Before his untimely death in 1993, Ronnie Whelan snr was apt to recall that growing up in Cabra on Dublin’s north side, he was never regarded as the best player, even on his own street. Given that another sporting family of the same name lived on the other end of St Attracta’s road, that wasn’t altogether surprising to those who supervised the local playground.
The eldest member of the other Whelan household, Christy, went on to become a fine League of Ireland player in spells with Bohemians, Drumcondra and Transport. John, the youngest of three brothers, represented Drumcondra with distinction but it was the lad in between who captured the imagination of the scouts who trawled Cabra in search of more football nuggets.
Liam Whelan was the rarest of football's pearls, a superb player on the ball whose mazy dribbling skills and ability to open up defences was still on an upward curve when the Munich air disaster robbed Manchester United and the wider world of sport, of one of the more obvious talents in a distinguished generation of footballers.
Having regard to this calibre of competition on his doorstep, it wasn't altogether surprising then that Ronnie Whelan should suffer in the comparison. And yet for much of the period that followed, it was the lesser known of the two families which would dominate the football headlines. Ronnie Whelan snr knew little of the professional comforts enjoyed by his namesake, Liam.
As a part-timer with St Patrick’s Athletic, he often recalled that on those occasions when he was required to work the night shift at the Unidare factory in Finglas, he would cycle the seven miles from there to Richmond Park to train on his own for a couple of hours the following morning.
Some 25 years after Ronnie’s time in the sun, his son would light up the firmament of club and international football. Ronnie jnr never had to endure the hardships of life as a part-timer after a gifted apprenticeship with Home Farm had opened the way to a hugely successful career at Liverpool and 53 Ireland caps in an era of unmistakable riches for the national team.
Ronnie snr won just two international caps. The first materialised in a scoreless European championship draw with Austria in Vienna in September 1963, the second as a fifth-minute replacement for Joe Haverty in the 3-1 defeat by England at Dalymount Park some eight months later.
But sandwiched between those two high-profile games was a fixture against the English Football League which would ensure a place in local sporting folklore for the tall man from Cabra.
For the fixture at Dalymount on October 2nd, 1963, the English FA had recently embarked on the most concentrated team building programme in their history. At that point they were less than three years away from hosting the World Cup and manager Alf Ramsey was charged with the task of assembling a team that would do justice to the occasion.
Ramsey was already well into his rebuilding programme when he addressed the task of naming the league team to play in Dublin. Among them was Bobby Moore, one of the enduring greats of the English game who embodied Ramsey's concept of the total team player. Ramsey was quick to acknowledge Moore's quality of leadership by awarding him the team captaincy.
Moore was accompanied to Dublin by his Upton Park teammate Martin Peters while two other players in the side which faced the League of Ireland, Ray Wilson and Roger Hunt, would also figure in England's World Cup plans. When you counted in the other members of that multihonoured inter-league team, Tony Waiters, Jimmy Armfield, Gordon Milne, Ian Callaghan, Jimmy Melia and Mike O'Grady, it amounted to a massive test for the Irish part-timers.
Tough back three
Eamonn Darcy had taken over the Irish goalkeeper's shirt from Kevin Blount, and immediately in front of him was a formidable back three formation of John Keogh, Freddie Strahan and Willie Browne. Keogh would later go on to be capped by Ireland, an honour which was replicated by the other two.
Although the longevity of Ronnie Nolan's remarkable playing career would extend to another seven years, his best years were already judged to be behind him. And the selectors promoted Shelbourne's Paddy Roberts, a hotel waiter by trade but no slouch when it came to shackling his immediate opponent that evening, Jimmy Melia of Liverpool. Johnny Fullam was charged with the task of "sweeping" behind Strahan.
In addition to Whelan, the responsibility of hunting down goals against the mature English League defence devolved to Waterford's Peter Fitzgerald and the Shamrock Rovers' trio of Jackie Mooney, Eddie Bailham and Tony O'Connell.
With the exception of Ronnie Whelan, the team met up and trained together for the first time the evening before the game. Whelan was working the night shift that week and it was only after much cajoling that he talked his charge hand into giving him time off to play at Dalymount.
