The term ‘home nations’ can be a little confusing at times and it is not that unusual to see it used incorrectly. In the world of football, and indeed politically, the home nations refers to the four countries that form the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This seems simple enough but confusion can arise due to the fact that in other sports, such as rugby union, the entire island of Ireland is represented by a single council (IRFU). As such, in these cases the home nations term can include Ireland, although this is not always the case. We are not too interested about other sports here though, so let us cast our attention back to the footballing home nations and how they have changed over time.
By the 19th century each of the four home nations, then England, Scotland, Wales and (a united) Ireland had all established a national football team. Remember at this stage Ireland was a united country so there was no discussion of the island having two separate international teams (or footballing associations) like there is today. They were certainly the weakest of the bunch though, initially at any rate, and ended up being hammered 13-0 by England during their very first match.
|Country||FA Founded||First International Fixture|
|England||1863||30th November, 1872|
|Scotland||1873||30th November, 1872|
|Wales||1876||25th March, 1876|
|Ireland||1880||18th February, 1882|
Difficulties in travelling long distances, combined with few other nations playing football, meant that for quite some time the home nations had nobody to play but themselves. It was not until 1906 that England faced their first match against non-home nation opposition, this being a friendly versus Austria played in Vienna. Scotland and Wales both waited much longer than this for their first taste of proper continental football. The Scots took on Norway in 1929 while Wales faced France in 1933.
Now, playing the same three teams repeatedly may not sound too exciting but the matches were at least given a formal competitive element after a few years. This is thanks to the creation of the British Home Championship which effectively replaced the annual friendlies that were scheduled beforehand. Designed as a tournament, of sorts, the inaugural edition took place in 1884.
British Home Championship
It took a little time for people to recognise the British Home Championship (then known as the British International Championship) as a single tournament rather than just a series of individual fixtures played over several weeks, much like had been the case earlier. Talk tended to focus more on the rivalries of the two teams involved rather than looking at the bigger picture of the ‘championship’.
By the 1890s though, there was more focus on this being a true championship with some papers suggesting a league table should be used with two points for a win and one for the draw. The Football League had adopted this approach themselves in 1888 so by this stage people were familiar with the format and generally approved of it. Skip forward a few years and there was a published list of former champions, based on the two points for a win, one point for a draw system. This system remained throughout the history of the competition.
Tiebreakers, however, were almost never part of the British Home Championship, so if two (or more) teams shared the same number of points at the top of the table, they would be crowned joint champions. The first instance of this occurred very early on, in 1885/86, with England and Scotland both sitting on five points. These rules also led to the quite bizarre result in 1955/56 which saw all four nations crowned champions due to them all having one win, one draw and one loss. Certainly one way to keep everyone happy but hardly in keeping with the norms of modern competitive sport.
Even though tiebreakers became commonplace in other leagues and competitions across the world, this competition was slow to adopt them, only doing so for the first time in 1978/79. This did at least prevent the very final British Home Championship from ending in extremely anticlimactic fashion as each team finished on three points. As it was, Northern Ireland (who replaced Ireland from the 1956/7 Championship, albeit with some exceptions, caveats and anomalies!), were crowned the final champions by virtue of goal difference.
For many decades the Championship was largely used just for bragging rights but it did sometimes carry more meaning. Some earlier Euro and World Cup qualifiers (World Cup 1950 & 1954, Euro 1968) simply used the results of the Championship to determine places.
Change in Irish Football
From the very first British Home Championship, right through until 1950, the four teams involved had been England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In Ireland’s case, players putting on the shirt came from all over the island as the Irish Football Association did not stop picking players from the south following the introduction of the border. This ‘all Ireland’ approach worked for nearly 30 years after the partition of Ireland, which occurred in 1921, but it could not last.
Ultimately, the political divided began to creep its way into football. The Football Association of Ireland (representing the Republic), which was set up in 1921, actually began accepting players from north of the border in 1936 but reversed this policy in 1946. The Irish Football Association, which was responsible for the ‘Ireland’ team, had selected players from the whole island until 1950, at which point they began excluding players south of the border.
