For two remarkable years in the ‘80s, Elland Road – the hallowed home of Leeds United FC – hosted the Gaelic footballers of Mayo, Dublin and Galway
By Damian Dolan
Leeds is a city synonymous with the Irish, and at its epicentre is its football club – Leeds United.
Over the years, the club has enjoyed a strong relationship with players from the Emerald Isle, most iconically Johnny Giles, who epitomised the Don Revie era.
But there have been others; Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, John Sheridan, Denis Irwin, Robbie Keane and Liam Millar, while David O’Leary enjoyed a successful (although trophyless) stint as manager.
And then there is, of course, the late great Jack Charlton, who bestrode the Elland Road pitch from 1952 to 1973, before the Irish people took him to their hearts. Leeds legends all.
But while the club’s supporters bask in the team’s long overdue return to the Premier League this season, there is a part of Leeds’ history which is perhaps less well known, and has been allowed to slip from consciousness.
It is, that in 1987 and again the following year, Elland Road played host to some greats from another sport – Gaelic football.
While not the first English soccer ground to stage GAA – Stamford Bridge was briefly the home of Gaelic Games in London in 1896 – the matches at Elland Road signalled something of a return for such high profile ‘exhibition’ games to these shores, after the Wembley Games came to an end in 1976.
Griffin Park, the former home of Brentford FC, followed suit in 1990, while the one-time Cricklewood ground of Hendon FC was used in 1991 and 1992.
GAA even returned to Stamford Bridge – from 1905 the home of Chelsea FC – in 2001.
So, to Mayo and Dublin the honour of playing the first-ever Gaelic football match at Elland Road on Sunday 27 September 1987 – it was also the first time the GAA county of Yorkshire had hosted two inter-county teams from Ireland.
“I remember being in awe at the facilities. Compared to some of the Irish venues at the time, Elland Road was luxury,” recalls Dublin’s Tommy Carr.
“Leeds were second division at the time, but they’d been such a high-profile team in the ‘70s, so it was like going over and playing at Manchester United’s ground.”
Twelve months later, Mayo were back at Elland Road, this time their opponents were Galway.
Why Mayo? One article wrote that “it is believed that approximately 80 per cent of Irish natives in Leeds hail from Mayo”. There’s your answer.
Two historical, but perhaps overlooked moments in the history of Leeds United FC and Elland Road, and the GAA in Britain.
The Yorkshire Evening Herald carried the story in their edition of Wednesday 23 September, 1987 – ‘Leeds Council back GAA game’ read the headline. Confirmation that Mayo and Dublin were on their way.
The idea, perhaps surprisingly, had not come from the Yorkshire County Board, but rather Leeds City Council.
A strong Irish connection somewhere along the corridors of power at the council, one can only surmise, as the council sought to “cater for the large Irish population in the area”.
The Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Mrs Doreen Wood, said she hoped the arrival of Gaelic football to Elland Road would enhance the “city’s sporting horizons”.
As this was a Leeds City Council event, the Yorkshire board could rest easy should the attendance fall “below expectations”, as the “entire costs” for the game were being borne by the council, including travel and accommodation for both teams.
And as the ground was owned by the council – the football club had sold Elland Road to the council in 1982 for £2.5m in exchange for a 125-year lease – there was no need to worry about the cost of hiring the pitch. One saving for the council, at least.
The hope of then Yorkshire County Board Chairperson Charlie Byrne – a Leitrim man well-known in Leeds as ‘Mr GAA’ – was that the game would pull as many as 5,000 spectators.
U2 had already rocked the city and Elland Road earlier that summer – playing to more than 30,000 as part of the band’s Joshua Tree tour. The 1 July gig is regard as the best ever staged at the ground.
Maybe it was the Irish feel-good factor created by U2 which convinced Leeds City Council to stage a Gaelic football match.
One publication about the history of Elland Road suggested it could even have stemmed from the hero-like status enjoyed at the time by Leeds’ Irish midfielder John Sheridan.
A cult Elland Road figure during the ‘80s, the Manchester-born midfielder made 230 appearances and scored 47 goals for Leeds during his seven years at the club, most of which was spent in the old Division 2.
Maybe it was U2, maybe it was Sheridan. Who knows?
For Mayo, 1987 offered a new beginning in the county’s search for the Holy Grail that is the Sam Maguire.
Earlier that year, Liam O’Neill’s Mayo side had gone down to Galway in the Connacht final by a point.
By September, Mayo had a new manager, John O’Mahony from Ballaghadereen. Elland Road would be his first game at the helm.
“Now the work starts,” said O’Mahony following his appointment – and that work would start in Leeds, of all places.
While it would be a “nice weekend” for the players, the game was to be taken “serious”, recalls Mayo legend Willie Joe Padden.
Dublin had suffered a similar fate in ‘87 – beaten by Meath in the Leinster decider – having begun the year by defeating Kerry by a goal in the league final.
