New name, new crest, but a rich history to build on, Cian Manning tells the story of a proud League of Ireland tradition in Waterford.
“Blue is the colour, football is the game, We’re all together, and winning is our aim, So cheer us on through the wind and rain, ’cause Waterford, Waterford is our name”
In the south-east of Ireland, as news of what was considered a fledgling and vibrant club in Wexford Youths seemed in tatters after relegation from the Premier Division, managerial upheaval and a winding up order related to the bankruptcy proceedings against its founder Mick Wallace, its future looks less rosy in pink compared with the start of 2016. However, many would have expected that it would be their more illustrious but dormant near rivals, Waterford United that were to be consigned to the scrapheap of the League of Ireland like Monaghan United, Kilkenny City and Sporting Fingal to name but a few before it. The club was uncertain of even finishing out its ninth season in-a-row in the First Division. As the numbers in the Regional Sports Centre hovered in the three figures; many commentators criticised the local community for not supporting their team but this failed to recognise the many factors that contributed to the decline of the six-time League of Ireland champions.
Bohemians of Dublin’s poet in residence Lewis Kenny once proffered: ‘A club is the local game/the focal game/the kind of game that you’ll only truly get/by immersing yourself fully in the unity/that is the family of your football community.’
Those that did continue to support their side in Waterford maintained a tradition that goes back 87 years. The first incarnation of Waterford FC was founded in 1930 with an absence from the League of Ireland between 1932-34. They won the Free State Cup and the League of Ireland Shield in 1937 and the possibility of a league and cup double came in 1941, but Waterford were pipped by Cork United in both competitions.
A pay dispute between the players and the board led to the league title being awarded to Cork when a play-off for the championship was not fulfilled. The club then resigned from the league leaving a bitter taste but they would return, showing the rare ability of not necessarily being able to thrive but endure. Some would say it mirrors the city motto bestowed on it by Henry VII ‘Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia’ – ‘Waterford remains the untaken city’. The football team’s representation in the League of Ireland has often been in doubt and under threat yet it remains.
That brief absence also points to what might have been. One of the players who left the club in ’41 was Paddy Coad. Joining Shamrock Rovers under the stewardship of Jimmy Dunne (the former Arsenal and Sheffield United player) they won three league titles and four FAI cups. Two of these league successes and one cup win came as manager of Rovers due to the untimely death of Dunne. In 1957, Coad as player-manager of Rovers played in both legs of the European Cup tie with the Busby Babes of Manchester United, who would tragically die in 1958. Coad is often regarded as the greatest Irish player never to play in the professional ranks in England. Could the Doyle Street man have achieved the same feats with his hometown team?
— Shamrock Rovers F.C. (@ShamrockRovers) February 20, 2017
Brighter days were to come. As the ‘60s ushered in rock n’ roll, Waterford had its own Elvis Presley in the form of Brendan Bowyer. The ‘Hucklebuck’ (released in 1965) was about to take over, and Ireland finally saw De Valera hand over power to Lemass as it appeared that the country was beginning to open up to the wider world. Bowyer’s Royal Showband had the Beatles open for them at the Pavilion Theatre in Liverpool in 1962. If Liverpool was to become the centre of music and sporting culture from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, Waterford was to have its own impact, if only a tremor compared to the earthquake in the city that resides by the Mersey.
The late Waterford poet and journalist with the Cork Examiner, Sean Dunne wrote in his 1991 autobiography In My Father’s House: ‘After leaving primary school in John’s Park…The Waterford soccer team was winning game after game. As they won, their support grew and the games in Kilcohan Park were drawing huge crowds…Soccer was a foreign sport.’
The sense of community and ritual practice that Lewis Kenny espoused was exemplified in this period. Spectators would march behind the Barrack Street band in a procession to Kilcohan. The locals got behind their team. Its perhaps to no surprise that Waterford won its last All-Ireland in hurling, the game of the Gael in 1959. In fact, its final appearance for 45 years in the GAA’s marquee event was 1963. The round ball was to dominate the Crystal City for several decades to come.
A foreword by Jimmy Magee to Brian Kennedy’s history of the club, Singing the Blues notes: From the autumn of 1965 to the spring of 1973, Waterford gave Irish football a galaxy of stars. A few names to jog the memory – Alfie Hale one of Ireland’s best ever, Jimmy McGeough a brilliant wing half (midfielder in modern jargon), Peter Fitzgerald of a famous clan, Shamie Coad the “major”, Vinny Maguire, Tommy Taylor, John O’Neill, Al Casey, Peter Bryan and two mighty imports from Coventry, Peter Thomas and Johnny Matthews.” Names to still the childish play of many a youngster, that group delivered six league titles. They entered like the Royal Showband, shimmying like snakes, the great entertainers of Kilcohan scored goals galore.
