Tag Archives: League of Ireland

Here we go again, we’re (not) on the road again

The SSE Airtricity League – yes, that SSE, although at least it’s not G4S – returns to the RSC tonight.

It’s probably recency bias at work, but I feel a lot better about the prospects for the First Division this year than the last couple of seasons. The creation of Galway FC plays up to one of my prejudices, i.e. that the League of Ireland would benefit from tapping into the GAA zeal for the county. It’s more exciting to be facing up to the entirety of Galway city and county than the representatives from Mervue, Salthill or Devon. Shelbourne may be a shadow of the club that won multiple trophies in the 1990’s, but I’d like to think that the endeavours of the Blues in the 1960’s and 1970’s still count for something. There are several teams in the Premier Division who are less likely to set the pulses racing than Shels, so it’s nice to have them around. And speaking of heavyweight clubs, who should we have but Shamrock Rovers! Okay, not the real Rovers, and objectively it’s a horror show that the League is reduced to this. Fully 10% of the senior clubs are now Shamrock Rovers. But subjectively, there’s something pleasing about the prospect of taking them on, even in shadow form. There’s certainly going to be some novelty value, so bring them on!

Not that you would be confident that Waterford United are going to be in any position to knock them down. The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome and, alas, that looks to be the way the Blues are going. When Stephen Henderson left by mutual consent/was sacked midway through the 2011 season, the response was to replace him internally with Paul O’Brien. Two years, Paul O’Brien left by mutual consent/was sacked and was replaced internally by Tommy Griffin. In a league where it’s nigh on impossible to buy yourself a winning team – because no one has any money – managers can make a huge difference and there was little in the second half of last season to suggest that Griffin had discovered the magic formula that likes of, say, Roddy Collins seems to have. Athlone got him, we didn’t, and look where we all are now.

I’m being unfair here. No doubt Roddy Collins or, say, Mick Cooke, doesn’t come cheap in themselves, and maybe Tommy Griffin has welded together a winning combination. Time to find out.

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The last shall be First

Come the end of the summer I had been building up a right head of steam attending Waterford United matches. But then I stopped. When the always slim chance of topping the division rode out of town, I decided to stay at home of a Friday evening with mother and child. Best to keep my powder dry until the playoffs.

Ain’t karma a bitch?

Speaking to a knowledgeable League of Ireland watcher a few weeks before the denouement in Cobh, I learned that the charge up the table of Mervue United was not a fluke. They had blossomed under Johnny Glynn and said watcher had even had a punt on them to win the whole thing at the start of the season. He had lost that bet but it showed that, in his eyes anyway, they were no mugs, and so it proved with a storming finish to pip us at the post. Fair play to them – the bastards.

In fairness to all concerned at the club the damage had been at the start of the season. There was a point where finishing ahead of Finn Harps and Wexford Youth seemed unlikely, so for the Blues to finish as high as they did was creditable. And while I would never claim that not reaching the playoffs is a good thing, even with our lamentable record there, there were positives at the time in a way there were not last season. It has been an exciting season in the First Division, certainly more so than any of the grand leagues around Europe have been. The relegation of Shelbourne means that we could look forward to a fresh face in the division, one that (dare I say as much) has a proper pedigree attached to it. Longford or Mervue would probably have a better stab at nobbling at winning the promotion playoff, thanks to our lamentable record there, which might see another face at the RSC next season. Okay, Bray never get relegated and UCD wouldn’t add much to the gaiety of nations but they were nice thoughts while they lasted. Factor in how the sword of Damocles that was the Stephen Henderson case no longer loomed over our heads, and it was possible to view another season in the eight-team First Division with a degree of good cheer.

How naive it would be though to assume that these matters would be decided on the pitch. For the last week we’ve had the astonishing possibility that Mervue would win the playoff over Longford but not be able to take their place against the team that finished bottom of the Premier Division because Mervue were being subsumed, along with the Salthill Devon and the supporters of the former Galway United, into a new Galway FC outfit. There’s a part of me that would have relished this outcome, emphasising as it would the sheer incompetence of the FAI. But let’s not be completely nihilistic about this. Let’s hope Longford overcome Bray for the reasons I mentioned earlier – a First Division with two new members from the Pale would be a much more interesting prospect than the culchiefest we have now.

