Apt time to recollect legend of Jackie Brown


Back in 1937, as Paris prepared to stage the World Cup finals, the French capital played host to Éire for the first time. The Irish team won with the help of some Belfast magic

EAMON DE Valera, Chariots of Fire, Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Stade Colombes in Paris, France-Éire, the World Cup finals of 1938 and a man from Lecumpher Street in east Belfast called Johnny “Jackie” Brown.

Today feels like an appropriate moment to take this story from beneath a bush.

It is May 1937. As the Ireland of de Valera debated the need for, and the content of a new constitution for the independent state, its soccer-football team – known as Éire – set off on a two-game European tour that took in Switzerland prior to arriving in Paris.

This was no small deal for the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), which was engaged in friction with the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA). The IFA had been formed in 1880, the FAI in 1921 following independence.

Who administered the game across the island was the subject of the argument. In 1880, when the country had 32 counties and no border, the IFA assumed the name Ireland. After all, that’s who they were.

Dublin clubs such as Shelbourne would play in the IFA’s Irish League and Irish Cup, even though these were perceived increasingly at the beginning of the 20th century as “northern” competitions.

Naturally the foundation of the Irish Free State provoked added clamour for an Irish Free State team to take part in the continent’s most popular sport. At the 1924 Olympics – in Paris – an Irish side under this name played Bulgaria, Holland and Estonia. Paddy Duncan of St James’ Gate was the first Irish scorer, at the Stade Colombes.

Meanwhile, “northern Ireland” continued to be called “Ireland” and this Ireland would freely select players who came from outside the six counties in Ulster. In 1923 in Liverpool the British International Board decided that the FAI could be equally free.

When, in 1929, the FA Cup-winning Cardiff City goalkeeper Tom Farquharson, a Dubliner, made his Éire or “Republic of Ireland” debut, he had already played for northern Ireland seven times.

This policy continued for both associations, which brings us back to May 1937 and Johnny Jackie Brown. The first game of the tour was in Berne and was won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Southampton’s (and Ringsend’s) Jimmy Dunne.

“Ireland had been lucky for sure,” wrote Donal Cullen in his fascinating history of the period, Freestaters.

“The second match of the European tour was Ireland’s first against France,” Cullen added.

So this 1937 game in Paris was historic. Life in Belfast and Dublin in that year must have been dramatic enough but in Paris, alive to the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it must have been electric. Then there was football – Paris was preparing to stage the 1938 World Cup.

It would be won by Italy in front of 60,000 at the Stade Colombes – or Stade Olympique de Colombes, where Harold Abrahams’s deeds of 1924 would later inspire Colin Welland to pen Chariots of Fire.

On Sunday May 23rd, 1937, there was a smaller crowd, 16,688. On 52 minutes the Irish went ahead, thanks to a Belfast man called Davy Jordan, who had been transferred from Ards to Wolves.

Six minutes later, reports said: “Brown met the falling ball on the volley and gave Di Lorto no chance.” The game ended France 0 Ireland 2. History had been made and the happy Irish could head home.

What is intriguing is that when Johnny Brown – or Jackie as he was sometimes called – headed home to Belfast. He went to a street off the Castlereagh Road and to an environment that could not be described as anything other than Protestant. Éire it was not. Yet he had scored in Ireland’s first-ever game against France.

Apologies for the personal nature of what follows, but I know this because Johnny Brown was my father Tommy’s uncle. Johnny Brown was a big figure as we grew up – my brother’s name is Johnny – or the stories about him were. He was born around 1914 in Belfast and, like the rest of the Brown family, went to work in William Ewart’s linen mill.

But football as well as linen was in his blood – his uncle Jack had played for West Bromwich Albion – and as a teenager Johnny was signed by the legend who ran Belfast Celtic, Elisha Scott. This was in 1932 when Celtic were the greatest club in Ireland, north or south.

Despite the ugly, sectarian death that would befall Belfast Celtic in 1949, many of its players were Protestants.

Presumably what counted more than religion was the football.

Rich English clubs plundered Celtic for the talent being unearthed and one of my father’s favourite tales is the day that Johnny Brown and Dave “Boy” Martin were sold by Celtic to Wolves, then managed by the infamous Major Buckley.

“Him of the monkey glands,” as Tommy says.

Accompanied by thousands of well-wishers, Brown and Martin were taken to the docks at Belfast on a horse-drawn carriage and put on the ferry to Liverpool. This was a big-deal transfer at the time.

It was 1934. In February 1935, Brown was called up by the IFA to play for Ireland against England at Goodison Park.

Also making their debuts were Tommy Breen and Peter Doherty – Doherty was the only man George Best’s father said was as good as his son.

England won 2-1, Cliff Bastin scoring both, but Brown was to get a measure of revenge eight months later when he scored against England at Windsor Park. Everton legend Ted Sagar was in goal for the English. That was Brown’s first international goal.

Two years later in Wrexham, against Wales, he won his fifth cap and the striking thing was that the game fell in March. Just two months later he was off with Éire on tour in Switzerland and France. Those were to be his only two FAI Irish caps.

Johnny, who may not have been Major Buckley’s cup of tea, had left Wolves for Coventry City by then and in 1938, as described in the book Coventry’s 100 Greats, Brown left them “after an unfortunate incident in a Coventry ballroom”.

He was sold to Birmingham City, then came the second World War. After it he played successfully for Ipswich Town for three years.

On retiring in 1951, Johnny moved home to Belfast. As professional footballers did then, he got a job, as a labourer in the shipyard at Harland and Wolff.

But life for an ex-pro has never been easy. Johnny found it hard and my father, who’d turned pro himself, found Johnny Brown dead in the family home. He was still a young man.

Sadly that meant we are unable to record from him just what his remarkable life and times were like. But, still intrigued, in Paris on Wednesday, I went searching for the Stade Colombes. Just to see. But Johnny Brown remains as elusive today as he was to the France defence in 1937. The Stade Colombes is not the Rue de Colombes in Colombes.

It’s somewhere else.