For two clubs with long and storied histories in Irish football, it's perhaps a bit unusual that Shelbourne and Sligo Rovers haven't met more than once in an FAI Cup final prior to last Sunday's clash.
Although the two sides met twice in League Cup finals in the 1990s, the sole encounter prior to 2011 between the Reds and the Bit O'Red in an FAI Cup final came in 1939. Shels may have won the cup, but this final still has a special place in Sligo's history. The scoreline of the match usually comes second to its colloquial name- the Dixie Dean final.
William 'Dixie' Dean is a name familiar to anyone versed in the history of English football- his 389 goals for Everton still stand as a record- but his brief stint at Sligo Rovers was just as eventful. Dean came to Ireland in tumultuous times. Britain had just gone to war with Germany and relations between Ireland and Britain were at a low- the trade war of 1932-1938 having left an indelible imprint on Irish people.
Dean was a true international superstar at the time. During the second World War, military records show a captured Italian prisoner to have told his captors to go and “fuck your Winston Churchill and fuck your Dixie Dean.”
In this pre-television era when Irish people had very little access to British football, the reception Dean (a full English international before he went to Sligo) got is probably not surprising. The middle of Sligo town was thronged with people. A massive spike in gate receipts followed Dean wherever he went, with gate receipts at the cup final in Dalymount estimated to be around £3,500 (according to a recent report in the Sligo Weekender, at least).
Quotes in that article from local councillor Declan Bree might go some way to outlining how popular Dixie Dean continues to be. Bree says that “as a child that we had three large framed portraits in the house; one of the Sacred Heart, one of Saint Patrick and one of Dixie Dean.”
Shels had finished four places below Sligo in seventh in that season's league, with St. James Gate winning the title. The Reds at that stage had never won the FAI Cup. Their only previous appearance in an FAI Cup final in 1925 ended in failure. Goals from John Joe Flood and Bobby Fullam gave Shamrock Rovers the 1925 cup, despite an earlier own-goal giving Shels the lead.
With Dixie Dean on a hot scoring run (nine goals in six games), Sligo were justifiable favourites going into the cup final. But Shels have never been a club to read the script and took the Bit O'Red to a replay, Sammy Smyth's goal cancelling out Dixie Dean's earlier effort. The crowd- said to be well in excess of 40,000- is all the more impressive considering the train fare of five shillings would have been a considerable amount for fans coming up from the west at the time.
The replay, again held in Dalymount, took place on the 3rd of May 1939. This was the only one of Dixie Dean's eight matches in Ireland which he failed to score in, so credit must go to the Shels defence of William Glen, Johnny Preston, Hugh Sharkey and Billy Little, as well as 'keeper John Webster. In the replay, first-choice defender Tom Priestley replaced Patrick Drain- after Priestley, a Presbyterian, refused to play the first match because it was on a Sunday.
Full-back William 'Sacky' Glen got the game's only goal, thereby winning Shels' very first FAI Cup. Dixie Dean went back to Liverpool without any medals, too. Just after the match, his runners-up medal was allegedly stolen from his hotel room. Several years later he did receive it back though, through an un-addressed letter from Ireland that arrived through his letterbox.
FAI Cup final 1939 teams
Shelbourne: John Webster, William Glen, Johnny Preston, Hugh Sharkey, Billy Little, Charlie Lennon, Patrick Drain, Alec Weir, Tom Flynn, Sean Balfe, Sammy Smyth.
Sligo Rovers: David Cranston, Gerry McDaid, Daniel Livesley, William Hay, Alf Peachey, John Burns, Matt 'Trousers' Began, Hugh O'Connor William 'Dixie' Dean, William Johnstone, Paddy 'Monty' Monaghan.