A business trip to Dublin sparked Ben Bray's love affair with the League of Ireland and, in particular, the club that bears his name.

I have fallen in love with the League of Ireland over the past few years. Whilst I’d always been curious about the town and football club I share a name with, it wasn’t until I inadvertently caught an episode of Soccer Republic whilst on a business trip to Dublin three years ago that I decided I was going to learn more about this league and take in a game.

What I saw during that broadcast was technically gifted and underrated players (some of whom were part-time), playing in predominantly old but character-filled grounds, in front of small but fervently committed and passionate supporter bases potentially for a place in European competition.

My first taste of live action in Ireland was in fact watching the National Team as I saw the Boys In Greens’ final home friendly before they departed for Euro 2016 against the Netherlands.

As a Norwich City supporter, Wes Hoolahan is the greatest player I’ve seen pull on my beloved Yellow and Green and it had been an ambition of mine to coincide visiting one of my favourite cities with seeing him play for his national side.

I still haven’t forgiven Martin O’Neill for only playing him for the final 13 minutes of what was a drab affair at the Aviva Stadium in what represented something of a microcosm in terms of how criminally under-utilised Hoolahan was for Ireland – but I digress.

Following a work conference up in Santry back in April 2017, I was joined in Dublin by my wife Sammy. The following evening on what was a pleasant and sunny day (I’d yet to experience bad weather on any of my travels to Ireland at this point – more on that later) we jumped on the DART at Tara Street heading down the East coast towards Bray Daly Station.

The journey down the coastline is incredibly picturesque, particularly on a sunny day and is definitely one of the nicer commuter lines I’ve experienced.

On arriving at the station, the Carlisle Grounds were literally within sight. The plan was to get the obligatory picture outside the gates to the ground before having a wander along the seafront towards the famous Harbour Bar for a bite to eat and some pre-game pints.

Whilst posing for the photo we had numerous conversations with local people and we were then offered the chance to have a look around the ground by the General Manager who happened to turn up.

As we posed for further photos on the edge of the pitch, the GM mentioned that if I had a ball and a pair of boots I might have earned myself a contract, whether this was a joke or not, never has a sports shop seemed so far away.

We wandered along the seafront in the shadow of Bray Head towards the Harbour Bar where we enjoyed some fantastic fish and chips in one of the heated beach huts outside, all washed down with a couple of pints of West Indies Porter. Bliss!

Galway United were the visitors that night, the superb Gary McCabe scored a first-half winner (from memory at the second attempt having been initially denied by the Galway keeper) and despite Conor Kenna’s sending off around the hour mark, Bray held on for a solid 1-0 victory.

The obligatory stop off in the club shop to pick up jerseys and due to the rapidly falling temperature as the sun set, a club training top, capped off a great first experience of League of Ireland football and the hospitality of the people of Bray.

“Back home I waxed lyrical about the experience to my Dad and it was agreed that we’d return later that year with my parents so that they could experience both Dublin and Bray for the first time.”

We took the trip towards the end of October and having spent the day in Dublin, made our way down towards Bray.

When it came to weather reports, I’d always been somewhat sceptical as they seemingly always predicted that the weather would have an impact of biblical proportions only for it to turn out to be nowhere near as severe as forecast.

That was until the October trip to Bray and having to walk from the Harbour Bar to the Carlisle Grounds in the horizontal rain of Storm Brian. It was like someone was walking in front of Dad and I with a Karcher pressure washer blasting us in the face.

I’d been chatting to a number of Bray supporters on Twitter as I’d begun following the Seagulls’ results after my first visit. One of these was a volunteer in the ticket office; Dermot O’Brien. Dermot is a top man (and now local council representative) and it was great to meet him in person as we collected our tickets to the Shamrock Rovers game which was never in danger of being called off despite the atrocious weather.

Having purchased as many layers as possible from the club shop, we found shelter in the main stand along with pretty much everyone else in attendance no matter who they were supporting.

Unsurprisingly, the weather was having a major impact on the quality of the game. A Rovers player had gone over on his arm and was clearly in a great deal of pain which cannot have been helped by the lads carrying the stretcher slipping on the greasy surface and dropping him on his way off of the pitch.

With hypothermia setting in and the first half drawing towards its conclusion, I offered my dad the opportunity to leave at half time, something I wouldn’t usually entertain but I could see that the old man was suffering following the drenching we got en route to the ground.

