Friday 18 January 2019

Dundalk joy at title win shows why local game matters

Community celebration makes League of Ireland wins special

Dundalk players celebrate their League of Ireland triumph. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Dundalk players celebrate their League of Ireland triumph. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Football can do strange things to people. As Dundalk's title challenge reached a climax on Friday evening, club secretary and lifelong fan Colm Murphy, who had spent the week immersed in preparations, made the five-minute walk to his father's house.

When the second half of the decider with Cork kicked off, Murphy was upstairs in his childhood bedroom with the light turned off, unable to bear the tension of watching any more. A cheer in the distance and then a celebratory yell from his 90-year-old dad in the living room gave him the news that Stephen O'Donnell had made the decisive breakthrough.

It was only the realisation that he possessed the key for the room where the medals were kept that drove him out of solitude and back to the ground for the dying seconds of Dundalk's tenth title win.

The final whistle provided the release from a build-up where, understandably enough given recent history, there was a fear of an unhappy ending.

Emotional

That's what made it such an emotional night for the owners, officials and long-serving volunteers who have graduated from the terraces to put the smile back on the face of a club which has laboured through a grim decade.

At this point, loyalties should be declared, however inappropriate that may be. You are reading the words of a Dundalk fan.

My affair with the League of Ireland started as a 10-year-old in November 1992. Fittingly enough, a Premier Division meeting of Dundalk and Cork was the occasion.

Alan Doherty, an Ardee lad, was involved, and my father, a schoolteacher, decided to bring us on a Sunday afternoon trip to watch his former student. He came off the bench to score in a 3-1 win, Brian Irwin grabbed a brace and the next week, I wanted to go back.

There's no scientific evidence to support this observation but it's generally by these chance events that most League of Ireland supporters get hooked to a hobby that large swathes of the population consider a peculiarity.

It's an obsession that generally takes hold in the teenage years, and you grow to accept the bemusement. Irish people tend not to understand your sporting preference but there's little point in taking offence when you don't relate to their affiliations either.

Stephen Kenny said last week that Dundalk had lost a generation of fans, and he was right; it was my generation.

The league title win in 1995 came in the shadow of a season where the club was in danger of dropping out of football. Coming four years after the previous success, there was no novelty value and crowds were steadily drifting away.

Only later, when 'The Town' slipped into steep decline, did it become apparent that '95 was a big deal.

There was an inevitability about relegation in the 1998-99 season, a campaign where a combination of understanding parents and a dedicated travel club ensured that I didn't miss a single game either home or away. Dundalk won six games from 33 and scored just 23 goals.

There's a masochistic element to following a struggling LOI side which somehow etches the darkest days in the memory, and those tales stacked up in the anonymity of the First Division.

Straining behind a barbed wire fence a couple of hundred yards from Baldonnel trying to catch a glimpse of a hapless bunch losing to junior side Portmarnock in an FAI Cup tie played behind closed doors during the foot and mouth crisis is one ignominious experience implanted in the mind.

Then there was a UEFA Cup trip to Croatia in 2002, three months after a solitary year back in the top flight concluded with the unique double of relegation and an improbable FAI Cup win. By the time the jaunt to take on Varteks Varazdin came around, the Irish representatives were a poor First Division side and got hammered.

This expedition highlighted the fact that the League of Ireland can be such an intimate environment that players and management routinely recognise supporters.

On a boozy night after that match, one member of the official party found himself standing at an urinal next to a punter he recognised as a notorious heckler. He duly adjusted his angle to send an unwelcome golden shower running down his critic's legs and onto his shoes. That was quite an adventure.

Time moves on, though, and real life makes it difficult for the youthful hardcore to keep up their attendance. People move away, get new jobs, start a family, and inherit other Friday commitments.

For every 'bandwagon' jumper at a big game, there is also a long-term fan who cares, even if they no longer have the freedom to show it.

All clubs can relate, particularly the regional powers. The post-match scenes at Oriel were especially frenzied because of the cup final feel, yet the aftermath was reminiscent of the outpouring at all of the other clubs that have had their turn in a cyclical league which has crowned eight different champions this century.

They are special nights. Part celebration, part reunion. Families and long-term friends revelling in the moment, hugging people they would regularly feel uncomfortable shaking hands with and remembering those who weren't around to see it.

There'll be more of the same whatever happens at the Aviva in next Sunday's Derry v St Pat's FAI Cup decider.

That sincere depth of feeling is often lost in the perception of the league's followers as militant fanatics looking down upon those who are bonded with their English or Scottish club. That attitude, fuelled by an angry minority, serves no purpose. Condescension wins nobody over.

There are areas of the country where kids were simply never exposed to the idea of having a senior football team in their area, whereas other sports gave them that sense of community.

And there are places, too, where it was available but the natives were never given a reason to care about it. Or they gave it a try and didn't fancy it. Picked a bad day, perhaps. That's life.

Sentiment cannot be manufactured or feigned. It grows.

There were a lot of young people at the league finale and the perpetual hope is that the glory nights prompt a bigger number of the next generation to pick up the addiction.

The drug might be unhealthy, but it would be a hell of a lot harder to live without it.

 

Classy Cork deserved better than taunts

Dundalk grabbed the headlines over the weekend but the class showed by Cork in defeat should be recognised, with manager John Caulfield setting the example.

The one souring aspect of Friday was the idiocy of a gang of local punters who chose to make their way across the pitch towards the away support - housed in a section that remains inadequate for travelling fans - and taunt them after the final whistle.

To his credit, Lilywhites goalscorer Brian Gartland tried to send these eejits back in the right direction. Cork have contributed richly to this season, drawing massive crowds to Turner's Cross which demonstrate that the league is a better place when they are going strong, and if Caulfield succeeds in adding more subtlety in the final third, they'll be right up there again in 2015.

 

Storm brews over Scotland tickets

Midway through Friday's night's game, Irish football fans who follow the national team everywhere received some bad news via email.

They had been unsuccessful in their attempts to secure tickets in the FAI allocation for next month's Euro qualifier in Scotland.

Fans took to popular internet forum ybig.ie [You Boys In Green] to vent their anger, with a host of regular travellers, who were present at the opening qualifier in Tbilisi and have travelled to a variety of other obscure locations, enraged to be told they have no ticket for the showdown at Celtic Park.

The FAI will have to address the situation. A number of the irate fans have threatened not to renew their season tickets.

There will be huge demand for next year's glamour ties in the Aviva. But, in the long run, these are customers the FAI cannot afford to infuriate.

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