Where Everybody Knows Your Name
by Shane Murphy
(First published in the August 2011 Athlone Town match programme)
Athlone visit the RSC tonight for the second time this season. On opening night, both clubs’ aspirations were high with bright hopes of a
successful season. Now that we enter the third round of fixtures, the dreams of both sets of fans have been somewhat tempered. And yet, a
bunch of diehards will still travel from the midlands tonight. True supporters who will brave the 200 mile round trip with memories of the past and hopes for the future. Any League of Ireland fan can recall undertaking similar trips. Win, lose or draw, they will take some story or other from the night as well as probably a bag of chips and maybe a stop-off for a pint somewhere along the way.
The away trip is one of the great pleasures (and often the worst pain) of being a football fan. I’ve found over the years that a lot of people have a warped vision of away days – as if it’s all booze and knuckledusters like something out of Green Street. I have to smirk at how far off the mark that is every now and again – when Finn Harps fans are offering you free sandwiches or when there are twelve fans on a bus singing “The Hucklebuck”. Having just come back from yet another semi-final defeat for Waterford’s hurlers, I haven’t changed my opinion that there is much more of a drinking culture in Gaelic games. Like that line from D’Unbelievables, GAA games usually involve “getting a good run at the day” with buses to Thurles resounding to the clinking of bottles while throw-in at Croke Park is likely to be delayed because half of Hill 16 are still in Quinn’s or the Blind Ref. League of Ireland trips are more often about hurrying out of work early, beating the Friday traffic and maybe getting to the ground in time for one quick pint with friends and some banter with fans of your opponents.
The routine for each away ground is well-established. Kick-off at 7.45, try to arrive by 7. For nearly every ground, there’s either a clubhouse or a nearby bar for something to eat and drink after a long journey. It’s often about a cup of tea or chicken soup, maybe a MonDog, but very far from the Green Street image. For all the rivalry between the Blues and Cork City, a pre-match visit to the Horseshoe generates as friendly an atmosphere as you could imagine with both sets of fans mingling and discussing the match politely (even if you’re really fighting back the urge to say “we’re going to hammer ye and here’s why…”). And Ferrycarrig takes it to a whole new extreme with its wine bar and Italian restaurant overlooking the pitch. A trip to Tolka Park usually involves popping into Fagan’s for a pint or some food with Bertie sitting at the end of the bar. St Pat’s means McDowell’s, Monaghan has the Bagster Lounge. I can’t ever recall anything approaching a row developing in any of these pubs or clubhouses on match night. Travelling fans are made to feel incredibly welcome in places like the Derry City Social Club or the clubhouse in Drom. Often, it’s a case of meeting up with a friend from a rival club for some peacetime talks before the war commences at a quarter to eight. There’s generally an empathy and mutual respect between League of Ireland fans borne of being in a minority in the country and being viewed with bemusement by the rest of the population. It’s a bit like the old Cheers theme tune: “You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same”.
Some of the trips have changed a lot over the years. It used to be about road maps and traffic bottlenecks; now it’s SAT NAVs and motorways. The service station at Crookstown was a regular stop-off on the way to matches in Dublin. Now it’s a two hour cruise with no need for a break. Athlone have moved from the (pre) historic St Mel’s to the much more impressive, modern Lissywoollen stadium. It’s a ground I like visiting even if we’d all prefer if a lot more of the 2500 seats were filled at every match. One of the best things about the new ground is the club bar or recreation room under the stand. Each time we go to the Athlone Town Stadium, we admit to our jealousy of that set-up. It’s simple, but homely with all sorts of memorabilia on the walls to remind you of the history of the League’s oldest club. While at least an hour or two has been shaved off the journey to the midlands from the haul it used to be, an away match is still about an eight hour round trip from leaving Waterford to returning home so it’s a great pleasure to be able to sit back in the clubhouse before the match and again at half time for a cup of tea, a bottle of beer or some soup on one of the cold nights. I don’t think I’d have made it through our first trip there on a subzero Good Friday a few years ago without the shelter of that room at half time! It’s a great addition to the travel schedule – Waterford, Kilkenny, Durrow, Portlaoise, Tullamore, Athlone, bar under the stand. I’m not sure if it has a name yet – maybe the Rod de Khors Lounge would be appropriate.
It’s a shame such a nice set-up as Lissywoollen hasn’t been frequented by bigger crowds yet. It’s a ground made for glory nights in front of huge attendances, but that hasn’t happened so far. Athlone, of course, are our Notts County – the oldest club in the League established in 1887 and having been the first non-Dublin club in the League upon their entry in 1922. We had our “6 in 8”; Athlone’s best days were packed into four incredible years at the start of the ‘80s. Under Turlough O’Connor, they won two League Championships and three League Cups in the space of four seasons. A little earlier, in 1975, they famously held AC Milan to a 0-0 draw in the UEF A Cup. Actually, it was the Rossoneri who held Athlone to a draw as Jonathan Minnock missed one of the most notorious penalties in Irish football history. In a scenario remarkably similar to that of Shels v Deportivo in 2004, the second leg was still goalless after an hour before the Italians (with a backroom staff including Giovanni Trapattoni and Cesare Maldini) netted three times in the closing stages.
Contrast those heady days with the club’s recent history – Athlone have been in the First Division since 1996 and haven’t had a top half finish in a decade. Waterford fans can empathise with that condition: the glory days of old, the disappointing attendances, but also the unbending support of a core of diehard fans. Athlone have an independent fan club called Mad As Cootes named after the football club’s exquisitely monikered founding father Orlando Coote Esquire who first publicised the establishment of the club with an advert in the Westmeath Independent 124 years ago. Never has a supporters club been more suitably named than this one as it takes a special breed of fan to stick with their club so loyally through thick and thin. When we set off on our next away trip to Monaghan (a place where we haven’t won in ten years and that requires a particularly awkward journey), most of our friends and family will think we’re all as mad as coots. They don’t know the simple pleasures of the away trip – driving through villages you otherwise wouldn’t have heard of, having some banter with the local fans, spotting some famous character like Tom from Cork, chicken soup on the coldest of nights or the generous soul who comes back from the bar with five packets of Taytos for everyone to share and EVERY trip has a story. We all know that a game is the perfect start to the weekend – “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came”. Home or away, win or lose, nothing compares to the simple pleasures of matchnight.