A few weeks back I wrote about the underwhelming nature of the 2012 League of Ireland First Division, and as if to prove the point along come Limerick FC. This was the eleventh time I’ve graced the RSC with my presence for a proper match since the notorious Ipswich game back in 2009, and it’s the fourth time Limerick have been the visitors. It’s no disrepect to Limerick . . . who am I kidding, I’m going to be disrespectful to Limerick. It’s impossible to get excited about their visit, and when you consider that they’re the warm favourites to win the Division it shows what a drudge of a season it could be.
I had turned up to the RSC in full reporter mode, armed with pen, notepad, camera and a complete lack of shame. But one look at the teams dissuaded me of that notion. I recognised nearly as many names on the Limerick panel than that of Waterford. Not much chance of constructing a coherent narrative about how Yer Man passed the ball to Whatsisname. You’d need to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the domestic game to recognise these players. Happily I was sitting beside someone who had that – did you know that one of the linesmen used play in goal for the Blues? Unhappily that meant having to conduct some impromptu therapy for him after the trauma in Ferrycarrig last weekend – did you know it was “the single worst performance . . . ever seen against a fairly weak opponent”? It was fair to say that hopes were not high and while it was to the credit of those around me that there was lots of gallows humour as opposed to anger at a club seemingly going nowhere fast, you couldn’t get though 90 minutes of football listening to “hooray, we’ve crossed the halfway line!”
So it was just as well that the fare on the pitch wasn’t that bad. Limerick had plenty of flicks and neat touches, and there were several horrible moments where a red-and-white shirt would scoot past his Blue-clad opponent with the greatest of ease. But the Blues were keeping it tight and there was no aimless hoofing of the ball out of defence. Therefore it wasn’t that much of a surprise when Waterford, not long after hoots of delight at our first shot on target of the season, contrived to take the lead. A corner was cleared as far as Who-Are-Ya who kept his shot down and on target and when it ricocheted up to Willie John Kiely about six inches out he just managed to squeeze it in via the crossbar.
Human nature being what it is, the gaps between the japes in the stands got longer and longer as the feeling that a good performance would be enough began to be replaced with the feeling that, well, we’d like to get a result from this one. So when just before Kiely’s goal a Limerick player headed an an inswinging free wide when if he had left it the ball would have sailed straight there was lots of hysterical laughter among the faithful. When a combination of goalkeeper Packie Holden and a defender on the line contrived to keep a point-blank shot out on the stroke of half-time, there was a lot less jollity. Time was healing the Wexford wound.
But Waterford were riding their luck, and a few early substitutions looked to have changed the game for Limerick. A beautiful move led to a shot that crashed off the bar. Another move saw a Limerick forward head the ball over the bar from the middle of the goal with no-one within touching distance. Getting away with those chances, you began to dream that it might be one of those nights, but those hopes were snuffed out about midway through the half, an excellent free finally being greeted with a half-decent header for an equaliser.
The Blues were out on their feet at this point, maintaining their iron shape taking a lot out of them. It seemed that Paul O’Brien’s reluctance to tinker with the team was because he didn’t want to upset the balance that had proven such a quantum leap forward on the previous effort. Even at the time this made sense so it was a surprise when after another woodwork-shuddering effort from Limerick he brought on another forward in the shape of Seán Maguire. It would have made sense had it been a simple swap for Kiely, but it was surely folly to bring on a forward to protect a point.
This is an after-the-fact observation because events happened so quickly that you wouldn’t have had time to formulate such a thought. Maguire was barely on the pitch a couple of minutes when he raced onto a superb through-ball, rounded the goalkeeper with all the elan of a veteran and slotted the ball to the net.
What a wonderful shock, and suddenly the only folly seemed to be Pat Scully’s lucky-dip treatment of substitutions. It was fine to treat formations with such cavalier disregard when you were on top, trying different combinations of forwards to see what works throughout the season. Now that they had to chase the game, Limerick were bereft. There was only one winner in the last ten minutes, Maguire nearly contributing to a third when he found himself part of a three-on-one attack but opting to put one of his team-mates in when a more experienced striker would have been selfish and put his head down. Never mind though, in injury time the bouyed-up Blues rampaged into the box and Kiely was able to turn
like an oil tanker on a sixpence and get that third goal.
What a great night. The Blues were fortunate. Had Limerick made their dominance in the third quarter count, had either of their efforts against the woodwork gone in, had the goalie and defender not contrived to keep a certain goal out late in the first half (and Limerick were convinced it had crossed the line; it’s unlikely goal-line technology will ever extend to the RSC) then it would have been a different game. But when you think about where the Blues have come from, with a close season exodus to Cork – nice one, Drogs! – and That Result against Wexford, it was marvellous to see them completely overturn those low expectations in the course of ninety entertaining minutes. Play like this against teams not as good as Limerick throughout the season and it could be great year. Expect to lose to SD Galway next week.