Con Martin: Highly versatile Irish footballer


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The Independent Online

Con Martin was a leviathan of Irish football in the middle years of the 20th century, enjoying the type of colourful career usually confined to the pages of old-fashioned schoolboy comics.

Remarkably versatile, he played internationally on both sides of the border, usually as a central defender, sometimes in goal, and was also an occasional marksman at the other end of the pitch, hitting the target six times for the Republic.

His most revered strike came in the 2-0 victory over England at Goodison Park in 1949, the first time the hosts had tasted defeat to a non-UK team on their own soil, when he opened the scoring with a ferocious blast from the penalty spot. At club level, after shining in his homeland he put in a spell with Leeds United before eight productive years with Aston Villa from 1948 to 1956. He also founded something of a footballing dynasty, with two sons, Mick and Con Jnr, and a grandson, Owen Garvan, playing the game professionally.

Martin's all-round sporting prowess was demonstrated further by his teenage achievements as a Gaelic footballer, which peaked with a superb display for Dublin as they beat Carlow to win the Leinster championship in November 1941. However, simultaneously with his exploits at the Gaelic code, the enterprising Martin had started playing football for the Dublin club Drumcondra – and when this was discovered by the Gaels, controversy broke. They had forbidden their members to indulge in "foreign" sports, and so banned him from their club and withheld his Leinster medal. They finally handed him his hard-earned gong in 1971.

Not that Martin was cowed, going on to thrive with the Drums, filling most defensive roles and helping them to win the FA of Ireland Cup in 1946, before heading north to join the Belfast club Glentoran that year. Even that wasn't straightforward; the Glens had to buy him out of the Irish Air Corps after he had impressed for the League of Ireland against the Ulster equivalent.

Clearly, though, Martin's talent was worthy of a wider stage, and in January 1947 – having recently commenced international service with both Irish nations, courtesy of the lenient rules in force – he was sold to Leeds United for £8,000. He had spurned the opportunity to join Manchester United because they wanted him as a goalkeeper while he favoured an outfield berth, even though part of his Republic of Ireland debut against Portugal had been spent between the posts after the chosen keeper, Ned Courtney, had been hurt.

Martin offered a powerful physical presence, fierce determination and was skilful with both feet, and Leeds – with whom he suffered relegation to the Second Division in his first English spring – employed him as full-back, wing-half and central defender before selling him reluctantly to Aston Villa for £10,000 in October 1948. The Irishman flourished with the Midlanders, for whom he made more than 200 senior appearances, mostly at centre-half; but when keeper Joe Rutherford was injured in August 1951, manager George Martin (no relation) prevailed on his namesake to take up the gloves for most of that season.

He had observed the rangy Martin excelling as a net-minder in casual kickabouts, and also catching everything that came his way in a cricket match, and he was not disappointed, as Martin helped Villa finish sixth in the top flight. Thereafter, though, he reverted to centre-half until he re-crossed the Irish Sea in July 1956 to become player-manager of Waterford. Later, he took a similar role with Dundalk, before managing Shelbourne and becoming assistant manager of Cork Hibernians.

Martin's international career encompassed six caps for the Ulster-based Ireland, which did not become Northern Ireland for football purposes until 1954, and 30 for the Republic, for whom he scored six goals. Highlights included a brilliant performance in goal during a shock 1-0 win over Spain in Madrid in 1946, and two strikes as a centre-forward in a World Cup qualifier victory over Finland in 1949.

Martin revelled in the success of his son Mick, who served Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United as well as collecting 51 Republic caps, Con Jnr, who played for several Irish clubs, and grandson Owen Garvan, an Irish under-21 international now with Crystal Palace.

Ivan Ponting

Cornelius Joseph Martin, footballer and manager: born Rush, County Dublin, 20 March 1923; played for Drumcondra 1941-46, Glentoran 1946-47, Leeds United 1947-48, Aston Villa 1948-56, Waterford 1956-59, Dundalk 1959-60; capped six times by Ireland 1946-50, 30 times by the Republic of Ireland 1946-56; managed Dundalk 1959-60, Shelbourne 1965; married (four sons, three daughters); died 24 February 2013.