He said; “Let’s see how I get on”, with that the Rovers’ keeper took a goal kick which would usually have landed somewhere in the Quinsborough Road such was the power with which it was struck. Instead the ball caught the wind and sailed back over his own crossbar to which Dad responded; “sod it let’s get to the pub”.

On arriving at the Hibernia, we were asked by a lad at the bar whether we’d been to the football.

Me: “We have”

Lad at the bar: “Fair play to you, is Greeno playing?” referencing then Bray Centre Forward Aaron Greene.

Me: “Yeah Greeno’s up top”

Lad at the bar: “He’s my brother and that’s our dad over there, before the game I said to my dad we going to the football then? He stuck his head out the window and said F*** that!”

Despite the fact that Bray would go on to win the game that night 1-0, the winner being scored by none other than Aaron Greene, I couldn’t help but feel they’d made a smarter choice than us in staying in the pub.

I mentioned earlier that this was my first experience of bad weather in Ireland. The next would come in February 2018. It had been a stressful opening couple of months of the year personally and I had convinced Sammy that we should pop across the Irish Sea for a couple of days to chill out.

I knew full well that this was more of an LOI road trip which would involve seeing two games, one in Tallaght to see Bray away at Rovers and the following night up at Dalymount Park for Bohs home game against Derry.

Sammy has family ties to the Northside of Dublin and as a result of this we harbour a soft spot for Phibsborough’s finest which meant selling her on the 2nd game was slightly more straight forward.

Despite the Storm Brian episode, I’d once again dismissed the weather reports as nothing more than scaremongering. There were rumours of an arctic storm heading our way known as the “Beast from the East” but this was unlikely to hit the UK and Ireland until the weekend after we’d returned from our trip.

We arrived in Dublin early on the Monday morning. We milled around the City for a bit but the weather was bitingly cold and there was snow in the air.

We travelled down to Tallaght in the hope that Bray could overcome what was terrible adversity off the pitch under the previous ownership (with players not being paid and the then owners seemingly determined to run the club into the ground) and get a result for the fairly sizeable travelling contingent who’d made their way up the M50 in spite of the cold.

It was not to be. Rovers crushed Bray 6-0 including a magnificent first half strike from Graham Burke.

The cold we had experienced a few months earlier down in Bray was nothing compared to this! I’ve watched and played football in some pretty bad conditions but this was the coldest I’d ever been at a game!

It was so cold in fact that the kind-hearted soul in the chip van outside the stand was giving out free chips and tea to the Bray supporters at half time, clearly sympathetic to the conditions that the travelling fans were enduring with circumstances made even worse by the fact that the Seagulls were 2-0 down at the break.

Having made our way back to the bar in our hotel on O’Connell Street, Sammy pleaded with me not to make her watch another game in temperatures well below freezing and in a rare moment of consolation I agreed that we would not go to the Bohs game the following night if the weather remained as cold as it was.

It did! How the pitch wasn’t frozen at Dalyer I don’t know but as I’d promised, instead of going to the game, we had drinks and grabbed dinner off Grafton Street and had a very nice evening. However, I’d be lying if I said that a part of me didn’t still want to be braving the elements and experiencing a Bohs game in the special atmosphere of the original home of Irish football.

The following morning we awoke to a fairly light covering of snow, nothing severe and I started to think that my cynicism in relation to the weather reports was well founded. We were due to fly home that day and I was surprised to receive a message from Flybe explaining that our flight had been cancelled due to the weather.

Sammy has a great eye for a photograph and captures some brilliant shots even on her phone. With a bonus day in the City we decided to jump on the Luas up to Phibsborough to go and check out Dalyer in the snow and take some photos.

We got some great shots of the old place and it only increased my desire to come back and see a game there before its proposed redevelopment.

The following day The Beast from the East had Ireland firmly in its grip and despite being told to travel to the airport first thing Thursday morning it was clearly apparent that we would not be flying home that day, particularly as RTE were reporting that the City of Dublin would be shutting down at 2pm that day ahead of worsening weather conditions.

Having vacated our O’Connell Street hotel and with people clambering for places to stay, we fortunately secured a room down in Ballsbridge in which we’d be staying until the State recommendation of not going outside was lifted.

With the menu in the hotel decreasing by the hour and having had to wash our clothes in the sink of our room, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted to have secured a flight home on the Sunday – a full 4 days later than scheduled.

