Green Gunners denied rare chance to see Arsenal on Irish soil

North London club have a strong connection with Ireland off the pitch, if no longer on it

Arsenal celebrate their 1979 FA Cup final win over Manchester United. Photograph: Getty

Arsenal celebrate their 1979 FA Cup final win over Manchester United. Photograph: Getty

 

‘Fever Pitch’ is the best book ever written about Arsenal and possibly the best book ever written about football. Somewhat unusually the book is not about the players, managers or even the owners. Instead it about the supporters which is why Nick Hornby gave the first edition the subtitle “A Fans Life’. In 1968 Hornby attended his first match at Highbury watching Arsenal beat Stoke City 1-0 but still concluded that “... the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.”

On Thursday night Arsenal will play Dundalk at Lansdowne Road in a Europa League match they are almost certain to win comfortably. But for Gunners fans all over the country there will only be disappointment. Having waited 134 years for their beloved Arsenal to make their competitive debut in Ireland, when they finally show up the gates are locked firmly shut.

Connections between Arsenal and Ireland go back to the very start with a number of the workers in the Woolwich munitions factory who founded the club in 1886 being Irish. In October 1932 Arsenal became the first English team to travel by plane to play a match (against the Racing Club de Paris) and in the decades that followed they regularly travelled to Ireland.

A particular highlight was their 1962 visit when they beat Bohemians 8-3 in a friendly to celebrate the inaugural switching on of the floodlights at Dalymount Park. The match would later inspire an unfounded urban legend that Bohemians had actually purchased the now iconic floodlights second hand off their English visitors.

In more recent times such encounters have become scarce with Arsène Wenger never sending a team to Ireland during his 22 years in charge. Ironically when Wenger finally stepped down in the summer of 2018 his successor Unai Emery immediately brought Arsenal to Dublin to play a pre-season match against Chelsea that attracted 46,000 people to the Aviva Stadium.

Dr Kevin O’Flanagan in action for Arsenal against West Ham in 1946. Photograph: PA
Dr Kevin O’Flanagan in action for Arsenal against West Ham in 1946. Photograph: PA

Irish players have always played a huge part in the clubs success. In 1904 Wexford native Tommy Shanks became the first Arsenal player ever to score more than 20 goals in a season as his 24 strikes took the club into Division One for the first time. Incredibly Arsenal then immediately sold their star striker back to Brentford denying the New Ross native the chance to represent the Gunners in the top flight.

Outstanding all round sportsman Dr. Kevin O’Flanagan combined being a London doctor with playing for Arsenal for whom he was top scorer in his debut season (1945-46) and also played both international rugby and soccer for Ireland alongside his brother Michael.

Irish influence

However Irish influence undoubted peaked in 1979 when a majority of the Arsenal side that defeated Manchester United 3-2 in the most dramatic FA Cup Final of all time (“the five-minute final”) came from the island of Ireland. Three Dubliners (David O’Leary, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton) were joined on the Arsenal team by three Northern Ireland internationals (Pat Jennings, Sammy Nelson and captain Pat Rice).

As is tradition the Arsenal team were led out at Wembley by their Belfast-born manager Terry Neill who remains the only person from the island of Ireland to manage an FA Cup Final winning team. When they returned a year later for the 1980 FA Cup Final the Irish contingent at Arsenal had swelled to seven with the addition of Dubliner John Devine to the starting line-up.

In recent years this flood of Irish talent at Arsenal has reduced to barely a trickle now that it is much easier to play international football for either the Republic or Northern Ireland than it is to break into the Arsenal first team. Take for example Daniel Ballard who has won five full caps for Northern Ireland but is still waiting to make his Arsenal debut. And even Ballard, who is currently on loan at Blackpool, was actually born in Stevenage.

In recent years the only Irish players at the club winning trophies are women such as goalkeeper Emma Byrne who in an extraordinary 17-year career with the Arsenal Ladies won 11 league titles, 10 FA Cups and the Champions League.

Emma Byrne and Niamh Fahey celebrate Arsenal’s FA Cup win in 2014. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty
Emma Byrne and Niamh Fahey celebrate Arsenal’s FA Cup win in 2014. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty

Times have never been tougher for Green Gunners of every description. Take for example ‘Gunnersaurus Rex’ an ever smiling, seven-foot tall green tyrannosaurus whose long tenure as official club mascot appeared over when he was made redundant during the pandemic.

Backlash

So great was the backlash amongst supporters that Arsenal quickly became the first football club in history to issue a public statement providing reassurance about the future employment prospects of a dinosaur in which they promised that “Gunnersaurus is not extinct and will return to action when fans are allowed back in.”

At the height of the controversy Mesut Özil made his first meaninful contribution to the club in months by offering to pay the full salary of his fellow World Champion (Gunnersaurus having emerged victorious at the 2019 World Cup of Football Mascots).

Özil could easily afford such generosity earning £350,000 a week despite being omitted from the Arsenal squad for both the Premier League and Europe, which renders it impossible for him to play any actual football. How times have changed from the reign of trained economist Arsène Wenger when literally every single pound counted.

In 2013 having been tipped off that Luis Suárez had a £40 million release clause in his contract Wenger bid £40,000,001 for the striker. This quickly became the first offer in history to be responded to in the form of a question with Liverpool owner John W. Henry simply asking “what are they smoking at the Emirates?”

In the reverse fixture at the Emirates in October Dundalk made Europa League history by becoming the first side ever not to commit a single foul in an entire match. This led manager Filippo Giovagnoli to boast that: “Our team is so polite, they are such gentlemen.”

David O’Leary pictured in London in 1979, during his time at Arsenal. Photograph:Duncan Raban/Getty
David O’Leary pictured in London in 1979, during his time at Arsenal. Photograph:Duncan Raban/Getty

The suspicion that Dundalk might have been a bit too deferential to their hosts began to surface even before kick-off when winger Michael Duffy revealed that he took ‘Thierry’ as his confirmation name in honour of Arsenal’s all time top goal scorer Thierry Henry.

Uefa would later fine Dundalk €50,000 as punishment for Giovagnoli’s ‘shadow coaching’ as the former AC Milan Summer Camp instructor lacks the requisite qualifications to coach at European level.

Of greater concern in the game itself was the shadow defending that Dundalk engaged in for the 257 seconds either side of half-time during which a less gentlemanly Arsenal side rather impolitely scored the game’s only three goals.

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