State of Play: Séamus Coleman’s rise to the top a remarkable one

Killybegs man was first player from south-west of Donegal to play league football in England

Séamus Coleman’s recent injury in the Republic of Ireland’s battle against Wales illustrated the precarious nature of professional football and how a lifetime of hard work can be threatened in a split-second through an opponent’s rashness.

The fact that the Killybegs native was actually on the field at the Aviva Stadium in the first place is, however, remarkable in itself. Coleman moved to Everton in 2009 as a 20-year-old League of Ireland player having not captured the attention of British scouts as a teenager. He was the first player from the south-west area of Donegal to ever play league football in England with Carl McHugh since doubling that tally. While north-east Donegal has a strong tradition of soccer that dates back to the 1880s, the south-west area would today generally be regarded as a Gaelic football stronghold.

Donegal has produced more players that have gone on to play professional football in England than any other peripheral Irish county, although admittedly these figures are quite low.

Between 1888 and 1939, some 286 Irish-born players broke into English league football, with the majority born in Belfast and Dublin. Only four of those – Jimmy Murray, Charlie and Billy O'Hagan and Billy Gillespie – were born in Donegal.


Similarly, in the period from 1945 until 2010, just nine of 917 Irish-born players who went to the England league were from Donegal with peripheral counties continuing to fare poorly by comparison to the island’s two biggest cities with their greater concentration of clubs and coaching structures as well as their long established links to cross-channel clubs.

Soccer in north-east Donegal gained an early foothold with links to the city of Derry – where a Football Association had been founded in 1886 –key to this. By 1890 both Letterkenny and Buncrana had been visited by Derry clubs for matches, while in west Donegal the game’s progress was assisted by seasonal migrants returning from Scotland, with Keadue Rovers – Packie Bonner’s first club – established in 1896 by two brothers who had seen soccer being played there.

Bonner would eventually be spotted playing for the club by Seán Fallon, who had moved to Celtic from Sligo in 1949 and the goalkeeper became the last player signed for the Scottish side by Jock Stein.

The barrier of the Blue Stack mountains and poor transport and communication links meant that clubs further south generally remained isolated from developments in the north-east of the county, where the County Donegal FA was founded in 1894. Military impact on the game’s spread was less notable, despite common perceptions, with only the Ballyshannon-based Erne FC benefiting in any great measure in their founding, which took place in 1896 after a match with the locally based 2nd Dorset Regiment.

At that point, Gaelic football was largely unheard of in Donegal and soccer was the most prominent team game. Ardara Emeralds was established in 1891 to provide an athletic club for local youths. Killybegs Emeralds, the earlier name given to Coleman’s first club, St Catherine’s, was founded in 1896 by a number of businessmen for similar reasons.

Soccer in Donegal survived an attempt to have it banned in 1905 after the establishment of the Evans Cup in Ardara with Seumus MacManus, the leading figure in the Gaelic revival in the county, demanding in the local press that the cup be given up for Gaelic football. He felt that Donegal, despite being ‘one of the most Gaelic counties in Ireland’, was not doing its duty, in continuing with ‘games introduced by the foreigner’.

This appeal was met with apathy by the majority of soccer clubs in the county. It was only in the district where MacManus resided that any real effort to change was made. MacManus’s condemnation of what many have wrongly come to regard as ‘the Garrison game’ was similar to TF O’Sullivan’s press campaign against rugby in Kerry in the early 1900s. But while Gaelic football thrived in Kerry, attempts to establish the first county board in Donegal in 1905 floundered until 1919 after a short period of growth. This delay has probably impacted on national success. As the two counties took to the field for the 2014 All-Ireland Gaelic football final, Kerry were aiming to win their 37th title while Donegal were seeking only their third.

Donegal has been divided along soccer and Gaelic football lines since the early 20th century and Gaelic football was slower to develop there than in Kerry despite both counties’ rural nature.

In the 1920s, the GAA in Donegal did succeed in exploiting a gap with the establishment of regular leagues and championships for young men, something which soccer organisers had failed to provide for all teams throughout the county. The County Donegal FA had been disbanded in 1898 with financial difficulties, mainly as a result of the failure to keep ‘gates’ and to advertise matches, particularly evident. Through the encouragement of national school teachers, Gaelic football teams were established in the south-west villages of Ardara and Glenties (Jim McGuinness’s club) by the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1921.

With the relatively successful organisation of GAA competitions in the south and south-west by the second half of the 1920s, and the GAA's propaganda campaign in the local and provincial press, with the locally based Donegal Democrat refusing to publish soccer reports at this time, there was only a handful of soccer teams located in these areas in this decade.

