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Why don't we have an all-Ireland soccer team and will we ever see one?

Cormac Moore, author of The Irish Soccer Split, chats to The42 about this much-discussed issue.

Image: Cormac Moore

Updated at 17.24

FOR YEARS, FOOTBALL fans on these shores have contemplated the prospect of an all-Ireland soccer team, yet invariably, politics has prevented it from happening.

Politics was not, however, the main initial reason for the Irish soccer split — or at least, not politics on a national level.

While many people assume that the reason for soccer — in contrast with other sports — refusing to accommodate an all-Ireland team was a natural consequence of partition, the soccer split in fact happened before this event.

What prompted the creation of two teams was actually a dispute between soccer associates in Leinster and Ulster. Indeed, in the early 1920s, soccer representatives in the former county became increasingly frustrated with the IFA’s perceived bias towards Ulster.

Ultimately, the final straw for the Leinster FA came when the replay of an Irish Cup semi-final between Glenavon and Shelbourne was arranged to take place in Belfast rather than Dublin, which was contrary to normal convention, after the initial game between the two sides had also been played up North. The IFA claimed the decision was based on security concerns, with the Irish War of Independence occurring at the time, but the Leinster FA were incensed by this situation and decided to form a breakaway organisation that would come to be known as the FAI.

The issue is the subject of a new book, The Irish Soccer Split, by Cormac Moore, who is currently undertaking a PhD in sports history at De Montfort University in Leicester.

“I consider it probably the most controversial episode in Irish sporting history,” Moore tells The42.

“I always used to think that it was more the IFA that was responsible [for the split]. I researched the reasons and I could see where the IFA were coming from in many respects — they were the fourth oldest football association in the world and they still are.

“But then this new body comes along, the FAI. I understand the FAI’s perspective — they said there was a bias towards Belfast and there definitely was in terms of players selected for international teams and venues. There was a bias also in the council and sub-committees, where all the decisions were made.

“But when I did my research, I found that for the Leinster members of the committee, their attendance record was abysmal in the extreme. They rarely went to those committee meetings. You can argue that all those committee meetings were held in Belfast and that it was difficult for them to attend. But their record was abysmal, so it was understandable that they weren’t given as many seats on different bodies.

“So a split did happen and there were a number of meetings in the 1920s and the early 1930s [attempting] to heal the split. And the IFA, in fairness to them, had an open mind and they offered a lot of concessions to the FAI. On two occasions, particularly in 1924, the FAI came with new requests at the very last minute just as an agreement was about to be signed. So you can understand why the IFA would have been aggrieved by the FAI’s tactics as well.

“There definitely should have been agreement in the 1920s and the 1930s. In 1924, The Irish Times said that it was only a matter of time before a contract was signed but at the last minute, that plan was scuppered.”

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(There has been plenty of tension between the two sides in the past)

Ironically, in the short-term at least, the split actually had a positive impact on soccer in Ireland in many respects. The FAI subsequently did a fantastic job in spreading the game in parts of Munster and Connacht where it had scarcely existed previously.

“Soccer in Ireland in the 20s was really vibrant, very competitive, there lots of new teams and big crowds at FAI Cup finals, and I’m pretty sure that would not have happened if it remained an all-Ireland body,” Moore explains.

“The other problem, which is unique to soccer in Ireland, is that it was governed from Belfast and not Dublin. This caused issues — a lot of people did not want to be governed from Belfast. This was at the time of Belfast pogroms. Catholics were being forced out of their jobs and homes. Sinn Féin actually organised a Belfast boycott involving companies, banks and goods… So being governed from Belfast wouldn’t have gone down well with a lot of people in the South.”

Yet while Northern and Southern authorities in soccer frequently bickered, the equivalent bodies seemingly managed to peacefully co-exist in other sports such as rugby.

“If you look at the administrators, the people who run rugby were very like-minded in the early 1900s. They were Protestant, Middle-Class, Unionist in outlook. So they had no political issue or baggage with people from the North.

“In fact, a lot of people in the South felt the IRFU were too Unionist in outlook — they didn’t want to fly the tricolour in the 1920s. They were forced to do it by the Irish Free State government in 1932. They still played God Save the King a lot. They toasted the king a lot at banquets.

“There was never an issue with the flag and anthem with the IRFU. It was the same with cricket and hockey. They all have their four provinces’ flag. They all have anthems that looked to reflect north and south.

“The problem is that soccer is kind of a melting pot and it is the people’s game. It assimilates so many different demographics — Nationalist, Unionist, Protestant, Catholic, upper classes, lower classes. There were always more opportunities for conflict within soccer because of the different demographics in the sport.”

One topic of contention emanating from the split was which of the two associations would lay claim to the name ‘Ireland’. Despite being very much in the minority in terms of its jurisdiction, the IFA were keen on its team being referred to as ‘Ireland’ right up until the 1950s and 60s.

“The FAI had a huge problem with that and they were constantly trying to get Fifa to force them to be called the Northern Irish Football Association,” Moore explains. “The FAI changed their name to get international recognition in 1923 to the Football Association of the Irish Free State. It was to recognise that they had jurisdiction for the 26 counties.”

Initially, even the likes of England, Scotland and Wales refused to play the Southern Ireland team and they generally were reluctant to officially recognise the FAI as a legitimate organisation.

