people in Dalymount Park to watch the 1955 FAI Cup Final between Shamrock Rovers and Drumcondra, and 13,000 people at the derby game between Cork Celtic and Cork Hibernians at the Mardyke in 1960. (This compared to only 8,000 who turned out for the 1984 Cup Final between Shamrock Rovers and UCD.) In 1953 Stanley Matthews, probably the greatest English player of all time, had turned up to play as a guest for Bohemians in a friendly against Chelsea.

The main reason for the decline in the crowds watching League of Ireland soccer was, of course, the televising in Ireland of the big English First Division matches, beginning in the late 1960s. An FAI commission reported that in 1973 attendances at League of Ireland matches had fallen by over 60 per cent in the previous four years. In this period the B&I ferry company was putting on football excursions to Liverpool every Friday night, with a return trip on Sunday morning. The company estimated that during the 1969-1970 season 10,000 Irish fans had made this journey, with most of them attending Liverpool or Manchester United matches.

For most of the twentieth century, the Republic of Ireland supplied the greatest number of non-English players to the English Football League. In the 1978 FA Cup Final there were no fewer than seven Irish players in the Arsenal and Ipswich Town teams. Peter Robinson, secretary of Liverpool FC, winners of the European Cup in that year, said Ireland was ‘now potentially the best market for young players in the future’. As recently as 2000, there were nine former Home Farm players at Leeds United. It is a very far cry from the current sad state of Irish involvement in the highest tier of English football, with not a single Republic of Ireland player featuring in a Premier League team in some matches in the final weeks of the 2022-2023 season. With the influx of top players from continental Europe, Africa and South America (and even China and Korea) into the world’s richest league, the significant Irish influence in English football may be a thing of the past.

Curran also touches on the narrowness and xenophobia of Irish society in some of its dealings with this ‘foreign game’. In 1971 fifteen-year-old Liam Brady, probably the twentieth century’s finest Republic of Ireland footballer, was briefly expelled from St Aidan’s CBS in Whitehall for captaining the Irish Schoolboys team instead of playing in a local Gaelic football match. Seven years earlier future international manager Eoin Hand had won the Dublin under-21 GAA county championship with Scoil Uí Chonaill at a time when he was playing professional soccer with Swindon Town but was refused a medal by his club’s president. In a 1980 Leinster League match, the young Paul McGrath, playing for Dalkey United, walked off the pitch (before he was sent off for retaliating) after a racist taunt by an opponent.

Overall, however, this is a story of success and achievement; of the world’s premier sport putting down deep roots in the Irish capital and – despite many reverses ‑ delighting its players and supporters for more than a century. It is a compelling story that could be repeated in every major city in every continent: the marvellous game of working class (and some middle class) people becoming a vital part of those cities’ social and communal lives. International soccer may be in the doldrums in this country at the moment, with the FAI still picking up the pieces after the disaster of John Delaney’s reign and underfunded, part-time League of Ireland clubs struggling to produce the calibre of player we became used to thirty and forty years ago. But there are still some surprising things to cheer about, notably the qualification of the Irish women’s team for the World Cup finals in Australia and New Zealand this summer. Soccer ‘anoraks’ like this writer are very much in Conor Curran’s debt for his detailed, intricate and fascinating account of the development of the game in Dublin over the past 135 years.


Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. He is a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin and the co-author of Seamus Mallon: A Shared Home Place (2019).



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