A Blues Fan In Exile
by Shane Murphy
(first published in the October 2011 Shelbourne match programme)
“Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it kindles the great”
I’m sure that old saying wasn’t initially meant for football clubs, but it seems appropriate enough. Recent years have seen many League of Ireland fans leaving for foreign shores. Some of the friends I used to sit with at matches are now making their living in Derby and Loch Ness, Kentucky and Kenya, Perth and Seattle. Those fans still eagerly await each Friday night’s results and value any snippet of information they can get. Even those who aren’t as far removed, but are prevented from more consistent attendance find that no geographical obstacle can stymie their love for their club.
Aodán O’Briain has spent forty years as a Blues fan in exile. Dublin-born with no family connection to Waterford, he has been a staunch supporter of the club since the time we were winning Leagues on a regular basis. His whole life has been lived in rugby territory in Sallynoggin and Glenageary and the school he attended in Monkstown was very much focused on the oval ball. But it was football that captured Aodán’s imagination at a young age. He started going to games around Dublin with a handful of friends who tended towards Shamrock Rovers and it was partly contrariness that led Aodán to the club who knocked the Hoops off their perch. He saw the 1968 Cup final defeat to Rovers, but a family holiday near Dunmore East really sowed the seeds. His father brought Aodán and his brother Michael to Kilcohan Park for a match against Limerick in Easter 1969. “Sure we’ll let the two young lads in free” was the generous welcome at the turnstile. The Blues ran out 5-2 winners and the boy from South County Dublin was hooked.
The 1971/72 season was when he really took up the cause beginning with a 2-1 Dublin City Cup win in early September against Drumcondra in Tolka Park. Unusually, it was played on a Friday evening as Tolka was one of the first grounds with floodlights. Aodán made sure to get to all of Waterford’s matches in Dublin, he made the trip to Waterford in early March for a 3-2 win over Shels and was back at Easter to see the penultimate League game which the Blues won 1-0 against Finn Harps. A week later, he was at the 4-2 Cup semi-final win over Dundalk in Dalymount and, having pestered his parents for permission, he took the train to Flower Lodge for that famous day when Waterford came from two down to clinch the League title with a 3-2 win against title rivals Cork Hibs. Hibs gained a measure of revenge the following week with a 3-0 defeat of the Blues in the Cup final to the disappointment of the Dublin schoolboy on the terrace, but that glorious season had cemented his relationship with the club.
One of the difficulties of supporting a club from afar is the matter of finding out the results. Nowadays, there are a plethora of websites providing information and updates for such fans while mobile phones mean a friend may well text on the goals and provide a very biased report immediately after the full-time whistle. Neither a texter nor a Tweeter, Aodán generally relies on Aertel for games he is unable to attend and admits to savouring the anticipation while waiting for the page to switch to the First Division scores. Travel plans changed in the mid ’80s when he switched from the Waterford train to a passenger seat in the car of fellow Dublin-based fans and this is still how he makes his way down to his seat at the back of Block C as often as possible.
While Waterford’s trophy cabinet has required less polish in recent years, Aodán’s enthusiasm has remained undiminished. When asked about his memories or favourite players, as many are from the recent past as from the glory days. “Frosty put in some great performances, often getting the ball around the halfway line and running thirty yards up the left wing. He’d really lift the whole team with those runs. Rennie put in a great shift down the years and Dave Mulcahy was a very durable performer. It was a pity Alan Kirby left.” Going back a little further, “Alfie, Thommo and Johnny straddled a lot of the time” as players and managers from the ’60s to the ’90s. “Vinny Maguire used the ball very well and was very solid at the back. Jimmy McGeough had an important role as the anchor in midfield in a footballing and goalscoring side, coming onto the ball following up an attack.”
