The Football Association of Ireland – An Historical Perspective

 Although football was being played in Ireland since the 1860s, it was mainly based in Ulster, and it was not until the 1880s that the game spread to other areas of the country. The first club outside Ulster was Dublin Association Football Club which was formed in 1883. At the time, the Irish Football Association (IFA) was the governing body. Based in Belfast, it found it difficult to promote football throughout the country. This led to the formation of the Leinster Football Association in 1892 as the game became more popular in the area. However, there was always a feeling among clubs from outside the Belfast area that the IFA favoured Ulster based clubs-especially when selecting sides for international matches.

Despite this, it was not until after the 1916 Rising and the rise of Nationalism that southern affiliates, such as the Leinster FA, took an aggressive approach in their dealings with the IFA. The clubs often threatened to break away, and in early 1921, Bohemians, St James’s Gate and Shelbourne all withdrew from the Irish League, though all three sides decided to remain involved in Cup competitions.  The matter reached crisis-point when later that year, the IFA reneged on a promise to play the IFA Cup final replay between Shelbourne and Glenavon in Dublin and scheduled the match for Belfast. Shelbourne refused to comply and forfeited the Cup.

A meeting of southern associations and clubs was arranged and on June 1, 1921, the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS) was formed in Molesworth Hall in Dublin. A Free State League was hastily organised, with eight teams taking part. Originally all eight teams were from Dublin, but Athlone became the first provincial club to join the league the following season. St James’s Gate won the first title, and they were also winners of the first FAI Cup, then called the Free State Cup, in 1922.

The FAIFS had greater difficulty in arranging international fixtures. All the home nations’ associations had blacklisted the FAIFS, but the Association had better fortune in their dealings with FIFA. France’s relations with Britain were poor at the time, and they defied the home nation’s wishes and sent Athletic Club of Gallia to Ireland in 1923 to play challenge matches against Bohemians and Pioneers. In August of that year, FIFA accepted Ireland’s application for membership and the FAIFS joined the international community. However, it was another three years, before Ireland fulfilled its first international fixture. Although a Free State side did compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics, it was under the auspices of the Olympic Council of Ireland. The first fixture organised by the FAIFS was in March 1926 against Italy in Turin. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat, but the first steps had been taken.
At the time, both the FAIFS and IFA selected players from all over Ireland meaning that many footballers won caps for both Associations. The following April, the Italian Federation sent their ‘B’ team to Dublin for Ireland’s first ever home fixture. 20,000 people were at Lansdowne Road to see Bob Fullam put Ireland in front, but Italy ran out 2-1 winners. The following year, Ireland won their first ever match – against Belgium in Liege.

Ireland’s first World Cup campaign in 1934 was a short-lived event, as a 4-4 draw with Belgium (Paddy Moore became the first player in the world to score four goals in a World Cup match when he netted all four Ireland strikes) at Dalymount Park was followed by a 5-2 loss to Holland in Amsterdam. The qualifying campaign for the 1938 World Cup, also lasting two matches saw the Irish exit at the hands of Norway.

The 1930s also saw the erosion of Dublin’s dominance in the league. During the 1920s, Bohemians, St. James’s Gate, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers had a monopoly over the domestic game, but Dundalk and Sligo Rovers both won championships while Cork and Waterford collected FAI Cups as football spread to the provinces. The Second World War curtailed international matches between 1939 and 1946, but League football went ahead with Cork United continuing the provincial clubs’ dominance by winning four titles between 1940 and 1945. On the international front, England were the first side to visit Ireland after the Second World War. It was the first time England had visited Dublin since the split between the IFA and FAI. The away side won the match at Dalymount Park 1-0, but Ireland got their revenge three years later when they became the first side to defeat England on English soil with a 2-0 win at Goodison Park thanks to goals from Con Martin and Peter Farrell.
Ireland again missed out on World Cup participation in 1950 after losing to Sweden in the qualifiers, but were later asked to compete by FIFA. However, the FAI was forced to decline the invitation because of a lack of time to prepare. 1950 was also the year that the problem of players playing for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was finally solved, with FIFA directing both Associations to only pick players from within their own boundaries. FIFA were also to clear up another matter in 1953 when they ruled that the FAI’s team would be known as the Republic of Ireland with the IFA’s side being called Northern Ireland. Up to that point, both Associations referred to their teams as ‘Ireland.’