(Of course, as things stand there are only going to be six teams in the First Division next season. Having spoken to the League of Ireland watcher about it, I can understand the decision to rationalise the teams in Galway. Even if Mervue and Salthill were willing to field teams alongside the phoenix of Galway United, putting out three teams from one pool of talent in Galway would lead to all three of them being weakened, potentially fatally. Enough with the nihilism. Let’s assume the FAI will pull a couple of Cobh-shaped rabbits from the hat for next year’s First Division, right? Right?!)

For Waterford, the priority for 2014 is clear – sort out the manager. I’ve checked back through the archives and am as relieved as the FAI over Mervue not reaching the promotion/relegation playoff to discover that I didn’t leave myself any hostages to fortune with respect to Roddy Collins, although I’m sure I would have had some snarky thoughts when he was appointed manager of Athlone Town. There’s something deeply irritating about his particular brand of bluster, but there’s no denying the turnaround he has wrought for Athlone, going from 29 points in 2012  to 55 points in 2013  (for your own sanity, don’t dwell on how many points the Blues got in 2012 when set against how many were enough for Athlone to win the division in 2013). In a division where it’s difficult to differentiate between teams by transfer fees and wage bills, because there are no transfer fees and no one pays much in the way of wages in the first place, a manager who knows what they are doing is worth their weight in gold. Perhaps Tommy Griffin is that man. The Blues only picked up three wins in the eleven games when Paul O’Brien was manager. Even a modest improvement on that might have been enough to have secured promotion. Big decisions ahead – both for the Blues and the FAI.

Are We Better Off In The First?

(originally published in the Waterford United match day programme for the Athlone Town game on 26 July 2013)

In a previous episode I made separate references to Liverpool and Ipswich Town, or Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town as they were known at the time. If you were hoping for a page devoid of references to the game across the water, look away now because what follows is a twofer with references to both clubs, and Colchester and Braintree thrown in for good measure. It’s like Little Britain here!

Spoiler warnings out of the way, my story commences at Anfield for the clash of Liverpool and Ipswich Town in the Worthington Cup on 4th December 2002. Now there’s a bit of geekery that would put Brian Kennedy to shame. A work colleague, who hailed from Braintree in Essex, was there to support his team, i.e. Ipswich. If I saw him now I might give him stick for not supporting Braintree Town. But I digress . . . at half-time we met up in the Kop and he mentioned how he had forgotten how difficult it was to keep tabs on the progress of the Tractor Boys after they had spent the previous two years in the Premier League, the first improbably going toe-to-toe for the whole season with Liverpool and Leeds United in trying to qualify the Champions League, and the second seeing them plunge back down to the bottom and eventually through the trapdoor after a last day walloping at Anfield. Now they were back in what was then called the First Division, today’s Championship, and coverage was thinner than Wayne Rooney’s hair.

This surprised me, and not just because no-one would ever accuse the media of not covering Liverpool in enough details (with the recent shenanigans surrounding Luis Suarez, less coverage would have been nice). It had only been a few years earlier that I had read a magazine called 90 Minutes which, when you consider it had no public service remit like RTÉ or the BBC, covered lower leagues in admirable depth. When even a club with a distinguished pedigree like Ipswich found itself being sidelined because they were out of the big top, you know there was something wrong with the football circus.

It was an article in 90 Minutes that came to mind as I watched the recent game between the Blues and Salthill Devon. This article concerned Colchester United, Ipswich’s near-neighbours in bumpkindom (a ‘bumpkin’ is the English equivalent of a culchie) and the belief among Colchester fans that their relegation from the Football League in 1990 was a blessing in disguise. Having spent several years sliding ever closer to the Division Four basement, it was almost a relief to be relegated. They were completely overpowered for the teams they were now facing in the Vauxhall Conference – apologies to the marketing suits of Blue Square Bet, but I’m of an age where the Conference will forever be sponsored by Vauxhall – and their fans thrilled to the experience of going to games expecting to win rather than hoping or despairing.

As I waited for the Salthill game to kick off, the memories of the previous week against Sligo Rovers were still fresh, where the Blues gave it their best but were never looked like causing an upset. If Sligo had taken any of the string of chances they had in the first ten minutes it could well have been a massacre. It wasn’t going to be like that against Salthill, right? And in retrospect it was even better than I had hoped as the Blues emerged victorious after a game as ridiculously entertaining as the game against the Bit O’Red had been a damp squib. Great goals, goalkeeping clangers, defensive howlers, open goals missed, brilliant finishes, attempted lobs from the halfway line – it had it all, and was exciting right up to the final whistle. When you consider some of the dross at Anfield for which I’ve forked out the best part of €50 over the years, this had been a bargain at a multiple of the admission price.

