Away Days

August 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene, Shamrock Rovers match programme versus Finn Harps (9 August 2019)

When I’m asked just how much a Shamrock Rovers fan I am, I usually respond that I’m a season ticket holder. The questioner might ask do I travel to away matches? Why yes I do is the answer and we are talking North (Derry and Rovaniemi), South (Cork and Thessaloniki), West (Galway and Reykjavik) and East (Bray and Nicosia).

I remember my first Shamrock Rovers away match, a trip to the northside to Tolka Park at the end of the 1993/94 season. It was the night Alan Dodd’s lob was the opener in a 3-0 win over Shelbourne, a victory that all but sealed the league title for Rovers that season. My first trip to Dalymount Park was for the part of the Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers FAI Cup trilogy in 1994 when Stephen Geoghegan celebrated his equaliser climbing up onto the fence at Dalymount Park.

As I got older, I began to attend games outside of Dublin and a crucial game for sucking me into being an away day fan was the midweek FAI Cup replay against Cork City in January 2000. With no floodlights at the Munster FA venue at the time, it was an early afternoon kick off.

This was back in the day before the Rovers Chat group on Facebook and maybe even before the SRFC Ultras Forum when we just had a fans email distribution list. Either way, a Rovers fan made a booking with Iarnrod Eireann and opened it up for random Hoops to sign up to and avail of the group booking discount. I think my work colleagues thought I was mad to take the day off work to travel down to Cork on a Wednesday for the game. I arrived at Heuston Station on my own that day not really quite knowing what to expect about the day’s outing.

By the time I got back to Dublin after Rovers latest cup heartache, although I didn’t know it then, I had made friends for life. Going to Cork that day I got chatting on the carriage to a number of Hoops who I didn’t know at the time and to be honest that conversation hasn’t stopped since. A number of those lads are part of the group of fans I still go and watch the games with now 19 years later!

That is the thing about traveling away. Time spent in the supporters club bus, on the away terrace or in the car form firm friendships and the football away day becomes so much more than about the 90 minutes of action out on the pitch.

IMG_5514

Travelling for a European away trip takes it all to another level. Last week’s visit to Cyprus was my 17thEuropean trip. There have been highs (did I ever tell you about that time in Belgrade?), there have been lows (what ever happened to that Rovers manager who presided over our embarrassingly early European elimination in Lithuania in 2012?) and everything in between.

My first Euro away was to the Czech Republic when Rovers took on Slovan Liberec in 2003. The most amusing thing from that trip was seeing Bohemians player Kevin Hunt turning up in Dublin Airport for a weekend in Prague that his partner had booked unaware that they’d be sharing the flight with Shamrock Rovers players, officials and supporters heading to their Intertoto Cup game. To be fair, Hunt took it very well but I suppose what else could he do!

It will be hard to ever beat the 2011 European campaign with its six Euro away trips. I remember in Tallinn being a bundle of nerves ahead of kick off of the 2011 Champions League qualifier against Flora. The Hoops carried a 1-0 lead with them to Estonia and the second leg – thanks to Alan Mannus’ first leg penalty save in Tallaght – and we knew that getting through would mean a minimum two more ties. The nerves were due to the finally poised tie but also due to the fact that one of the Irish national newspaper had asked me to pen a match report for the game and I’d never written one before that point!

The Hoops escaped with a scoreless draw – the newspaper got their 700 word report – and Rovers were off on a European adventure that I would follow for the next five months via Copenhagen, Belgrade, London, Thessalonica and through to Kazan in the snow in December.

The high point of that Europa League campaign was probably Stephen Rice putting Rovers in the lead in White Hart Lane but I also remember fondly the trip to Greece to play PAOK as peak-Shamrock Rovers for that Michael O’Neill squad. We were unlucky to only lost 2-1 in the Stadio Toumba and as supporters we celebrated in the pub after the game the fact that we were about to retain the title the following week. “We are going to win two in a row, and we are going win three and we are going to win four and we are going to win five in row,” we sung but it didn’t quite turn out like that!

DSCN1194
PAOK Away – 2011 Europa League Group stages

On a couple of occasions I’ve signed up to travel when the club have run a charter. The most bizarre trip ever was the one to play ROPS Rovanaimi on the Arctic Circle in Finland. It was a fairly small group of supporters who went on that one and we literally travelled on the team bus from the stadium to the airport after!