The late 50s saw the Republic of Ireland miss out on World Cup qualification by the narrowest of margins once more. A last minute goal by England at Dalymount Park was enough to guarantee the English, and not Ireland, a place in the Swedish 1958 World Cup. The Republic of Ireland also entered the newly created European Championships and they had the honour of lining up in the first ever match in the competition. However, it was a short-lived experience as they went out in the first qualifying round to Czechoslovakia.

On the domestic front, the Dublin clubs reasserted their dominance with only Cork capable of challenging Shamrock Rovers, St. Patrick’s Athletic, Shelbourne and Drumcondra. 1958 saw a League of Ireland side enter European competition for the first time with Shamrock Rovers, inspired by the legendary Paddy Coad, going out to Manchester United in the first round of the European Cup.
The 1960s started disastrously for the international side as they lost all four of their qualifiers for the 1962 World Cup, including a record 7-1 defeat by Czechoslovakia. But things improved in the European Championship qualifiers, as Ireland beat Iceland and Austria before losing to eventual tournament winners Spain. Spain were again the nemesis in the 1966 World Cup qualifiers. Ireland beat them 1-0 at Dalymount Park before losing 4-1 in Seville. As aggregate scores were not used at the time, a play-off match was needed. There was some controversy that Paris was chosen as the venue and a 78th minute goal by striker Ufarte meant Ireland missed out on a World Cup finals place. In the 1968 European Championships qualifiers, Spain again proved an insurmountable obstacle for Ireland. However, the improvements convinced the FAI that it was time to appoint a team manager and, in 1969, Mick Meagan became the first manager of the Republic of Ireland international side. Up until then, a team of selectors picked the side. However, this new professionalism didn’t have any immediate effect, as Ireland failed to win any of their qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup.

Domestically, Waterford United became one of the league’s most successful clubs as they won three titles during the decade, though Shamrock Rovers were the team of the 60s. The Hoops won six FAI Cups in a row during the 60s, a feat that has never been repeated. Ireland finished bottom of their qualification group for the 1972 European Championships, ending Meagan’s tenure as manager. Liam Tuohy replaced him, and having gone five years without recording a victory, optimism was not high. His first games in charge were in Brazil as part of the Brazil Independence Cup, and things started brightly with victories over Iran and Ecuador.

However, by the time World Cup qualification came around, the team was struggling and, although they managed to beat France at Dalymount Park, the Soviet Union finished ahead of Ireland in the group. At underage level, Ireland had its first success with the youths qualifying for the UEFA Youths Championships in 1972 after the Welsh team refused to travel over to Ireland for a qualifying match. In 1973, Sean Thomas, then Bohemians’ manager, managed Ireland for one match, a friendly away game against Norway which resulted in a 1-1 draw.

John Giles became Ireland’s first ever player-manager before the 1976 European Championship qualifiers, but the side again failed to qualify from their group after, again, losing out to the Soviet Union. With a string of solid performances behind them, Ireland were confident of a good showing in qualifying for the 1978 World Cup. However, the curse was to strike again, as Ireland failed to qualify after losing controversially in Sofia against Bulgaria. Steve Heighway scored a goal that, had it stood, would have meant Ireland qualified for the World Cup, but it was France who travelled to Argentina instead.

John Giles’ reign as manager ended after the 1980 European qualifiers. During the qualifiers, the Republic of Ireland took on Northern Ireland in an historic first ever meeting between the two sides in a game that finished 0-0 at Dalymount Park. In the return leg the Republic were beaten 1-0, which, along with other mixed results, ensured Ireland would not be going to the finals. Alan Kelly Snr took over as caretaker for one match – against the USA after Giles quit.

At club level, the major achievement was Dundalk’s progress to the last 16 of the European Cup in 1979 when they eventually went out to Glasgow Celtic. Eoin Hand took over as manager of the international side before the qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup, and once again, the Irish missed out by the narrowest of margins. Drawn in a tough group with France, Belgium, Holland and Cyprus, Ireland lost only two of their eight matches and missed out on qualification on goal difference. The 1984 European Championship qualifiers didn’t go much better, as Ireland lost to both Spain and Holland, though they did record their record victory, an 8-0 win over Malta at Dalymount Park. The 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign was to be Eoin Hand’s last in charge, and his side were unfortunate to be drawn against the superbly gifted Denmark, who were one of the world’s top sides at the time, and the traditionally strong Soviet Union.

