David Owen ©ITG

For a sport in which the aim is to score goals, the history of Association football is marked by some awfully significant nil-nil draws.

The first international match, between Scotland and England, played at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground in November 1872, finished goalless. So, I am told, did the first game played under rules the Football Association had codified after its foundation in 1863.

Other significant nil-nil draws would have to include the first goalless European Cup final, in 1986 between Steaua Bucharest and Barcelona, won on penalties by the Romanian underdogs; the first, and to date only, goalless World Cup final between Brazil and Italy at California’s Rose Bowl in 1994, won by Brazil; and all 39 goalless encounters during the 1924-1925 English first division season - a chronicle of stalemate responsible for persuading the powers-that-be finally to change the offside law. From the following season only two defenders have had to be between the goal and the recipient of a pass when that pass was struck for the move to be legal. Until then, the minimum had been three.

Another contender for any worthwhile list of most consequential no-score draws was played out almost exactly a century ago on 5 March 1921 at Belfast’s Windsor Park.

The match pitted Glenavon from the small town of Lurgan in County Armagh against the Dublin side Shelbourne in a semi-final tie of the Irish Cup.

The game ended up triggering the administrative split in the sport on the island of Ireland which persists to this day.

The 1994 FIFA World Cup final - capped by Roberto Baggio's missed penalty - is among the most famous of football's nil-nils ©Getty Images
The 1994 FIFA World Cup final - capped by Roberto Baggio's missed penalty - is among the most famous of football's nil-nils ©Getty Images

While this separation might appear to make sense, given the territorial division between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Irish Republic, other sports have retained an all-Ireland structure.

Indeed, Neal Garnham notes in his detailed and fascinating book, Association Football and Society in Pre-partition Ireland, that soccer was "almost unique as a sport in Ireland in that its administration split contemporaneously with the political division of the country".

The political situation on the island at the time of this Glenavon versus Shelbourne fixture was, it must be acknowledged, far from conducive to the efficient and problem-free staging of any sports encounter.

The Anglo-Irish War had broken out in 1919 and continued to sputter. Shelbourne’s home city of Dublin was under curfew; Belfast was every bit as tense.

As the Northern Whig newspaper noted on the day of the match, for "the first time this season a Dublin club will make the journey north of the Boyne", a river which flows through the town of Drogheda, 50 kilometres north of the Irish capital, and has traversed Irish history since the eponymous battle in 1690.

The paper also explained how the Dublin curfew had influenced kick-off time. "It was originally intended that this game should start at three o’clock," it noted. However, "owing to the fact that curfew now comes into operation in Dublin at nine o’clock, the Shels are forced to remain overnight in the city, and so the kick-off has been fixed for 3.30."

Shelbourne travelled north as cup-holders, having won the 1920 competition in unusual circumstances, beating Glenavon en route, after two semi-finalists - Belfast Celtic and Glentoran - were ejected in the wake of a riot.

A year on, though, the Dublin side were the underdogs, with Glenavon favoured to progress to the final to play either Glentoran or Brantwood.

In the event, the Dubliners "parked the bus", and their determined rearguard-action was enough to earn a replay.

Dublin was a troubled city in 1921, with a curfew in place amid the Irish War of Independence ©Getty Images
Dublin was a troubled city in 1921, with a curfew in place amid the Irish War of Independence ©Getty Images

Under the headline, "Shelbourne create a surprise in Irish Cup semi-final", the Athletic News reporter called "Scribe" wrote that it was "a case of Shelbourne defence against the Glenavon forwards".

However, "the Lurgan forwards never really settled down to their usual game, and though Jack Brown [who was to make his international debut for Ireland against Wales in a hailstorm at Swansea a month later] went up forward in the second half, replacing Cochrane, they simply could not get through."

Scribe also commented on a "remarkable display" by Paddy Walsh, the Shelbourne goalkeeper. This, he wrote, was "really the outstanding feature of the game".

A reporter from Freeman’s Journal was of the same mind. "While Shelbourne never looked like scoring, but for Walsh Glenavon must have run up a heavy score against them," he wrote.

Through this man-of-the-match performance, it might be argued that Walsh - soon to depart with several team-mates for an unlikely, and short-lived, football revolution in Pontypridd, South Wales - unknowingly played a key part in the sport’s Irish partition.

