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Members of the Shamrock Rovers teams of the 1960s that won an unprecedented six FAI Cups in a row, pictured at a commemoration lunch in 2007.
Members of the Shamrock Rovers teams of the 1960s that won an unprecedented six FAI Cups in a row, pictured at a commemoration lunch in 2007.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Playing Spain in Ireland's first-ever play-off, the '6 in a row' team and facing Germany's greatest striker

55 years ago, Frank O’Neill was part of the Irish team that fell narrowly short of reaching the 1966 World Cup.
Oct 8th 2020, 8:30 AM 25,605 4

IF JACK BYRNE features in Bratislava tonight, he won’t be the first Shamrock Rovers player to represent Ireland in a crucial play-off with qualification for a major tournament up for grabs.

55 years ago, Frank O’Neill was part of the Irish team that fell at the final hurdle against Spain as they attempted to reach the 1966 World Cup.

Ireland’s first-ever play-off to qualify transpired in odd circumstances. They were paired in the group stages with Spain and strangely, Syria, for travel purposes. Yet the latter subsequently withdrew in solidarity with the other African and Asian teams, who were protesting the fact that they had only been afforded one spot between them at the tournament in England.

The fact that Syria was also conflict-ridden, with a coup having recently taken place there, also complicated matters.

The Boys in Green and Spain were consequently left to battle it out for the one spot.

The Irish side won the first match in Dublin 1-0, with O’Neill’s free kick dropped into the net by José Ángel Iribar in a moment of madness from the Spanish goalkeeper.

Ireland also took the lead in the return fixture in Seville, thanks to a goal from Blackburn star Andy McEvoy, but in the end, the hosts ran out easy 4-1 winners.

So with both teams level on points in the group, it was determined that they would meet again at a neutral venue. London had originally been discussed, before the Irish and Spanish federations eventually agreed on Paris.

Rise_Of_Kenny_final

Ireland were up against a Spanish side that featured at least one of the best players in the world. Luis Suarez claimed the Ballon D’Or in 1960, finished second in 1961 and 1964, and came third in 1965.

It was a commendable effort in the end from the Johnny Carey-managed side, but a solitary José Ufarte goal sealed Spain’s World Cup final berth 10 minutes from time.

O’Neill, who was involved in all three matches, recalls: “I wasn’t supposed to be playing initially, I wasn’t in the team. We were playing Bohemians on the Sunday. I think we won 4-2 and I scored a couple of goals. I was called into a meeting with the ‘big five’ after the match and told that I was going to face Spain and I was in the team for the Wednesday. I think Mick McGrath had got injured.”

Despite being on neutral venue, the play-off was played in front of a highly partisan crowd. International travel was very expensive at the time for Irish fans, while the French venue was far more convenient for the Spanish team’s followers.

According to reports at the time, the FAI agreed to Paris as the location, knowing it would put the Irish team at a disadvantage, on the condition that they be afforded the gate receipts for the match.

The thing about it was, they had about 35-40,000 supporters and we had none,” O’Neill recalls. “They were all coming across the border from Spain into France.

“So that was the situation. It was like running out in Seville all over again.

“The goal came 10 minutes from the end. We had a free on the right, which I took, and Theo Foley was in the penalty box at the time. He went for the ball. I don’t know who the centre-half was from Spain, but they collided. He got his head to the ball first and just grazed the crossbar. He was off the pitch and just as he came back on, they scored.”

Source: 1986soccerman/YouTube

O’Neill ultimately feels the Irish side of that era were unlucky not to reach a major tournament.

“In the end, we didn’t get the break. We had a fairly reasonable side. We had the likes of John Giles, Charlie Hurley didn’t play that night, but Noel Cantwell played, Tony Dunne played, Shay Brenan played, Mick Meagan played.

“That was Eamon Dunphy’s first cap, as far as I can recollect. The team were very well balanced. So on the night, we could have sneaked it.”

One substantial barrier to progress was the fact that a controversial five-man selection committee were in charge. It was this group, rather than the manager, who had control over team selection.

“We weren’t properly organised in those days,” O’Neill says. “You had a selection committee picking the team. We had a manager in Johnny Carey, but he had no input on team selection.

“At that time, England were similar. I think they had a selection committee as well. But then, it went to the likes of Alf Ramsey and he took over the selection of the England team and that particular year, they won the World Cup in 1966.

So if we got through in Paris, we’d have been playing in England, which was a shame really. There was [little] travelling involved and we’d have had a lot of support over there.”

Overall, between 1961 and 1971, O’Neill earned 20 Irish caps — a record for a League of Ireland player.

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His debut came in a World Cup qualifier at Dalymount Park against a Czechoslovakia team that would ultimately go all the way to the final of the 1962 tournament, before losing 3-1 to one of the great Brazil sides.

