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The great football divide

By Declan Bogue

Published 05/12/2015

Together as one: the Shamrock Rovers All-Ireland select team that took on Brazil in 1973
Together as one: the Shamrock Rovers All-Ireland select team that took on Brazil in 1973

As much as history books are about the past, there is always the temptation - indeed, sometimes a necessity - to have a quick glance at the present and offer comparisons.

In 'The Irish Soccer Split' by Cormac Moore, the tendency to do this can be slightly unfortunate, given that the book was published before either Northern Ireland, and later the Republic of Ireland, qualified for the European Championships next summer in France.

In examining reasons at various points when both the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) came together with a view to re-uniting, a recurring theme is how their playing resources might become greater than the sum of their parts.

One of the reasons offered for the declining fortunes of each senior team of the respective Associations centres around the internationalisation of the English Premier League, meaning less Irish players - north and south - are getting their place at a high level.

That still holds true up to a point, but it cannot take into account the, let's face it, minor miracles that Michael and Martin O'Neill have produced while in charge of the respective sides.

Moore is one of an astonishing number of what might be called brat-pack historians in Ireland at present who, thankfully, concentrate on society and pastimes. His acknowledgements include the likes of Dr Paul Rouse, Professor Mike Cronin and Dr Dónal McAnallen, prolific authors of sporting histories in this part of the globe.

It can truly be said that there are a disproportionate number of sporting historians per head in Ireland, but readers are blessed by their work ethic and writing, and the willingness of Cork University Press to produce such works. This is Moore's second book, having already documented 'The GAA v Douglas Hyde: The Removal of Ireland's First President as GAA Patron'.

As a history book, at first glance this can appear like a bit of a breeze, with its large typeface and totalling a mere 235 pages.

However, Moore understands the key elements of what this new generation of historical writers seem to have nailed; that stories and anecdotes are the best means of communication. Relate to the reader and the reader begins a relationship with the book.

In doing so, Moore applies a light touch as he breaks us in gently, explaining the cultural driving forces of how the lofty ideal of leisure time applying to the working classes led to an explosion of popularity of soccer in Belfast.

With huge industrial concerns and a ship building industry, along with the sense of community that fostered, Belfast was no different than any other northern European city where soccer gained mass appeal.

What caused the split?

You can imagine. Power. Greed. Politics. Money.

The Leinster Football Association, by far the most organised alongside Munster and Connacht Associations, grew tired of all the administrative meetings being held in Belfast as a matter of course.

When it came to selection, records show that players from Northern Ireland were favoured. The IFA's alignment to Sabbath-observing unionism contributed to their absolute refusal to play games on a Sunday, something their Leinster counterparts were not adverse to.

But the tipping point was reached after the Irish Cup semi-final game involving Glenavon and Shelbourne. Played in Belfast, it finished in a draw. Shelbourne might have felt the replay should have been staged in Dublin, but Ireland was in the grip of the War of Independence at the time. The IFA fixed the replay for Belfast, and a split emerged soon after.

But oh, the insights in this book will delight you - such as a row that erupted during the 1904 AGM around an extravagant bill for cigars.

Or the one about Billy Gillespie, back when the team was just known as 'Ireland'. From Donegal, he had a fabulous career with Sheffield United, captaining them to FA Cup success in 1925. When he later transferred to Derry City, the Brandywell club changed their colours to red and white stripes.

There are ugly stories too. Depressingly, we seem trapped in an endless cycle of petulance over flags, with no middle ground being either sought or found.

The on-pitch rioting during a Linfield-Dundalk European tie in 1979, was described by The Irish Times as 'the All-Ireland dream killed by naked tribalism'.

And so we come to here. There are many ways to look at the turbulent events during and around that match between Northern Ireland and the Republic in November 1993. My own take was inevitable, given the fear and paranoia of the time.

It has been written at length about, turned into a Marie Jones melodrama and been the subject of one of ESPN's masterful 30-for-30 series.

A quick departure, if I may. I was sitting in a bar in Mississippi, tracing the Delta Blues story while on honeymoon last summer. A lone, mute television played in the corner of the bar while in front of us, a crowd of eight people were transfixed by the performance of an old blues veteran called Watermelon Slim, who survived Vietnam and came back to oppose it.

All of a sudden, the face of the Belfast Telegraph's sports editor Jim Gracey filled the screen, giving his account of that night in Windsor Park in the ESPN programme.

Its notoriety continues and it was on that night that any remote possibility that the two Associations might ever re-unite was killed for generations, if not killed off entirely.

The subject matter is dealt with thoroughly. Moore spends a decent amount of time focusing on the Shamrock Rovers All-Ireland select team of 1973 that played Brazil in Dublin (I impose a spoiler alert on myself at this point for the benefit of the reader) and this period is a highlight.

As a counterpoint to the tired, hackneyed genre of the sports autobiography, this is a worthwhile venture. We wave our scarves and throw flat caps up in the air as applause for the author.

Belfast Telegraph

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