Saturday, 15 February 1913. Windsor Park, Belfast. The 57th minute. The Ireland debutant Billy Gillespie, already with one goal to his name, sprays a pass to Frank Thompson, his blue-shirted teammate, wide on the left, and heads for the danger zone. Thompson, an FA Cup winner with Bradford City less than two years earlier, draws Bob Crompton, the vastly experienced England back, and centres between the goal area and the penalty line. (Penalty spots didn't come in until 1920.) There follows a "short, sharp struggle between a host of men". This ends when Gillespie hits a firm, low shot into the net through several pairs of legs with goalkeeper Reginald 'Tim' Williamson unsighted.

Thus was scored, 100 years ago, the goal which was at that point the most significant in the history of Irish association football. The Athletic News and Cyclists' Journal went as far as to label it "the goal of the century for Ireland". It brought Ireland their first victory over England. At the 32nd attempt. After a sequence that had started with a 13-0 drubbing in Belfast in 1882.

What first drew me to this momentous day in Irish sporting history was actually the team's exploit the following year. In 1914, Gillespie, Thompson and co. managed to build on the promise of that gutsy initial 2-1 win over England to capture outright the Home International Championship, contested annually in those days by teams representing the four constituent countries of the British Isles, for the very first time. When I first noticed this years ago, poring over Rothmans, it made me wonder what had happened to that ground-breaking group of players. I imagined — overly influenced perhaps by a viewing of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Frank McGuinness's haunting World War I play — that the team might have been ripped apart in the hell-holes of Flanders. I was also curious about the side's make-up. Were they mainly Protestant boys from industrial Belfast? Or a more diverse cross-section of the island's 32 counties?

On the first count, I am glad to report that it was the march of time, rather than the slaughterhouse of trench warfare that dulled the team's edge. As far as I have been able to ascertain, not a single one of the 16 men who turned out for Ireland in their championship season lost his life on the killing fields of the war to end all wars. One of them, the forward Johnny Houston, joined the Royal Irish Rifles and was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry. But he managed to appear for Linfield in the replayed Irish Cup final of 1915-16 and by 1919 he was turning out for Partick Thistle. Another, Bradford City's Harry Hampton, worked for the Labour Corps in Yorkshire. The simple fact is that by 1919, when normal footballing competition began to resume in England, around half of Ireland's champions were over 30. It took 42 years for another Irish team, by then Northern Ireland, to secure as much as a share of a further home international title — and that was a four-way tie.

The men of 1913-14 were also a reasonably diverse bunch, featuring several Dubliners and individuals from Counties Wexford and Laois. In Louis Bookman ( Buckhalter), a winger who was yet another of Ireland's Bradford City contingent, the team also included a Lithuanian-born Jew. Though appearing in only one match in the championship-winning season, Bookman — who was a useful cricketer and is featured in Anthony Clavane's recent book, Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?1 — returned to the Irish side at 30 in 1921, winning a further three caps.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. England enjoyed 70% of possession and won at least 20 corners in that mould-breaking encounter in 1913. However, Ireland showed evidence of qualities that would underpin their triumph the following year. One of these was resilience. England dominated the early stages. This would once have signalled a one-sided game, since as the Athletic News's reporter Tityrus [the pen-name of the doyen of football journalists, James Catton, whom Brain Glanville discusses in his interview with Philippe Auclair elsewhere in this issue] observed, "Usually the Irishmen have not been checkmated at the beginning, but they have soon exhausted themselves to run down like an old clock." Nonetheless, on this occasion, the match was still goalless after half an hour, with the home side just starting to get into their stride. This was when Huddersfield's Jim McAuley, paired with his former Cliftonville teammate Thompson on the left side of the Irish attack in a partnership of which much was expected, kicked the ground, wrenched his ankle and was carried off. He didn't return. No substitutions were permitted in 1913 and five minutes later Sunderland's Charlie Buchan headed England into the lead. That the 10 men were able to turn the situation around in the 55 minutes remaining and hang on showed evidence of the team spirit and organisation that they would draw on again 12 months later. 

