Thursday, 30 November 2017 05:39

Soccer In Ireland: Its Origin

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The Origin Of Soccer In Ireland:

Cliftonville Of Belfast Were Ireland’s First Ever Soccer Club


The history of Soccer in Ireland and how it all began, is a subject of interest at our Irish Heritage Website, and before soccer made its way across the Irish Sea, initially to Belfast, and thereafter all over Ireland, the rapid rise of soccer throughout the Island of Ireland is now recorded.

Records trace the history of soccer back more than 2,000 years to ancient China. However Greece, Rome, and parts of Central America, also have their own claims, but it was England that pioneered soccer in the mid18th and early 19th centuries with the founding of organised soccer leagues all around Britain.


England was the first country in the world where soccer/football was developed and recorded. The modern global game of soccer was first certified in 1863 in London. The intention was to unify English primary and also second and third levels schools and colleges in football games.

Evidence is documented when referees were first appointed in certain English schools dating around 1581. The word “Football” was first sounded in the English language around 1410, whilst in France, the word “Football” surfaced for the first time ever in the early 14th century.


England became the recognised home of soccer from the era1857 and the world’s oldest competition is the English FA Cup, founded in 1871. The English Football League can be traced back to its origin in 1888. It is because of these records that England lay claim to the sport, as their national game.

The Royal Hotel, Manchester, England, (somewhat similar to Hayes’s Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, as the GAA birthplace) was the founding venue, where the original fathers of the English League assembled on 8th September 1888 and Preston North End are historically indexed as the first ever English League champions.

Twelve teams competed in the first ever English League and in September 2018 the English League will celebrate their 130th anniversary.


Soccer Coming To Ireland:

Soccer in the Island of Ireland, like politics, has a chequered history and when Michael Collins and his peace negotiating colleagues travelled to London in 1921 to discuss an Irish Peace Treaty, the impact on Irish Soccer would inevitably and unintentionally come under the microscope.

However long before the Irish Treaty, 1878 is a stand out year in Irish football history and the name Mr. John McAlery, a Belfast businessman, crops up and it was whilst celebrating his 1878 honeymoon in Edinburgh, Scotland, that John McAlery attended his first ever official football match.

McAlery strolled across a football game in a local Edinburgh park and smitten by the spectacle being played out before his eyes, the Ulsterman decided he wanted his own piece of this magnificent game for Ireland. With no time wasted McAlery invited two Scottish teams, Queens Park and Caledonians, to come to Belfast for an exhibition match at the Ulster Cricket Grounds in Ballynafeigh, Belfast. In an exciting spectacle played out before an enthusiastic Belfast crowd, Queens Park took the laurels on a 3-2 scoreline. The date was 24th October 1878.


McAlery realising he had stumbled across a golden leisurely sport and something very badly required in the daily lives of Irish people, McAlery wasted no time and set up Ireland’s first ever soccer club, Cliftonville of Belfast in 1879, just one year after his historic trip to Edinburgh on his honeymoon.

On November 18th, 1880 in The Queens Hotel in Belfast, the Irish Football Association (I.F.A.) was established and the founding fathers were entirely of Northern Ireland stock. An Irish soccer international team in 1882, with players from north and south, challenged England in a friendly in Belfast and the Irish were taught a mighty football lesson as they were trounced 13-0. This whopping defeat demoralised Irish fans.


These were the early days of English and Irish soccer as it went through incubation in the latter years of the 19th century. Meantime, down south in Dublin and before the establishment of the northern borderlines all across Ulster, teams such as Bohemians, St. James’ Gate and Shelbourne of Dublin, came under the radar of the Belfast based football authority.


Republic of Ireland Soccer Foundation:

Organised football on the Island of Ireland was originally administered from Belfast and was largely confined to Ulster in the early years. Clubs in the Belfast area came together to form The Irish Football Association in 1880 and it operated as the organising body for football across all of Ireland for forty one years.

Three years passed before the first club outside of Ulster affiliated and that was the Dublin Association Football Club, established in 1883. It is worth noting the Leinster Football Association was formed in 1892 and this foundation stone was greatly welcomed as many clubs based outside of Belfast were often disgruntled with the unfair decisions of the northern administrators. It was asserted that players from Ulster were greatly favoured over their southern colleagues for international selection.