And that brings us back, in a typically meandering fashion, to the fate of Colchester United. Their fans had thoroughly enjoyed their time in the lower leagues, dishing out hidings to the teams at the bottom of the table while having ding-dong battles with their rivals at the top. It’s not like that for the Blues – the struggle to put Salthill away would tell you that – but we’re certainly looking at the flip side of Colchester’s situation, i.e. would there be much pleasure to be had in being in the Premier Division, containing so many teams who are firmly entrenched? We could look forward to some fearsome beatings and victories would be as common as a British winner of Wimbledon. In the First Division we have a genuinely exciting league where three-quarters of the participants have serious hopes of promotion and we can expect to have better than a 50% rate of success. With all that in mind, are we not better off where we are?

Time for a short lesson in media studies. If a headline poses a particularly provocative question (“Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the universe?” “Will the oceans freeze over?” “Have the Kilkenny hurlers lost the plot?”) the answer is invariably NO. Yes, we would most likely get stuffed if we got promoted, but we want to be up there with the big boys. Everyone does. If Salthill Devon were given the chance to be parachuted into the Premier Division, they take it without a second thought and the prospect of even more carnage be damned. It is the nature of the sports fan to always want more. Should we get promoted it would be absolutely fantastic – and be forgotten come the start of the new season as we moan that such-and-such isn’t pulling his weight the referee must be blind oh come on you can’t miss from THERE . . . are we better off in the First Division? Back to the drawing board with that idea.

Confessions of a Newbie Blue

(originally published in the Waterford United match day programme for the Salthill Devon game on 8th June 2013)

It started with abuse. Never thought that it would come to this. Not coming from a ‘soccer’ household didn’t stop me falling head-over-heels in love with Liverpool FC, and it was that love which saw me spend five years in the city in the mid-Noughties, picking up a season ticket-owning wife along the way. So it was that my in-laws were in town when I was offered tickets for the match against Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town. I was tickled by the idea of my father-in-law, a man who had stood on the Kop when Liverpool famously defeated St-Etienne in the 1977 European Cup, seeing what it was like at the coal face of the game.  I posted a rather dismissive article about the experience on my blog, and even though I brought my brother-in-law to see the Blues play a proper fixture against Limerick in the league a few weeks later – how would a veteran of those two Champions League semi-final triumphs over Chelsea view such an event? – this didn’t necessarily indicate a sudden yearning to worship at the cathedral that is the RSC.

Then I noticed a few comments on the Ipswich post. Very abusive comments. It seemed improbable that these people just happened upon the blog simultaneously, so I did some digging and found someone had posted a link on a fan forum where the comments about me made those posted on the blog look like the work of Ban Ki-moon. There was one chap who exhorted people to give me a break, that at least I had shown an interest in the Blues and had taken the time to express an opinion on the experience. But for everyone else . . . oh boy.  As far as they were concerned the ninth circle of Hell was reserved for barstoolers like me.

It is probably to the credit of my lone defender on the forum that my reaction was not to wash my hands of the whole affair, but instead to adopt a stubborn attitude that I’d show the rest of them what it was to be a Waterford man, godammit! I went along to see the Blues play UCD and lo! bumped into an old school friend who only too happy to show me the ropes with respect to the League of Ireland scene, something I hadn’t been clued into since the days of Tommy Lynch, and I’ve been a frequent (if not regular) visitor to the RSC ever since.

The reason I go through all this biographical detail is not out of a sense of narcissism. Okay, not entirely out of a sense of narcissism. It’s to show how tricky it is to get into the world of the League of Ireland supporter. Supporting Liverpool was a doddle, and that wasn’t because they were winning all round them at the time. And no, I’m not going to beat myself up about that. I’m sure most committed supporters of the domestic game also follow events cross-channel. I was once on a flight back from Liverpool and one of my fellow passengers could claim over 300 visits to Anfield. Clearly a good Red, but also a good Blue as demonstrated by his continued presence in the RSC. The reason I bring up how I came to be a proper supporter is that there were so many places where I could have said it’s not worth the bother. The Ipswich game was deathly dull. The Facebook app that allowed you to show what sports grounds you’d been to might not have existed (that’s the reason my brother-in-law was happy to accompany me to the Limerick game). The friendly forumite might not have been round to give me a vision of a welcoming RSC as opposed to unthinking keyboard warriors. I might not have even met that old school friend who was able to give me something familiar upon which to cling while I acclimatised myself to this slightly intimidating new world. In short, there are so many places that it could have gone wrong. One wonders how many people have set out on the journey only to fall into a similar pothole along the way.