Robbie Keane and Gareth McAuley Source: Cathal Noonan

(Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Keane and Gareth McAuley of Northern Ireland compete for the ball during a 2011 Nations Cup encounter between the sides)

Yet ultimately, even people in the North started to have reservations with the name ‘Ireland’. After qualifying for and impressing at the 1958 World Cup, Northern citizens largely were not pleased when neutrals began describing the tournament’s great ‘Irish’ team, ostensibly giving undeserved credit to people in the South for the achievement.

Similarly, people in the South, despite many of them yearning for a united Ireland, were happy to disassociate themselves from the North when it suited — for instance, when a riot broke out as Northern Ireland hosted Italy in 1957. Originally a World Cup qualifier, the referee became unavailable for the game at the last minute. Fifa consequently rendered the match a friendly, and after home fans only learned of this change hours before kick-off, violence erupted at Windsor Park.

“The aftermath was interesting,” Moore recalls. “The Italian press started saying things like ‘Irish mob’ and ‘Irish barbarians’. But [representatives in the South] made it quite clear to the international press and diplomats that this was ‘nothing to do with Ireland, it was to do with Belfast and Northern Ireland.’”

Relations between the two sides remained relatively frosty thereafter, but signs that the situation was improving (at least within the footballing community) became apparent in the 1970s.

Then-captain of the Republic, John Giles, and his friend Derek Dougan, a Northern Ireland international, with the help of the FAI spearheaded a unique initiative that brought the sides together and they persuaded other players to come on board too. The team, however, would be a ‘Shamrock Rovers XI’ rather than an ‘Ireland XI’ as part of the agreement. The IFA and the FAI were reportedly somewhat apprehensive about the arrangement, and Dougan even claimed that he was never picked again at international level as a result of the part he played in making the game happen (though he was 35 and nearing the end of his playing career at the time, so it may in fact have been just a coincidence).

Despite occurring at the height of the Troubles, the match took place without any controversy, as a Brazil side that featured legends of the game such as Jairzinho and Rivelino beat their opponents 4-3 in an entertaining affair at Lansdowne Road.

More significantly, however, after the match, for the first time in four decades, the FAI and IFA recommenced discussions about the possibility of forming an all-Ireland team.

“The IFA were very open to it, and the FAI were very open to it,” Moore explains. “I was very surprised by to learn that considering that it was the height of the Troubles in the North.

“The Troubles was the biggest reason [it didn’t happen] and all of the main players said that. Harry Cavan, who was President of the IFA and also Vice-President of Fifa, said he didn’t think the Troubles were going to last as long as they did. And this was in 1980. He thought they would have [ultimately] been able to come to an agreement of an all-Ireland body.

“The FAI conceded that it was the Troubles that was the main reason why there was no agreement, and they believed there wouldn’t be any deal until the political situation was resolved.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

Moreover, a survey conducted in the early 1990s revealed that the demand to see an all-Ireland soccer team was far from unanimous among the general public, with the majority of Catholics backing the idea but most Protestants opposing it.

“A lot of people remember the Northern Ireland teams that qualified for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups — I’ve fond memories of them. And I think there were a lot of people from the nationalist communities in the North and down South who would have supported Northern Ireland.

“But it really changed after the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Northern Ireland tried to carve out its own identity as a people and as a state. As a result, the fans became more vocal in their Northern Ireland identity and so there definitely was a lot more rancour from the late 80s.”

Indeed, if the aforementioned survey didn’t convince the relevant authorities that an all-Ireland soccer team was untenable at the time, the toxic atmosphere and crowd trouble evident in the Donegal Celtic-Linfield 1990 match (see below) as well as the infamous 1994 World Cup qualifier between Ireland and Northern Ireland surely left them in no doubt.

Source: SHIFTY POWERS/YouTube

Yet times have changed considerably since that dark era for football on both sides of the divide and significant progress has been made from a political perspective. With that in mind, does Moore see any chance of an all-Ireland soccer team finally being initiated in the not-too-distant future?

“It’s not going to be easy,” he says. “I do think politics might come into play… The reality is that both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are not going to be competitive in the Euros if they do qualify.

“We’re going to find it more and more difficult to qualify for the World Cup in particular because the quality of our players has reduced. They’re not getting the opportunity to play in the biggest teams in England. That’s not going to change because of the internationalisation of the Premier League, so I think there is a chance that they will come to an agreement, the more they don’t qualify for these tournaments and the more uncompetitive they become. There may be serious talks that it is a good time to join up.

“The fact that it happened in the 70s when there was no real desire to have an All-Ireland team, and yet there were a lot of talks, and a real chance that it could have happened, it does give me hope that it can happen.

“We may still not be competitive, but you would hope we’d be a lot more competitive than we are now. Another realisation is that you’d have half the revenue and half the amount of games that you have now. Perhaps jobs would be lost in the IFA and FAI. So that may stop chances of an agreement being reached.

“John Giles and Eamon Dunphy launched my book last week, and both were saying they would love an all-Ireland team. In their playing days, all of the players wanted it. People like George Best,  Derek Dougan, Pat Jennings… They wanted an all-Ireland team. Giles said it was nothing to do with the footballers — the footballers always got on with each other whether they played for the North or South. They would have gladly played with each other. It was always to do with the administrators and the political situation.”

The Irish Soccer Split by Cormac Moore is published by Cork University Press. More info here.

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Paul Fennessy

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