Blue moon rising once again under Reynolds’ leadership
Daniel McDonnell reports on how Waterford's rebirth is stirring a dormant support in an area with wonderful football history
Kick-off was minutes away at the RSC last Friday when Matt Keane, the doyen in Waterford football circles, cast his mind back 18 months.
He recalled the humbling evening when the club that was then known as Waterford United were hammered 8-1 on their own patch in front of just 77 supporters. For Keane, a veteran broadcaster and journalist with WLRFM and the Munster Express, that was the nadir of a turbulent period.
He is covering an entirely different beat now. The main stand at the Regional Sports Centre was filling up half an hour before the start of the Munster derby with Cork City. To meet demand, new standing sections had to be opened as tickets for every available seat had been snapped up.
There were 3,684 spectators present as Waterford FC moved joint top of the League of Ireland table with a victory over the league champions and provincial rivals. For the hardy few that remember the darkest days, nothing was going to take the gloss from the occasion.
The late scrap that resulted in four cards and both managers being sent to the stands might have commanded national headlines. Around Waterford, the big story is that the region has a proud club again.
A generation of support was lost amid a decade in the wilderness peppered by crisis meetings and rising debts. Today's teenagers have no memory of a time where senior football on Suirside meant something. Their eyes have now been opened to the possibilities.
Of course, the romance in the story is countered by the reality that it required an individual with deep pockets to turn things around. That is a common Irish football tale; new money is a central force in the rags to riches tales.
Lee Power, the former Irish U-21 international and owner in Swindon Town, was looking to add to his portfolio and the accomplished gambler took a punt on Waterford.
He has said it cost "hundreds of thousands" to clear debts as part of a takeover which included a rebrand to Waterford FC, a throwback to the days when the Blues ruled the roost out of Kilcohan Park, winning six league titles between 1966 and 1973.
Power brought in his old team-mate Pat Fenlon as Director of Football and old favourite Alan Reynolds - player-manager of the United side that reached the FAI Cup final in 2004 - was hired as head coach.
They had spending power which other First Division sides could not match last term and, with Fenlon taking the lead on recruitment and Reynolds driving the day-to-day organisation, the formula clicked.
Power's role is understood to be very hands off and Fenlon left his job at the start of the season to work full-time for the owner as he looks to further expand his football interests. He remains accessible to Reynolds, who is now very much the face of the operation. And it's a good fit, given the Tramore man's popularity.
Before the Cork encounter, Reynolds spoke to his group about the emotional significance of their work for the area.
"I spoke to the players about where this club was two years ago and where it's come to now," he explained afterwards. "That's because of the players and their performances. They excite people."
That local knowledge is vital in a dressing room dominated by outsiders who came with no real knowledge of the history. Reynolds has a squad that blends League of Ireland and English experience with a continental flavour, most notably the midfield duo that received reds on Friday.
Frenchman Bastien Hery was snapped up from Limerick after previously spending time in England, although his playing style probably wasn't suited to their lower leagues.
His midfield partner Stanley Aborah is a Ghanaian-Belgian who made his senior debut for Ajax as a teenager in a group that included Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. The 30-year-old arrived via Notts County and Portsmouth with stints in Slovenia and Hungary also on his CV. Like Hery, he has silky skills that wow team-mates.
"Stanley's been unbelievable," says defender Dave Webster, another winter signing.
"I spoke to a few people who had played with him when he signed. Eoin Doyle played with him at Portsmouth and he just told me, 'wait until you see him'."
Webster has an interesting perspective of his own.
The 28-year-old Dubliner is part of the quartet that commutes from the capital; he shares driving duties with young duo Rory Feely and Dylan Barnett and experienced skipper Paul Keegan - a league winner with Drogheda and Bohemians who then spent six years with Doncaster before coming home to Waterford last summer.
They only stay over for one or two nights per week and have got to know the M9 very well. But they have been struck by the organisation at the club. Striker Courtney Duffus, who is loan from Oldham, has favourably compared the set-up to his League One employers.
They train at the RSC, changing in dressing rooms that opposing players such as Bohs' Dan Casey have described as Premier League quality. They have a choice of training pitches on site and a gym and all the other comforts that a proper full-time outfit should have.
It has given Webster a new lease of life; the centre-half was called by Fenlon just an hour after his release from Shamrock Rovers was announced.
"He told me I would love it, that it's a great club with great staff and that I would love working with Rennie and he was right," he says.
Reynolds, for his part, says that Keegan and Webster have really taken the lead in instilling the right spirit in the dressing room.
"It's great having all our facilities there in one place," says Webster, "Even things like being able to have breakfast together in the morning. Everyone that has come in has bought into it, and they're also getting into the buzz that is around
"We are reminded of that all the time. Rennie doesn't let us forget what Waterford means to him and to lads in the crowd, especially playing Cork there on Friday. You could see what it meant to people coming off the pitch at the end."
That was preceded by the unfortunate skirmish that might condemn Hery and Aborah to the sidelines for a time. Reynolds has a team with a work ethic that should allow them to construct a Plan B, although he is refusing to entertain any talk of a title tilt.
He is sticking by the party line that avoiding relegation is the aim, but there's a knowing grin that goes with it.
Tellingly, the 43-year-old has hinted there's more improvement to come from a side that has won seven from nine games, including all their home matches. The biggest result, he admits, is that people are talking about the Blues positively again.
"It means an awful lot to me," he says. "I've gone to other clubs around the country down throughout the years and always wished we'd have that buzz here."
There are other clubs that spent their way to the top table, but ultimately couldn't stay there. In some cases, what they lacked was a dormant support to come out and sustain the good times. In Waterford, they might just have it.
In Friday's match programme, there was a lovely piece from Ardmore resident Tommy Mooney recalling a trip to Kilcohan with his brother 60 years ago. This was before 'The Ban' on attending 'foreign' games was lifted and, as members of a GAA club, there was risk attached.
They were part of a gang that plotted a circuitous route to avoid detection. After watching an enjoyable win over Drumcondra, they returned home to meet a neighbour, an officer of said GAA club.
"How did the Blues do?" he enquired with a smile which, as Mooney puts it, was filled with "genuine curiosity".
Waterford has always had room for a successful football club.
"We're a sleeping giant," says Reynolds. "And we've finally woken up."