JOE BAMBRICK The record-breaking scorer

The man himself early in his career.

Gavan Bergin

Joe Bambrick was born on November 3rd 1905 in the Grosvenor Road area of Belfast. As a boy Joe was exceptionally good at football, and he grew up into one of the best players in Belfast youth football.At the age of twenty, Joe was working full-time while playing junior football for Ulster Rangers, when his talent was spotted by the Irish League club Glentoran, who signed him in May 1926. Joe was excellent for Glentoran from the start of his first season with them. On September 25th 1926, he scored six goals in a match against Larne, and he continued to do brilliantly well thereafter. He kept playing great football and scored numerous goals and by the end of the 1926/27 season he had scored 44 goals in 37 games for Glentoran. That turned out to be his only season with them, because he moved to Linfield FC in the summer of 1927.The 1927/28 season was an excellent one for Joe, who somehow managed to improve on his stunning record from the year before.All season long he tormented defenders who had the thank-less job of trying to stop him getting forward, and by the end of the season he had scored 81 goals.That certainly was an excel-lent scoring record, and it was just the beginning of a long spell of super scoring achievements by Joe, who went on to become the dominant striker in the Irish League. In his second season, he scored 78 goals as Linfield finished second in the League. Then came the 1929/1930 season, and Joe outdid himself again. He scored 96 goals! That was an astonishing record-breaking tally, and it wrote his name into the history of football forever. No one scored as many goals that sea-son: Joe Bambrick was the top goalscorer in the world. As well bringing him individual glory Joe’s goals also contributed to considerable team success that season. His fifty goals in the Irish League were crucial to Linfield winning that competition by a mere six points.Then, in the 1930 Irish Cup Final, Joe literally made all the difference for Linfield when he scored four goals in the 4-3 victory over Ballymena that won them the Cup. Over the next five seasons, Joe remained a prolific goal-scorer and Linfield continued winning trophies. Between 1930 and 1935, along with the Irish Cup, they won the Irish League and the County Antrim Shields three times each, while Joe scored a total of 276 goals, including 119 in 107 League matches.During that period, Joe was undoubtedly the best striker in the Irish game, but he wasn’t satisfied with that. He wanted to test himself at a higher level by playing in England. Midway through the 1934/35 season he left Linfield and signed for Chelsea FC. On December 25th 1934, Joe made his debut for Chelsea, against Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge. The very next day, in his second appearance for Chelsea, away to Villa, Joe scored his first goal in English football. And he kept up the good work thereafter, showing him-self well able to thrive against the best defenders in England. By the end of his first season, he had scored 16 goals in 21 league matches for Chelsea. Joe continued to do the business for the next few seasons with Chelsea, scoring 38 goals in 66 games for them, before he left the club at the end of the 1937/38 season. By that time, Joe was in his thirties and, while nearing the end of his time as a top-class striker, he had a plenty of life in him yet. In 1938, he moved to the Division Three club Walsall FC, and scored 20 goals for them in 1938/39, his last season as a professional. Afterwards, Joe moved home to Belfast. He played one final season for Linfield in 1939/40, scoring 20 goals in 35 games. That was the end of his career as a player. As well as being a top-class goalscorer at club level, Joe was also a brilliant striker in international football. He scored in his first game for Ireland, against England at Liverpool on October 22nd 1928, then got another two goals in his third match, against Scot-land in February 1929. Although Joe didn’t score in Ireland’s next match, his strike rate of three goals in four inter-national games was certainly enough to make him Ireland’s first choice striker. But, as impressive as he had been, and as well as he had played in his first four international matches, there was nothing that could compare to what came afterwards. Nothing he did before it, and nothing he did after it – in fact nothing that any other Irish footballer ever did before or since – com-pared to what Joe was to do in his fifth international game. That game was Ireland v Wales, at Windsor Park in Belfast on February 1st 1930. It was Ireland’s first match of that year’s British Champion-ship tournament, a competition that Ireland had won just once in their history.But any nerves or doubts the Irish players might have had before the game were banished in the third minute, when Joe made a lovely feint to lose his marker and get into space on the edge of the penalty area, where he took a through pass from midfield in his stride and, in the same move, struck a hard, low snap shot past the diving Welsh keeper and into the bottom corner of the net. 1-0 to