“What does this mean for English football?”

“I don’t know, we’re all Irish here.”

Arsenal manager, Terry Neill, when asked about England’s failure to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.

For a time, the scouts were almost as renowned as the players they discovered. They were certainly viewed as seers with preternatural levels of wisdom and authority. Their names carried weight on the football fields of Dublin (and it was usually only Dublin). Billy Behan, Noel McCabe, Bill Darby. They were the men who sent Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Roy Keane and others to England.

“If Billy Behan was at the match everybody kind of knew it,” Darby would say years later in conversation with journalist Liam Mackey about his fellow scout. If Behan  – who Eamon Dunphy described as a ‘genius’ – was at the game, the other scouts felt they should be there too.

Noel McCabe cycled to watch Cobh Ramblers play Belvedere in a replayed game. He had already dismissed one Cobh player but he showed up on this day to watch another. Cobh lost 4-0 but he began to think twice about the player he had written off as too small. This time he felt Roy Keane should go to Nottingham Forest.

Bill Darby sent Brady, Stapleton, David O’Leary, John Devine and later Niall Quinn to Arsenal. All played for the Arsenal first team. All played for Ireland.

When Arsenal won one of the greatest FA Cup finals in the competition’s history in 1979, they had six players from the island of Ireland – Brady, O’Leary, Stapleton as well as Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson – in the team with Devine suited on the bench.

It is an impossible scenario today and has been a diminishing possibility for 20 years as England embraced globalisation, but Brexit has made the reality starker for Irish footballers. There is no escape route to England for Irish footballers anymore. EU rules allowed clubs to sign players who were under 18 from other EU countries but Britain no longer works to EU rules. Many see this as an opportunity for football in Ireland, but it’s one that comes with massive responsibility. Irish football will have to nourish these players, while the international team is painfully aware that the diaspora which provided so many of the great players no longer can be relied upon. The Irish diaspora will still be represented on the world stage but it may be represented by Harry Kane, Declan Rice and Jack Grealish playing for England.


We read English newspapers, followed English soccer, spoke the English language and listened to the BBC. Soon those who could afford it would be watching English television. English films were popular. The idea that you could prove you were a patriot by hating England was frankly ridiculous in the Ireland I grew up in. This was particularly true of the soccer community.

Eamon Dunphy, The Rocky Road

There was one relatively nice Christian Brother too, who made some effort to understand what was going on in my life, with the ‘soccer men’ and all that but who still couldn’t quite get his head around it. He spoke to me one day about my plans for the future.

‘Would you have any ambition of playing for Dublin in Croke Park?’ he asked me.

‘No,’ I said.

‘So what do you want to do?’ he asked, genuinely puzzled.

‘I want to play for Manchester United,’ I replied.

John Giles, A Football Man

Billy Behan sent Liam Whelan to Manchester United. In 1957, Liam Whelan returned to Dublin to play for Manchester United against Shamrock Rovers at Dalymount Park in the European Cup. “Football never came to life so vividly, with such awesome beauty, as it did in Dublin that night in ’57,” Eamon Dunphy wrote in A Strange Kind of Glory, his biography of Matt Busby

There had been Irish players at Manchester United before but none had been part of what Liam Whelan was a part of. Liam Whelan (he was always Liam to his family, never Billy which is how he was known at United) scored 52 goals for the club and he was central to the developing excitement around the team Matt Busby was building called The Busby Babes.

There had also been plenty of Irish players at English clubs before and those at United had briefly included Behan himself and Jackie Carey. Patrick O’Connell, who went on to manage Barcelona, was an early pioneer and the remarkable Doctor Kevin O’Flanagan who played football and rugby for Ireland and also represented Arsenal.

For the soccer community in Ireland, England was always the destination and it was so often the focal point. John Giles would recall accompanying his father Dickie around the pubs of Dublin where the argument would revolve around who was better Tom Finney or Stanley Matthews. It was natural, instinctive and unaffected by prejudice.

There was nothing unusual in that. In many areas of Irish life, England has been a release valve, a solution to the country’s problems while being a cause of them as well. Irish football was no different, but it may have been unorthodox in that it was more open about sharing this enthusiasm, certainly in the presence of like minded people.

Football people had a keener awareness than others of the limiting effects of nationalism, especially as Irish football people were so often the ones of the receiving end of this cultural form.

