Tag Archives: Longford Town

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.

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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.

Caught between Mick Wallace and the deep blue sea

Three years ago, flush with the enthusiasm engendered by discovering I could be made care about Waterford United, I put together the hall of shame that is Premier/First Division playoffs and the Blues’ statistically improbable contribution to it. It makes for grim reading and I re-post it here verbatim because only one thing has changed:

  • The Blues lost the first ever promotion/ relegation playoff in 1992/3, going down 5-2 on aggregate to the First Division team Monaghan United.
  • The playoff was staged in this format with minimal tweaks each subsequent year until 2003. Of the twelve playoffs, the team in the top flight only lost three times: Athlone Town in 1995/6 and the Blues in that first staging in 1992/3 and in 1999/2000 to Kilkenny City. The Blues almost managed to lose once from the First Division in 1996/7 when they were beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Dundalk.
  • There was no playoff in 2004.
  • The pattern of Premier beating First was bucked in 2005 when Dublin City beat Shamrock Rovers and restored in 2006 when Dundalk beat – you’ve guessed it – Waterford United. The Blues stayed up though thanks to FAI licencing regulations.
  • With the natural order restored, it was just the time for the Blues to buck it again, losing to First Division Finn Harps in the 2007 playoff.

The only thing that is different about this list is the the Blues lost 3-1 to Monaghan United in their next playoff appearance in 2010. So you’ll understand if I approach tomorrow night’s First Division playoff second leg against Longford Town with a degree of trepidation. This isn’t because we’re 2-0 up from the first leg, supposedly a dangerous lead. Ruud Gullit, when England scored in the opening minutes of their clash against Germany in Euro 96, suggested at half-time with the knowledge that Germany had equalised, that scoring so early was a bad thing because it made you complacent. Maybe telling Alan Shearer to miss gilt-edged chances in the opening minutes of any game to avoid ‘complacency’ explains why he was fired by Newcastle United.

No, being 2-0 up is a good thing. But it would make any failure to progress especially agonising, and it’s not just our overall record in playoffs that would give you cause for concern (although that’s a big factor). Things are very close between Waterford and Longford. They’ve already beaten us 2-0 at the RSC this season and having seen them run us ragged in the first half of the more recent clash, which Seani Maguire Waterford won 4-2, it wouldn’t be that surprising if the same were to happen again. It will be different this Friday.  Being 2-0 up changes the dynamic from a bog-standard League clash. They’ll have to attack and hopefully the Blues will be able to exploit that. The Blues have to proceed on the basis that they’ll need to score though. Management need to be brave.

So much for the micro concerns. On a macro level, this game would be enough to put the fear of God into you as the stakes are very high indeed. The prize isn’t great – the chance to play a team with lots of experience of the far stronger Premier Division. Whoever they end up playing, Dundalk will be favourites. Even the chance though is better than the alternative, the certainty of a close season of gross uncertainty as the FAI fiddle while the  First Division burns down to a seven team league, three of whom are souped up junior teams. It’s no disrespect to Wexford Youths, Mervue United and SD Galway to say that. Wexford and Mervue have both beaten Waterford twice this season. But the league table doesn’t lie – they have no hope of competing even with the modest resources of the Blues. The loser this weekend can look forward to going through an entire season to end up in another playoff this time next year. And that’s assuming there will even be a First Division to call home. No pressure, Blues.

It does not make sense!

Despite their recent travails, Waterford United lie ten points clear of Longford Town in the First Division. Yet looking at their recent record against Longford in the FAI Cup – five defeats on the bounce – you just knew the Blues were in trouble last night and so it proved. This, to quote South Park’s Johnny Cochrane in his Chewbacca defense, makes no sense. Why should professional sportsmen, hard-nosed and unsentimental, be influenced by the accumulation of history? It was a far better Longford that won most of those matches, fuelled as they were by Flancare cash. Just go out, play the game, and you’ll win.

Yet players are influenced by history. To see the proof of that, you only have to look at, well, history. Professional sportsmen, while influenced primarily by the bottom line, like to convince themselves that they are part of the team. I remember watching the Blues play Bohemians at Dalymount back in the Tommy Lynch days. Waterford weathered an early storm to snatch a tremendous 1-0 win, and at the final whistle we saw Dominic Iorfa jump on the fence to milk the acclamation of those chanting “Iorfa for Ireland!”. All good fun, and deep down no one was being fooled that this was a long-term relationship. But for that moment, Dominic Iorfa probably bought into it as well. We all feel the need to belong, and inherent in that is adopting the baggage of previous incarnations of the tribe.

So while thinking Waterford should still win on Monday, it won’t be as easy as it should be against a team that failed to get out of Division Two of the League. We all remember 1998 and 2002, events that perversely carry more charge than our more recent 19-point trouncing of them in 2004. And if the likes of Chris Konopka can’t shake off the burden of history, can you imagine what it must be like for the Waterford and Clare hurlers, all of whom will have lived through those games and most of whom will have been at them. In the GAA, such memes make a lot more sense.