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England's Opponents:
Ireland's National Football Teams


England have played Irish national teams 111 times since 1882, when England met Ireland for the first time in Belfast. About one-seventh of England’s 820-plus official matches have been against Irish sides. National teams from Ireland have thus played an extremely significant role in the England team’s history.

Many football fans, particularly those outside Britain and Ireland, find it difficult to distinguish between the various names used over the years to refer to the Irish national sides. The football literature refers to Ireland, the Irish Free State, Eire, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but rarely explains the differences between them. Moreover,  "Ireland" is often confusingly used to refer to three different national teams: the team that represented united Ireland before the partition of Ireland in 1921, the team that has represented the northern part of Ireland after partition (today properly known as Northern Ireland) and the team that has represented the southern part of Ireland after partition (today properly known as the Republic of Ireland).

The Irish Football Association was founded in Belfast in 1880 and governed the game throughout the entire island of Ireland. For some 40 years--from 1882 until the early 1920’s--Ireland fielded a united national team in international matches, all of which were played against the other "home" countries--England, Scotland and Wales--and all but the first four as part of the annual British or Home International Championship.

In 1921, Ireland was partitioned. The southern part of Ireland became an independent British dominion known as the Irish Free State. That same year, the Football Association of Ireland was established in Dublin to govern the game in the new state.

FIFA granted membership to the Dublin association in 1923. Later that same year, the four original football associations--those of England, Scotland and Wales and the Belfast-based Irish Football Association--met with the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland and recognized its autonomy. It was agreed the Dublin association would change its name to the Football Association of the Irish Free State.

The Dublin association fielded a national side representing the new Irish state in international play, with the first official full international taking place March 21, 1926 against Italy.  The team representing the Irish Free State never played against England.  

A new constitution, adopted by popular vote on 1 July 1937 and taking effect on 29 December 1937, made the nation a sovereign democratic state with a new name, Eire or, in the English language, Ireland. A legislative act of 21 December 1948 made the country a republic, and while it provided that "the description of the state shall be the Republic of Ireland," the name of the nation, provided for in the 1937 constitution, remained the same, Eire or Ireland.  The national team representing Eire or Ireland met England in the first of 14 matches (including one abandoned) on 30 September 1946.  At some point along this path, the Dublin association resumed calling itself the Football Association of Ireland.

Meanwhile, following partition, the northern part of Ireland remained under British rule, and the Belfast-based Irish Football Association continued to field a national team in the annual British or Home International Championship.  Pointing to its constitutional status alongside the other home nations and FIFA as an original and permanent member of the International Football Association Board, which has had charge of the Laws of the Game since its founding in 1882, the Belfast association insisted on using "Ireland" as the name of its national team and on choosing players from the entire island of Ireland.  Over the objections of the Dublin association, the British football associations and FIFA yielded and allowed the Belfast association to select players from anywhere in Ireland, including the southern part, for matches against the home countries, although restricting selection for other matches to players from the north. In practice, this meant that the northern team was free to choose players from both parts of Ireland for all international matches because the northern team did not meet opposition from outside the home countries until 1951.

According to one source, "it was not until 1948 that the North abstained from selecting players for the national side who were from the South." Guy Oliver, The Guinness Book of World Soccer: The History of the Game in Over 150 Countries, p. 419 (2nd ed., Guinness Publishing Limited, Enfield, Middlesex, England, 1995). According to another, the friction continued even after that. "The selection of Irish players for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland national teams has caused much agitation since 1950, when it was finally decided that Irish players could not play for both teams at the same time. (Thirty-two had done so before 1950)." Richard Henshaw, The Encyclopaedia of World Soccer, p. 380 (New Republic Books, Washington, D.C., 1979).

Much confusion arose--at least outside Britain and Ireland--over the identities of the national teams from the north and the south of Ireland.  As noted above, the team representing the north continued to call itself Ireland after partition. After 1937, the British referred to the team from the south as Eire, which avoided confusion, but elsewhere it, too, was often referred to as Ireland, the English translation of Eire.  Eventually, in 1954, FIFA issued a directive which adopted a diplomatic solution preventing both national teams from calling themselves simply Ireland: the team from the north was to call itself Northern Ireland except in the British or Home International Championship, where it could continue to be known as Ireland, and the team from the south was to call itself the Republic of Ireland. The same directive formally nullified the policy allowing Northern Ireland to use players born in the Republic for matches against the other home countries.  