“I’m proud of being Irish, proud of my origins. But hypocrisy and bigotry depress me,” Liam Brady told Hugh McIlvanney in 1984. “I’m not mad Irish, not stage Irish. What happens in my country, the crazy, destructive attitudes that separate people from each other, would make you despair.”

Football – a game where Ireland could be represented internationally – was seen by some as less Irish than Gaelic games. Gaelic games promoted community but its weakness was their insularity which may have made them more appealing to the most insecure kind of Irish nationalist. If sport only involved matches against yourself then a belief in your exceptionalism could always be maintained.

International sport guaranteed that your failings would be exposed and reality – a stumbling block for nationalists of all persuasions – would be revealed. This was painfully true for Irish football which became used to its weaknesses being revealed. Giles would tell a story in his autobiography about Mick McGrath scoring a stunning goal from 25 yards in the World Cup play off against Spain in 1965. Instead of running away celebrating, the inferiority complex was such that McGrath looked sheepish.

“We stood around stunned that we were actually ahead. It was as if we had no right to score against these guys. So muted was our response that the referee picked up on it and started to assume that something must be wrong. Then the Spanish players also picked up on it, and ran to the referee to protest about the goal. The referee disallowed it.”

But England wasn’t simply looked upon with unconditional affection. In 1892, the Irish Football Association, which then controlled football all over the island, voted to allow players to be paid, in part in an attempt to stop players leaving to play in Britain. It was a forlorn hope. At an administrative level, the formation of the FAI in 1921 (and the split with the IFA) led to a ban being imposed by the Football Association which prevented the body playing in the Home Championship. As a result, the FAI had to look to FIFA for recognition and revenue streams.

In 1949, the FAI were invited to play England at Goodison Park and through goals from Con Martin and Peter Farrell (who had trained with his Everton team-mates who played for England the day before) became the first overseas team to beat England in England.

But Liam Whelan and the Busby Babes registered in a more profound way. The visit for a European Cup game in front of 46,000 brought an added dimension to the seduction. “On this sultry evening, the ‘Red Devils’ cast their magic spell upon this Georgian city which loves the English game and had a proud soccer tradition of its own,” Dunphy wrote in A Strange Kind of Glory.

He was among the crowd that night. “We had seen other English teams: Stan Matthews, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and Len Shackleton,” Dunphy wrote. “Before television these men were faces on the little black and white cards we collected from sweet-cigarettes. When they came to Dublin the photos came alive, your blood ran cold with a shiver of delight…they were – or seemed – unearthly, handsome creatures from another planet, more heroic than any movie star we’d seen or could imagine.”

Manchester United became the club every player in Dublin dreamed of and it became the destination they wanted to arrive at. It was not an impossible dream and then Ireland – Dublin in particular – was entwined in tragedy with Manchester – and the bond was impossible to break.

Liam Whelan was among those who died in the Munich Air Crash on February 6th 1958.

“The sense of impending calamity spread across the city,” Dunphy wrote in his memoir about Dublin’s reaction and then as the news came through of the deaths, Whelan being among eight players killed, it darkened further.

“The pall of despair that spread across the city touched even those who knew nothing of sport, ‘foreign’ or otherwise. As would subsequently happen with the killings of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King and later still John Lennon, our spirits sank as the realisation dawned that something rare and inspiring had been lost to the world.”

Busby would rebuild Manchester United and Ireland would remain transfixed. John Giles, Tony Dunne, Ashley Grimes, Moran, McGrath, Stapleton, Keane, Denis Irwin and John O’Shea (who Noel McCabe had recommended to Liverpool) would ensure an almost unbroken line. And then it snapped.

On St Stephen’s Day, 2011, Darron Gibson started for Manchester United against Wigan. He joined Everton the following month. An Irish international hasn’t started for Manchester United’s first team since, with Robbie Brady’s four minutes in the League Cup in 2012 being the only appearance.


“In 1841, it was estimated that over 400,000 inhabitants of Great Britain had been born in Ireland; many more tens of thousands were born in Britain of Irish parentage. The great majority of these were Catholics, and amongst the poorest paid labourers; most of them lived in London and in the industrial towns. In Liverpool and in Manchester anything between one-fifth and one-third of the working population was Irish.”

The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson, 1963

Up the Ra

Declan Rice, 2015

Tony Grealish’s funeral cortege left the Sacred Heart Church and paused after it made its way from the church off Kilburn High Road to Kensal Green cemetery where he would be buried alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the great figures of the Industrial Revolution, William Thackeray, Oscar Wilde’s mother, Jane and Harold Pinter.