That was Stephen Bradley’s first match in charge of the Rovers in Europe with last week’s his 11th as Hoops Head Coach and his team came as close as possible in the tie against Apollon that the cup action this week was nearly European rather than the FAI Cup but it just wasn’t to be. For the second consecutive season, Rovers took quality opposition to extra time away from home in the second leg of a Europa League qualifiers before being unlucky not to get over the line. There is only optimism for next year’s European campaign already. Get the dates in your diary for Europe next July – it is always worth making it an away day.

Postcard from Lords – A special test match

Old Father Time watches on. He has seen it all played out on the field below but the drama of this week’s test match in Lords could almost have sent him spinning even if there was only a light wind blowing out across St. John’s Wood giving some relief from the 30 degree temperatures.

At early lunchtime on Wednesday, below that famous weather vain, the scoreboard read England all out for 85 – the first time they had been bowled out in the first innings of a test match at Lords before lunch. England, the One Day Cricket World Champions who were crowned at this very venue just ten days previously, had been skittled out by an Ireland side playing only their third test match.

IMG_5027
The Old Father Time weather vain above the scoreboard at the Tavern Stand.

IMG_5037
Ireland celebrate bowling England out for 85

I never played cricket as a kid– save for mowing the grass out the back garden to the lowest level and playing a bit of tennis ball cricket. Yet, the game was a part of my sporting childhood. Those long summer days when cricket was played out across five days on the telly, taking up its part in the TV sporting summer that included Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

And while we had Irish heroes to cheer on at the Tour, cricket was very much an English game and as such, unlike any other sport, I’ve always been an England cricket fan rooting for various iterations of England teams that contained David Gower, Mike Atherton and Alistair Cook across the decades.

I first visited Lords as a young teenager during a trip to stay with my Aunt who lived in London. In between the travelling to all the usual tourist sights such as Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge, my Aunt took me to Wembley – where she sweet talked the Irish security guard on the gate to allow me walk up the famous tunnel of the old stadium – and also she brought me to the home of cricket.

We spent a day watching Desmond Haynes hit an unbeaten 222 for Middlesex against Sussex at Lords. I’ve been back a few times since to watch England play test match cricket but last Wednesday was something special.

IMG_5126
Middlesex v Sussex – August 1990

SfnpBiXBRTiNtZsor+zbqg


I never thought I’d get the opportunity to cheer on an Irish side in a test action against England. Now was a chance for Irish players to walk through the Long Room on the way out to the field and take on England. There is such history about the place with cricket first played here in the 1814 season, test matches since 1884 and the pavilion built in 1890.

I just hoped that Ireland would be competitive on day one and boy were they. There is a unique sound about test match cricket at Lords. The humming of conversation that rings out around the ground, occasionally punctuated by bottles of bubbly being uncorked or the sound of bat on ball followed by polite clapping.

Although on this morning there was also the sound of giddy Irish people – myself included – celebrating the constant fall of English wickets. It was incredible. A few days after Olé Olé and the Fields of Athenry rang around Portrush for Shane Lowry, here at the home of cricket those familiar tunes began to filter out from the Edrich and Mound stands.

England one down, then two down, oh wait another wicket, what is that 42-4. There were ironic cheers around the ground as England made 50 but by then they had lost seven wickets. Tim Murtagh, bowling on what was effectively his Middlesex home turf, ran in from the nursery end to tear the English apart. He would have his name up on the famous Lords Honours board by the end of the day with his five wicket haul conceding a mere 13 runs.

I was nominally sitting at the back of the Grand Stand but this was genuinely edge of the seat stuff as I leant forward each time Murtagh or Big Boyd Rankin ran in. When the wickets fell, it was straight up out of the seat with a football style goal celebration.

Sitting either side of me were a pair of middle aged Englishmen both with their elderly fathers watching the game. They were disgusted with their team’s performance but genuinely delighted with how Ireland were playing and were sporting enough to be amused by the amazed the reaction of the sizeable Irish crowd around them without being patronising.

We chatted about the joy of their team winning the World Cup earlier in the month and about the Ashes series to come. Their hopes for winning against Australia seemed to shrink as the morning went on.

I was listening in to BBC’s Test Match Special and Jonathan Agnew and Alistair Cook were scathing about the England batting performance. Meanwhile Niall O’Brien was enjoying how his brother and former teammates were doing out on the pitch. Lunch was scheduled for 1.15pm but by then England were all out.

I enjoyed the early lunch by nipping into the museum – reputedly the oldest sporting museum in the world – and seeking out the little Ashes urn that is kept here at the back of the Pavilion.

IMG_5053

After lunch, Ireland put in a very creditable batting performance getting initially to 132 for the loss of just two wickets before England got on top. Balbirnie got to his 50 before he went as Ireland lost five wickets for just 15 runs.

