Irish football has thrown up many fascinating and little-told stories over the years, some of which I’ve written about here on the site. Interesting narratives can only bring the League of Ireland so much attention though, and the size of the country and the perpetually parlous financial state of the game here has meant that glamour, big names, star quality and continent-wide appeal have always been rather thin on the ground.
Which is not to say that the game’s stellar names haven’t ever come close to gracing the pitches throughout our land. Firstly there are the numerous young prodigies who learnt their trade here before going onto bigger things overseas, then if you head back in time to the 1970s, you can find world-class names who would regularly turn out for clubs from Shamrock Rovers to Shelbourne and from Cork to Cobh. In the interests of full disclosure, these were big-name stars usually very much in the twilight of their careers and few lasted for more than a few games, but the star-appeal-by association did capture the imagination of Ireland’s footballing public to make it a memorable decade for the game here.
Craig from BTLM suggested I take a deep-dive into the past to create a League Of Ireland Eleven. This team features a mix of home-grown and foreign stars who all played in our domestic League and all travelled to World Cup tournaments to represent their respective nations.
Goalkeeper: Gordon Banks (England & St. Patrick’s Athletic)
Banks guested for the Inchicore club in a game against Shamrock Rovers in 1977. Over the course of a 20-year professional career he played for Leicester and Stoke City and earned 73 caps for the England national team, the highlight winning the 1966 World Cup. His professional career came to an end in 1972 when he lost the sight in his right eye after a car accident. In 1977 he came out of retirement to play for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and turned out for St. Patrick’s Athletic too. His appearance at Richmond Park led to gate receipts of over £2,000 with the Irish Press journalist Con Houlihan recording:
‘Inchicore was in carnival mode for the big occasion. The stadium was packed long before tip-off time. A multitude of small boys and girls kept chanting; ‘Gordon Banks, Gordon Banks, Gordon Banks, Gordon Banks.’
He wasn’t seriously examined until about five minutes from the end as Shamrock Rovers desperately sought an equaliser. A rising shot from twenty yards seemed certain to fly into his top right-hand corner, but Gordon made a great leap and turned it away. It was just what the crowd needed to give him a rapturous ovation at the end of what was to be one of his final ever appearances.
Right-back: Alex Parker (Scotland & Drumcondra)
Of all the positions in this League of Ireland XI, the right-back spot proved to be the most difficult to fill. Our final choice is a player who made both the Falkirk Team of the Millennium and the Everton Hall of Fame: Alex Parker. From 1952 to 1958, Parker played 121 games for Falkirk and was part of the side which won the Scottish League Cup in 1957. He subsequently joined Everton and won a First Division Championship in 1963. From 1955 to 1958, Parker made 15 appearances for the Scottish national team and was selected for the 1958 World Cup. He made his only appearance in the tournament against Paraguay and this was his final international, a rather strange situation as Parker was considered by many to be the best right-back in Britain in the years that followed.
A three-year spell at Southport was followed by a player-manager position at Irish League side Ballymena United from 1968 to 1969. In December 1969 he signed for Drumcondra as the club which had won five League of Ireland titles went into decline. Parker’s three-month spell with the Drums was during a season in which the club finished 14th. Two years later they would no longer be playing in the league at all.
Centre-back: Ian Callaghan (England & Cork United)
Ian Callaghan represented Liverpool 857 times and sored 49 goals. The Toxteth born midfielder made his debut in 1960 under Bill Shankly and left Anfield in 1978 with the club under the stewardship of Bob Paisley; through his career you can trace Liverpool’s rise from the second tier of English football to European champions. Rather remarkably for a player from the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was only ever booked once, a yellow card during the 1978 League Cup Final replay against Nottingham Forest. During his nineteen seasons with the club he won five First Division titles, two FA Cups, two UEFA Cups and two European Cups; yet he did not receive similar international honours, winning just four caps for England between 1966 and 1977. He was a part of the England squad that took part in the 1966 FIFA World Cup however.
Moreover time waits for no man, and with figures such as Graeme Souness vying for midfield starting positions, Callaghan joined Swansea City, then in the Third Division. Promotion to the Second Division followed in 1980. Before arriving in Wales’ second city, Callaghan had a spell with Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the North American Soccer League and while with the Swans he had a loan move to Canberra City in the Australian National Soccer League.
On the 18th January 1981, Ian Callaghan made his Cork United debut at the age of 39. The game ended in a 3-1 defeat to Home Farm at Tolka Park in front of 9,000 spectators. His stay with United was brief as he left to take up a coaching position in Norway.
