Sunday 25 August 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: I've been hearing for years that no one goes to League of Ireland matches but, tonight, the place is heaving


Illustration: Ben Hickey
Illustration: Ben Hickey
Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

The turnstile is the first surprise. I'd forgotten about the turnstile and the excitement you feel when it gives way as you push. We're in Phibsborough, me and the wife, just outside Dalymount Park.

The lanes around Dalymount, it's like stepping back a hundred years; it's brilliant. Dalymount, as all football people know, is the Home of Irish Football. My Uncle Terry used to bring me to Dalyer. I saw Pele play here when I was a kid. Well, I saw Pele walking around the pitch while younger men, Brazilian, ran with the ball and other young men, Irish, ran after them.

I saw Paul McGrath play his first game for Ireland in Dalyer, before we knew he was going to become Paul McGrath - you know what I mean.

I saw Ireland beat the Soviet Union three-nil here - the Soviet Union is gone now but it was very near Russia - when Don Givens got a hat-trick and I got a battering when I went into school the day after, because (a) I'd mitched to go to the match, and (b) the Christian Brothers hated football. "Soccer", they called it, like it was typhoid or smallpox carried into the country from England by a professional footballer.

You know what I'm up to: I'm proving my credentials. I'm entitled to be here, in with the die-hard Bohemians fans, even though I haven't seen a match in the flesh in years - decades, actually - and, up until a couple of hours ago, I didn't know Bohs were playing.

But it's the turnstile that's worrying me. Because the chap right in front of me seems to be stuck. He's a big lad but he's not that big. But he gives it a good old-fashioned shove with his hip, and he's through. We forget it sometimes, people our age, how much physical exertion - pushing, shoving, pulling - there used to be in any normal day.

Anyway, it's my turn. I hand in my ticket to the smiling young one behind the glass, I push the iron barrier, I shove it forward with my gut. The metallic groan and thunk - it's a music I'd forgotten existed. The wife is behind me. If you're going to get married, marry a punk. Nothing intimidates them. Skinheads, ageing, bureaucracy, hard borders - the wife has cut through all of them. She stares at the turnstile; it whimpers.

We're in, we're there, we're under the stand and the pitch is right in front of us. I've been hearing for years that no one goes to League of Ireland matches but, tonight, the place is heaving. Men, women, kids; oul' lads, young lads; families, loners; the good, the bad and a fair sprinkling of the ugly - they're all here as me and the wife go looking for seats.

There's something about it, something in the air: you can always tell when there's only a few minutes to kick-off. The stadium's in rag order. The terrace where I used to stand is closed up; it looks like the botanical gardens. The stand opposite is empty too. But this stand, the Jodi, where we're still looking for seats, is packed and alive. The teams are out on the pitch. There are faces in the crowd pushed forward, like they want to blow the ref's whistle for him.

The wife bullies a couple of families into a corner and we have two seats and our arses parked just as the ref blows, the crowd cheers and the match starts. Once I've figured out which team is Bohemians - or, "the Bohs", as we life-long fans call them - I'm cheering, clapping, groaning, hoisting myself out of the seat when the ball is near the opposition goal.

We're playing well.

Ten minutes in, and a team I didn't know were playing tonight has become "we", "we're", "we've", "us" and "our'". Anyway, we're playing well. We've a couple of terrific young lads and an old-fashioned centre-forward who carries himself like he's just climbed out of a video called The Best of '70s Football. The hair's wrong but the rest of him's bang-on.

- Come on, Dinny! the wife shouts.

- Which one's Dinny? I ask her, quietly.

- I don't know, she says. - But the fella behind me loves him.

- Who're we playing, by the way?

- UCD, she says.

- The students.

- Well done.

Somewhere to our left, a gang of lads start singing.

- "Bohs - Bohs will tear you apart - again". It's the Joy Division song, the wife's favourite. I look at her. She's smiling, wiping her eyes. And I know: we'll be coming back.

By the final whistle I'm exhausted, bruised and delighted. We're heading to The Hut, for a pint and post-mortem. I stop. There's something I need to know.

- Did we win?

She pats my arm.

- Yes, love, we did.

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