By the time Ireland made 200 they were nine wickets down and it was time to head for the exits. I walked up St. John’s Wood Road towards Paddington to catch the train to Heathrow with a grin fixed to my face. Yes, it would turn out that England would win the test on Friday but boy had Ireland given them a game. The Boys in Green in their Test Match cricket whites had truly arrived on the world’s cricketing stage.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Out for the Count – tales from the tally

IMG_3514It was a two legged dramatic affair that occupied my time last weekend. The 2019 local election count was a tense long drawn out event. It had the feel of a finely balanced cricket test match, building to a dramatic conclusion and with a set of count results that actually look a lot like a cricket scorecard.

First Leg

It was an all-ticket occasion in the RDS on Saturday morning for the first leg while the second leg was fixed for the rest of the weekend beside the 18th green of the golf course at the Citywest hotel. The tallywomen and tallymen were queuing outside Simmonscourt well before doors opened on Saturday and the fun that awaited them in the Funderland venue.

Tally
The importance for the political parties of having an accurate tally, enabling an accurate percentage of vote for each candidate in each individual box, was shown by the fact that the tally was a shared effort in most constituencies – carried out by a combination of all the parties.

So Sinn Fein (SF) came together with Fine Gael (FG), with People before Profit (PBP), Labour Party (Labour) and Social Democrats (SocDems), along with a combination of the Greens and Fianna Fail (FF) to carry out the tally together.

When the count began at 9am, the boxes were tipped out by the count officials onto the desks and somewhat of a hush descended on the venue – almost like the quiet of when a kicker is lining up a conversion across the road in Leinster’s home venue.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As I shuttled tally sheets for the Blackrock Ward of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council back to the designated party official who did the entry on the tally spreadsheet, I could see which way it was going in our Ward. It would turn out to be a massive 20 percentage point increase for the Green party in the area, with Seafra O’Faolain (Green) getting 25% of the vote and, along with Marie Baker (FG) and former Government Minister Mary Hanafin (FF), he would be elected on the first count

By noon we had a first count tally but we wouldn’t get an official first count for another 12 hours. That was because the local election ballot papers were then moved out to Citywest and they wouldn’t begin the count till late afternoon.

Second Leg

The officials in Citywest began by sorting out the ballots into a pigeon hole for each candidate at 5pm. A pair of count officials, armed with pencil, cardboard, elastic bands, sponges, and rubber thimbles, counted the votes out for each candidate and cross checked each other’s count.

Spoilt
Close to 11pm, the candidates and their election agents gathered around the spoilt votes and debated their inclusion with the retuning officer. There were 261 spoilt votes including 83 blank ballot papers. After this was concluded the first count was declared with three candidates elected just before midnight. The count was suspended and we headed home, set to return in nine hours time.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The second count in the morning was the distribution of the massive surplus of 1,336 Green votes. With no additional candidates reaching the quota after that distribution, and Baker’s surplus of 309 being greater than the gap between the two lowest candidates that is then distributed next. Nobody hits the quota again, so out goes Gráinne Ferris of Sinn Fein (no relation), then the Independent Jacob Chacko is eliminated.

I note down each count on my clipboard and with the other Labour party members we pour over the numbers. Our candidate Deirdre Kingston is sitting seventh in this six seat ward, 118 votes behind the third FG candidate Rebecca Molloy. We think there are enough votes behind us that if we can stay ahead of Sinéad Gibney (SocDems) and Lola Hynes (PBP), as they are eliminated we can jump ahead of Molloy and retain the Labour seat held in Blackrock since 1991.

Recheck
With just six votes separating the SocDems and PBP, Hanafin’s 54 votes she received above the quota in the first count are set to be distributed. It looks like PBP are going out so they look for a recheck.

The count grinds to a halt for a couple of hours while this is done. We look at where the transfers are going and a rough tally looks like Labour will benefit significantly more than FG but SocDems will also pick up considerable transfers.

The Taoiseach strides through the count centre as I’m busy trying to keep people updated on about four WhatsApp groups, on twitter (including two sets of DMs) and the odd phonecall back to my Mum who wants to be informed of all moves.

Rocky Road
We munch on some sambos and rocky road cake that someone has brought in for us and the tensions begins to build. Everyone has their own way of dealing with things. I keep looking at the numbers scribbled out in front of me, hoping they will arrange themselves clearly into a pattern that will take us safely home. Others can’t stand still.