It’s easy supporting a team in the English Premier League. There are millions of people around the world claiming undying love of Liverpool who have never even been to Europe, let alone Anfield. It’s hard to follow the local game. If someone were to ask me why they should go, I’d struggle to come up with a good sales pitch. I enjoy the live game, but you could just as easily go to a junior game for free if all you wanted was to see a good kick-around. €10 represents excellent value for an evening’s entertainment, but the moment it comes out of your mouth you feel like underselling it (“it’s only the price of a few pints”). The commitment of the players to winning even a dead rubber and their honest endeavour at all times is a sight to behold, but despite the abuse heaped on multi-millionaire footballers and their remoteness from the fans, there’s very few of them of whom it can’t be said they give their best too. Don’t ever ask me to be a salesman.

What keeps me coming back is a renewed sense of that which is the last refuge of the scoundrel – patriotism. Waterford city has suffered grievously in recent years, whether it be the depredations of unemployment or even the stripping of the very city status that has been at the heart of its identity for the best part of a millennium. I’m not going to win any converts to the cause in this programme. Something gives me an inkling that everyone reading it is onside already. Either that or looking for a cure for insomnia. In the end though, we have to hang together. The alternative doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Wash, rinse, repeat

There’s not much to say directly about the resignation of Paul O’Brien as manager of Waterford United. Nine goals in eleven games spoke volumes as to the futility of the efforts of the Blues this season, and the only interesting observation that can be made about the manner and timing of his resignation is that he had offered his resignation before the Wexford Youths game at the weekend. I had recently suggested to my neighbour that the first 45 minutes of the game against Longford Town were, despite a fine goal expertly finished off by Michael Coady, the worst I had ever experienced at a sporting venue. “The Cobh game was worse” was his world-weary reply. When you can’t even say there has been entertainment in defeat, it’s time to move on.

But where do the Blues go now? I’ve being banging the drum for the pointlessness of the First Division for a while now, but as we face into a season of no hope I realise now that it’s even worse than I initially thought. While Dundalk, our conquerors in the promotion playoff back in November, have been able to splash the cash on a heavyweight of the domestic game in Stephen Kenny and sail serenely into the top half of the Premier Division, Waterford couldn’t even hang to Gary Dempsey, let alone Seán Maguire. I can’t say with certainty that Longford have been able to hang on to their players, although the presence of Keith Gillespie and his never-ending talking point for fathers of young children at the RSC (“did you know he played for Man Utd?” “Yes, you told me that last time Longford were here. And the time before that, and before that . . .”) suggests there is some money behind them even to this day. For the rest of the teams in the First Division, it’s a question of cobbling together a squad of junior players at the start of the season, bereft of any knowledge of how these players might fare as a team or how they might cope with the step-up to the senior game – and it is a step-up, despite any jaundiced impression I might give to the contrary – and seeing how they get on. A couple of years ago the Blues were able to supplement such a squad with a known talent like they did with Liam Kearney. No one of that stature these days at the RSC, and it’s showing.

So far, so rehashed (not that that’s ever stopped me in the past). What’s new in the aftermath of O’Brien’s resignation is the feeling that there’s nothing to be done about. Our recent bête noire, Mervue United, operate under similar restrictions and it looks like they’ve gotten it right for the 2013 season. Good for them, and amidst this moaning about the unfairness of the system it shouldn’t be forgotten that everyone else in the division has the same problem. However, the Blues are now locked into a scenario where things can’t get any better. They’re committed to the squad assembled in the close season and that’s that. It would take a genius of Alex Ferguson-proportions to transform them into contenders, and while he is an unrealistic option even the realistic ones – Pete Mahon’s name has been mentioned – don’t look that, well, realistic, especially with the Shelbourne job up for grabs. Who would want to come here when they can go there?

I’ve argued before that the solution to such doom-laden prognostications is for a one-division League of Ireland. At least if there’s nothing to play for you can look forward to the visits of the top teams every now and again. Things are getting so doom-laden for the Blues though (and losing last night to Limerick in the League Cup won’t help; another potential visit from a top team knocked on the head, and the manner of defeat was grim as well) that I’m beginning to wonder whether anything can jolt the club out of the seemingly terminal decline. In the current League of Ireland, they don’t come much bigger than Sligo Rovers. If the city can’t get the blood up for their visit on Saturday week, the counsels of despair could become deafening.