Centre-back: Paul McGrath (Republic of Ireland & St. Patrick’s Athletic)
Paul McGrath’s soccer career began with schoolboy team Pearse Rovers while playing junior football with Dalkey United. Though he suffered a fractured skull in 1979 in West Germany after a clash of heads with an opponent, this major injury did not shake his confidence to play the sport. Thanks to the efforts of Tommy Cullen and Johnny Dunne of Dalkey we saw McGrath go on to grace two FIFA World Cups.
He had already come to the attention of Manchester United scout Billy Behan when he joined St. Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland for the 1981/82 season. His versatility was demonstrated from an early age as he was signed initially as a centre-forward. However, it appeared that his work as a night-time security guard would hamper his preparations as a footballer. Charlie Walker, the Pat’s manager who signed McGrath said “He’ll be the best midfielder in the country once he gets fit. I can’t see him staying more than a season with Pat’s before he’s snapped up by a cross-channel club”.
His debut came against Dublin rivals Shamrock Rovers at Richmond Park in August and he went on to quickly earned the nickname of the ‘Black Pearl of Inchicore’. With his thirty-one appearances and four goals scored he was named PFAI Player of the Year Award.
By 1982 he was at Manchester United on the recommendation of Billy Behan who had sent more than twenty players to Manchester from Ireland beginning with Jackie Carey and including John Giles and Liam Whelan. Under Ron Atkinson, McGrath won an FA Cup in 1985 in a game in which fellow Irishman Kevin Moran became the first player ever to be sent off in the Wembley showpiece. A 1-0 victory over Everton saw McGrath receive the ‘Man of the Match award’. A move to Aston Villa in the 1990s proved fruitful, winning two league cups and being named the PFA Players Player of the Year in 1993. He is the only man to have won both PFA awards in Ireland and England.
His eighty-three caps for the Republic of Ireland came during the golden years of the Charlton era. McGrath was a part of the first Irish team to reach a European Championships in 1988, a first FIFA World Cup with Italia ’90 and then also USA ’94. The latter tournament saw a performance for the ages against Italy, who the Republic defeated in one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Not bad for a player who even by his own admission would admit his knees were no longer up to the task. Finally, he ended his career following a brief spell with Sheffield United.
Left-back: Ed McIlvenny (USA & Waterford FC)
Ed McIlvenny was a Scottish wing-half who is selected at left-back in our League of Ireland FIFA World Cup team. The Greenock born player began his professional career at Morton, then played for Wrexham before moving to the United States to take up an industrial job. He joined the Philadelphia National in 1948 and won a league title there in 1949 as well as being named the league’s best player.
This led to a call-up to the US National side for the 1950 FIFA World Cup where he was given the honour of captaining the team against England ‘because he was British’. McIlvenny’s throw-in started the move that led to Joe Gaetjens winning goal in what was the biggest shock in World Cup history to date.
After the World Cup he joined Manchester United where he was dubbed ‘The Yank from the Tail of the Bank’ but made only two appearances for the Old Trafford side. Upon the recommendation of Johnny Carey, McIlvenny signed for Waterford in the League of Ireland. In his first campaign with the club he won the FAI Shield and over his four-year spell in the south-east, McIlvenny helped the Blues finish second in the table once in the 1954/55 season. Such was his performances in Kilcohan that he was selected for the League of Ireland XI on several occasions. He wouldn’t be the last former Red Devil to play by the Suir either.
Right-wing: Jimmy Johnstone (Scotland & Shelbourne)
‘Jinky’ Johnstone was voted the best ever Glasgow Celtic player by the club’s fans in a 2002 poll. In the 13 years he spent with the Bhoys, he made 515 appearances and scored 129 goals. His trophy haul included 9 Scottish First Division titles, 4 Scottish Cups, 5 League Cups and the European Cup in 1967. The same year as that legendary Lisbon Lion victory, Johnstone was named 3rd in the voting for the Ballon d’Or.
His international career was not as fruitful with his appearances for the national team proving rather sporadic. He earned 23 caps for Scotland and was a member of the squad which travelled to West Germany for the 1974 World Cup. A drinking session prior to Scotland playing England in the Home Championships in the weeks before the tournament saw Johnstone needing to be rescued by the Ayrshire Coastguard after being stranded at sea. This caused much controversy but Johnstone still turned in a great performance as Scotland won two-nil. He didn’t feature in any of Scotland’s three games in West Germany though.
