A big occasion under the Friday night lights

When thinking back to my school days, it often occurs to me just how fortunate we were. Not just in terms of actual schooling but – equally as importantly from a personal perspective at least – that there was such a strong sporting ethos therein. It helped, of course, that Willie Lyons, who looked after sporting matters in the school (still does) was also involved in training the GAA club’s adult teams. The fact that Meath were at their zenith under Sean Boylan at the time was no hindrance either.

However, it must be said that promotion of sport within the school wasn’t confined to Gaelic games by any means. To that end, it was impossible not to get embroiled in the euphoria surrounding Jack Charlton and the Irish soccer team in the early 1990s. Great memories are retained of televisions being commandeered to watch World Cup qualifiers and the like in the classroom.

What’s also recalled from around that time is John Ryan scoring a hat-trick in an FAI Cup Final. Now, that held extra significance as Paul Ennis – who was in my class – was related to John. It was also, mind you, the first time yours truly really took note of League Of Ireland football.

Time has educated yours truly, though, that links between Dunboyne and the top level of domestic football are numerous and strong. One is always fearful of mentioning names in case of omitting somebody. All that will be said is that the connection continues is now at it’s strongest with a number of local players on the books of the top clubs in the country.

Most recently, mind you, things have taken on even greater status thanks to a big occasion under the Friday night lights in Inchicore. Namely, the appointment of Dunboyne resident Tom O’Mahony as President of St Patrick’s Athletic. Tom, his wife Jackie and their family have for a long time been involved in many community organisations – Jackie acted as physio to St Peter’s GAA Club for many years while daughter Catherine is a former PRO of the Ladies Football section.

For Tom, however, when it comes to sport, St Pat’s have always been number one “I started following St Pats in 1967 – on the occasion of the first ever televised FAI Cup Final. It was between Pats and Rovers, and I was a kid growing up about a mile from the Rovers ground in Milltown. With all the hype about the match, my friends (though none of us had ever been to a game) decided they were Rovers supporters and, having a bit of a maverick streak, I plumped for Pats. Sadly, Rovers won 3-2 although Pats led twice. The next year I persuaded my dad to bring me to my first ever match in Inchicore. By 1974 I had a motorbike and could get there under my own steam, and have been going ever since”.

Like all sports followers, it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses following the red and white and the newly appointed President notes that “It was 1986 before I ever saw Pats lift a trophy (and that was only the Leinster Senior Cup), although there were plenty of memorable moments. Probably the most memorable was the Paul McGrath season in 1981-2. He came to us as a very raw player, and no-one was sure of his best position. He started out upfront, then moved into midfield, then into the back four – inside months he was the best player in the league, Manchester Utd came calling and the rest is history. It was a privilege to witness the development of arguably the best player ever to play for Ireland.

There were certainly more downs than ups in those years. Pats became synonymous with Cup Final disappointment. That 1967 televised defeat was followed by no less than six more final day heartbreaks, all of which I was at – to Finn Harps (1974), Waterford (1980), Shels (1996), Longford (2003) and Derry twice (2006 and 2012). We finally broke the hoodoo with an unforgettable win over Derry in 2014”.

At this point, this writer must admit that the only domestic football these wheels have been parked at in the flesh were once in the unique surroundings of the UCD Bowl and another occasion when Bohemians played Drogheda United in Dalymount Park. The common denominator to both occasions being that my driver, Eoghan D’Arcy, is a Bohs fan!

Be that as it may, it didn’t preclude a bit of a soft spot here for the Saints – who, if memory serves me correctly plied their trade in Harold’s Cross for a period before returning home to Richmond Park. That gra can be simply put down to becoming attuned to League Of Ireland affairs at a time when Brian Kerr was beginning something of a revolution, not only for the club, but within Irish football generally. And yes, a local connection through the involvement of Martin Reilly (I was admittedly unaware that John Ryan also played for the club) added further credence.

