A timely reminder of reasons behind soccer's big split

Book review - Alan Aherne

Published 23/01/2016 | 00:00

The Irish Soccer Split
The Irish Soccer Split

One of the most fascinating sub-plots to the Euro 2016 finals in France is the presence of two teams from this island in the concluding stages of a major soccer competition for the first time.

Northern Ireland were quickest out of the blocks in terms of advancing to the big stage as they contested the World Cup finals of 1958. A barren period ensued before Billy Bingham, a player with that breakthrough team, managed the side which went all the way to the quarter-finals in 1982, and they also competed in Mexico four years later.

The Republic's representatives were late developers by comparison, although after the Euro 1988 breakthrough they went on to put their counterparts from the North in the shade with their onfield deeds.

The presence of both teams in France is sure to arouse even more interest than normal in all four corners of the country. And it also seems timely to pose the question: what caused the rancour within the original governing body of soccer in Ireland in the first place?

Cormac Moore had actually written 'The Irish Soccer Split' prior to the teams qualifying for the finals, and it's a thorough examination of the circumstances behind the division which occurred in 1921.

Prior to that, the Irish Football Association (IFA) had looked after the organisation of the sport across the island as a whole since its formation in 1880.

However, eventually the leading lights of soccer from Leinster decided that enough was enough, and this led to the arrival of the breakaway Football Association of Ireland (FAI).

There was a belief that the IFA was heavily biased towards Ulster and, after studying the evidence provided by the author, it's hard to disagree with that viewpoint.

Most internationals were played in Belfast, and the majority of players capped in the years before the split were from the north-east.

Of course, the charged political atmosphere of the time was always simmering in the background, with crowd trouble taken as a given whenever the Catholic-backed Belfast Celtic met their Protestant rivals from Linfield in tense derby games.

Another tipping point arrived in 1921 when, after drawing a Cup semi-final with Glenavon in Belfast, Dublin side Shelbourne were denied a replay fixture in their own city and expected to travel into the lion's den once again.

It took a long time after the split before the FAI was accorded equal status as the IFA, and it wasn't until Ireland became a Republic in 1949 that a regular programme of international fixtures could be arranged with unlimited access to opponents.

Prior to that, the formation of the Irish Free State had given rise to an upsurge in soccer's popularity outside the main cities. The book mentions that the game had spread to Wexford by 1925-'26.

In that period the IFA officials were permitted to use Free State players on Northern Ireland teams, and Billy Lacey of Enniscorthy was one of over 20 to line out with both. Wexford's first international soccer star, Lacey was a Liverpool regular in 1914 when he featured in all three games as Ireland won the British Home Championship - then the foremost soccer tournament in the world - for the first time.

If you're eagerly looking forward to watching the teams of Martin and Michael O'Neill in France, then this book will whet the appetite.

Visit The Book Centre on Wexford's Main Street for the very best selection of sports books.

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