Is it cowardly to pray for rain?*

It’s the opening day of the League of Ireland season, and any gallows humour about summer soccer was looking particularly appropriate this morning as granite skies frowned upon the RSC. Never in the course of blogging have I thought of myself as some kind of uberfan  – I did have pretensions to having the definitive Waterford GAA website that would attract eager readers from around the globe but that was a loooong time ago – but surely even anyone above casual about their support would relish the first game of a brand new season, laden as it is with possibility. That excludes me because the thought of huddling in a freezing stand slowly getting the consumption filled me with dread. I was hoping that the heavens would open and any thoughts of going to the game could be banished by the glow of a blazing home fire.

As it happens, the weather has cleared up beautifully, so it’s off to see the might of Finn Harsp I go – guilty conscience in tow. Come on the Blues.

*The title of the post refers to a comment made by a ‘viewer’ of the Guardian’s over-by-over coverage of the deciding Test in the 2002 Ashes.

Not-so-great expectations

The Waterford United squad for 2013 is beginning to come together at around the same time that the Waterford hurling squad for 2013 is beginning to resemble Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Having already elaborated on reasons to be cheerful for Waterford, it’s appropriate to explain why I’m feeling the same way about the Blues. This is especially noteworthy in the context of the Jeremiads undergone at the end of last season, and I can’t pretend that I know whether any of the players that the Blues have signed are any good. However, this is the first time in the three years that I’ve kept tabs on events in the RSC that we can look forward to a season where there is no obvious promotion contender – had we managed to hang onto Seáni Maguire then I’m certain that that team would have been the Blues. While one must assume that the two Galway teams and the new arrivals from Cobh, who surely have had a few potential issues waved away in the rush to get someone, anyone, into the First Division, are going to be whipping boys, it would be tricky to pick a top two from the other five teams. The thought that this could be a long, topsy-turvy season is an exciting one, and something to applaud in a world where people don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with Barcelona stomping all over and sundry in Spain.

Thinking further on this, it helps that I don’t have high expectations for either Waterford team. I remember when the hurlers were crap, so it’s a case of easy come, easy go. I remember when the Blues were pretty good, when the likes of Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians were regular visitors to Kilcohan Park, but I didn’t ever go to the matches so I don’t have a benchmark for what a quality regular match day experience should be like. And it puts a bit of context into the poverty-stricken attendances at the RSC. In my very first post about Waterford United on this site, I noted that there is:

no shortage of ‘soccer people’ in Waterford to follow the Blues yet they don’t seem to think they are worth following, so why should someone who has not a single soccer player anywhere in his family worry about the local League of Ireland team.

And as we saw against Dundalk, they are out there. There must be a few of them of an older vintage who feel aggrieved that their club is so low and can’t bear the thought of going in to see them when they can remember better times. As recently as 1986 Kilcohan played host to a team managed by a man who would go on to the win the World Cup. And no, in case you don’t click on the link that’s not some canine World Cup, that’s the World Cup as won by Aime Jaquet, manager of Bordeaux when the Blues played them in European Cup Winners Cup. It’s understandable that some people who would identify themselves as Blues would not feel up to the prospect of going to the RSC when the best you can hope for is drawing some heavyweight in the FAI Cup. Okay, you could argue that it’s because they stay away that we can’t aspire to the top table any more, but despite what Alan Quinlan might have us think when he blithers on about a fan’s “responsibility“, it’s not unreasonable for a supporter to do a Popeye and say he can only stands so much and he can stands no more. There’s an entertaining season in prospect in the First Division – but only if you have a particular concept of what constitutes ‘entertainment’.

Closing the circle of expectations, what are the hurlers chances in 2013? They’re going to lose every game. We were stuffed by Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork in each of the respective NHL games last year and there are no signs that is going to any different this year. We edged out Galway by the minimum, and while it could be argued that they will have their eyes focused on next September they won’t want a repeat of their buttock-clenchingly tense relegation joust with Dublin so I’d expect them to take it seriously. And then there’s Clare against whom we start our season on Sunday. All-Ireland Under-21 champions Clare. Munster Minor champions Clare. Waterford Crystal Cup winners Clare. We are, in short, screwed. Expect a divergence in the tone of commentary about the hurlers and the Blues in 2013.

He’s soccer crazy, he’s soccer mad

Always nice to get some compliments from whatever source:

Thanks very much, gormacha, but surely I didn’t use the ‘s’ word that much, did I?

