You may have heard of a football club called Dundee Harp. It is less likely that you have heard of a player called Tom O’Kane. Yet if it hadn’t been for an honest mistake, the Harp would hold a world record and today feature in the Guinness Book of Records while the story of O’Kane’s incredible debut for them would resound in the annals of Scottish football and beyond. Instead, all the plaudits from the most incredible day in Scottish Cup history went to the club’s biggest rivals – and Tom’s former team-mates.
By 1879 the craze of football had well and truly hit Dundee. It was no surprise that, taking their lead from the establishment of Hibernian FC four years earlier, the city’s sizeable Irish community would set up a club of its own in the image of the team from Edinburgh’s ‘Little Ireland’ in the capital’s Cowgate. As early as 1851, almost 19% of Dundee’s population was Irish-born – a greater proportion than Glasgow. The immigrants lived throughout the city but the district of Lochee had (and still has) a strong Irish identity, with one area known for decades as ‘Tipperary’ due to large number of residents who hailed from that particular county in the Emerald Isle.
Tipperary, in Dundee’s Lochee, as viewed from St Ann Street
Harp was the name taken by this new club when it was formed in 1879, developing from teams in the Catholic parishes of St Andrew’s and St Joseph’s. The Hibernian influence was strong and, like the Edinburgh club, Harp were formed as a branch of the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS) which was headquartered in the Tay Street Halls, a short distance from St Andrew’s RC Cathedral on the Nethergate.
In the earliest years Harp played their games on open ground at Magdalen Green, close to the Tay Bridge which infamously collapsed in a storm in December 1879. In 1884 they set up a permanent home called the Harp Athletic Grounds near the centre of Dundee and its port on East Dock Street. Initially Harp played in green and white but in the 1880s adopted an all-green shirt with a harp on the chest and black stockings.
Over the last century the main rivalry in Tayside football has been between Dundee FC and Dundee United but back in the 1880s, as the sport developed in the region, the keenest rivals were the Harp and Arbroath (founded a year earlier in 1878). Both were founder members of the Forfarshire Football Association when it was created in 1883 with 18 member clubs (12 from the city of Dundee). The Forfarshire Cup became the most sought-after football honour in the area and it was in this competition that the rivalry was forged.
The cup was won in its inaugural season by Arbroath in December 1883, beating Harp 2-1 in a feisty encounter which ended five minutes early due to a crowd invasion. Harp got their revenge a year later, knocking out Arbroath in the semi-final and beating another Arbroath team 15-1 in the final! One year on and Harp won the cup again, beating Arbroath once more (5-3) before an impressive crowd of 11,000 at West Craigie Park in Dundee.
Harp’s dominance of football in the area was emphasised when the won the cup for a third year in a row in 1886. The Irish club were also winners of the prestigious Dundee Charity Cup three years running from 1884-1886, making them the best team in the city at that point.
One of the reasons for Harp’s success over the Red Lichties (so named because of the red light in Arbroath harbour that used to guide fishing boats home) was their having tempted their rival’s best defender away in September 1885. Arbroath-born Tom O’Kane was a formidable full-back, the son of an Irishman and a Kirkcaldy woman, who in a few years would be a signing target for Scotland’s newest combination of Irishmen: Celtic of Glasgow. He had won a medal with Arbroath when they had won the first Forfarshire Cup in 1883.
His decision to join the Harp in favour of his home-town team made him a target for abuse any time he donned a green jersey at Gayfield. Almost 50 years later, an Arbroath man who was then resident in London wrote to the Arbroath Herald in 1932 reminiscing about the ‘awful booin’ that O’Kane received in clashes between the teams. Tom took it all in good spirit and continued to live in Arbroath throughout his career. In a match report from 1889 the Dundee Evening Telegraph reports that ‘Tom O’Kane had to stand a good deal of banter from the spectators, which he seemed to rather like, occasionally smiling approval.’
