Here on We’ve Got No Fans we cover the Premier League. Today, however, we’re going to switch gears. First off, this isn’t a podcast! You’re reading this so we’re automatically in a different field. Fear not regular listener! We can journey through this together…
So, as many of you know, I am a fan of Dundalk F.C. and I’ve been asked numerous times about whether or not we’re going to cover their outstanding season on the show. Up to now I’ve said no because it’s not a show about the League of Ireland or the Europa league, it’s a premier league show. But I can’t hold back any longer! I feel like it’s such an amazing opportunity to talk about football in Ireland – what that is and what that could possibly be – that I can’t pass the opportunity up. I have to use the keys on my keyboard because when I talk about it with my mouth, the words don’t come out right. I can’t form cohesive observations and it comes out jumbled and shambolic… much like this has been so far, right? Don’t worry I’m getting the hang of this.
So hold on… I need to start this somewhere…
Years ago I visited Hamburg. I arrived there on a Saturday afternoon but while I had been airborne, a Liverpool United match, Berbatov’s debut, had taken place. When a big game like that goes against you, I think it’s perfectly alright to consider removing yourself from society and going to live in the mountains with no technology, become one with nature, grow a huge beard and return the following week just before the next match. This may seem extreme to you – if it does it’s because you’re an idiot. I’m sorry, it’s true – you don’t understand the fundamentals of life.
When Liverpool beat Man United: HEAD FOR THE HILLS!
So that day in Hamburg I landed to the news that somehow, someway, United had given up a one goal lead and lost 2-1. Now, I wasn’t exactly in the mountains but I was pretty far away. Away from the grins and smirks of the unending hordes of Irish Liverpudlians who can seek you out like a heat-seeking missile when they win (don’t worry, I know United fans are just as bad! Sure…)
So I boarded a train and headed toward the city centre. The train was full of Hamburg fans – full. Hamburg (managed at the time by Martin Jol, an all-time favourite of mine) had just beaten Bayer Leverkusen 3-2 and they were delirious. So I stopped crying (I wasn’t actually crying) got up from the foetal position I had taken on the floor of the train (I wasn’t in a foetal position) and basked in the warm loving beer-filled celebrations of a full train of German football fans loving life.
Then I got jealous. The train was full, as I mentioned, but not just one carriage – the whole way down the train was packed. And it dawned on me that when all these fans got off the train, after using the walls of the station as a giant communal urinal, they were going home. This was their city and their football team had brought their city joy. Unbridled beer-drinking song-singing train-station-wall-pissing joy – and I was so jealous. Not jealous because they had won. And I had peed against a red brick wall before so it wasn’t that either. It took a while to get my head around where the feeling was coming from but I eventually put the pieces together.
I had been in Old Trafford the season before where I had witnessed United beat Barcelona and reach the Champions League final – one of the greatest nights of my life. After the game, it was straight back to the bus and then from the bus straight back to the boat and so on through the night as I travelled home. It was thinking about that that made me realise why I was so jealous.
What I was jealous of was the community – the football community of the city of Hamburg who had gone together to the game and were coming home together to celebrate together and then get a taxi home at the end of the night. It made me think about what that would be like in Ireland. I wanted my team to be in my home town. I wanted a fleet of Matthews buses travelling up the M1 carrying hordes of drunken Dundalk men, women and children – no, not drunk children – actually no one needs to be drunk, but you get the idea – a whole town travelling the country following a team that they love and a team that they can be proud of.
Now, many years later, Dundalk are on the verge of a third title in a row, in a second cup final in a row, which if they win, will be a second double in a row. And on Thursday they play Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europa League group stages with a real chance of qualifying for the knockout stages thanks to two tremendous results in their opening matches. It’s a story that’s been recounted many times over at this stage by people with a much better idea of how tough things were and how dark the dark days were. I must confess that the middle part of my time on earth was spent in Dublin and/or working weekends so I’m not going to sit here and proclaim myself the greatest Dundalk fan there ever was I have missed a season or two. The journey the club has been on over the past 4 years – from the edge of extinction to the brink of European glory – is a you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it, straight-out-of-a-movie-script kind of story.
That journey is a story in itself and if you haven’t noticed by now, I do waffle, so you’ll forgive me for sparing you all the details. Instead I wanted to focus on a couple of things. The first is obvious – watch this team play football.