Shamrock Rovers were the undisputed kings of the domestic game throughout the 1980s, winning four league titles in a row (1984, 1985, 1986, 1987) and three consecutive FAI Cups (1985, 1986, 1987). However, the decade was to end badly for Rovers when the club’s owners sold their home stadium, the much-loved Glenmalure Park. At underage level, there was a hint of the success to come, as Ireland’s Youth’s progressed to the semi-finals of the European Youth Championships in the Soviet Union in 1984 and progressed to the World Youth Championships Finals for the first time which took place in the USSR in 1985.

A turning point in Irish football history occurred in 1986 with the appointment of Jack Charlton as national team manager and the breakthrough moment came with qualification for the 1988 UEFA European Championships in West Germany. The historic first game at a major finals was against England in Stuttgart with Ray Houghton heading a first half winner to forever change the perception of the national team. Although they failed to progress from their group – drawing 1-1 with the USSR before suffering a dreadfully unlucky 1-0 loss to the Netherlands – the Irish had arrived on the international scene.

The next breakthrough was to the World Cup stage where the Irish finally earned their place at the top table at the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy. Again, England were to be Ireland’s first opponents in those finals and a tense 1-1 draw was played out in Cagliari with Kevin Sheedy firing a late equaliser. Following a tepid 0-0 draw with Egypt, the Irish then drew 1-1 with the Dutch – Niall Quinn bagging the equaliser – to progress to the Second Round. The drama continued as the clash with Romania in Genoa ended scoreless and required a penalty shoot-out. Packie Bonner saved a Daniel Timofte penalty and, as the state held its breath, David O’Leary stepped up to slot home the winning spot-kick to clinch a Quarter-final meeting with the hosts in Rome. After a quick visit to meet Pope John Paul II, Ireland’s World Cup adventure ended when Salvatore Schillaci fired the only goal.

Ireland were unfortunate to miss out on the Euro 1992 Finals in Sweden after throwing away a 3-1 lead away to Poland in their penultimate qualifier. Despite beating Turkey 3-1 away in their final fixture, Gary Lineker bagged a late equaliser for England to clinch the sole qualification spot. Next up was the qualifying campaign for USA 94 World Cup and this also went down to the wire with the Republic facing Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in their final game. After going down to a Jimmy Quinn strike, Charlton’s side secured their place in America when Alan McLaughlin fired a brilliant equaliser. The World Cup adventure in the US was a roller-coaster affair for the Irish. They began with their first ever victory in a World Cup finals with Houghton again the hero as he scored against Italy at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Despite a disappointing 2-1 loss to Mexico, with John Aldridge heading the Irish goal, a scoreless draw with Norway saw Ireland into the Second Round. Unfortunately, the journey came to a frustrating halt with a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands in the searing heat of Orlando.

Charlton’s reign ended after the qualification campaign for Euro 96 ended poorly after an initially promising start. A 3-0 loss to Portugal condemned Ireland to a play-off against their now traditional rivals the Netherlands at Anfield in December 1995. Patrick Kluivert scored both goals in a 2-0 win against an injury-hit Ireland team and Charlton stepped down in the following weeks to be succeeded by his former captain Mick McCarthy.

The club game in the 1990s saw Dundalk and Cork City set the early pace before the emergence of the St Patrick’s Athletic-Shelbourne rivalry captured the public imagination. Shels were later challenged by Bohemians and Cork City once more as the decade turned towards the new century. The breakthrough moment that the domestic game had been anxiously awaiting almost arrived in 2003 as Pat Fenlon’s Shelbourne went with 45 minutes of qualifying for the group stages of the UEFA Champions League before eventually being eliminated by Deportivo La Coruna.

On the international scene, McCarthy’s reign as Ireland boss saw him introduce a host of talented young players into the set-up and they were unfortunate not to qualify for the 1998 World Cup Finals after losing in a two-legged play-off to Belgium. The following campaign for Euro 2000 showed promised but a heart-breaking draw in Macedonia denied the Irish their place in the finals in Portugal and sent the Irish through to a play-off with Turkey which saw a 1-1 draw in Dublin followed up with a scoreless draw in Bursa as Ireland went out on the away goals rule.

