The boy has wisdom beyond his years. “You learn more about yourself in the tough times than you do in the good times,” says James McClean. Less a boy now at 27-years-old, arms inked akimbo with tattoos on either side, he still maintains the boyish innocence with which he made his name at the Brandywell in Derry City as a thin but steely winger in Northern Ireland all those years ago – a country which has suffered more blood-stained tough times than most people would care to remember.
Ireland has always had a challenging relationship with football and a laborious course of acceptance of it. Once encompassing of all that was alien and English, those who supported it, played it and defended its right of existence as a beautiful game were treated as betrayers of the Republic and the independence it had fought and spilt blood for over hundreds of years.
It was blatantly uncomfortable, but we simply could not take our eyes off our television screens. This was the battle that we had waited for, a moment in time for Irish football: David vs. Goliath, rebel against the man, justice at last standing up to fight against incompetent authority.
“There will be no past tense here,” Eamon Dunphy begins, as the mood turns sad and nostalgic. The date is 10 July 2016 and John Giles is appearing for the final time on Irish television’s state broadcaster RTÉ in his role as senior analyst for the station’s football coverage.
ONE HUNDRED and twenty five years ago a crowd of travelling men threaded aimlessly along the streets of Dublin city. Their wanderings led them in search of a suitable playing field for their proposed new football team. They would come to be recognised as the Gypsies on account of their expeditions, and were known to be equally valiant as they were bohemian in spirit.
Sometimes you just don’t notice something until it’s not there anymore.
Television programmes getting cancelled, matches being postponed, celebrities passing away – all of them are greeted by the sudden jerk of “Oh. Right. Hmm. Where to now?” Where once lay a constant, a source of reliability that you could always depend on – maybe to the point of taking for granted – now lays nothing, or better still a replacement.
It started that evening. The hustle and bustle of it all. Getting your change prepared for the bus. The afternoon discussion of the main event to come. You could feel it in the air on that Friday evening: the Cup.
After the first bus, we hit town, then one more bus and we were there. Fans surrounded the stadium. Pockets of them here and there. They wore their club colours, although few replica jerseys could be seen. Not likely, most were plain dressed, jeans and t-shirts, tracksuits and casual ordinary shirts.
We got to the ticket booth: “student?” “student” “ten euros please”. You could tell it was the big derby. Police surrounding the encroaching horizon as far as the eye could see. One would almost believe there were more police at the game than fans. It could be possible. I handed over my bag to be inspected. The police man struggled to find the zip so I helped him. He tapped the front pocket with his hands and looked at me enquiringly. “Headphones”, I reassured him. “No trouble”, he laughed. “Enjoy the game”. I couldn’t help but pick up on his lax nature. It could have been anything in that front pocket, but he trusted me.
Through the turn-styles and we were there. Everyone was there. All three thousand or so. The speakers blared Oasis whilst we waited for kick off, the players ran through their last minute warm-up drills. The goalkeeping coach, a man of fifty, ran across to our stand and waved happily to relations. Everyone, the players, the management, the fans, were all in high spirits.
The atmosphere was calm and not the least intimidating. The away support entered the terrace behind the goal to our right. They stood and chatted amongst themselves before being interrupted suddenly, and with a ruckus bang: “Saint Patrick’s are the team for me!” boomed from the home support. A melody poured from the stands and onto the pitch: “We’ll support you on the short days. We’ll support you on the long days. Sing-ing on our own, we are Patrick’s!”
Like a bolt of lightning the chorus entered the players and filled them head to toe with an immense feeling of sudden motivation. The three thousand men and women inside the stadium that Friday night were whipped up into a frenzy. And the game kicked off.
And then the game kicked off. The game. The players shifted left and right, steady movement, and I noticed some nice initial passing inter-play. But I could not focus on the game. I noticed everything but the game.
Across from our stand and to the right was an empty terrace. No support could be seen apart from two small children. No older than six years old the two boys were wrapped up in it all. In their element, they chanted. They shared in the claps and the boos, the chorus and the drums. In one hand, the smaller of the two boys began waving a flag. Chequered red and white, he waved it furiously, in a frenzy of joy and passion. No parents. No stewards. Just two small children waving and chanting, clapping and cheering, in the empty terrace, on their own.
This stadium has never been full. Five thousand capacity, but never has it been full. My eye wandered to the right and I caught a glimpse of the away end. In their terrace, they were packed tightly. The words of Bill Shankly came to me as I stared at that terrace: “The Spion Kop at Liverpool is an institution and if you’re a member of the Kop you feel like you’re a member of a big society.” The words rang through. In the terrace, there were no individuals. There were no egos and no single-mindedness. There was only the collective. They all shared in the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, together.
