Sunday 8 December 2019

An ugly divide in the beautiful game

Euro 2016 has kicked off with two Irish teams, but it could have been different

That night in November: Post-match tension in Windsor Park for World Cup game in 1993.
That night in November: Post-match tension in Windsor Park for World Cup game in 1993.
The Irish Soccer Split by Cormac Moore.

Cormac Moore

Euro 2016 is upon us and for the first time ever, two Irish teams are competing at a finals tournament at the same time. Had talks between the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) concluded successfully in the 1970s, there would potentially be just one team representing the island of Ireland in the coming days. Incredibly, the talks between the two Irish football associations took place during the height of the Troubles and the prospect of one international team for the island was seriously considered.

A major catalyst for the talks was the fielding of an all-Ireland team, a Shamrock Rovers XI who played a thrilling match against world champions Brazil in July 1973 in Lansdowne Road, the Brazilians winning by four goals to three. Many prominent players on both sides of the Border were in favour of an all-Ireland team. George Best claimed all players, North and South, wanted an all-Ireland team. Derek Dougan, John Giles, Liam Brady and Pat Jennings have all voiced support in healing the split that has divided soccer on the island since 1921. Current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill claimed in 2008 that any moves to re-unify the two teams would be "phenomenal".

Although the 1973 Shamrock Rovers XI match was not supported by the FAI nor the IFA, it did prompt the FAI to contact the IFA to arrange a meeting "to discuss matters of mutual interest", a meeting the IFA unanimously agreed to attend. At that conference, held in Belfast in October 1973, the possibility of an all-Ireland international team was one of the main items discussed. At the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed to hold further meetings, the next one being scheduled for Dublin in January 1974. The talks broke down in 1974 as the IFA wanted the FAI to amalgamate back into the IFA (soccer had been governed by the IFA on an all-Ireland basis from 1880 to 1921), something the FAI was unwilling to do.

Even though the talks of 1973-74 failed, there were clear signs of closer co-operation between both associations. In 1976, the IFA and FAI contributed funding to the Irish Universities international team which comprised of players from 12 universities and colleges from Northern Ireland and the Republic. This team was the only all-Ireland soccer team in existence and this was the first occasion it was funded by both associations.

The IFA agreed to meet after another request was made by the FAI in 1977 "to discuss the possibility of an all-Ireland international team". Coinciding with the renewal of talks was the pairing of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland in group one of the 1980 European Championship qualifiers in late 1977. It would lead to the first clash between both teams at senior international level. The main concern that came to most people's minds was the security concerns the clashes in Dublin and Belfast would pose due to the ongoing violence that had engulfed Northern Ireland since the late 1960s.

The talks from 1978 were held in a spirit of co-operation and trust, with both associations agreeing to work on a joint paper to consider the possibility of the forming of an All-Ireland Football Federation responsible for international matches. Frank Davis, FAI president, was very upbeat after the first session in February 1978, claiming "an all-Ireland team must now come into being".

At the IFA AGM of 1979, Harry Cavan, the IFA president, stated "that two teams in a small country like this was nonsensical, but he warned that anyone who thought that a united Ireland team would win the World Cup was living in cuckoo land". The meetings (there were seven in total from 1978 to 1980) stuttered along at a torturous pace, though, over the following months and years.

The European championship clashes between both of the Irish teams passed almost without incident. There was a hoax bomb scare close to the border train line as well as some minor skirmishes between rival fans at the Dublin encounter in September 1978 and, at the Belfast fixture in November 1979, a stone-throwing incident led to the forced substitution of Republic of Ireland player Gerry Daly due to an ugly gash at the back of his head. It was a club match, a European Cup tie between Linfield and Dundalk in 1979, that demonstrated the precarious nature of soccer on the island, and its close links to the political conflict in Northern Ireland.

The match was preceded days earlier by the killings of Lord Mountbatten and others in his party on a boat off the coast of Mullaghmore in Co Sligo, as well as the killing of 18 British soldiers in Warrenpoint, Co Down, by the IRA. A vicious riot ensued at the match, resulting in more than 70 injuries.

Soon after, the talks between the IFA and FAI broke down, with the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland cited as the primary reason for failure to re-unite - and qualifying for the World Cups in 1990 and 1994 lessened the appetite from the FAI for unity.

But now the landscape has changed. Qualifying for future World Cups in particular will become more and more difficult for both Irish teams. Failure to succeed or qualify for future tournaments, as well as a more politically stable environment, may see the IFA and FAI reconvene where they left off during the height of the Troubles in the 1970s and finally bring about one team for the whole island of Ireland yet again.

Cormac Moore is the author of The Irish Soccer Split, recently published by Cork University Press

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