Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Windsor's match of the century: With the Great War looming, an all-Ireland football team line up for a historic British title win

Celtic legend Mickey Hamill, left, when he captained Ireland pictured with fellow captains Bob Crompton (England), Billy Meredith (Wales) and Jinny Campbell (Scotland).  1914
Celtic legend Mickey Hamill, left, when he captained Ireland pictured with fellow captains Bob Crompton (England), Billy Meredith (Wales) and Jinny Campbell (Scotland). 1914

Since opening in 1905, Windsor Park has hosted some pulsating fixtures. None, though, was more extraordinary than a football match that took place there exactly a century ago, on March 14, 1914.

Ireland had been trying for 30 years to win the old British Home International football championship. It had shared the title, with England and Scotland, once – in 1902-03. It had come second once, the next season. Otherwise nothing – unless you count 16 wooden spoons.

Now suddenly, after victories over Wales and England, a draw in Ireland's last match, at home to Scotland, would be enough to secure a first championship outright.

And, yes, I do mean Ireland, not Northern Ireland: partition was still seven tumultuous years away; among those who pulled on the team's blue jerseys in that momentous 1913-14 season were sons of Wexford, Galway and Dublin, as well as Ballymena, Belfast and Ballynahinch. And yes I do mean blue jerseys: the switch to green came only in 1931.

Ireland had not just beaten England in Middlesbrough; they had thumped them 3-0. The report in Athletic News, a leading football paper of the day, gives a flavour of just how big a shock this was. "Last season," it wrote, "the representatives of Ireland created a sensation by defeating England for the first time in the history of international Association football. On Saturday they caused a thunderbolt to burst by their audacity in actually trouncing the English 11."

After such a result, the decisive clash with the Scots was awaited in Belfast with keen anticipation. The Linfield club found ways to expand capacity at Windsor Park to accommodate the expected bumper crowd. The Irish News reported on the day of the match that it would hold 50,000 people. Fans expecting to use "the unreserved side" were advised to have the right money ready "as it will be impossible to give change".

Unfortunately the Ulster weather was far from befitting the occasion. It was raining on Friday morning when the Scots arrived. It rained all night. And when the players awoke on matchday morning it was to what one correspondent described as a "merciless, storm-tossed downpour".

With the deluge continuing right up to kick-off time and beyond, this meant that the manner of play was dictated entirely by the state of a pitch said to contain "a number of miniature lakes". One, presumably Scottish, contributor to the Irish Weekly Record, whose nom de plume was 'John O'Groat', maintained indeed that: "No ordinary club game would ever have been started under such conditions, but as we had arranged to catch a train for Larne at 6.30, and could not stop over the weekend, the battle had to proceed."

The relentless downpour may also explain why the attendance was ultimately put at more like 28,000. Even so, receipts, at over £1,800, were said to be a record.

Ireland had opted to spend the night before the match at a hotel in Newcastle, County Down. On the way there on Friday morning, the train carrying the team stopped briefly at Frank Thompson's home town of Ballynahinch, whereupon the Irish left-winger, who had won an FA Cup winner's medal with Bradford City in 1911, jumped aboard. It turned out he had been up since 4.00am tramping the countryside with his gun. He had bagged a teal, as the Irish Weekly Record revealed, alluding drily to his "novel method of training for an International".

Two bands – Edenderry Brass and the Castleton Pipers, in Highland costume – had been hired for the occasion. Attention was also drawn ahead of kick-off amid the forest of umbrellas by a man carrying a ribboned black cat, "apparently a mascot", that later appeared in the official team photograph. When Manchester United's Mickey Hamill, the Irish captain, led his men out into the gale, they were greeted by a thunderous roar. Alec McNair, the Scottish skipper, won the toss and asked the hosts to play into the wind.

Ahead of the game, one focus of attention was the Scotland forward Andrew Wilson and the threat he posed to Ireland with his robust style of play. One article carrying Hamill's byline observed that the Sheffield Wednesday stalwart "carries 13 solid stone ... I saw him this season charge Hodge, our full back, and poor Hodge was tossed at least four yards in the air and fell unconscious. Yet," Hamill added, "a perfectly fair shoulder charge which caught Hodge standing on one leg".

And indeed it was Wilson who emerged as the key figure of a goalless first half. This was how the Athletic News saw things: "First of all Wilson fouled [Paddy] O'Connell and then accidentally, whilst the latter was on the ground, trod on the arm of the home centre half-back. He had to be led off and for some considerable time he chafed inside the pavilion, but he turned out again after the interval."

Worse was in store for Ireland as full-back Bill McConnell was carried off. With no substitutes allowed, Liverpool's Billy Lacey, an inside forward who had scored two of the goals that embarrassed England, dropped into defence to cover.

Finally, a collision with Wilson also incapacitated Fred McKee, the Irish goalkeeper. An eccentric amateur who worked as a tea-merchant between matches, McKee soldiered on with a fractured collar-bone until just after half-time before throwing in the sponge. This left McConnell, the injured defender, to take over in goal, having first struggled to "get into a jersey two sizes too small".

The unfortunate makeshift goalkeeper was then instrumental in the 68th-minute goal that looked to have shattered Irish hopes. He dashed off his line only to play the ball within range of Joe Donnachie, a Scottish forward, who promptly returned it into the empty net.

A mere eight minutes remained when another injury victim O'Connell – who would make a name for himself in Spain two decades later, first guiding the Seville club Betis to the league title and then managing Barcelona - propelled the ball into the path of Sam Young (below, left) bursting through a hesitant Scottish rearguard.

On his home ground, the 31-year-old Linfield forward thumped home an unstoppable equaliser to provide the crowning moment of his career and spark pandemonium among the sodden masses. There was a suspicion of offside, but the goal stood. The man with the black cat began to dance. John O'Groat reported the cracking of revolvers behind the Scotland goal.

The remaining minutes were played out with the jubilant crowd clustered tight around the touchlines. When the final whistle blew for the 1-1 draw, the glutinous pitch was engulfed with humanity. The bedraggled Scots were no doubt glad to escape to Larne.

The Athletic News hailed a "new era" and predicted that Ireland's success – achieved in that final match without arguably their best player, Billy Gillespie, detained by an FA Cup second replay - should prove a "powerful stimulant to the cultivation" of football on the island.

Ireland's problems and the horrors of the Great War ensured that the new era never really materialised. In 1919-20, the first post-war Home International Championship, Ireland subsided to last place. It took a further 36 years for another Irish team, by now Northern Ireland, to secure a share of a further title – and that was a four-way tie.

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