This marked the end of the ‘Ireland’ national football team who officially played their last fixture on 8th March, 1950, a 0-0 draw with Wales. Rather confusingly, the ‘Ireland’ name continued, despite the side only consisting of players from Northern Ireland. In 1954, the team adopted the name ‘Northern Ireland’ but only for FIFA competitions. In the British Home Championship, they continued to play as ‘Ireland’ until the 1970s. In both the 1971/72 and 1973/72 tournaments, they even played under both names, changing mid-way through.
The Northern Ireland team that exists today is seen as merely as a continuation of the Ireland team that took part in the very first British Home Championship in 1883/84. As such, there is no real distinction made in the record books, you may just see them noted as Ireland/Northern Ireland. Players from what is now the Republic of Ireland, have participated in the competition (pre-1950), but the Republic of Ireland team, managed by the Football Association of Ireland, never has. In much the same way that geo-politics confuses other sports and events, it is certainly the case that quite how we view the record of the various Irish teams over the years is rather complex.
British Home Championship Records
It was only as recently as 1983/84 that the British Home Championship bid its farewell, bowing out of the international football calendar on its 100th year anniversary. England and Scotland were the two nations that really pushed for its end, due to an increasingly busy schedule, reduced interest in the matches and issues with hooliganism. Due to some cancellations caused by war or political unrest, from a possible 101 Championships, only 87 actually ran to completion.
Nevertheless, this is still a lot of history and a lot of teams being crowned winners. To see how each home nation fared, take a look at the table below. Note that these records exclude the 1945/46 edition, which included matches not regarded as full internationals, rather an end of war celebration, and 1980/81, which was not completed due to The Troubles.
|Team||Total Wins||Outright Wins||Shared Wins|
Despite having the worst record of the four countries, Northern Ireland were the team who won the very final British Home Championship thanks to their superior goal difference. Given that the rule that had only been in place for five tournaments, they can consider themselves a little fortuitous. Their final victory also meant they were able to keep the trophy for themselves, so it was the best edition of the competition to win and their fans can reasonably argue they are the current champions!
The usually dominant Scotland and England were no doubt a little annoyed to miss out on a piece of permanent silverware but neither had a great final tournament. In fact, it was the first time since 1928 that they occupied the bottom two positions in the group. This would not have been the case of course, without the implementation of the goal difference rule. As for overall match standings in the Home Championship, Scotland and England are a long way ahead of both Wales and Northern Ireland, as you would expect given their number of respective titles.
All Time Top Goalscorers
Similarly, the bulk of the players to feature on the all-time top goalscorers list represented England or Scotland. No man scored more goals in this competition than England’s Steve Bloomer, whose entire international record read played 23 games, 28 goals. Much like with Hughie Gallagher (24 goals in 20 goals, or 23 goals depending on who you believe) it would have been interesting to see how he would have fared with a much busier international schedule like there is today.
Home Nations Football More Recently
Just because the British Home Championship no longer exists, that is not to say that the home nations do not get chance to play one another. Since the tournament has been abolished the United Kingdom teams have met in competitions such as the World Cup and European Championship qualifiers, as well as the much newer Nations League. Certain combinations of fixtures seem to happen semi-regularly whereas others take place far less frequently.
World Cup qualifiers, Euro qualifiers and international friendlies make up the vast bulk of meetings between the home nations but from time to time there have been other meetings too. The short-lived Rous Cup, for example, which only ran for five years, was contested between England and Scotland plus one representative from South America in its final three iterations. There was also the 2011 Nations Cup which was contested by Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Without further ado though, let us take a look at how each home nation has fared since the final edition of the British Home Championship.
England have generally done well against their neighbours, as you would expect given their vastly larger population. In the Home Championships Scotland tended to give them a battle but in more recent years the gulf in quality between the historic rivals has grown.
They managed to beat Wales 13 times in a row between 1876 and 1888 but more recently the Dragons have become something of a bogey team for the Scots.
You certainly cannot accuse Wales of any home nation-based favouritism as they have faced England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all at least six times each (at the time of writing). They rather enjoying playing the latter two but England, not so much.
Northern Ireland may have won the last ever British Home Championship but they have not enjoyed much success outside of this against their local rivals. From 14 more recent encounters, they have won just one, a 2006 World Cup qualifier against England.