Friday, 24 May 2013

Michael Hamill

1924 - 26 : Boston (U.S.A.)
1926 : New York Giants (U.S.A.)

99 years before this article was written, the first great Irish team was busy lifting the British Home Nations Championship. It was a deserved title for a talented group of Irishmen, from both sides of the modern border, who were now kings of Britain.

Dublin's Val Harris and Patrick O'Connell, and Belfast's Fred McKie and Sam Young were some of the names on Ireland's team sheet when they lined out against Scotland on March 14th 1914 with Ireland already champions. 

Ireland's captain during that campaign was a midfielder named Mickey Hamill, the 25 year old Catholic boy from West Belfast. A complex, strong-willed and beautiful man; Hamill would dazzle crowds in packed stadiums for over 15 years. He was a national hero, and crusader for the downtrodden. He went from Belfast to Manchester to Glasgow to Boston and New York, and finally back to his roots which in his heart he'd never left. And in the end, he died cold, alone and forgotten in the River Lagan aged only 54. A remarkable individual, and one of Irish football's first great personalities.

Although his sporting life started in Gaelic Football, Hamill eventually began playing soccer for boyhood club Belfast Celtic in 1909 when he was 20. After just a year with Celtic, he moved to English giants Manchester United, but endured a tough time at Old Trafford where his pace was called into question by the coaching staff. After 4 years and 60 appearances for the Red Devils he returned to Celtic Park where he became a club legend. Widely regarded by many to be the greatest Belfast Celtic player ever, Hamill therefore ranks above the likes of Charlie Tully, Tom Aherne, Willie McStay and Elisha Scott in the hearts and minds of fans. No small feat. In fact he would be, many years later, referred to as the George Best of his time.
Hamill at Celtic

Such was the character of the man, that during the 1918 Irish Cup Final against arch-rivals Linfield, Hamill played through a serious knee injury to beat The Blues 2-0. After a brief loan spell with sister club Glasgow Celtic, Hamill signed for Manchester City in 1920 and would go on to make over 120 appearances for them in four years at Hyde Road. The English media even dubbed him the 'world's greatest' centre half.

His Ireland career ended prematurely in 1921, when he took a stand against what he saw as discrimination against Catholic players by the Belfast-based Irish Football Association. He refused to line out for the team, and was never selected again. By the time the Free State team came into existence, Hamill was already in his mid-30s and living in America.

He married wife in 1924 aged 35, when most footballers would retire. But Hamill had other ideas. He crossed the Atlantic to go on trial with Massachusetts outfit the Fall River Marksmen. 

The Marksmen were members of the relatively new American Soccer League, a competition established in 1921 as the country's first significant professional football league. Usually made up of 8-12 teams, it attracted large attendances and by the mid-1920s was challenging traditional American sports for crowds, especially in large cities with significant European immigrant populations. All of the clubs were based in the Eastern United States, especially in cities like Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Newark.  

As the league improved, club's became bolder and began raiding European leagues (in particular Austria, Hungary and Scotland) for talent. They offered larger wages and a glamorous lifestyle in America to poorly paid footballers only happy to come and play. This phenomena became known as the American Menace as fans in Europe lost star performers.

Hamill would play just two pre-season games for the Marksmen, before signing for Boston Soccer Club

Boston were in the vanguard of Euro poaching. The Wonder Workers, owned by A.G. Wood, announced themselves by signing Glasgow Rangers and Scotland veteran Tommy Muirhead from the Ibrox club to serve as player-manager. Muirhead, in turn, stunned Britain by signing Scottish international Alex McNab from Morton. McNab was signed for $25 a week to play soccer and work at the Wonder Works factory. Other Scots like Barney Battles and Tommy Fleming became legends in Boston, alongside Hamill. 

The Irishman made his debut on November 8th at home against Brooklyn. In front of 5000 fans, Boston triumphed 3-1. Boston's home ground was the Walpole Sports Ground, which had previously been the home of the Boston Braves baseball team.

Walpole Sports Grounds

In Hamill's first season with the Wonder Workers, Boston came 4th in the League. They did however win the 1925 Lewis Cup, then the FA Cup of America, by beating Fall River 2-1 in front of 15000 spectators at the final in Rhode Island. Hamill had been a constant presence in the squad through both campaigns, ever present in the centre of midfield with 32 appearances.

He became an icon in the city, held as high as Babe Ruth and was invited to the White House to meet President Calvin Coolidge. (The next Irish soccer player to do so would be Robbie Keane in 2012). While the make-up of the Boston squad was mainly Scottish, Hamill was the real hero to the club's large Irish-American following. Boston being a hub for Irish immigrants into the states since the mid-19th century.

His second year with the club saw them come in 3rd place in the League. Hamill again played every single game with 32 starts, and scored 1 goal. His last game for Boston came on February 14th 1926 against Fall River, they drew 1-1.

Hamill left Boston at the end of the season, and signed with the New York Giants (not the other team), a soccer team with a large number of Jewish European players from Austria and Hungary. He only played two matches for the Giants however, before returning to Antrim.

Mickey Hamill played until the age of 41 with Belfast Celtic again. Later in life he managed Distillery and owned a pub on the Falls Road.

On July 23rd 1943, Hamill's body was found in the River Lagan. The cause of his death was ruled as an accident, and there was no inquest. A sad end to a remarkable life, a life cut short.

Everything about Hamill's story suggests he was tough, resilient, proud, adventurous and hard working, and Irish football is lucky to have had him.

"Spectator’s used to gaze in awe as he skipped on to the pitch like a trotting pony, his stomach was like four tennis balls and the rest pure muscle and whipcord".

Michael Hamill 1889 - 1943

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