PBP gain two more votes in the recheck and are not pleased when the Returning Officer says she is happy with the check and is moving on with the next count. There is talk of a full recount at the conclusion of all counts – thankfully that doesn’t come to pass. Around us other counts come to a conclusion including in Dún Laoghaire where Maria Bailey’s Dad John is returned to the council but the Blackrock count goes on.

I watch the distribution of the 869 PBP votes. The SocDems get a decent chunk of them (314) and I see FG get very little. Okay, I do the sums. We just need 206 votes to keep ahead of the SocDems. I walk over to where the Labour votes are and my heart sinks.

Throughout the count they bundle the votes in piles of 100 so your eye gets accustomed to noting what 100 votes looks like. There doesn’t look to be two bundles here. I keep hoping a few more votes will come from the pigeon boxes but no. There are only 173 additional votes added to our score. We start to discuss our exit strategy.

What I’ve failed to notice though is just how few votes FG have received. Just 29 have come their way which means it is the third FG candidate who now sits last in the count and is eliminated by 23 votes. We remain 33 votes behind the sixth seat position.

The more experienced heads in the Labour camp run some quick estimates and reckon the distribution of the 1,133 FG votes will be enough to elect Barry Ward (FG) to the fourth seat, with a surplus that will see Kate Feeney (FG) and Deirdre Kingston home on the final count.

Ward claims 743 of those distributed votes to go over the quota. FF get 125, Labour 61 and the SocDems 49. The gap has narrowed to 21 votes and if that proportion transfer continues from Ward’s surplus of 628 that will be enough for us.

Ninth Count
I stay by the SocDem table and see them get 45 votes from that surplus. That means we need to get 66 votes or more for Deirdre to be elected. I scramble around to the table that has the Labour votes and I see a pile of votes that is in excess of 100. I now know that we have this.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The count official reads out the results a bit after 9pm and the cheers ring out for the elected candidates. Elsewhere in City West they are packing up the tables and chairs but we don’t care. We head to the restaurant for a very late meal and a well deserved celebratory drink or two having felt the full drama of democracy in action over the last two days.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Aaron McEneff in Top Form

‘Oh Bradley said, We’re gonna’ play him in centre mid, Oh words can’t describe, When we see him in the green and white.
He is divine, He scores belters all the time, That’s why he is the best, He’s Aaron McEneff.’

Rovers supporters song about Aaron McEneff

In the run up to last Friday’s game in Turner’s Cross, Hoops Head Coach Stephen Bradley said that it is “the toughest place in the country” to go and get a result and looking over Rovers’ recent record down in Cork that certainly seemed to be the case.

Since Shamrock Rovers’ win away to City in 2013, the Hoops had played eight games there – losing six and drawing two – but came into this match on the back of five league wins in a row.

By the end of the evening, the 3-1 win for the Hoops left City 15 points off Shamrock Rovers who had a ten point gap at the top of the table – a great position to be in having played every team in the top division once (along with Finn Harps twice).
D8F31031-7483-44E0-8B09-A6202D73CAC0
Centre-mid
Picking up the man-of-the-match award was Rovers’ centre-mid Aaron McEneff who has been picking up plenty of plaudits for his performances for the Hoops since joining from Derry City in the close-season.

“I’ve never had an easy game whenever I’ve played down there,” said McEneff speaking to Hoops Scene after the win. “I thought we were much the better team. It was some result.”

Green and white
Friday’s win away to last season’s runners up and 2017 league champions, coupled with the wide gap at the top of the table, have made plenty of people sit up and take notice of start to the season for the team in green and white hoops. Rovers have accumulated 25 points from the 30 on offer to date.

“It has been a good start but that all it has been – a start. If you want to be successful you have to put the hard work in every day and the lads to do that. I’ve noticed that since I’ve come to Rovers that the lads are pushing each other on every day. It is great position to be in but I don’t think you can look into it too much at this stage of the season. There is a lot of work to be done.

“I’ve enjoyed going out and beating a lot of teams in the league but it is early. We will have to continue to work hard if we want to be successful.”

It was a great team performance in Turner’s Cross, summed up by Rovers’ opening goal from a fine passing move that culminated in Sean Kavanagh scoring in front of the sizeable travelling support.

“Greg got himself in a great position and he put a great ball in for Sean Kavanagh to score with a great finish. That just shows you the rotation we have in middle as Greg usually holds but he got forward. We have a good relationship between the players as the know who can go and who can stay.”
g8JQVZ3kSDy2rqRNsZvYEg
Divine
McEneff grabbed his first goal of the game from distance, after getting by Dan Casey and scoring thanks possibly to some divine intervention as a deflection off Sean McLoughlin took the ball by Mark McNulty.

