BY MARK GODFREY
It’s a common misconception that England’s first defeat on home soil by non-UK international opposition came at Wembley Stadium in 1953 in that famous 6-3 demolition doled out by Hungary.
While the Mighty Magyars left these shores with a trail of shock and devastation in their wake, they did not depart with that particular feather in their cap. That honour belonged to Ireland.
Although the two countries had been waging footballing war since 1882 – when England thumped Ireland 13-0 – it was an altogether more caustic struggle that would lead to the very first lowering of English colours on this island by someone other than a regular Home Championship foe.
Before the partition of Ireland in 1920 created Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (which would eventually become the Republic of Ireland in 1937), a single national team competed under the governance of the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA). Whilst still part of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the Irish had played the English on many occasions, usually with the same outcome; a drubbing. They had to wait until Valentine’s Day 1914 to record their first win of any kind over England; a 3-0 success at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough. Ireland would eventually capture their one and only Home Championship title as a united country after drawing 1-1 with Scotland at Windsor Park, Belfast exactly a month later.
Following the declaration of the republic in 1937, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) was founded in Dublin as a separate entity to the IFA in the North. The two associations claimed to have jurisdiction over football across the whole island, which enabled the rather peculiar situation of dual representation to occur.
The opposing organisations believed they alone were entitled to choose players from both sides of the border, therefore, between 1924 (and the forerunner to the FAI – the FAIFS, the Football Association of the Irish Free State) and 1950, many men decided to represent both countries in full internationals.
This led to some extraordinary situations arising, not least in September 1946 when Johnny Carey and Bill Gorman faced England twice in a week; a 7-2 defeat in Belfast while lining up for the IFA XI followed by a 1-0 loss at Dalymount Park wearing the green of the FAI. The game in Dublin was the first time the two countries had met since the new Irish constitution of 1937; an initial friendly encounter probably delayed more by the Second World War than by any lingering political discord.
It was another three years before the two nations’ paths crossed again on September 21st 1949 at Goodison Park, Liverpool – the home of Everton, where Ireland’s captain Carey would subsequently become manager from 1958-61 before being ignominiously sacked by chairman John Moores in the back of a taxi.
Both sides were preparing for World Cup qualifiers – England guaranteed passage to Brazil 1950 by way of a top two finish in the Home Championship, while the FAI-governed Ireland missed out by finishing runners-up in a group contested by themselves, Sweden and Finland.
England manager Walter Winterbottom left his three star men – Tommy Lawton ( a former Goodison favourite before WWII), Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen – out of the game, but still fielded a team that included Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion and were overwhelming favourites to see off the Irish with ease. Their main man was Carey – who had been voted PFA Player of the Year just months earlier.
A crowd of 51,047 turned up to Goodison Park on that Wednesday afternoon; numbers likely swollen by the fact that local businesses, docks and shipyards were routinely closed early on Wednesdays. Liverpool also had a large, thriving Irish immigrant community – particularly from the nearby Scotland Road area of the city – so the voices cheering from the stands would not only have been of those cheering for England.
The game itself began with England laying siege to Ireland’s goal, but the Three Lions found ‘keeper Tommy Godwin and his defence, marshalled by Carey, in belligerent mood. The Irish skipper was particularly integral to the performance as he shackled the mercurial wing play of Finney.
As England’s attack began to blow itself out, Ireland sprung to life. In the 33rd minute, Peter Desmond was felled in the penalty area when through on goal. Irish utility man, Con Martin, put away the spot-kick to give the visitors a surprise half-time lead.
The second half continued in much the same vain as the first, with England trying to bulldoze their way through the Irish rearguard. However, Carey and co. were not to be defeated so easily. Several chances came and went for Winterbottom’s men; Peter Harris hit the bar, Jesse Pye – in his only international appearance – spurned another great opportunity as England were made to rue the absence of Matthews’ and Lawton’s guile and ruthlessness.
The jig was up for England just five minutes from the end as they pushed for an equaliser that would save their blushes. Everton’s own Peter Farrell slammed home the second and decisive Ireland goal in front of the Gwladys Street end of Goodison.
It had taken 77 years since their first international match in 1872, but finally, England’s proud record of having never been beaten at home by a ‘foreign’ team had been broken. The significance of the defeat, given the relatively recent political history and re-classification of the Republic of Ireland as non-participants of the Home Championship, doesn’t rank as highly as it perhaps should. It can certainly be said that the impact it had in no way matches the seismic shock felt by the footballing education handed out by the Hungarians four years later – a result that still resonates in the way we view the set-up and development of the England national team even today, 60 years later.
But while the loss may be just another blip in the records of English football history, that famous victory announced that the fledgling nation of Ireland had a football team to be taken seriously.
MARK GODFREY – EDITOR @TheFootballPink