Gavan Bergin

“Bud will always be remembered as one of the greats”
(The Limerick Leader)

On September 21st 1949, in front of a 50,000 crowd at Goodison Park, Liverpool, England played the Republic of Ireland at home for the first time. England had won the only other match between the two sides, in Dublin in 1946, and since then they had lost only one match at home. So, when the Republic of Ireland team walked out onto the windswept Goodison Park pitch in September ‘49, they were very much the underdogs.
And as soon as the match started Ireland was in deep trouble. From the kick-off England played the ball to their star forward, Tom Finney, who broke down the left wing then played a perfect cross into the Irish box for his centre-forward, Jessie Pye, who should have scored but headed just wide of the post. That near miss came twenty seconds into the game and, having taken the initiative early on, England weren’t about to ease off. They attacked relentlessly during the opening stages of the match and looked sure to score, but Ireland played with great determination and skill. The Irish Press described how wave after wave of English attack spent itself on the rock-like Irish defence and thrill followed thrill as each attack was beaten off by a set of defenders who played with perfect understanding, each doing his work in masterly fashion. Bud Aherne foiled England’s outside-right, John Morris, who was about to get a clear run on the Irish goal, then thrillingly took the ball off Pye’s foot when the English forward had the goal at his mercy. Bud also launched the first Irish attack of the match with a smart clearance to Peter Desmond, who played Davy Walsh in for a run and shot on goal that the England keeper saved.
Apart from that one Irish breakout, England were completely in charge for the first half hour of the game. Then in the 32nd minute, after another English shot had been saved by goalkeeper Tommy Godwin, Ireland counter-attacked. Bud collected the ball from Godwin, advanced a few yards then passed it up the left wing to Tommy O’Connor who took it and sprinted forward before playing a perfect through ball for Peter Desmond to take in his stride as he sped into the England box. But, just as Desmond went to take the shot, he was taken down by the England right-back, Bert Mozely. The referee immediately pointed to the spot. Penalty kick!
Ireland’s regular penalty taker, Con Martin, stepped up to take the kick and lashed his left-foot shot with such power that even though the goalie got both hands to the ball, he couldn’t stop it spinning past him and into the net. 1-0 to Ireland! After scoring that goal in the 33rd minute Ireland didn’t sit back on their lead. For the rest of the first half they attacked, menacing England and giving them no time or space to counter. At half-time, it was 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland.
That scoreline was a big shock for England, who had never lost at home to a non-British team and been ‘unbackable favourites’ before the match, according to the Liverpool Echo. They had 45 minutes to save that record.
And when the second half started England came flying out of the blocks in search of their equalising goal. Twice in the first few minutes they came within inches of scoring, Wright with a rocket of a shot from 35 yards, and Harris with a header from point blank range, but both attempts were saved by Godwin. Thereafter, England’s attacking onslaught was relentless and it looked like just a matter of time before they scored. But, again, Bud and the Irish defence were brilliant. They held firm and expertly dealt with danger, frustrating the English team and their supporters, as the Irish Times reported:
With England failing to get past the heroic Irish defence, as the second half went on the crowd’s earlier sympathetic cheers for Ireland turned into cries for an English equaliser. They chanted “we want a goal”, but it was not to be. The Irish defenders scraped the ball away, kicked into touch and played magnificently. Bud Aherne was brilliant, timing his tackling to perfection and kicking crisply. Twice he prevented Pye from scoring: first, by charging down his shot from the edge of the box, then coming across to whip the ball off his foot inside the area, just as he was about to shoot.”
Thanks to such grand defensive plays by Bud and the others, in the 80th minute Ireland were still ahead. A famous, glorious victory was in their grasp: all they had to do was hold out for ten measly minutes. Still, it only takes a second to kick the ball into the net and, with England desperately throwing everyone forward in a frantic attempt to save the game, each of those ten minutes must have felt like an eternity to the Irish players. Nevertheless, they got through four of them unscathed. Ireland got to the 84th minute with their lead intact. Six more minutes to go.
A mere six minutes, that was all Ireland had to get through. And there was no earthly reason that they wouldn’t defend as well in those six minutes as they had been doing all game long.
Then, in the 85th minute, England burst forward yet again, a dangerous one that came close to breaking through, but the Irish defence broke up the attack then quickly played the ball forward to O’Connor who went haring up the left wing, leaving the English defence in tatters, then passed inside to Peter Farrell, who danced past his marker, ran in and chipped the ball over goalie Williams and into the net for Ireland’s second goal. Ireland 2, England 0!
That two goal lead put Ireland in control for the first time and they calmly played out the last few minutes. The Republic of Ireland had beaten England!
After getting that super win, Ireland had every reason to be confident going into their next match, the World Cup qualifier against Finland in Helsinki on October 9th 1949. On that day, Bud followed his top class show at Goodison with another tenacious, skilful performance for Ireland as they battled to a 1-1 draw. That result put them on top of their qualifying group, a point ahead of Sweden who they had to play in the final qualifier in Dublin on November 13th 1949.
So, if Ireland avoided defeat in that game, they would qualify for the World Cup for the first time. As they were at home, and had been doing so well, a draw shouldn’t have been too much to ask. But they couldn’t manage it. Ireland lost the match by three goals to one and Sweden qualified for the World Cup finals in Brazil the following year.
Although Ireland missed out on the World Cup that year, they had taken it to the last match and finished just one behind the first placed team. It was a long time before the Republic of Ireland got that close to qualification again.
At the end of that World Cup campaign Bud was 30, but he continued to be a first choice player for the Republic of Ireland team. He played in every international match they played during the next three years. Ireland’s match against France in Dublin, November 16th 1952, was Bud’s thirteenth consecutive international appearance. But he was 34 by then and his career was coming to an end.
He had been a fine player during his seven years of international football. He had helped Ireland have some great days and great games in an era where they weren’t at all common. And if nothing else, he would always be remembered as one of the eternal heroes of ‘49.
Bud played his last international match, for the Republic of Ireland against France in Dublin on October 4th 1953.
He kept on playing for Luton until 1957, then he coached the Luton youth team for a few years before finishing with professional football.
Bud had a long and happy retirement from football. When he died in 1999, there were many tributes and obituaries written in England and Ireland – but fittingly the best of them came from the man’s hometown, in the Limerick Leader:
“Budda” Aherne was Limerick’s greatest soccer player. He will remain a hero for all time”