Wednesday 13 December 2017

Brian Kerr: How Harold's Cross was my field of dreams

The packed main stand at Harold’s Cross during the League of Ireland match between St Pat’s and Derry in 1989. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
The packed main stand at Harold’s Cross during the League of Ireland match between St Pat’s and Derry in 1989. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

George Best was waiting. He seemed happy enough, given how he was holding a pint of beer with one hand and Alex Best's arm with the other. Yet there must have been part of him wondering what he was doing here - spending a Sunday afternoon in a cold stand, staring out through the smoke and the mist at a game between two honest-to-goodness teams doing their best to entertain on a pitch that greyhounds had s**t on the night before.

"Welcome to Harold's Cross," I said, when I saw him.

By this stage, he'd been waiting to get out of there for a couple of minutes but we'd been waiting for our escape for a couple of years. Money was the common denominator behind our coming together. The night before, he'd kindly offered his services for a small(ish) fee to do a question and answers session in the CIE works club in Inchicore. Hanging around for an extra day with nothing else to do, he fancied the idea of taking in a game.

"Your club play around here?" he asked.

Brian Kerr is lifted by fans after winning the 1990 league title. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Brian Kerr is lifted by fans after winning the 1990 league title. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

"Kind of," we told him.

The truth is we didn't. The truth is we were skint. Our Richmond Park pitch had a slope on it - which may not have quite been on the Mont Blanc scale - but in footballing terms, it was huge - a 6' 3" drop which allowed visiting teams to sit deep and defend in numbers. And after a season where far too many of our home matches ended in scoreless draws, I kicked up a bit of a fuss.

"We need a level playing field," I said. But when you were managing St Pat's in the 1980s and early '90s, there was no such thing. Financially, we were living from hand to mouth, scraping pennies together from whichever way we could. And that was how Best came to be at one of our games. We needed to raise a few bob and George, in 1992, was still the kind of name that could draw a crowd.

Chaffeur

"We'll look after you," we told him. "We'll pay you a few bob and chauffeur you around."

True to our word, we did. Jimmy Connors, a great character and friend, collected George and Alex at the airport . . . albeit in his 20-year-old Datsun. "I've been picked up in better ash trays," George told me the following day. "Never mind that," I said. "The Leinster, around the corner, is a nice little pub. Let's go for a drink."

Joe Lawless – Kerr’s most expensive signing – races down the wing at Harold’s Cross. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Joe Lawless – Kerr’s most expensive signing – races down the wing at Harold’s Cross. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Once there, he was in great form, signing autographs for locals and fans, supping a pint quietly in a corner and asking politely how and why we were playing our home games in a greyhound stadium called Harold's Cross.

"Long story," I said.

It began 30 years earlier. Eight years old, I went to Richmond Park for my first ever League of Ireland game. And that was it. Love at first sight. Ginger O'Rourke, Dinny Lowry and Willie Peyton became heroes. The elegant Ronnie Whelan Snr dominated midfield. And for the guts of a decade, between 1952 and 1961, St Pat's were a dominant force in the League of Ireland, winning the title three times, the FAI Cup twice and the League of Ireland Shield on one other occasion.

But I missed all that glory.

And then the drought set in.

Thousands of us kept on going to see them, loyal to the cause, even though we lived in the shadow of Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Shels. A frustrated player, I was never good enough to play for them - or indeed any League of Ireland club because even though I had the vision to know what I needed to do on a field, I didn't possess either the strength or the perseverance to make a breakthrough.

So, from an early age (I was 15 when I first managed a team), I opted for the coaching route. And I loved it, earning stints with Shamrock Rovers' youths and Shelbourne's 'B' team before Mick Lawlor asked me to become his assistant at Drogheda United.

By 1986, I was ready to step up. Pat's needed a manager, I needed a break. And things worked out well. Pipped to the title by Dundalk in my first full season, I began to love the challenge of building my own team and making the budget work. Back then, it wasn't like it is now where a club like Burnley can say to Sean Dyche, 'There's £40m to spend on wages and if you generate a few bob from a sale or two, you can have another £10m when the January transfer window opens.'

By way of contrast, I had £1,000-a-week to spend on my squad and staff. The highest fee I ever paid was the £2,000 we gave to Bohs for Joe Lawless in the summer of 1989. But it was the best money we ever spent - because now I had a Toshack-Keegan type strikeforce, big Joe and Mark Ennis, paired together up front, the scourge of the League.

