From the Archives: Ireland’s foreign legion beat England on home soil

In 1949 Frank Johnstone travelled to Liverpool to witness Ireland make history

Late one Autumn afternoon in 1949 I hopped on a Number 3 bus in Sandymount, heading towards O'Connell Street.

Just coming up to my 20th birthday, I was a sports reporter with The Irish Times.

At Ringsend Tommy Godwin, who was Shamrock Rovers' goalkeeper at the time, got onto the bus and sat down beside me. We were off to a football match. As we walked up the North Wall towards the Liverpool boat, we were joined by Tommy O'Connor, who worked with me occasionally in the caseroom of The Irish Times. A nippy outside left, he also played for Rovers.

The crossing to Liverpool was as ordinary as any other crossing in those days. There was none of the present-day razzmatazz surrounding the Ireland soccer team and there would have been fewer than 200 travelling supporters. After we berthed, the two Tommys went off to join the rest of the Irish team in a hotel in Southport.


Next morning, training got under way at Southport's ground on Haig Avenue and, while Billy Lord was the official trainer – how could we lose with the Lord on our side? – it was the 1949 Footballer of the Year in England, Manchester United's Jackie Carey, who called the shots. Carey put Tommy Godwin through a gruelling session with a series of lobbed balls from the edge of the box. The great man's concentration on the Rovers' keeper was to pay off handsomely.

The weather on Wednesday, September 21st, 1949, was calm and dry. Goodison Park was packed to its old rafters with a crowd of 51,847. We were about to watch only the second ever meeting between England and Ireland. But this was the first since, just five months before on Easter Monday, Ireland had become a republic. England had won the first match, also a friendly, with a Tom Finney goal at Dalymount in 1946.

Ireland, with the wind behind them, started shakily, and England looked sure to score an early goal. But the crowd was shocked into silence after 32 minutes when Middlesbrough's Peter Desmond was taken down by Bert Mozley of Derby County. Penalty. Con Martin stepped up, but he struck his shot close to Williams. The keeper got a hand to the ball but the force of the shot saw the ball trickling over the line. One-nil to the Republic.

Then Tommy Godwin came into his own. Constant England attacks brought save after save after save. The highlight was when he actually jammed the ball against the bar from a corner by Derby County's John Morris. Now England's frustration, despite their confidence and occasional brilliance, was increasing by the minute.

In the second half, it was more of the same. We were under siege. But time and again, the English were beaten back by the superb Irish defence. A key to this was the way Carey handled Tom Finney. He stood off him and allowed him to keep the ball. This allowed Ireland to use the extra breathing space to defend in greater depth.

Five minutes from the end, Ireland got out of their own penalty box and a superb movement was finished by Peter Farrell, who lobbed the advancing Bert Williams. Two-nil. Mission impossible accomplished.

Then it was over. England, with their first full-time manager, Walter Winterbottom, at the helm, had been nobbled in their own back yard. The English crowd, however, was generous. As he left the field, Godwin, the hero of the hour, was given a noisy ovation.

Post-match press conferences were then a thing of the distant future. And there was no flag-waving Green Army celebrating on the Liverpool streets. As for myself, before going back to the Adelphi Hotel for an early night, I killed some time at an amateur boxing match.

My press box colleagues on that day, Bill Murphy of the Irish Independent, Paddy McKenna of The Irish Times, and Larry Lyons of the Cork Examiner have all passed on. And, speaking of journalists, I mustn't forget Henry Rose of the Daily Express, who wrote before the match: "Anybody who thinks the Irish have any chance should make an appointment with a Harley Street psychiatrist."

If there's internet access in Heaven, he might like to take a look at the official FA website. There he can find a potted history of the English football team. Here's a direct quotation: "More remarkable, though, is the fact that it was not until 1953, 81 years after the first international, that England lost at home to a national side from Europe, Hungary winning 6-3." Some mistake, surely. Does anybody in Harley Street have a cure for collective amnesia? Or maybe it's simply less painful to think that the first home defeat of the then "best team in the world" was engineered by the magnificient Ferenc Puskas rather than by Con Martin, Peter Farrell, Jackie Carey and Shamrock Rovers' Tommy Godwin.

England - Bert Williams (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Bert Mozley (Derby County), John Aston (Manchester United), Billy Wright (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Capt), Cornelius Franklin (Stoke City), Jimmy Dickinson (Portsmouth), Peter Harris (Portsmouth), John Morris (Derby County), Jesse Pye (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Wilf Mannion (Middlesbrough), Tom Finney (Preston North End).

Republic of Ireland - Tommy Godwin (Shamrock Rovers), Johnny (Jackie) Carey (Manchester United, Capt), Tom Aherne (Luton Town), Willie Walsh (Manchester City), Con Martin (Aston Villa), Tommy Moroney (West Ham), Peter Corr (Everton), Peter Farrell (Everton), Davy Walsh (West Brom), Peter Desmond (Middlesbrough), Tommy O'Connor (Shamrock Rovers). The Referee was J. A. Mowat of Scotland.

Sadly, Willie Walsh died recently. Of the other players, only Con Martin and Davy Walsh survive.

This article originally appeared as An Irishman’s Diary on October 21st, 2006. Frank Johnstone was a former sports reporter and football writer with The Irish Times. He died in 2010. Con Martin and Davy Walsh have both died since this article was originally published.