While the Forfarshire Cup was the regular battleground between the green shirts of Harp and Arbroath’s maroons, the nationwide Scottish Cup opened up a new front in their rivalry. In 1878-9 Arbroath made it as far as the third-round before a narrow defeat to Hearts in Edinburgh. Harp equalled this feat in the 1882-3 competition before losing to Dunblane (who had knocked out Arbroath in the previous round).
The teams then met each other in the third-round of the Scottish Cup the following year. After a draw at Gayfield, Harp ran out 2-1 winners in a replay. Although it was another indicator of their dominance of their rivals along the coast, Harp were beaten heavily (5-0) in the next round by one of Scotland’s best-known clubs, Vale of Leven, who had won the Scottish Cup three years in succession from 1877-1879. Vale again made it all the way to the final again this season against Queen’s Park but failed to appear, resulting in a walkover decision in favour of the Spiders.
The following season, 1884-5, both teams were drawn against each other yet again in the big cup – this time in a first-round tie to be held at Gayfield. The men in maroon enjoyed victory for a change but it was the Scottish Cup of 1885-6 which was to prove historic for both Forfarshire rivals – gloriously for one and tragically for the other.
‘SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS’
In order to boost their chances of advancing even further in the Scottish Cup this time around, Harp made the bold move to approach Tom O’Kane as the new football season got underway. The Dundee team persuaded him to sign – no doubt highlighting his Irish lineage and offering an under-the-table financial inducement – before the first-round fixtures in the Scottish Cup were played: which meant that O’Kane was bound to them for the rest of that season. This had the added benefit of undermining Arbroath’s prospects of advancing in the national cup also and weakening them in Forfarshire Cup.
Both clubs had drawn unfancied opposition from Aberdeen at home in the first-round. Aberdeen Rovers, who had only just been admitted to the SFA, were the visitors to East Dock Street and the Dundee Courier didn’t rate their chances at all in this, their first Scottish Cup encounter: ‘they will be no more heard of this season, the strong probability being that the green jerseys will get into double figures.’
Their city counterparts who were heading to Gayfield to play the Maroons were also deemed to have little chance of survival according to the Courier: ‘The Arbroath will also participate in the slaughter of the innocents.’
Tom O’Kane’s career at the Harp could not have got off to a better start: at half-time his team was 16-0 up. The fact that Aberdeen Rovers had started the game with only 10 men did little to help their cause (although the Courier argued that ‘this fact could not have discounted the result to any appreciable extent.’)
The second-half proved even better for Dundee’s Irishmen. They scored a goal on average almost every two minutes. The Courier outlined how easy it was for them as Rovers failed to put up hardly any resistance: ‘The Harp had the game all their own way, as from start to finish it was only a question of walking up to their opponents’ goal and putting through the leather.’
The goals went in at such a rate the referee had difficulty keeping count of them. While there was no doubt the game provided a clean-sheet for Tom and his defensive colleagues, the exact number of goals scored by the Harp wasn’t immediately clear.
At the game’s end the referee remarked to one of the Harp committeemen: ‘That was a great score today and I had an awful job recording the 37 goals.’ The Harp official replied: ‘You’re wrong, it’s 35 goals for we kept a note of the goals and the scorers.’ The referee was only too happy to accept what he was told to be the correct score: ‘Oh, that will be alright, and I’ll just send off that score.’ The match official went on to inform SFA headquarters in Glasgow that the game had ended: Harp 35, Aberdeen Rovers 0.
There was some talk of a record score having been achieved in what was still the infant years of association football but the focus quickly turned to celebration. Tom O’Kane decided to treat his team-mates in recognition of both his debut and their historic feat in scoring 35 goals without a reply. The Harp players and committee headed to the Dundee Arms hostelry on the High Street, next to the Caird Fountain, where Tom treated them to the popular delicacy of tripe and potato supper.