The supposed title-decider took place in Oriel Park during the week and it was a game of football. In its purest sense, on a pitch that almost seems allergic to football, Dundalk and to their immeasurable credit Cork, played football and put on a show. Maybe not full of goal mouth incident or controversy (although come on, how was Greg Bolger not sent off??) but both teams wanted to pass the ball and put pressure on the opponent and that in itself made it great viewing for someone who appreciates the effort and belief that it takes to play football that way.
But playing football domestically like that, while commendable, should be expected from a team who are superior to every other team in the league. It’s when this team plays in Europe that you really appreciate just what an amazing thing it is you’re seeing. There have been times, away in Belarus and at times in Warsaw, that they’ve had to play backs-to-the-wall football. It’s been unavoidable, but at least you knew that it wasn’t the plan, that it wasn’t the desire behind this team. Dundalk are a team that want to have the ball, pass the ball, be adventurous, be entertaining and make their fans proud. And this they have done repeatedly.
So watch them play football against full-time, professional, international, experienced football players and take a moment to appreciate how amazing it is that a team comprised of Irish footballers – not full-time, not internationals, not millionaires – are giving them a run for their money. Players that the day following the incredible victory over Bate were tweeting each other from their daytime jobs. Watch them and just try to appreciate how amazing that is.
As a team that ply their trade in the League of Ireland in front of frankly embarrassingly low attendances at times, they have raised every conceivable bar – they’ve set records and achieved what wasn’t thought to be possible. It is because of all this and the fact that to the people in Dundalk they are one of us, that makes it so special. The team regularly visit the Marshes Shopping Centre in town where children run up to them and get pictures taken. It’s like they’re celebrities and I guess they are but it’s different, because at the same time they’re part of the community.
I’ve mentioned the word proud twice so far and that feeling was the whole basis of writing this piece in the first place. The point was that, despite being a lifelong fan, I will never be proud of a Man Utd team. That’s just not possible – they’re too well-paid and too well-prepared and too far removed from me as a regular human being.
Don’t get me wrong, I really love Man Utd. I always will and regardless of whether or not I can be proud of them, I will lose sleep before a big United match – and afterwards if they don’t win. But with Dundalk it’s something else. Thinking about it, I’ve decided it has so much to do with people like my Dad.
My Dad lives for Dundalk F.C.. He’s also a huge Man Utd fan (I get it from him of course) but when I say he lives for Dundalk I mean he is one of the supporters where there has never been a time when the going was good or bad that he hasn’t followed them. This has involved travelling around the country, hail rain or shine, year in, year out.
I can remember when I dislocated my knee (another story for a completely different site) and the first thing he asked me was if I was going to be okay to go with him to watch Dundalk in Athlone that Friday night! How can you not love a football fan like that? A man so dedicated to his home town team that he was willing to put his son’s knee in jeopardy so that he had company travelling to Athlone. Ok, so maybe I’ve exaggerated that a little – a little – but the point still stands that his dedication, to what has in the past been a really difficult cause to follow, is amazing. He’s obviously not the only one who has this level of dedication. Clubs all across the country have fans like him…but he’s my Dad so he’s better than them.
I don’t know if I’m making any sense… or if you’re still reading… are you there? Hello Friend? If you’re still there and if I haven’t made any sense so far, let me try to summarise what I’ve been trying to express.
I’ve set myself up to fail here…
I have a dream. I’ve had it every day since that Saturday in Hamburg. A dream where our little football community, our little Irish football community would grow and that every week we would travel to stadiums and see a standard of football good enough for fans like my Dad. Fans from every club, even Rovers (ugh), would be proud of their players and their stadium and their product.
We’re at a point now in my home town where we are all bursting with pride for our team (not so much our stadium) and it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in football. It’s something I want everyone to be able to experience. I’m lucky it’s on my doorstep but if we take this wave by the reigns…or some metaphor that makes sense… and take this feeling, this feel good factor that a league of Ireland side have created and run with it…
Look. I have a dream. And I’m a stupid romantic. And I cry at football all the time. But wouldn’t that be the most beautiful thing? If when Dundalk play Cork in the FAI cup final, the whole country treated it like it was the all-Ireland? Or like it was Leinster against Munster? Or like it was a friendly between Celtic and Barcelona? And Lansdowne was full? Like it almost was for the Legia game… think of how proud we could all be of that.