Wickham, Joseph Ignatius ('Joe') (1890–1968), football administrator, was born Ignatius Joseph Wickham on 5 February 1890 in Phibsborough, Dublin, one of eleven children (seven girls and four boys) of John Wickham, a railway engine driver, and his wife Mary Anne (née Kelly). He was educated at St Peter's national school, Phibsborough, and by the Christian Brothers at O'Connell School, North Richmond Street. After leaving school he worked briefly in the office of the Freeman's Journal before becoming an apprentice coachbuilder at the Midland Great Western Railway works at the Broadstone depot in Dublin. Tall and athletic, he was a junior sprinting champion with Clonliffe Harriers and a member of their renowned relay team. He was also a useful footballer, usually playing at centre-half, and in 1905 was a founder member of Midland Athletic FC, formed from Midland Railway apprentices. After qualifying as a coachbuilder, Wickham went to work in the English midlands, and played football for Sunbeam Motors, Willenhall and Walsall in the Birmingham and District League. He also worked in Scotland, and played in the Glasgow Amateur League. In 1916 he returned to Dublin to take up a job as a foreman mechanic at the Midland Railway, playing one season with Strandville, before moving to Frankfort (where Oscar Traynor (qv), president of the FAI (1948–63), was a teammate), and then St James's Gate, with whom he lost to Shelbourne in the 1919 Leinster Cup final. Soon afterwards he moved to Bohemians, playing with characteristic enthusiasm for their B team until sustaining an injury that ended his playing days and led him to concentrate on the club's administrative affairs.
He became assistant secretary of Bohemians in 1924, honorary secretary and honorary treasurer in 1927, and was the club's representative on the Free State League and on the councils of the national and Leinster associations. Steadily gathering experience and prestige, he proved himself a shrewd and able administrator, and in August 1935 was elected president of the Free State League and chairman of the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS). In March 1936 he quit his job as a supervisor with Great Southern Railways to become full-time general secretary of the FAIFS.
On taking office Wickham was intent on establishing the association as an internationally recognised body with full authority in its jurisdiction. Since its foundation, the FAIFS had regularly protested to FIFA about the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA) calling its team 'Ireland' and selecting southern-born players, but to no effect. To force FIFA into action, Wickham unilaterally changed the international team's name from the Irish Free State to Ireland for a game against Switzerland on 17 March 1936, and also changed the name of the FAIFS to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). At various international conferences, often armed with bundles of miniature maps, Wickham tried to convince foreign delegates of the anomaly of the IFA claim to control football on the whole island, while only having effective jurisdiction over a sixth of its territory. The naming issue was finally settled by FIFA in 1954, with the FAI team called the Republic of Ireland and the IFA team Northern Ireland (although the FAI protested at the IFA's continued use of the name Ireland in the British home championship).
Although punctilious in administrative matters, Wickham worked hard to maintain cordial relations with the IFA, and was generally respected by northern administrators for his courteous and diplomatic manner. In May 1938 he wrote to the IFA seeking a conference in which the two associations could settle their differences, but this was refused. He was confident though that differences between north and south could eventually be overcome with goodwill, and often made guarded statements of his hope to see the two associations unite, although in practice he and his colleagues did little to bring this about.
One of Wickham's priorities was to secure as many international games as possible to establish the Irish team as a credible force in world football, and in the years before the second world war he helped arrange games against top-class sides such as Hungary, Germany and France. Ireland generally performed well in these games, beating Germany 5–2 in Dublin in October 1936 and drawing 1–1 with them in Bremen in May 1939. Unlike England and the other UK teams who refused to play in the World Cup owing to a dispute with FIFA, Ireland was anxious to show its independence by participating in international competitions, and took part in qualifying matches for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. However, the FAI refused an invitation from FIFA to send a team to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, fearing the expense involved would bankrupt the association.