It was, after all, with the replay earned by his saves that the path towards some sort of schism gathered decisive momentum.

With the tie having been played in the north - albeit not Lurgan - one might under normal circumstances have expected the replay to be assigned to Dublin, where Shelbourne had triumphed 3-0 over the same opponents the previous year.

However, the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA), then the ultimate authority for the sport throughout Ireland, decided in its wisdom to summon the two teams once again to Belfast for the game on March 16.

In its defence, these were anything but normal circumstances. As Garnham wrote, Dublin was "a city in turmoil. A curfew had been in force in the city for more than a year, and six Republican prisoners were to be executed two days before the intended replay.

"An identical set of executions in Cork the previous month had led to the killing of six soldiers in the city in retaliation."

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland last played in a friendly in November 2018, which ended goalless ©Getty Images
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland last played in a friendly in November 2018, which ended goalless ©Getty Images

Then again, there was a widespread perception in the south that the IFA had tended to favour northern clubs in various ways, such as international selection and financial assistance, over a prolonged period.

The Belfast News-Letter was in no doubt where its sympathies lay. "Public opinion is all against this decision," it claimed. "There was an opportunity to make good the talk some time ago of resuming relations between the Belfast and Dublin clubs, and then when a chance occurs to do so it is knocked on the head…

"It is a great pity to see any schism, but the decision has done no good to senior football."

Seen in this context, it was scarcely a surprise that Dublin-based administrators should take a dim view of the replay ruling.

Shelbourne refused to travel north again, resulting in the tie being awarded to Glenavon.

The Lurgan club went on to lose the final 2-0 to Glentoran, who had beaten Brantwood 4-3 in the other semi-final.

For its part, the Leinster Football Association (LFA) - Leinster is the Irish province where Dublin is located - passed a resolution condemning the "unsportsmanlike action of the Senior Clubs’ Protest and Appeals Committee of the IFA in ordering Shelbourne to replay in Belfast their drawn Cup tie with Glenavon".

It added: "We regard the decision to be against the best interests of the game."

A journalist known as "Viator" had their report of this meeting in the Dublin newspaper Sport followed by a warning that "the Dublin clubs will seriously consider the question of the advisability of severing their connection with the Belfast Association at the end of the present season".

This turned out to be all too prescient. On June 8, the LFA duly voted to disaffiliate from the IFA. On September 2, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) held its inaugural meeting.

In light of the political partition of the island, and consequent creation of Northern Ireland, with which the football split closely coincided, it is interesting to note that the two football bodies, the IFA and the new FAI, were not at first differentiated along strictly geographical lines.

As the Athletic News put it: "The new association do not intend to confine themselves to their own immediate circle in Dublin. They plan to carry their sphere of operations all over Ireland."

In July, a competition called the Falls League, based in West Belfast, decided to affiliate with the Dublin body, the FAI.

Sport viewed this as a "bombshell", observing, moreover, that "the IFA has taken this badly, and not surprising".

Two years after the fateful Irish Cup semi-final which precipitated the split, on 17 March 1923, a Falls League side called Alton United travelled to a still tense Dublin and won the newly-minted FAI Cup final at Dalymount Park, upsetting Shelbourne by one goal to nil in front of a crowd of 14,000.

Paddy Walsh, back from Pontypridd - which had failed by only eleven votes, 32 to 21, to gain admission to the English Football League at the expense of Exeter City in 1922 - lined up once again in the Shelbourne goal.

This time Walsh was not the star. The Dublin Evening Telegraph reported that "the ball entered an empty net with Walsh and [defender Paddy] Kavanagh in collision, due to a stupid piece of misunderstanding".

Such are the vicissitudes of the goalkeeper’s lot. Walsh played more than 100 games for Shelbourne in all, between 1915-1916 and 1927-1928, earning frequent plaudits for the quality of his shot-stopping.

A few months after Alton United’s cup triumph, the FAI was granted membership of FIFA, the world football governing body, effectively setting in concrete the administrative split in Irish football.

The Irish body agreed to confine itself to clubs from within what had become known as the Irish Free State, the 26 counties excluding Northern Ireland, changing its name in consequence to the Football Association of the Irish Free State.

The Republic of Ireland did not play Northern Ireland in an official international match until 1978 - more than half a century later. The game ended as another of those significant nil-nil draws.