The weather alone would’ve been enough to put some off returning but I couldn’t wait to head back over to Bray and I was delighted to return a couple of weeks ago on what was, thankfully, a decent weekend weather wise!

Naturally I was in attendance as Bray Wanderers hosted Limerick in the Carlisle Grounds and it was great to experience a rejuvenated atmosphere among supporters following the many positive initiatives that new owner; Niall O’Driscoll has put in place to right the wrongs of the previous regime, add some much needed financial stability and reconnect the club with the local community.

On the pitch Gary Cronin’s side looked pretty good too. The patient, possession based style they adopted against a deep lying and defensive Limerick outfit was excellent and despite playing the majority of the second half with 10 men following a second yellow card for Killian Cantwell they ran out deserved 1-0 winners.

Local lad and fan favourite; Hughie Douglas was imperious at the back for Bray. The skill and trickery of Dylan McGlade was a constant threat going forwards and Paul Keegan used his experience and intelligent play to dominate the middle of the park.

In all honesty it should have finished 2-0 to Bray as Sean Heaney’s header was inexplicably ruled out. I’m still not sure why. I captured a video of the goal and posted it to twitter as for the life of me, I cannot figure out where an infringement occurred for the goal to be ruled out.

Thankfully it didn’t matter and the Seagulls picked up a much needed win to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.

It was great to spend a bit more time in Bray on this trip. It really is a fantastic, progressive and beautiful town (climb Bray Head for incredible views across the seafront and beyond – pack some gym gear, it’s a fair effort but well worth it!) with some superb bars (The aforementioned Harbour Bar being the pick) and restaurants (Dockyard No.8 and the Martello were both great brunch spots whilst Platform Pizza wouldn’t be out of place in trendier districts of London or Dublin thanks to the quality of food, atmosphere and design/décor). Sammy and I will definitely be returning in the not too distant future!

I still also harbour ambitions to see a game at Dalyer (preferably a Dublin Derby) and would love to experience this with Sammy who will be walking in the footsteps of her ancestors by attending a game in Phibsborough.

This piece has been one of the longest to complete and most difficult ones for me to write as I genuinely didn’t want to do a disservice to Bray Wanderers, the League of Ireland and the many fantastic people involved in the running and supporting of its clubs.

While I don’t purport to be an expert in everything that is ongoing or that has gone before with the League, I do know that it’s clubs have been criminally under supported by the FAI for so many years and hopefully things might finally be coming to a head on this with the Association having some important decisions to make in the near future in terms of what they wish the league to be and how this is going to be implemented going forwards.

It’s an important crossroads for football in Ireland. Get it right and it will improve the pathway for many young Irish players taking their first steps in the game, will harness the potential of an abundantly talented pool of local players, galvanise an already committed supporter base which seems to be growing week by week from this season’s attendance figures all of which will ultimately benefit the National team in the long term.

“The league has all of the things that most football fans this side of the Irish Sea are nostalgic for; community clubs, players playing passionately for the shirt and fantastic quality.”

If these values can be retained whilst the FAI or (as Niall Quinn’s Football in Ireland Visionary Group sets out) an independently operated League (similar to the English Premier League) can add some much needed central investment and assistance to clubs in terms of marketing, promotion and infrastructure the potential for the League of Ireland and football in the country in general is huge and I’ll be extremely interested to see how things pan out.

As for Bray, it’s been an ultimately frustrating season on the pitch as inconsistent results have hindered their bid to bounce back to the Premier Division at the first attempt. However there have been positive signs and I was impressed with Cronin’s tactics, the possession based style of play building from the back and the way his side broke down a stubborn Limerick resistance.

Off the field the stability the new owners have provided, the improvements to the ground and the initiatives they have put in place to reconnect the club with the community have all been fantastic.

I had every intention of taking part in one such initiative; Get fit with Bray Wanderers – a 5-10KM jog along the seafront with members of the first team, however, I succumbed to one too many pints on the Saturday night which put pay to these well-intentioned plans.

At times last season under the previous ownership, I worried that there might not be a club left in Bray to follow but thankfully there is and I genuinely believe that the future is bright for the Seagulls. Whilst promotion is a long shot this season hopefully they’ll be battling for a return to the top flight when Sammy and I return in 2020. Who knows I may even take part in that run too!

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