1928-29 Free State League season

With David ‘Babby’ Byrne having joined during the close season (the former Shamrock Rovers and Bradford City player would receive a wage packet of £4 per week), his 15 league goals were combined with a very miserly defence (which conceded just 12 times) to ensure a second Free State League title for Shelbourne in the 1928-29 season. The Reds would win all nine of their home matches to hold off the challenge of outgoing champions Bohemians (who introduced 19-year old utility player and future club legend Fred Horlacher to their line-up during this season) by a single point, even though the Phibsboro team had also remained unbeaten at home and won each of their last nine league fixtures.

Shamrock Rovers (11-0 winners over Bray Unknowns this season, a record winning margin for a League of Ireland fixture) were the only other side to win more games than they lost this year, with new boys Drumcondra finishing the best of the chasing pack, a full 15 points behind the league champions. Rovers ensured that Bohemians missed out on both of the season’s top prizes, winning a cup final replay (again at Shelbourne Park) 3-0 thanks to two goals from John Joe Flood (who would score a hat-trick for Ireland against Belgium two weeks later) and another from Bob Fullam, following a scoreless draw first time out in Dalymount (it was only the second all-Free State League decider). The latter clubs also vied for this season’s Free State Shield, and with a virtually identical record in the competition (both teams had gone unbeaten, and Bohs’ extra goal scored was the only difference between the sides in the table), a 2-0 play-off victory for Bohemians at Shelbourne Park finally settled the issue.

Rovers defeated Dundalk in a replay to win the final of this season’s Leinster Senior Cup, but it was a game in an earlier round of the competition that had ended up becoming headline news. Recently-crowned champions Shelbourne made a trip across the river to play Drumcondra at Tolka Park, but found themselves two goals in arrears early in the second half. In the midst of a stirring comeback that saw the visitors eventually winning 4-2, a hoarding behind the Drumcondra goal gave way, and some of the large group of supporters that had been positioned on it suffered injuries. The match was allowed to continue, but a number of people had to be taken to hospital, with one young spectator suffering a broken arm and two broken legs.

After two draws and three defeats in previous meetings, the Free State League representative side gained a first victory over their Welsh counterparts this season, with league top scorer Eddie Carroll among those to find the net in a 4-3 Dalymount Park success. The selection panel had been vindicated for choosing form players over some of the league’s more established names, and the Welsh contingent continued their tradition of traveling to play a match in Cork the following afternoon. Although a few more games took place against the Welsh during the first half of the 1930s, the fixture was to more or less disappear from the calendar after that. For the Free State League’s first decade, however, the annual match against the Welsh League was to be something of a defining feature. In an apparent sign that the league was at last beginning to find a sense of stability, there were no demotions or admissions for the beginning of the 1929-30 season.

Free State League 1928-29

Shamrock Rovers181044582824
Dundalk G.N.R.18738434417
St. James’s Gate18549374414
Bray Unknowns18241224588

League top scorers : Eddie Carroll Dundalk G.N.R., 17 David ‘Babby’ Byrne Shelbourne, 15 Billy Dennis Bohemians, 15

Representative matches : Free State League 4-3 Welsh League, Irish League 2-1 Free State League

1927-28 Free State League season

With their Dalymount Park home continuing to act as the benchmark for all other Free State League grounds (it would soon become the home stadium for the Free State national side), 23 points from the first 24 saw Bohemians establish a strong position in the 1927-28 championship race. Despite a strong showing from Shelbourne in the closing stages, the title was destined to go to Dalymount for a second time, with Shamrock Rovers and Fordsons making up the rest of the top four.

Bohemians’ superiority for this season was emphasised by a 2-1 defeat of Drumcondra in the Free State Cup final (Bohs’ Jimmy White scored a goal in every round, and Drums’ semi-final with Fordsons was the first soccer match to be broadcast live on Irish radio), and also victory in the Free State Shield (Dundalk G.N.R.’s Eddie Carroll amassed 16 goals in just nine shield games; his club were fined £100 when the referee was assaulted following a key shield fixture against Bohemians), emulating Shamrock Rovers’ “treble” of 1925. Indeed, by adding the Leinster Senior Cup, the Gypsies actually eclipsed the achievement of their Dublin rivals (it should be noted, however, that the Free State League clubs had not competed in the Leinster cup that season), and also brought the Hoops’ 30-match league unbeaten run to an end with a 3-1 win at Dalymount in November. It was a truly remarkable achievement for the amateur club, with so many of their domestic opponents being drawn from the semi-professional and professional ranks. Despite their unbeaten sequence being ended, Shamrock Rovers could still take a lot of heart from the fact that, throughout two full seasons in league, shield and cup, they had yet to be defeated at their new home of Glenmalure Park.

