In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, it might have escaped the attention of all reading this that today is St. Patrick’s Day, and as such is a date associated with all things Irish.
While for most people under a certain age this seems to manifest itself in donning comedy headwear and imbibing dangerous quantities of Guinness, for the rest of us it has other connections.
My own relationship is defined largely by my possession of a surname oft associated with the southern end of Ireland and my mother’s transportation from Trinidad to Dublin before the age of 10. Quite a shock for her, but at least it gave Phil Lynott some competition…
Of course, the fact you are reading this here, means you are rather more interested in Arsenal Football Club than my personal lineage, and you will be rewarded accordingly for enduring my wittering. Any fan of certain vintage will have some awareness of the relationship between The Arsenal and the Emerald Isle, but there will be a generation or two for whom this is a mystery.
Everyone knows about the obvious Irish connection with Glasgow Celtic, and Manchester United and Liverpool have done a great job of selling their ‘Irish-ness’, aided by both their proximity to Ireland and their recent success. But most corners of Ireland have long maintained a loyal core of Arsenal support, and it would be fair to say that Irishmen have played a significant part in many key parts of Arsenal’s history.
Today, the club’s playing staff has no Irishmen, and on the coaching staff there is only Gerry Payton, working with the club’s goalkeepers, and former youth product Kwame Ampadu, working as an Academy Coach, both of whom are very much behind the scenes. Those supporters with a more encyclopaedic knowledge may recall League cup appearances for Graham Barrett and Anthony Stokes in the last 15 years, as well as the much maligned Islington born Eddie McGoldrick in the dying days of the George Graham era.
But in the days before the birth of the Premier League, the Arsenal first team squad had always had a smattering of Irishmen. As many as 40 have troubled the club statisticians over the years. From goal scoring debutant, Belfast-born Patrick Farrell, who joined in 1897 and the nomadic Tommy Shanks, who scored 24 goals in 1903-04, taking Arsenal to the top flight for the first time, all the way through to David O’Leary, who retired in 1993, and is, lest we forget, still the club’s record appearance holder.
Before the rules regarding youth player recruitment for English clubs changed in relatively recent years, Arsenal had for decades made a point of scouring Ireland for the best young talent it could find as a key part of its youth recruitment. Not entirely dissimilar to Arsene Wenger’s approach with the Barcelona youth team.