by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

21 September 1949: Ireland beat England 2-0 to become the first team from outside the UK to beat England on English soil.

The period after the Second World War saw some of England’s greatest ever players playing together, and their post-war record had seen them win 23 of the 30 games played, including a 10-0 win away over Portugal and wins over Italy both home and away.  With only three defeats in those 30 games they were considered by many to be the unofficial Champions of Europe, if not the world.

Their opponents in a friendly on 21 September 1949 were the Irish team who had not set the football world alight up to this point.  A 1-0 win as the Irish Free State over Bulgaria in the 1924 Olympics, which was followed by a 2-1 defeat to the Dutch in the next round; and a narrow defeat over two legs in the 1938 World Cup qualifiers to the 1936 Olympic bronze medalists of Norway were the best results they had achieved so far.  They were entering the game though buoyed by a recent win in a qualifying game for the 1950 World Cup against Finland, albeit it a Finnish team who had not won in 19 attempts since the end of World War Two.

England and Ireland had met previously on 30 September 1946 when Tom Finney scored the winner in a hard fought encounter that ended in a 1-0 victory for England in a downpour at Dalymount Park, Dublin.  Many of the Irish players had played England on several occasions though as representatives of the Northern Ireland FA.  It had gotten a little confusing because the IFA in the North and the FAI of the Republic of Ireland both claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Ireland and selected players from both parts of the island.

Two of England’s three post-war defeats had come in the last six months, both 3-1 losses, firstly to Scotland at Wembley and then away to Sweden, but two away wins since then though, 4-1 over Norway and 3-1 over France, saw them approach the game quietly confident, and on the day of the match The Times wrote, “It would be folly indeed to approach the game in a light mood, and England we may be sure will not make that mistake. But on the face of it, there should only be one ending.”   England lined up for the game, which was played at Everton’s Goodison Park, without two of their top players, Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen, who were missing through injury, and three others Bert Mozley, Peter Harris and Jesse Pye were making their debut.  They still fielded a strong side though with Bert Williams, Billy Wright, Neil Franklin, Wilf Mannion and Tom Finney all appearing.

Ireland had seven players who plied their trade in the English first division including the current Football Writers’ Player of the Year, Manchester United’s captain Johnny Carey, who, along with Roy Keane are the only Irishmen ever to win that accolade.  Two other members of the side came from the English second tier, while the two remaining players, Tommy Godwin and Tommy O’Connor both played in Ireland for Shamrock Rovers.

The game saw England applying heavy pressure to the Irish goal right from the kick-off, and Wolves’ Jesse Pye, in what was to be his only England appearance, should have scored after just 20 seconds, but headed wide from a Finney cross.  A few minutes later Finney himself spurned a chance when he found himself in a one on one with the keeper. The Irish keeper on the day was 22 year-old Tommy Godwin, and he proved to be in inspired form, while in front of him the central defenders Con Martin, Tom Aherne and Johnny Carey were outstanding, with Carey in particular being influential in winning his battle with Finney.

England kept up the pressure to no avail throughout the first half-hour, then, against the run of play, in the 33rd minute it was Ireland who took the lead when Peter Desmond latched on to a pass from Tommy O’Connor and was bought down in the box by Bert Mozley for a penalty.  Con Martin stepped up and coolly put the kick past Bert Williams in the England goal to a huge cheer from the crowd, many of whom appeared to be supporting Ireland.

Shaken, the English nearly conceded a second before half-time when Davy Walsh went close, but after the break the game resumed the pattern it had mostly taken during the previous 45 minutes.  England were again applying non-stop pressure and the Irish defended as if their life depended on it.  Godwin again made a number of fine saves and Billy Walsh and Martin both cleared off the line, while Peter Harris hit the bar for England.  Johnny Morris and Jesse Pye also had good chances, but both shot at Godwin from close range.  The Irish were to hit England again on the break in the 85th minute when Peter Farrell, playing on his home ground, was sent clear with a ball from Desmond and scored with a chip over the oncoming Bert Williams to secure a famous victory.

Many people back in Ireland would have been unaware of the score until the newspapers came out the next day, and when they did open that day’s paper they would have found jubilant reports like the one in the Irish Independent that ran, “The British Lion was in a sorry state last night. His den had been invaded and tail had been twisted by the FAI soccer eleven who scored a sensational 2-0 win at Liverpool…there were 51,047 followers at Goodison Park and the spirit in which they came was summed up as a social occasion. But what a shock they got! Odds of ten to one had been offered against the visitors and there were few acceptors…the English critics too will have a hard task redeeming themselves. Take this piece from an English paper: “Anybody who thinks that Eire will defeat England – Southern Irishmen excepted – needs to have his brain tested.”

Back in England The Times reflected more soberly on the game and wrote, “All the evidence pointed to only one possible verdict…yet by the afternoon’s end, that evidence was proved not worth the paper on which it was written. For England this was nothing short of a major disaster …while every man of Eire was a hero,” and indeed they were.