Monday 20 May 2019

Seventy years of soccer ... and there's still more to come

Reporter David Medcalf called to the home of Arklow Town, a club which was breaking new ground when it was formed in 1948 but which is now very much a part of the sporting mainstream in a much-changed Ireland

Arklow Town FC President John ‘Mousie’ Kavanagh keeping an eye on some of the action at the club grounds at Lamberton
Arklow Town FC President John ‘Mousie’ Kavanagh keeping an eye on some of the action at the club grounds at Lamberton

Surely there is no more cheerful sight that a sportsperson could wish to see than Lamberton on a sunny autumn evening.

Walking along the public road here in Arklow, the eye is drawn to the turnstiles in the immaculately presented wall. The air is filled with the sound of children having fun - always a tonic for the soul of any decent human being. And there, through the turnstiles, you may glimpse a section of one of the best cared for pieces of grass in all of County Wicklow.

Soccer has been played here for decades and the resident Arklow Town FC recently celebrated 70 years since the first ball was kicked back in 1948. By coincidence, current club president John 'Mousie' Kavanagh also marks his 70th birthday this year.

He is one happy man these days as he salutes friends and keeps an eye on the six grandchildren who play with various squads.

Chairman Bryan O'Leary plays down any suggestion that this pleasant and homely place is first step on the road to playing across the channel in the Premiership. In his view, pulling on the black and white strip of Arklow Town is worthwhile of itself, without notions of lining out at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.

Yet the club is buzzing at the moment with pride in the fact that two former members are destined for the elite grade in League of Ireland football. Liam Scales and Daire O'Connor were part of the UCD side which took promotion to the top division in considerable style.

'Everyone has dreams of making it professionally,' concedes the chairman, 'but we try to instil the idea that Arklow Town is the place to play football. We are trying to provide football for whatever your expectations may be.'

The club is certainly successful in this regard to the extent that there are hundreds involved in the various teams - at least 25 of them - who operate out of here.

Match secretary Joe Byrne has the lovely grass pitch, an expensively installed artificial pitch and a small strip of grass suitable for younger age groups, to juggle with.

'There is no way I could do it,' says president Mousie Kavanagh of Joe's task. 'I do not know how he juggles all the demands.'

The demands are endless, with coaches - in charge of squads from under eight up to senior - demanding training space as well as pitch time for fixtures. The sign declaring that there is football activity here every night of the week is no idle boast.

The pressure on facilities has grown recently with the welcome addition of two girls' teams to the playing strength at Lamberton, the start of a trend which is sure to increase. And still the club mentors are happy to welcome a new wave of under sixes early on Saturday mornings to try their hand at the sport.

This 'academy' for the tinies is conducted under the astute eye of coach Michael Walker, who spent time with Sheffield Wednesday, no less.

The Arklow Town of 2018 is a very modern organisation with a large membership, a neat clubhouse and the immaculate playing surfaces.

The club operates in an environment where soccer is an accepted, universal part of life in Ireland with its network of clubs all across the island. With its websites, with its floodlit astroturf and its perfectly level grass field, the current Arklow Town is a far cry from 1948.

The seven decades since the very first game - a 5-2 defeat away to Wicklow Town - have witnessed a transformation of sport and society.

It is startling to think that, when moves were first made to establish a club, there was no soccer in Arklow. The sport in which Ireland now shares an obsession with the world had no presence in the town. For those who did not care to play Gaelic football or hurling with the Geraldines, rugby provided the only real alternative as a team game.

The foundation of what was first called Arklow United is detailed in Brian Rees's excellent book 'All for a Game'. It was compiled to mark the golden jubilee in 1998 and the author had the joy of interviewing some of the original members.

They recalled that, though there was no formal organisation, kickabouts among friends took place at venues such as Dock Green.

These were the days before 'Match of the Day', when the GAA provided the heroes idolised by boys and young men in the town. Without television to guide them, those who showed an interest sometimes had only a shadowy grasp of the rules - no handling the ball.

The establishment of the club is pinpointed as having occurred late in the year 1948, a time of grim austerity.

However, the initiative intended to provide a diversion was certainly not given a universal welcome. Author Brian Rees describes the reaction in sections of the GAA fraternity as 'hostility', which manifested itself in a way which is totally alien to modern sporting consciousness.

The book details how slagging of soccer players into downright abuse of a group who were derided as unpatriotic West Brits.

Club president Mousie Kavanagh was a child at the time, too young to comprehend what was going on, and the temperature had cooled before he took to the field. Nevertheless, he does remember speaking to the older members about the nastiness of those early days which left a mark.

The irony is that, with association football turning more and more to a summer season, the rivalry between GAA and FAI is set to intensify once more. But the rules of engagement are surely more genteel now than they were in the days when merely attending a soccer match could result in suspension from the GAA.

Though the club was formed in 1948, the action was confined to practice games that year and it was not until the historic first outing in Wicklow where David O'Brien scored both goals for the losing debutants.

The club, which boasted just 24 members in December of 1950, did not take on its first league fixture until September of 1951.

The opposition was provided by Kilmacanogue and John Keogh had the privilege of netting the first ever official, competitive goal for the club.

The venue, then as now, was Lamberton though the immaculate flat surface of today is a world away from the rutted field of 1951 with its many slopes and bumps.

The grounds were shared for a while with a camogie club and it was not until 1970 that an official, legal lease was obtained on the property.

While Arklow had been a soccer-free zone until late in the 1940s, County Wicklow as a whole had a fair scattering of sides ready to take on the new boys. The early reports mention sides such as St Earnan's in Rathnew, Beverly Pass, Wolfe Tone Wanderers and the legendary Bray Unknowns.

Supporters had to wait until the 1960/1961 season to celebrate a league win and the years since have been peppered with silverware.

Though there is plenty of room for other sports, Arklow has become very much a centre of soccer, with Arklow Celtic just around the corner and Arklow United not far away either.

Among the wise heads supervising the development of the game at Lamberton is Anthony Kenny who helped run midfield for 17 seasons.

Now aged 43, his playing days are behind him but he recalls being the young buck, freshly signed from Avoca, on teams coached by Pat Kinsella, with Padraig Kehoe as manager.

Town broke new ground by entering the Leinster League, earning a series of division-winning promotions during the 1990s.

The club continues to look to the wider horizon, entering sides in Dublin leagues as well as local fare, while the girls are enrolled in the Wexford league.

It is a significant operation, financed in part by the weekly bingo session. However, as Anthony points out, rivals such as Wicklow Rovers, Greystones and Ardmore in Bray are also major enterprises in the underage game.

His own energies are now devoted to an under 16 squad, of which his own son is a member. 'After playing for so long, it is great to be giving something back,' he says.

He muses that the youngsters of the up-and-coming generation in an age of social media and other distractions may not be quite as committed to sport as he and his contemporaries were.

Arklow Town director of football John Scanlon is of the same mind.

Mentors in every sport across Wicklow know that teenagers are likely to fall by the wayside: 'The worry in our sport is the drop-off which is happening younger and younger, which is scary.'

Nevertheless, the air of progress and optimism around Arklow Town is unmistakeable.

Bray People