A couple of months ago, when Chelsea’s American owner suggested a Premier League “All-Star” game to showcase the strength of this country’s domestic club game, he was dismissed as not really understanding England and our football culture. These kinds of gimmicks, it was said, would overload the players and the clubs would never agree to release them in any case.
But there are historical precedents with which parallels with Tod Boahly’s idea could be drawn in the Inter-League games that, until relatively recently, punctuated the domestic fixture list.
Imagine the scene - some of the top-flight’s finest footballers, veterans and up-and-coming names, representatives of the country’s elite club have been assembled to demonstrate the English league’s superiority over our neighbours.
From 1891 onwards, the Football League had pitched select elevens against its rivals, firstly the Football Alliance, and then, a year later, games against the Scottish league began. In 1894, the Irish joined in and an intermittent series that lasted beyond partition began.
The final Inter-League match between the English and the then Northern Irish was in played 1990 at Windsor Park, and the EFL last assembled a side in 1991 when they travelled to Napoli and beat the Italians 3-0, but the 14th edition of the Anglo-Irish fixture took place at Roker Park in 1907.
Clubs across the league went without some of their best players, including experienced defenders Bob Crompton of Blackburn Rovers and Herbert Burgess of Manchester United, as, unlike today, the league didn’t take a break for international fixtures. So while Sunderland AFC travelled to Liverpool to play at Anfield, losing 1-0 in what was already a mediocre season, the Irishmen prepared for their big match with a north east mini-break.
It was Sunderland manager and Belfast-native, Bob Kyle, who had made the arrangements for his countrymen to visit the heartland of English football. They arrived over a week before the game, and were treated to the VIP treatment as Manchester United thumped the Mags 1-6 at St James’ Park, a night at the Empire Theatre, a cruise down the River Tyne to North Shields, and a trip to the Sunday quayside market.
The likes of Tommy Crawshaw of Sheffield Wednesday, Billy Hibbert of Bury, and Joe Bache of Aston Villa were summoned to Roker Park to face the Shamrocks on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon.
At this stage in the game’s development, the games between the representative sides of English, Scottish and Irish football held a similar position to the international friendlies we see today, and the Irish side was considered to be warming up for the full international games later in the season.
Sunderland amateur James Raine filled in for the English, who had lost two local full internationals in the run-up to the match - Newcastle’s Jock Rutherford and our own Arthur Bridgett. He had played for Sheffield United and Newcastle in previous seasons and that year turned out 13 times for Sunderland. Over the course of two seasons, played 28 times for the Lads and scored seven goals, but he didn’t draw the crowds like the two local favourites.
Raine was a sportsman and a scholar, a regular for England amateurs at football, a minor counties cricketer for Northumberland, and was a non-playing member of Great Britain’s football team at the London Olympics in 1908. He then went on to serve as a Major in the Durham Light Infantry in the First World War, retiring to Davos in Switzerland where he died in 1928 at the age of only 42.
The Football League had never lost a game against the Irish, with 12 wins and a draw in the 13 previous games. But if expectations of the Irish were low before kickoff, they soon put that right, rushing to an early 2-0 lead.
However, some poor goalkeeping allowed the hosts back into the game and it was soon all square. Glenn, of Derry Celtic, was reportedly at fault for three of the four that the English side managed before halftime.
In the second half, the Irish came at England again, Andrews of Glentoran scoring to make it 4-3 following a mistake from Middlesbrough’s Reg Williamson in the English goal. And, according to the report in the Belfast Telegraph the following Monday, they would have gone on to win the game if they hadn’t suffered a series of injuries to key players that left them hobbled and unable to compete with their taller, stronger, and more glamourous opponents.
Two more goals for the Football League XI saw them home for a flattering 6-3 win. However, a nine-goal thriller was more than enough entertainment for the disappointingly low crowd of 6,000 who had braved the onset of the autumnal weather. This represented the best performance the Irishmen had ever mustered against the imperial Metropolis across the sea:
I have witnessed all the fourteen matches played between the English and Irish Leagues, and I can say without fear of contradiction, that in all the series I have not seen a better contested game than that which took place at Sunderland on Saturday last...
Looking at it from an international standpoint, as far as Ireland was concerned, it was altogether a great match. With two goals of a lead, secured in almost as many minutes, Ireland never stood a better chance of victory...
...I must admit the Englishmen deserved to win. Bit with a change or two on the Irish team, we might have won. Our forwards were equally as clever, as and speedy, as their opponents, but they had a slightly the pull over us at half back, back, and in goal.
The report by “Ralph the Rover” in the Belfast Telegraph bubbled with latent national pride. The London press had been less than generous to the visiting Irish, but they left our region with their heads held high as well as the match ball, which Andrews held aloft in triumph before Crompton could secure it upon the final whistle.
English Football League XI
Williamson (Middlesbrough) , Crompton (Blackburn Rovers), Burgess (Manchester United), Greenhalgh (Bolton Wanderers), Crawshaw (Sheffield United), Makepeace (Everton), Raine (Sunderland), Hibbert (Bury), Thornley (Manchester City). Bache (Aston Villa), Hilton (Bristol City)
Irish League XI
Glenn (Derry Celtic); Willis (Linfield), McCartney (Belfast Celtic), Burnison (Distillery), Connor (Belfast Celtic), McClure (Cliftonville), Harris (Shelbourne), Murphy (Shelbourne), Andrews (Glentoran), Wilson (Distillery), Young (Linfield)
12 October 1907, Roker Park, Sunderland (Attendance: c.6,000)