Barely three years after a bloody and violent war of independence, and less than 12 months after a bitter civil war, a football team representing a new Ireland walked out at the Olympic Games in Paris. Cian Manning looks back.
The 1924 Olympics in Paris represented the first opportunity for the newly established Football Association of Ireland to compete internationally in what FIFA considered a World Championships. However, finances would prove a major stumbling block not only to the side’s chances in the competition but to even reaching the French capital. The FAI forecasted that it would cost £817 (around 53,000 Euro today). In order to raise funds for the trip a game between an FAI XI and Glasgow Celtic in front of 22,000 spectators at Dalymount yielded a surplus of £250.
A further complication with participation in the 1924 Olympics was the amateur status. In 1921 the Belgium Football Association provided players with remittances for loss of earnings. Due to the FIFA ruling on professionalism, both Denmark and the United Kingdom did not send any representatives.
Two trials were organised to aide selection of the Irish squad. In total sixteen players would play in Paris formed largely from Athlone Town (that year’s FAI Cup winners) and the Dublin clubs of Bohemians (1924 league champions) and St. James’s Gate. The trainer of the side was Charlie Harris of Bohs. One player with some prior international was Denis ‘Dinny’ Hannon. Before the First World War, Hannon had earned six caps for the IFA and was a member of the side that became the first Irish team to defeat England in 1913. Formerly of Bohemians, he won an FAI Cup in 1908. Sixteen years later he scored the winner for his local side Athlone in the cup final. In addition, he was one of the oldest players to have competed at the Olympics, aged 36.
After a two-day boat trip, the FAI squad resided at a hotel in the centre of Paris then stayed in accommodation at the Olympic Village. The Free State side donned blue jerseys adorning green shamrocks and stood to attention to the song ‘Let Erin Remember.’ Their opponents were Bulgaria (both sides having received a bye in the first round) knowing victory would see passage to the quarter-finals. In front of 2796 crowd in the 45,000 capacity Stade de Colombes, Paddy Duncan scored not only the winner but also the FAI selection’s first ever international goal. Nicknamed ‘Dirty Duncan,’ he was one of five players lining out at James’s Park in Dolphin’s Barn for St. James’s Gate. (In fact the Olympic connection has continued for the club with London 2012 gold medallist boxer Katie Taylor having played for St. James’s). Many of that club’s members in the Irish side had played a part in the league and cup double success of the inaugural season of the League of Ireland in 1921/22.
The Irish team were defeated by the Netherlands 2-1 after extra time in the final eight. Both games concerning the FAI saw the lowest attendances of the tournament with just over one and a half thousand spectators attending the game in the Stade de Paris. The Dutch were knocked out in the semi-final by eventual winners Uruguay. The Free State’s second goalscorer of the tournament was Frank Ghent, another player with Athlone Town. Despite such an abundance of talent, it still couldn’t prevent the midlands club, the oldest in Ireland, from dropping down to junior level due to financial difficulties.
Like any international tournament today, the Games provided players with a chance to showcase their talents to earn a move to a bigger club. One such man was Tommy Muldoon. Another Athlone Town player with defensive sensibilities, he joined Aston Villa after the Olympics before having a less successful stint with Tottenham Hotspur in 1927.
The only other club represented in the Olympic selection sixteen was Brooklyn with Joe Kendrick. A spell with Everton led to a return to the League of Ireland with Dolphin where he won the league in 1935. Kendrick acts as an interesting link between that Olympic team and the Free State side that made its first foray into the World Cup qualifiers against Belgium in 1934.
It was not a successful Games overall for any Irish representatives on the sportsfield with no medals won but there were two medals in art and literature, including a silver for Jack B. Yeats’s famous ‘The Liffey Swim.’ As a result of the conflict between amateur and professional status in the 1924 Olympic football tournament, FIFA inaugurated the World Cup in 1930, hosted and won by Uruguay.
The 1948 London Olympics saw Johnny Carey coach an Ireland side made up of League of Ireland players. Bohemians remained a strong contributor with eight players joined by three from Transport, one each from Cork United, Jacobs, Limerick and Waterford. Carey was a former player with St. James’s and continued to play with Manchester United till 1953. It was to be his first experience of international management, later becoming manager of the Republic of Ireland team between 1955 to 1967. The Irish were again put to the sword by the Netherlands 3-1 in the preliminary round. Brendan O’Kelly was the scorer of that side’s goal. The Bohs man eventually became the Chairman of the Irish Sea Fisheries Board after attending Harvard. Sweden claimed the gold defeating Yugoslavia by three goals to one. Their final scorer was Nils Gunnar Nordhal who later won two Scudetti with AC Milan scoring 210 league goals in 257 games.
Forty years later a League of Ireland XI attempted to qualify for the 1988 Olympics but finished fourth in a group of five. Sweden qualified while the Irish side avoided bottom on goal difference (France having conceded five goals more). It was quite a humiliation for Les Blues having claimed the gold medal at the previous Olympics in Los Angeles. Derry native Jim McLaughlin managed the side who finished with one win from eight games.
While it may be nearly seventy years since Ireland has seen a soccer representative at the Games, the Olympic spirit certainly has not diminished. Those first pioneers in the early days of independence paved the way for future footballers to stand behind the Irish tricolour and take their place among the nations on the world stage.