From Belfast Celtic to Shelbourne

Sat, Nov 16, 1996, 00:00

IT WAS John M McAlery, a Belfast merchant, who introduced association football, or soccer, to Ireland in 1878. McAlery, manager of the Irish Tweed House, chose to go to Edinburgh for his honeymoon from the stand point of Irish sport, it proved a highly significant decision.

In the course of his travels there, he was introduced to the sport which had spread northwards from the English midlands over the previous decade. The Football Association was established in London in 1866, but because of the travel and communication problems of the day, its influence took a long time to spread.

Cad had been the traditional field sport in Ireland. But in 1874, a powerful new organisation was born with the formation of the Irish Rugby Football Union. Because of the influence of students commuting between Ireland and England, Trinity College filled a major role in catering for rugby as the sport of the middle and upper classes in Ireland, but would, in turn, also have a major impact on the game of association football.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, but, between these two major players on the Irish sporting scene, McAlery perceived the need to fill a great void in the lives of those at the lower end of the social order.

His first move was to invite two Scottish teams, Queen's Park and the Caledonians, to play an exhibition game at the Ulster cricket ground in Ballymafeigh. The response among the local public was favourable and, thus encouraged, McAlery proceeded to found the Cliftonville club in Belfast in 1879.

A year later, on November 18th, 1880, the Irish Football Association was born in the Queen's Hotel in Belfast. The rules of the new body were adopted from the Scottish FA, and Major Spencer Chichester was appointed president, with the indefatigable McAlery as honorary secretary.

The seven founding clubs were Knock, Oldpark, Distillery, Moyola Park, Cliftonville, Avoniel and Alexander from Limvady. All seven were required to furnish an entry fee of a sbilling for the privilege of competing for the Irish Senior Cup, won by Moyola Park.

Just 10 months later came the first international soccer game to be ed in this country when a crowd paying £9 19s 7d saw England crush the home team 13-0.

For McAlery, captaining Ireland, it was a painful introduction to the realities of the sport he had just espoused, and there were (more tears, just a week later, when Wales beat them 7-1 at Wrexham.

Dublin had been slow to embrace the new code, but some three years after the formation of the IFA, the first club in the city came into being, when Dublin Association FC was founded at a meeting in Tyrone Place, now Cathedral Street.

Predictably, Dublin University was not far behind and the two met in the first Dublin derby on November 7th, 1883, with Dublin Association running out winners 4-0. Both clubs entered the Irish Cup for the first time in the 1884- 85 season, but in the face of the better organised northern teams, were eliminated early.

Yet, if their teamwork was unrefined, the Dublin clubs showed that they had a lot of individual talent, and between 1884 and 1891 no fewer than nine players from Dublin University were capped by the Irish selectors.

British army regiments stationed in Dublin, Athlone, Kilkenny and Dundalk supplemented the local talent in the evolution of the game in those early years. But it was Dublin Association FC and Dublin University who continued to provide the main opposition to the teams from the power base of the association in, Belfast.

The early relationship between Dublin and Belfast, later to strain and come apart, was quite good. But in 1890 the first rift surfaced. Dublin Association FC were beaten 3-2 by Cliftonville in the Irish Cup semi final at the Ulsterville grounds in Belfast, but then protested, successfully, that the game should be replayed because one of the match officials was a member of the Cliftonville club. Cliftonville also won the second game 4-2, but Dublin Association FC again complained that home town decisions were responsible for their defeat.

On this occasion, however IFA authorities refused to intervene and the Dublin club, unwilling to accept what they termed the dictates of biased officials, disbanded, with many of their players leaving to join the new Leinster Nomads club.

THE other significant development of 1890, from, a southern viewpoint, was the arrival of Bohemians, a club whose name was to be interwoven in the history of Irish football for the next 1,00 years.

For the first time, schools began to show an interest in soccer as an attractive form of physical education, and soon Montpelier, St Helen s, Chapelizod and Terenure were among those encouraging the growth of the new code.

The other significant development in the growth of the game at this time was the controversy over Charles Stuart Parnell, who was ostracised by the Catholic Church, but revered by the great majority of the young Gaelic Athletic Association as an apostle of nationalism. The Parnell issue split the GAA down the centre with many of its playing members defecting to soccer.

Ireland's influence on the legislative side of international soccer was placed in perspective by the adoption of an IFA proposal, revolutionary at the time, that offences inside a designated area of the playing area should be punished by the award of a penalty kick. At the time, it represented radical thinking, but McAlery's persuasive talking pushed it through.

On the pitch, however, little had changed on the international front, for when Ireland travelled to meet England at Roker Park in Sunderland, they were again trounced 13-0 by the home team.

Dublin clubs felt that the northern influence in team selections was unfairly heavy, and in the inquests into the Sunderland debacle the forthright, Leinster Nomads representative, Tom Kirkwood Hackett, did not mince words. "All this has come about" he said, "because of the hide bound prejudice of five men who select the team, preventing anyone outside the close circle of Belfast being chosen to represent his country."

Already, there were signs of an uneasy relationship between north and south. But inclining to the view that their brief was to promote the game on a national basis, the IFA actively encouraged the foundation of a subsidiary body in Dublin to accelerate the growth of the game in that area.

Thus, on October 27th, 1892, the Leinster Football Association was founded at a meeting in the Wicklow Hotel, Dublin, when Rev Canon Morley of St Helen's School took the chair and Mr Dudley T Hussey of Bohemians was appointed as the first hon secretary of the association. The five clubs represented at that first historic meeting were Bohemians, Montpelier, St Helen's School, Dublin University and Leinster Nomads. The articles of association were forwarded to Belfast, and the IFA, in turn, donated £59 to help finance the new association.