This Irish side were good on the ball. The Bohemians player Denis 'Dinny' Hannon, from Athlone in the geographic centre of Ireland, was one of those who caught Catton's eye. "He appealed to me as a frail boy with a big brain and a cunning foot," he wrote, commenting further on his conspicuous "dribbling in midfield to open the game". The red-headed Hannon would not feature in the undefeated campaign the following year. But his international career had an unlikely swansong when, aged 36, he represented the Irish Free State at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The Irish nearly made a name for themselves too, losing in extra time to a 104th-minute goal by Holland in the quarter-finals of what, with 22 countries, was to be the biggest international football tournament for nearly 60 years. Hannon and his teammates had beaten Bulgaria 1-0 in their opening match. 

The 1913 side also had tremendous physical presence, notably through a half-back trio who, after a quiet start, played their inexperienced English counterparts off the park. Everton's Val Harris, captaining the team in his 17th international, led the way, tenacious in defence and "a schemer in initiation". Tellingly, two of the English half-backs, both making their debuts in Belfast, never played for their country again. The third, Francis Cuggy, soon to win the league title with Sunderland, only played for England once more — in the following year's Ireland fixture.

The Irish forwards, moreover, were pacy and direct, compensating for their numerical disadvantage with fast, accurate passing. Houston, at outside-right, strayed offside too much in the first 45 minutes but did better in the second half. Gillespie, destined to become a Sheffield United legend, was a revelation. Tityrus's description of his first international goal, which brought Ireland back into the match on the stroke of half-time, illustrates his versatility and predatory instincts. A Thompson corner fell among a cluster of players at "the nearer post. [England's] Utley headed straight up in the air and before it descended Williamson found himself surrounded by three Irishmen and somebody trod on his ankle. When the ball came down, Gillespie headed it obliquely into the opposite corner from where Williamson was standing and after it had crossed the line, [England's] Benson helped it further into the net."

In the wake of Gillespie's second goal, Ireland had a scare when the 6ft-plus Buchan sent another header thudding against the bar. But they held out without further serious alarm. "The thrustfulness and speed of the Irish forwards," Tityrus went on, "the meddlesomeness of the half-backs and the dourness and sureness of the backs turned the scale in favour of the Green Isle." A Mr RP Gregson, perhaps the only man then alive to have seen all 32 England versus Ireland matches, was said to have pronounced that the winners had never had as powerful a team. As for England, six of the eleven were dropped and never recalled. The FA, meanwhile, were perhaps left to rue their generosity in allowing the fixture to be staged in Ireland for a second consecutive year. This was to help replenish the finances of the Irish governing body, the IFA, left denuded as a result of a dispute with leading clubs the previous season.

In spite of this historic victory, hopes were not especially high the following year as Ireland prepared to meet Wales on January 19 (a Monday) in the opening fixture of the 1914 Home International Championship. For one thing, defeats by Wales and Scotland meant that they had still finished last in the 1913 competition — and this even though they had played all three matches at home. For another, the 1914 Welsh team oozed class in the forwards, their quintet including Bolton's Ted Vizard, in his prime, on the left wing, and the Manchester United stalwart Billy Meredith, then approaching his 40th birthday, on the right. "Ireland have a strong defence and a capable attack," advised the Athletic News. "But the Welsh forwards are incomparably the best section in either eleven and they should be capable of elevating the red dragon of Wales."

This was not, though, how events in Wrexham panned out. Vizard's trickery did win a penalty that was converted but the irrepressible Gillespie notched another brace, earning Ireland a 2-1 victory. In a further echo of their triumph over England, the Irishmen were left once again to play much of the match with 10 men, following an injury to their key half-back Val Harris. Among those who played with particular distinction was Fred McKee, an eccentric, often brilliant amateur-goalkeeper-cum-tea-merchant, who sometimes sported a distinctive red, white and blue hooped jersey and deployed an ivory cigarette-holder on at least one occasion during a club match. McKee was a near contemporary of Billy Scott, the great Elisha's elder brother, which explains why he mustered only five full Irish caps, but he started all three home internationals in that landmark 1914 campaign.

