FAI History: The Early Years

FAI History: The Early Years

Although football was being played in Ireland since the 1860s, it was mainly based in Ulster and it was not until the 1880s that the game spread to other areas of the country.
5th Jun 2009


 Chapter One - The foundation of the FAI


 Organised football on the island of Ireland was originally administered from Belfast and was largely confined to Ulster in the early years.


Clubs in the Belfast area came together to form the Irish Football Association in 1880 and it operated as the organising body for football across all of Ireland for forty one years.


Three years had elapsed before the first club outside of Ulster affiliated, the Dublin Association Football Club which was formed in 1883. The development of the game outside of Ulster was accelerated when the Leinster Football Association was formed in 1892.


The clubs based outside of Ulster were often dis-satisfied with the decisions of the administrative body. There was always the belief that the Belfast based clubs exerted undue influence, especially when it came to selecting teams for international matches


The political events of the time and the rise of Nationalism after the Easter Rising of 1916 undoubtedly exerted an influence as the southern affiliates grew more demanding in their dealings with the IFA.


The clubs showed their dis-satisfaction with the administration in early 1921 when three Dublin clubs - Bohemians, St. James' Gate and Shelbourne withdrew from the Irish League.


They continued to compete in the Cup competitions and matters reached crisis point when Glenavon of Belfast played Shelbourne in the final of the IFA Cup in 1921.


The teams drew the Cup match in Belfast and when the IFA fixed the replay again for Belfast, in deference to the troubled political climate of the time, their ruling was not accepted.


Shelbourne wanted the replay in Dublin, refused to play a second match in Belfast and forfeited the opportunity of winning the trophy.


The clubs believed that development of the game in the South had been neglected by the administration in Belfast and the dispute over the Cup replay was the catalyst for an historic meeting in Molesworth Hall, Dublin on June 1, 1921.


The Leinster Football Association were backed by the Munster Football Association in instigating the meeting at which decisions were taken that led irrevocably to a split between the Irish Football Association in Belfast and the Southern football organisations.


The clubs and associations who attended the meeting voted to establish the Football Association of Ireland to develop and administer the game throughout the 32 Counties of Ireland.


The decision was seen by many as an expression of the spirit of Nationalism that was intensifying at the time. And the determination to follow a separate path was final despite repeated efforts by the IFA to restore the old order.


The decision was not popular, however, with the FAI's sister associations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and a special conference was called for Liverpool in 1923 when the FAI sought to re-build bridges and establish good relations.


They voted to re-name the Football Association of Ireland and to confine their jurisdiction to the 26 Counties. Thus was born the Football Association of the Irish Free State.


The irony, of course, was that for fifty years afterwards the game of Association Football was classified by some as "foreign". The game was outlawed by the leading sports organisation in the country, the GAA, who disciplined any member found playing or spectating until their rule changes of 1971.


The historic meeting in Molesworth Hall in Dublin in 1921 quickly led to the formation of a League of Ireland competition. Eight teams in the Dublin area initially took part and Athlone became the first provincial club to join the league the following season.


St. James's Gate won the first title, and they were also winners of the first FAI Cup in 1922.


The establishment of the FAI inevitably led to complications on the international scene for the IFA was registered as the governing body for the island of Ireland. The newly-formed FAI experienced great difficulty in arranging international fixtures and in securing recognition from FIFA.


The home nations' associations in England, Scotland and Wales persisted in their opposition to the FAI but the Association found an international ally in France.


The French responded positively to approaches from the FAI and sent one of their leading clubs, Athletic Club of Gallia, to Ireland in 1923 to play challenge matches against Bohemians and Pioneers.


In August of that year, FIFA accepted Ireland's application for membership and the FAI joined the international community.


It was another three years before Ireland fulfilled its first international fixture. An Irish Free State team competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics, but it did so under the auspices of the Olympic Council of Ireland.


Finally, the first international fixture organised by the FAIFS was against Italy in Turin in March 1926. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat, but the first steps had been taken.


The existence of two governing bodies on the island of Ireland competing in international football then led to a bizarre situation. The IFA, in Belfast, continued to select players from the Southern Counties for their international team and inevitably many footballers represented both organisations in international competition.


This spirit of co-operation was not reciprocated by the Northern Body, the IFA. They contended that the FAI were entitled to select only those players born in their jurisdiction, i.e. players born in the 26 counties.


The Italian Federation sent their 'B' team to Dublin for Ireland's first ever home fixture in April 1927 and 20,000 people were at Lansdowne Road for the match.


Bob Fullam was famous for the power of his left foot, so much so that the story that Italy had requested that he would not take free kicks gained credence with the fans.


Fullam, may or may not have carried sufficient explosive power in his boot to scare opponents, but he lived up to his reputation by putting Ireland in front. Still, Italy ran out 2-1 winners.


The following year, Ireland won their first ever match - against Belgium in Liege. Trailing 2-0 at half time, Ireland were back in the match when Billy Lacey scored.


Ireland pressed on from there and two goals from Jimmy White and a penalty from Jack Sullivan earned the team an historic victory. The return match did not take place until 14 months later, and Ireland ran out 4-0 victors as John Joe Flood bagged a hat trick to earn Ireland their first win on home soil.