This FIFA-dictated name changes only added to the confusion.  The Northern Ireland team was still referred to as Ireland if only because that name was still used in the annual British Championship.  Use of the distinctive Eire became less common, but, because Republic of Ireland was a mouthful, too long for casual conversation and headlines, it was inevitably shortened to Ireland.

The football literature continues to refer to the Irish national teams in different ways and lists their results in different ways.  Nearly all sources separately list the results of the team representing the southern part of Ireland (known, in succession, as the Irish Free State, Eire or Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), although we have found one Internet source which lumps them with Ireland's pre-partition results.  Many of the British sources continue to call the southern team Eire instead of the Republic of Ireland. E.g., Association of Football Statisticians, United Kingdom & Eire International Database [Jeff Hurley]; Michael Robinson & Gerry Desmond, Soccer: The International Line-ups & Statistics Series--Eire 1926-1996 (Soccer Book Publishing Ltd., Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire, England, 1996). Some international sources call it simply Ireland instead of the Republic of Ireland. E.g., Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation, Archive of International Football Results [Russell Gerrard].

Most British sources simply lump the results of the team representing united Ireland with the later results of the team representing the northern part of Ireland and call them Northern Ireland’s results or Ireland’s results with no differentiation made. E.g., Ron Hockings & Keir Radnedge, Nations of Europe, vol. 2, pp. 81-100 (Articulate, Ernsworth, Hampshire, U.K., 1993); Michael Robinson & Marshall Gillespie, Soccer: The International Line-ups & Statistics Series--Northern Ireland 1882-1997 (Soccer Books Limited, Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire, England, 1998); Jack Rollin, Rothmans Book of Football Records, pp. 378-403 (Headline Book Publishing, London, 1998). The rationale presumably is that the teams representing united Ireland and later Northern Ireland were chosen by the same Belfast-based football association, both carried the Irish banner in the British or Home International Championship, and, until about 1950, both were composed of players from all over Ireland.

Other sources distinguish between the united Ireland team and Northern Ireland. These sources have differed, however, over the point at which the united Ireland team, known simply as Ireland, ceased to exist and the team representing the north, known as Northern Ireland, came into being.

One camp chooses 1921, the year Ireland was partitioned. Thus the Football Association’s most recent official history of the England team contains a chronological list of results stating that England’s opponent for the match of 23 October 1920 was "Ireland" while England’s opponent for the match of 22 October 1921 was "N Ireland." Niall Edworthy, England: The Official F.A. History, p. 177 (Virgin Books, London, 1997). (The same book, however, also contains country by country results lists, and it lumps matches against united Ireland with those against Northern Ireland under the heading "Ireland." Id. at 184-85.)

A second camp chooses as the demarcation point 1923, the year FIFA and the British associations recognized the autonomy of the Dublin association. Thus one well-known encyclopaedia contains a chronological Irish results list which states that a united Ireland team played England on 22 October 1922 and that Northern Ireland first played England on 20 October 1923. Oliver, The Guinness Book of World Soccer: The History of the Game in Over 150 Countries, pp. 424-25. (The same book, however, contains an England results list which, inconsistently, has England’s last match against Ireland as 20 October 1923 and the first against Northern Ireland as 22 October 1924. Id. at p. 278.)

A third camp chooses 1926 as the dividing line, apparently because that was the year of the Irish Free State’s first full official international match. Keir Radnedge, The Complete Encyclopaedia of Football, p.543 (Carlton Books Ltd., London, 1998).

None of the traditional sources have chosen a fourth alternative, to regard the demarcation point as the date the team representing the north either voluntarily stopped or was prohibited from selecting players from both parts of Ireland.

Since Ireland was partitioned in 1921 and since a separate football association representing the south was established in 1921, we see no reason why the demarcation point ought not to be 1921. Furthermore, that is also the dividing line chosen by the Football Association in the most recent history of the England team, and since our primary interest is the English national team, we see no reason not to follow the F.A. on this.  At bottom, however, the question of when the national team today known as Northern Ireland began its existence is significant only to those for whom the overall records of national teams are important and, even among them, only to those who wish to distinguish between the Northern Ireland team and the united Ireland team which preceded it.

In recent times and recent conversations.  It has been decided to acknowledge the FIFA's take on the argument.  They issued a directive in 1954 to settle the existing argument, then it seems only fair that we use that same directive to settle this argument of when to start using the term 'Northern Ireland', that is, 1954.  When nationality became an absolute certainty. 

'It was not until June 1954 that FIFA ordered the IFA to name their international team Northern Ireland and select only players born within Northern Ireland.' - George Glass, leading Belfast statistician.