Encouraged by the relative success of Gradjanski’s tour of United Kingdom, which took place in the late 1936, another successful Yugoslav football club planned to embark on a somewhat similar project. In spring of 1937, SK Jugoslavija, popular football club from Belgrade and Yugoslav champion from the early 1920s, hired the same agents Gradjanski did in 1936, Viennese sports journalist and agent David Weiss and English referee Walter Lewington, to arrange for them a tour of the British Isles. In a very short period of time they came with a proposal for club to visit Ireland, where SK Jugoslavija was supposed to play against the team of the Irish Free State, and London respectively, where the team’s opponent was supposed to be Chelsea.
After short deliberation club’s officials accepted the proposal and the tour was arranged for March 1937. Before embarking on a journey, some administrative issues had to be settled. The tour had to be approved by the Yugoslav FA and by the Ministry of Physical Education, which could have represented a problem because of the delicate political situation in Europe (Spanish Civil War) and the reputation SK Jugoslavija had as a left-wing football club (Only few months earlier SK Jugoslavija’s footballer Boško Petrović escaped from the country to join Spanish republicans). Yugoslav authorities were usually very cautious when decided who could be given passport to leave the country, but the whole administrative ordeal was finished quickly and without any problems. This was actually quite strange as visit of one Yugoslav football team to Irish Free State, especially the team like SK Jugoslavija, could have been seen as a political statement.
Nevertheless, there were no problems with the authorities whatsoever. The only problem, as it would later turn out, was the case of „false advertising“ of the match. Apparently, the both sides, Yugoslavs and the Irish, had announced their opponents falsely – the Irish had advertised them as the Yugoslav national football team and the Yugoslavs described their opponents as Irish national football team, even though they were in fact a selection of the Irish first football league. After their return to Yugoslavia, the club had certain difficulties in explaining the issue to the YFA.
SK Jugoslavija team started their journey on 13th of March 1937. Few hundreds of their supporters had gathered at the Belgrade central railway station to wish them luck on the tour. The fans escorted their players in Ireland by singing „It’s a long way to Tipperary“, one of the few songs the Yugoslavs had remembered from the days of joint struggle in the First World War. The trip through Italy, Switzerland and France took them two days and it wasn’t without difficulties. SK Jugoslavija players were involved in an incident at a Swiss-French border. Some of the players were accused by the French customs officers for liquor smuggling. The true story was that the SK Jugolsavija delegation had brought with them few bottles of traditional Serbian plum brandy as a gift for their hosts, which was a Serbian tradition. The French authorities had no understanding for Serbian traditions and the brandy was confiscated.
Upon arriving in London they met with their agent Weiss and had short meeting with the Secretary of the Yugoslav Embassy in London. This meeting wasn’t official but friendly, because Embassy Secretary Arsen Gazivoda used to be a sports journalist and big SK Jugoslavija fan. The players reached Dublin on 16th of March, early in the morning, after a long train journey from London to Holyhead and a ferry ride across the Irish Sea. On the same day they were scheduled to meet with Éamon de Valera, who was at the time President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State. The meeting was short and cordial and no political issues were raised. De Valera welcomed the players to Ireland, wished them luck at the match and said that sport is truly a magnificent tool of bringing different peoples and nations together. The Yugoslav delegation was very much impressed with de Valera and one of the Yugoslav footballers later recalled that he really had a look of a „popular tribune“. The same afternoon, Yugoslav footballers were invited for tea to the residency of the Lord Mayor of Dublin. The players remembered that Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne was very warm-hearted and friendly. At their departure each of the players was given a box of chocolates and a pack of cigarettes. In the evening players visited Yugoslav consulate in Dublin for a short official reception.
The football match between SK Jugoslavija and the team of Irish first league was scheduled for 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day, and was, in fact, part of the Irish national holiday celebration. On the morning of the same day, the Irish Army held a parade on the streets of Dublin, with SK Jugoslavija players as special guests. The Chief of Staff of the Irish Army, who commanded the parade, was a special guest at the later match and even went to the dressing rooms during half-time to greet all the players.
The match between the two teams was scheduled for 3.30 p.m. and it attracted a considerable crowd of 30.000 people at Dalymount Park. SK Jugoslavija team for the match: Jakšić, Anđelković, Lukić, Pogačnik, Radovanović, Đokić, Petrović, Valok, Perlić, Lojančić, Zečević. The match itself was very lively and interesting. SK Jugoslavija took an early lead when Zečević scored in the 4th minute. The Irish did not despair but attacked in order to equalise, which they soon managed to do. Both teams played very openly and with desire to score as many goals as possible, and the audience approved such approach. Before the half-time, Yugoslav team once again took lead. Unfortunately for the Yugoslavs, but also for the game itself, SK Jugoslavija was rather handicapped in the second half. Lukić, centre half of the team, was injured during the first half and didn’t play in the second. Also, some 20 minutes before the end, another Yugoslav player took a hit, disabling him to put his full performance. In addition to that, the Irish showed great desire to overturn the result, and in the end they succeeded in doing so. The match was ended with Irish victory of 3:2. The Yugoslav team was generally satisfied with their performance. Miroslav Lukić, Yugoslav footballer, testified that physical condition of the Irish players was crucial for their victory and that Yugoslavs weren’t used to such physical approach to football – he even stated that occasionally they were „ruthlessly beaten“ by the Irish.
After the match, the Football Federation of Ireland organized a banquet in honour of guests from Yugoslavia, and among many courteous words, one could have heard a lot of genuine praise for the performance of the Yugoslavs. The officials and players of SK Jugoslavija were quite satisfied with the game, despite losing it. They were very pleased with the fact that they could match the Irish tactically and to certain extent physically. Unfortunately for SK Jugoslavija, this match was the only one they played on this tour. The arranged match against Chelsea in London was cancelled, because the English team had changed the proposed financial agreement. The Yugoslav team did play another friendly match in France on their way back, but the cancelation of the Chelsea game practically ruined the tour. Instead of being their „British tour“, it was remembered as an „Irish tour“. Still, the match in Ireland was successful, as it introduced the Yugoslav team to Irish and British football fans and sports press, but also from the financial point of view. The final report of the tour stated: 13 players participated, group leader, coach, manager, journalist and two fans, total 19 people. Two matches were played – in Dublin against the Irish (2:3) and in Roubaix, France, against the selection of Roubaix (1:4). Total time spent – from 13th to 26th of March 1937 (135 hours in train or boat, two days in Dublin, one day in London, one day in Roubaix and two days in Paris). Profit – 45.000 dinars (only about 180£).
When one looks back on SK Jugoslavija’s Irish tour and tries to contextualize it, especially thinking of history of SK Jugoslavija in the late 1930s, the immediate impact was probably not very much visible, but the match against the Irish gave the team much needed confidence and affirmation, assuring them they could compete on the highest level. Few years after the Irish tour, SK Jugoslavija did host Chelsea in Belgrade and managed to beat them 6:1. In May 1939 a historical match was played in Belgrade, the first ever between Yugoslav and English national football teams. Yugoslavia managed to win by 2:1. Many of those players who achieved this historical victory for Yugoslavia were part of SK Jugoslavija’s Irish tour of 1937.
Article © Dejan Zec