“I jinked past the defender and it opened up a wee bit. It was good to get a bit of luck, I’ll take that all day!

“In the second half we stuck to our game plan, as we had actually being doing well in the first half. We didn’t want to turn it into a fight and a game of second balls.

“We continued to play the ball along the ground. In the second half I think Cork ran out of steam a little bit, especially when the third goal went in. They sort of lost a bit of confidence but we were comfortable in possession.”

Belter
The third goal from McEneff was a belter of a finish. “Jack (Byrne) picks up good positions. Ronan Finn made a run down the line and Conor McCormack followed him, which opened up the space in the hole.

“Jack played a lovely ball into me. I checked over my shoulder and I couldn’t really believe how much time I had at the edge of the box! There was nobody really near me. I took a touch and then hit it. I was buzzing went it went in!”

McEneff with five goals – and now top scorer in this season’s goalscoring charts – is half way to the number he scored in the 2018 league campaign with the Candystripes. The year before, when he was named in the PFAI Team of the year, he scored three against Rovers, and he has brought that scoring form to the Hoops.

“When I signed for Rovers, goalscoring was something I wanted to carry on from what I’ve been doing in the league in the past few years – getting goals. I’ve started well and hopefully that can continue.

“It helps to take the weight one or two players whenever everyone is chipping in with goals. You see it in training every day. The lads are great in front of goal and you’d really put your money on any of the players in our team to get a goal as we can get them from all over the pitch.”

fullsizeoutput_72f9

Best
For McEneff next week it will be a trip back to his hometown. “I’m from Derry. I love playing at the Brandywell. I’m looking forward to going back but I’ll be focussed on getting the job done and getting three points.

“It always tough to leave your home time club. I really enjoyed my time there as that’s where I kind of started my senior career. I felt it was time for me to move on with my career. I thought coming to Shamrock Rovers was the best thing for me. I’ve loved every minute of it so far. Everyone has been very welcoming and has helped me settle in quickly.”

When Derry came to Tallaght for Rovers’ first home game of the season, McEneff was quick to grab the ball when the Hoops won a peno against his former club and he was brave enough to put it away with a ‘Paneka’ style penalty.

“I had it in my head that the ‘keeper was going to dive. I was either going to smash it or dink it down the middle. If felt like I had more control with a dink and whenever it comes off it looks well.

“It was a good feeling when I scored. It was brilliant as it was the first goal into South Stand. The fans there that night were unbelievable and there was a great atmosphere.”

Before the trip north though, tonight the Hoops welcome Waterford to Tallaght Stadium. When the sides met at the RSC on the opening night of the season, Rovers deservedly won 2-1, even though they left it very late – scoring with the last kick of the game.

“I wasn’t nervous coming into my first game for Rovers. I was excited to go and play after a long pre-season. You just want to go out and play competitive games.

“There is no better way than winning in the last minute to start the season in your first game! I thought we played really well on the night. To score in the last minute was an unbelievable feeling. It kicked the season off for us. We took a lot of confidence from that.”

Published in Hoops Scene Number 5/2019 (Shamrock Rovers v Waterford)

London Calling

September 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Article published in Hoops Scene – Shamrock Rovers match day programme – on Friday 14 September 2018

If there is a phrase to raise the hackles of a League of Ireland supporter, then it is one often used in August by some people saying ‘football is back’. For us of course February is the return of our #greatestleagueintheworld but that phrase did make sense for me last month when I spent a month or so working in London – providing me with a great opportunity to check out some local football in the London area just as the English football season was beginning.

As a self-confessed groundhopper, it was great to get to some grounds I hadn’t been to before, including a couple of stadiums that won’t be hosting their current clubs for too much longer. So I got out the football fixtures, downloaded the Citymapper travel planner and put some of the Queens shilling on my Oyster card to get me to six games in 18 days!

With 46 games in the regular season, League One kicks off on the first weekend of August and Wimbledon’s first home game of the season was the first match on my schedule – a traditional 3pm Saturday afternoon kick off against Coventry City.

Construction work has begun on the new Plough Lane stadium, which will host AFC Wimbledon in seasons to come but at present they play in the ‘Cherry Red Records Stadium’ in Kingsmeadow.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Like can be seen in Tallaght on the opening day of any season, fans were wishing each other a ‘happy new season’, the pitch was in impeccable condition and there was a sense of optimism about the season ahead. The scoreless draw that came soon after may have dented that optimism somewhat!

