All Ireland soccer team talks amid Troubles

Kyle Lafferty scores at Northern Ireland v Hungary Euro 2016 qualifier in Windsor Park
Kyle Lafferty scores at Northern Ireland v Hungary Euro 2016 qualifier in Windsor Park Kyle Lafferty scores at Northern Ireland v Hungary Euro 2016 qualifier in Windsor Park

A UNITED Ireland soccer team was the subject of cross border negotiations during the height of the Troubles, a new book has revealed.

As the island's two teams continue their quest for European Championship qualification while the Ireland rugby team are contenders for its World Cup, spotlight had again fallen on the division of football squads.

Ireland's finest footballer George Best was famously keen to swap his Northern Ireland jersey for an all-Ireland one and have the sport fall into line with most others on the island.

Now it has emerged how close the two associations came to merging after years of rivalry - only to fall foul of an atmosphere of political turmoil and paramilitary violence.

In a new book `The Irish Soccer Split', author Cormac Moore says "as Northern Ireland was engulfed in the Troubles, a series of conferences were held to heal the division between the IFA and FAI from 1973 to 1980, prompted by international players such as George Best who wanted one international team for Ireland at the very least".

Former Republic of Ireland star John Giles agreed "all the players wanted a united Ireland… George Best, Derek Dougan and Pat Jennings and what a great team we would have had, had it been combined at that time".

Fellow international Eamon Dunphy said "a team with Giles, Liam Brady, Pat Jennings and George Best, it absolutely would have been as good as any Brazilian team ever".

Moore said the talks "focused on issues such as an all-Ireland team and the organisation of joint competitions such as the Blaxnit and Texaco tournaments".

"The political climate in Northern Ireland ultimately proved a hindrance to amalgamation with the success on the field of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s and the Republic of Ireland from the late 1980s also lessening the appetite for union," he said.

Football was governed for the whole island from 1880 until 1921 under the Irish Football Association (IFA) headquartered in Belfast.

However, there was an "uneasy alliance" from the start between the IFA and its divisional associations in Leinster and Munster.

It was felt the IFA was biased towards teams and players from the North-East, with 75 caps won by players from Leinster clubs to represent the Ireland senior international team compared with 798 by Ulster players between 1882 and 1921.

Similarly Dublin was the venue for just six international matches in that period, with Belfast securing 48.

According to Moore, things came to a head when Dublin club Shelbourne was forced back to Belfast instead of the capital for an Irish Cup semi-final replay against Glenavon in March 1921, after securing a draw away from home.

The Leinster Football Association seceded from the parent body and formed the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) soon after.

"Once soccer was divided, genuine attempts were made in the 1920s and early 1930s to bring about a fair settlement," Moore said, but says both sides were wedded to their positions.

The IFA, seeing itself as the governing body for soccer for the whole island, played under the name `Ireland' and selected players born in the `Free State' for international fixtures until 1950.