Wednesday 19 December 2018

Invitation to World Cup turned down

SEÁN RYAN THE deaths during the past ten days of former Republic of Ireland internationals Tommy Eglington and Rory Keane recall a curious episode of FAI history involving our visitors last week, Brazil.

Everton left-winger Eglington and Swansea left-back Keane were on the Irish team which lost a World Cup qualifier to Sweden 3-1 in Stockholm in June 1949. The Swedes won by the same score in Dublin, leaving Ireland second in the three-team group, ahead of Finland.

With one to qualify for the 1950 finals in Brazil, that seemed to be that, until the following May, when FIFA sent a telegram to the FAI enquiring if the Irish would be prepared to make up the numbers in the event of a vacancy. The International Affairs Committee decided to accept, but the Hon Treasurer, MJ Kenny, had the last word. He estimated the cost of the venture would be £2,700, which he said would bankrupt the Association.

When the matter was discussed by Council, Kenny's view prevailed, but it was diplomatically announced that the FAI was unable to accept the invitation owing to the short notice. However, far from bankrupting the FAI, participation in the 1950 World Cup would have been a financial Godsend. Such was the hunger of fans for the first finals since 1938 that world record attendances and receipts were set in the new Maracana Stadium.

Only 13 countries took part, instead of the intended 16, and so successful was the tournament that all expenses had been paid before the final group games, assuring each of the finalists a handsome profit.

And while Irish fans bemoaned the loss of Damien Duff from Wednesday's friendly, in 1950 the Brazilians missed out on the Duff-like skills of Tommy Eglington. Eggo was the Duff of his day - with a greater strike rate. He had the dribbling skills, the left wing was his natural habitat, but he had an eye for goal too, once scoring five goals in a League game for Tranmere Rovers.

Eglington and Rory Keane were just two of a flock of talented League of Ireland players who were snapped up by English clubs to replace the men who failed to return after World War Two. The clubs they joined, Everton and Swansea Town, both established sizeable Irish colonies.

Eggo travelled over with Shamrock Rovers' teammate Peter Farrell and they enjoyed a ten-year spell at Goodison Park, spent mainly in the First Division, although their best year was probably 1953-4 when they regained First Division status, finishing runners-up in Division Two.

Eggo's skills were in demand by both the FAI and the IFA until the break came in 1950 which ended that dual mandate. He earned a total of 30 caps, with 24 coming from the FAI, just one short of the requirement for the then-coveted statuette awarded for 25 caps. And the missing cap was a sore point, for it was the famous 2-0 win over England at his own Goodison in 1949. On that occasion, the selectors saw fit to name Shamrock Rovers' winger Tommy O'Connor ahead of Eggo. Suffice to say that, but for the result, a storm would have broken over the heads of the selectors for that faux pas.

While with Shamrock Rovers, Eggo played in three Cup finals, winning two, but amazingly was overlooked by the inter-League selectors. After Everton, he played a number of seasons with Tranmere Rovers, where Peter Farrell was manager, before returning to Ireland to finish out his career with Cork Hibernians.

In two seasons with Hibs, he helped them to the 1963 Cup final in which they were beaten 2-0 by Shelbourne, and was honoured four times by the League selectors - at the ripe old age of 38. In a memorable game in Bristol he scored in a 5-2 defeat by an English League team that was the nucleus of the 1966 World Cup winners.

A keen golfer, Eggo was captain of St Anne's in 1970 and certainly enjoyed a day that year when he helped chair Paddy Skerritt, the club pro, off the 18th green in Portmarnock after he had won the Alcan International.

Rory Keane, who died on Friday week, was signed by Swansea from Limerick prior to the 1947-48 season. He became a firm favourite with Swans fans as a hard tackling, uncompromising full-back.

The 1948/9 season saw the Swans gain promotion to Division Two with one of their most successful sides of all time, regularly playing to crowds of 28-30,000. The Swans were promoted as champions with 27 victories in the season, including 17 successive wins at home, six successive wins away and a goal difference of 45. All but two of the side were internationals.

Rory, like Eglington, was capped by both the FAI and the IFA. His total of five caps would have been added to but for breaking his leg, an injury that occurred three times and shortened his career. His grandson, Jamie Harris, was one of the stars of Shelbourne's triumph in the Eircom League last year.

Johnny Armstrong, who died on February 12, was a legendary left-winger with Sligo Rovers in the 1950s and '60s. Born in Blackpool, but raised in Scotland, he played for Chesterfield before injury halted his career. A doctor in Glasgow helped him recover with a special set of exercises and he joined Sligo in 1951.

A speedy, skilful winger with an eye for a goal, Johnny was twice honoured by the League selectors, scoring once against the Irish League. While Sligo were never in the hunt for honours during his time at the Showgrounds, he set a club record 85 League goals, which still stands.

*Eamonn Heffernan has been in touch to point out that he was not at centre-half for Limerick in the Cup tie at the start of Shamrock Rovers' six in a row.

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