Ireland! After Joe’s goal, although Wales occasionally threatened on the counter attack, Ireland were comfortable and held their one goal lead up to the midway point of the first half, when Joe made a lightning quick dart up the left, into the penalty box with a run and leap in perfect time to meet an incoming right wing cross with a thumping header that sent the ball straight high into the goal. Two to Joe, and two to Ireland!Not even halfway through the match and Ireland were two up against a team they hadn’t beaten since 1926. Yet the victory was a long way from being a sure thing, as the Welsh were still causing problems and if they managed to get a score the situation would suddenly be a lot less rosy; surely nerves would become an is-sue for the Irish players. The match undoubtedly remained in the balance, as the the end of the first half approached.The forty-fourth minute of the game arrived with everyone in Windsor Park anxiously looking at the referee, as he checked his watch in readiness to end the first half. The last minute began ticking away until there were less than thirty seconds remaining, when Ireland heaved for-ward again with a fine move of quick-passing, and played the ball into the box for Joe, who smashed it into the roof of the net for goal number three, the hat-trick! Then the ref whistled for half-time, with Ireland three nil up and looking good for the win. The second half began in the same way the first had end-ed: two minutes in, Joe sped through onto another through pass from midfield and shot in goal number four. Four to Joe, four to Ireland!Then, when Ireland broke forward again and the Welsh defence pushed up in attempting to play the Irish attackers offside, Joe timed his run perfectly to beat the trap and take the ball one on one with the goalkeeper, beat him and shoot softly into the empty net for his fifth goal. Joe and Ireland, five-nil! At that stage it was clear that something special was happening for the Irish super striker and his team. In the 55th minute Joe showed that he could pass as well as shoot, by playing an incisive pass that put his partner in the forward line, McCambridge, clear on goal.For once, a Welsh defender managed to get near an Irish forward, only to commit a foul. Instantly, the referee blew for a penalty kick, which McCluggage, Ireland’s regular penalty taker, scored with no fuss to make the score 6-0. Having scored five and made another, Joe had certainly done his bit for the team that day, but he wasn’t quite finished. When there were only a couple of minutes of the ninety remaining, and with that unassailable six goal lead for Ireland, he could have taken it easy.Instead, he showed the same energy he had throughout, and as the match entered the last minute he made another bomb up the pitch and advanced on the ragged Wales defenders once again, closed them down, robbed the ball, then dashed forward and smashed another ace of a shot in past the despairing keeper. With that, he had his sixth goal. And from the moment it went in, Joe became an immortal of the game. No one before or since has scored as many goals in an international match, and the 7-0 win is the biggest Ire-land has ever had.Unsurprisingly, that match was Joe’s greatest in his ten years of playing for Ireland. He played another match for his country against Wales in December 1931, and scored in that game too. He finished with an amazing record of 12 goals in 11 international matches, and no other player scored more for Ireland in those days before there were two Irish national teams.In the archive there are many reports about Joe. They describe his appearance and style as a footballer, the games he played in and the goals he scored.According to the book ‘Who’s Who in Chelsea?’, “Bambrick was of average build, 5’11” and 11 stone in his prime, but he was strong and hard to knock off the ball. Quick and smart in possession, he could shoot with both feet and score from any position. And, although he had to work hard and long to be able to compete earnestly in League football with Chelsea, he still averaged more than a goal every two games.” The Belfast News Letter, in a 1928 profile of Joe, heralded his knack for scoring spectacular goals with “rasping shots and old time piledrivers from long distance.” In 1930, the Northern Whig focused on his excellence when playing in a deeper forward position, “creating goals for his teammates with clever movement and incisive passing, and proving his ability as a schemer.” But Joe wasn’t known for his strength, style, or skill as a player. He was famous for the amount of goals he scored. And the first and last things to be found in the archive about him are the statistics: their unadorned, inarguable truth dominates the story of Joe. And it’s no wonder.In his senior football career, he scored 646 goals in 321 matches. Those amazing numbers earned Joe a place as one of the twenty best goalscorers of all time. So there he is, in that list with all the other great strikers in history, from everywhere all around the world, along with the legendary goalscoring Brazilians and Germans, Argentinians and Englishmen, there is Joe the Irishman – in football immortality.