Scottish-born Boys in Green and some who might-have-been - From Charlie Gallagher to James McCarthy

Football friends...

Football friends... Credit: Jason O'Callaghan (ETPhotos)

We seem to have moved on from the point whereby the announcement of the FAI senior men’s squad is noted for the discussion of who has been left out as much as for the celebration of those who were included.

McGeady and McCarthy

Two eligible players who didn’t make Stephen Kenny’s UEFA Nations League squad are the Scottish-born duo of Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy. The pair along with many others have all followed the lead of Charlie Gallagher, who passed away on 11 July 2021, aged 80. Gallagher was the first Scottish-born to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland, but had different eligibility rules applied before his time others may have made the same choice before he did.

The absence of both McGeady and McCarthy from recent Ireland squads has been largely unlamented. McCarthy has hardly been pulling up trees for Celtic this last season. This must frustrate Stephen Kenny who, when he took over the senior team, reportedly mentioned McCarthy as a possible midfield anchor.

The Irish manager has since had to acknowledge that, in spite of McCarthy’s commitment to Ireland, the load caused by international football might preclude further international caps. McGeady’s second coming at Sunderland in 2021 did not see a similar resurrection of his international career and he has not played for the Wearsiders this year either. 

Indeed, when McGeady did make the news recently it was for upbraiding BBC Radio Scotland’s Kenny Macintyre. Macintyre had asked an insouciant question about whether McGeady had received ‘a lot of flak’ for choosing to play for Ireland. McGeady’s response was sharp: ‘Come on, man! What, going to every away ground in Scotland and getting booed every time you touched the ball? Did that not happen? It did, didn't it’.

McGeady had a point about the nature of the question having been booed as recently as last summer while playing in a pre-season friendly for Sunderland against Heart of Midlothian. 

A footballer’s choice of another country over that of their birth can often attract criticism but, as McGeady pointed out to Macintyre, the level of vitriol thrown at himself and McCarthy has far exceeded anything received by others such as the Scottish-born Canada international Scott Arfield; or, though McGeady didn’t mention it, Aberdeen-born Socceroo Martin Boyle, formerly of Hibernian.

This has uncomfortable echoes of the past and McGeady was entirely right to question whether it was really the nation he had chosen to play for that was the issue rather than his rejection of Scotland per se.

Since the career paths of Declan Rice, Jack Grealish and the Keane brothers (amongst others) have led to an increased focus on issues of eligibility in underage international football, we should note that McCarthy represented Ireland exclusively at underage level but was the subject of a much speculation about his allegiance even after his senior debut in a friendly against Brazil.

This speculation rose to crescendo after McCarthy pulled out of a senior squad, prior to making his competitive debut, but it was ultimately quashed after a face-to-face meeting with Giovanni Trapattoni. 

McGeady was part of the Scotland set up at schoolboy level, but had run into a particularly arcane and bureaucratic eligibility row. His club, Celtic, refused to allow youth players play schools football and Scotland refused to pick players who didn’t play for their own school.

Packie Bonnar knew McGeady’s father, an ex-pro footballer, and Donegal-born grandfather, and so asked the young Parkhead prospect to play for Ireland. It is fair to say that both McGeady and McCarthy have had their moments in green and would have at least as many caps had they chosen to wear dark blue. 

Charlie Gallagher

In February 1967, the appearance of Celtic’s Charlie Gallagher for Ireland in a 2-1 defeat to Turkey in a Euros (then referred to as the ‘European Nations Cup’) qualifier in front of a crowd of 40,000 at the Maysi Stadium in Ankara, marked the first time Scottish-born player had been capped by the Republic.

That month, Celtic manager Jock Stein made Charlie his captain for one Scottish Cup game against Elgin City to mark this selection and Gallagher’s newfound status as what the Scots call an ‘internationalist’. Gallagher won his second and last cap as part of a team that lost to Czechoslovakia at Dalymount Park in front of a crowd of around 6,000 in May 1967. A game described by the Evening Herald as ‘the poorest international for years’ in which an understrength Republic of Ireland predictably crashed out of the qualifiers for the 1968 Euros. 

Gallagher was criticised by the press for slow play after both of his caps. Noel Dunne of the Irish Independent put what he saw as Gallagher’s overly-deliberate style down to the fact that Charlie played his football in Scotland rather than England.

Given that Scotland had beaten Jack Charlton’s England 3-2 at Wembley that season, and with six home-based players in the team to boot, this was likely unfair to Scottish football. Criticism of the Ireland team following the defeat to the Czechs and Slovaks was widespread, Al Finucane and Eamon Dunphy were also targeted. It was perhaps unsurprising that this proved to be Charlie Gallagher’s last Ireland cap. One of his jerseys later adorned the wall of a pub in his parents’ native Gweedore.

Days after his last Ireland cap, Charlie Gallagher did not feature in Celtic’s European Cup final triumph over Inter Milan but he was always considered an integral part of the ‘Lisbon Lions’ group, not least because he had taken the corner from which captain Billy McNeill scored a last-minute winner in the quarter-final second-leg against Vojvodina.

Gallagher had previously featured in Celtic’s first European game, versus Valencia, in 1962. All together he spent 12 years as a player at Parkhead, making 171 appearances in major competitions, gaining five winners medals (three League, a Cup and League Cup) while scoring 32 goals in the process. He later worked as a scout for Celtic between 1976 and 1978. Gallagher was also part of the Dumbarton team that brought the 1972 Scottish Second Division title to Boghead Park after he moved there from Celtic in 1970.

