John McAlery

Have you heard the one about the Irish man who walked onto a cricket pitch to play football against a rugby team?

It might sound like the start of a terrible dad joke, but it was actually how Ireland was introduced to association football!

The Irish man in question was John McCredy McAlery - a farmer’s son born in 1849 in Rathfriland who left the family trade behind to manage a men’s clothing store in Belfast.

He was a keen cricketer who fell in love with football while on honeymoon in Scotland. Not sure that’s the romantic break his wife had in mind!

On his return home, John invited Scottish clubs Caledonians and Queen’s Park to play an exhibition match in Belfast.

That game at the Ulster Cricket Grounds on 24 October 1878 finished 3-2 to Queen’s Park, but more importantly, it captured the imagination of thousands.

Illustration of John McAlery

Hungry for more, John set about organising a team of his own closer to home. He posted an ad in a local newspaper looking for "gentlemen desirous of becoming members" of Cliftonville Association Football Club.

There was however, a slight problem – if they were the only football club in Ireland, who were they going to play against?! Step forward Quidnuncs – the rugby team who handed Cliftonville a 2-1 defeat in their very first match.

140 years later, they’re still going strong in the Irish Premiership!

Plaque commemorating John McAlery
One of the stands at Solitude, Cliftonville's ground, is named in honour of John McAlery.

Legacy

John went on to not only help form other football clubs in Ireland, but set up the Irish Football Association, who played their first ever international match against England in 1882.

Despite a swashbuckling performance from right back and captain McAlery, England ran out 13-0 winners in Belfast, but let’s not dwell on that.

The real winners were the countless fans who, thanks to the pioneering work of John McAlery, could pass down their love of the beautiful game for generations to come.