In his efforts to raise the FAI's profile, Wickham was a regular attender of FIFA congresses throughout Europe and built up a wide range of international contacts. It was largely owing to him that Ireland was among the first countries to play international football after the ending of the war, with away games in June 1946 against Portugal and Spain. Wickham's lobbying also helped secure a fixture on 30 September 1946 against England, who had played Northern Ireland in Belfast two days earlier. This was the first time that the FAI team had played England and was the highpoint of the association's silver jubilee celebrations. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (qv) (with whom Wickham always had warm relations) hosted a pre-match reception for the English players at Leinster House, and President Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) attended the game, most of which was broadcast on Radio Éireann (a rarity for a soccer match). The friendly spirit surrounding the game went some way to improving Anglo–Irish relations after the strains of the war. Ireland were beaten 1–0, but in a return fixture three years later on 21 September 1949 became the first side from outside the UK to defeat England on their own soil when they won 2–0 at Goodison Park. Wickham always spoke of this win and the 1–0 victory in Spain on 23 June 1946 as the highlights of his time as secretary.
Wickham was usually one of five selectors who picked the international team, and was charged with contacting English club managers to secure the release of Irish players. This was a thankless task: clubs were under no obligation to release players, and many managers simply refused or claimed that the players were not fit to travel, although Wickham's combination of persistence and diplomacy often yielded results. Arranging international fixtures could have other difficulties. In October 1955 Wickham came under strong pressure from the catholic archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (qv), to cancel a game between Ireland and Yugoslavia because of the church's opposition to the communist Yugoslav government. (An earlier game scheduled between the two teams had already been cancelled after church representations in 1952.) This time, Wickham (a practising catholic, two of whose sisters were nuns) resisted and the game went ahead, attracting a crowd of over 21,000 supporters, and leading to his condemnation from the pulpit in his local parish church.
As secretary of the FAI, Wickham devoted a considerable amount of his time to fostering and promoting the domestic game, and was an approachable and helpful figure to club officials at all levels. When he became secretary, there were 500 clubs affiliated to the association; twenty years later there were more than 2,000, and during the 1960s the game spread further from its urban heartlands into rural Ireland. According to the Irish Times, 'No person deserves more credit for the increase in the game's popularity than the kindly, courteous, diligent and supremely competent secretary of the FAI' (10 November 1956). Always ready to assert soccer's position in Irish sporting life, Wickham maintained that it did not get sufficient coverage on radio or television, and was saddened by the fact that it was not played in most Irish schools. He insisted that soccer was an international rather an English game and that those who played it were no less Irish than those who played any other sports, and that the FAI had done invaluable work in promoting Ireland's name and image abroad. He himself enjoyed all sports, and regularly attended horseracing meetings, rugby internationals and Gaelic games.
A popular figure with Irish sports journalists, to whom he was invariably helpful, Wickham was awarded the Irish Soccer Writers' Association personality of the year award in 1964 in recognition of his dedication and integrity, the first time the award was given to an administrator. He was even generally liked by players (in so far as players can ever really like their sport's administrators), but by the mid 1960s a new generation of professional footballers was questioning the FAI's conservative and penny-pinching ways. The international team's uneven results were put down to poor preparation and its selection by committee rather than by the team manager. By this time Wickham was very proud of the fact that he was the longest serving secretary of any European national football association (which meant he was treated with particular respect at international congresses), but some players believed he had stayed in the job too long. None, however, were prepared to challenge openly his genial but firm authority.
Wickham generally travelled to away games with the international team, and it was at one such game against Poland in Chorzów on 30 October 1968 that he suffered a heart attack during the half-time interval and died that night in hospital in Katowice. After funeral mass at the church of Corpus Christi, Griffith Avenue, Dublin, on 5 November 1968, attended by President de Valera and many others from Irish political and sporting life, he was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. His close friend Jackie Carey (qv) described him as 'one of the greatest administrators the game has ever known' (Ir. Independent, 1 November 1968).
Wickham was survived by his wife Ethel, two sons and two daughters. His son Commandant Thomas Wickham, who in the early 1960s served as the Army Athletic Association's representative on the FAI council, was shot dead on 7 June 1967 by a Syrian soldier in the Golan Heights while on UN service.