The game against England, nearly four weeks later, was the second full international match played at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough. In terms of shock value it cannot quite compare with the exploits of Pak Do Ik and his North Korean teammates when they saw off Italy in a World Cup clash at the ground 52 years later, but it produced the second most arresting scoreline on the short list of international football fixtures staged on Teesside: England 0 Ireland 3.

The Times gave far more prominence to England's 17-12 rugby victory over Ireland at Twickenham the same day, in "the presence of the King, his Prime Minister and the Chief Liberal Whip". Yet in the 62 words (plus line-ups) it devoted to the upset, even the voice of the British establishment made plain that the visitors had "outplayed their opponents at all points", their "pace, dash and skill" affording a "most pleasing contrast to the dull, spasmodic efforts" of England.

The sports-focused Athletic News headlined its lengthier but, for the hosts, equally damning account, "The Debacle at Ayresome Park". It wrote, "Last season, the representatives of Ireland created a sensation by defeating England for the first time in the history of international Association football, on Saturday they caused a thunderbolt to burst by their audacity in actually trouncing the English eleven by three clear goals." 

England's hugely experienced rearguard — the back three of goalkeeper Sam Hardy, Crompton and "peerless" Jesse Pennington had a combined tally of 74 caps — did at least apply the offside trap with some success. In those days, the front man of the side in possession needed to have three rather than two opponents between him and the goal-line to be onside and the Linfield duo of Sam Young and David Rollo, the latter pressed into service as a makeshift right-winger, were caught out repeatedly. But with the visitors astutely keeping the ball low to negate the effects of a blustery wind, Thompson and Gillespie once again combined to good effect. This time they were joined by the inside-left Billy Lacey, who scored two goals, the first as early as the fifth minute, and was adjudged the man of the match.

Just as at Windsor Park, the dominance of the Irish half-backs provided a sturdy platform for their success, with Hampton deputising ably for Harris, who was still unfit. Manchester United's Mickey Hamill marked his man out of the match. The centre-half Patrick O'Connell of Hull City was "steady as a rock", "always had a grip on the game" and "pushed the ball forward splendidly". This was the same Patrick O'Connell who, 21 years later, achieved the stupendous feat of guiding the Seville club Betis to the Spanish championship. He went on to manage Barcelona in a period overshadowed by the Spanish civil war. A year after putting England to the sword so comprehensively, and with English league football about to wind up for the duration of the Great War, O'Connell also captained Manchester United in the notorious Good Friday match against Liverpool that was subsequently found to have been fixed. Seven players from the two clubs, though not O'Connell, were eventually banned. 

With Scotland and Wales finishing goalless in the interim, Ireland knew well ahead of their final championship match on March 14 that a draw would secure them their first outright title. As it turned out, there was little football played at Windsor Park that day, but the clash with a robust Scottish team wanted nothing for drama. For the Irish News, indeed, it was "probably the most remarkable match ever played under Association rules in Ireland." 

Belfast is a fine city in many ways, but there are few places that do wet weekends more remorselessly than the Ulster capital. The Scotland match fell on just such a weekend. It was raining on Friday morning when the Scots arrived. It rained all night. And when the players awoke on match-day morning it was to what one correspondent described as a "merciless, storm-tossed downpour". With the deluge continuing as the potentially historic match unfolded, the manner of play was dictated entirely by the state of the pitch. 

As detailed by the Athletic News's "Harrisus", this "contained a number of miniature lakes… Until the movements of the players churned the water into mud, their feet splashed the water about by every footprint, the ball spun round in the small pools, and when the mud stage had been reached, the ball had to be really driven along." One, presumably Scottish, contributor to the Irish Weekly Record, "John O' Groat", maintained that "No ordinary club game would ever have been started under such conditions, but as we had arranged to catch a train for Larne at 6.30, and could not stop over the weekend, the battle had to proceed." For "Marathon" of the same newspaper, the playing surface resembled "a Kerry moving bog".

