To win an English FA Cup Final medal is the ultimate for most professional footballers - to achieve it four months after leaving the comparative obscurity of the Irish League incredible.
Yet that is what happened to one of Ulster’s most famous footballing sons Jimmy McAlinden who was a member of the Portsmouth side which shocked Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 in the 1939 FA Cup Final at the Empire Stadium, Wembley as dark war clouds hovered over Europe.
Old-timers and historians will recall that day as Portsmouth, now deep in debt and fighting for its existence, oppose Premier League champions Chelsea in Saturday’s final at the new Wembley. Again Pompey are the no-hopers just as they were 71 years ago.
Jimmy Mac, a brilliant inside right born at Lady Street, Lower Falls, and a pupil of Milford Street School, was one of the inspirational figures in that game although his name does not appear on the score sheet.
Belfast Celtic chairman Hugh McAlinden had been informed about Jimmy’s potential when he was scoring goals regularly for Glentoran Reserves in 1934. “Get him” he told his board. Within days he had been offered professional terms to join Celtic, the club he had supported from schoolboy days.
Four seasons later after outstanding performances he was transferred to First Division Portsmouth who paid a then record £7,500 fee and he relished the new challenge, but it was to be short-lived. On the outbreak of war in September 1939 all contracts were cancelled so he returned to Belfast Celtic forming a right wing partnership with Norman Kernaghan in one of the most accomplished sides to grace local football. Celts were then at the peak of their powers with players such as Bertie Fulton, Tommy Breen, Harry Walker, Jackie Vernon, Peter O’Connor and Johnny Lethem.
He had a spell with Shamrock Rovers and, when the war ended, Portsmouth recalled him so he completed his playing days at Stoke and Southend United.
McAlinden had outstanding success as a manager, collecting every Irish trophy during a 13-year reign with Glenavon and Distillery where he helped groom the young Martin O’Neill. This was followed by a short sojourn at Drogheda before being appointed Irish representative of several major English clubs.
As the young McAlinden hit the headlines with Celtic in the 30s approaches were made by Tottenham Hotspur and Huddersfield Town but in stepped Portsmouth manager Jack Tinn with an immediate cash offer to complete what he described as “one of my finest signings ever— the best left-footed inside right in the business.”
McAlinden, was surprised and filled with a little trepidation to be named in the Portsmouth Cup Final line-up against the mighty Wolves whose manager Major Frank Buckley bought himself out of the army in 1902 to become a footballer; he played for seven clubs ,winning his solitary England cap while at Derby County.
A strict disciplinarian who didn’t stand fools gladly he reigned as manager at Molineux from 1927-44, constantly introduced novel ideas such as a machine which fired balls at all angles and speed, and appointed a psychologist to instill confidence. He initiated the empty rumour he used special monkey gland treatment to prepare his players for Wembley; and no matter how often it was rubbished and denied the story persisted. Buckley remained silent.
Buckley moulded the career of England centre-half Stan Cullis and later Billy Wright and among his signings were Celtic’s Johnny Brown and Davy Boy Martin. Ironically Cullis, in his England debut against Ireland at Windsor Park on October 23, 1937, found himself marking Martin who by then had moved on to Nottingham Forest.
When I interviewed McAlinden some years ago he spoke highly of Portsmouth, respected Tinn and his skipper Jimmy Guthrie who took him under his wing and who tipped him off he could be in the Wembley squad.
“The thought of the Cup Final and a 100,000 crowd was frightening,” said McAlinden.
“I had pulled a muscle a month earlier, was under intensive treatment but, fortunately, I passed a rigorous fitness test at our Bognor Regis training camp. Portsmouth brought a comedian into the dressing room to ease the tension. It was an autograph book, however, which settled my nerves. It had come from Wolves and the writing was illegible. We knew they, too, were feeling the strain.”
With Portsmouth leading one-nil from Bert Barlow’s 29th minute John Anderson’s second just before half time was the virtual decider and it came from a McAlinden chip on the right which left the defence split and the keeper in no-man’s land.
He had lived up to his reputation as a provider of crucial goals. From that moment the trophy was destined for Portsmouth.
There it was to remain for seven years until the tournament was resumed in 1946.
Portsmouth: Walker; Morgan, Rochford; Guthrie, capt, Rowe, Wharton, Worrall, McAlinden, Anderson, Barlow, Parker.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Scott; Morris, Taylor; Galley, Cullis (capt) Gardiner, Burton, McIntosh, Westcott, Dorsett, Maguire.
Scorers: Portsmouth: Barlow, 29, Anderson 43, Parker 46, 71. Wolverhampton Wanderers: Dorsett 54
Referee: Trev Thompson (Newcastle)