Tom would understand how a body could get hooked: “Pat’s certainly turned a corner with the arrival of Brian Kerr in 1987. We were League Champions in 1990, 1996 (both under Kerr), 1998 (Pat Dolan), 1999 (Liam Buckley), 2002 (Dolan again) and 2013 (Buckley again). The 2002 win is shrouded in controversy. We won the title on the pitch, but were controversially deducted points for a technical error on a player registration form. To avoid us getting this overturned by legal action, the FAI in their wisdom declared that both Shels and ourselves had won the league – we each got a “trophy” but the Champions League spot went to Shels. As far as we’re concerned, we were the 2002 champions, but you won’t find that in the record books.

We also had some very notable results in Europe – for example, drawing away to Celtic in the Champions League in 1998 (where Martin Reilly almost scored a winner near the end of the game) and, leading away to Legia Warsaw in the Champions League in 2014 until they nabbed a very late equaliser”.

There’s no doubt that, personally speaking, Martin’s involvement peaked my own interest in the club. It was also aided, mind you, by reading the output of the late, great Con Houlihan who was a known devotee of the club. While I couldn’t claim to know the great man from Castle Island well, his company was enjoyed on quite a few occasions – usually in Croke Park or Parnell Park.

Wherever it happened to be, though, an effort would always be made to steer the conversation to St Pat’s. Especially when Martin was part of a great team which also comprised the likes of Eddie Gormley and Paul Osam, to name but two. Even for a casual follower, those were great times to have any interest in the club. For Tom O’Mahony, though, the affinity runs much deeper:

“There has always been a good Pats following in Dunboyne, and two of our neighbours have starred for the club – Martin Reilly and John Ryan, both strikers. And of course another local resident, Gerry Mulvey, was the co-owner of the Club for a few years.

I’ve always been keen to have a closer involvement with the club, and when I retired from my day job in 20i5 I was delighted to be asked to join the Board. I’ve now been appointed President, which is an immense honour.

Con Houlihan was probably our most famous fan – he certainly had a soft spot for us and wrote some beautiful pieces about the club and our matches. His shuffling figure, a hunched giant in a scruffy anorak, was very familiar to all of us”.

It could be argued that the profile of domestic football has never been as elevated as is currently the case – thanks to the exploits of the likes of Dundalk and Cork City and Shamrock Rovers. For Tom and fellow disciples of the Saints, however, it’s been a different story.

“Last year was a huge disappointment – after the highs of League and Cup success in 2013 and 2014, and the League Cup in 2015 and 2016, the last thing we expected was to be fighting a relegation battle. Our proud record is that, since coming into the League of Ireland in 1951, we have never been relegated, but it went to the wire last year and we don’t want to repeat that experience. At the moment, Dundalk and Cork have substantially more resources than anyone else, and will be expected to divide the top honours between them. Our expectation is to be competing for a top 4 spot and European football. Until 2017, we had been in Europe every year for almost a decade.

The financial reward for European qualification has become very significant, and we’re determined to give it our best shot. I think that this year we have the squad to do it. Owen Garvan, who has featured in Irish squads under Giovannai Trapattoni and in the Premier League, is now anchoring our midfield and will, I think, have a very big season”.

It’s not the only reason for optimism as the new LOI season kicks off. With my nephew Ian Byrne playing at U-14 level with Belvedere FC, I’ve recently become aware of the link between that club and St Pat’s. Tom sees plenty of reason to feel positive going forward.

“The biggest development in domestic football for a long time has been the introduction of the under-19, 17 and 15 national leagues, with under-13 to follow. The idea is that the League clubs form partnerships with the leading schoolboy clubs and provide an alternative pathway to professional football for the best young players. Instead of taking the huge gamble of going to English clubs at 15 or 16, these kids can stay at home, continue their education, including university, while playing at a very high level. If they’re good enough, they can go to an English club when they’re much older and less likely to end up on the football scrapheap at 18 or 19, with nothing else to fall back on, as sadly has happened to so many kids in the past. Pats are in partnership with Belvedere, Crumlin Utd and Cherry Orchard – the best players from these clubs can join the St Pats Academy and play for us in the National underage leagues. If they are subsequently sold to English clubs, there’s an equitable arrangement about sharing the transfer fees.

I think this development is hugely important to the future of St Pats, both in terms of growing our own future first-team players and in generating transfer fees that will help sustain the club”. No matter what the future holds, Tom O’Mahony will be there. Always believing.

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