‘Flower Lodge’ was naturally his favourite memory of the ’70s while another highlight was the 1980 Cup semi-final replay against Limerick. “I had started seeing Ann (his future wife) and brought her to both games. The first was 1-1 in Dalymount. Limerick took the lead in the second half and then Larry Murray missed a penalty. I just felt ‘it’s not our day’, but we won a second penalty and the player-manager Tommy Jackson took the responsibility and stuck it in”. The replay had a 5.30 kick-off that Thursday. Aodán had just started a new job so it was a cheeky request to leave work early, but his boss was OK about it. “It was great walking up Milltown Road with both sets of fans. We stormed into the lead with three goals in the first half hour. Limerick pulled two back and Thommo made a couple of very good saves. It was the best we played in the ’80s”. The 1997 Cup quarter final is his fondest memory of that decade when Tommy Lynch’s team beat Drogheda 1-0 in front of 5,000 fans at the RSC. “Fortunately, we had secured stand tickets because it was a very wet night. The surface was treacherous so the football wasn’t great, but the atmosphere was special. Any time the ball went into the box we appealed for a penalty. Eventually, with ten minutes to go, we got one.” John ‘Chilli’ Power buried it to send us into the semis and Aodán recalls the newspaper headline with a chuckle, “Red Hot Chilli Sinks Drogheda”. The 2-1 win in Dalymount against Shamrock Rovers in 2005 which kept us in the Premier Division and consigned the Hoops to an ultimately unsuccessful relegation play-off was his highlight of the past ten years. He was part of the large away support behind the goal as Rovers went 1-0 up. “We kept coming at them in the second half. Paul Crowley got the ball ten yards out and it was like suspended animation for a moment or two. He was clear, in on goal, but had to get the shot away. Sometimes you see players trip up or mishit their shot in those circumstances, but he drove it low to the corner of the net”. When Kevin Waters’ free was deflected in a few minutes later it completed a special night for a man for whom the rivalry with Rovers has always been particularly strong.
He doesn’t have fond memories of his first European game when Celtic beat Waterford 7-0 and still finds it painful to talk about. “We conceded the fastest goal ever in Europe after ten seconds when Peter Bryan lost the ball after the kick-off”. He also saw the game against Ujpest Dozsa which he thought was a mistake to fix for Lansdowne Road. “The best game was against Glentoran. They were considered a strong European outfit. BBC Northern Ireland did a very good highlights programme on the match from the Oval with two or three cameras. It lasted about 40 minutes”. He avoided the score and settled down to watch. “John O’Neill equalised and Jimmy scored a tremendous goal. Peter Bryan put in a low ball on the wet surface. It was half cleared. Jimmy took it, chested it down and fired to the roof of the net from the edge of the box. Thommo was very good and dealt with any crosses with his big left fist” while Alfie Hale set up Al Casey for a great third goal. His explanation for how impressively vivid his recall of the details is that “some of these games just stuck.”
Low points were the relegation play-offs versus Monaghan in 1993 and Kilkenny in 2000, but he stresses the need for promotion and relegation to be integral to the League of Ireland system, feeling that there would be too many meaningless games without it. While it isn’t possible for him to get to every Blues game, Aodán attends a vast number of matches around the League each season. After next week’s trip to Wexford, he will have seen matches this year involving every team in both divisions apart from Longford and Finn Harps. He thinks Rovers are “still favourites to win the League, but I’d love to see Sligo doing it” while he would like St Pat’s to finally break their Cup hoodoo. He would like to see the number of midweek games minimised and preferably have the season extended as a result. “I feel that the current four-month break is too long. All in all, I am very happy with the introduction of summer football with better pitches, less postponements, easier travelling (especially for First Division sides) and generally more encouraging results in Europe.”
So while his Shamrock Rovers-supporting cousin maintains that he only ever followed Waterford just to annoy him, Aodán’s love for the Blues has never waned and he travels to games as enthusiastically as ever. Like all those other fans who follow from a distance, the ritual of Friday nights is as important as it is for those who are fortunate enough to attend every game. Their fire burns just as brightly.