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W.K. Gibson

A man whose talents crossed from football to politics, WK Gibson could seemingly have made a living at anything he chose to turn his hand to...

Name: William Kennedy Gibson
Born: 1 October 1876, Glasgow (Scotland)
Died: 9 December 1949, Belfast
Position: Forward/Full-Back

Representative Honours: Ireland: 14 Full Caps/1 Goal (1894-1902); Irish League: 5 Caps (1894-1902).
Club Honours: (with Cliftonville) Irish Cup Winner 1896/97, 1900/01; Co. Antrim Shield Winner 1897/98, Runner-Up 1900/01; Charity Cup Winner 1896/97, Runner-Up 1894/95; (with Sunderland) Football League Champion 1901/02.

Club Career:
FA Cup
(Northern League)
Sunderland Royal Rovers

A member of Cliftonville, at the time Ireland’s “Gentleman Amateurs”, Willie (known locally as WK) Gibson was a solicitor as well as footballer. Born in Glasgow, he had arrived in Belfast as a child when his father, Andrew, moved to the city as a shipping agent. The Gibsons quickly established themselves in Belfast society, Andrew, a recognised authority on poetry, becoming a governor of the Linen Hall Library and elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland. On a more related note, Gibson senior had a keen sporting interest, serving as president of the Belfast Bowling Club, president of Cliftonville Football Club and vice-president of the Irish Football Association.

With a background such as that WK couldn’t help but become a gifted scholar and sportsman. As a schoolboy he attended Coleraine Academical Institution as a boarder, but spent most week-ends at home in Belfast. He made his Cliftonville debut while still attending there, and at just 17 years and 146 days made his debut in the forward line for Ireland. Five days later he wrote his name large in the record books, scoring a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with England. This was significant not just because Gibson became one of only three players to score for Ireland prior to their eighteenth birthday, but also because it was the first time they had avoided defeat by the English – the fact that, by many accounts, the ball passed "a couple of feet outside the left-hand post" (goal nets, although having been invented, were not being used in this match), seems unimportant! He had scored his first goal for Cliftonville in the 10-1 defeat of Ulster in the Irish Cup semi-final in January 1893, aged 16 years and 3 months.

In 1898, at the age of 21 years and 141 days, Gibson was appointed captain of Ireland for a match against Wales in Llandudno, and a 1-0 victory gave them their first win away from Irish soil. By then featuring regularly at full-back for both club and country, Gibson won two Irish Cup winner’s medals with Cliftonville, in a 3-1 victory over Sherwood Foresters in 1897, and a 1-0 win over Freebooters in 1901. He missed the 1900 final, when Cliftonville defeated Bohemians 2-1 but did help the club to a County Antrim Shield success in 1898. In this final heavy favourites Linfield were defeated 2-0 , with Gibson twice clearing off his own line. In his career at Cliftonville he scored 13 League goals, 8 Irish Cup goals and 14 in other competitions, including 5 in the three matches which led to his silver medal in the 1894/95 Charity Cup following a 1-3 defeat by Linfield.

Although successes in an Ireland shirt were few-and-far-between, Gibson’s talents and dependability to play “his usual sterling game at the back” were recognised across the water, with rumours that Scotland would invite him to play for the country of his birth. He also declined the opportunity to sign professionally with Sunderland. He made a single appearance for the Roker-club in the closing match of their 1901/02 championship winning season, and is recorded as Ireland's first English title winner in some contemporary sources.

It should be noted that from his first cap in 1894 and his final cap in 1902 his club was always listed as Cliftonville, despite a period in the north-east of England during this time. Sir Frederick Wall, secretary of the Football Association for forty years, remembered Gibson as among the "three finest players" to have appeared for Ireland.

A combination of a recurring knee injury and the emergence of Billy McCracken brought Gibson’s international career to a halt in 1902. He remained active within the game, following in his father’s footsteps as Cliftonville president and vice-president of the Irish FA. He also acted in his professional capacity for a number of Belfast clubs, and aided the IFA in its formation as a limited company. Later in his life he would also become a major shareholder in Distillery.

In January 1909, Gibson turned his attentions to politics, standing for election to the Belfast City Corporation. He called on his old footballing colleagues and acquaintances to speak for him at a rally at Cliftonville’s ground. A large crowd heard Gibson himself, Irish FA chairman Hugh Hegan, Linfield chairman John Warwick, and James Barron (a former colleague for both Cliftonville and Ireland) speak of “your old football friend”. He was aided by Cliftonville members in canvassing the local neighbourhoods, and with great success. Gibson recorded the highest number of votes of any candidate in Belfast, drawing his support from all sections of the community in the face of opposition from Shankill Road fruitier, William Turner, also a former Cliftonville and Irish international footballer, boasted the support of the local Conservative Party, the Orange Order and the influential temperance movement.

In 1912 all senior clubs but Linfield withdrew from the I.F.A. as a result of a dispute as to what percentage of the Irish Cup gate receipts should be collected by the I.F.A. It was WK Gibson who intervened and finally negotiated a solution to the problem.

As well as his political and footballing interests, Gibson wrote two books of poetry and founded the Belfast Rotary Club, while continuing with his successful legal practice. In the 1930s he was listed as "first Solicitor the the [Irish Football] Association". The obituaries following his death in 1949 recorded a long list of William Kennedy Gibson’s achievements - from football to political, from professional to social; he had made an indelible mark on each field he entered.

It has been suggested on various occasions that William Kennedy Gibson was the benefactor who presented the Irish League Trophy commonly known as the Gibson Cup. However, the benefactor was William Gibson, a High Street Jeweller.

More information on WK Gibson, and the early history of football in Ireland can be found in the works be Neal Garnham “Association Football and Society in Pre-Partition Ireland” and “Association Football and Politics in Belfast”.

Ireland Cap Details:
24/02/1894 Wales... A L 1- 4 BC
03/03/1894 England. H D 2- 2 BC 1 Goal
31/03/1894 Scotland H L 1- 2 BC
30/03/1895 Scotland A L 1- 3 BC
06/03/1897 Wales... H W 4- 3 BC
18/02/1898 Wales... A W 1- 0 BC
05/03/1898 England. H L 2- 3 BC
26/03/1898 Scotland H L 0- 3 BC
23/02/1901 Scotland A L 0-11 BC
09/03/1901 England. A L 0- 3 BC
23/03/1901 Wales... H L 0- 1 BC
22/02/1902 Wales... A W 3- 0 BC
01/03/1902 Scotland H L 1- 3 BC

09/08/1902 Scotland H L 0- 3 FR

Summary: 14/1. Won 3, Drew 1, Lost 10.

Additions and corrections by George Glass.


Anonymous said…
Gibsion was known as Willie, Jonny. I knew this from old forgotten sources even before seeing it in the Belfast Evening Telegraph 13 Jan 1902, the Belfast News-letter 14 Dec 1896 (Cliftonville v Linfield: 'Willie Gibson was limping painfully') and any number of eds. of thre Ulster Football & Cycling News (UFCN), e.g. 3 Jan and 7 Aug 1896 (Willie Gibson missing all of 1895-96 season with an injured knee). Ed. 22 Jan 1909: Willie K Gibson.

All the best,

Cris Freddi
jcd said…
Once again, many thanks Cris!
Unknown said…
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