Bohemians was the first Dublin club to make a real impact in the Irish Senior Cup, beating St Columba's Hall Celtic from Derry to reach the final in 1895. Alas, that was the extent of their progress, for they were later beaten 10-1 by Linfield, a score line which still stands as a record for the competition.

In that year, the Shelbourne club came into existence and quickly made their presence felt by reaching, the Leinster Senior Cup final in only their second year. With a heavy sense of inevitability the Big Two in Dublin had already come to the fore.

In the north the big development at this time was the formation of Belfast Celtic in 1896.

From its birth, the club had a pronounced rapport with those who identified with Irish nationalism in the city, and over the next 60 years would contribute significantly to the folklore of Irish football.

Right from the start, Belfast Celtic was fated to be involved in controversy, and after crowd trouble during a game against Cliftonville posters were displayed at all grounds, threatening culprits with prosecution if there were any further outbreaks of violence.

For all the teething troubles, however the new craze was sweeping the country, and at the turn of the century the IFA was able to report that the number of affiliated clubs had risen dramatically. By this time, the Munster Football Association had been formed, clubs in Leinster numbered 59, and membership of the Co Antrim Association rose accordingly.

Munster played Leinster in the first interprovncial game to be staged in Dublin, and later Ulster travelled south to meet Leinster at the City and Suburban Grounds at Jones Road (now Croke Park). But quite the most significant development in the year 1900 was the IFA's decision to award Dublin its first international game.

England provided the opposition and, with no suitable soccer venue available, the game was played at Lansdowne Road on March 17th. Even in those days, the visit of an England team stirred the imagination of the masses and a story in the Freeman's Journal caught the mood of the day perfectly.

AS the day fast approaches for the last of Ireland international matches for the present season against England, interest in the event increases. The match in which his Excellency Earl Cadogan, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, has graciously consented to give his patronage, will be the first ever association international played in Dublin and takes place at Lansdowne Road on St Patrick's Day.

"Judging by the manner in which the tickets for both the stands and ground are being disposed of, the attendance promises to rival in extent any previously recorded for a similar match in Ireland.

"As to the game, there can be no disguising the fact that it promises' to provide the best exhibition of classic football ever witnessed in Dublin. Both teams are good ones

Reilly, the matchless Portsmouth goalkeeper, Archie Goodall, the Derby County halfback, and Gara, the Preston forward, being included in the Irish side, but it must be said the English team possesses a decided superiority. Thus a great game is in prospect. Mr G. O. Smith, the world's best centre forward, captains the English team.

Only one southern player, a Dr Sheehan of Bohemians, was included in the Irish team, but, to make up for the imbalance, the selectors awarded him the captaincy of the side.

The Irish team wore St Patrick's blue jerseys with a shamrock crest colours, which the Irish FA were to retain for their teams until 1931 and to facilitate people watching the Lord Mayor's parade in Dublin, the kick off was put back until 4.0 p.m.

Eventually some 10,000 spectators made their way to Lansdowne Road, but sadly, there was to be no fairy tale ending for the Irish. After a game described by The Irish Times as the best exhibition of football ever witnessed in Dublin, England triumphed 2-0 and the moulds of history had been set.

Dalymount Park, a ground synonymous with the history of the game in this country, was opened later in the year and, to mark the occasion, Glasgow Celtic played Bohemians in an exhibition game there on St Stephen's Day.

Bohemians had been beaten 2-1 in the Irish Senior Cup final of 1900 by the holders, Cliftonville, but with the decision of the IFA to stage the final in Dublin for the first time the following year, hope rose accordingly.

For all the remarkable progress achieved in the Leinster and Munster regions, association football there could not be said to have come of age until the big prize was cornered it fell to Freebooters from Sandymount to shoulder southern pride against Cliftonville in the 1901 final. Jones Road was the venue for the anticipated celebration, but for the 3,000 support who turned up, it all went cruelly wrong with Cliltonville, 150 the only goal of the game.

Southern teams had now contested the final, unsuccessfully, on three occasions, but, unabashed, Bohemians entered the Irish League for the first time in the 1901-2 season and were followed two years later by Shelbourne.

Even with the celebrated Val Harris in their team, Shelbourne fared no better than either Bohemians or Freebooters when they made their way into the Irish Cup final to play Distillery in Belfast in 1905.

Some 2,000 supporters, each paying 35 9p (19 pence) for the privilege, accompanied them on their mission, but once again there was nothing only heartbreak at the end of the journey. The Reds, reduced to 10 men after just 10 minutes, lost 3-0, and Dublin fumed once more at the failure.

It's a long road that has no ending, however, and the following year Shelbourne, after eliminating Cork Celtic and Glentoran along the way, finally reached the promised land. A crowd, which paid £427 at the gates saw them beat Belfast Celtic 2-0 in the final with both goals coding from Jimmy Owens. The Big Pot had, at last, been captured, and the Evening Herald reported the tar barrels and bonfires blazed in Ringsend and Sandymount that night as the Irish Cup was paraded around the district.

Shelbourne's victory was a watershed in the evolution of the game in Dublin. For the first time, the balance of power in association football in this country was seen to have switched, at least temporarily, from Belfast, and when Bohemians and Shelbourne met for the first time in all Dublin final in 1908 Bohemians won 3-1 in a replay the transformation was complete.