Damien Byrne was another key signing. I needed a centre-half and Rovers had three of them. "Well, I'm the f*****g player-manager so I'm going to pick myself," Dermot Keely, then in charge of Rovers, said. "You can have Damien but you're waiting till after our European game."

We did wait and our patience was rewarded as Damien was a massive addition to our squad. So too was Curtis Fleming, who we got from schoolboy football. Four players - Maurice O'Driscoll, Johnny McDonnell, Mick Moody and Dave Henderson - arrived from Drogheda for the price of an auld banger. Then we signed a couple more - Mark Ennis and Paul Osam - from junior football and by 1989/'90, I felt we might be ready to win the title, something the club hadn't done since the 1950s.

"What you going there for? They're just a f*****g junior club and always will be," an esteemed soccer man told me when I first got the Pat's job. "Sod him," I thought. "The days of seeing us being hammered by Rovers are over."

And they were. We'd a great squad, filled with good characters who trained hard, who knew I was a bit mad with the high standards I set and my will to win. But there was a mutual fondness there. The few quid they were paid meant a lot to them, young fellas who'd use the money to keep a car on the road or put away in savings for a deposit on a house.

And the camaraderie was great. Truth be told, I really hated being in Harold's Cross - because it wasn't our home - and because the dog track around the pitch desperately affected the atmosphere.

But the place was good to us. We lost there early on in that 1989/'90 season but stayed unbeaten at the ground for the rest of the campaign. Mark scored 19 goals in 30 games. Young players like Johnny McDonnell, Pat Fenlon, Oso and Curtis came of age. "Remember the time Oso made that header when the ball was covered in dog sh**e?" texted John Tracey on Monday, the day we heard they were closing the old stadium.

I did. Plus I remembered the hours I spent clearing the dog sh**e off the pitch before both training and games.

Other memories came flooding back. About 45 minutes before a match against Derry, who'd won the treble the year before - I was about to deliver some tactical instructions when I looked around and noticed three of the players were missing. "Where are they?" I asked. "In there," Billy Bagster, my assistant, said - pointing towards the shower.

Nervous

"Oh good Jaysus, would you look at all that white smoke. Is there a pope being elected or something?"

Laughter travelled back from the nervous pre-game smokers to where I was standing. "And there was plenty of that in that season," Dave Henderson would later recall. "It was the maddest dressing room I was ever in."

And also one of the best. Together they'd win the League in that 1989-'90 campaign, a fairy-tale story for a group of men who had been written off by many others.

"See youse lot," Keely said to me, once. "You're a gas crowd, a village team playing in the really big league. You're so hard to play against."

Part of that, undoubtedly, came down to our surroundings. Visiting teams hated Harold's Cross, the small dressing rooms - where, in keeping with the political era we were living in - some old-fashioned espionage work would go on.

As I gave my team talks - Billy or Paul Nugent were often sent to a connecting door between our dressing room and the opposition's, where they'd scribble down on their notepads what the visiting side's starting XI, and set-piece plans, were. His spying mission finished, Billy would interrupt my team talk and deliver the information like a town crier, as required.

Other interruptions were less amusing. In pre-season, the lads went to the showers after training but ended up getting sick, the wrench of a dead bird in the water tank leaving a smell that, to this day, makes my stomach turn.

And all these memories came flooding back on Monday afternoon when the story broke on the news that Harold's Cross would soon be no more. Straight away Mark Ennis texted. "The whole passage of time there was magical and always will be," he wrote. Next came a message from my daughter.

"Have such strong memories from weekend training sessions there, making zig and zag out of the track sand while the lads were put through their paces."

Trapper Tracey claimed George Best told him the header he scored against Dundalk in a 1-0 win was the best goal he'd ever seen.

It's not a well-known fact but Best played there once - for Cork Celtic against Shels - and was marked out of the game by Val Meehan, who played most of his career in non-league football. Keeping Best quiet became his claim to fame.

'Best was the worst,' read the headline in one of the newspapers the next day. Not that Val cared.

As far as he was concerned, one of the greats had been there on the same Harold's Cross pitch he was playing on. Other stars lined up there too: Bobby Tambling - the second highest goalscorer in Chelsea's history - John Giles, Paul McGrath and some great old internationals from the 1930s, Alex Stephenson, Joe Kendrick and George Lennox.

Now that it is going, it isn't a stadium we are losing, but part of Irish football's heritage. When you consider that Milltown has closed and that soon Tolka Park will also be taken away from us, the idea of Dublin losing yet another ground where football was played is a sad thought because even if the stadium was never the best, the memories always will be.

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