Oh. Four times in the first paragraph. That’s a lot.

The sensitivity of supporters of association football to the name of their sport is a curious phenomenon. At first glance you might be inclined to think that this is a reflection of a chip on the shoulder on the part of followers of the League of Ireland, resentful that the biggest sport in the world is playing second fiddle to a sport in Ireland that calls itself ‘football’ but is really catchthrowpunchfootball. But there are two problems with this analysis. At the risk of looking like this is an exercise in mutual backslapping, anyone who has read gormacha’s posts on BTID would know not that they are not a bitter, resentful person. Secondly, my wife feels the same way. When I speak of gaelic football as ‘football’, she will arch an eyebrow and say “I presume you mean that other sport and not proper football?” It’s interesting to see how even someone from a culture where football is totally dominant gets irked when it is referred to as anything other than football and other sports steal the title.

What explains this seeming over-sensitivity? I think it’s down to the dominance of another culture – that of America. We’re saturated with American culture, and a big part of American culture is their version of football. Americans are very proud of gridiron, the rootinest tootinest shootinest sport on the planet against which all others are hopelessly lily-livered, mind-numbingly low-scoring, or – in the case of soccer – both. The fact that no-one else cares does not shake their messianic confidence that American football will take over the world, and it antagonises the heck out of association football fans, who feel the need to confront any misuse of the word ‘football’ wherever they find it, whether it be bombastic Yanks or Irish people who view soccer as the garrison game.

For my part, I never set out to make a Nationalists (note the capital ‘N’) point by referring to association football as soccer on this blog. I made a conscious decision that the blog would exclusively refer to gaelic football as ‘football’ and association football as ‘soccer’ because it was a GAA blog. References to association football as ‘football’ would be found in the columns for Shankly Gates because they were not, strictly speaking, of this blog. It wasn’t meant to be a political statement.

Okay, maybe it was a little bit.

But that neat dividing line is breaking down. Reading back through the post after gormacha’s comment, the repeated use of ‘soccer’ came across as forced. In my private life I will effortlessly swing between football, gaelic football and soccer according to the circumstances. Conversations in Liverpool would be pretty short if I used ‘soccer’ all the time. Why shouldn’t that be reflected in my blog? So from now on, I’ll be referring to ‘soccer’ only in the GAA-related posts. I’ll just have to believe that people will have the wit to realise the distinction without being prompted. Oh dear, this is going to cause trouble, isn’t it?

W(h)ither the Blues?

A few weeks back I overheard one of the Waterford United Supporters Club grandees suggest that we’d be better off finishing third in the division. This was predicated on there only being one First Division playoff tie with the team who finished second having home advantage, much as we did against Monaghan United two years ago. Quite apart from an instinctive recoil from how well that one turned out, the thought that Waterford fans would end the season on a high by bringing a couple of hundred of the truly committed to make some noise was an attractive one. And while it’s always hard to quantify the impact the crowd can have on the game, there was only one winner last Friday in that department – Dundalk. Despite a crowd of nearly 3,000 people at the RSC all the noise was made by the visitors, and that wasn’t just because they happened to win. It was true right from the off and while there are few clubs that get my hackles up more than Dundalk , due to their remarkable record of spawning trophies back in the day and for perpetuating the win-at-all-costs philosophy of Dermot Keely that did so much damage to the League during his reign of terror, you couldn’t begrudge their fans on the night. This was a battle for their existence, and they were entitled to be euphoric at their deliverance.

Of course, there was an existential element to Waterford United’s struggle the other night, and while recent results and that big crowd made you think it was highly unlikely that the Blues would fold, a feeling allegedly confirmed by chairman John O’Sullivan over the weekend, our future is still very much in limbo. Seven teams are preparing for next season’s First Division with no word of any replacements. Even if we could anticipate the FAI pulling a (say) Cobh Ramblers-shaped rabbit from the hat, there’s no chance they’ll be up to the standards that would be necessary to prepare a club for taking on either the Premier Division for an entire season or even a Premier Division team in a play-off. I didn’t feel so bad on the night, not having properly gone through the hell of playoff misery before and being able to congratulate myself on sportingly applauding the Dundalk players off at the end – don’t laugh, self-actualisation matters. It was only when I got home and crunched some stats that I realised the gulf between the two divisions, i.e. of the seven teams in next year’s First Division, Finn Harps haven’t been in the top flight since 2009 and the Blues and Longford Town haven’t been there since 2008. it’s one thing to be miles off where you want to be. It’s another to arrive and the door and find yourselves locked out.

