“At one club, a former English international was coaching the Youth Training Scheme lads and he asked at one session for all Roman Catholics to make themselves known,” Hand said. “Two Irish boys were the only two to stand forward and they were relentlessly victimized after that. He proceeded to be totally biased in his treatment of them in everything they did. The two boys didn’t report him for that because they would have been too afraid to do so. That’s where I will come in.”
That chilling yarn came to mind the other day when we discovered that at a lavish charity dinner next Sunday evening, the English Football Museum in Preston will formally induct 23 players and six managers as part of its inaugural Hall of Fame class. Trawl down through the list and you see names that evoke different eras in the rich history of soccer. From Stanley Matthews to Duncan Edwards, George Best to Kenny Dalglish, there are so many true legends to marvel at until something suddenly strikes you as odd. Of the 29 people deemed worthy of inclusion in the first batch, not one single player from the Republic of Ireland makes the cut. Not a single one.
“I’m really proud to be included,” Bobby Charlton said last week. “It’s a great honor. If you look at the names included, I have to say I couldn’t argue with them. They are all great players and people I would love to have played with. And I think it’s great that the museum has secured the Hall of Fame for the benefit of future generations of both footballers and supporters.”
We can certainly argue with a few of them. What sort of a distorted version of the game’s history is the museum passing on if there isn’t one person from the Republic of Ireland reckoned good enough for induction at this stage? Do the names Johnny Carey, Liam Whelan, Liam Brady, Johnny Giles and Paul McGrath mean anything to these people? And that’s only a selection of former greats for starters? Denis Irwin (currently enjoying an excellent spell at Wolves) has amassed more winners’ medals in the last decade than any other player in England, and, if he doesn’t make too many more enemies in the meantime, Roy Keane will one day be acknowledged as the unquestioned “player of the ’90s.” Surely that counts for, ahem, something.
Well, apparently not. In its infinite wisdom, this institution ranks the six seasons Eric Cantona spent at Elland Road and Old Trafford ahead of the immense contributions of Giles and McGrath. Never mind that Giles spent nearly three times as long in the engine rooms of both Manchester United and Leeds United, or that a late bloomer like McGrath continued to lord it over opposing forwards in the Premiership during a stint with Derby County at the ripe old age of 37. No, from what we can gather, these excellent judges somehow rank Paul Gascoigne’s fleeting impact on the domestic game, before he went to Lazio and became a fully fledged idiot, as far superior to Brady’s illustrious Arsenal career. That Brady can also be described as the most successful export from the English league to Serie A obviously didn’t count for much either.
Without wanting to lapse into the age-old tendency of seeing a perceived English slight where none might be intended, it appears something is genuinely amiss here. Every Irish fan owes English soccer a huge debt for affording our brightest talents a place to play down through the decades, but they owe us something too. From pioneers like Patrick O’Connell (Manchester United captain in the 1910s) to John O’Shea in the present day, players from the Republic have greatly enriched the fabric of the game. Most properly written and researched histories of British soccer reflect that much, and so too should this Hall of Fame. To do otherwise is to insult the memory of the Careys, the Whelans and the Gileses.
“This dinner will become an annual event, as eagerly awaited, much debated and exciting as the Oscars,” gushed Mark Bushell, curator of the museum. “We believe that a Hall of Fame is long overdue. Every year we lose great footballing characters such as Sir Stanley Matthews and Bobby Moore and it seems such a shame that their services to the game are not recognized during their lifetime.”
A far greater shame is when the collective service given by one nation’s finest players is ignored and demeaned in this fashion. Worse again, this feeds into a growing belief that Irish stars never quite get the credit they deserve. The way things are going at the moment, Roy Keane will end his magnificent career with just one Players’ Player of the Year award and one Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award to his name. A decade of brilliance during which he has been routinely cited by opposing managers as the single biggest reason behind Manchester United’s success has yielded a piffling tally of the most prized individual honors in the English game. What else are we supposed to think but prejudice?
When Liam Whelan arrived at Old Trafford in 1953, Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner and another Home Farm alumnus, was the club captain.
“Liam, is it?” asked Carey upon being first introduced to the new boy. “Well, hold on to that name for as long as you can. They’re sure to try to take that away from you here.”
By the time of his untimely death in the Munich air disaster five years later, Liam was known to English fans almost uniformly as Billy. Even half a century ago, Carey knew the score.