Gavan Bergin

“Bud Aherne was a sportsman to his fingertips”
(The Limerick Post)

Bud Aherne made his international debut for the Republic of Ireland against Portugal in Lisbon on June 16th 1946. Although the Republic lost that match 3-1, Bud did well against the skillful Portuguese attack, and he was selected to play in Ireland’s next match of their Iberian tour, which was against Spain in Madrid on June 23rd 1946. Spain were a formidable team and hadn’t lost a home game since 1936. They were clear favourites to beat Ireland, who hadn’t won an away game since 1937.
When the match kicked off Spain certainly played like winners. From the first minute they went on the offensive and didn’t let up, attacking constantly during the early stages of the game. But they couldn’t get the breakthrough, thanks to what the Irish Times called “magnificent defending by Bud Aherne.” As the first half went on, the Irish team grew in confidence and started mounting some attacks of their own. And, towards the end of the half, they broke forward and the ball was played in to ‘the Wandering Gypsy’, Josiah Sloan who scored with a neat strike to put Ireland 1-0 up in the 37th minute. Spain roared back into the match and they came mighty close to grabbing an equaliser before half-time.
When the second half began, the game followed the pattern of the first, with the home team attacking and the away team defending- but now Ireland had a lead and they fought like demons to protect it. Throughout the second half, Spain poured forward, battering the Ireland backline in search of goals, but they couldn’t break it down
At the final whistle the score was 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland, and the Evening Herald reported that “in resisting Spain’s heavy pressure, especially after the interval, the Irish players showed wonderful pluck, with Bud Aherne outstanding in defence.” With such good performances in his first two matches for the Republic, Bud had proved himself as an international player.
In those days, Irish footballers were eligible to play for both Ireland international teams, and in November 1946 Bud was selected by Northern Ireland for the first time. He went on to win four caps for the North and played his part in some of their best results of that time. On October 4th 1947, Bud’s peerless defending helped Northern Ireland to a 2-0 victory in their British Championship match against Scotland. That win meant that Ireland finished second in the 1947 Championship, which was their best showing in the tournament since 1928. Then, in a World Cup qualifying match against Wales on March 8th1950, Bud put on another superb defensive performance for Northern Ireland as they battled to a 0-0 draw, which earned them their only point in the 1950 World Cup qualifiers. That was the last time Bud played for Northern Ireland because soon afterwards FIFA changed the selection rules, in part due to the fact that four members of the Northern Ireland team that played in the qualifying match against Wales had already played in the 1950 World Cup qualifiers for the Republic of Ireland.
Bud played in three of the Republic’s qualifying matches for the 1950 World Cup, starting with the game against Finland in Dublin on September 8th 1949. He had a super match that day: he was flawless in defence and dashing in attack, anticipating and dealing with danger when his side were on the back foot, then getting forward to join the attack when Ireland took the game to the Finns. It was Bud’s defensive skills that were called on in the early stages of the game, as the visitors took advantage of a slow start by Ireland and tried to catch them out. But they didn’t succeed, and midway through the first half Ireland took charge and began to dominate the play, forcing several goal scoring chances before Johnny Gavin made the breakthrough by scoring in the 37th minute. Ireland didn’t sit back after that goal, instead they stayed on the attack and seven minutes after going ahead they were awarded a penalty kick, which Con Martin scored in the 44th minute to give Ireland a 2-0 lead at half time.
When the second half kicked off, there was new life in the Finland team and in the first ten or so minutes they did all they could to force their way back into the game. They attacked furiously and once or twice in the first twenty minutes threatened to get clear on the Irish goal but they got no joy at all thanks to Bud’s expertise in the back line.
After their shaky start to the half, Ireland settled down and regained control of the game. In the 68th minute Con Martin scored his second goal to make it 3-0. At that point the win for Ireland seemed certain, but there was life in the Finnish attack, and more defensive work for Bud to do. He did it well, just as he had done all game long, and when the final whistle sounded the Republic of Ireland were still ahead 3-0. They had won a World Cup qualifying match for the first time. Bud’s part in that victory was recognised by the Irish Times. They said: “One could not ask for a better full-back than the magnificent Bud Aherne who very nearly scored from a free kick in the first half and played so soundly in defence that the Irish goalkeeper was hardly called upon to make a save. In light of that performance, Aherne must now be an automatic choice at left-back for Ireland.”
And Bud did become a first-choice player for the Republic of Ireland. He kept his place in the team for their next fixture, which was a ‘friendly international match’ that had no bearing on World Cup qualification. With no qualifying points at stake, this friendly could have turned out to be a match nobody cared about, a casual kickabout with little effort put in by the players on either side. They might have decided to take it easy in an attempt to avoid injury before the next round of World Cup qualifiers a few weeks later. Naturally they may have wanted to hold back from giving their all, just for the sake of some meaningless friendly game. But it didn’t end up that way – because this was one game that never could be ‘friendly’. This game was against England!
(Stayed tuned for the exciting concluding part of the Bud Aherne story in the Christmas issue of NewsFour.)