The early rounds of the Carabao Cup are set in amongst the first couple of weeks of the season and I got to two midweek League Cup games beginning with Gillingham’s visit to Millwall.

There were a few familiar faces in the ground on match night – fixed to the walls of the concourse area below the main stand. Amongst the photos of Millwall teams from days gone by, one that caught me eye was a picture of the Lions team from the very first game in the ‘New Den’.

In the back row are a future Republic of Ireland captain and someone familiar still on the pitch both at Ireland games and here in Tallaght. Kenny Cunningham and Tony McCarthy, currently the Ireland and Rovers physio, both played in the first match at Millwall’s new ground back in 1993.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It was a sparse enough crowd for this League Cup game with the biggest cheer on the night nearly coming when the PA man confirmed that the game would go straight to penalties without any extra time after a scoreless 90 minutes. The shootout included a spectacular miss by Gillingham’s Josh Parker who skied the ball into the away crowd located in the upper tier behind the goal allowing Millwall to ultimately prevail on penalties.

Like AFC Wimbledon, Brentford are also building a new ground. Their fancy new stadium just a mile away from their current ground will replace the old school Griffin Park. The existing venue gets its name from the griffin that features on the logo of Fuller’s Brewery which once owned an orchard where the ground is located. Renowned for having a pub in the four corners of the ground, the Bees will move from Griffin Park in the summer of 2020.

With Ireland international Alan Judge ruling the midfield battle, Brentford should have beaten Cheltenham Town in the league cup by more than the 1-0 scoreline that they got on the night.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It was a trek out of London to Luton for another midweek game. I grew up when Luton Town were in the top flight of English football with Steve Foster – and his trademark headband – captaining the side that played on the plastic pitch in Kenilworth Road.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

While I hadn’t been to a match at the ground before, I did take a wander around the outside to break up the eight hour stopover in Luton en-route to Tallinn during Rovers amazing 2011 European campaign.

‘Kenny’ is hemmed in by housing on three sides and a road on the other and is a tight compact ground. While the plastic pitch may be gone, its row of corporate boxes close to the pitch opposite the main stand still give it its distinct look. It was a very pleasant evening sitting in 25 degrees watching Town win 2-0 over Southend in front of an impressive 9,000 plus attendance for a Tuesday night League One fixture.

For many years the Valley was one of Britain’s biggest football grounds with a 75,000 capacity but it is now reduced to just a third of that. A crowd of 8,810 came on the day I made the trip to the Valley for another League One fixture – Charlton Athletic v Fleetwood Town.

When the match kicked off, suddenly I was getting hit on the back of the head by packets of crisps. Charlton are a club currently in crisis with the fans at loggerheads with the owner and what they perceive as his penny pinching measures. A member of staff at the club reputedly had to ask could they eat a packet of crisps at their desk after the working hours of the cleaners had been reduced as part of cutbacks to the club’s spending. In protest, the fans decided to have a crisp protest with the game delayed as stewards had to clear the thrown assorted crisp packets off the pitch!

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It was another scoreless draw for me to watch with the best bit of play that afternoon coming from the Charlton fan who won £5,000 at half time hitting the woodwork as part of the club’s crossbar challenge!

I didn’t just wallow in the lower leagues of English football but did take in one Premier League game. Archibald Leitch is the architect responsible for many of the iconic grounds in Britain and beyond, although with stadium regeneration there is less and less of his work still to be seen.

While the architect’s work at Ayrsome Park, the Old Den and even Dalymount Park can no longer be seen, Leitch designs can still be spotted at Ibrox, Villa Park and the main stand and pavilion at Fulham’s Craven Cottage.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

In Fulham I sat amongst 2,000 or so Burnley fans and quite a few fellow football tourists including both French and German groundhoppers with the home team winning 4-2. It was one of few wet days in London this summer so half time I was glad of the warm Bovril and felt it rude not to have a Cottage Pie at Craven Cottage. I sampled a few pies on my travels with my main take being that they seem to heat them up to the temperature of molten lava before serving them to the supporters!

While it was great to be able to groundhop around London taking in these various games, I much prefer to be back here in Tallaght watching Shamrock Rovers. There is definite truth tonight for me in saying that ‘football is back’.

Homegrown Hero: Mick Leech

Article in the FAI’s Republic of Ireland v USA match programme (Aviva Stadium, 2 June 2018)

IMG-4451

In a new series on League of Ireland players who earned caps, we catch up with a Shamrock Rovers’ goalscoring legend.

