Belfast Telegraph

How Home Internationals returned to Windsor Park after turmoil of World War I

It's 100 years since 40,000 fans crammed in for the Ireland v England showdown

Lining out: T. Dougray (Referee) and Ireland team J. Harris, J. Gibson, V. Morgan, T. Chambers, D. Fitzsimmons, J. Gowdy, D. Lyner, W. O’Hagan, M. Hamill, W. McCracken, C. Watson (IFA Secretary), W. McCandless, P. Gallagher, J. Ferris, W. Lacey (Captain), W. Emerson, A. Snape
Lining out: T. Dougray (Referee) and Ireland team J. Harris, J. Gibson, V. Morgan, T. Chambers, D. Fitzsimmons, J. Gowdy, D. Lyner, W. O’Hagan, M. Hamill, W. McCracken, C. Watson (IFA Secretary), W. McCandless, P. Gallagher, J. Ferris, W. Lacey (Captain), W. Emerson, A. Snape
The England team
Centre stage: Ireland ace Davy Lyner
Team-mate Mickey Hamill
The match programme

By David Owen

It had been a long wait. But after more than five and a half years, and all the trauma and hardship associated with the Great War, the world's oldest international football tournament was returning to Belfast - and to Windsor Park.

And the sun was shining. It was "the 12th of July set down near the end of October," wrote one journalist of that keenly-awaited day - Saturday, October 25 a century ago.

"Every Ford in Ulster was called into action," this reporter, identified only as 'Celt', told readers of the Irish News and Belfast Morning News.

"Brakes, char-a-bancs, every kind of vehicle down to a fish-cart, which I saw come down York Street at noon, emptied sporting Ulster into the city. The morning trains were packed. It was the biggest invasion of country sports in the history of Irish football."

Trams were also said to be running to the stadium at half-minute intervals. By the time the match, pitting Ireland against England, got under way at around 3.15pm, some 40,000 were jammed into the ground. "What a glorious panorama," another eye-witness enthused.

Ireland, as yet undivided, was of course one part of Europe to which peace had not returned. The Anglo-Irish war that would lead to partition and eventual formation of the Irish Free State was well under way.

Around the time of the final whistle, the better part of 200 miles away, six Sinn Fein prisoners broke out of Manchester's Strangeways prison. Two of the six were Westminster MPs at the time.

In spite of this, fans supporting the home team on this momentous day for football had strong grounds for optimism. Ireland, after all, were reigning British Home International champions having taken the crown outright for the very first time on the last occasion it was played in 1913-14.

With so much time having passed since, most of it at war, teams were scarcely recognisable; no fewer than 15 of those lining up at Windsor Park would be making their first competitive international appearances.

But Ireland still had Liverpool's Bill Lacey, now skipper, who had scored twice at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park the last time the two teams had met.

The 1919 Irish side also included two other extremely well-known figures who had not featured, for differing reasons, in the title-winning year.

The first was Patsy Gallagher, one of the leading goalscorers in the history of Celtic.

A bustling player, Gallagher had already won five of his six Scottish titles by this time at the age of 28. He had moved to Scotland when three, but was born in Donegal.

The other was a defender who had made his international debut in 1902 and, while playing for Newcastle United, had elevated the art of springing the offside trap to a state of enervating perfection, as far as opposing forwards and fans were concerned.

Bill McCracken had endured a long spell of exile from the national team, having had the temerity in 1908 to demand a match fee of £10. Now at last, aged 36, he was back.

On paper then, this new Ireland team looked even stronger than the title winners of 1913-14.

England's best-known player was the Aston Villa and former Liverpool goalkeeper Sam Hardy, who would be winning his 18th cap, a large number in those days, at a year older than McCracken.

An Irish Weekly Record journalist known as 'Marathon' travelled to the coast with the England party on the eve of the match and reported "scarcely a word was spoken, and not a card in evidence", though he somehow deduced that the visitors were confident of causing problems down the Irish right flank.

This might have been an early example of mind games. In fact, the danger turned out to be on the other side - and almost instantaneous. In the first attack of the match, the first piece of Home International action since spring 1914, England scored.

As the English sports paper, The Athletic News, described it: "Straight from the kick-off the ball was swung wide to (right-winger, Bobby) Turnbull, who progressed, and at the crucial moment sent across a perfect centre. (Jack) Cock dealt with it like a great centre-forward.

"Trapping the ball with his right foot, he at the same moment transferred to his left and then hit it."

The ball crashed against the underside of the bar and bounced down behind goalkeeper William O'Hagan.

"Did an Irish player touch the ball until the score?" asked 'Celt' in the Irish News. "Perhaps one, but I would not be certain. Exactly 16 seconds, and Ireland was a goal down."

Cock's prodigiously early strike was not without controversy, however.

For The Athletic News, the ball was "clearly over the line". Others voiced doubts. Nearly a week later, a headline over the Irish Weekly Record's match analysis asked: "Did England actually score?"

"All those in a line," the newspaper reported, "are most emphatic that the ball was not over the line."

Ireland dominated the rest of the game, with Gallagher "the initiator" and centre-half Mickey Hamill, a Manchester United man in pre-war years, said to have his opposite number "in the hollow of his hand".

But with Hardy making save after save, the equaliser would not come until the 70th minute, and the home team failed to get a winner.

The solitary Irish goal came from Jimmy Ferris, the busy Belfast Celtic inside-forward, who guided a well-placed header in off the foot of a post after great work by Gallagher.

The goal, not surprisingly, was cheered to the rafters, with "hats, caps and sticks being thrown in the air".

As the final whistle blew, the crowd rushed onto the pitch and carried their new hero Gallagher off shoulder-high to the pavilion.

The Championship ended in disappointment for an Irish team perhaps hampered by the rising tensions that characterised the era. They finished last after two draws and defeat by Scotland. Wales, who beat England 2-1, were the new champions.

But the tournament was back and would remain a focal point of the British season until 1984.

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