Before John O’Sullivan’s interview, and it has to be noted that this interview lies in the realms of the unconfirmed, I would have said that the Blues needed to accept our lot as a First Division and go amateur. Sully seems to have changed his tune if the quotes attributed to him in the link above are to be believed, and as a supporter of long-standing he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t cling to dreams of frequent four-figure attendances for the visits of Shamrock Rovers and Derry City. For me though, there has to be arealisation that the powers-that-be don’t really care about us. We’ve cut our cloth to measure to several years now and seen clubs like the Shams, Cork City, Derry City, Shelbourne and Drogheda United, all of whom wreaked far greater havoc with their bankruptcy events than the Blues ever did, breeze back into the Premier Division after minimal banishment periods. To compound the sense of grievance, I’m going to predict that heaven and earth will be moved to accommodate Dundalk – that is, assistance over and above giving them a play-off chance despite finishing rock-bottom of the table. The last thing the League wants is another situation like Monaghan, and their commitment to a 12-team Premier division is such that they’ll consult the 12 teams of the Premier Division before doing anything. So while completely understanding the yearning to have those big crowds at the RSC, the reality is that there’s only a hardcore of 500 or so who are willing to trudge through the turnstiles for the likes of Wexford Youths and Mervue United. About the best we can hope for now is for the return of the aforementioned Cobh, which would at least contain a reasonable chance of a derby feeling to the four matches a year we’d be playing against them.

All this will probably be dismissed as sour grapes, that I’d have been saying none of this had we beaten Dundalk. And I’ll admit to feeling a little bitter over the way things have panned out. I wrote before the play-offs about how unfair the system is and the issues I raised in that post are not going to be wished away by ad hominem attacks. But having got the bitterness out of my system, we have to play the hand that has been dealt us. Far from being negative about it all, it’s time to accentuate the positive. Relish the derbies with Wexford. Eagerly anticipate ding-dong battles with Longford. Feel satisfaction in playing with clubs that don’t go bankrupt at the drop of a hat. Stop chasing fans who are never going to come back except in a fantasy future where every game is winner-takes-all. Gee, it was all the GAA’s fault after all! If they won’t do right by us, at least we can do right by ourselves.

Waterford United 1-1 Longford Town (Agg 3-1)

F*** off home, Longford Town
To the place, you belong
It’s a s****hole, in the Midlands
F*** off home, Longford Town

Oh, the seductive call of being able to belong, to be part of something bigger than yourself. Wrap yourself in the flag. Clasp yourself to the bosom of the tribe. Hopping up and down among amidst the Waterford United Ultras while singing the chant above (to the tune of Take Me Home, Country Roads) brought back happy memories of European nights spent on the Kop. That may sound like hyperbole, and it’s entirely correct to note that there’s a difference between a crowd  of 44,000 and 1,200 (or 1,198, to be precise). On the other hand, you could get to know every one of the people at the RSC if you were so inclined. Much easier to belong to a tribe that size.

And yet, it would be a terrible idea to allow myself to be sucked in too deep. Before the game my Ultra friend texted me to say he was a nervous wreck. Oh come on, I thought. We’re 2-0 up. Stop borrowing trouble. Yet by the time we were ready for kickoff I began to fret as well. Failure was not an option, and in the first few minutes it was clear Longford were up for it and, more worryingly, Waterford were letting thoughts like ‘failure is not an option’ get under their skin. A series of early corners were mostly the product of hesitant defending and clearances from Packie Holden in the goal that were more slaps than punches. God knows how it would have been had the Blues not scored with their very first attack. But they did, my brother getting to see Sean Maguire strut his stuff. Catching Longford on the break, he left his marker for dead and fired a low shot across the bows of the Longford keeper. It was a great effort from a narrow angle, especially with his left foot, and the ball pinged back out to the onrushing Peter Higgins to decisively rifle the ball to the net.

Marvellous, and looking back it was game over. Longford had one decent opportunity midway through the second half when a cross flying across the face of goal was dying to be nudged in, and did eventually score through Alan Kirby right at the end of the 90, but otherwise they didn’t threaten much and looked a shadow of the team that threatened at one stage in the season to run away with the division, usurping Limerick’s destiny. The fact that Waterford overhauled them in the second half of the season gives credence to the notion in baseball that the most likely team in playoffs is not the one with the better record through the entire season, although Waterford had that too, but the team with the better record in the latter stages of the season, Waterford being more than eight points better on the measure. Longford were always going to struggle in the face of that, and they did.

