Sunday, 5 August 2012

Jack Kirwan

The Lowlands of Holland

1910 - 1915 : Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1923 - 1924 : Livorno (Italy)

In 1918, Ajax Amsterdam clinched the Dutch Championship for the first time in their grand history. After only 17 years of existence, Ajax were now sitting atop Dutch football, a position they would hold for most of their history. The architect behind their triumph was an Englishman named Jack Reynolds. Reynolds would become a legend in Amsterdam, becoming the clubs first great manager, winning 8 league titles in a ten year spell with the club. Reynolds pioneered Ajax's Total Football approach and established the club's famous youth system. A testament to Reynold's status with the club, was the naming of a stand at the De Meer stadium after him, following his death.

However, the foundations for Reynolds' success were laid by another manager,  a Wicklowman named Jack Kirwan. 

His real name was John Kirwan, but he was known to everyone as Jack. Kirwan was born in Dunlavin, Ireland in February of 1878. A natural sportsman, he would play Gaelic Football for Dublin in his youth, winning the All-Ireland with the county in 1894. Following his success in his native sport, he switched codes to soccer and moved to England to play for Southport Central. Here the winger impressed Division One scouts and he was snapped up by Merseyside giants Everton. He played one season with the Toffees who finished the season in 4th. He then moved south to London's Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs were competing in the Southern League, and Kirwan's maiden season with them would be the club's first at White Hart Lane.

This was to be the height of his career, as in a six year spell with Spurs, he won a Southern League, a Western League, an FA Cup and a Charity Shield trophy. When he died in 1959 he was the last survivor of the club's 1901 Cup winning side. To this day, Tottenham's 1901 team remain the only non-league side to ever lift the FA Cup. Kirwan played over 350 games for Spurs, and is considered one of the club's early legends

Internationally, he would represent Ireland 17 times, scoring twice. He was a member of the Ireland team that famously won the 1903 British Home Nations Championship. A highlight of the tournament for Kirwan was scoring the second goal in Ireland's shock 2-0 victory over Scotland at Celtic Park. This was the first time that Ireland ever beat the Scots.

Kirwan would go on to play for Chelsea, Leyton Orient and Clyde, retiring at the age of 32 in 1910. Immediately, he would move to Holland taking up his role as manager of Ajax Amsterdam.

Ajax had been founded in 1900, playing for a decade in the lower reaches of Dutch football. By 1910, Ajax were still an amateur club and were in the nation's Second Division. It was then that Chairman Chris Holst made the decision to raise funds, invest in players, hire a British manager and push for the top tier. During a summer tour of England, he came upon the recently retired Kirwan. An available, FA Cup winning, international footballer suited Holst well, and Kirwan was readily hired. 

At the time, Ajax played in a red and white striped shirt with black shorts. 1910 was their first season at the Houten Stadium (another product of Holst's investments). Kirwan would become the first ever professional manager in Ajax's history.

Kirwan (far-left) with his Ajax players in 1912
Kirwan was an instant success, steering Ajax to the Second Division title for the first time. This earned the club a promotion play-off against Breda Zeste, with whom they drew but achieved promotion. The club had finally penetrated the top tier and would be playing alongside Holland's biggest clubs  for the first time. Therefore, the first manager to achieve success and guide Ajax to glory was an Irishman.

Because of Sparta Rotterdam playing in similar colours; Ajax were forced to change their kit to their now familiar white shirt with a single red stripe and white shorts. It was Kirwan who chose these colours. The club's name also changed slightly, from simply Ajax, to Ajax Amsterdam. This was done to avoid confusion with Liedsche Ajax, who had just been relegated from the top tier.

The Dutch National Championship (predecessor of the modern Erstedivisie) was then divided into two division, East and West. Ajax entered the Klasse West alongside the likes of Sparta Rotterdam and Haarlem. (Familiar names such as PSV and Feyenoord would not enter the National Championship for another few years) The 1911-12 season was successful for the club, as they finished in 8th place, avoiding relegation. The title was won by Sparta. The club's profile was rising as more fans turned up for matches, and winger Gerard Fortgens was selected for the national side.

Kirwan took the club to Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1912 for its first ever matches against senior foreign sides. In Budapest they were beaten 5-1 by pre-war giants and Hungarian League runners-up MTK. 

The 1912-13 season was again championed by Sparta and Ajax finished in 9th place. However, the following year would see a downturn in fortunes as Ajax were relegated after finishing the season last with just 12 points. The 1913-14 season is also noted for featuring Ajax's biggest ever defeat, when they were trounced 9-1 at home by Dordrecht FC. Most of the club's big name players left and Kirwan was forced to rebuild the club again from the bottom-up. After steadying the ship and beginning the regeneration, Kirwan's efforts were cut short by the outbreak of World War I, and he was forced to leave Holland. He would be replaced by Reynolds who would continue his work and bring the club back to the top tier and further glories. 

The relegation of 1914 must have been a bitter disappointment to Kirwan and Holst. However, Kirwan had helped develop the club from its humble status of 1910 and paved the way for Reynolds to win trophies. Although overlooked slightly in favour of his successor, Kirwan was voted as Ajax's 19th best manager of all time.

The clouds of war would follow Kirwan's career, as he next returned to his troubled Ireland to manage Bohemians of Dublin. This was during the savage Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and Southern clubs were refusing to participate in the Irish League. In 1921, the League of Ireland was established and Kirwan would manage Bohs to 2nd place. 

In 1923, Kirwan took up his second managerial role on the continent, this time in Italy with Tuscan outfit Livorno. Founded in 1915 as L'Unione Sportiva Livorno after a merger between two local teams; Livorno played its first season in Prima Divisione (predecessor to the Serie A). Following the war, they finished the 1919-20 campaign in 2nd place, after Internazionale, and came fourth the following year. 

In 1923, they finished the Northern section in 3rd place, narrowly missing out on the championship play-offs. It was following this disappointment that Kirwan was hired. His star player was Mario Magnozzi, an early football celebrity in Italy, who would be the league's top scorer in Kirwan's second season.

In his first season with the Amaranto, Kirwan guided the club to another 3rd place finish, level with Internazionale, six points behind champions Genoa, and a point ahead of Juventus. However, the next year they finished in 5th place, nine points behind champions Bologna. The season featured a 4-0 win over AC Milan at Villa Chayes, Livorno's then home ground.

Kirwan left Livorno in 1925 and retired from football. He was replaced by Hungarian Jozsef Ging, and Livorno would continue the inter-war years as a decent side, but never managed to win the championship. Today they play in the Serie B.

Kirwan returned to England and settled in London with his wife Eileen and two daughters. He died in 1959, close to his beloved White Hart Lane and his family later gifted his medals and items to the Tottenham Hotspur museum.

A talented winger and decent manager, Kirwan's career was full of important milestones. An All-Ireland winner, an FA Cup winner, a member of the first good Irish team and Ajax's first manager, Kirwan was a pre-war icon. 

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