Before the cortege reached the cemetery, it paused 400 yards before it, outside The Flora pub on the Harrow Road. This was the Grealish family pub and it was from here that many among the Irish in London would set out for GAA matches across the city. Grealish’s father Packie helped found St Gabriels GAA club and there were connections to other clubs like St Agnes’s and Moindearg. Tony Grealish played Gaelic football at Wembley before, in 1983, leading Brighton out as captain in the FA Cup final. One of those who spent a few nights in The Flora was Joe Brolly, who played with Moindearg in the 1980s and who was put up in the pub. “It was like living in Ireland, only totally undiluted,” he wrote in a Mail on Sunday column in 2013.

Shay Brennan’s Irishness was more diluted. He was the first English-born player to play for Ireland. “I knew, like most English-born lads, Shay wanted to play for England,” Giles would recall. “But when he resigned himself to the fact he wasn’t going to make the England team, he took advantage of the parentage rule.”

Giles employed one of the classic acts of footballer pastimes by pretending to be the Irish Independent football correspondent Noel Dunne and making a call to Brennan’s hotel room before a game. Brennan told ‘Noel Dunne’ that it had always been “My lifelong ambition to play for Ireland”. Giles persisted with the joke for a while and then said, “What a fucking spoofer” as both players laughed at the set up.

Giles and Brennan were close friends and Giles, rational and perceptive, recognised the decision as a pragmatic one. Whether it was a lifelong ambition or not didn’t matter to them.

When Declan Rice announced his decision to switch allegiance from Ireland to England, there was, as ever, much certainty on social media about how Irish an Ireland players should feel and the answer very often was “completely”.

“Like so many people around the world, I consider myself to be of mixed nationality,” Rice said when he announced the decision.

“I am a proud Englishman, having been born and raised in London. However, I am just as proud of my family’s Irish heritage and my affinity and connection with the country. I have equal respect and love for both England and Ireland and therefore the national team I choose to represent is not a clear-cut, simple selection. Particularly not for a young lad who never dreamed of being in this position.

“Ultimately, it is a personal decision that I have made with my heart and my head, based on what I believe is best for my future. I fully accept that some Irish supporters will be disappointed by my decision, and that everyone has different opinions in regard to the rules around international representation. However, I hope that people can understand that I have made this decision with honesty, integrity and the full support of my family.”

It was reported by Miguel Delaney during the European Championships that 175 of the 622 players at the competition had dual nationality.

“Of 75 under-15s on our radar, 55 are eligible for more than one country,” Dan Ashworth the former technical director of the FA said in 2019. “We cannot be arrogant enough to assume that, if a kid is living here, he automatically wants to play for England. People have different emotional ties, while smaller nations might be able to offer a different pathway.”

Ireland had traditionally been able to select players like Mark Lawrenson – who was capped while at Preston – at an earlier stage in their career before England noticed them but the reality of modern say scouting is that most of the players likely to make an impact are often already at Premier League clubs and therefore already the focus of attention from agents, clubs and the FA.

The FAI employ a London-based scout Mark O’Toole and he was the figure who approached Rice about playing for the country of his grandparents.

Rice played three times for Ireland but his decision to switch reflected the new reality for Irish football.


Do you suggest that we should not cherish all our children equally but continue to create a feeling among our children that they are ‘Shoneens’ because they play certain games?’

Donagh O’Malley, Minister for Education, January 1967

Liam Brady was expelled from school for captaining Ireland schoolboys against Wales instead of playing for his school in a Gaelic football match. The school subsequently reversed the decision but it again told of the isolation from those who sought purity or notions of it in their people. Brady, like his brothers before him, would leave Ireland to play in England and it was no wonder that exile in England provided a straightforwardness for Irish footballers

In the 1970s, Brady, O’Leary and Stapleton ensured that Arsenal became known as London Irish as the club progressed with the three Ireland players as well as Northern Ireland’s Jennings, Nelson and Rice.

Arsenal players Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary and John Murphy at an Arsenal players photocall at Dalymount Park, Dublin. Photo: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE

“Liam Brady-The Bionic Irishman’, a banner read at the 1979 Cup final. A year later, Brady would pursue a less common exile when he joined Juventus. A year after that Stapleton joined Manchester United and only O’Leary remained.