In addition to his exploits with the Irish team, O’Neill is similarly well known for his longstanding association with Shamrock Rovers. He followed the side as a kid — his earliest footballing memory is watching them beat Bohemians 1-0 in the 1945 FAI Cup final — and went on to represent the club for 13 years, making over 200 appearances during that period, including a stint as player-manager.

The Dubliner had signed for Arsenal on his 19th birthday, having also been offered a contract by Aston Villa, but fell out of favour at the North London club after making just two senior appearances, returning home to join the Hoops in 1961.

The Sean Thomas-managed side were among the most successful in Ireland by the time O’Neill arrived, having won league titles in 1954, 1957 and 1959. 

“We came back to a team that was mainly successful in the ’50s. They weren’t all there, but half the team were. Ronnie Nolan, Paddy Ambrose, Liam Tuohy was away but came back, Liam Hennessy, Eamonn Darcy was in goal, then of course you had Johnny Fullam coming back from Preston. That was the basis of the team, so we had a fairly useful side.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

While they would repeat the feat of the ’50s side by winning the league title in 1964, Rovers became better known for their FAI Cup exploits, winning the trophy an astonishing six times in succession between 1964 and 1969.

“Cup games you need a bit of luck in and some of the occasions we got it. Overall, it was a great achievement and it will be difficult to equal or beat,” he says.

They also frequently came agonisingly close to winning the title in that era, finishing runners-up on no fewer than five occasions during O’Neill’s time at the club.

The former Ireland international also played 18 times for the club in Europe, helping create some memorable nights to boot, while citing Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller — widely regarded as Germany’s greatest striker and defender respectively — as among the best players he faced.

“We played in Valencia [in the 1963–64 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup]. They beat us 1-0 [at home]. We were two up with about 15 minutes to go [away], it ended in a 2-2 draw and they went through.

Munich was another one [in the 1966-67 Cup Winners' Cup]. We drew with them in Dublin 1-1. They were beating us 2-0 in Munich and we pulled two goals back, and Müller got the winner in the last 10 minutes.

“Then there was Zaragoza [in the 1965–66 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup]. We drew with them 1-1 in Dublin and then they beat us 2-1 in Zaragoza.

“We went in with the big boys straight away. I remember Shels being drawn against Barcelona [in the 1963-64 Cup Winners' Cup].

The time we played Munich, we got an easy draw [in the previous round], a team from Luxembourg, and we won the two games, home and away. Then we were drawn against Munich and if we got through that, we were in the quarter-finals. There were about five rounds in it then, straight knock out, home and away.”

imago-19740707 Gerd Müller was among the best players O'Neill faced during his career. Source: Imago/PA Images

O’Neill also had short stints at Waterford, Athlone Town, Belgrove, Dundalk and St Pat’s.

He was assistant manager to Jim McLaughlin when the Lilywhites won a 1979 league and cup double, and received a winner’s medal for the title success, having played a handful of games. 

O’Neill’s last involvement in the League of Ireland came as manager of Shelbourne in 1981, recruiting former team-mates such as Terry Daly and Mick Lawlor to help him out, and taking a previously struggling side to fifth in the table, before problems in the club with the ownership prompted his departure.

Stints in the Leinster Senior League and over-35s football followed, and O’Neill was just shy of his 62nd birthday when he stopped playing entirely.

“I sort of stayed training after that, I did it for about six months. The local team folded, they stopped putting teams into the over-35s league. So when that finished, I stopped playing. I used to do a bit of training, but then, I got a bit bored with the whole thing. There was no game on Saturday, so I stopped exercising, which I regret.”

While playing with Rovers, he had worked in a manufacturing company and had a job in customs clearance. Around the time he was finishing up in the League of Ireland, his contacts in the shipping industry enabled him to set up a business with people in Leeds, before his retirement in 2010.

Now 80 years old, O’Neill mainly watches football on TV. Travelling to Tallaght for Shamrock Rovers games all the way from his home in Clontarf is too much effort.

The former player also regards the sport itself as a completely different animal in comparison to his heyday.

You’d love to be involved in the modern era because of the finances. But in the League of Ireland football, I feel sorry for it. I’d give my right arm to be playing on some of the pitches that they’re playing on now, compared to what we played on. But having said that, the crowds in those days and the atmosphere at the matches were much better than what you have nowadays.

“With the exception of [a few teams], you don’t get many people, and that’s as a result of Sky television. Because everybody, and I’m one of them, watches it. It’s caused problems with attendances at grounds, I think.”

And O’Neill will of course be one of the millions tuning in tonight, hoping Byrne can emulate his feat, albeit with a different overall result this time around.

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Paul Fennessy

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