John Peden: Man Utd's First Irish Player

In local football this week Linfield have transferred two of their talented young players to big clubs in England. Trai Hume (to Sunderland) and Callum Marshall (to West Ham United) are the latest sought-after products to emerge from Windsor Park’s ‘conveyor belt of talent’ as described by sports writer Stephen Beacom, and under the watchful eye of legendary Irish League striker Glenn Ferguson who oversees the youth set up. They follow recent departures such as Shayne Lavery, Joel Cooper, Paul Smyth, Dale Taylor and Charlie Allen who have all made dream moves to professional English clubs.

Indeed, the ‘conveyor belt of talent’ from Linfield is as old and as distinguished as the football club itself. Founded in March 1886 as the mill workers’ team from Sandy Row, one of its original players became a pioneer as the first Linfield player to navigate a route into English league football. John Peden, a Sandy Row orangeman (member of LOL 1189 Belfast Purple Star), is the first Irish player to have turned out for Manchester United (then Newton Heath) when he made the transfer in 1893.

Peden, nicknamed “Float” but better known as “Jonny” to those who knew him, was born in July 1863 near the Maze racecourse. He made Sandy Row his home though, residing at Schomberg Street and later at 150 Sandy Row. John’s younger brother Richard ‘Dick’ Peden was also a Linfield stalwart though his career never reached the lofty heights of his brother Johnny’s.

John Peden made his debut in the outside-left position on 11 September 1886 with the newly formed Linfield Athletic club in what was their first ever recorded game. Described as playing with a ‘dashing style’ Peden became the main threat in Linfield’s forward line and was widely regarded of one of Ireland’s best players in the latter part of the 19th century.

As an Ireland international Peden scored 7 goals in 24 appearances (6 of them against Wales), and his first cap was achieved against Scotland in 1887. Peden’s international highlight, however, was a winning goal in an 1898 victory against Wales, the first away international victory recorded by the Ireland team. After the game Johnny was presented with the match ball as a souvenir of the achievement and later, when he subsequently opened a confectionary and tobacconists’ shop called ‘The Forward’ at 150 Sandy Row (which also acted as a Linfield ticket outlet), he displayed the Wales match ball in the shop window along with a sign which read: “Here is the ball that did the trick. Inside is the man who gave it a kick”.

His quality ensured that in 1893, and at 30 years of age, Peden signed professionally with Newton Heath where he made an instant impact by creating a goal against Burnley in a 3-2 win on 2 September. After his debut in Clayton the Belfast News Letter, despite being impressed by Peden’s obvious ability on the football field, were less than impressed with his decision to take those abilities to England: ‘John Peden, we are pleased to see, upheld the honour of his town and country on Saturday by his excellent play for Newton Heath in their English League match. His absence will be greatly felt by Linfield, but although we cannot approve of his action in leaving his native place to join the professional ranks, we wish him all success in his new sphere’. Peden played 32 times for The Heathens, scoring 8 goals. Frustratingly for Peden and Newton Heath, however, it was far from ‘all success’ as the News Letter had wished; the club were relegated to Division Two and Peden departed at the end of the season to join Yorkshire club Sheffield United for a £30 fee. After struggling to settle at Bramall Lane, Peden returned to Ireland where he signed for Distillery in 1894 before returning to his local club Linfield in 1900 where he played regularly until the 1903 season at which point he moved into a committee role at the club. However, with The Blues enduring a tough season in 1905, Peden was persuaded to put his boots on once again at the age of 42 for a game against Distillery in the final of the County Antrim Shield. Distillery went on to win the game 2-0 and Peden struggled to conjure up the old magic, but the fact that ‘redoubtable John’ was still prepared to assist on the field demonstrates the affection he had for the club which he made famous. He played his last ever game for Linfield in 1906 when he was almost 43 years of age.

In the royal blue of Linfield John Peden made a total of 209 appearances, scoring 144 goals in that time, winning 3 Irish League titles and 4 Irish Cups in the process, including Linfield’s first Irish Cup win in 1891. For his services to the club he was elected as an Honorary Life Member of Linfield in 1934.

John Peden died aged 81 at 150 Sandy Row on 15 September 1944, and was buried at Belfast City Cemetery where his footballing achievements are now acknowledged.

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