Like so many young sportsmen in 1930’s Ireland, Dublin born utility player (perhaps best known at right back) Jackie (he wasn’t commonly know as Johnny until after he moved to England) Carey was a master of Gaelic football and Association football. In fact, such were the rules of the GAA at the time, Carey was banned when it was discovered he was playing a “foreign” sport. His football career had begun with the famous Home Farm as a schoolboy, before joining senior side St James’s Gate in the summer of 1936. After just two months of League of Ireland football Carey was spotted by Second Division Manchester United’s Dublin-based scout Billy Behan. Behan convinced United’s chief scout, Louis Rocca, to have a look, and it was he that agreed a £250 fee for Carey’s services in November 1936, at the time it was a League of Ireland record.
Initially Carey featured for United as an inside left, making his Football League debut against Southampton in September 1937. That season he played 19 matches as United were promoted to the First Division as Second Division runners up. A month later, on the 10th October and still just 18 years old, Carey made his international debut for Ireland (the FAI representing what is now Eire) in a 3-3 draw with Norway at Dalymount Park, Dublin. Having established himself as a regular in the forward line for both club and country whilst still a teenager, Carey’s career was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.
During the War Carey volunteered with the British Army, serving in the Middle East and Italy, as well as playing wartime league football for Manchester United scoring 47 goals in 112 matches, he guested for a number of League clubs, namely Cardiff City, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Everton and Liverpool, also playing in Ireland as a guest with Shamrock Rovers against Limerick in April 1941. On 28th April 1940, Carey guested for a League of Ireland XI against a Scottish League XI in a 3-2 defeat at Dalymount Park. When the War ended he was invited to resume his career in Italy, but chose instead to return to Manchester United. Return he did, and as a more versatile player too. He began to appear at half back for United, and as a full back too, in fact, during his time at United he played in every position except outside right, including an appearance as goalkeeper when regular custodian Jack Crompton took ill.
In the immediate post-war season Carey was selected by the Irish FA for the first time, appearing in the Victory Internationals against Scotland and Wales in February and May 1946 – in these games he played at inside left and right half respectively. He resumed his Eire career too, making the right half position his own and earning the captaincy in 1946. In September 1946 Carey appeared against England twice in three days, he made his (Northern) Ireland debut on the 28th at Windsor Park, and on the 30th he played against the same team for Eire in a 2-0 defeat in Dublin. In total the FAI (Eire) awarded him 29 Caps through to his final cap in March 1953, captaining his country on 19 occasions, and the IFA (Northern Ireland) awarded him seven caps between 1946 and 1949, one each at right half and inside right, two at left back and three at right back, in addition to his two Victory international appearances. He captained both countries.
In 1947 a Great Britain team met a Rest of the World team at Hampden Park in Glasgow to mark the Home Nation’s rejoining of FIFA, and offer a much needed fund-raiser for the depleted funds of World football’s governing body. Possibly eligible for both teams, Carey was selected for the Rest of the World as captain. Two years later came the crowning moment of Carey’s international career, as he captained the Eire team to a 2-0 victory over England at Goodison Park. It was the first time that England had lost to a foreign team on home soil.
At United Carey appointed team captain by manager Matt Busby was also compiling an impressive list of honours. In 1948 he captained the team to a 4-2 FA Cup Final victory over Stanley Matthew’s Blackpool, so becoming the first ‘non-British’ player to lead a winning team up the famous Wembley steps. In 1952 he led United to their first post war League Championship having finished as runners-up four times in the previous five seasons. He became the second ever winner of the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year title in 1949, and followed that up with a Sports Personality of the Year title in 1950. Carey also played twice for United in the FA Charity Shield.
Carey retired from playing in May 1953, making his final international appearance, back at inside left, in a 4-0 win over Austria, and ending his United career after a total of 18 goals in 346 first team appearances. So pleased were the Manchester United officials with Carey’s 17 years of service to the club that they invited him to a board meeting to convey special thanks to him, and offered him a place on the coaching staff. Carey declined, and that August he was appointed manager by Blackburn Rovers.
In 1958 Carey guided Rovers to promotion to the First Division, taking them to the FA Cup semi final the same season, before being appointed manager at Everton in October 1958. His attempts at turning a struggling Everton around were not enough for the board, and he was sacked in April 1961 despite taking them to fifth in the League, their highest position since the War. Appointed Second Division Leyton Orient’s manager in August 1961, he guided the club to the top flight for the only time in their history, finishing Second Division runners up to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in May 1962, and although they were relegated after just one season Carey had done enough to convince Nottingham Forest that he was the man for them, joining them in July 1963.
Forest lifted their game under Carey’s guidance, finishing as runners up in the League Championship in 1967, reaching the FA Cup semi final that same season. After some big money signings, notably £100,000 Jim Baxter from Glasgow Rangers, Forest fell apart and in December 1968, with the club bottom of the League, Carey was sacked. Carey returned to manage Blackburn Rovers in October 1970. However this spell brought the disappointment of relegation to the Third Division after just one season and he was again sacked.
As well as club management, Carey also took charge of the Ireland side that competed at the 1948 Olympics and was team manager of the senior Republic of Ireland side from 1955 to 1967.