Having lost out to Dundalk G.N.R. (who this year replaced their existing black and amber club colours with a kit of white shirt and navy shorts) for election to the league in 1926, Drumcondra (who played their home games at Tolka Park, the ground formerly known simply as “Richmond Road”) finally did gain admission in 1928, with bottom club Athlone Town this time making way. The cost of fulfilling their away games (the club had moved into a new home at the Ranelagh Grounds in 1926) was a key factor in the Co. Westmeath club’s resignation, and their last three shield matches had been left unfulfilled (in previous seasons, Athlone had occasionally conceded victory in shield matches rather than incur the cost of travel). Their place at the highest level of Irish football gone, the midlanders (outside of some involvement in the reserve league) would not return to League of Ireland action for another 40 years.

Free State League 1927-28

Shamrock Rovers18972411825
Dundalk G.N.R.18936443621
St. James’s Gate18549284214
Bray Unknowns18141329706
Athlone Town18211519615

League top scorers : Charlie Heinemann Fordsons, 24 Sammy McIlvenny Shelbourne, 22 Jock McMillan Shelbourne, 17

Representative matches : Welsh League 5-1 Free State League, Free State League 3-1 Irish League

1926-27 Free State League season

In 1926-27, the top four of the previous two seasons again jostled for position, with an unbeaten Shamrock Rovers (who would this year adopt their famous green and white hooped jerseys, and also move to a new Milltown ground, Glenmalure Park) claiming a third league title ahead of Shelbourne, Bohemians and Fordsons. A 3-0 win at Shelbourne Park on the opening day of the season allowed Rovers to steal a march on the previous season’s champions, and the emergence of a talented young striker called David ‘Babby’ Byrne (whose goalscoring form earned a move to Bradford City at the end of the season) had helped the “Hoops” to overcome the loss of star forward Billy Farrell with what would prove to be a career-ending motorcycle accident injury.

None of the top four teams would contest the cup final, with Leinster Senior League side Drumcondra (who had qualified for the cup as inaugural winners of the F.A.I. Intermediate Cup this season) surprisingly overcoming Brideville after a replay at Shelbourne Park to become the second non-league winners of the competition, and complete a unique Intermediate and Senior Cup double. The replay (the first game had, as other years, taken place at Dalymount Park) was the first Free State Cup final to go to extra-time, with Drumcondra’s Johnny Murray (who had represented Bohemians and Ireland at the 1924 Olympics) getting the only goal of the game.

For the fourth year in a row, the league winners went on to capture the Free State Shield, with Shamrock Rovers ensuring the trophy remained in Dublin for the sixth successive season. Rovers had again remained unbeaten, and a 1-0 victory at Shelbourne Park on the very first day of the competition was again to prove crucial, as the Reds had proceeded to win all eight of their remaining shield matches. St. James’s Gate’s ninth-place league finish this year was notable, as it represented a continuation of the deterioration of their league fortunes since their 1922 championship success. In 1927, for the first time since the league began, there would be no changes to the teams involved for the new season, with all 10 clubs re-appearing for the seventh League of Ireland campaign.

Free State League 1926-27

Shamrock Rovers181440602032
Athlone Town18657414317
Bray Unknowns186111375813
Dundalk G.N.R.18369304012
St. James’s Gate185211304912

League top scorers : David ‘Babby’ Byrne Shamrock Rovers, 17 Jock McMillan Shelbourne, 17 Ned Brooks Athlone Town, 14 Bob Fullam Shamrock Rovers, 14

Representative matches : Irish League 1-1 Free State League, Free State League 1-2 Welsh League

1925-26 Free State League season

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

Shamrock Rovers181332622129
Athlone Town187110465615
St. James’s Gate184311334811
Bray Unknowns184311345511

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

1924-25 Free State League season

An interesting curtain-raiser for the 1924-25 Free State League season was the visit of a South African team to Dublin to play a match against reigning league champions Bohemians. Dalymount Park was actually the first stop on the itinerary of the visiting ‘Springbok’ side, who played 25 more matches over the next few months as they toured the UK and the Netherlands. A crowd of about 6,000 saw Ned Brooks score twice for Bohemians in a 4-2 defeat, and the South African team went on to enjoy a successful tour that saw them winning 16 matches (they also recorded a 9-1 win over a North-West Ireland XI in Derry) and scoring 83 goals.