In the midst of this celebration in the Dundee Arms, Tom hit upon the idea of a wind-up of his old team-mates who had been ribbing him about his decision to ‘betray’ them in favour of the Harp. He suggested to the club secretary that a telegram be sent to the Arbroath committee advising them of Harp’s monumental achievement, given that there were no Saturday evening or Sunday papers or even radio at the time which would have carried the football scores. The Harp committee were only too happy with the suggestion, one commenting ‘This will take the cockiness out of the Gayfield brags.’
With much good humour, the wire was dictated and then sent from a Dundee postal office. The humour turned to hilarity when, within an hour, a telegram was received in response from Arbroath’s committee – advising that they had gone one better than the Harp by beating their Aberdonian opponents by 36-0! This was taken in the good spirit intended by the joyous players and officials and helped fuel the celebrations in the Dundee Arms.
A while later after more than a few alcoholic refreshments, Tom O’Kane bade farewell to his new team-mates as the party continued in his absence – he had to catch the last train get him to Arbroath, where he still stayed. On arriving at Arbroath East Station he bumped into a familiar face, Police Constable George Clark, and asked him if he’d heard about the great victory. PC Clark certainly had, responding: ‘It was that Tom but Dave Stormont shouldna hae scored aff seven goals.”
Tom O’Kane was confused. He knew that Dave Stormont was a local referee but not at the amazing game at Harp Athletic Grounds that day. He asked the constable to explain the seven goals and was told that, at the end of the game at Gayfield that day, the referee was unsure of seven of the goals ‘scored’ by the home team so he had chalked them off, leaving a final score of: Arbroath 36, Bon Accord 0.
It slowly dawned on Tom that the telegram sent by the Arbroath committee had not been issued in jest – they had in fact gone one better than the Harp!
There followed a sleepless night in the O’Kane household. First thing in the morning, before the trains were running, he had a quick breakfast and set out on foot to walk the 18 miles from Arbroath to Dundee. He went in search of the Harp’s committee to see if they could make contact with the match referee and hopefully persuade him that he was correct after all – and that the score in the match should be recorded as Harp 37, Aberdeen Rovers 0.
It was to no avail. The referee had already submitted the 35-0 scoreline to the SFA’s headquarters in Carlton Place, Glasgow. It could not now be altered. The record was Arbroath’s – by a single goal.
A few days later Britain’s best spelling sports paper, the Athletic News based in Manchester, carried what – from a Harp perspective – was the awful truth and now a matter of public record: ‘There was a terrible slaughtering of the innocents on Saturday. Between them, the Bon Accord and Rovers lost 71 goals. Arbroath have thus the honour of establishing a record so far as goal-taking is concerned. Aberdeen, from these figures, is evidently low in football. Saturday’s work will forever stand against them.’
For Arbroath, it assured them of an element of fame throughout the football world. In contrast, the Harp would ultimately slip into obscurity. If only that committeeman hadn’t made the honest mistake of changing the referee’s mind about the 37 goals he thought had been scored by the green jerseys . . .
The 36-goal margin remains a world record to this day – no-one in Arbroath could have thought that a wet and windy Gayfield afternoon by the North Sea in 1885 (no football stadium in Europe lies closer to the sea) would make the town famous. In 2016 the long-standing achievement came under threat when an Ecuadorian Third Division team, Pelileo Sporting Club, beat Indi Native 44-1. Guinness World Records refused to ratify that in favour of the Arbroath score on that basis that they only accept sports records which occur at a top-level, whether it be professional, international or pre-eminent amateur.
Arbroath and Harp met yet again in the Forfarshire Cup Final just 12 weeks on from the record-breaking Scottish Cup tie before an 8,000 crowd. A tiny measure of revenge was had as Harp ran out 5-3 winners with the Courier describing Tom O’Kane as ‘an impassable barrier’ in the midst of yet more cat-calls from his own townsfolk.