That’s all very wise after the event though. It didn’t feel like that at the time as my worrywart friend, who somehow finds the headspace to be a big Liverpool fan as well, noted that they needed to find inspiration from a team coming from three goals down. Yeah, a Liverpool supporter would know nothing about that. It only takes seconds to score one and then the remaining time to get the other two so it was sensible to remain on high alert.

Still, it wasn’t very likely and you felt all in your head that all Waterford had to do as keep their shape and stay aware of the possibility of a goal on the break, and they did both with admirable calm – that goal really had brutally affected the shape of the tie. While Longford had the lion’s share of the possession they were failing to create much in the way of chances with Waterford content to put each ball into row Z, with John Frost being particularly adept at this. Now, that may be only because Frosty is the only player I truly recognise on this team but it was part of a pattern of Waterford comfort and Longford discomfort and while each side had a decent chance with headers, Gary Dempsey heading over and Noel Havery (it says here) doing the same before half-time when either would have scored had they just kept it on target, Waterford kept it tighter than a Scottish drum.

Early in the second half any sense of comfort was badly damaged in the space of a few blood-curdling minutes. Paul Phelan really should have buried any Istanbul-inspired hopes of a Longford comeback when he side-footed a cross shot wide after a marvellous break from the Blues. Then Longford finally managed to get in behind the defence and Seamus Long lunged at the attacker on the edge of the penalty area leading to his third red card from Keith Callanan in four games. He was very hard done a few weeks back when given a second yellow for a phantom handball against Longford, and I’ve already written about the oddball behaviour of the fourth official against Mervue that proved so damaging to Seamus Long’s prospect of playing 90 minutes that evening. But here, he probably got it right, especially as Longford would have been particularly aggrieved to have only had a yellow card for preventing a probable goal-scoring chance. Reverse the roles and we’d have all been baying for red. So while I was happy to join the rewriting of Take Me Home – what a cracking chant! – to suggest that Callanan’s home lay in McDonald’s on the Cork Road (he’s rather portly, in case you don’t know), he wouldn’t have had to be explaining himself to the referee’s assessor for this decision.

So having survived the free, which was so awful that it would have cleared the nets behind the goal at Walsh Park, the notion of catching Longford on the break was an unlikely one. Now we would have to defend with eight men and hope Sean Maguire could work some magic on his own up front. Now was the turn of our number 7, who I think was Peter Keegan but mortifyingly I can’t tell you for sure, to come into his own. Thomas Crawley down the left was clearly Longford’s main threat and Keegan/number 7 marshalled him brilliantly, sticking to Crawley like glue and never lunging in recklessly. Seamus Long, take note. The Blues did survive a couple of scares, once when another ball over the top ended up with two defenders sandwiching the attacker and the ref mysteriously deciding that was a free out, and another when Crawley managed to evade Keegan only for his lethal cross shot to evade all Longford players as well. But once the game entered the final quarter and the mind began to tell your soul that more time had elapsed in the second half than was left, the atmosphere gradually relaxed. And it was ace. Amazingly a chant for everyone to stand up if they loved the Blues got everyone on their feet. Urbs Intact Manet Waterfordia is right. As with the city, it’s all about belonging.

The presence of Sean Maguire did put a crimp on Longford’s attacking ability, and he should have put the gloss on the night when he jinked his way past the stretched Longford defence only to have his shot well saved by the goalie. And there was time for a mild scare when Longford’s possession finally paid dividends, a cross from the right which could have been touched in by a succession of attackers and defenders was given that final touch by Alan Kirby. For a moment you calculated that Longford now didn’t need a goal every 80 seconds of the four minutes of injury team but one every 120 seconds. Who was I calling a worrywort? But it said much about how improbable everyone knew that to be when the announcement of Alan Kirby as the scorer led to a ripple of acclamation rather than abuse, and it took only one more failed attack for the mathematics of a comeback to move from the improbable to the impossible.

It’s a pity that I have to bash this out in the shadow of a playoff against Dundalk on Tuesday, so the feeling of euphoria has faded pretty quickly. I couldn’t help remembering how the joy of a spectacular comeback win against Shelbourne in the last game of the 2009 regular season as cruelly obliterated by a 3-1 one loss to Monagan at the RSC a mere three days later. Still, to be part of what a more experienced Blue called the “the best atmosphere in years at the rsc” is something to be cherished. Success next Friday would trump even that.