There is something ludicrous about the state of football on the neighbouring island. It seems we know as much about footballers for what happens off the pitch as what happens on it. That, of course, isn’t wholly novel though.
More than any other individual, it was the great Jackie Carey – hailing from Dublin’s north side – who turned the Irish public onto British football, back in a time when television (never mind televised football) remained a distant dream for most in Ireland.
The story of this great talent began on the streets. As a youngster, Carey played for Home Farm on the north side, a football team born in 1928 out of street-football leagues among Dublin’s working class. Home Farm became one of the great Irish sporting success stories, producing endless talents who were later snapped up by English clubs.
In his youth, Carey had divided loyalties. While he adored soccer, he also maintained a love for GAA, playing for Dublin’s football team at minor level. This kind of flirtation with two sports was totally forbidden, with the GAA banning the playing (and even the watching) of “foreign games”.
The GAA had its own Vigilance Committee, tasked with ensuring that young men did not dabble in dangerous sports. The writer Breandán Ó hEithir later recalled the fear of the GAA Vigilance Committee, remembering them “trying to spot their straying sheep among the graceless goats”.
For Carey, soccer won out. He played for League of Ireland side St James’s Gate, a formidable force in their day, and was spotted by the famous football scout Billy Behan in 1936. Behan was an almost mythical figure in Irish soccer circles, the chief scout for Manchester United in Ireland.
Over the course of a long career, Behan found Jackie Carey, Liam Whelan, Johnny Giles, Paul McGrath, and many many other great talents. Johnny Giles writes about him in his autobiography as having “a kind of sixth sense for identifying the players who would make it”. Jackie Carey was his first great find.
Carey first stepped onto the field in a Manchester United jersey at 17, and he would remain at the club until the 1950s. In his time at United he played in ten different positions, including once lining out as a emergency goalkeeper. He would become the first Irishman to win a major trophy with the iconic club.
Carey’s talent came into its own at the worst possible time, as the eruption of the Second World War brought British football to a standstill. Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium was directly hit in the Blitz, leaving it out of action until 1949.
When the war broke out, Carey arrived back in Dublin, lining up for a “Shamrock Rovers XI” and a “League of Ireland XI” in exhibition matches in Dublin’s Dalymount Park. Huge crowds came to see him play, having heard of his ability on the football pitch in newspaper and radio reports.
Carey’s arrival in Dublin as a global war broke out may appear strange, almost like a young man running away from a conflict. Yet in reality he was deeply loyal to the country that provided him with work as a footballer and even enlisted in the British war effort.
Carey proclaimed that “a country that gives me my living is worth fighting for”, joining the British Army and serving in Italy and north Africa. For many in Ireland, Carey’s decision to fight in a British Army uniform in the war raised awkward questions, not least given Ireland’s neutrality in the conflict.
As Eamon Dunphy put it, “he didn’t fit the caricature of national identity in which we cloaked ourselves. There was no place in the national identity parade for a gentleman soccer player from Dublin who had served the British army.” In the censored media of the period, most Irish people remained unaware of Carey’s contribution to the British war effort.
In the years that followed the Second World War, Carey lined up for both club and country. In an Irish context, international football was a total mess, with two separate teams competing under the name “Ireland” in the decades after partition.
Both the Football Association of Ireland (based in Dublin) and the Irish Football Association (based in Belfast) claimed to be the only legitimate footballing authority in Ireland. Incredibly, the same players could even line out for both sides.
Carey had the honour of playing against England twice in September 1946, with the two games only three days apart. On 28 September he was part of the IFA team that were trashed 7-2 in Belfast by England, while three days later the FAI XI lost 1-0 to the same team in Dublin. Eventually, the international football community stepped in, making it clear to Belfast and Dublin there could no longer be two “Ireland” teams competing.
Following a successful career as a player, Carey made the leap to manager. He took charge of Everton in the 1960-61 season, leading them to fifth position in the English league, but for some behind the scenes at the Merseyside club it just wasn’t enough.
Carey lost his job in an undignified manner, when the club chairman sacked him as they journeyed in the back of taxi. The British tabloids got a news headline that they’ve been reusing ever since from the fiasco, as “TAXI FOR __________!” remains the staple for any manager who finds himself thrown out the door.
Shocked by his own dismissal, he joked to his wife Margaret that, “I must be the most successful failure in this business.”
Jackie Carey died in England in 1995, taking his place in history as one of Dublin’s greatest footballing talents.