On April 18th 1949, Easter Monday, the anniversary of the 1916 uprising, Ireland officially declared itself a Republic and left the British Commonwealth. A week later, the national team played Belgium at Dalymount Park but it would be a further five years before it would play under the name ‘Republic’.
The use of the terms Ireland and Republic of Ireland has traditionally been fraught with controversy owing to the delicate political sensibilities here, and the two football teams on the island have been no strangers to that friction. Since 1882, Irish football had been governed by one association, the Belfast-based Irish Football Association, the IFA. In the midst of the trauma of the War of Independence and partition, the selection of the Irish national team became increasingly politicised and a new body, the Football Association of Ireland was founded in September 1921 in Dublin splitting from the IFA and organising its own league and national team.
The southern body joined FIFA two years later as the Football Association of the Irish Free State but re-adopted the name Football Association of Ireland in 1936. From then until 1954, they played as Ireland; and since 1954 they have been the Republic of Ireland following the renaming of the team by FIFA. However, back in 1949, the Republic of Ireland Act had become law on the symbolic day of Easter Monday and was greeted with a military parade on O’Connell Street and a 19 gun salute.
Six days later, just over 28,000 filed into Dalymount Park to witness the soccer team lose 2-0 to Belgium in a friendly still under the name ‘Ireland.’ The home side were captained by the legendary Johnny Carey, who had also skippered the IFA XI. A year earlier, Carey had become the first Irishman to captain an FA Cup winning side leading Matt Busby’s Manchester United to victory over Blackpool at Wembley. The following season, the Dubliner was voted “Footballer of the Year” and in 1950 he was nominated as Britain’s “Sportsman of the Year”. Two years after that he led United to their first league title in four decades.
Ireland had slumped to an unexpected loss to Switzerland the previous December prompting the FAI selection committee to plump for six League of Ireland players for the visit of the Belgians, managed by Englishman Bill Gormlie. Belgium had also provided the opposition for the Free State’s début in the FIFA World Cup in a 1934 qualifier in Dublin. That game finished 4-4 with Paddy Moore grabbing all of the Irish goals becoming the first player ever to score four in a World Cup game. This time, the inexperienced Irish side crashed to a 2-0 defeat conceding twice in the second half to strikes from Victor Lemberechts and Jef Mermans. The result saw the FAI selectors turn to Carey for advice, making him the de facto coach, mindful that more professional preparation was needed with the 1950 World Cup qualifying series about to get underway.
A first win as the new political entity would come the following month in a home friendly with Portugal. The campaign began in June with a 4-1 loss to Sweden in Stockholm. The fledging Ireland then took on Spain in a friendly in Dalymount the same month suffering another 4-1 defeat. The Road to Rio got back on track with a 3-0 home win over Finland and the next game was a friendly away to England in September 1949. The match didn’t take place in Wembley however. The venue was Goodison Park where Ireland recorded one of her most famous victories, a first ever defeat for the English on home soil by a foreign side.
Several of the Irish team in Goodison in 1949 had played against England before while representing the IFA, including striker Davy Walsh who had previously scored three times against the old enemy. Three years earlier, the FAI Ireland had played England for the first time at Dalymount Park losing to a Tom Finney winner in the 82nd minute. This time on Merseyside, Ireland struck twice through a Con Martin penalty and a second half goal from Peter Farrell to record a famous victory, at least on this side of the Irish Sea.
Even today there is some dispute in English circles as to whether Hungary’s Magical Magyars’ 6-3 win at Wembley in 1953 represents the first defeat on home soil by a foreign team. The argument is that the Irish side that won 2-0 claimed authority over the IFA selection and therefore allowed some to paint them as a ‘home nation’ until FIFA’s definitive intervention in 1953.
Up until the 1950 qualifiers, the IFA and FAI disputed jurisdiction over the entire island and sought to select players from both north and south under the name Ireland. It was only when both associations entered the qualifiers – four players Tom Aherne, Reg Ryan, Davy Walsh, and Con Martin actually represented the two teams in the same qualifying competition – that FIFA intervened and restricted the eligibility of players on the basis of the political border.
Then, in 1953 the world governing body decreed that neither team could be referred to as Ireland for the World Cup and, subsequently, the European Nations Cup. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were born as football entities. As the national side strove to make its mark on the global stage by reaching the World Cup, the first game as the Republic of Ireland saw a win over Norway in Dublin in November of the following year. The team had finally taken the title declared by the nation on the 18th of April, 1949.
This article was published in Póg Mo Goal Magazine