‘Eleven men from Éire upset the white shirts of England’

PAUL ROUSE: ‘Eleven men from Éire upset the white shirts of England’
The Ireland team that beat England at Goodison Park in 1949. It was the first time that England had lost on home soil to a team that was not from the UK.

It was a result that was described in the newspapers as ‘a bombshell.’ And the raw facts of game allow for an understanding of why it was considered as such.

When the Ireland soccer team beat England by 2-0 at Goodison Park on 21 September 1949, it was the first time that England had lost on home soil to a team that was not from the UK.

Before the game, Henry Rose of the Daily Express, wrote: “Anybody who thinks the Irish have any chance should make an appointment with a Harley Street psychiatrist.” This was a sentiment that was shared across the English footballing cognoscenti.

It meant that defeat brought disbelief.

Indeed, so great was the shock that the English essentially went into denial that it had happened at all.

Instead, in the popular mind, it was only in 1954 that England first lost to a ‘foreign team’, when they were defeated 6-3 by Hungary at Wembley Stadium.

Of course, that sentiment is also conditioned by a misunderstanding of the relationship between Britain and Ireland when it comes to what counts as ‘foreign’.

But it also reveals a sense that losing to Ireland is something that just could not happen.

Following the foundation of the Football Association of Ireland in 1921, no match was played between England and a team representing to new Irish Free State until 1946.

That 1946 match was played at Dalymount Park. It was a superb match, which was only decided by a late Tom Finney goal.

The rematch in 1949 brought revenge.

England attacked relentlessly from the start with players such as Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, and Billy Wright in the vanguard.

But Ireland were led by the brilliant captain of Manchester United, Jackie Carey, who had that year been named Footballer of the Year in England.

Carey was a veteran by then, but an outstanding one. His brain and his skills and his utter refusal to countenance defeat were essential to the Irish cause.

Also in the team were six other players who played in the top flight in England, with two second division players as well as two who played with Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland.

The match was won through a first-half Con Martin penalty and a late goal by Peter Farrell.

The penalty was the key moment in the match — it was almost stopped but the ball bobbled over the line after the English goalkeeper Bert Williams had almost saved it.

Decades later, in 2013, when Con Martin died, that penalty goal against England was celebrated as his “most revered strike”. His obituary in the London Independent noted: “Con Martin was a leviathan of Irish football in the middle years of the 20th century, enjoying the type of colourful career usually confined to the pages of old-fashioned schoolboy comics.

“Remarkably versatile, he played … usually as a central defender, sometimes in goal, and was also an occasional marksman at the other end of the pitch, hitting the target six times for the Republic.”

The trickle of that half-saved penalty across the line in 1949 added anxiety to the frustration that the English players were already feeling at the chances that were going astray.

The huge Irish following in the 52,000 people who were crammed into the ground and the surge of the crowd captured in Pathé Newsreel footage signalled the impact of the first goal.

“Eleven men from Éire upset the white shirts of England,” said the commentator across the footage that was later shown in cinemas across Britain and Ireland.

The disbelieving nature of the commentary as the defeat revealed itself spoke of the game being reduced to a “hurly burly” of kick-and-rush, while Lady Luck was deemed to have smiled extensively on the Irish.

For the 200 or so Irish supporters who had travelled over on the ferry to support their team, it was a joyous occasion.

That the match should have been played in Liverpool — that most Irish of English cities — was entirely fitting. The port of Liverpool had long been a staging post for Irish emigrants heading to a new life across the world.

Many emigrants had never managed to get past the city, instead making a life for themselves working on the docks or in the thriving businesses that fanned out either side of the River Mersey.

By 1891, almost 10% of the population of Liverpool had been born in Ireland.

Indeed, there were so many Irish emigrants in Liverpool that it elected an Irish nationalist MP to sit in the House of Commons from 1885 to 1929.

That MP, TP O’Connor, was an extraordinary man — not just a politician of distinction, but also a newspaper editor and the author of several fine books.

And if Liverpool was a fitting city for the match, Goodison Park was a most fitting home.

Goodison was the home ground of Everton Football Club. The myth that Liverpool Football Club was the club of Protestants and that Everton was the one beloved of Catholics has long been exploded as nonsense, but Everton was, nonetheless, a club with close links to Dublin through the signing of many Irish-born players and the organisation of friendly matches.

Indeed, the first match between Everton and an Irish team had taken place as far back as Christmas 1885.

When Everton signed Val Harris — the great star of soccer in Dublin — in 1907 ties were further strengthened. So extensive was Everton’s scouting system in Ireland, that they signed nine players and brought them across the Irish Sea between 1945 and 1952.

It was only in the 1970s and 1980s — when it enjoying the greatest spell of success in its history — that Liverpool Football Club became so extensively popular across Ireland. Although, naturally, those two things are entirely unrelated.

The second goalscorer for Ireland back in 1949 was Peter Farrell, the captain of Everton. It appears that when he scored the goal there were many Evertonians in the crowd cheering along with the Irish supporters.

The reaction to the defeat in the English newspapers was not quite so warm.

One wrote:

“To think that Eire, who had extreme difficulty in raising eleven men of sufficient calibre for such a match should be the first ‘outside’ country to beat us on home ground. It shows plainly how far we have fallen from the all- conquering England of a few seasons ago. They have fairly put the cat amongst the England selectors’ pigeons.”

As for the Irish team, the success did not presage a dramatic upswing in the country’s fortunes in international soccer. Instead, that 1949 match remained a sort of glorious highlight, something that hinted at what could be but seldom was.

The full Irish team on that historic day was:

Tommy Godwin (Shamrock Rovers), Johnny (Jackie) Carey (Manchester United) — captain, 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)

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin

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