Billy Synnott: Dublin's First Professional
Updated: Aug 17, 2019
"Billy Synnott played for the pound and he played for the dollar, but the enthusiasm which this great sportsman still has for the game betrays the fact that soccer meant much more to him than he himself will admit ”
William Synnott was born in 1879, and by 1901 was one of seven children in a three roomed house on Parnell Place, Harold’s Cross, Dublin. The 1901 census lists his father’s profession as ‘clerk’, while his mother’s is listed as ‘dressmaker’. William is listed as a ‘smith’. In total eleven people (including two boarders) are listed living in the Synnott abode. This was very typical of the time in working-class households, in the economic climate that existed. Dublin, at the turn of the century had the worst slums in Europe and the Synnott household seemed to be doing better than many.
On September 7th, 1901 for the opening game at Dalymount Park, Bohemian FC welcomed their Dublin rivals Shelbourne FC. Harry Sloan scored Bohemians first-ever goal at the famous Dublin venue and William (Billy) Synnott scored the second goal, a penalty, to equalise before Bohemians ran out a 4-2 victors. At the time, both Shelbourne and Bohemian were amateur clubs competing in the Irish Cup against Irish League teams containing professional players from the north of Ireland. Two months later, Synnott guested for Bohemian FC in a prestigious friendly versus Glasgow Celtic, in a 2-0 victory for the visitors.
Shelbourne FC & Belfast Celtic FC
Since September 1899, a player with Shelbourne (and captain in 1901-02), at the end of 1902-03, Synnott was to join the ranks of the professionals, signing for Belfast Celtic, who had a weekly wage bill of thirty pounds that season, with twenty-one professionals on their books:
‘I was earning thirty-two shillings a week at my work and Celtic offered me two pounds a week to play football. It wasn’t hard to decide’.
Returning to Dalymount in December 1902 Synnott played in a second friendly versus Glasgow Celtic as one of two guests for the amateur Bohemian FC team in a 3-2 win for Celtic in front of 5,000 spectators. By this time, Bohemian FC were the IFA Irish League’s first Dublin team, Bohemians, in 1902. Shelbourne, was added in 1904.
Although, professionalism in Irish soccer was legalised by the Irish Football Association (IFA) in May 1894, it was seen as a necessary evil. Ostensibly, it was to prevent Irish players being enticed to the English and Scottish leagues. In fact, it was as much to regulate the under-the-table payment systems, well-known in football circles, to which staunch amateurs opposed. Referring to the staunch amateurs of Corinthians FC, in 1893, it was summarised thus: ‘The amateur sportsman is always indignant if an attempt is made to question his status as an amateur, and football players are evidently particularly eager to draw the line, a difficult matter in the present state of the game, when professionalism is slowly but surely being introduced into all its branches’. Not all northern Irish football clubs embraced professionalism - Cliftonville FC remained amateur until 1970 – but, Linfield FC of Belfast, as a professional or semi-professional outfit, drubbed the amateurs of Bohemian FC 10-1 in the Irish Cup Final 1895.
Professionalism in Dublin
It was not until the 1905-06 season that Dublin clubs, under the auspices of the Leinster Football Association (LFA) ratified professionalism. Shelbourne FC were the first Dublin team to turn professional and in that season succeeded in winning the Irish Cup in Dalymount Park. This was also the first time a Dublin side had prevailed against the northern Irish powerhouses in the Irish Cup.
These were the days of unashamed ‘shamateurism’. The lines were somewhat blurred between what constituted amateurism and professionalism and the attractions of each. It was not until 1901 that the IFA insisted upon players having a written contract. Until then, players had no right to tenure, nor to a transfer. Synnott, the ‘professional’ footballer in 1903 would travel on weekends for Belfast Celtic games, finally moving permanently to Belfast in 1904 for a £2 /10- a week. Still, it was common for players to be out of contact at the end of every season.
