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Remembering the League of Ireland during the war years

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If the League of Ireland 2020 season is voided then that will be a first since the foundation of the League in 1921. In England their top leagues were not played during the seasons bookended by World War Two, a time which our league here survived.

Obviously we were neutral during World War Two and so in theory had no reason not to play our league, but that’s not how things were in reality. Over the course of the war some 70,000 Irish citizens fought in the Allied armies [the vast majority in the British army], and to that you can add in those who may have joined up having already been in Britain or the US before the war started.

Add in again the 200,000 who emigrated to participate in the war economy in the UK and you have not just a 26 counties missing a huge chunk of its citizens but a League of Ireland missing a huge chunk of its player pool. This had a marked effect on how the various seasons of the League of Ireland unfolded during the war years.

So how did things go? The League of Ireland had started out in 1921-22 as an 8-team affair made up entirely of Dublin clubs who had decamped from the Leinster Senior League. By 1938-39 the League was in its 18th season and had 12 teams, with plenty of representation from outside Dublin. Shamrock Rovers lifted the title, and my home town of Bray were represented by Bray Unknowns [playing out of the Carlisle Grounds] who finished ninth.

The League was a 22-game season back then, with every team playing every other side once at home and once away. Goals were in plentiful supply – 1938-39 served up 525 in its 132 games, for a goals-per-game ratio of 4.0, healthy figures.

1939-40 saw St James Gate crowned champions, and again Bray Unknowns finished a respectable ninth. There were even more goals – 540 across 132 games for a 4.1 goals-per-game ratio. 1940-41 saw the League reduced to 11 teams, with Cork United lifting the title and Bray Unknowns propping up the table. The goals kept raining in – 461 in 110 games for a 4.2 goals-per-game ratio.

The war must have been starting to bite into the player pool by 1941-42 because the League was only a 10-team contest that season. Cork United were champions for the second successive season and Bray Unknowns finished bottom again; 366 goals were scored in the 90 games for a 4.1 goals-per-game ratio.

It was Groundhog Day in 1942-43, with Cork United top again and Unknowns bottom again; this time out there were 339 goals in the 90 games for a wartime-low goals-per-game ratio of 3.8 [a ratio that is still very healthy]. Unknowns may have suffered the season’s heaviest home defeat on two occasions – losing 5-0 at home to St James’ Gate and Dundalk, but they were victors in the season’s highest-scoring game, a 5-4 win over Brideville at The Carlisle Grounds [my grandfather was at the game and told me about it from memory many years later].

1943-44 saw Shelbourne wrest the title from Cork United’s grasp, winning it for the fourth time. St James’ Gate finished bottom. Both Bray Unknowns and Brideville had departed after 1942-43 – without being replaced – reducing the League to eight teams as the war bit harder. The league was now only a 56-game season, and saw 222 goals scored for another healthy goals-per-game ratio of 4.0.

Cork United won the title back in 1944-45, a season that saw 229 goals in its 56 games for a 4.1 goals-per-game ratio. The war was coming to an end at this point but 1945-46 saw no let-up in United’s dominance as they lifted their fifth title in six campaigns. The goals rained in harder than ever that season, with 258 in 56 games for a ratio of 4.7.

It took a while for the League to get its numbers back up after the war ended. It would be 1948-49 before it was restored to 10 sides, and it was into the 1950’s [1951-52] before the numbers climbed back to 12. During the war years the 1943-44 and 1944-45 campaigns had been the ones that were most-heavily lopsided in favour of Dublin, with just Cork United, Dundalk and Limerick taking part from outside the capital.

Writing this piece brought back memories of my grandfather, who was an authority on Bray Unknowns, and who died this month in 1999 aged 93, just a few weeks before Bray Wanderers lifted their second FAI Cup.

When Unknowns left the league in 1943 it brought to an end a 19-year residence there, and although the club limped on until 1973-74 [when they effectively merged with Bray Wanderers to give birth to the current club] they never scaled League of Ireland heights again.

Wisdom has it that when Unknowns had joined the League in 1924 they were the second non-Dublin club to play in the national division [after Athlone Town]. Grandad always disputed this, because between 1924 and 1929 Unknowns had played in Woodbrook, just over the Wicklow / Dublin border. He was right, technically – the 2-2 draw against Dundalk at the Carlisle in 1929 was the first League of Ireland game played in Wicklow!

As a youngster I loved hearing all about Unknowns. Owen McNally was a particular hero of Grandad’s. He was a Scot who had come to Unknowns from Celtic, and scored 21 goals in the 1930-31 campaign [Owen later played for Cardiff City, Leicester City and Shamrock Rovers, with whom he won a League medal in 1938-39].

Rovers were the team Grandad feared most; they beat Unknowns 11-0 at Woodbrook in 1928 [the club’s record defeat], and trudging back over the border and up through the town to home was a depressing journey for Grandad and the rest of the Unknowns’ faithful.

Brian Quigley

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