These Go To Eleven

Since October, I’ve ran @Peile50YearsAgo, posting real-time Tweets from Irish football fifty years ago.

Friday marks the last day of the 1965-66 domestic season as Shamrock Rovers face Bohemians in the final of the Top Four Cup (although, spoiler alert: it will require two replays).

This has been a lot of fun to do; I rather enjoy the old-timey language, the big crowds, the dramatic rise of Waterford and the huge importance placed on the FAI Cup.

One thing I disliked, however, was the constant mention of a “record” Shamrock Rovers supposedly equalled by winning 11 league games in a row. Every week the media would write about it.

It was enough to make any statistician weep. There were times I found myself longing for a time traveling closet, like in a Stephen King novel, to go back and find W.P. Murphy of the Irish Independent (and those who copied him) to set the record straight once and for all.

Bohemians, in fact, had won their first 15 games of the 1923-24 season but this ’11’ myth has persisted for over 50 years and appeared in a newspaper again just this past week.

Limerick’s blistering start to this season’s First Division has re-opened the topic, as the Super Blues set a First Division record by winning each of their opening 8 games (now 9).

Curiously, the only Premier Division teams (Cork City and Sligo Rovers) to win their first 8 both failed to go on and win the title.

Here’s part of an article I wrote for LOI Monthly last year, which talked about those winning starts by Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers.

————————————————————————————

‘Somebody must kidnap Sligo Rovers’, screamed the headline of the Irish Press. Despite finishing a lowly tenth in the Shield before the start of the league season, Sligo would hit the ground running in the 1936-37 Free State League Championship with a 100 per cent record at the half-way stage.

It was an Englishman, Harry Litherland, whose name was on everybody’s lips. Litherland scored 19 league goals in his first season for Sligo, a total not beaten until Eoin Doyle scored 20 in 2011. He scored a brace in a club record 9-0 win over Dolphin and the following week the former Everton centre-forward got another two goals in the 6-1 victory over Shamrock Rovers at Milltown.

Sligo’s run crashed with a terrific thud by losing 8-2 away to Waterford in January 1937. Although their form dropped slightly after that, the Westerners took their first title by 10 points, which remained the highest ever margin in a two points for a win system.

Sligo's title winning team in 1936-37

In 1965, Shamrock Rovers won the Shield for an impressive seventeenth time. Rovers were given a bye into the second round of the Fairs Cup and the Hoops went out of the competition rather gallantly on a 3-2 aggregate scoreline to Real Zaragoza.

Rovers made a storming start to the league season and on 16 January 1966, from ten matches played, they were five points clear with not the slightest blemish on their run. In a strange twist, the team trying to foil the Hoops of 11 wins in a row was Sligo who had accomplished the feat 29 years earlier.

The game attracted a magnificent attendance under the adverse weather conditions which prevailed on the south side of the city and Shamrock Rovers rather deservedly emerged narrow winners on a snow-covered pitch at Milltown.

Sligo goalkeeper Finbarr Flood watched almost in amazement as Johnny Fullam hit a 25 yard free kick straight into the corner of the net after 28 minutes. Six minutes later Shamrock Rovers were two up when Frank O’Neill, always a menacing figure on the right wing, sent over a chipped cross for Bobby Gilbert to head home his 9th league goal of the campaign.

Three minutes after the interval and with the snow falling heavily, Jimmy Burnside pulled a goal back for the Bit O’ Red with a great hooked shot over his shoulder to keep the home supporters worried until the final whistle.

The talking point of the game, however, was the penalty in the second half that never was. To the crowd it was a staggering sight to see Liam Tuohy head the ball for the corner of the net and Sligo left-back, Paul Dowling, unable to reach it with his head, dive, and with his hands extended, turn the ball around the post without being penalised.

Referee Billy O’Neill, the target for many an accurate snowball when he managed to get within range of spectators at either end of the ground, said after the game: ‘I saw Dowling dive with his hand out but I thought the ball beat him. There was a strong glare with the snow and the white ball, and now everybody tells me I was wrong’.

16 Jan 1966 Bobby Gilbert (not pictured) scores against Sligo as Liam Tuohy looks on

The line-ups on that Sunday afternoon were as follows. Shamrock Rovers: Smyth; Keogh, Courtney, Mulligan, Nolan, Fullam, O’Neill, Tyrell, Gilbert, Tuohy, O’Connell. Sligo Rovers: Flood, Murray, Dowling, Quinn, Pugh, Dunne, Millington, Turner, Burnside, Corcoran, McDonnell.

Rovers had completed the first half of the season without dropping a point and established what looked an unassailable lead but in just three weeks the table underwent a remarkable transformation.

Their winning streak was brought to a halt with a 3-2 defeat at home to Bohemians and on February 6th a record crowd of 24,000 packed Milltown to see Rovers play their nearest challengers Waterford, who won the game by a single goal.

That was to have a vital bearing on the destination of the title and an incredible run of 13 straight wins would catapult Waterford to the top of the table by March, a position Paddy Coad’s men would not relinquish. It was to be the beginning of a new order in League of Ireland football.

Best Winning Starts
15 – Bohemians in 1923-24
11 – Sligo Rovers in 1936-37
11 – Shamrock Rovers in 1965-66
9 – Bohemians in 1929-30
9 – Limerick in 2016 (First Division)
8 – Waterford in 1971-72
8 – Cork City in 1998-99
8 – Sligo Rovers in 2013

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