Monday 23 October 2017

Obituary: Mick O'Flanagan Irish rugby and football international

Born September 29, 1922 Died September 12, 2015

Michael Flanagan, far right, at a 1948 rugby reunion in 2005
Michael Flanagan, far right, at a 1948 rugby reunion in 2005
Mick O'Flanagan in his playing days
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Michael O'Flanagan, who has died aged 92, was an outstanding sportsman, who played for Ireland at both rugby and soccer.

O'Flanagan and his brother, Kevin, still hold the record as the only Irish brothers to receive international caps in both sports. While his brother was more renowned and played for Arsenal, "Mick" was also celebrated for his lightning speed and skill.

He was one of the last survivors of the Grand Slam-winning Irish rugby team of 1948. O'Flanagan got his only rugby cap in the centre against Scotland, and Ireland won 6-0. He played in that team alongside such rugby legends as Jack Kyle, the outhalf who died last year, and Karl Mullen.

O'Flanagan's profile in the match programme from February 28, 1948 read: "...has set a family sporting record by emulating his elder brother, Kevin, in gaining both soccer and rugby caps... has only recently gone from the wing to the centre where he has been an outstanding success. A fast and clever runner, he is also a sound tackler."

The passing of O'Flanagan leaves Paddy Reid and Bertie O'Hanlon as the only surviving Grand Slam winners from 1948. Their feat in winning the Grand Slam has a special place in sporting history as it was not repeated until 2009.

While he only received one cap in each sport, O'Flanagan was devastating as a centre forward for Bohemians FC at a time when club games could attract crowds of over 40,000.

The speed and unorthodox interplay between brothers Michael and Kevin, when they regularly switched positions, bamboozled defences.

In a Leinster Senior Cup Final against Grangegorman, Michael scored six goals for Bohs in an 11-0 victory.

Educated at the Christian Brothers School on Synge Street, Michael had quickly made an impact when he joined Bohemians at the age of 17. In the 1940-41 season, he scored 31 goals in 31 games.

His paucity of caps was partly down to the fact that international sport was suspended during World War II at a time when he was in his prime.

While his brother Kevin became a doctor, Michael was a publican by trade and ran a pub on Marlborough Street. It is now known as the Confession Box.

As one observer remarked, Michael's eventual call-up to the Irish football team could only have happened in the amateur era of the time. He was working in his pub at 2.30pm on September 30, 1946 when he received a phone call from a selector, asking him to play after centre forward Davy Walsh had to pull out with an injury.

Ireland were due to play England at 5.30pm that night at Dalymount Park in what was deemed to be the most important international for the Irish in that era.

As O'Flanagan later recalled: "I went home to Terenure for a bite to eat, had a short rest and then headed off to Dalymount. It was not really sufficient notice as, only the previous evening, I had brought a party of English journalists to Templeogue tennis club and I hadn't got home until nearly two in the morning."

The preparation may not have been ideal, but with Michael and Kevin in the team, Ireland put up a creditable performance, going down to a single goal from the legend Tom Finney near the end.

As well as Finney, the English team featured such luminaries as Billy Wright and Tommy Lawton.

The reporter from the Daily Express praised the Irish: "If ever a team deserved to win Eire did. They out-played, out-fought, out-tackled, out-starred generally the cream of English talent, reduced the brilliant English team of Saturday to an ordinary-looking side that never got on top of the job."

Michael figured in three FAI Cup finals and scored the winning goal against Belfast Celtic in the Inter City Cup final of 1949.

Celtic, a leading club of the time, were so impressed by O'Flanagan that they invited him to appear as a guest player on their tour of America in 1949. He scored twice on the tour, and played on the Celtic team that defeated Scotland 2-0 at Triborough Stadium.

In rugby in the same year, he played on the Lansdowne team that won the Leinster Senior Cup.

The O'Flanagans were not just outstanding rugby and soccer players, they also found their way onto the sports pages as accomplished golfers.

Although he missed out on the Olympics because of the suspension during World War II, Kevin was Irish sprint champion at 60 and 100 yards, as well as the country's leading long jumper.

Kevin also played for Dublin's minor team as a GAA footballer.

When Kevin played for Arsenal, he was a practising GP and stayed amateur. The Irish Independent sports writer Sean Diffley once recalled a BBC radio commentary rising to a crescendo of excitement: "Arsenal on the attack, it's Smith to Brown, to Gray, on to Jones, and now its over to the right and Doctor O'Flanagan..."

In his book, From The Press Box: Seventy Years of Great Moments in Irish Sport, Peter Byrne gave an appraisal of the talents of the brothers: "If Michael O'Flanagan never quite made as many headlines, he was still regarded by many as the more skilful of the two brothers. Whereas Kevin relied, in the main, on his impressive pace and ability to strike the ball harder than any of his contemporaries, Michael's game was all about ball control and the ability to outwit defenders, in size-14 boots, by sheer skill and courage."

In his tribute this week, the FAI chief executive John Delaney said: "The O'Flanagans contributed a lot to Irish football and rugby and Mick was a stalwart for Bohemians in the League of Ireland. We are saddened at his passing, but he and his brother Kevin have set a unique world record that will probably never be beaten, given the modern-day demands of international football and rugby."

The two O'Flanagan brothers were inducted into the Rugby Writers of Ireland Hall of Fame in 1997.

Michael is survived by his wife Carine and his brother Charlie, who also played for Bohemians. He was predeceased by his brothers Kevin and Sean, and his sister Trixie.

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