Sean Lemass, the IRA and the FA Cup: The Story of Tom Farquharson
It is 90 years since Dubliner Tom Farquharson inspired his club, Cardiff City, to their first and only FA Cup triumph, becoming the first Irish goalkeeper to lift the trophy.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Cardiff City’s 1927 FA Cup victory over Arsenal – the only time the cup left England. It remains the Welsh club’s proudest achievements and Cardiff’s only victory in the competition, although they came close in 2008, when captained by fellow Dubliner Stephen McPhail, before succumbing to Portsmouth.
Growing up in a time of great strife, turmoil and change, Tom Farquharson’s tale is a remarkable one. Farquharson was the first Irish goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in, and win, the FA Cup and his story is conceivably the only one that ties together Sean Lemass, the IRA and the FA Cup – an achievement in and of itself.
Tom Farquharson, the son of Thomas Farquharson, a master plumber and a member of the Presbyterian minority, was born in Dublin in 1899. He grew up in Drumcondra and played football as a youth with Annally, as well as playing Gaelic Football.
One of his close friends, growing up, was Sean Lemass, who would go on to become the Taoiseach from 1959-1966. During the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) both Lemass and Farquharson were committed ‘Nationalists’, with Farquharson being what has been described as a ‘fringe’ or ‘non-violent member’ of the IRA – running messages and delivering people to safe houses.
Whatever Farquharson’s role was within the IRA, both he and Lemass were arrested for removing ‘wanted’ posters on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin and detained in Mountjoy Prison. His father was friendly with a British Army Major with whom he did business, and the Major got him off, with the proviso that Farquharson would leave Ireland, which he did.
Aged 21, Farquharson packed his bag and moved to south Wales. On arriving in Gwent Valleys he secured work as a painter and decorator (or carpenter too) and took to playing rugby union as a full back for local side Blackwood. It was about this time he went to watch local Welsh football league side, Oakdale, who were short a goalkeeper on the day which prompted Farquharson to volunteer himself as a stand in. It turned out he wasn’t a bad handler of the ball from his time playing Gaelic Football back in Ireland.
“He would run from the back of the net and rush the kicker as he prepared to take the spot kick.”
From Oakdale he moved to fellow Welsh league side Abertillery and it was here that Cardiff City, then a top 1st Division club, spotted him in February 1922 and offered him a trial. Soon after which he signed as a professional and made his Cardiff City debut in the last game of the 1921/22 season against Manchester United at home. During his time at Cardiff City Farquharson made 445 league appearances for the Bluebirds – a club record until it was surpassed by Don Murray in 1985.
Standing at over six feet tall, he became one of the top goalkeepers of that era. He was famed for his tactics when it came to penalty kicks. He would run from the back of the net and rush the kicker as he prepared to take the spot kick. During an FA Cup quarter-final in 1927 against Chelsea he charged toward the taker, Andy Wilson and blocked it on the six yard line. His strategy was so effective that it forced a rule change and in 1929 goalkeepers were required to remain on the goal-line until the ball had been kicked.
One of the rumours which surrounded Farquharson’s time at Cardiff City was that he carried a gun in his kit bag. Cardiff City Club historian Richard Shepherd ensures the tale is true, having spoken with a teammate who played with Farquharson, who confirmed he had seen his gun on occasions. Farquharson said he carried it due to certain persons back in Ireland but never elaborated further than that.
In his 13 year career with Cardiff City he helped them finish as 1st Division runners up in 1923/24 and reach the FA Cup final in 1925 and 1927. Cardiff City lost the first to Sheffield United but in 1927 they made history, beating Arsenal 1–0, in front of 93,000 fans inside Wembley. On the road to Wembley, the Bluebirds dispensed with Aston Villa, Darlington, Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea and Reading, but faced their toughest test against Herbert Chapman’s Gunners.
The game, a scrappy encounter by all accounts, was decided by an error from Farquharson’s opposite number, Welsh international Dan Lewis. The move began with a throw-in. Cardiff’s Hughie Ferguson received the ball and had little space to run or make a pass, so he attempted a pot-shot at goal instead.
The ball ran low across the ground, but Arsenal’s goalkeeper Lewis had the shot well covered. He knelt down in an attempt to gather the ball. However, as he did so, the ball squirmed out of Lewis’ hands and slipped between the crook of his left elbow and body. With a couple of Cardiff City forwards honing in, Lewis desperately tried to reclaim the ball but only knocked it into the net with his elbow, for the only goal of the match.
Lewis blamed the sheen on his brand new jersey, which he said caused the ball to slip out of his grip when attempting to gather it. Since that day, no Arsenal goalkeeper has worn a shirt that hasn’t been put through the wash first. April 23, 1927 remains the greatest day in Cardiff’s long and chequered history and its historical significance extends far beyond this proud football club.
Victory over Arsenal at Wembley Stadium in their second FA Cup final in three years ensured Cardiff City as the first, and to date the only, non-English team to win the competition. It was the first final where the FA Cup anthem ‘Abide with Me’ was sung and also the first cup final to be broadcast live on BBC Radio. The phrase ‘back to square one’ came from the radio commentators use of a grid published in the Radio Times to describe match action – ‘square one’ was the area nearest to the goals.
While playing at Cardiff Farquharson was also an Ireland International. This was a time when there were, in effect, two Ireland teams, chosen by two rival associations. Both associations, the Northern Ireland-based IFA and the Irish Free State-based FAI claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Ireland and selected players from the whole island. As a result, several notable Irish players from this era, including Farquharson, played for both Irish International teams.
However, September 1931 saw Farquharson briefly embroiled in controversy when he refused his selection to play against Scotland on what he called “a matter of principle”. According to Club Historian Shepherd, Farquharson didn’t see why the Northern Ireland FA should pick players from the whole of Ireland nor why the Irish FA should pick players from the whole of Ireland – so he chose not to play.
At the end of the 1934/35 season, Tom Farquharson hung up his boots and ended his football career. He remained in Cardiff following his resignation and returned to his painter and decorator trade before subsequently opening a tobacconist’s kiosk on Queen Street, in the centre of Cardiff. In 1958 he emigrated to Toronto to join family members. He died in 1970 at the age of 71, calling time on a colourful character who led a full and eventful life steeped with interest, intrigue and rich historical significance.