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The story of Shay Brennan and Charlie Gallagher


The greatest thing about the Irish football team, outside of the fans who remained steadfast throughout the darkest of days, is the great sense of camaraderie among Irish international squads. The galvanising force is a collective sense of identity held by the players. For many, representing Ireland tends to be an extension of representing their own family.  In particular, there is that very clear sense of national identity amongst players not born on the island.   This sense of place rather than birthplace has helped ensure that many of the great footballers of the modern era in Britain have been recognised correctly as Irish. However, this official recognition was not always given as many second and third generation Irish players were denied the chance to play for their country because of FIFA eligibility rules which were effective right up till the early 1960’s. Once the rules changed players of an Irish background born abroad became eligible to represent Ireland. This article looks at the two pioneers, who despite mountains of cynicism in the country they were born in chose to play for Ireland after the FIFA barriers came down. These two players are Shay Brennan and Charlie Gallagher.


Shay Brennan has gone down in history as the first Irish footballer born outside Ireland to represent the country. Shay was the son of County Carlow emigrants based in Manchester who signed for Manchester United as a teenager. He was thrust into the spotlight in 1958 when he was drafted in for an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday after some time languishing in the reserves. His elevation to the first team came about following tragedy after many of his club mates had perished in the Munich air crash only weeks before. Manchester United went on to win that cup tie, with Shay Brennan the marauding full back who scored twice on the night. Brennan went on to forge a long career as an established Manchester United full back becoming life-long friends with team mate Johnny Giles.

Debut in Dalymount Park

  • Video: Ireland 1 – Spain 0, May 1965

With the relaxing of the FIFA eligibility rules in the early 1960’s Brennan declared for Ireland. History was made on May 5th 1965 at Dalymount Park when Ireland played Spain with Shay Brennan playing at full-back helping to defeat Spain 1-0. Brennan’s stature in the game is evidenced by the fact that he was a member of the Manchester United team that beat Benfica in the European cup final at Wembley in 1968. Brennan was a fine footballer, an assured passer of the ball and consistently solid when attending to his defensive duties. He was very much an understated player and a true gentleman off the pitch.  He went on to win a further 18 caps for Ireland, a small haul in today’s terms, but his place in Irish international football history is an important one. In fact three of his international caps came as player manager of Waterford United where he enjoyed great success winning two major domestic trophies. His sudden death while playing golf at Tramore in 2005 brought grief to the Irish football community but also shone a new light on his pioneering contribution to the international team.

Donegal Lineage

Charlie Gallagher is much lesser known that Shay Brennan but his brief involvement in the Irish team was hugely important for future generations of players. He goes down in history as the first ever player born in Scotland to play for Ireland. It’s no surprise that his background is Donegal considering the Glasgow Irish community is largely derived from this county, in particular the Gweedore area, through which the McGeadys, McCarthys and Coyle’s would  later emerge. Gallagher was a superb footballer, playing in the old inside forward role that Johnny Giles also enjoyed.  The ability to pick a pass, possessing instant control and that knack to score goals made him a big favourite amongst the Celtic faithful who he represented for over ten years between 1959 and 1970, making 171 appearances and scoring 32 goals along the way. Gallagher was unfortunate enough to miss out on Celtic’s 1967 European cup final triumph in Lisbon but the year was significant nonetheless as he made his International debut for Ireland in Turkey in February making history as mentioned above. The significance of the event was marked by Jock Stein who made Charlie Gallagher the captain for Celtic’s match the following week with the Parkhead crowd giving the player a rapturous reception.

Paddy Crerand’s Lost Opportunity

For a player of such ability it is a shame that Gallagher was to earn only one more cap for Ireland after the Turkish match. One wonders what Gallagher’s potential impact on the international scene might have been if greater attention had been given to his skills. One also wonders what might have been if his cousin Paddy Crerand had also been allowed to join him in the Irish team. Crerand has publicly declared that he wished he could have played for Ireland but unfortunately the FIFA elegibilty rules had precluded him. When the rules changed he had already been capped by Scotland and so his chance was gone.

Shay Brennan and Charlie Gallagher influence on the Irish football story is significant in that they helped reverse the footballing brain drain.  Years of emigration from Ireland, thanks to both a depressed economy and repressed society, has inadvertently caused repatriation in the form of footballers. This has helped to revolutionise the Irish international football scene by widening the talent pool available to us. Qualification to major tournaments has made the game the most participated sport in the country, the Irish team the most recognisable face of Irish sport internationally and an eclectic support where Mancunian, Cockney, Brummie, Scouse, Glaswegian, Cork, Dublin and Donegal accents cheer on in unison and ultimately represent the Boys in Green.

  • Author: Shay Dunphy
Published inblogfeatureHeroes Corner

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