The dominant English club of the 1980s, Liverpool would also have a strong Irish link, a combination of those like Ronnie Whelan and Steve Staunton who were born in Ireland and those like Ray Houghton and John Aldridge who benefited from the parentage rule or great grand parentage rule in Aldridge’s case.

Brady would return to Arsenal as head of the Academy in 1996 and later that year Arsene Wenger arrived.

Wenger’s appointment was announced while he was still working in Japan, but before he arrived in England from Japan, a player he had advised Arsenal to sign signalled the direction the club and English football would be going. I was at Highbury the day Patrick Vieira appeared for the first time as a substitute against Sheffield Wednesday. Vieira electrified the crowd that day. It was one of those moments when promise presents itself before you and the possibilities are dizzying. “I had never seen a midfield player like that,” Ian Wright, who scored a hat-trick that day, would recall.

Wenger was also taking over an old drinking club, one which Niall Quinn – also sent to the club by Bill Darby – was happily part of. Quinn had left, Tony Adams, the captain was now sober and Arsenal would take advantage of Wenger’s vision.


“We’re getting ready for a World Cup. We’re going to be travelling for over 20 hours. And I’ve got two bloody leprechauns telling me to ‘Cheer up Keano.’ I thought, ‘I’ll f***king knock you out, you stupid c***’.”

Roy Keane recalls his encounter with two leprechauns working for The Sun in Dublin Airport before the Ireland team flew to Saipan

“It’s a problem. It’s there, especially in the Irish players, I notice. In my short time in management I notice that just about every incident we have had to deal with that is drink-related, it is Irish lads. It’s an issue with Irish players. Always.”

Ipswich manager, Roy Keane, 2010

During the Ireland team’s first few days in the Polish resort town of Sopot ahead of the 2012 European Championships, two Irish players went out drinking with their team mates but didn’t come back before the curfew. One was said to have slept on the beach. When a journalist heard the names, he expressed surprise about the identity of one of the players to a more experienced member of the squad as he didn’t consider him a drinker. “No, he’s got that in his locker,” the player replied.

Ireland’s players invariably had that in their locker and it was notable that as English football changed it was still common to hear stories of how Irish players would relish a trip with the Ireland squad for a night out. It was, some persuaded themselves, part of what made us who we are.

But who we were was becoming increasingly irrelevant. One of the consequences of Irish footballers’ distancing from the top table was so few of them were exposed to the methods and practices of those who excelled.

“I just gave it up, I’d had enough of it,” Keane said about his own decision to quit alcohol. “Particularly when I’d done my cruciate and I wanted to play a little bit longer but ironically the hip held me back anyway. I want to give a lot of credit to the foreign players and thinking, ‘Tell you what, they’ve got it pretty switched on, looking after their bodies’.” 

This probably tells only a fraction of Keane’s story with drink but it is true that exposure to the altered perspectives of the foreign players at Manchester United contributed.

Keane was undoubtedly driven to by the new standards set elsewhere: Juventus had reached three Champions League finals in a row between 1996 and 1998 while Arsenal were revolutionising the game in England, as Wenger preached to a willing squad the benefits of diet and preparation.

“I stood in the tunnel before kick-off and the Juventus players made ours look small,” Ferguson would recall of their first meeting. Inspired by Keane, United beat Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi-final and before they played Bayern Munich in the final, Ferguson would send them out with the words, “They’re not as good as Arsenal.”

This was the moment English football entered the world and for those who had become used to the old ways, it was a time when they were left behind.

“We’ve asked the players what they do in their spare time at their clubs and they tell us they play snooker and watch television. Very few of them are being educated about life, about books. Their concentration levels are very poor,” Brian Kerr said in 2000 when he was managing Ireland’s underage squad.

The players were left to themselves and the English game at the highest level increasingly was no longer interested.


“The EU is not perfect but it was the best idea we had. History has always shown that when we stay together we can sort out problems. When we split then we start fighting. There was not one time in history where division creates success. So, for me, Brexit still makes no sense.”

Jurgen Klopp, 2018

In the Dutch town of Leeuwarden, 140km north of Amsterdam, a 19-year-old footballer boy from Clonliffe Gardens in Dublin’s inner city was making an impact.

The supporters of the club FC Cambuur, the club that played in Leeuwarden, would regularly turn up to watch Byrne train. In the autumn of 2015, it seemed as if this could be a new future for Irish players who had the imagination to head for somewhere other than England, even if Byrne was only there on loan from Manchester City.

