When national teams had such a wealth of talent that it couldn't all be picked for the same side, it wasn't uncommon for a match to be arranged featuring a selection of players from, say, the English Football League and those playing in a nearby league, often Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Here, the national team managers could assess players who might be considered suitable for a place in a future squad line-up or those players returning from injury that needed match practice as part of their rehabilitation.
The practice of organising inter-league matches began as early as the 1890’s and were in some instances just as popular as the full international games we know and love today. It wasn't uncommon for tens of thousands of people to pass through the turnstiles to see what was in essence an international match of sorts.
This was hardly surprising as inter-league games offered fans from across the UK and Ireland a chance to see Fantasy Football made real. Instead of wondering what it might be like if England’s Stanley Matthews played on the same side as Ivor Allchurch of Wales, it could technically happen if both players were picked in the Football League XI team.
In the case of the Football League of Ireland XI, their matches became part of the football calendar out of necessity. During the 1920’s, the Football Associations of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales failed to recognise what we now know as the Republic of Ireland FA, yet there was still a need for the ‘home nation’ teams to test their abilities against the Irish. To get around the problem, inter-league matches were organised until such a time when relations between all the parties involved allowed full internationals to be played.
There was also one other reason why inter-league games were so popular, namely that they were held in a wide variety of venues. Rather than making the long trip to Wembley or Hampden Park, there was every chance of catching an inter-league match in Blackburn, Motherwell or Swansea.
With the exception of Alan Ball and Peter Thompson, the remainder of the team were less familiar. Up front was West Brom’s John Kaye alongside Burnley’s Gordon Harris, while Harris’ teammate Brian O’Neill occupied the right half position. Everton’s Derek Temple completed the Football League’s starting XI opposite a League of Ireland team whose names were unknown to English fans then, and only now are a little more illuminating, largely thanks to the information offered up by the internet.
Up front, however, was a player by the name of Ronnie Whelan. A striker capped twice for the Republic of Ireland prior to this match being played, he was the father of a four-year-old son also named Ronnie who would go on to become one of the all-time greats for both Liverpool and the Irish national side. From such inconspicuous situations do future legends come.
As far as the programme is concerned, we’re provided with the welcoming (if starchy) words of Harold Needler, chairman of Hull City, J.Richards, president of the Football League and P.Haltin, president of the Football League of Ireland, plus profiles and pictures of all the players involved. There are also numerous adverts for local businesses in the Hull area, including The Dragon Chinese Restaurant (“The Bamboo Room is available”) and JJN Mackman Ltd (“Specialists in Wedding and Birthday Cakes [and] Pork Pies”).
If you look hard enough these days, you might still find inter-league matches being held from time to time, and the League of Ireland XI are among the most active of those teams still playing. Sadly the growing prominence of European club football during the 1960’s largely reduced the need for such fixtures in England and the Football League XI have rarely played since.
That’s a shame in many ways because inter-league matches offered something a little bit different and had a sense of purpose that’s difficult to deny. For the fans, there were stars to watch and admire as they played at a local ground. For the players, there was the chance to take part in a high-profile game when a full international was perhaps unlikely. For the team selectors, there was also a useful opportunity to assess individuals hoping to catch the eye and earn a cap or two.
And in this day and age, who wouldn't want to see a Premier League XI taking to the field to play against the best another country had to offer?
Forget fixture congestion - this was football played for everyone to enjoy, full of innocent pleasure the like of which many of us have long since forgotten.