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Dublin, in the early 20th century, was a sprawling metropolis with extremes of wealth and a complicated melting pot of polarised political views. On one side there was the largely poor Catholic nationalists and on the other the Protestant unionists; of course that’s the broader view espoused by the history textbooks, there were in fact unionists who were Catholic and nationalists who were proudly Protestant. It was into this melting pot that a small group of German immigrants arrived, including Herman Horlacher and his young wife Lina. They settled in Blackrock and Herman, a pork butcher, opened his first premises in Dún Laoighire. Lina gave birth to three children; Herman in 1907, Gertie in 1908 and Frederick in 1910. In the 1911 census they declare their religion as Presbyterians, they were in fact Mormons. The small Mormon community in Dublin at this time were almost exclusively German and also almost exclusively pork butchers. While it may seem odd to us that the family would deny their true religion it is worth remembering that the Empire were enthusiastic “pigeon-holers” and one can imagine the census officer asking – “Mormon, is that Catholic or Protestant?”

The Horlachers were comfortably middle class and could afford to send the boys to the prestigious Wesley College in St. Stephens Green. It was here that young Frederick would show his prodigious aptitude for sport. Wesley, in common with most public schools, put great stock in its sporting excellence particularly cricket and rugby, but young Frederick loved the more fashionable game of football and not being particularly gifted academically, became an enthusiastic amateur. On graduating from Wesley, he went straight to work in the family business and joined Bohemians FC.

Frederick, known more commonly as Fred, made his full debut for Bohemians in a league game against Fordsons (later to become Cork FC) in September 1928. At 5’8” and powerfully built, Fred played predominantly as an inside left, but could play anywhere along the forward line – indeed over the course of his career he played every position except goalkeeper. He would go on to play for Boh’s until 1943, racking up over 430 appearances for the club and scoring 159 goals. He never played for another club and remained an amateur throughout.

Irish international football was, like everything else in the country at the time, a complicated political and jurisdictional mess. While most sporting organisations had their headquarters in Dublin, football’s administrative centre was Belfast. Consequently, after partition, football on most of the island found its governing body in a foreign country; a bizarre situation described eloquently by Donal Cullen in his book “Freestaters” – “The Free State FA governed soccer in the South, which produced the unusual situation of the IFA not recognising the border while the Free State FA did”. Tentative overtures towards unification were made by the IFA in 1922, but talks quickly broke down when they decided that the Free State’s demands were too excessive; they were understandably miffed at having to cede jurisdiction to an association that was just two years old, when they had been in existence for forty years. Ireland would, meanwhile, struggle on with two international teams; Ireland which could select players from the whole island and was under British administration and the Free State which could only select players from the 26 counties.

The situation had not improved by May 1930 when Fred made his debut for the Free State side in a 3-1 away victory over Belgium. Just six months later in November he took part in an IFA amateur 11 that historically beat an English amateur side 3-1 in Belfast. His reward for this notable achievement was a three-month ban from the Dublin organisation. He was back in international action for the visit of Spain to Dalymount Park in December 1931 which the Spanish won 5-0, followed by a visit to Holland the following May where the Dutch were easily despatched in a comfortable 2-0 victory. It was two years later, against the same opposition, that Horlacher would secure his place in Irish football history.

Qualifying was introduced for the first time for the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Europe were allocated 12 places to be contested by 21 teams including the hosts and Ireland were drawn in a group with Holland, Belgium and Finland (who withdrew) with two teams to progress. After a fractious 4-4 encounter with the Belgians, progress would all depend on the match against the Dutch. The Irish party set out for Amsterdam in high spirits, utterly convinced that they were about to make history and raise the profile of the fledgling state amongst the great nations on football’s grandest stage. The 1934 tournament would be seen as the first truly competitive World Cup (the 1930 tournament was by invitation) and FIFA were determined to showcase the sport of football and pronounce it as the greatest game. To that end they would experiment with a ground breaking new rule; substitutes were to be allowed for the first time.

Holland were nowhere near the powerhouses of football they would become and the Irish were highly fancied to win. They started the game brightly and the Dutch were forced into last ditch defending for the opening half hour, an Irish goal seemed inevitable when Boh’s Billy Jordan was forced to withdraw through injury. Horlacher came on, becoming Ireland’s first ever substitute. The Dutch promptly scored a breakaway goal which was cancelled out two minutes later by Shelbourne’s Johnny Squires. The sides were level at the break which heightened the Irish optimism and this was justified when Aberdeen’s Paddy Moore bundled keeper and ball over the line to give them a 2-1 lead. Holland snatched an equaliser from a breakaway goal but the Irish were still well in control and squandered a number of good opportunities to put the game away. Then it all went horribly wrong. In a devastating seven-minute spell, the Dutch banged in three goals without reply and were 5-2 up at the final whistle; a correspondent at the time wrote “to lose by three goals was a most bitter pill to swallow for the Irish, who ran rings around Holland for most of this game”. In the final game Holland beat Belgium again by 5-2 and both sides went to the World Cup, Ireland would have to wait 56 more years to qualify for a World Cup finals – ironically Italia ’90.

The Dutch once again would provide the opposition in December 1935, when Horlacher scored his only international goals – two in a 5-3 defeat – and he would bow out the following year, in a 1-0 victory against Switzerland. He would go on playing for Boh’s until 1943 when he finally decided to retire. Just six weeks later, in December 1943, he contracted pneumonia and died. He was aged just 33.

When one is asked about the greats of Irish football, how easy the names roll off the tongue. Brady, Giles, McGrath, Whelan, Keane et al. Rarely does one hear about the pioneers of the sport on this island. Men from football’s so-called dark ages. Men like Frederick Horlacher. Perhaps he is still spoken of with reverence by a small handful of Bohemians supporters; perhaps not. Therein lays this tale’s greatest tragedy.