City was like a “European football academy”, Byrne told me then.

“They were buying the best young players from around the world and they just put them in the one place. I wouldn’t have had that chance if I had stayed in Ireland and been happy with my family.”

Guiding Byrne at City was the man who had signalled one change in direction for English football and was now part of another as City moved the game far beyond its traditional roots for finding players, supporters and owners. Patrick Vieira was guiding the club in this new arms race for players.

The reality too was that a Dutch club could never compete with the salary a club like City would pay players even far below the first team. Five figure weekly salaries weren’t unusual for teenage players who would never make the first team but who were part of the mass recruitment of the superclubs.

Less than a year after Byrne talked about the opportunities available, Britain voted to leave the EU. There have, of course, been many consequences, flagged, intended and unintended, but Irish football now has to live in a world where it’s young players can’t go to Britain before they are 18 (there are exceptions if someone – like Evan Ferguson at Brighton – has a British parent).

It would appear to be the end for those who dreamed of going to England but those dreams are unlikely to be satisfied in Ireland

The idea that the League of Ireland can offer all that is required for Ireland’s most gifted footballers is even more outlandish now than it was in 1892 when the Irish Football Association decided to pay players to stop them going to England.

Ireland’s geography is its history and those with ambition in all walks of life have always recognised the opportunities available in a country we’re so intimately familiar with.

But Irish football has an opportunity to respond. Ireland can have the ambition to produce players who are good enough to play in the big leagues of Europe as say Croatia have done but they will need to be imaginative. They will now have players born in Ireland who have dual nationality and may decide their international futures are elsewhere.

Irish football has introduced structures and academies for League of Ireland clubs but now they need to work.

Kevin Zefi scored a hat trick for Inter Milan’s U-17 side in the middle of December. When he was 15, Zefi became the youngest goalscorer in League of Ireland history when he scored for Shamrock Rovers against Longford Town.

Kevin Zefi during the UEFA U17 Championship Qualifying Round Group 5 match between Republic of Ireland and Poland at Turner’s Cross in Cork. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Zefi’s career path offers an alternative for the gifted Irish footballer but Irish football’s real challenge is in producing the gifted and nourishing them.

“When I was a kid, there was nothing here for me to stay,” Jack Byrne told the RTE Soccer podcast recently. “If I stayed here past 15, 16, what was I staying for? There was no Shamrock Rovers academy, Bohs and Kevin’s weren’t linked. They obviously are now.

“But the standard needs to be that the top players are getting the chances that they deserve. And they can’t be going out and playing against Cabinteely every week. Evan Ferguson can’t go out and play against Cabinteely every week and score 10 goals.”

Irish football has too often been a world dominated by petty and impenetrable squabbles, a world which, unlike English football, has never been forced to open up because there was no external pressure to do so and the problems were solved by the best players leaving.

Caoimhin Kelleher’s emergence as a goalkeeping understudy at Liverpool might offer some hope as does the development of the Ireland squad under Stephen Kenny, but there are more challenges to come.

A sport that defined itself in opposition to the insularity of old Ireland developed an insularity as well. “I just can’t tolerate these English lads coming over and disrespecting it, it’s not acceptable,” one League of Ireland manager said last year as he defended his league.

Like the English football man, they are happy in their ways, but the English football man had to be challenged and when the Premier League came along, it helped England develop. Irish football has to do the same.

“If you look at the English youth national teams at the moment they are in the top two or three – if not the top – in nearly all age groups,” Jurgen Klopp said in 2020 as he explained how these players had benefitted from playing against the world’s best. “Talent-wise they are 100 per cent and that is with the way we did it before. So let’s think about why that happened. They had a lot of players around them that played good football as well. It’s helpful.”

Few benefit from insularity. “I am still waiting for the first advantage of Brexit that someone can tell me,” Klopp said. “What really improves after Brexit? It’s obviously not my thing to judge, but as an interested person I just wait until the first really positive impact of Brexit. Maybe I didn’t read it because I’m too much in football, but I don’t remember a lot, to be honest.”

Irish football may be one of the beneficiaries but a lot still needs to change.

“When I was going up to watch Shels, when Wes Hoolahan was there, did I want to play for Shels?” Jack Byrne asked on RTE. “No, I still wanted to go to England.”

Those who wanted change could at one time simply escape from the suffocation in Ireland. Escape is no longer so simple. Instead change is going to have to come.