Southport’s Ajax Connection

Born in Ireland in February 1878 Jack Kirwan made sporting headlines as early as 1894 when, aged just 16, he was part of the Dublin Gaelic Football team that won the All Ireland final. Fast forward two years and Jack had moved to England swapping Gaelic Football for Association Football and signing for Southport Central (as we were known then) of the Lancashire League. From 1896 to 1898 he played 54 games for us scoring 42 goals, making an instant im-pression by scoring twice on his debut against Nelson. Later that same season he hit 5 in a 10-1 victory away to Rossendale.

In July 1898 Jack signed for Everton, playing one season for them before moving South to join Tottenham, then members of the Southern League. Six trophy laden years followed with Jack playing over 350 games for the club, the highlight coming in 1901 when Tottenham became the first– and still the only – non-league team to win the FA Cup.

Chelsea were next and in 1905 Jack was in the blues team that played its first ever Football League game, a Division 2 fixture against Stockport which saw Chelsea lose 1-0. The following year Jack scored in a 9-2 win over Glossop North End, a result which remains Chelsea’s largest League victory to date.

Then followed a season in Scotland where Jack helped Clyde to a third-place finish in Scottish Division One which remains the clubs highest finish to date and finally it was back to London to play one season for Leyton FC before retirement at the end of the 1909/1910 season.

And so to Ajax. In 1910 Ajax were an amateur team playing Dutch second division football but had an ambitious owner in a former player called Chris Holst. Holst was looking for an English manager to take his club to the next level and (despite being Irish) Jack was given the job. He became the first professional manager of Ajax and was an immediate success steering them to the second division title in his first season and so securing promotion to the top tier for the first time in their history.
At the time Ajax were playing in red and white striped shirts and black shorts but promotion meant a change was needed to avoid a clash with Sparta Rotterdam who wore the same colours. It’s believed that Jack Kirwan was one of those responsible for choosing the kit they still wear today, the iconic white shirt with the single red stripe and white shorts.

Ajax completed two seasons in the top tier but the third season was a disaster. They were relegated with just twelve points to their name, the only time in the clubs history they have been relegated, and to add to their misery they suffered a 9-1 home defeat to Dordrecht which remains their heaviest ever defeat.

Planning for the 1914/15 season was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War and Jack returned to his native Ireland to manage Bohemians of Dublin. In August 1918 however he was back in Southport where he took up employment at the Vulcan Motor Works and also became trainer of the newly named Southport Vulcan football team, a position he held for two seasons before heading back to London to become a newsagent. Retirement from football was short lived and in September 1923, at the age of 45, he was back on his travels spending
two years as manager at Livorno in Italy, guiding them to 3rd and 5th place respectively in the northern section of Prima Divisione (the predecessor to Serie A).

On leaving Italy he finally did retire from football altogether and settled in London with his wife and two daughters. Jack died in London’s Edgware General Hospital on the 9th January 1959 at the age of 80.

The above article first appeared in the Sandgrounder Match Day Programme on 10th August 2022.