Many had particular reason to bemoan the weather. Management from the Linfield club found ways to expand capacity to accommodate the expected bumper crowd. The Irish News reported on the day of the match that the ground would hold 50,000 people. Fans expecting to use "the unreserved side" were advised to have the right money ready "as it will be impossible to give change". In the event, with nearby roofs and telegraph poles pressed into service by the determined and impecunious, the attendance was closer to 28,000. Even so, receipts, at over £1,800, were said to be £400 more than "any previous figures for Ireland". The entire Irish set-up must, moreover, have feared that the conditions would play into Scotland's hands by making their habitual swashbuckling tactics impossible to execute. Finally, spectators in uncovered sections now faced an endurance test rather than an enjoyable afternoon's sport, albeit at an event that might still culminate with a real 'I was there' moment. Descriptions of the crowd spoke of a "forest of gleaming umbrellas". 

Some very modern-sounding issues reared their heads at various points before and during the match — for example, club versus country. In 1914, country tended to come a pretty poor second and Ireland faced going into this game of games without the talismanic Gillespie because Sheffield United needed him for a Cup match that had gone to a second replay. His replacement, Robert Nixon, was finally chosen at a special selection meeting on the morning of the game. In marked contrast, a cup-tie in Scotland involving goalkeeper Jamie Brownlie's side Third Lanark had been postponed, enabling him to travel to Belfast. 

Ireland had opted to spend the night before the match away from Belfast at a hotel in the small coastal resort of Newcastle, County Down. On the way there on Friday morning, the train carrying the team stopped briefly at Frank Thompson's home town of Ballynahinch, whereupon the Irish left-winger jumped aboard. It turned out he had been up since 4am tramping the countryside with his gun. He had bagged a teal, as the Irish Weekly Record revealed, alluding drily to his "novel method of training for an International".

Two bands — the Edenderry Brass Band and the Castleton Pipers Band, in Highland costume — had been hired for the occasion. Attention was also drawn ahead of kick-off by a man carrying a ribboned black cat, "apparently a mascot". When Hamill, the Irish captain, led his men out into the gale, they were greeted by a thunderous roar. Alec McNair, the Scottish skipper, won the toss and asked the hosts to play into the wind. At last, the match kicked off before "a battery of cameras and cinema machines".

Ahead of the game, one focus of attention was the Scotland forward Andrew Wilson and the threat he posed to Ireland with his robust style of play. One article carrying Hamill's byline observed that the Sheffield Wednesday stalwart "carries 13 solid stone… I saw him this season charge Hodge, our full-back, and poor Hodge was tossed at least four yards in the air and fell unconscious." Not that he had been guilty of foul play: it was rather, Hamill said, "a perfectly fair shoulder charge which caught Hodge standing on one leg." A separate piece cautioned that McKee, the Irish goalkeeper, "must watch both his avoirdupois and his shots". 

And indeed it was Wilson who emerged as the key figure of a goalless first half. "First of all Wilson fouled O'Connell and then accidentally, while the latter was on the ground, trod on the arm of the home centre half-back,'" said the Athletic News. "He had to be led off and for some considerable time he chafed inside the pavilion, but he turned out again after the interval. McConnell was also carried off and Lacey had to go full-back, but before that McKee was also in the wars. Donaldson had put in a very fine centre and Wilson went on to meet it. McKee came dashing out and kicked the ball away just as Wilson was about to kick the ball into the net. The pair also bumped into each other and the man who runs into Andrew Wilson must accept the consequences. McKee was evidently in a bad way, but he pluckily kept his position."

Yet again, then, Ireland found themselves labouring under a numerical disadvantage. Their prospects deteriorated further shortly after the interval when McKee, nursing a fractured collar-bone, gave up the battle, leaving McConnell, the injured defender, to take over in goal, having first struggled to "get into a jersey two sizes too small". To make matters even worse, Harris, usually a key figure, still appeared to be affected by the after-effects of his injury at Wrexham.