Before Mick Leech ever got two goals for the Republic of Ireland in Brazil, before he scored 132 times in his long League of Ireland career or got 56 goals across all competitions in the 1968/69 season, and before he ever earned his legendary status at Shamrock Rovers helping the Hoops win half of their FAI Cup six-in-a-row in the 1960s, he was playing with junior side Ormeau.

During that time, a month before his 18th birthday, he travelled to the 1966 World Cup in England as a spectator. He watched Hungary play Brazil and was blown away by the brilliance of that Hungarian team. Within a year, he would join Rovers and win his first FAI Cup and just three years later he would line out for Ireland against that Hungarian side.

“I thought Hungary were the best team I’d ever seen playing when I saw them in the ‘66 World Cup against Brazil in Goodison Park.

“They were a brilliant team with Bene and others who beat Brazil 3-1 that day and a few years later I was playing against them in Dalymount Park. I thought it was an honour to be on the pitch with them,” said Leech about Ireland’s 2-1 defeat to the Magyars in June 1969.

fullsizeoutput_6ae5

It was only a month before that Leech had first been included in an Ireland squad. “Outside Easons there was a paper seller with a big poster beside him and it said ‘Leech called into Ireland squad’ so that is the way I heard about it!”

If the way in which he learned about making his first squad inclusion seemed a bit strange, his debut in that game against Czechoslovakia left an even bigger impression. Leech ended up with 10 stitches, being locked out of the Dalymount Park dressing room and having to ring his father to get a lift home after the match!

“I was carried off in the first half. The fella would have got six years for the tackle these days, never mind a yellow card! I got taken in the ambulance to the Mater Hospital.

“By the time I got seen to it was late. I had to walk back up the Phibsborough Road in my football gear to Dalymount afterwards. But sure there was nobody there.

“The bar was at least open so I could ring my Da and go ‘look Da, can you come over and collect me?’ There was no way I could get home with all the bandages on!

“In those days for Ireland you just met on a Saturday morning up in Milltown and we would have a kick around. Some of the players were playing club matches in England and would only arrive on Sunday morning when we would all report to the Gresham Hotel for the game.

“You’d have cup of tea and some toast and the manager Charlie Hurley would name the team and say this is the way we are going to play.”

In 1972, Ireland took part in a 20 team ‘mini-World Cup’ called the Brazil Independence Cup. “We were based in Recife and Natal in the north of Brazil and we did quite well.”

In Ireland’s opening game Leech scored his first international goal in the 2-1 win over Iran. They beat Ecuador next 3-2 before losing to Chile 2-1. Leech got his only other international goal from his eight Ireland caps in the final group game against Portugal.

“The winning team went on to play in two groups of four. If we had beaten Portugal, we would have gone on to Rio for the next round. There were eight Benfica players including Eusebio in the team (who were double winners that season).”

Ireland lost 2-1 with Portugal progressing to the next round and then the final in the Maracana against Brazil. They lost 1-0 only conceding a last minute goal from Jairzinho – a player Leech had seen play in the ’66 World Cup six years previously.

Reflecting on what might have been Leech concludes that “half the lads on the team who were playing professionally in England, didn’t want to play for a couple of more weeks and wanted to go home but for me it would have been about going to Rio to play in, what was as far as I was concerned, the home of football.”

For someone who went on to become a League of Ireland legend, Leech can always reflect with pride his time in an Ireland jersey.

He is a true Homegrown Hero.

IMG_4393

Tour de Force from Lee Grace

Interview with Lee Grace in Hoops Scene No. 10 2018, Shamrock Rovers match day programme v Dundalk (1 June 2018)

As we kick off June with the clash of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium tonight, the front loaded League of Ireland schedule means that at the end of this evening’s match we are already a couple of games into the second half of the SSE Airtricity League season.

That is 20 league games completed in the first 16 weeks of the season with the remaining 16 matches due to take place over of the next 21 weeks. Only one Shamrock Rovers player so far this season has played every minute of every league game for the Hoops and it isn’t really a surprise that it is Lee Grace the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

A former member of the Irish defence forces, Grace hails from the town on the River Suir where they are made of hardy stuff. On the Tipperary and Waterford border, it is where Sean Kelly was reared. Kelly is a legendary cyclist who dominated the professional era in the 1980s. His palmares, which is listed on a plaque in Sean Kelly Square in the town, includes nine of the top monument one day classic races, seven Paris-Nice wins, four Tour de France green jerseys and one Tour of Spain overall win.

IMG_3789

The town is also home to Sam Bennett who recently became the first Irish rider to win three stages of a Grand Tour, something even Kelly didn’t manage. Bennett also went one better than Stephen Roche who won two stages en-route to winning 1987 Giro d’Italia. Bennett, whose father Michael managed Waterford in the League of Ireland, mixes it in the rough and tumble of the bunch sprints – something that Kelly did particularly early in his career.