The arrival of Paddy Coad as manager was the return of the prodigal son. Mick Lynch led the charge scoring 17 goals as Waterford won their first league title in the same year England claimed its only World Cup at Wembley in 1966. In the consciousness of those Suirside, Johnny Matthews would rival any of Alf Ramsey’s side with his elegance. He arrived in Waterford on St. Patrick’s Day (jokingly believing the parade was a celebration of his signing) for what he believed was a six-week loan deal. Thirteen years later he finally left Waterford for Limerick.
In his introduction to his history of the club, Brian Kennedy writes: “My very first encounter with the Blues was in 1975…I was six years old at the time…That began a love-affair with the men in Blue. I, like a generation of thirty-something males got used to comparisons to the teams of yesteryear. Of laments from men who craved the good old days and a return to a time when Waterford destroyed everything in their wake with a style and panache not seen before or since. We revelled in the bridging of a 43-year gap with a single Brian Gardiner goal in 1980, yet despaired nine years later when we graced the graveyard of a First Division for the first time in the club’s history.”
Love is defined in numerous ways. Some like Ali McGraw in 1970’s Love Story would describe it as “never having to say you’re sorry”. Unfortunately, in football, this apology is mostly one sided. A new Public Limited Company was formed in 1982 and christened the club Waterford United. Sadly, the name would appear to be more of a hex than an inspiration. “But following a team is not to look at the share price but rather to adore the badge on the jersey. It becomes like a comfort blanket, familiar and reassuring.”
The game of soccer is like a tango, marked with rhythms and postures and abrupt pauses. The rhythms are the chants of fans, undoubtedly the Waterford Ultras who could be named as one of the most vocal and creative. The postures are the players and teams, the identity of the team, your placing on the league table. The pauses are those occasions to remember be they victory away in Ballybofey or the ignominy of relegation. Even games themselves take on these traits.
In 2004, Waterford United were five minutes away from a first FAI Cup victory in 24 years. Five minutes later the club’s famine would go on due to controversy. Players like Daryl Murphy (that season’s PFAI Young Player of the Year) and Dave Mulcahy would depart. The goalkeeping supremo Dan Connor (who scored the winning goal against Derry City in the cup semi-final) would win a league title with Drogheda United. There were brief reprieves with promotions to the Premier League in the 1990s and Noughties, but the club was last relegated in 2008. They’ve been in exile ever since as the world economy imploded.
To borrow from another code, the world of GAA with three time All-Star and Mount Sion man Ken McGrath, in his book with Michael Moynihan Hand on Heart he recalls: “The recession was a hard reality for us then, maybe to an extent that people in other places wouldn’t realise. Waterford was always an industrial, blue-collar town, with big factories keeping people in jobs…When those factories started to shut down and they and their fathers lost their jobs, it hit every business in the town.”
The fortunes of the club took a similar downturn. Yet it has still produced players to give fans those flutters of joy. Kenny Browne and Paddy Barrett would reside in any serious defensive unit, both League of Ireland winners with St. Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk respectively. Kevin O’Connor and Sean Maguire have brought flair and creativity to Turners Cross with silverware in the form of the FAI Cup in 2016. Former club chairman, John O’Sullivan described Maguire as Messi-esque upon his transfer to West Ham United.
— Waterford FC (@WaterfordFCie) January 28, 2017
Now it seems the structure is finally in place for the club to flourish once more. The takeover by Lee Power (also chairman of Swindon Town), the arrival of Pat Fenlon as Director of Football, Alan Reynolds (who led the club to its last FAI Cup final appearance) as Head Coach with a number of exciting names such as Shane O’Connor, Mark O’Sullivan and the return of Dave Mulcahy and Matthew Connor are proving hugely exciting.
The club name has reverted to Waterford FC and the crest reflects this, echoing the city’s coat of arms. Instead of Waterford’s loyalty to the King of England through the centuries, there is the devotion of the core group of fans that had endured all the barren days. The three ships seem to sail with more purpose and confidence. At least I hope that’s what the rebrand was trying to get across. There has been some criticism from some supporters to this endeavour apparently led by the same figure who did the same for Chelsea some years ago. It appears that the words of the Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke apply: ‘What I am, Cannot be dream, By anyone, Imperfect as you’, but then again marketing is supposed to be the new magic.
The joy for fans is in supporting their club in their pursuit of glory. Often it seems the FAI and consultant Johnathan Gabay fail to understand this, though his idea of using famous Irish poets to promote the league may not have been the worst. In 1926, W.B. Yeats visited the first Montessori school in Ireland based in Waterford city. Hugely impressed by the creativity of the young people he was inspired to compose the poem, Among School Children, finishing with the immortal line, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ May the same joy and wonder be felt at the Regional Sports Centre this season.
Main image: @WaterfordFC