Davy Walsh was explaining to his daughter Amanda how it used to be, how it was growing up a sports-mad boy in Waterford in the 1920s and 30s and the different status Gaelic games held to that game known as soccer.
Brought up in England, Amanda thought she understood the mix of culture, politics and, she assumed, religion in Ireland. Gaelic football and hurling, was that Catholic? she had asked.
“No, it wasn’t Catholic,” her father had replied, “it was Irish.
“Soccer was a foreign game that was frowned upon because it was seen as English, a foreign game.”
It’s a loaded word, foreign, coming from ‘door’ to mean ‘outside’ in Latin, it merged into French and by 1923 when Davy Walsh was born it had become a derogatory Irish sporting term for that which was perceived to be un-Irish.
Yet others used it too, in fact the very people the Irish labelled foreign – the English, and specifically English football.
Unlikely as it may seem, Tom Finney once explained this.
“Talking of foreign sides, let me give you a tip,” Finney wrote in 1952.
“If you ever go to southern Ireland don’t try and claim that England have never been beaten at home by any team other than from the home countries. Éire may not be continental, but they definitely regard themselves as ‘outsiders’. There’s the little matter of a shock 2-0 win they put over us at Goodison Park on September 21st, 1949.”
This was written by Finney a year before the Hungary of Ferenc Puskas arrived at Wembley and dished out a 6-3 defeat – a result that reverberated around the world. England 3 Hungary 6 was a game celebrated as the 'Match of the Century'.
Tom Finney didn’t play at Wembley that day and was probably glad he didn’t. But he played at Goodison in 1949 and understood that foreign’ had a real meaning that afternoon too. As did shock.
It might even be argued, certainly from an Irish eye, that Goodison ’49 was every bit as significant as Wembley ’53, in part because while Hungary had Puskas, the Irish XI contained two men from Shamrock Rovers, one of whom, Tommy O’Connor, worked as compositor at
The Irish Times
There were other factors. In 1949 England were regarded as the best team in the world. Two years earlier they had beaten Portugal 10-0 in Lisbon and in 1948 England had beaten Italy 4-0 in Turin. Facing ‘Éire’ was, as Finney said: “Supposed to be a walkover for England, possibly a double-figures win.”
Davy Walsh and team-mates such as Jackie Carey and Con Martin turned these forecasts on their head. Martin scored the first goal and Peter Farrell, who played for Everton, got the second.
“We weren’t expecting to win at all,” Walsh told daughter Amanda, who had the foresight to interview her father eight years ago. “England were the team in those days that everyone wanted to beat. England were the best team, had the best players. And we went and beat them 2-0. Quite a surprise. We were the first foreign team to beat England in England.”
Again Amanda asked a question: Weren’t the Hungarians the first foreign team to win in England?
“The Hungarians beat England at Wembley in 1953,” came the reply. “This was 1949. People who say this are wrong.”
If Davy Walsh sounds black and white, he wasn't. He understood the sometimes blurred lines of Irish identity and recalled with irritation seven decades on that he had been "suspended for six months" by his local GAA for playing soccer as a schoolboy. It is a frustration that many Irish players, from Liam Brady to Martin O'Neill, will recognise.
Walsh said his father, David, was a “GAA man” and one of his brothers, Jimmy, hurled for Waterford.
So there must have been consternation in the Walsh household in 1943 when son Davy, aged 19, informed them that he was signing for Linfield in Belfast who, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, have never been affiliated to the GAA.
As Walsh said, though, playing for Linfield had one unforeseen benefit: tea. At a time of rationing, tea was scarce in southern Ireland but plentiful in the north.
However, when it came to meat, it was the other way round, as Tom Finney also mentioned. When commenting on the use of the word ‘foreign’, his advice was for anyone English travelling to southern Ireland for “an off-the-ration steak or two”.
Linfield housed Davy Walsh at 66 Lower Windsor Avenue, which is about as close to Windsor Park as you could, and can get, certainly someone from Waterford. He was then selected by the Belfast-based IFA to play for Ireland – the northern version – in 1946 and was still playing for them in March 1949, six months before Ireland – the southern version – won at Goodison Park.
But Walsh knew his dual Irish nationality was coming to an end. Part of the reason why beating England had such resonance was that in April ’49 Éire was formally declared the Republic of Ireland. This was part of the political backdrop to the rupture between the IFA and FAI a year later.
Six months after Goodison, Walsh was recalled by the IFA and played for them against Wales in Wrexham in a Home Championships match that doubled as a World Cup qualifier. Con Martin also played but the FAI were furious and asked the ‘whose side are you on’ question. The players, under pressure, chose to play for the FAI. There were no more dual internationals.
Walsh scored so many goals for Linfield – 91 in 88 appearances – that West Bromwich Albion came knocking with £3,000. He scored bucketloads for them too, and so in 1950 became Aston Villa’s record signing at £23,750. It was the second-highest transfer fee in Britain at the time.
All those years later, Davy told Amanda that an under-the-counter payment had helped the deal progress. Footballers in England were on the maximum wage; this is how it was – illicit steaks, illegal cash.
With the money he made, Davy Walsh set up a sports shop near Worcester and eventually he and Eileen retired to Devon. Her maiden name was Everton, which must always have tickled Davy given what he did there in 1949.
He will be buried next Tuesday, in Devon. At 92 he was the last living connection to that match against England in 1949. With good reason they are not planning to mourn, they are planning to celebrate the exceptional career and vivid life and times of the unique Davy Walsh.