The respect that Charlie Gallagher was held in by Celtic supporters was obvious in late July 2021 when the route of his funeral cortege encompassed Celtic Park. 

Gallagher’s selection for Ireland followed on from that of Manchester-born Shay Brennan in a game against Spain in May 1965, and London-born John Dempsey, against the same opponents, the following year. Dempsey, Brennan, and Gallagher were the beneficiaries of a new FIFA rule which allowed players to represent the country of their parents (this was later expanded to grandparents).

Prior to this, players had played for the country of their birth in international competitions. Indeed, Charlie Gallagher himself had previously represented Scotland at under-18 level. 

Patsy Gallacher – a special footballer

Overall, we can probably say that the FAI’s teams would have been improved if the eligibility rules that operated before the Charlie Gallagher’s time had been different. However, this is by no means certain, at least in relation to players based in Scotland. Celtic’s Patsy Gallacher, a superstar of the game either side of the First World War, would, under today’s rules, qualify for both Scotland (residency) and the Republic of Ireland (birthplace).

‘Peerless Patsy’ as he was known to the Parkhead faithful, was a native of one of Ireland’s best football towns, Ramelton, home of Swilly Rovers and McDaid’s ‘Football Special’ drink, but had moved to the land of Celtic and Irn Bru at the age of three. As it was in his day, Gallacher qualified for the IFA’s 32-county ‘Ireland’ XI that played in the Home Nations Championship (a football version of rugby’s ‘Six Nations’ only without France and Italy) and the Irish Free State.

Patsy’s appearance for the latter against Spain at Dalymount in 1931 (aged 40), while a Falkirk player, is still a record for the oldest debutant on an FAI senior team. Gallacher did represent his adopted country on other occasions. He played for the Scottish League against the Irish League (now NIFL) and an SFA-sponsored ‘Scotland XI’ that toured Canada playing various regional teams.

Two that got away

A duo who might have been targeted by the FAI if the rules had allowed were Jimmy McGrory and Paddy Crerand. Born in Scotland to two Irish parents, McGrory was a Celtic legend and a genuine star of the game who wore the dark blue of Scotland in both inter-league and international competition.

There has been some suggestion that McGrory, a prolific goalscorer in the 1920s and 1930s, whose 410 league goals remains a record in Scotland, was unfairly excluded from Scottish representative teams because of the levels of sectarianism at that particular time, although it should be noted that he was competing for his position against another genuine great, Hughie Gallacher. McGrory became Celtic manager in 1945 having had to take work outside football during the Second World War (as the Scots insist on calling the Emergency).

That he might have been amenable to a call up from the FAI during his playing career can perhaps be inferred from the fact that while he was manager at Parkhead, McGrory sparked controversy when he wrote to Éamon de Valera to ask for a new Irish tricolour to replace the tattered one that flew over Celtic’s clubhouse. Dev obliged, but the SFA demanded that Celtic take down the symbol of a ‘foreign country’.

Celtic’s campaign to keep the flag in place was ultimately successful, but not before the Glasgow club had to threaten to resign from the Scottish League. 

Paddy Crerand, a cousin of Charlie Gallagher, was another one that perhaps got away from the FAI. Crerand’s mother and both Charlie’s parents were from Gweedore and the families lived close to each other in Glasgow. Crerand actually made his 1961 debut for Scotland in a World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland, and is said to have caused confusion by joining in with Amhrán na bhFiann.

Some older readers may remember Paddy referring to the Republic of Ireland as ‘we’ during his occasional appearances on the RTÉ panel in the 1990s. He is perhaps most associated with Manchester United having been part of the team that won the European Cup at Wembley in 1968 and, later, a long-time pundit on MUTV.

Who put the ball in the English net?

Before James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady, other Scottish-born footballers had trod the path lit by Charlie Gallagher. The most successful of these was undoubtedly Ray Houghton, Glasgow-born son of a Donegal father, who scored two of the most iconic goals in Irish football history: against England at the Neckar Stadion in Stuttgart, and Italy at Giants Stadium, New Jersey.

Houghton earned the first of his 73 caps in Jack Charlton’s first game as manager in 1986, his last in the World Cup play-off defeat to Belgium in 1997, and is still a regular pundit on RTÉ. He has also performed some non-playing roles for the FAI over the years.

Tommy Coyne

Perhaps a fitting example to finish with is Houghton’s 1994 World Cup team-mate, Tommy Coyne. Many Ireland fans over the age of 35 will have fond memories of Coyne, who scored the winner for the Boys in Green in a famous friendly victory away to the Netherlands in April 1994.  

Coyne had made an emotional return to international football that night having retired from all forms of the game twelve months earlier due to a personal tragedy. Born and raised in the shadow of Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium, Coyne was a home-and-away regular on his local Celtic Supporters Club bus as a boy, and later became a prolific striker in Scotland’s Premier Division. Coyne made his Republic of Ireland debut aged 31, and had, earlier in life, travelled to the 1982 World Cup in Spain to support Scotland as a fan.

In spite of this, Tommy Coyne has remained loyal to the green jersey since retirement and travelled to Paris to support the Republic in Euro 2016. When asked who he wanted to win between Ireland and Scotland during the preceding qualifying campaign Coyne’s response was, as he related to the Scotsman newspaper: ‘Who do you expect I want to win? I am Scottish but I never played for Scotland. It is a silly question. It would be wrong of me to want Scotland to win’. 

Recent stories in the media about CJ Hamilton remind us that the entanglements caused by migration can be complex. The economic and political histories of Ireland and Scotland make our entanglements more complex than most.