Issue 5: Gentleman John, Ireland’s First Superstar

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Plucked from the streets of Dublin, Jackie Carey became a hero in both his homeland and Britain leading Manchester United to FA Cup and First Division wins, on the way to being named Footballer of the Year.

In his memoir of growing up in 1950s Dublin, journalist Gene Kerrigan relates that “I wasn’t the only one in my class to send off for a signed photo of Jackie Carey. I had never seen him play,  of course… We had as yet no access to TV coverage of soccer, and I had only the faintest of notions as to why I needed a signed photo of Jackie Carey or anyone else, but I knew that Jackie Carey was a hero, an example to us all.”

Born in Dublin a century ago in February 1919, Carey undoubtedly did more than any one individual to turn the Irish public on to soccer. His story is a complex one, touching on issues  like the historic tensions between the Gaelic Athletic Association and soccer in Dublin, the ‘Irish football split’ between two governing bodies, and the issue of Irish neutrality in the Second World War.

Over the course of a remarkable and versatile playing career, the Dubliner lined up in nine different positions on the football pitch, even once goalkeeping for Manchester United. The story of this great talent began on the streets, as all great footballing careers do. As a youngster, Jackie  played for Home Farm on Dublin’s Northside, a club established in 1928 out of street football leagues amongst the city’s working-class.

Home Farm became one of the great Irish sporting success stories, producing endless talents that were later snapped up by English clubs. Sir Matt Busby would famously honour the club as one of the finest amateur sporting bodies in the world. Later, it would also produce Busby Babe Liam Whelan.

Carey had divided loyalties in his youth. While he adored soccer, he also maintained a love for GAA, playing for Dublin’s football team at minor level.  This kind of flirtation with two sports was totally forbidden, with the GAA banning the playing (and even the watching) of so-called foreign games. The GAA had its own Vigilance Committee, tasked with ensuring young men did not dabble in dangerous sports. The writer Brendan O’hEithir later recalled the fear of the Vigilance Committee, remembering them “trying to spot their straying sheep among the graceless goats.”

For Carey, soccer won out. He played for League of Ireland side St James’s Gate,  a formidable force in their day, and was spotted by the famous football scout Billy Behan in 1936. The chief scout for Manchester United in Ireland, Behan was an almost mythical figure in Irish soccer circles. Over the course of a long career,  he found Jackie Carey, Liam Whelan, Johnny Giles, Paul McGrath and many many other great talents. Giles writes about him in his autobiography as having “a kind of sixth sense for identifying the players who would make it.”

Jackie Carey was his first great find. Carey first stepped onto the field in a Manchester United jersey at 17, and he would remain at the club until the 1950s. He would also become the first Irishman to win a major trophy with the iconic club. Irish heritage at United was strong and Carey followed in a lineage that stretched back to the celebrated Patrick O’Connell. Those were yo-yo years for the club, but in his first season he played no small role in bringing United to the First Division in a team that included tremendous players like Jack Rowley and Stan Pearson.

Carey’s talent came into its own at  the worst possible time, as the outbreak of the Second World War brought British football to a standstill and made competitive football an impossibility. Old Trafford was directly hit in the Blitz, leaving it out of action until 1949. When the war broke out, Carey arrived back in Dublin, lining up for a ‘Shamrock Rovers XI’ and a ‘League of Ireland XI’ in exhibition matches in Dublin’s Dalymount Park.

Huge crowds came to see him play, having heard  reports of his ability on the football pitch in newspapers and radio reports. His arrival in Dublin as a global war broke out may appear strange, almost like a young man running away from a conflict, yet in reality he was deeply loyal to the country that provided him with work as a footballer and even enlisted in the British war effort.

Carey proclaimed that “a country that gives me my living is worth fighting for,” joining the British Army and serving in Italy and North Africa. For many in Ireland, Carey’s decision to fight in a British army uniform in the World War raised awkward questions, not least given Ireland’s neutrality in the conflict.

As Eamon Dunphy put it, “he didn’t fit the caricature of national identity in which we cloaked ourselves. There was no place in the national identity parade for a gentleman soccer player from Dublin who had served the British army.” In the censored media of the period, most Irish people remained unaware of Carey’s contribution to the British war effort.

In the years that followed World War II, Carey lined up for both club and country. In an Irish context, international football was a total mess, with two separate teams competing under the name ‘Ireland’ in the decades after partition. Both the Football Association of Ireland (based in Dublin) and the Irish Football Association (based in Belfast) claimed to be the only legitimate footballing authority in Ireland. Incredibly, the same players could even line up for both sides.

Carey had the honour of playing against England twice in September 1946, in games only three days apart. On the 28th of September, he was part of the IFA team that were trashed 7-2 in Belfast by England, while three days later the FAI XI lost 1-0 to the same team in Dublin. Eventually, the international footballing community stepped in, making it clear to Belfast and Dublin there could no longer be two teams competing under the name of ‘Ireland.’

Following a successful career that saw Carey become the first Irish player to win  a major trophy with Manchester United, he made the leap into football management. He took charge of Everton in the 1960-61 season, leading them to fifth position in the English league, but for some behind the scenes at the Merseyside club it just wasn’t enough. Carey lost his job in an undignified manner, when the club chairman sacked him as they journeyed in the back of taxi. The British tabloids got a news headline that they’ve been re-using ever since from the fiasco, as ‘TAXI FOR…!’ remains the staple for any manager who finds himself thrown out the door.

Shocked by his own dismissal, he joked to his wife Margaret that “I must be the most successful failure in this business.” Jackie Carey was the antithesis of the modern celebrity footballer. He died in England in 1995, taking his place in history as one of Dublin’s greatest footballing talents. If the tragedy of Munich, and the loss of young Liam Whelan, cemented Manchester United’s Irish support base, then it was Jackie Carey who created it.

This article appears in Issue 5 of Póg mo Goal Magazine, 64 pages of excellent feature writing, beautiful photography and illustrations from contributors across the globe. Now available to pre-order here

Donal Fallon writes for Come Here To Me, a group blog that focuses on the life and culture of Dublin City. Music, history, football, politics and pubs all feature. www.comeheretome.com

Osvaldo ‘Oz’ Casanova is an illustrator based in Vicenza, Italy. He loves The Clash, bitter beers and Lanerossi Vicenza. www.thankyoufortheroses.com

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