Though the Scots were subsequently exonerated from suggestions they had overstepped the mark (football was a man's game, in every sense, in 1914), the crowd were getting restless, with cries of "Play the game, Scotland" reported. This was potentially a matter of some concern. Belfast football crowds had a rough reputation. The presence of firearms was not unknown. Following the most serious disturbance, in September 1912, as Neal Garnham relates in his book Association Football and Society in Pre-partition Ireland, among the 50 or so casualties who were later admitted to hospital "more than one was suffering from gunshot wounds". That was at a club game between rivals closely associated with the city's incompatible nationalist and unionist traditions. But the international team's maiden victory over England was also said to have been accompanied by pistol shots. Moreover, Garnham states that "the practice of firing warning shots and feux de joie at matches was apparently becoming so common that…the football correspondent of one Belfast newspaper [claimed] to be able to identify the type of weapon used by its report."

This was not the ideal time then for a goal-line controversy but that is exactly what happened. Thompson, seemingly invigorated by his duck-shooting expedition, had been playing superbly despite being left isolated on the left flank by Lacey's withdrawal to Ireland's back-line. The Clyde man shot hard at Brownlie's goal. Though the goalkeeper parried it, the ball slipped from his grasp, igniting a "wild" — but vain — claim for an Irish goal. Writing a week later, John O' Groat claims to have spoken to Brownlie who "judged the ball's position from the post and it was no goal". The keeper also expressed bafflement at "how the crowd could tell it was through when the line was obliterated."

A few minutes later and the Irish goose looked well and truly cooked. McConnell, the makeshift goalkeeper, dashed off his line but played the ball within range of Joe Donnachie, the Scotland forward. The Oldham player, who had been training at Windsor Park that week, "cutely" returned it into an empty goal to give Scotland the lead. This left the battered hosts with 22 minutes to retrieve the situation.

Some 14 of these had elapsed when O'Connell — playing so well despite his injured arm that the Weekly Record assessed his value, "on Saturday's display", at a princely £1,200 "perhaps more" — propelled the ball into the path of Young bursting through a hesitant Scottish rearguard. On his home ground, the 31-year-old Linfield forward thumped in an unstoppable shot to provide the crowning moment of his career and spark pandemonium among the sodden masses. There was a suspicion of offside, but the goal stood. The man with the black cat began to dance. John O'Groat reported the cracking of revolvers behind the Scotland goal. 

The remaining minutes were played out with the jubilant and boisterous crowd clustered tight around the touchlines. Houston nearly won the match and the triple crown for Ireland before the final whistle blew and the glutinous pitch was engulfed with humanity. The bedraggled Scots were no doubt glad to escape to Larne.

The Athletic News hailed a "new era" and predicted that Ireland's success should prove a "powerful stimulant to the cultivation" of football on an island where, let us not forget, the Gaelic Athletic Association provided an alluring and popular alternative to games imported from the colonial power. The newspaper recalled that football was described as "the noxious Scotch weed" in 1878 when Queen's Park and the Glasgow Caledonians played a first exhibition match on the ground of the Ulster Cricket Club. "When we remember that the senior clubs of Ireland number 10 and that the majority of her best players migrate to England, it is small wonder that they have not advanced more quickly."

Would this generation of Irish players have enjoyed further success had domestic politics and the disastrous machinations of the great European powers not intervened? It's impossible to be sure but the likes of Hamill, Lacey and Gillespie were in their prime and the great goalkeeper Elisha Scott was soon to establish himself in the Liverpool first team. It could be argued indeed that the Irish team that drew with England in October 1919 after conceding a first-minute goal, in their first clash since the Great War, was more talented than the 1914 vintage, with the likes of Patsy 'Mighty Atom' Gallagher and Billy McCandless in its ranks. 

One other name on that 1919 team-sheet illustrates that the pre-First World War championship team could have been even stronger. In 1914, William McCracken, born in Belfast and first capped by Ireland three weeks after his 19th birthday in 1902, was at the height of his powers. A profile, penned by Catton and published in February of that year, asserts that "the honour of being the best right-back in the world unquestionably rests between Crompton and McCracken." The Irishman, Catton wrote, "is probably the most discussed man in football owing to his tactics of throwing forwards offside by constantly advancing behind the outside winger and towards the man who has possession of the ball." And yet, McCracken did not once feature in that 1914 Ireland team, having been ostracised six years earlier in a dispute over match payments. Ah, football and money; the eternal conundrum.