By Eddie Bohan
As war raged across Europe in May 1942, a divided Ireland found itself even more partitioned than it was twenty years earlier. The Northern half, as part of the United Kingdom, found itself in the midst of the action while the South maintained an almost strict neutral policy under the Government of Éamon de Valera. But just like the trenches of the ‘Green Fields of France’ during an earlier battle, there was common ground found on the island that united a nation, soccer.
With wartime curfews in place, you would have thought that travel would have been heavily restricted and that fuel rationing would have made organising anything outside your own city almost impossible. But no, the IFA and the FAI unified an island as clubs north and south, Protestant and Catholic, vied for various trophies in the midst of a world conflagration.
It brought respite and entertainment to thousands on the island desperate to be distracted from the horrors of war. This All Ireland competition began in 1942. The Inter City Cup (officially the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup), was an end of season tournament involving all six clubs from the north competing in the reduced Regional League and six from the South’s League of Ireland, playing home and away ties throughout May.
The games north of the border were initially all played at Grosvenor Park (later also Windsor Park) while the games in ‘Eire’ were all played at Dalymount Park. The tournament was a financial success with thousands paying through the turnstiles generating £3,230 (€190,000 in 2021) which was divided between the twelve clubs, bonuses paid to the two teams that would compete in the final.
This was a lifeline for clubs in Ireland starved of the British soccer superstars who would usually travel to Ireland for a serious of cash making friendlies. The competition was not to everyone’s liking, as the four League of Ireland clubs not invited to compete Drumcondra, Bray Unknowns, Brideville and Limerick claimed compensation from the League of Ireland for being excluded. Their claim fell on deaf ears.
The first round of six matches saw the winners progress plus the two best losers. The ties were decided on aggregate scores from home and away and if the teams were tied at that point, there was no penalty shootouts or golden goals, it was decided by who had earned the most corners over the two legs.
One of the more interesting fixtures was the meeting of Derry City and Shamrock Rovers in Belfast. Derry sought extra money to cover their travel expenses as they were the only one of the six clubs from the North based outside Belfast. Clubs in the South like Cork United and Limerick were receiving expenses to offset travel costs to Dublin to play.
Tickets for the game were priced at a shilling for unreserved, one and six for reserved and a special price of one shilling reserved seating for serving members of the British Army. There were no Southern objections and a crowd of almost five thousand filled the ground. Shamrock Rovers would later that season contest the final losing to Dundalk by a single goal in front of 25,000 spectators at Dalymount Park.
The success of the competition despite the intensifying war and a Belfast Blitz was replicated in the following year. The final between Rovers and Bohemians ended in a two all draw and was decided on corners. Rovers had nineteen corners compared to just nine for Bohemians. By 1943 private motoring had all but stopped in Ireland due to fuel shortages and gas and electricity supplies were drastically cut yet in 1943 Bohemians would travel to play in Belfast three times, twice in the rounds of the InterCity Cup in May 1943 and also to play Linfield in the pre-season Condor Cup in September, which the Dublin club won.
The teams travelled North and South by train, a four hour trip in each direction from Amiens Street to Great Victoria Station in Belfast and by bus from the stations to the grounds. Louis Crowe recounted later that he spotted his hero Tommy Ahearn on Talbot Street,‘He was beautifully turned out and was on his way to Amiens Street station, with a neat brown parcel containing his football boots tucked under his arm.’ Some clubs would stay overnight with the host club providing a dinner in a local hotel.
The 1944 Intercity Cup final was an all Belfast affair as Glentoran beat Belfast Celtic in a ‘nine goal thriller’. It was a far cry that year from the ugly scenes that marred a European tie between Shamrock Rovers and Linfield in 1984, when Linfield played Rovers at Dalymount Park, with thousands crowding the terraces to enjoy a thrilling draw.
The Intercity Cup in 1945 went to Bohemians who beat Belfast Celtic who again had made the final. In total the tournament ran for eight seasons until 1949 with Shamrock Rovers the main beneficiaries winning four of the trophies. The peak of the tournament was in 1944 and 1945 when £10,000 in gate receipts were generated but in the lean years after the war, the competition lost its glory with gates receipts in 1949 just over one thousand pounds.
Meanwhile in September 1942, the final of a pre-season North/South tournament titled The Unity Cup, was played over two legs between St James Gate and Glentoran. After a two all draw in Crumlin, the Belfast club won the cup with a 6-2 win in Belfast. In 1943 Shamrock Rovers travelled again to Belfast to play Glentoran for the Hannigan Cup losing seven goals to one. Finally in 1945 at the end of the war, Bohemians claimed the Victory Cup at Dalymount Park against Cliftonville. Following a three all draw, the destination of the trophy was decided on corners kicks.