This picture shows the players of Sterling Football Club who were once based in the Bootle area of Merseyside. It has been taken in front of the old pavilion, demolished in 2002, at the present day home of Bootle Cricket Club on Wadham Road. The year is 1896 and the Sterling club have just won the Liverpool Amateur Cup for the third time. Sitting in the front row, third from the right, is a young man who will later play league football for Everton. He is, quite possibly, the first Irishman to do so.
John Henry Kirwen was born in the County Wicklow town of Dunlavin on the 9th of February, 1878 and first came to public attention while playing football under the rules of the Gaelic Athletic Association. On the 24-3-1895, Kirwen was a member of the Dublin team who opposed Cork, watched by 1,000 people, in the All Ireland Gaelic football final at Clonturk Park in Dublin. Each side scored seven points and the game ended in a draw. The re-play, which took place in the Tipperary town of Thurles, drew a record crowd of over 10,000 people. Cork, with 10 minutes left to play, were leading by 7 points to 5 when some of their supporters encroached on the playing area and attacked the opposition. The Dublin players, having left the field, refused to continue with the game and were later awarded the title. Jack Kirwen next took a boat and headed for Liverpool.
He settled in the Bootle area where he began to play football, and cricket, with the Sterling club on South Park. He was quickly spotted by a talent scout who persuaded him to join Lancashire League outfit Southport Central where his skilful play was brought to the notice of both Everton and Blackburn Rovers. Kirwen, first of all, signed a League form to play for Ewood Park club but then appeared to change his mind and signed both a League and Professional form in order to play for Everton. The Blackburn club objected to the action taken by Everton and put the matter, for decision, before the FA committee. The governing body decided that no rules had been broken but did order Everton to pay Blackburn Rovers a compensation fee of £150.
Kirwen quickly settled in to the Everton combination side scoring five goals, on his debut, in a 7-2 win over Northwich Victoria on the Drill Field. He next played, with the combination X1, against New Brighton Tower in the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup at Goodison Park alongside John Cameron as Everton lifted the trophy with a 3-1 victory. Cameron then left Merseyside, to join Tottenham Hotspur, while the young Irishman remained at Everton.
Jack Kirwen made his first team debut, 17-9-1898, as Everton drew 0-0 with Preston North End at Deepdale. He secured a place in first team line up and went on to make 24 Football League appearances scoring 5 goals in the process. He also took part in two FA Cup ties for but, following a poor performance against Nottingham Forest, he lost his regular place in the Everton side and was not retained at the end of the season. This news quickly reached the ears of his former Everton team mate John Cameron, who was now the player/manager at Tottenham Hotspur, and he invited Kirwen to join him at the Southern League outfit. He accepted the offer and moved away from Liverpool.
The North London club had just left their former home on Northumberland Park to play at their present home at White Hart Lane and Kirwen took part in the inaugural match there, 4-9-1901. (The game was a friendly against Notts County). The Southern League rule makers, unlike those of the Football League, had not put a limit on the amount of money a professional footballer could earn and this induced many players from the north of England to move south in search of higher wages. Jack Kirwen, no doubt happy with this arrangement, soon established himself with his new club.
In 1901 Tottenham Hotspur became the first team from outside the Football League to reach an FA Cup final when they played Sheffield United at the Crystal Palace. Jack Kirwen filled the outside left position. The match, which ended in a draw, attracted the first six figure crowd to attend a football match in England. The FA committee had decided, should the game be drawn, that the re-play would take place at the home of Everton but, following a protest from neighbours Liverpool, the match was switched to the home of Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park. Spurs won the re-play by 3 goals to 1. The ball, which was used in the game, was gifted to Kirwen who kept it as a souvenir.
On the 6th of February 1904, Kirwen made what was to be his only return to Goodison Park when he took part in a 3rd round FA Cup tie against Everton. Spurs won the game, 2-1. He went on to play 357 games for the North London club before moving to Chelsea in 1905. He then played 75 games for the Stamford Bridge club before moving, in 1908, to play for Clyde in the top flight of Scottish football. It was while playing for the Glasgow club that Jack Kirwen took part in what was to be the last of the seventeen international matches; he was to play for his native Ireland, against Scotland at Celtic Park. He left Clyde after one season and returned to London where he ended his playing career with Leyton Orient. Jack Kirwen then tried his hand at football management.
In 1912 he took over a struggling Dutch second division side that played under the name of Ajax and led them to promotion at the first time of asking. He then organised his new clubs foreign tour, throughout the Austro/Hungarian Empire, and chose for the occasion, the colours that they still wear to this day. On the outbreak of World War One, Kirwen was forced to leave mainland Europe and return to England.
The next item of local news we have concerning this former Everton player appeared, 11-2-1918, in the Liverpool Echo when he was spotted at Haig Avenue, Southport watching the home side play Liverpool. The report stated that…Kirwen was on the continent in pursuit of his calling when war was declared but he managed to get to England safely. He is at present domiciled in London, but for the sake of of his wife and children, he is anxious to live a quieter life.
Change was in the air at Southport Central FC and this may well be reason why Jack Kirwen was back at the club where he had begun his professional career. The seaside town was now home to the Vulcan Motor and Engineering Works and they were about to take over the running of the local football club who, at this time, played their matches in the Central League. The club, henceforth, would be known as Southport Vulcan. This fact was confirmed by the following newspaper article… Southport Vulcan will have the benefit of the services as trainer this season of Jack Kirwen the old Southport Central player whose name is well known in connection with Everton, Spurs and Chelsea. He went to Southport from London a few months ago for domestic reasons and got employment at the Vulcan Motor Works. In addition to training the men, he says he will probably turn out occasionally and when there is a vacancy (Liverpool Echo 23-81918.) Jack Kirwen remained in this position for just one season.
The reason why he suddenly left the seaside town, it has been suggested, was partly due to a financial scandal, concerning one of the company directors, which resulted in the word Vulcan being removed from the title of the football club who would now be known simply as Southport.
Kirwen then returned to his native Ireland where he became the manager of the Bohemians Football Club in Dublin. These were however, troubled times for the Emerald Isle where civil war was raging throughout the land. Nonetheless, Jack Kirwen guided his football club through the turmoil to become, in 1921, a founder member of the new League of Ireland. He remained in his native land until he again moved abroad to take over Livorno Football Club in the Tuscany region of Italy and remained there until he retired from football.
Jack Kirwen, along with his wife and two daughters, eventually settled in the Hendon suburb of North London where this former Everton player, his roving days now over, spent the rest of his life. He was, at the time of his death, the last surviving member of the 1901 Tottenham Hotspur FA Cup winning side. He was eighty years old.