To Glossop North End FC
By the end of the 1904 season, it was reported that Synnott had not yet agreed terms for the following season with Belfast Celtic: ‘his terms are stated too be somewhat prohibitive, and Synnott refuses to sign on for less.' By May, things were out of the Belfast Celtic’s hands when the same source reported that ‘Belfast football circles were surprised to-day by the intelligence that Archie Goodall, representing Glossop Club, sailed for England last night with two first-class players, and the signature of a third, who has frequently played for Ireland in Internationals. The two men who crossed were Cairns (Belfast Celtic), inside right, and Synnott of the same club, right back and formerly of Dublin Shelbourne. The third man is Hugh Magennis, Linfield’s clever right half ‘
Picked for Ireland
Archie Goodall was a maverick, to say the least, and an Irish international and the oldest Irish international, at the time, to score a goal. He was at this time player manager of Glossop when he brought Synnott over to England, playing in the second-tier of English football, including playing well against Liverpool in a 2-2 draw at Anfield, and earning four pounds a week. Not to mention a signing-on fee of ten pounds. Billy Synnott seemed to know his worth. And he got to showcase his talent for his new team on a visit back to Ireland when Glossop North End FC played Shelbourne at Serpentine Avenue in February 1905, Glossop winning out 4-1 in what was described as a ‘one of the best pieces of farcical comedy’ – Glossop outclassing the home team; it was obvious to spectators that they were trying not to score. 1905 was also the year Synnott was picked to play for Ireland versus Wales on April 8th in Belfast in the Home Championship. Unfortunately, he was unable take up the position ‘his club being obliged to refuse his services to the Irish Association owing to their position in the Second Division table, they being only a point removed from the last three.’
By December 1905, things had turned sour for Synnott at Glossop Football Club. It was reported that
‘in common with some of his club mates, Synnott, the ex-Shelbourne centre back, has come the displeasure of the management of the Glossop club, and has been suspended….for breach of club rules. Since leaving Ireland Synnott has justified his reputation as a first-class man, but owing to injuries has not often played.’
He returned to Ireland for the 1906-07 season, playing for both Belfast Celtic (as captain) and later transferring to Glentoran FC and by September 1907 was back playing with Shelbourne. By 1908 he was off again.
After a stint ‘working’ in Glasgow, marrying a Glasgow woman named Agnes (the daughter of Irish parents), and with 50 dollars to their name Mr & Mrs Synnott set-off on the ocean liner California, bound for a new life in the USA. On August 31st, 1910 they landed at Ellis Island, listing Homestead Pennsylvania as their destination where they would stay with a friend, Peter McKinney. According to Billy himself, recounting the story in 1956, he emigrated to the United States of America to play for five dollars a game and a twenty-five dollar (or four pounds) signing-on fee to play for the Homestead Steel Workers Football Club near Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania.
Homestead FC were a ‘works’ team – players were recruited to both play for the soccer team as well as work in the steel mills, which was common feature of ‘contract’ at the time: ‘their jobs demanded strength, skill, discipline, and a sense of fearlessness because their work was frequently dangerous……….. These steelworkers expected their sports heroes to be as tough as they were, to have high standards, and to perform on the athletic field as they performed in the steel mills’. Billy Synnott was being paid five dollars ($129 in today’s money) a game to play soccer – an honour in itself - in addition to the weekly wage of a steel miller worker which was no more than twenty dollars a week. Yet the works was tough: “The nature of the work, with the heat and its inherent hazard, makes much of it exhausting. Yet these men for the most part keep it up twelve hours a day. It is uneconomical to have the plant shut down. In order that the mills may run practically continuously, the twenty-four hours is divided between two shifts. The greater number of men employed in making steel (as distinct from the clerical staff) work half of the time at night, the usual arrangement being for a man to work one week on the day and the next on the night shift.”
Success followed him, in the Pittsburgh District league, winning league titles in 1910, 1911 and 1912. Capturing the cosmopolitan soccer scene in the USA at the time, in 1956, Synnott reminisced on soccer career in the USA, Billy recalled:
'I met many Irish and Scottish friends there and some of them were first-class players. There were fine footballers among them Germans, Italians and Poles too’.
Billy was not the lone Irishman in Pittsburgh. In 1911, the Ancient Order of Hibernians held their seventh annual field day called ‘Irish Day’ in nearby Pittsburgh, with upwards of 25,000 in attendance. Synnott representing Homestead No. 34, took part in the soccer games that year with teammates by the name of O’Toole, Sweeney, Halloran, Walsh, Fedigan and Lally.
Homestead FC were to win titles in 1913, 1914 and 1915 and win the Spalding Cup (West Penn Challenge Cup) in 1916, losing in the 1918 final. However, William Synnott does not appear in the records after 1912, and it seems has returned to full-time working – he lists his profession as as ‘mechanic’ on his application form for residency in 1917. The Synnotts by 1920, owned a home while living at a 1017 Nell Street, West Homestead, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, having become US citizens. They returned home to ‘visit relations’ in 1922, according to their passport application and was to make at least two more visits to Ireland in 1956 and in 1962.
Unfortunately, on that visit home to Dublin in 1962, Billy Synnott passed away in Baggot Street Hospital, not far from Sandymount where he first played and eventually captained Shelbourne FC some 43 years earlier. Synnott had become the first Dublin player to play professionally in Britain and the USA.