I’m probably not the first person to point out the irony in Wales taking on Northern Ireland in football’s European Championships yesterday, just 48 hours after the EU Referendum in which the former voted Brexit and the latter voted Remain. When England took on Wales in the group stages, it was the first time two of the four home nations had played each other in a major tournament since England played Scotland in Euro 96, but for anyone over a certain age it inadvertently revived memories of the days when such a fixture took place every season, when it formed part of the oldest international football competition, an annual contest that predated the World Cup by 47 years and spanned a century.
Following on from the first ever international football fixture between England and Scotland in 1872, the two founding nations of Association Football only had each other to play until the Welsh national side was formed and played its inaugural fixture against the Scots in 1876, taking on England for the first time three years later. The Irish national side completed the quartet with its 1882 debut, and though the formation of the English Football League was still a good five years away – with the FA Cup being the sole measure of domestic success – the four national sides decided to instigate a league-based competition. What became known as the British or Home Championship began in January 1884, the world’s first competitive league tournament for a sport that had sprung from the playing fields of the public schools and was now the passion of the working man; the first winners were Scotland, ending the campaign with a 4-1 win over Wales in Glasgow.
As Britain’s soccer missionaries spread the game in Europe and South America, the Home Championship was widely regarded as the world’s pre-eminent international football competition, and the increasing popularity of the sport saw the fixtures attract huge crowds in the decades leading up to the First World War. In less safety-conscious days, this often ran the risk of tragedy. In April 1902, Scotland were playing England at Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox ground when a newly built wooden stand with a steel girder frame collapsed, sending hundreds of fans falling forty feet to the ground, injuring over 500 and killing 25.
When the competition began again in 1919, the tradition of the final fixture being between England and Scotland had already become established, and this tended to be the highest-attended and most eagerly awaited game of the whole contest. In fact, at one time the England Vs Scotland game was one of only three football matches allowed to be screened live on TV every season – the other two being the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final. Imagine that. No wonder it continued to attract such fervent attention well into the 1970s.
The Home Nations always had a troubled relationship with FIFA, the world governing body formed in 1904. Although England joined the new organisation in 1905, swiftly followed by the other three British national sides, all left and then rejoined FIFA in the early 20s before leaving again in 1928; not returning to the FIFA fold until after the Second World War meant the four founding nations of international football didn’t participate in the first three World Cup tournaments. When qualifying for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was inaugurated, FIFA decided the Home Championship would serve as a convenient qualifying group, a role it also performed for the 1954 World Cup.
In the immediate post-war era, the competition retained its reputation in an era of limited exposure to international football and scarce availability of television; by the time the World Cup was held in England in 1966, however, the Home Championship had been usurped by the upstart FIFA contest and embarked upon a long slow slide towards eventual abolition. The end-of-season England Vs Scotland game, alternating every year between English and Scottish soil, overshadowed other fixtures in the contest, though the infamous pitch invasion at Wembley by Scots supporters in 1977 gave the impression that the tournament was more trouble than it was worth. When the 1980-81 Home Championship was abandoned halfway through due to the Northern Ireland Troubles – taking place as it did at the height of the IRA Hunger Strikes – it was effectively the beginning of the end.
For generations of British footballers, club loyalties were put to one side whenever domestic team-mates took on each other in national colours and the fixtures were regarded almost as a rites-of-passage event, shaping national identity within the British Isles in the process. But by the early 1980s, international rivalries (such as England and West Germany) had superseded the old British rivalries, and the World Cup and European Championships were taking precedence. Coupled with falling attendances, hooliganism, and the expanding European club fixtures of English and Scottish league teams, the Home Championship seemed to have become an anachronistic encumbrance and the decision was made to end a hundred years of history in 1984, with Northern Ireland claiming the last title.
Only when the Home Nations have occasionally been drawn against each other in either World Cup or European Championship qualifying groups have memories of the Home Championship been subsequently revived; and the undoubted excitement these games have provoked have led to periodical calls for the contest to be restarted, possibly as a summer competition staged every couple of years. Alas, such calls have been met with a lukewarm response by the FA and the other British football governing bodies; and now that the UK seems poised on the precipice of extinction courtesy of political machinations, the likelihood of what for many fans and players was a highlight of each season being revived seems about as odds-on as the UK applying to rejoin the EU. The past was not just another country; it was four.
© The Editor