The first time Eire, or the Republic of Ireland played France in France was in 1937, in the same stadium where Harold Abraham’s deeds inspired Chariots of Fire. In 1937 there were two football associations on the island of Ireland, as there is today, but the Northern Ireland football team was, at that time, known as Ireland. Players from the island could play for either team.
On May 23, 1937 Eire played in front of nearly 17,000 fans and took the lead on 52 mins with a goal from Belfast man Davy Jordan who had moved from Ards to Wolves. Six minutes later Johnny ‘Jackie’ Brown met a dropping ball on the volley and drove it home. The game ended 0-2 to Eire, and Jackie Brown headed home to the Castlereagh Road in Belfast. He was a Protestant, from the heartland of Protestantism in Belfast – the East. He had worked in William Ewart’s linen mill before becoming a footballer. And after retiring in 1951 he got a job down in Harland and Wolff, and died tragically young.
When he and fellow Belfast Celtic player Davy Brown were transferred to Wolves thousands accompanied their horse-drawn carriage to Belfast Dock where they boarded the boat to England.
How things have changed.
Here’s hoping the spirit of Johnny ‘Jackie’ Brown haunts the French again tonight.