When Grace was growing up he played hurling, soccer and did some cycling and has been following the progress of Sam Bennett closely.

33D1832B-120A-4A15-B18B-89C5B6762CBC

“I used to cycle as a kid with my uncle who is mad into the cycling,” said Lee Grace when he spoke to Hoops Scene earlier this week. “I was in school with Sam Bennett so I’ve been following his progress. He was a year ahead of me in school but my brother was in the same class.

“He has been doing unbelievable. He is flying. He is the first Irish man to win a stage of a grand tour in over 30 years. Fair play to him. He deserves it. I’ve never seen a man work as hard.”

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Last week, the Hoops went head-to-head with Bohemians in a keenly contested Dublin derby at Dalymount Park that ended in a 1-1 draw. The Bohs fans ahead of kick off displayed a banner ‘The North Side’. With Bohs based north of the Liffey and Rovers south, it isn’t too far off the sporting rivalry that Grace has seen in his home town, although the rivalry is mainly between the two clubs on the Tipp side of the county boundary.

“Carrick-on-Suir is right on the border with half of the town in Tipperary and the other half in Waterford. I’m from the Tipp side. There are two clubs on Tipperary side and one on the Waterford side.

“I played for the Waterford side when I was younger and then moved to the Tipp side. The two clubs in Tipp have a very big rivalry and it is intense in the town every time they play.”

It looked like the Hoops were going to have the Dublin derby bragging rights when captain Ronan Finn put Rovers 1-0 up with seven minutes remaining. However, it was to be another late derby goal for Bohs – this one two minutes from time – that saw the points shared.

“It was a tight game and a scrappy affair,” was Grace’s assessment of the match. “There wasn’t much ball played. There were patches where we tried to play. Those derby games are always like that.

“We caught them on the break. Greg (Bolger) tried five or six of those balls in the game and he said himself that none of them came off until that one for Ronan. He got in on goal and it was a great finish. We scored and I thought we would see it out as there were only six or so minutes to go.”

However the Hoops conceded a free kick high up the pitch, one that most Rovers fans felt was very soft. “A set piece did us in the end and so it was a disappointing result. Ethan (Boyle) said he barely touched him but any contact there and they are going to go down and from the referee’s view it is an easy free kick to give.”

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Last Friday Graham Burke and Shane Supple were rivals on the pitch but both then were part of the Ireland squad that flew to France last Saturday ahead of the friendly against France.

“It is great for the both of them to get into the Ireland squad and it is great for the league as well. It shines a great light on the league. I hope they do well. For Graham he really deserves it as he is such a hard worker but he will go out and enjoy himself.”

Over the years, there have been a couple of occasions when Grace has had to choose between different sports and even different clubs as he looked to progress as a footballer. “I’m a big hurling fan and I used to play but then had to give it up to concentrate on the soccer.”

A couple of years ago there was the option of continuing his career in the Irish Defence Forces with a deployment overseas or to give full time professional football a go with Galway United at the time – an option that he eventually went with.

Whether Stephen Bradley has deployed his men in league action with a flat back four or three centre halfs, Grace has been every present even with all the matches played so far this season.

“The midweek games are grand. You are none stop and there isn’t much time for preparation. Now we have a full week to prep for this Dundalk game and that is great. We can get a bit of freshness into the legs.”

“When we have three at the back we are obviously more stable defensively as we are a bit more compact and we weren’t conceding as many goals but at the other end we aren’t scoring as many. The other way we are a bit more open but we are scoring more. I’m happy in either formation.

“We went back to four against Pat’s and we scored three that night,” said Grace reflecting on the 3-0 win over the Saints in the last home game here at Tallaght Stadium.

“We brought a lot more energy and a lot more legs to the game in Tallaght. Even in Richmond Park, I think the 2-0 defeat to Pat’s wasn’t a fair reflection on the game. The sending off for us didn’t help but even with ten men I thought we were comfortable until a couple of mistakes cost us two goals. In Tallaght there was none of that and we fully deserved the win.”

It was Grace who opened the scoring with a header off a corner and another header by his centre-half partner Pico Lopes late in the game kept a Rovers clean sheet.

“We work on that a lot in training and those clipped balls to the front post are working for us. As defenders clean sheets are what we play for and I think that clearances off the line like that are as good as goals so fair play to Pico for getting back and clearing it with that great header.”

fullsizeoutput_6ae7