Cian Manning basks in the warm glow of the League of Ireland's return after two years of the public health crisis.

There’s something magic about football under floodlights. As the dusk fell on a wintry Friday night in 2021, there was an electricity in the air – the expectation of something special about to happen. My father Ollie had been bringing me to games since the 1997/98 season which saw Waterford United promoted to the Premier Division, although, I have more vivid memories of the 02/03 campaign where the Blues met sides like Dublin City, Kildare County, Kilkenny City and Monaghan United. I look back at those clubs like boats in a salvage yard, names that stilled my childish play but empty vessels now. When my classmates wanted to sketch the crests of Arsenal and Manchester United, I couldn’t help be drawn to Kildare and Monaghan’s badges. They appeared more authentic and relatable to me. The attraction was in their tangibility to my youthful mind; soccer was on my doorstep. Why would I want to visit Old Trafford or Anfield when the real United were down on the Cork Road at the Regional Sports Centre in Waterford?

If the last two years or so have taught us anything, it’s the importance of people. I, for one, certainly missed the communal activity of heading to see Waterford FC on a Friday night. From going to games with my dad as a child, the matches have a dual purpose now as I meet friends to catch up about our working week covering the trials and tribulations of our lives. The fixture is the occasion but the match can be the soundtrack of a couple of hours filled with banter and bitching. If anything it’s a form of homily and therapy, a spiritual process that you only understand if you’re a follower of the League of Ireland. 

Back to that October evening last year, the smells of curried chips and stewed teas conjured memories from games past. Of Wes Hoolahan jinking for Shels on cut-up turf, to Cork City breaking my heart by ending Waterford’s European hopes in the mid-Noughties. I can still see the vibrant gaze of defiance in one Rebel Army supporter’s stare as he treated a barrier like a toy pram. The only solace was the bag of chips and a Cadet cola in nights I’d prefer not to remember but can never forget. So you can imagine, with my dad Ollie going to his first game since 2019, this stream of emotions and nostalgia swelled. He’s been a supporter since the glory days at Kilcohan Park when people marched from Barrack Street behind the band bearing that thoroughfare’s name as the Blues captured six titles in eight years. I think the anticipation brought my father back to those days that held a little more glamour than Waterford at the RSC hold now.  

Among our party was young Dara Cunningham who sees my father Ollie as a grandfatherly figure. Two gentle personalities who enjoy chatting and appreciate one another’s company. It was a rollercoaster of a game with a sending off, five goals and a great atmosphere. Photographer Noel Browne ran the length of the blue running track surrounding the pitch at the RSC after Waterford got a sublime fourth goal through Guinea-Bissau international Junior Quitirna to finish the game.  The players climbed the Old Stand in euphoria, and Noel readied himself to get a picture of then manager Marc Bircham celebrating at full-time. The whistle couldn’t come quick enough. The effort wasn’t to snap an image for the following Tuesday’s News & Star, but to capture a moment. Elation overtook the Regional Sports Centre as youths squealed and elders jigged as it seemed like the great escape could be pulled off. Unfortunately it couldn’t but that wasn’t to be known that night against Ollie Horgan’s Finn Harps. 

The pure joy was carried by a further mood of expectation with an FAI Cup semi-final to look forward to. My father and Dara were talking about Waterford playing Manchester United in the ‘60s and stories of Paddy Coad and later Bobby Charlton at Kilcohan. 

In a game between two sides striving for survival, not even pushing for a European place let alone silverware, the hardship of the last couple of years dissipated for a few moments. Though the Blues were relegated on what was bordering on a farcical end to the campaign, battling in the League of Ireland First Division is not the worst state of affairs compared to what some have endured in recent times. 

As we dropped Dara home after my father gave him a crash course in Waterford FC of yore, he asked was the 2021 iteration of the club just as good that night? Ollie replied it was even better. Somehow I don’t think he was talking about the football.