D espite the widely held view that Sky Sports began the Irish love affair with British football, the connections between this island and football teams of the neighbouring island stretch back much further.
In 1914, Dubliner Patrick O’Connell became the first Irishman to put on the jersey of Manchester United F.C., signing for the club for the princely sum of £1,000.
While Irish migration to Salford and Manchester no doubt influenced the decision of many Irish people to follow United, the death of Dubliner Liam Whelan in the 1958 Munich air disaster also ensured that the loyalties of many here rested with the club. In the aftermath of the event, the Irish Press proclaimed that “outside of our own teams, no side is held in greater esteem than United”.
Liam Whelan, born in 1934, began his footballing days with Home Farm F.C, a Dublin institution founded in 1928. He was raised in Cabra, then a totally new suburb on the northside of Dublin, as the city began to tackle its housing crisis. He was among the first generation of youngsters to partake in street football in a new suburb so full of hope for Dublin’s working class.
In signing for United in 1953, he followed in a long tradition of Dubliners that included the great Johnny Carey, who amassed more than 400 appearances for the club between 1936 and 1953. Irish newspapers closely followed the escapades of Irish players in the English league, both on and off the pitch, and there was delight during the years of the Emergency in Ireland when Carey returned to domestic football, playing two matches as a guest for Shamrock Rovers.
The remarkable Manchester United team that manager Matt Busby constructed in the 1950s achieved a legendary status as the Busby Babes, with players as young as 16 and 17 stepping into a United side, a team that footballer and commentator Eamon Dunphy has recalled as being “proud, young and fearless”.
The youthfulness of the side earned them the affectionate nickname “the Busby Babes”, and their style of play endeared them to football fans on both sides of the Irish Sea. More than 40,000 fans crammed into Dalymount Park in September 1957 to watch the side take on Shamrock Rovers. A hopeful sports reporter noted that “though a Dublin man and a Six-County man are in the visiting part, a good display will mean a lot to the prestige of Irish football”.
Matt Busby travelled to Dublin the week before the clash to watch Shamrock Rovers, telling readers of his Evening Chronicle column in Manchester that “the Shamrock boys played some really grand football – no kick and rush and no unfair tactics. They showed good team work and a confidence born of a long run of success.” In the end, United ran out clear winners, with Whelan scoring twice in a six-nil victory.
Rovers player Gerry Mackey remembered that there wasn’t much of a contest in the end, as “we ran ourselves into the ground. They scored three of their goals when we just couldn’t stand up anymore.” United’s strikers just couldn’t stop scoring, leading the Sunday Independent to quip that “next to petrol, the most valuable commodity in England today is probably the Manchester United forward line”. That a Dubliner made up a part of it created enormous pride in the Irish sporting press, and generated positive press for Home Farm F.C.
Tragically, the Busby Babes would become synonymous not with the beautiful football they played on the pitch, but with the tragic events of 6 February 1958. While travelling home from a successful European Cup match in Belgrade, United’s star team found themselves in difficulty in Munich, where their plane had stopped to refuel.
Unable to take off, their British European Airways flight crashed on its third attempt, resulting in 23 fatalities and 21 survivors. A panic had descended upon the travellers with each failed attempt at take-off, and Liam himself reportedly stated that “this may be death, but I am ready”.
Eight United players were killed, along with numerous members of the staff of the club and the sporting press. Frank Swift, a former Manchester City F.C. goalkeeper, was also among the dead. Both sides of Manchester would feel the loss of that day. United’s Derry-born goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, survived the crash, as did Belfast’s Jackie Blanchflower.
Johnny Giles, then a young Manchester United player who would come to prominence in the aftermath of the tragedy, remembered that “Dublin, like Manchester, was under a pall of gloom. It couldn’t be any other way in a city with such a football tradition, a city full of kids like me, dreaming of playing for Manchester United.”
Thousands lined the route as Whelan’s body arrived home on 11 February, taken from Dublin Airport to the Christ the King Church in Cabra. A guard of honour, made up of more than 250 players and volunteers from Home Farm, awaited the body at Whitehall. Sympathies came from GAA clubs too, with one spokesperson emphasising that “the players killed in the crash might have differed from us in their ideals, but they were sportsmen”. Whelan’s remains made the short journey from Cabra to Glasnevin Cemetery, with wreaths in the colours of both Home Farm and Manchester United in the sad procession.
For Cabra, Liam Whelan remains a local hero. Ronnie Whelan, who grew up on Attracta Road near to the Whelans and who became a Liverpool F.C. legend in his own time, remembered that “I often heard Da talking about Liam Whelan: how good he was as a player, how proud they were of him in Cabra when he made it at United, and how shocked the whole neighbourhood was to hear of his tragic death.”
That pride is today reflected in the naming of Liam Whelan Bridge, which includes a commemorative plaque unveiled by fellow Busby Babe Bobby Charlton in 2006. The Busby Babes are remembered in poem and song, with Dubliner Dominic Behan penning “Manchester Mourns” in the aftermath of the tragedy, while decades later Morrissey would sing of how “We love them, we mourn for them, unlucky boys in red.”