Having slipped to seventh the previous season, the return of Bob Fullam and John Joe Flood from Leeds United helped Shamrock Rovers win a second Free State League title this year, with Bohemians and Shelbourne again keeping them company at the top of the table. The return of those players saw the famous “Four F’s” forward line of Fagan, Farrell, Flood and Fullam being assembled for the first time (only Farrell had not been with the club in 1922-23), and the foursome contributed 56 of the club’s 67 league goals this season, as the south Dublin side eclipsed their scoring rate of two seasons ago. The Rovers revival, in fact, took the form of a domestic “treble”, with goals from Fullam and Flood securing a 2-1 victory over Shelbourne in the 1925 Free State Cup decider (the first between two Free State League clubs; it was also the first where takings exceeded those of the I.F.A. Cup final), and the club also getting their hands on the Free State Shield for the first time. A 2-1 win at Dalymount Park on the last day of the shield not only snatched the trophy from Bohemians by a solitary point, but ensured that Rovers went through the entire season unbeaten.

Meanwhile, Fordsons F.C. showed themselves to have been very worthy of their inclusion in the league (they only entered the fray when Shelbourne United resigned their place after the opening day of the season), with a respectable fourth-placed finish for the newcomers. 1925 again saw a change in the league’s make-up, with Brooklyn’s disastrous shield campaign (34 goals were conceded in just nine games) contributing to their exclusion for the following year. Their place was taken by Brideville F.C., a club from the Liberties area on the south side of Dublin city.

Free State League 1924-25

Shamrock Rovers181350671231
St. James’s Gate18576303617
Athlone Town18549153214
Bray Unknowns18331221449

League top scorers : Billy Farrell Shamrock Rovers, 25 Bob Fullam Shamrock Rovers, 20 Ned Brooks Bohemians 20

Representative match : Free State League 1-2 Welsh League

1923-24 Free State League season

The fact that there were now only ten clubs allowed the league race to again take place between September and December, and following their second and third-placed finishes in the previous two seasons, Bohemians captured their first league championship this time around. They won each of their first 15 games to all but assure themselves of the title, with nearest challengers Shelbourne six points adrift with just three matches remaining. Shels then defeated their title rivals 5-2 to keep the race alive for at least one more week (they also ended the Bohemians winning streak; that run of 15 consecutive victories has yet to be equalled in the League of Ireland), but a 4-1 win for Bohs over St. James’s Gate in the next round of matches finally confirmed the Dalymount Park (they finished with maximum points from their home games, and went unbeaten at home in all three competitions) club as champions.

Bohemians defeat Shelbourne 2-0 at Dalymount Park in October 1923

It was a little harder to separate Bohemians and Shelbourne (who also went unbeaten at home, bar a 2-0 Free State Cup quarter-final defeat to Athlone Town) in the subsequent Free State Shield competition, competed for this year (from January to May) on a “round robin” basis, with each league side facing each other once. After both Bohs and Shels had remained unbeaten in their nine games, the Gypsies won through in a Dalymount Park play-off, with an extra-time winner from Ned Brooks (against his former club) preventing the Reds from performing a shield “three-in-a-row”.

Athlone Town combined a fourth place finish in the league with victory in the Free State Cup, defeating non-league Fordsons of Cork 1-0 in the decider. Dinny Hannon’s (who had previously won an I.F.A. Cup medal with Bohemians) goal was the only one that either of the clubs had conceded during the entire cup campaign. The Cork side, formed in 1922, had strong links to the Ford Motor Factory in the city, and took their name from the Fordson tractor that many of the club’s members had a hand in producing. The Ballinlough-based outfit, along with Bray Unknowns, would be incorporated into the Free State League for 1924-25, at the expense of Midland Athletic and Shelbourne United.