Paramount to the Irish team’s survival was the need to stay disciplined in the face of early England pressure and in that aspect their game plan was spot on.
The visitors opened at a pace that suggested they were not in the mood to trifle with opposition, described in the British press on the morning of the game as “willing but likely to be found wanting in skill”. Milne’s weighty tackle on Mooney was conclusive evidence of their intention to avoid the stigma of becoming the first English team to lose in 17 meetings with the League of Ireland.
The pace of the English attack was such that, out wide, Keogh and Browne had to call on all their guile and experience to cut down space and deal with the threat presented by Callaghan and O’Grady. In sharp contrast, the English goalkeeper, Waiters, was little more than an interested onlooker in the opening 15 minutes.
The suspicion was that something had to give. And it did, after 20 minutes. For the second time in the game, Byrne slipped his marker and when he was still in the process of taking the ball around Darcy, the goalkeeper brought down the West Ham player.
John “Pip” Meighan, the Dublin referee in charge of the game, had no hesitation in pointing to the spot as Byrne prepared to exact revenge. As the visitors got ready to celebrate, however, Darcy dived to his right to knock the ball against the butt of an upright and then hugged the rebound to his chest.
But before the Irish players could capitalise on the reprieve, England broke the stalemate. Hunt outflanked the defence down the right before delivering a cross for Byrne’s short-range header to be a mere formality.
Minutes later, Hunt’s header from a cross by Callaghan drew another good save from Darcy as the visitors went in search of a second goal. And when the goalkeeper parried another effort approaching half-time, Browne was forced to scamper to complete the clearance.
Boys in green
Not even the most avid Irish supporter could question the 1-0 scoreline as the teams reappeared for the second half, but despite the one-way traffic which characterised play in the first half, hope still lingered that, with luck, the men in green could yet haul themselves back into contention. To achieve it, they needed an early break and it almost materialised in the 56th minute when O'Connell quickly took Robert's free kick under control before smacking the ball against an upright.
As confidence grew, so the visiting defence came under concerted pressure for the first time in the game. Whelan had a shot smothered by Armfield and then, as the screw turned, came an equaliser that rocked the stadium.
Moore’s headed clearance following O’Connell’s corner kick travelled only as far as Bailham lurking just outside the penalty area and the shot flew into the top corner of the net.
Suddenly the game was transformed. A 30-yard free from Roberts crashed against the underside of the crossbar, only for Whelan to head the rebound into the arms of Waiters.
Fitzgerald and Mooney combined to throw the visiting defence into something approaching panic with a swift break down the right soon afterwards and then, for the second time in the game, Dalymount erupted with just 11 minutes left.
Fullam tapped an indirect free to Bailham and when the latter’s pass arrived at Whelan’s feet just yards out, the finish was inch perfect. After his long periods of inactivity in the opening half, Waiters found himself retrieving the ball from his net for a second time and as the scorer raced to accept the acclaim of the masses, history was in the making.
True, it required another agile save by Darcy to prevent Hunt snatching an equaliser as the crowd held its collective breath in the dying minutes, but with Pip Meighan in no mood to stretch their nerves to breaking point in added time, the end came just in time to provoke some of the most remarkable celebrations witnessed in the old stadium for years.
The unsung heroes of the League of Ireland were at last able to claim a victory over the English aristocrats.
By the time the Dalymount game ended, even the man responsible for arranging the work roster in the Unidare factory had probably grown to appreciate the significance of it all. The morning after the game, the papers were full of praise for the Irish victory and the manner in which Whelan had recovered from his earlier gaffe to secure the historic win.
With his name splashed across the headlines, he was now viewed as one of the country's favourite sons. And when he reported for work the following evening to be told the departmental manager wanted to see him, his mates were teasing him about the likelihood of receiving a bonus or even a promotion for the media profile he had earned for his employers.
Imagine his surprise then, when the man brandishing the sports pages of the Irish Press on the other side of the desk informed him that he did not, in fact, have permission to play in the game and if he absented himself from work in similar circumstances in the future, he would be dismissed on the spot. There are indeed times in life when one just cannot win!
From the Press Box: 70 Years of Great Moments in Irish Sport, by Peter Byrne, released in early November by Liberties Press, €17.99