The Irish War of Independence and the turbulent Irish political events, upsurged Nationalism passion and following the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, the writing was on the wall for the Belfast authorities to maintain All Ireland control over soccer.

1921 became a landmark year in the history of soccer on the Island of Ireland due to the migration from the I.F.A. of Bohemians, St. James’ Gate and Shelbourne,who terminated their Belfast association from the Irish League. 

However the three Dublin clubs continued to play in the 1921 I.F.A. Cup but then Shelburne took exception when they were commanded to make a return visit to Belfast for a cup replay, after the first tie ended in a draw. This ruling was rejected by Shelbourne and now Dublin based clubs believed, unfair tactics were again at play and Shelbourne forfeited the tie.


No Going Back North For The Dublin Based F.A.I.

The major dispute over the cup replay was the catalyst for a historic meeting in Molesworth Hall, Dublin, on 1st June 1921. Meantime the Munster Football Association had been established and along with the Leinster Football Association, they were the leading lights that formed a split from the Belfast soccer authorities.

When the split became a reality, the Ulster body offered several olive hands to their southern soccer colleagues to return north but their advances were in vain. The new southern body initially embraced all 32 counties, sending out a message to all Ulster Nationalist soccer teams, to consider joining the new football governing body now based in Dublin.

It was not for the want of trying by the Ulster administrators that a re-unification of both bodies didn’t materialise and in 1923 the Ulster administrators, along with the governing bodies of England, Wales and Scotland, travelled to a special Liverpool meeting for a final attempt to unify north and south of Ireland in football governance.


This meeting established the final split of north/south football relations and in a goodwill gesture, the Dublin governing body agreed to a compromise whereby they agreed to confine their goverance of soccer to the newly established 26 counties of Ireland; within the new Irish Free State. In 2017/18 unification is still not on the agenda. Football, like politics, elects power brokers, and power brokers do not cease authority without a war.


International Recognition Difficult To Achieve For the F.A.I.

The fall out of north/south soccer authorities was compounded further when the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.) in 1921 declared soccer as a “Foreign Code” thus prohibiting members of the G.A.A. from participation or attendance at soccer matches all over Ireland and this even extended to dancing. Unless the dance was an Irish Céilí; with exclusively Irish music and song on the menu, any G.A.A. player or member reported for attending so called modern dances, faced automatic suspension. This ban lasted for fifty years, until amended in 1971.


After the 1923 Liverpool peace meeting, the F.A.I. in Dublin had to fight tooth and nail for international recognition with England, Scotland and Wales opposing Ireland’s F.I.F.A. registration. Ireland at this time was not a Republic and Britain still held certain rights at several coastal locations around Ireland.

Ireland found a great and unexpected ally in France and by August 1923, F.I.F.A. finally relented by permitting Ireland to come on board their organisation. With F.I.F.A. registration achieved, the next assignment was participating in international soccer tournaments.

However the I.F.A. fielding their own international team, insisted they were still entitled to select their team from players from all over the 32 counties, but at the same time they sought to confine the F.A.I. to players born in the new Irish Free State. As both football regions developed, the acrimony of selection finally sizzled out.

In 1924 an Irish Free State team entered the Paris Olympics under the umbrella of the Irish Olympic Council. Following on, the first official international Ireland game was held in Turin in 1926, with Ireland losing to Italy 3-0.

In 1927 another Irish milestone was achieved when Italy brought their “B” international squad to Lansdowne Road, Dublin, and a huge gate of 20,000 spectators flocked to the venue to witness Ireland losing 2-1.

As the decades flowed on in 20th century Island of Ireland, soccer was challenging hurling and gaelic football clubs for the services of players and many G.A.A. clubs were understandably anti soccer. The F.A.I. Irish international team were amongst many countries whose results did not inspire great soccer popularity but meantime new soccer clubs were founded in towns and villages all over Ireland.

In 21st century Ireland, soccer is now neck and neck with gaelic games and Irish sports fans have embraced the ‘foreign’ game in their thousands. Irish born soccer players who emigrated to England from the 1930’s onwards and played with the elite professional clubs, became iconic Irish sportsmen and many of those famous players are now incorporated in our own All Ireland Hall Of Fame Online Gallery.


Derry JF Doody