December of 1923 saw the first signs of reconciliation between football clubs from north and south of the border, with Bohemians traveling to Belfast to play Linfield, and Shelbourne hosting Glentoran at Shelbourne Park. Although relations between the two football associations remained frosty, one-off “friendly” matches between Dublin and Belfast clubs continued for the rest of the 1920s, with Bohemians and Linfield deciding to meet every year to contest the ‘Condor Cup’ (north-south matches were always well-attended and were a welcome boost to clubs’ finances). Meanwhile, February 1924 saw the first ever “inter-league” match involving a Free State League representative side (the team had made its unofficial debut against French club Gallia in Dublin in April 1923), with Welsh football relaxing its previously held stance by sending a team to Dalymount Park. 15,000 people turned out to watch the two sides play out an entertaining 3-3 draw, with the home goals coming from St. James’s Gate’s Ernie McKay, and Bohemians’ in-form English centre-forward, Dave Roberts (who scored twice).

A newsreel from early 1924 shows Bohemians in action against Linfield at Windsor Park

Then, a couple of months later, a squad of 20 home-based players travelled to Paris to represent the Irish Free State at the 1924 Olympic Games. While the competition (the most prestigious in the world at the time, in the absence of World Cups, European Championships etc.) was limited to amateur players, it would serve as an international swansong for I.F.A. international veteran Dinny Hannon, and an early introduction to international football for the likes of Tommy Muldoon (Athlone Town, and later Aston Villa), Jack McCarthy (Bohemians), and Joe Kendrick (Brooklyn, and later Everton and Dolphin). A goal from St. James’s Gate’s Paddy Duncan against Bulgaria set up a quarter-final tie against Holland, but a 2-1 extra-time defeat in this match ended the Irish involvement in the competition.

Free State League 1923-24

Athlone Town18855342421
St. James’s Gate18927382720
Shelbourne United18837303119
Shamrock Rovers18738353217
Midland Athletic18201613624

League top scorers : Dave Roberts Bohemians, 20 Christy Robinson Bohemians, 12 Frank Rushe Shelbourne, 12

Representative match : Free State League 3-3 Welsh League

(Note: Representative matches refer only to games against other league selections, or international sides – fixtures against clubs etc. are not included)

1922-23 Free State League season

With the expanded format meaning the league ran from September through to April, Shamrock Rovers stormed to the league title in their very first season, averaging three and a half goals a game, and securing 21 points out of a possible 22 from their away programme. While they did lose their debut league fixture 1-0 at home (Rovers had set themselves up at a ground called “Elm Park” in Milltown in south Dublin, having spent much of their existence playing at Ringsend Park) to fellow newcomers Shelbourne United (the latter club would move into Elm Park with Rovers for the 1923-24 campaign), Rovers proceeded to go unbeaten for the remaining 21 games, and eventually finished five points clear of their nearest challengers Shelbourne. Like Rovers, both Shels and third-placed Bohemians had found goals very easy to come by, with each scoring 72 in their 22 league games. Indeed, this was the first campaign to feature an inordinate amount of one-sided fixtures, with Shelbourne’s 9-0 win over Pioneers (Shels won the teams’ other league meeting 7-0) and Shamrock Rovers’ 9-1 defeat of Midland Athletic being the most extreme examples.

The F.A.I.F.S.’s affiliation with the Falls Road Football Association in nationalist West Belfast led to a surprise in the Free State Cup, with junior Falls Road side Alton United defeating Shelbourne 1-0 in the final (like the previous year, the final took place on St. Patrick’s Day at Dalymount Park). The victory could perhaps be explained by the presence of several former Belfast Celtic players in the side, with the latter club being suspended from the Irish League at the time. Indeed, due to the tense political situation north of the border, the cup was not actually brought back to Belfast, and with the club affiliating to the I.F.A. for the following season, Alton would never actually have the opportunity to defend the trophy.

Shelbourne could take a little consolation from a retention of the Free State Shield following a 2-1 victory over Athlone at Dalymount Park in May, the competition having been run on a straight knockout basis this season. 1922-23 would unfortunately prove to be the only Free State League campaign for Rathmines Athletic (they resigned with one of their league matches still to be completed), with Olympia and Dublin United also bowing out. Brooklyn F.C., yet another Dublin side (they played out of Chalgrove Terrace on the South Circular Road), would be the only new addition for the 1923-24 league season.