For the Dublin players, the September excursion to Leeds may not have been entirely welcome, having only just returned from a ten-day trip to Boston, where they won both of their matches against a Boston side.
They arrived back in Dublin on the Tuesday before the Elland Road game. By Friday, they were catching a ferry to Liverpool, and then jumping on a coach to Leeds.
A serving officer in the Irish Army, Tommy Carr missed the Boston trip. He had to get written permission to allow him to accompany the team to Leeds, as he was due to be posted to the Lebanon as part of the United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Force.
“There was excitement when the match was first muted – to go over and play in Elland Road. It was novel and different,” says Carr.
“It had been muted for a while; it was happening and then it wasn’t happening.
“It was around the time the IRA were at their height, so it was also particularly poignant in terms of a political point of view.”
Mayo, by contrast, flew into Manchester from Knock on Saturday morning, where they were met by Yorkshire chairperson Charlie Byrne.
That evening they were entertained at the Irish Centre in Manchester, before taking a coach to Leeds the next morning.
The Mayo players trained in the grounds of the Irish Centre, before taking in the Division 2 game between Manchester City and Leeds United at Elland Road. Leeds won 2-0 in front of a crowd of 25,358.
“It was a great weekend; we were put up in the Hilton and everything was top dollar,” recalls Willie Joe Padden.
On Saturday evening, players from both Mayo and Dublin attended a civic reception at Leeds City Hall in the company of the Lord Mayor of Leeds.
Willie Joe Padden was no stranger to Leeds, or Elland Road for the matter. He’d spent a couple of summers in the city in the late ‘70s – after captaining Mayo Minors to Connacht success in 1977 – and togged out for Young Irelands GAA Club while he was there.
During those two summers he also got his first taste of standing on the terraces at Elland Road, including a game against Liverpool.
“I remember being behind the goals – David Harvey was in goal for Leeds,” he said.
“On the way out of the stadium there was a big double decker bus up in flames. They were tough supporters Leeds – they were mad.”
His local knowledge of the city came in useful on the ’87 trip, particularly the night of the civic reception.
“I remember saying to TJ Kilgallon and Noel Durkin and one or two of the older lads, ‘make sure we’re at the front of the queue to meet the Mayor because there’s a lovely little bar down the street from City Hall’,” he recalls.
“I said, ‘we can sneak out and have one or two beers’.”
However, unbeknown to Willie Joe Padden, a couple of the younger lads in the Mayo party had had the same idea.
“By the time we got down to the bar, they were there before us!” he says. It was then onto the Leeds Irish Centre.
“We were in two minds whether we should venture to the Irish Centre, but in the end we decided we would.
“John [O’Mahony] went back to the hotel afterwards, but when he got there, there was no one there. So he landed back in the Irish Centre as well!”
And so to Sunday 27 September. To whet the appetite the Yorkshire County Board had arranged a curtain-raiser between Yorkshire and a Rest of Britain side. Britain won by 2-13 to 0-11.
The Yorkshire team included ex-Belmullet player PJ Reilly, a former British player of the year award winner.
The Mayo team was devoid of any Ballina or Castlebar stars, as they were busy contesting the senior county final that same weekend.
That meant no Kevin McStay, Liam McHale and Jimmy Brown (all Ballina), or Martin Carney, Henry Gavin, Tom Reilly and Brian Kilkelly (all Castlebar), but they still had stars in the likes of Willie Joe Padden, Dermot Flanagan, TJ Kilgallon, John Finn and Noel Durkin.
The Dubs travelled to Elland Road with nine of the starting line-up which had overcome Kerry in the ’87 league final – captain Gerry Hargan, David Carroll, David Synnott, Declan Bolger, Barney Rock, Joe McNally, Kieran Duff, David Delappe and Anto McCaul.
Hargan, Rock, Duff, Joe McNally and John Kearns were all part of the Dublin team which defeated Galway in the 1983 All Ireland final.
Returning to the Dubs’ team at wing back for the first time since the league campaign was Tim O’Driscoll, but they would field an experimental defence and midfield at Elland Road.
Missing were Clontarf duo Jim Ronayne and Noel McCaffrey – father of Dublin star Jack, who helped Jim Gavin’s Dubs achieve the five-in-a-row in 2019.
Ronayne and McCaffrey both put club before county – and the “novelty attraction” of events in Leeds – to play for Clontarf against Whitehall Colmcille.
However, the game in Dublin between Kilmacud Crokes and Parnells at Silver Park was called off directly because of the Leeds trip.
So, to the main event, and an “exciting” game played out in front of more than 5,000 spectators – however, The Yorkshire Evening Post records the attendance as 2,000 in its report by its openly “nervous novice” GAA reporter.