A goal was scored and the home support grew quiet. I peered again at the away end as they celebrated. A wild outburst of ecstasy filled the terrace. Arms flailed wildly and bodies bashed off one another in joyous celebration. Bodies spilled forward as the fans swayed together in an outcry.
0-1. The home crowd, momentarily silenced, piped up and sang once more. Their hearts had not grown dim and they pushed the players forward. The players, appearing beaten, endured the goal, and pushed on. Again, the game went on. But again I did not notice. Three birds, in formation, flew over the night’s sky.
1-1: the equalizer. No other term but a ‘dink’ could describe the goal. Slack defending and the striker pounced like a wild tiger. The crowd, as if resurrected from the deepest depths of hell, grew wild and irrational. A sea of spontaneous goosebumps spread across my back. This is why people watch football, play sport. The emotional rollercoaster. The game itself is meerly a tale of emotional blackmail, but we love it. Like a drug, we come back for more, time after time. If it were all lows, we would be disheartened and quit. If it were all highs, it would be uninteresting and we would leave. But it seems to strike a balance, this game. Emotional blackmail and we love it.
Half time. As the interval came to a close I notice some of the opposition players sitting two rows behind me. They all wear the black tracksuit with the club’s crest emblazed on the chest. I turned and faced the sideline and realized: there weren’t enough seats on the bench. These players, three or four the same age as me, had to sit amongst the fans, because there weren’t enough seats on the bench.
The game restarts and a foul is won. I turn to my friend, “I’ve been to the future, this is flying over the bar.” It didn’t. 2-1. A standard free kick rolls under the keeper’s arms and into the back of the net. I had never seen a free kick go down the middle.
The place was rocking now. Similar to before the game had kicked off, an atmosphere of joy and simple happiness hung over the stadium. You couldn’t help but wear a delightful grin at that moment. I sat back in my seat and inhaled. I wanted to take in a lung-full of this wonderful atmosphere. In through my nostrils, the air filled me with an aura of delight and easy-going innocence. The game went on. But I could not focus on the game. I noticed everything but the game.
“Everything is the same”, I thought. The passion, the hunger, the desire. It’s all here and it’s all the same. Only more real. SANDEX INTERIOR PAINT is printed on the back of the player’s jerseys. There’s no commercialization here. No big business. No corporate sponsors. A local pub was advertised across the speakers before the game. “Support local business”, rang the microphone.
There are no tactics here. No 4-2-3-1,no 3-4-3 with alternative wing-backs. No sweeper keepers and false nines. No W-M system or Catenaccio. There is however, bravery. And passion. And desire. And hunger. A love for the game.
Another goal: 3-1. That should be that then. Another defensive mix-up and another pounce by the wild tiger up front. The chorus pours from the stands again. I look to the left and notice the fans that are singing: the “ultra’s”. No more intimidating ultras than a group of 9-12 year old boys. About two hundred of them, all together, all screaming, all chanting. But no one minds. An ocean of happy faces fills the stands. The ultra’s sing their chorus.
I lean forward and notice the barrier that separates me from the pitch: a white bar of rusty, corroded iron. The paint is peeling off and the metal is bent and misshaped. The stands are old and the terraces are covered by nothing more than sheds, made out of familiar corroded iron. The opposition players behind me pipe up in conversation. There is no separation. Fans and players, managers and parents. In the doldrums of lower league football, lacking in support and failing in quality, all are one. The players are fans, fans one day may become players. Older players become managers, and the younger players sit in the stands behind me.
Another goal: 3-2. The last ten minutes feel like a never ending eternity of painful agony. Nails are chewed off, refs are bombarded with abuse, and the seconds tick on ever so slowly by. The final whistle blows after four minutes of injury time, and the home side are victorious. The crowd, the ultras and the players all roar load, but at the same time breath a collective sigh of relief. They have won the derby, and march on in the Cup.
The two boys in the empty terrace across from me and to the right, join in with the chants and the cheers, the songs and the drums. The smaller boy waves his chequered flag furiously. I inhale one more breath of the cold September air. It fills my lungs and courses through my veins.
There are no tactics here. No commercialization. No big business. No corporate sponsors or wealthy owners. There is however, passion. There is bravery. And there is a love for the game. The three thousand men and women that evening have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Three birds, in formation, flew over the night’s sky. There’s beauty in simplicity.