Published: StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 16th February 2007
When Jim Magilton was a trainee at Anfield, it was hoped that the boy would be able to break into the first team. Instead he found himself transferred to Oxford, having been as close as any Ulsterman to turn out for the Reds since the 1930s. It is now over 70 years since a Northern Irish International has played a senior game for Liverpool, and the prestige of playing for both belongs to only three men. However what Liverpool may have lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality.
Billy Lacey was no stranger to success. A member of Liverpool’s title winning teams of 1922 and 1923, he was also an integral part of the 1914 British Championship team. It was the first time the honour had come to Belfast, and it didn’t return until a Noel Brotherston goal against Wales in 1980 saw Billy Bingham’s men lift the trophy. Born in Co. Wexford at a time when the Irish FA could select any player from the whole island, Lacey went on to win 23 caps, scoring 3 times. He didn’t represent the FAI until the ripe old age of 37, and remains their oldest player to make a debut and their oldest player of all time on his last appearance, aged 41.
A tricky winger, he made 230 league appearances for Liverpool after his transfer from local rivals Everton. Not renowned for his goal-scoring ability, scoring only 18 league goals, he clearly had an affinity with the FA Cup, scoring 11 times in just 28 matches. Lacey left for New Brighton in 1924, leaving behind his international colleague, Elisha Scott, arguably the greatest goalkeeper to play for the Reds. Joining Liverpool in 1912, he remains the longest serving player in their history, playing for over 20 years. His ability cannot be questioned, nor should it be forgotten. One contemporary reporter wrote of him; “He has the eye of an eagle, the swift movement of a panther when flinging himself at a shot and the clutch of a vice when gripping the ball.” He was held in high esteem by the Kopites, and in 1924 when he pulled off a spectacular save against Blackburn, one supporter ran onto the pitch to kiss him! He had a good friendship with record breaking Dixie Dean, who was a great goal-scorer for Everton. Their battles on the pitch were great spectacles and well anticipated, much like the great Ian Wright versus Peter Schmeichel contests of the late 90s. One story tells of Scott and Dean meeting each other in town one day. When Dean nodded to Scott in acknowledgment, Scott dived through a shop window to save the imaginary ball! After leaving Liverpool he returned to Belfast as player manager of Belfast Celtic, and was in charge of their farewell tour in America in 1953, where they famously beat Scotland – A feat the international team of that time couldn’t achieve.
Aghadowey-born Sam English completes the trio of connections. Having scored 44 goals in the 1931/32 season for Glasgow Rangers, a club record which is still held today, he left Scottish football after a freak accident with Celtic goalkeeper Johnny Thomson which left the latter dead. Hounded out by opposition fans who refused to recognise his innocence, the centre forward joined Liverpool in August 1933, and went onto score 26 goals in 50 appearances. His goal ratio carried through to international football, being capped twice by the Irish FA and scoring once, against Wales.
Next time you find yourself on a plane to Liverpool; don’t expect to be travelling with some local footballers, ready to make their mark at Anfield. Somehow, I don’t think Rafa Benitez is planning on using his Dubai investment to send some scouts over to Linfield versus Limavady. Apparently the Spanish don’t like Windsor Park . . .