Ireland – Champions in 1914

ireland british home championship

This year marks the anniversary of a particularly important year in our soccer past. 100 years ago, on the 4th of April 1914, Ireland won the British Home Championship.

This tournament, contested by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, was first held in 1883-84, 150 years ago. It was the first ever competitive tournament between international teams.

England, rulers of Empire and inventors of football, dominated the competition. Ireland had a consistently poor record. More than five years of the championship passed before, in 1887, they managed to win a match. It was another six years before, in 1883, they tasted another victory, with just a couple of drawn games to mitigate that awful run. A similar pattern of results continued over the next 20 years. Then came 1914.

Ireland’s opening match of the 1914 tournament was away to Wales, on 19th January at Wrexham. Wales were favourites. They had beaten Ireland 1–0 the previous year, and were considered to be a far stronger team. The Irish Times’s preview of the match stated that, if the Irish goalkeeper and defence “rose to the occasion, then the Irishmen should at least give the home country a game.”

Ireland did far more than that. Their team, featuring Val Harris and Billy Lacey, won the match 2–1 in front of a crowd of 6,000. The Irish Times stated that “Ireland deserve praise for getting the win, but it was not a brilliant performance. Wales had bad luck.”

This win was said to show that Ireland had a good chance of playing an important role in the championship, and a month later on Saturday, February 14th, Ireland travelled to Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough for their second match of the tournament, this time against England. England were strong favourites. They were considered to be formidably stronger, and unlikely to be surprised by their visitors. The FA were said to have left nothing to chance for England, fielding the strongest side possible.

Against the odds, Ireland gave a wonderful performance. They appeared confident and, within just five minutes, England were shocked when Ireland opened the scoring. Rollo had joined with Young to attack strongly down the Irish right wing. Rollo then switched the play left to Lacey, who flashed the ball past Hardy, the English keeper, before he could react.

England’s forwards then assailed the Irish goal, with Martin, Shea and Leatheron shooting at McKee. But Ireland defended well, with O’Connell marking Elliot and smothering the play of the English star and, in the 36th minute, Thomson crossed into the England area. Pennington went for the ball but missed it, giving Ireland’s Gillespie the chance to put a low, hard strike past Hardy. At half time it was 2–0 to Ireland.

In the second half, Ireland kept up the pressure. They were much quicker on the ball, and more resourceful in attack. Despite this pattern, England got within scoring distance more than once, McKee saving each time. Elliot struck one dangerous half-volley for England, which McKee kept out, pushing the ball over the bar.

Deep into the second half, Ireland got their third goal. Gillespie, Lacey and Thomson started the move that led up to it. First, Lacey got past England’s Pennington and his fellow defenders, getting into the box, close to goal, and beating Hardy again. England tried in vain to reduce the deficit, but at the whistle, Ireland had beaten England 3–0. On their own ground. In front of 30,000 fans. Nothing to it! Now, only Scotland stood in their way.

On the fourteenth day of March, 1914, when Ireland and Scotland faced each other, they stood ankle-deep in mud in front of 26,000 fans at Belfast’s Windsor Park. It was a dreadful day; the rain was torrential and the first half ended 0–0.

Then, early in the second period, Ireland’s great goalie McKee injured his collarbone in a clash with Donaldson and had to go off injured. With no subs allowed back then, Ireland were down to 10 men, and when Scotland took the lead in the 69th minute with a goal by Donnachie, Ireland were in trouble. The match, and the championship, seemed to be slipping away.

Then, with eight minutes left, Ireland attacked. Their forwards broke away at speed, the ball was played right and crossed into the centre where the Scottish defender cleared it, only for Young of Ireland to pick it up on the inside left channel and drive towards goal, finishing with a perfect diagonal shot past the Scottish keeper. The equaliser! The draw that wins!

When the ball hit the back of the net, the huge crowd “gave full vent to their pent-up feelings” with a “wild frenzied outburst” which was “renewed again and again” as the seconds ticked away towards the end.

At last, Ireland had won the championship. It remains the only major football tournament a team from Ireland has won. It’s nice to have one for the scrapbook.

By Gavan Bergin