(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.