The winding road that led to Poznan

 

SPORT:Why is a 26-county team with an odd name playing Croatia tomorrow? Peter Byrne’s book tackles this and other tricky issues

Green is the Colour: The Story of Irish Football By Peter Byrne André Deutsch, 267pp. £19.99

WHEN IRELAND TAKE on Croatia in Poznan, in Euro 2012, tomorrow evening it will be a real break with history. And that’s not because it’s the Republic’s first tournament in 10 years or only its fifth ever. Much more simply, it’s the fact that the fixture takes place on a Sunday.

When football was first properly organised in Ireland, in the late 19th century, the then governing body for the whole island, the Belfast-based Irish Football Association, refused to allow games on the Sabbath, in accordance with its Scottish Presbyterian influence. Indeed, the IFA stressed that Sunday football was “very detrimental to the best interests of the game”.

That didn’t appear to be the case in 1958, however, when a very loose compromise had to be reached to let Northern Ireland play in their first World Cup.

Much earlier, there had been no sign of such acquiescence. And, aside from allowing the GAA to gain an even stronger cultural foothold among the population, Sunday games were the subject of one of the first major disagreements between football people in the North and the South.

The result of all of that, of course, is that football is now the only major sport in Ireland split along participation lines. More than anything, Peter Byrne’s Green Is the Colour is the authoritative story of how that came to be. A former football correspondent of this newspaper, Byrne wrote the book while also researching the series of the same name that finished this week on RTÉ. Whereas the documentary made much-praised use of talking heads and excellent unseen archive clips, the book, obviously, has to take a different tack. It is no worse for it, however, as Byrne has made it conversational yet comprehensive.

Those wanting Jack Charlton-era nostalgia, though, should look elsewhere (though the book does have a foreword by him). This isn’t that type of book – of which, in any case, there are many. Euro 88, for example, gets only a page. But that also appears to be Byrne’s point.

Whereas the common view is that international football helped to define Ireland anew during the successes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the author argues that this happened much earlier because of the simple fact that it was the only sport truly representative of the 26-county State. Indeed, Byrne provides evidence that, contrary to perceptions, Éamon de Valera’s successive administrations were very receptive to this.

As Byrne attempts to unlock the labyrinthine football politics of that period, one of the more interesting accounts covers the very name the Irish team play under. How odd is it, after all, that official Uefa documentation over the next few weeks will describe Giovanni Trapattoni’s team as the Republic of Ireland when that is only the description of the State rather than the constitutional name?

Byrne explains exactly why while also recounting how many teams, particularly England, became confused when they had to advertise fixtures against two different teams, both claiming to represent Ireland.

Naturally, then, the book covers the postpartition football history of the North as much as it does of the South. Nothing illustrates better how intertwined they were, even then, than the players who appeared for both teams. Of course, as the presence of James McClean and Darron Gibson in Poland this week illustrates, the controversy has persisted to the present day. But that doesn’t mean it has escalated. Far from it.

Byrne goes a step further, by delving into the thinking of those players who represented both the IFA and the FAI. The North, after all, included some strong republicans. Then there’s the case of James McMahon, of Bohemians, who was capped by the IFA in 1934 but never by the southern body, despite representing Derry in Gaelic football and enjoying a long career with An Garda Síochána.

One of the only objectors was the distinguished Cardiff City goalkeeper Tom Farquharson, who refused to play for the North after 1925 – the year before the FAI’s first full fixture – on a point of principle.

For everyone other than Farquharson, though, there were simple reasons for playing. As the dual international Con Martin says: “With a fixed wage ceiling in operation, there wasn’t huge money to be made in football, so when the chance came to play for Northern Ireland I didn’t need a second invitation to accept.”

The cut-off point finally came in 1950, when players had to choose, and Martin opted for the FAI. Much earlier, though, Martin had made an even more interesting choice. After he had played superbly in an exhibition against Spain in 1946, the goalkeeper was approached by Real Madrid to see if he would be interested in signing for the club. He turned them down “because I couldn’t speak Spanish”.

It’s one of a number of fascinating snippets that are sprinkled through the narrative, among them the fact that the famed unionist Edward Carson spent much of his early life in the FAI’s old headquarters on Merrion Square and that Cliftonville hosted the world’s first floodlit games in the late 19th century.

That lighter side means Byrne can occasionally cross lines, not least about Saipan and the debate over Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy. The author claims that “the consensus was that the manager had acted correctly” and that Keane’s absence arguably even improved the team. At the very least, that is open to (fervent) debate.

Similarly, Byrne goes soft on a few key points in the FAI’s history, such as the removal of the selection committee.

On the whole, though, this is a fair, balanced and fascinating account of a fractious social history. And one that goes some way to explaining why a 26-county team with an odd name will get to play on a Sunday tomorrow.


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