Whatever the figure, a third of the crowd was estimated to be of Mayo persuasion, but it was Dublin who set the early pace, jumping into a four-point lead.
“It wasn’t the greatest representation of a community of 128,000 Irish in Leeds, but the noise of the 2,000 more than made up for the 126,000 absentees” wrote The Yorkshire Evening Post, who added that “half the Irish community in Leeds hails from Mayo in the first place”.
As for the pace of the game – albeit only a challenge match – it “made first division soccer players look like stars of action replays,” observed The Post.
“And not a wet sponge in sight. Tommy’s (the reporter’s GAA guide for the afternoon) idea of a friendly nudge had me cringing in fright, but these boys just bounced back to continue play,” The Post added.
The first of Joe Lindsay’s hat-trick brought Mayo back into it, but McNally was on target for the Dubs with a “well taken goal”.
The goals were Leeds United’s soccer goals, with Gaelic posts attached on either side to make them wider, recalls Tommy Carr.
Lindsay added his second just before the break, and Dublin had to be content with a 1-10 to 2-6 lead at the interval.
O’Mahony responded by switching Willie Joe Padden to centre half back to nullify Dublin’s Joe NcNally.
“I’m not saying I turned the whole game around, but it changed,” says Willie Joe Padden.
When Lindsay scored his third goal after the restart, Mayo led for the first time in the game.
“We used to joke about that at the time – if Don Revie had been around, he’d have been picking us to play for Leeds,” adds Willie Joe.
Kieran Duff, McNally, Declan Richard, Brian Burke and Tommy Carr all pointed as the game entered its final stages.
But it was Mayo who finished the stronger. Padraig Brogan, Padden and Liam Niland all fired over to give them a “deserved victory” by 5-13 to 1-20.
Despite lacking in “cut” and with neither side “going out to prove anything”, it was still a “decent game” says Tommy Carr.
Outstanding at corner back for the victors was Kevin Beirne, while Lindsay’s three goals earned him the man of the match award.
For Mayo’s new manager, John O’Mahony, the win over the league champions – albeit a challenge game – was heralded as a “great success”.
After the match, both teams were hosted at the Leeds Irish Centre for the post-match meal, where they were joined by a “massive crowd”.
“The Dubs and ourselves had a good night together,” remembers Willie Joe.
It was in keeping with the “party” feel that ran through the entire weekend says Tommy Carr.
“You’d pop off here and there into an Irish pub. There was a lot of coming and going,” he said.
“In those days there was no mixing [between the players] after the game, but we mixed well with the Mayo players.
“Anytime we played Meath it was off the pitch and away you go, so even mixing with the Mayo players, and being able to be normal after a game, was a bit of a novelty.”
Willie Joe Padden described the whole trip as a once in a lifetime experience, saying the Erris people in Leeds were out in force, as well as those from Coventry, Nottingham and Bradford.
He clearly wasn’t the only person to hold that opinion – the Yorkshire County Board were so pleased with the ’87 game, they “decided to issue another cross-channel invitation”.
Once again, Leeds Council were the principal sponsor for the second “annual” senior Gaelic football challenge match at Elland Road.
The initial invitation was to Mayo and Dublin, and both reportedly accepted the offer to renew their Elland Road rivalry on Sunday 2 October 1988.
Dublin, though, subsequently pulled out and Billy Joyce’s Galway stepped in to take their place.
While Galway had crashed out of Connacht at Roscommon’s hands in the semi-finals, John O’Mahony’s Mayo arrived back in Leeds having reached the All Ireland semi-finals, where they lost to eventual champions Meath.
This time, the Elland Road game would raise money for the Lord Mayor’s ‘Give For Life’ appeal, raising funds for Save the Children Fund.
After the game, both teams once again headed to the Leeds Irish Centre for the post-match festivities.
New Yorkshire County Board Chairperson Brendan Brogan said he hoped the game would top the previous year’s attendance, and draw a crowd in excess of 6,000.
The attendance, though, would fall short of expectations, with 1,500 turning up. Those that were there, however, were treated to a thriller, as Mayo and Galway served up an exciting 2-10 to 1-13 draw.
Former Galway Minor stars Bosco Walsh and Tomas Kilcommins got the Tribesmen’s goals, while TJ Kilgallon netted for a near full strength Mayo.
Eugene Walsh scored four points for Mayo and Joe Lindsay – the previous year’s hat-trick hero – also played well.
Missing a number of regulars, Galway boss Joyce said he was “very happy” with his side’s performance.
“We didn’t get the same treatment the second year,” laughs Willie Joe Padden. “We travelled over by bus rather than fly. The teams ended up on the one bus.
“There was no Hilton Hotel, just a souped-up B&B somewhere in the dodgy part of Leeds. You’d be more nervous inside than outside.”
There would be no third game; the Elland Road experiment would not be repeated, but it had already made history in the city.
It remains to be seen if it will ever return.