After leaving Celtic in 1975 he had spells with San Jose Earthquakes, Sheffield United and Dundee before joining Tolka Park outfit Shelbourne in 1977. Tommy Rowe was able to bring Johnstone to Shels for four months and the then 33-year-old made his debut in a 2-1 defeat to Bohemians. The highlight of his time with the club was scoring the winning goal against Shamrock Rovers in a League Cup tie. He had made nine appearances in the league by the time he left the club in March 1978.
Midfield: Roy Keane (Republic of Ireland & Cobh Ramblers)
Roy Maurice Keane, born in Cork on 10th August 1971, was a sporting prodigy from Ballinderry Park in Mayfield. A spell spent boxing was overtaken by his burgeoning soccer ability with local junior club, Rockmount AFC. His footballing fanaticism was reserved for Glasgow Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur with players such as Glenn Hoddle, Ireland’s Liam Brady and later Bryan Robson of Manchester United being admired by Keane.
Cobh’s first-team manager Liam McMahon gave Keane his League of Ireland First Division debut on the 5th November 1989 in a 2-1 victory over Bray Wanderers. Keane came on as a replacement for Ramblers winger, Fergus McDaid. Yet, McMahon wasn’t so sure about the abilities of the young man. In an article in the Sunday Independent in 1998, McMahon states “It seems I’m the only idiot in Cobh who couldn’t spot the future potential…Everyone in Cobh knew he was a million-pound player, but I, honest to God didn’t spot it.”
Subsequently, Keane participated in the Irish Youth squad which reached the finals of the European Championship in 1990. The Portuguese finished runners-up to the Soviet Union, while the Republic of Ireland achieved a respectable fifth spot. Keane came onto the radar of Nottingham Forest after a FAI Youth Cup match with Belvedere and a fee of around £20,000 pounds was negotiated between the clubs. After just 14 months and 70 games with Cobh Ramblers, Keane became one of the youngest professional footballers in the English First Division.
His Forest debut came at Anfield after a tour with the club’s third team. Clough believed the remarkable progression of Keane had ‘been a fairy tale for us [Forest]. Even Enid Blyton couldn’t have written a better script.’ Keane hadn’t even met the club’s first-team squad prior to the game as they had separate dressing rooms at the club. His performance in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against West Ham United not only saw him receive the Man of the Match award but also passage to the final. Sadly, it was a heart-breaking defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, the club he supported as a boy,.
In three seasons in Nottingham, Keane made 154 appearances and won the Full Members Cup in 1992. Upon the relegation of Clough’s team in 1993, he agreed a £4 million pound move to Blackburn Rovers under Kenny Dalglish but Rovers did not complete the paperwork necessary for the transfer to go through. This would lead to Alex Ferguson contacting Keane and seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups and one Champions League later, the rest they say is history.
Midfield: Terry McDermott (England & Cork City)
Cork City’s arrival to the League of Ireland sees not only the return of a club from the city after a two-year absence but also the start of the longest continuous entity in the soccer annals of Cork. After being elected to the league in July 1984 (along with Longford Town), Bobby Tambling, former Chelsea and England international, would be appointed manager for the club playing at Flower Lodge. Of course, Tambling was familiar with his surroundings after managing Cork Celtic from 1974-1977 and playing a pivotal role in that club’s league title success in 1974.
Tambling’s time as City boss was brief and after thirteen games he was replaced by Tony ‘Tucker’ Allen. Such a change was an illustration of the difficulties City endured in their maiden season. Though Cork won ten games, they finished ninth and only narrowly avoided relegation. Seven of those wins came in the second half of the season with the timely arrival of three-time European Cup winner Terry McDermott from Newcastle United and his contribution was instrumental in City’s successful battle against relegation.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t apparent that McDermott’s arrival would be a success or even happen at all back in February 1985. The Irish Press notes on the 13th February that McDermott was to arrive in Cork for ten days to play three matches, the only possible hurdle being his pregnant wife who was due to give birth on the 24th of the month. An early delivery would have spelt an end to the transfer and further dented the Rebel Army’s fight for survival in the top division. City manager Allen acknowledged McDermott’s footballing virtues but also commented that “having Terry around for our training sessions would help immensely”.
The Cork football public would not have to wait long to see the qualities of the six-time English First Division winner on display at Flower Lodge. McDermott’s winning goal against Longford Town was deemed to be the highlight of the match. The goal itself was a header from a Liam Keane cross on the seventy-eighth minute and it garnered two important points for the Leesiders. Furthermore, the Irish Independent described the former England international’s goal as recalling “memories of his great days with Liverpool with a well-timed run and header”. Though Cork City were more than deserving of their victory on that occasion, the course of the remainder of the season would not always run as smoothly.
