1938-39 League of Ireland season

In 1939, Shamrock Rovers became the first club to put League of Ireland titles back to back, a full nine points ahead of Sligo Rovers and Dundalk, and in doing so moved ahead of Bohemians in the league roll of honour. Shelbourne defeated Sligo Rovers following a replay to record what was, amazingly, their first F.A.I. Cup success, with William ‘Sacky’ Glen scoring the only goal of the game from a 2nd minute free kick to ensure that he would collect a record eighth Free State / F.A.I. Cup winner’s medal. The first half of the season had seen St. James’s Gate defeat Cork City 6-0 to take the Dublin City Cup (Cork had beaten Shamrock Rovers 7-0 in the semi-final), and Bohemians take the League of Ireland Shield after a play-off victory over Bray Unknowns at Shelbourne Park. It was a fifth shield success for the Gypsies (who introduced a permanent club programme / magazine for every league game this year, with other clubs soon to follow suit), and their fourth to be secured via a play-off. Meanwhile, the fortunes of Cork’s League of Ireland representatives continued to stagnate, with the club finishing second bottom for the third year in a row, and seeking re-election to the league for a fourth time in five years.

Sligo Rovers’ strong showing in both the league and cup could arguably be attributed to the euphoria created by the arrival of the legendary William ‘Dixie’ Dean to the club in January 1939. While the involvement of English players (and indeed coaches / managers) in the league was nothing new, a player of the calibre of Dean (widely believed to be the greatest player of his generation, Dean had scored 60 English First Division goals in the 1927-28 season) had never graced Irish football before. The former Everton and England star scored 10 goals in seven league games for Sligo, including five in a 7-1 defeat of Waterford. He also scored Sligo’s goal in the 1-1 cup final draw with Shelbourne, before returning to England at the end of the season.

St. Patrick’s Day 1939 saw the League of Ireland record a historic 2-1 victory over the Scottish League at Dalymount Park, six days after they had beaten the Irish League by the same scoreline in Belfast. 35,000 people turned out to witness this first ever meeting of the two sides, with Sligo’s Johnny Johnstone (a Derryman) and St. James’s Gate’s Irish international forward Paddy Bradshaw (who had enjoyed a meteoric rise from the Leinster Senior League to scoring twice for Ireland against Switzerland in the space of just five months) netting the all-important goals. Remarkably, it would be another 40 years, taking in an incredible 21 meetings, before the League of Ireland would record a second victory (and that would be against a mainly part-time team) over their Scottish counterparts.

The annual match against the Irish League had been restored since the previous season, but with some difficult financial times being experienced by clubs both north and south, the idea of establishing a cross-border cup competition was now also being strongly considered. To test some of the waters around this, an exhibition match between the northern and southern champions took place at the end of the 1938-39 season. Belfast Celtic had just taken the fourth in what was to be a run of five consecutive Irish League titles, but two goals by Owen McNally helped Shamrock Rovers to a 2-1 win at Dalymount Park. The attendance wasn’t quite as high as expected, however, and with the match itself also being seen as something of a disappointment, it seemed there might be some thinking to be done before any new tournament came into being.

League of Ireland 1938-39

Shamrock Rovers221642603236
Sligo Rovers221075503127
St. James’s Gate221039594823
Bray Unknowns227411414918
Cork City227312394917

League top scorers : Paddy Bradshaw St. James’s Gate, 22 Tom Davis Dundalk, 18 (including 15 for Cork City) Paddy Leeney Bray Unknowns, 18

Representative matches : Irish League 1-2 League of Ireland, League of Ireland 2-1 Scottish League

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