It was a case of third time lucky for McCarthy and his side when they qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. With Roy Keane driving the team on in the games, the Irish secured another play-off spot with a memorable victory over Netherlands at Lansdowne Road and went through to meet Iran over two legs. Ireland won 2-0 in Dublin then lost 1-0 in front of more than 90,000 on an intimidating night in Tehran to progress to the finals. The 2002 World Cup campaign will forever be linked to the Saipan controversy where a row between McCarthy and his captain Roy Keane saw the Manchester United player leave the squad training camp and miss the tournament. Ireland started with a 1-1 draw with Cameroon with Matt Holland scoring a brilliant equaliser then they met Germany and once again a dramatic equaliser from Robbie Keane had the Irish fans celebrating. A 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia thanks to goals from Robbie Keane, Gary Breen and Damien Duff sent the Irish through to the Second Round. The adventure ended there in the drama of another penalty shoot-out as Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Spain – Robbie Keane scoring from the spot during the game – as misses by Matt Holland, David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane proved costly as Gaizka Mendieta converted the winning spot-kick for the Spanish.
McCarthy’s reign ended later that year after the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign got off to a slow start and he was replaced by former underage international manager Brian Kerr. In the preceding years Kerr’s youth teams had given Ireland its first major international successes. He guided Ireland to bronze at the 1997 World Youth Championships in Malaysia with Damien Duff the breakthrough player from that squad then in 1998 Kerr and assistant Noel O’Reilly led the Irish to both the UEFA U16 Championships and UEFA U18 Championships titles within three incredible months. The U16s beat Italy in the final in Perth, Scotland, with David McMahon and Keith Foy scoring the Irish goals then at the U18 Finals in Cyprus Ireland beat Germany on penalties after a 1-1 draw where Alan Quinn had found the net. Liam George bagged the decisive penalty.

Kerr led the Ireland senior team through the remainder of the ultimately unsuccessful qualifying campaign for Euro 2004 and then through the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. After a strong start the Irish were held to a controversial 2-2 home draw against Israel then lost 1-0 to France in Dublin. Ultimately a 0-0 draw against Switzerland saw the Irish miss out on qualification and Kerr’s contract was not renewed. His successor was former Ireland captain Stephen Staunton. The Staunton reign saw a raft of young players introduced to the squad but the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008 did not go well. Although the Irish did not lose a home game in the campaign, they were held to a 1-1 draw by Cyprus in Dublin and lost 5-2 to the same opponents in Nicosia. Staunton’s tenure ended in October 2007 after the draw with the Cypriots at Croke Park. Don Givens filled in as caretaker boss for a 2-2 draw with Wales and a friendly meeting with Brazil in London. Givens had also stood in as caretaker boss between McCarthy and Kerr’s reigns for a friendly in Greece.

At club level Drogheda United came close to making the UEFA Champions League breakthrough in 2007 and in 2011 Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish side to reach the group stages of the UEFA Europa League when they beat Partizan Belgrade in a play-off. Although Michael O’Neill’s side failed to pick up a point at that stage, they produced some battling displays against Tottenham Hotspur, PAOK and Rubin Kazan.

The next Ireland boss was a household name and Giovanni Trapattoni brought his experience and attention to detail to the role. Under the wily Italian Ireland progressed to the play-offs for the 2010 World Cup after finishing unbeaten in their group behind Trap’s native country. A famous 2-2 draw in Bari had the Irish dreaming of top spot but the Italians also secured the same result at Croke Park in a thrilling encounter and went on to finish top of the group. In the play-offs the Irish lost 1-0 at home to France then went to Paris and secured the same score-line in 90 minutes to force the game to extra-time. A remarkable controversy saw French striker Thierry Henry handle the ball and cross for William Gallas to bundle home a 103rd minute winner and leave the Irish broken-hearted.

Trapattoni duly led Ireland through the next qualifying campaign for UEFA Euro 2012 in impressive style. The Irish lost just one group game away to eventual table toppers Russia to progress to a play-off meeting with Estonia. A brilliant first leg performance saw Ireland win 4-0 in Tallinn then drew 1-1 at Aviva Stadium to qualify for Poland and Ukraine. The finals tournament promised much for Ireland but unfortunately, they never performed and suffered disappointing losses to Croatia, Spain and Italy to exit the tournament with little to show for the adventure. The Trapattoni era ended the following year as Ireland finished fourth behind Germany, Sweden and Austria in an unimpressive qualifying campaign for World Cup 2014. Noel King saw out the final two fixtures against Germany and Kazakhstan.

That led to the appointment of Martin O’Neill as Ireland manager with Roy Keane as his assistant. The management team proved their mettle by leading the country to UEFA Euro 2016 in France. A tough qualifying campaign saw Ireland finish behind Germany and Poland to secure third spot in the group and a play-off against Bosnia & Herzegovina. A 1-1 draw on a very foggy night in Sarajevo was followed up by a 2-0 win in Dublin thanks to a Jon Walters double.

Written by Stephen Finn – Football Association of Ireland (July 2015)