THE WEARING OF THE GREEN
Dundee Harp continued to foster good relations with Hibernian and followed their lead in accepting invitations to take part in charity matches the length and breadth of Scotland. In April 1887 the Harp took part in a game against Clyde which was organised by Brother Walfrid to support the Poor Children’s Dinner Table that he was running at Sacred Heart School in Bridgeton.
Tom O’Kane and his fellow full-back Gilmarton featured in the Glasgow Observer match report and along with other Harp players and officials met the Marist brother and others involved in founding Celtic FC for a post-match dinner in the school dining rooms. It was little surprise that, just over a year later, the Harp provided the opposition at the second match Celtic played at home on 9th June 1888. The new Irish club won narrowly by 1-0 but Harp’s best player was identified in the match report in the Scottish Umpire: ‘O’Kane for the Harp was in grand style and treated the spectators to a fine display of long kicking.’
There was speculation that summer that Celtic were interested in signing O’Kane and there were even reports at one point that he had joined up. It did not come to pass and in Tom’s obituary in the Dundee Evening Telegraph fifty-two years later it stated: ‘O’Kane, who played football for 18 ½ years was a member of the Harp team when Celtic offered to sign him, an offer which he declined.’ A year later Tom re-joined Arbroath after four years with the Harp. He remained involved in local football for many years as a referee and also as a coach.
The strong bonds forged between Dundee Harp and Celtic were evidenced again in 1910 when early Celtic star Tom Maley returned to the city with the club, who had then – under his brother Willie’s management – had just won the League title for a record 6th year in a row. In his regular column in the Glasgow Observer Maley wrote: ‘The Tay Street Hall and its surroundings were practically my first haunts in Dundee well-nigh a quarter of a century ago . . . A prominent figure in the football life of Dundee Harp in those days was Mr Hogan, and right pleased I was to see him still in active service . . . What ardent Celts they all are to be sure, and how closely and keenly they follow the Celts’ progress. Were the Celts a Dundee organisation, the chances of being killed with kindness were far from being remote and no matter the opposition a gate would always be at their service.’
Today, Dundee is home to a large number of Celtic supporters clubs including the Dundee Celtic Travel Club which started running buses to Celtic Park back in 1948.
In the 1890s, Harp FC began to falter. The club faced financial difficulties and couldn’t meet the guarantees for visiting clubs, leading to suspension by the SFA. It is believed that the last game ever played by Dundee Harp at their home ground on East Dock Street was the first ever game played by a new club in the city, formed from a merger of East End and Old Boys. Called ‘Dundee FC’ this new club drew 3-3 with the Harp before going on to play Rangers in the Scottish League the following Saturday. Dundee won the Forfarshire Cup at their first attempt that season.
After a hiatus lasting more than a decade, a new Irish club was formed in Dundee in 1909. Dundee Hibernian’s first game took place on 18th August at a ground re-named Tannadice Park and the opposition was Hibernian from Edinburgh. Dundee Hibs almost went out of business in the 1923/4. The club its name to Dundee City and then Dundee United – and within a few years they established themselves as rivals to Dundee FC and they became the only two professional clubs left in the city.
1909 – Dundee Hibernian’s inaugural match against Hibernian of Edinburgh
Tom O’Kane passed away at the grand age of 73 in 1940. He lived his entire life in Arbroath and is buried in the cemetery adjoining the town’s famous abbey alongside his parents and siblings. Less than a ten-minute walk away in Millgate is the site of what was the Central Dining Rooms. It was in one of those rooms that Arbroath FC’s managing committee held their weekly meetings until 1925 when Greater Gayfield was opened with more spacious terracing and offices, just sixty yards from where the original ground stood.
For over four decades, on the wall of that committee room, there hung a frame in which sat the very telegram that Tom O’Kane had encouraged the Harp’s committee to send to Arbroath, boasting of what they thought was their world-record 35-0 victory.
In football’s perennial battle of one-upmanship, it was the ‘Gayfield brags’ who had both the world record and the last laugh.
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