THE BRITISH CHAMPIONSHIP, THE IRISH AND BEYOND
BEFORE we get into the subject of this article, I think that it is important to clarify the naming of the international teams involved, to remove confusion and avoid upsetting anyone...
This is largely an overview of Scotland v Ireland matches, and as these have predominantly been in the British Championship, then Ireland actually refers to Northern Ireland in the later years of the tournament, for reasons which will be outlined below.
After the first Scotland fixture against England in 1872, it was only in 1876 that Scotland played another home nation, Wales, and then in 1884 when Ireland entered the competition to form the British Championship. The British Championship was the only occasion for Scotland football outings until they played Norway in 1929 (in match number 144), so approximately the first 20% of all Scotland fixtures ever played to date occurred in this tournament before 1929.
The first Ireland v Scotland match was played in 1884 at Ballynafeigh Park, Belfast and resulted in a 5-0 win for Scotland. The venue for the annual games changed each season and rotated between Glasgow and Belfast, although Dublin was the venue on four occasions before World War I.
However, as the annual Ireland and Wales fixtures were viewed as games of lesser importance than the match against England – the strongest squad was selected to play against England, and therefore there are many of the better players in the earlier days who were only capped against the auld enemy, or lesser ones capped against Wales or Ireland. This contributes to the huge number of players who have only one or a few caps, 615 players up until the outbreak of World War II – although that is actually fairly similar to the number capped since 1945 in approximately the same timeframe (although there have been around four times as many games).
The first match v Ireland in 1884 contained 9 players winning their first cap, 6 of whom didn’t win another – and then the game v England two months later featured only 1 player (Walter Arnott of Queen’s Park) who had played in that Ireland match. In 1885, again the Scotland team featured 10 players winning their first cap, and Scotland still won 8-2 (at First Hampden), and then none of these players were selected the following week against England at the Kennington Oval, London.
Even when viewing the ties v Ireland as ‘easier’ games and selecting the more fringe players, from 1884-1914, Ireland only managed 2 draws and Scotland’s victories included routs of 11-0 (1901 at Celtic Park, Glasgow) and 10-2 (1888 at Solitude, Belfast).
Of added personal interest is that the graves of some of the Scotland players who played in the early days of the British Championship are located in Belfast – Robert Parlane (Vale of Leven FC) and Alexander Kennedy (Eastern FC and Third Lanark FC) are buried in Belfast, although they never played against Ireland in the tournament, unlike Jock Hutton (Aberdeen and Blackburn Rovers), who is also buried here. Robert Parlane, did however, referee the 1888 match in Belfast.
And then things changed after the end of WW1 – for one, there were no more BritishChampionship games played in Dublin. Between 1882 and 1924, Ireland was represented by a single national football team, organised by the Irish Football Association (IFA) in Belfast. In 1921, following partition, the Football Association of the Irish Free State was founded (FAIFS), and split from the IFA and was recognised in 1923 by FIFA. In 1936, the Association changed name to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and referred to the team as Eire or Ireland.
However, both associations claimed jurisdiction over the whole island and that they could select players from the entire island. Indeed, in the 1950 World Cup qualifiers, there were a number of players who played for both teams and so FIFA decided to step in and restrict eligibility based on the political border. In 1953 FIFA ruled neither team could be called Ireland in competitions in which both teams could be entered – they would now be called Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
That said, FIFA allowed the name Ireland to be retained by Northern Ireland in the British Championship. Scotland didn’t play against the Republic of Ireland until 1961 in a World Cup 1962 qualifying match.
Back to the British Championship…
In 1979-80, Scotland travelled to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1970, with the matches in 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1978 being ‘transferred’ to Glasgow due to the so-called ‘Troubles’– so, for example, the programme for the 1978 game is entitled Ireland v Scotland, being counted as a ‘home’ game for Northern Ireland.
It was ironic that Scotland had travelled to Belfast in May 1980, as in the following year’s tournament, England and Wales refused to do so – this resulted in the competition being declared void, despite Scotland being top and having completed their three games, including a 1-0 win at Wembley, with the first clean sheet there since 1938.
The last British Championship was staged in 1983-84 – the English FA cited many reasons for withdrawing from future competitions – domestic fixture congestion, declining interest in the games and crowd violence being highlighted. The Irish and Welsh FA were a tad upset at this as the games were a good source of income (compared to the qualifiers for Euro and World Cup tournaments), but it was only the Scotland v England match that pulled in a large crowd. The two ‘betrayed’ FAs said that it had only been shelved for financial reasons and this argument was further vindicated when England and Scotland decided to continue, but playing only each other, in the Rous Cup in 1985.
However, that match was switched to Hampden Park by the UK Government due to the fear of violence in London on a May bank holiday weekend (which of course only changed the venue of the violence), and then this was played again in 1986. As disinterest continued, Brazil were invited to play in the end of season tournament, and then in following years, Colombia and Chile but by 1990, the FA decided enough was enough and the tournament was scrapped.
Ultimately, the British Championship was a tournament of its time, running from 1884-1984 with 87 tournaments in total – inaugurated in the early days of the football associations, when travel was much harder, and it served its purpose. But, as international tournaments involving the ‘continentals’ came to dominate the calendar, interest in the British Championship began to diminish. The last tournament in 1984 was won by Northern Ireland on goal difference (the first to be decided that way) and so they were awarded the trophy to keep. An attempted resurrection of a similar tournament (involving Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) in 2011 in Dublin, the Carling Nations Cup, if you remember it, was thankfully a one-off, as it generated very little interest. So how did the teams fare in international tournaments outwith these shores as these became a priority over time, being better attended and of more interest to fans than the annual end of season British games?
The British Championship was often used as the qualifying route for European Championships and World Cup qualifying. For the 1950 World Cup, FIFA designated the British Championship as Group 1, with the top two teams qualifying for the finals in Brazil. However, the SFA decided that they would only accept the invitation if Scotland won the group – and, despite winning 8-2 against Ireland in the first game, Scotland finished second, and so didn’t travel, despite pleading from the players. In 1954, the SFA decided that being second was then ok to participate in the World Cup - so off to Switzerland we went. For the 1982 World Cup finals however both Scotland and Northern Ireland successfully made it out of the same qualifying group at the expense of Sweden, Portugal and Israel. Currently, after qualifying for 8 World Cups and 3 European Championships, Scotland have still never progressed from the group stages. So (excluding England) we have the best record in the British Isles of qualifying but the worst record of progressing – despite in the past having squads that we can only now dream about. Indeed, we are the only ‘home’ nation to never have progressed out of the 1st round. The performances of Wales, Northern Ireland (and Republic of Ireland) in major tournaments is a particular source of incredulity/irritation to Scotland fans.
Both Northern Ireland (1958) and Republic of Ireland (1990) have reached the quarterfinals of World Cup tournaments, and the second round of recent European Championships, and Wales got the quarterfinal of the World Cup in 1958 and the semifinal of Euro 2016. It is incredible that Scotland have only ever won four games in World Cup tournaments, and that their most ‘recent’ victory was at Italia 1990, (versus Sweden) some 33 years ago. There can’t be many people under the age of 50 who go along to support Scotland today that were actually at that game. Maybe we need to resurrect the British Championship to experience some success – it could sit alongside our Kirin Cup trophy. It might even be more interesting that the UEFA Nations League - especially the next one in Group A which may see 6 glamour games, but will probably mean 6 scuddings!
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