Free State League 1922-23

Shamrock Rovers221831771939
Shelbourne United221237433727
St. James’s Gate221138493525
Athlone Town221138463325
Midland Athletic227213306816
Dublin United224315307011
Rathmines Athletic22211921745

League top scorers : Bob Fullam Shamrock Rovers, 27 Ralph Ardiff Shelbourne, 26 Stephen Doyle Shelbourne, 14 Paddy Duncan St. James’s Gate, 14 Christy Robinson Bohemians, 14

French side Gallia draw 1-1 with Bohemians at Dalymount Park in March 1923

1921-22 League of Ireland season

The first League of Ireland season, kicking off in September of 1921, saw St. James’s Gate capturing a league and cup double. The competitions, originally the Football League of Ireland (with, like the British leagues, two points for a win and one for a draw) and the F.A.I. Cup, were renamed the Free State League and Free State Cup in the aftermath of the opening league campaign. This was done in anticipation of the foundation of the new, 26-county southern Irish “Free State”, which, in accordance with the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, was due to come into existence in December of 1922. The F.A.I. itself was to undergo a similar change, becoming the “Football Association of the Irish Free State” (F.A.I.F.S.) upon its successful entry to F.I.F.A. in 1923.

St. James’s Gate had secured both national trophies in rather dramatic circumstances. The league championship race had boiled down to a last-day (December 17th) showdown with second-placed Bohemians at St. James’s Park, a 1-0 “Gate” victory enough to clinch the title by two points, with Shelbourne a further three points back in third. The Free State Cup final (held at Bohemians’ Dalymount Park), meanwhile, almost descended into complete pandemonium. With non-league Shamrock Rovers having forced a replay following an initial 1-1 draw on St. Patrick’s Day (a game that had attracted a very satisfactory crowd of 15,000), a first-half goal from Jack Kelly was enough to see off their spirited challenge in the second match, or so it appeared. An on-field dispute between Rovers’ Bob Fullam and St. James’s Gate’s Charlie Dowdall escalated into full-blown fisticuffs after the final whistle, and with Rovers players and fans taking the opportunity to assault members of the winning team (the incident was typical of the general lawlessness that was prevalent during the aftermath of the Irish Civil War), the fracas continued all the way into the St. James’s Gate dressing room. It was only when Dowdall’s brother Jack (who had seen active military service) fired a gunshot into the ceiling that order was restored. (The format of the Free State Cup was similar to that of the F.A. Cup in Britain, with non-league sides competing in a number of preliminary rounds, before joining up with the Free State League sides for the first round “proper”. The winners of the first round ties then proceeded to the quarter-final stage.)

With the league season having been wrapped up by December, it was decided to provide for the creation of a Free State Shield, which would come to be seen as the third most important competition in Irish Free State football. The tournament initially ran from December to April, and took the form of a full league programme for the inaugural season, with each Free State League club facing each other twice. The inaugural Free State Shield was won by Shelbourne, who, bar two defeats by second-placed Bohemians (who collected full points from their Dalymount Park outings, and conceded just seven goals in their entire shield programme), recouped maximum points from their 14 shield fixtures.

It had perhaps been no surprise that only Bohemians and Shelbourne had mounted realistic challenges to St. James’s for that first league title. The campaign would prove to be the first and only season for Frankfort (they resigned with three of their shield games still unplayed) and Y.M.C.A., the latter having failed to record a single league victory, taking just three draws from their 14 league games. Shamrock Rovers, who had been formed in the Ringsend / Irishtown (they took their name from nearby Shamrock Avenue) area of Dublin as far back as 1901, would be one of six new league recruits for 1922-23. Of the others, Shelbourne United (with no links to Shelbourne F.C., this club played at Angelsea Road, Ballsbridge for their first season), Pioneers (who drew from membership of the alcoholic abstinence organisation of the same name, and played out of Strand Road, Clontarf for their first season), Midland Athletic (a railway works team based at “The Thatch” in Whitehall; they would share the venue with Pioneers from 1923 onwards) and Rathmines Athletic (based at Rathmines Park) were also from Dublin, while Athlone Town (one of the oldest clubs in the Free State, having been established in 1887; their first home was the Sports Ground) had the distinction of being the first Free State League side from outside the capital city.

League of Ireland 1921-22

St. James’s Gate14111231823
Dublin United14509253910

League top scorers : Jack Kelly St. James’s Gate, 11 Paddy Smith Jacobs, 10 E. Pollock Bohemians, 9

Bohemians play a pre-season friendly against a Falls League selection