On 18 November 1880 at the Queen's Hotel in Belfast and by invitation of John McAlery of Cliftonville FC, representatives of Northern Irish clubs playing under Scottish Football Association rules agreed to form their own body. Thus the Irish Football Association (IFA) was born, the fourth oldest in the world.
At this meeting it was also agreed that a national cup competition would be organised, the aims of which were to "promote, foster and develop in all its branches the game of association football within Ireland". Subscriptions were set at two guineas per club, and the inaugural event was won by Moyola Park FC who beat Cliftonville 1-0 in the final.
The following year saw Ireland make their international debut against England at the Knock cricket ground in east Belfast. Despite a resounding 13-0 defeat, the gate receipts of £9 19s 7d provided some financial comfort.
Along with the political division of Ireland in 1921 came the formation of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), established to manage the game in the newly formed Irish Free State. Despite this upheaval and its reduced jurisdiction, the IFA dutifully persevered in promoting and running the sport.
This steadfastness of purpose was required once more to deal with the turmoil of the Second World War, and more latterly the political troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. But throughout its long history the IFA has played a significant role in the continuous development of the game, both in Europe and further afield. It has also produced some wonderful players.
Billy Gillespie, Elisha Scott, Peter Docherty, Danny Blanchflower, Pat Jennings, the inimitable George Best and Norman Whiteside – the youngest player to grace the FIFA World Cup when he featured at the 1982 tournament aged 17 years and 42 days – were all players of the highest calibre. They had a tremendous influence on the game, and while they mostly all made their names in the leagues of England and Scotland, their hearts remained in Ireland.
David Healy MBE is Northern Ireland's top goalscorer. Going into 2010, the striker had scored 35 goals in 78 games. Thirteen of those strikes came in 12 UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying matches, and Healy's magnificent achievement was subsequently honoured by UEFA with a special award presented by president Michel Platini.
The proudest moments in the history of the IFA, however, have been the three appearances made by Northern Ireland in the World Cup finals: Sweden (1958), Spain (1982) and Mexico (1986). To progress to the quarter-finals on two of those occasions left the IFA feeling on top of the world.
In addition, the IFA has furnished football with some of the leading lights in the administration of the game. Two notable individuals are Joe McBride, who represented the IFA from the 1920s to the 1950s, becoming president in 1957 aged 93, and Harry H Cavan. Cavan was European vice-president of FIFA from 1960 to 1990 and was instrumental in promoting the coaching and general development of football, particularly among emerging nations.
It is not only the players and officials who have made significant contributions, but also the clubs. Linfield FC and Cliftonville are both over 100 years old, have proud and memorable histories, and are helping to ensure that the sport continues to flourish in Northern Ireland. The IFA looks back happily on former glories while also anticipating successes still to come.
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