Born in Belfast to a well-known bookmaking family, Kevin McAlinden’s sporting prowess first came to the attention of those in the world of Gaelic games by representing Ulster in an Inter-Provincial Colleges game. In a book published in 1949 on Belfast Celtic, it noted McAlinden as ‘A worthy successor in a line of famous Celtic goalkeepers. Kevin originally was a Gaelic player and betrays this in the sure, safe way he catches the ball.’ Clearly he had the ability even if his father was the chairman. The club formed in 1891 under the guise of ‘Celtic’ before adding Belfast to their name in 1901. The majority of the West Belfast side’s support base was made up of members of the Catholic/Nationalist community. The partition of Ireland in 1920 was further exemplified with a split in Irish soccer. Heightened tensions in the political sphere also engulfed sporting endeavours leading to Belfast Celtic withdrawing from the Irish League (even after winning the 1920 league title) before retuning in 1924.
First team opportunities were few and far between for McAlinden up against Elisha Scott formerly of Liverpool (with whom he won two league championships) for the goalkeeper spot. It eventually led McAlinden to line out for Manchester City in England in 1936. (Scott bore an uncanny resemblance to the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, and played previously for Linfield, a Protestant club, before drawing the attention of the big two Merseyside clubs only for Everton to consider him too young a prospect at the age of nineteen. Scott was also made the player/manager of Belfast Celtic upon his return to Northern Ireland. He would lead the club to ten Irish Leagues and six Irish Cups, an impressive feat.)
McAlinden had a spell back at Celtic before taking up employment with an electrical firm in Birmingham in 1938. Such was the strength in depth of the goalkeeping qualities of the Belfast club that between the inter-war years five international keepers were in the numbers.
After again returning to the Donegal Road side, the list of eminent Celtic goalkeepers saw Tommy Breen ahead of McAlinden in the pecking order. When Breen moved to Manchester United in 1937, McAlinden played an integral part in the west Belfast side’s five league titles in a row. Injury in 1941 combined with the return of Breen and arrival of Hugh Kelly to Celtic Park saw his role in the team reduced. In total he was a part of seven league title winning campaigns in the Irish League.
Subsequently, he joined Cork United in the League of Ireland for the 1942/43 season. It was to be a successful partnership claiming another league title and an FAI Cup runners-up medal in what was a golden era for the Munster side. They won five league titles in a row and two FAI Cups with notable players including Owen Madden, Jackie O’Driscoll and Billy Hayes who all had the notable distinction of having played for both an IFA and FAI XI. Similar to Kevin McAlinden, Ned Courtney also donned the red and white of Cork in Gaelic football winning a Munster Championship in 1943.
McAlinden retired the following year to focus on his farm in Meath, but later joined Shelbourne winning a League of Ireland Shield. As an emergency replacement for Dundalk he earned a call up to the FAI XI for a game with the Irish Army in 1946. The following year he returned between the sticks for Belfast Celtic and a one-nil victory over Glentoran in the Irish Cup final earned him his third victory in that competition.
He was Belfast Celtic’s only amateur and represented both the FAI and IFA in inter-league games as well as Great Britain managed by Matt Busby of Manchester United in the 1948 Olympics in London (the last side to represent Great Britain in the sport until the 2012 Games).
A preliminary round saw Ireland lose 3-1 to the Netherlands at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park in what was the last Olympics the FAI participated in. Their only other appearance at the world games was 1924 in Paris where they achieved the respectable feat of reaching the quarter-finals.
There was another Irish representative in the Great Britain team with Dennis Kelleher of Barnet F.C. Though he was born in Dungarvan, he later served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War and even escaped a German Prisoner of War camp. His major footballing feat was winning an FA Amateur Cup in 1946. Squad selection was based on a trial game held in Blackpool, an A versus B team. Some of the stand out performers as outlined by the ‘Special Correspondent’ of the Observer included ‘D. Kelleher (Ireland) was the only player to put any real life into his play in the first half and played like a tired man afterwards.” McAlinden played in two games at the Olympics, keeping a clean sheet against France (winning one-nil) in the second round before losing 3-1 to Yugoslavia in the semi-final. The gold went to Sweden managed by George Raynor who went on to manage Juventus and Lazio in Italy before leading Sweden to the final of the 1958 World Cup losing 3-1 to Brazil.
In the same year as the Olympics, McAlinden started in the Boxing Day clash between Belfast Celtic and Linfield which saw the latter’s supporters invade the pitch and injure a number of players including the goalkeeper. The annual fixture saw Linfield score a late equalising goal which led to the incursions. After some months recovering from the incident, McAlinden returned to the Celtic side for their tour of the United States before they withdrew from the Irish League in 1949. After retiring from soccer he played Gaelic football with Rossa GAA and even played inter-county for Antrim.
Figures like McAlinden and even Dennis Kelleher have too long been neglected in the discourse of the popular memory of Irish sporting history. There were successes had by players from the island of Ireland long before Bill Bingham and Jack Charlton or Michael and Martin O’Neill. Clubs like Belfast Celtic with a strong tradition are sadly no more, but the legacy they’ve left is still remembered but not popularly acknowledged. From Elisha Scott, McAlinden and Kelleher we can see that sport knows no boundaries and is ignorant to bigotry but is often tainted by outside events. This should not lessen any individual’s achievements but rather elevate them. For it’s the way you played the game not why which really matters.
Main image: thewildgeese/irish