In a subsequent display against Limerick, McDermott showcased “many of the touches that made him one of the games outstanding performers in his Liverpool days”; however it was not enough as City lost by three goals to one. His final game would come at the end of the month against Drogheda United at Flower Lodge before departing both Cork and the League of Ireland. In total McDermott played eight games for City and scored three goals. It was initially reported that the former Newcastle United and Liverpool stalwart had taken up a “lucrative offer” from an unspecified Swedish First Division club. Additionally, Allen recognised that McDermott had to weigh up the offers in front of him as City were keen to extend his time in Ireland but would not stand in the way of the players future decisions.
McDermott eventually joined APOEL Nicosia where he won a Cypriot league championship before retiring from professional football in 1987. He subsequently worked as an assistant manager at Newcastle United, Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City and currently Blackpool.
Left-wing: Bobby Charlton (England & Waterford FC)
Charlton’s time in the League of Ireland may have been brief but it left a lasting impression for fans of the Irish game. While for some of us, his Waterford career represents a fun pub trivia question, for others it was much more meaningful. For those who saw the great man in the flesh, his short time with the club was simply magical and will last long in the memory.
Conor Patrick Heffernan, These Football Times, 8th January 2015
Bobby Charlton played 606 games for Manchester United and earned 106 international caps for England. His honours included the FIFA World Cup in 1966, a European Cup in 1968 as well as a handful of other league and cup successes. Charlton joined Preston North End in 1974 as player-manager but his first season in charge saw the Lancashire club relegated to the third tier of English football. His relationship with the board of the club soured over a proposed transfer of a player to Newcastle United. This led him to departing the club and joining Waterford FC in the League of Ireland in 1976.
His signing for the Kilcohan club was announced after a 2-1 defeat to Limerick on the 11th January 1976. The chairman of Waterford, Joseph Delaney, outlined that the duration of Charlton’s stay at the club depended on the support of fans through increased gate receipts and on other clubs sharing part of their takings with the Blues coming to their grounds. The former Ballon d’Or winner’s debut for the south-east club came against St. Patrick’s Athletic on the 18th January and saw gate income nearly double at Kilcohan. He was pivotal in the centre of midfield in his side’s 3-1 victory.
This was followed by another 3-1 victory against Finn Harps with 6,000 supporters in attendance. The former Manchester United man scored his first and only goal for the club and was deemed to be the fittest player on the pitch. The failure of Waterford to agree to some share of gate receipts when travelling for away games led to difficulties in compensating Charlton. He played two more games for the club, both defeats away from home at Bohemians of Dublin in the league and Finn Harps in the cup.
He returned to England and had a brief spell with Wigan Athletic as a director and caretaker manager and subsequently joined the board of former club Manchester United.
Centre-forward: Uwe Seeler (West Germany & Cork Celtic) & Geoff Hurst (England & Cork Celtic)
Cork Celtic FC was the result of a name change from Evergreen United in 1959. Success would follow with a League of Ireland Shield in 1961 while finishing runners-up in the league in 1960 and the FAI Cup in 1964. Their maiden (and only) league title was accomplished in 1974 thanks in large part to the roles of former Aston Villa and Waterford United’s Alfie Hale and England international Bobby Tambling.
Tambling’s story would not finish with that league success. Cork Celtic reached the second round of the European Cup in 1974/75 season and he was in charge of the club from 1974 to 1977. Though little in the way of silverware was garnered by Cork Celtic during the latter half of the decade, big names from the wider footballing world were more abundant. The 1975/76 season saw the club run into financial difficulties and in an attempt to alleviate this, George Best, the recipient of the Ballon d’Or in 1968, was signed for a brief spell (initially one game) in December 1975. Even with huge crowds attracted (12,000 attended his first game at Flower Lodge against Drogheda) to witness the former Manchester United star in action, many were unimpressed by his waning powers and he left for the Los Angeles Aztecs in the United States after three games. Yet while he delivered little on the field, undoubtedly his star power staved off the financial perils and maintained the existence of the club for a time.
January 1976 would see England’s 1966 World Cup-winning hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst arrive on Leeside. In his three matches for Celtic, Hurst would net three goals before joining Best in the North American Soccer League (NASL) with Seattle Sounders where he would finish his playing career. In the 1977/78 season, another renowned name would grace the playing surface at Cork Celtic: Uwe Seeler, the former West German international (and an opponent of Hurst in the 1966 FIFA World Cup final) who had been retired from professional football for nearly six years lined up for Celtic against Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland (after originally agreeing to play the game with the view of it being a charity fixture). He scored twice in a 6-2 defeat.