With two second and two third-placed finishes since the league began, the return of former player Billy Lacey (who won two English league medals with Liverpool during the early 1920s) helped Shelbourne finally win their first league title in 1926, two points ahead of their local rivals Shamrock Rovers. The latter club had actually looked set to retain the championship, but a draw and a defeat in their last two games (both Rovers and Shels had remained unbeaten since Shels ended their rivals’ 26-game unbeaten run in October) opened the door for Shelbourne, who clinched the title with a 4-1 win at St. James’s Gate on the last day. Shels added a third Free State Shield (scoring an average of four goals per game) at the end of the season, while Fordsons (featuring a host of players from northern Ireland, a situation becoming common in the Free State League because of discrimination against Catholics by many northern employers) built on the successes of the last two years to become the first side from outside of Dublin to break into the league’s top three placings.
Shelbourne beat Fordsons 4-2 at Shelbourne Park in November
The Cork club also defeated Shamrock Rovers 3-2 to lift the Free State Cup (the 25,000 attendance at the final was the biggest yet), a victory made even more significant by the fact that they had never actually scored against Rovers since joining the league two seasons earlier (they had actually been heavily defeated by them on a number of occasions, including a 6-0 loss in Rovers’ first ever league visit to Cork). They could be extremely grateful to goalkeeper Billy O’Hagan, who made four penalty saves during the course of the cup campaign, including a famous one from Rovers’ Bob Fullam in the final, when the score was level at 2-2 (Fullam famously elected not to contest the rebound, as he feared that he would cause a very serious injury to the brave O’Hagan). Future Free State international Paddy Barry also gained the distinction of becoming the first player to score two goals in a Free State Cup decider.
March was an eventful month overall with regard to Irish football, as just four days before that cup final, history was made at Dalymount Park with the first-ever meeting of the Free State League and Irish League representative sides. A crowd of 20,000 watched a team fronted by the Shamrock Rovers’ “four F’s” attacking line enjoy a 3-1 victory over the northerners (Billy Farrell added a goal to Charlie Dowdall’s brace), while four days after the cup final, a Free State national side travelled to Turin to contest the F.A.I.F.S.’s very first international fixture. Although the lengthy three-day journey (and the fact that several players had competed in all three of these high-profile games) helped Italy to a comprehensive 3-0 win over the Irish, the fact that all 11 members of the team were home-based was viewed as being a very good reflection of the current quality of the Free State League.
F.I.F.A.’s decision to modify the existing “offside” law in 1925 (two and not three members of the defending team now had to be between the attacker and goal when the ball was played forward; goalkeepers were still afforded limited protection from charging etc.) had had an immediate impact on the Free State League, with a total of 445 goals being scored compared to the previous season’s 344 (the average of almost five goals a game remains the highest in League of Ireland history). The new measure was of very little help to Pioneers F.C., however, and having propped up the league table for the last two campaigns, 1926 was to prove the last league outing for the Dublin side (the bottom two league teams had to apply for re-election). Their place for the new season was taken by Dundalk G.N.R., also known as the Great Northern Railway Association Club (the team was linked to the railway steelworks in the town), founded in the Co. Louth town as far back as 1903.
Free State League 1925-26
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League top scorers : Billy Farrell Shamrock Rovers, 24 Jock Simpson Shelbourne, 18 Jim Sweeney Athlone Town, 17
Representative matches : Welsh League 2-2 Free State League, Free State League 3-1 Irish League
Shamrock Rovers beat Bohemians in a Free State Cup first round second replay