It was in the north-east where the game particularly thrived, with Inishowen part of Derry’s cultural hinterland. Soccer was kept alive in Inishowen through the summer visits of teams from Scotland and Derry and a tradition of local cup success in the area west of Inishowen and Lough Swilly which contains Kerrykeel, Cranford, Kilmacrennan and Milford. Gaelic football struggled to attract much interest in these areas, and it is perhaps no surprise that the majority of teams which have won the Donegal senior Gaelic football championship have been from the south and south-west of the county, while no Inishowen club has ever won it.

Two of the first Donegal-born footballers to play in England, Charlie and Billy O’Hagan, were born in Buncrana and had experience of the game in Derry city. In 1926, Charlie O’Hagan, who appeared for Tottenham Hotspur as well as a number of other British clubs, boasted that his football and travel experiences were ‘perhaps unequalled in the history of the game’ while his nephew, Billy, was the first Donegal-born goalkeeper to play for Ireland, making his debut in a 1-1 draw against England in 1919.

Billy Gillespie was born in Kerrykeel before moving to Derry city to live. He became the first Irishman to captain an FA Cup-winning team when he led Sheffield United to victory in 1925. Kilmacrennan native Jimmy Murray had, like many Donegal natives, moved to Scotland to work as a miner, before later appearing for Motherwell and Sheffield Wednesday.

Throughout Donegal, many soccer clubs remained at a junior standard rather than making any great progress at provincial or national level with the ad hoc nature of cup competitions and the failure to maintain a league structure for all of the county’s clubs evident as the Donegal League was not established until 1971. Killybegs Emeralds’ continued existence illustrates the peculiarities of the development of sport and national identity in a peripheral area, and the importance of individuals in the growth of sports’ clubs in Donegal.

Given their south-west location, their efforts to continue were all the more surprising. The perseverance of this soccer club may be partly due to their earlier tradition of success in soccer competitions such as the Evans and Woods cups in 1906 and 1912 respectively.

Perhaps crucially, the existence of a train line into the town, at a time when it failed to reach most of the south-west, meant that clubs could travel for friendly matches in periods when Killybegs Emeralds was not involved in competition. It also gave them greater licence to travel further afield.

They also arranged matches between club selections and were known to take on visiting ships’ crews. Ballybofey Wanderers, Killybegs and Ballyshannon met in challenge matches towards the end of the 1920s and early 1930s and were all involved in the 1930 Donegal Cup, won by Killybegs the following year. The Killybegs club was also ambitious enough to enter the Connacht Cup and they won this in 1934. In 1938 they contested the FAI Junior Cup final, losing to Drumcondra Juniors.

Unlike many areas in the south-west of the county, the town’s annual sports organisers were open to soccer and a match against non-Donegal based opposition, such as Strabane, was played annually as part of the Killybegs Regatta and Sports. They benefited from the input of local men who were eager to organise soccer rather than Gaelic football, and the tradition of soccer in this area was not forgotten. While Gaelic football did exist there, the local club did not win the Dr Maguire Cup until 1952, and their next championship final victory was not until 1988.

Schoolboy soccer struggled to become establish throughout Ireland. The GAA’s ‘Ban’ on its members participating in soccer, rugby, hockey or cricket, present until 1971, and a nationalist ethos in many schools were important factors in this. Coleman did play in the South Donegal Schoolboys’ League, founded in the months after Euro ’88, which was a turning point in soccer’s growth throughout Ireland as funding and sponsorship increased but scouts visiting Donegal in the late 20th century were few.

Michael McHugh of Ramelton, who joined Bradford City in 1989, was spotted by a Derry-based scout while playing in the Ulster Senior League for Swilly Rovers while Shay Given benefited from attending a secondary school with a strong soccer ethos, St Columba's of Stranorlar, and the fact that they regularly contested All-Ireland schools' finals in the early 1990s.

He also gained some national exposure through his performances as a 15-year-old during his local club Lifford Celtic’s FAI Junior Cup run in 1992. By the start of this century structures had improved with the FAI’s Emerging Talent Scheme being established in 2006 but this came too late for many promising soccer players throughout Ireland.

Séamus Coleman faces a long and hard road back from injury but he can take heart from the fact that he has defied greater odds in making it this far.

Dr Conor Curran is the author of The Development of Sport in Donegal, 1880-1935 (Cork University Press, 2015). He teaches Irish history at Dublin City University and has taught sports history at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester and was awarded a FIFA Havelange Research scholarship in 2013 to investigate Irish football migration. His new book, ‘Irish Soccer Migrants: a Social and Cultural History’, will be published later this year by Cork University Press.