I first started to follow soccer (called by that name in Ireland to distinguish it from (Gaelic) football) around the time Chelsea played Leeds in the 1970 FA Cup Final. I also started to play it, informally, having acquired my first pair of football boots.
The field behind my house on St Conlan’s Road in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, which has long since been covered in houses, was owned by an elderly farmer named Sonny Hogan. There were no markings, and jumpers served as goalposts in the time-honoured manner. Two arbitrary captains picked teams from whoever showed up – local kids named Toohey, Fahy, O’Regan, Whelan, Hogan, Bergin, Kennedy. There was never a referee.
Sonny used to chase us. Luckily he wasn’t very mobile, but sometimes he would get quite close before being noticed. Someone would shout ‘Sonny!’ and we would pick up the jumpers and the ball and scatter in all directions. Once he left a note on a cigarette packet that said ‘Keep of the grass’, which was ignored.
We played there an awful lot – sometimes morning, noon and night – and must have retarded the growth of a good-sized rectangle of grass, although the field was mown every summer and haystacks appeared (which lent themselves to other games). I often heard the corncrake’s rasp there, but never saw one.
Perhaps Sonny made representations to our parents, or maybe we grew tired of being chased – in any case, we eventually transferred our footballing across the road, to a field that became known as ‘Pudgie’s’ because it was behind the house of a boy with that nickname. Here we had one set of fairly decent goalposts – uprights for horse jumps – and nobody to chase us. For variety we played ‘Wembley’ or three-goals-in, or had penalty shoot-outs. As well as the boys, a couple of girls were often involved.
Some of my friends played Gaelic football and/or hurling – I sometimes played Gaelic at school because I had to, but didn’t like it. I never really tried hurling. When I was 16 I played a few games of rugby in a local ‘street league’. I did like that, and afterwards regretted that I hadn’t played more.
As well as Pudgie’s, I can remember playing soccer in various fields in and around the town: the Limerick Road, Ciamaltha Road, the Convent of Mercy, the Vocational School, my own school (Christian Brothers). We played on winter nights on a patch of concrete in Ball Alley Lane, where there was a slaughterhouse, with bad smells and rats. On rare occasions we climbed over the wall and high barbed-wire at the hurling field and played on the beautifully kept pitch there – there were nets on the goals. But of course we weren’t welcome.
I joined the local soccer club, and started to train at a building known as the Institute. The pitch was at Islandbawn, a few miles outside the town. The club had a good senior team, which went a long way in the confusingly named FAI Junior Cup a couple of times around then. We followed them to Dublin and watched them lose narrowly to Whitehall Rangers in, I think, the semi-final.
I played for the youth (under-18) team in my Leaving Cert year of 1976/77, when I was 16 years old. I was often a sub, but sometimes started when one of the regulars was injured or unavailable. I played midfield, and I remember scoring a goal in an away game at Rockwell College.
The Christian Brothers who ran my school were very opposed to ‘foreign’ games, but actual Brothers were a minority among the staff, and several young teachers helped the boys to form a Nenagh CBS soccer team that season – the first time such a team had existed. They drove us to away games. The soccer club loaned us a set of blue-and-white-striped jerseys. I played right-back and started every game, although I wasn’t one of the best players. There was no coaching as such – we were left to our own devices, as was mostly the case with the club team too.
We were entered in a Cup competition for Tipperary schools, and won our quarter-final. In the semi-final, as I recall, we played Roscrea at Islandbawn, and Gerry O’Connor (who would later gain fame as a musician) equalized for us with a free kick very late in the game. We won in extra time.
In the final we played Ballingarry and, to everyone’s amazement, won 13–0. I later worked with one of the Ballingarry players in Dublin – I think they had all been hungover on the day in question.
As Tipperary champions we were through to the North Munster final, and played Ennis in Limerick. We lost 4–2. I remember that Ennis had a very good left-winger with whom I had some difficulty. I also remember our team: Billy Seymour, me, Tony Whelan, Sean Minogue, John Fogarty, Phillip Kennedy, Gerry O’Connor, Ger Hyland, Chris O’Halloran, Joe Holland, Bernard Banaghan. Vincent Hogan, who would later become a sports journalist and would ghost-write Paul McGrath’s autobiography, was a sub.
The next year I had started university in Dublin; I hitched home some weekends, and played a few matches for the youth team. The best players from the previous year were now over-age, and as I wasn’t training I was losing my fitness.
I had some kick-abouts on Belfield’s all-weather pitches with some of my new First-Science friends (and my Nenagh friend Billy Seymour). We formed a team to represent First Science in the UCD Cup competition, and played Third Commerce, who expected to win as they were two years older. We won 3–1, and I scored a goal.
I continued to play sporadically into my second year at college, but by then I was quite unfit and had other interests. It fizzled out, and I played no more soccer until the games on our lawn or on holidays in the noughties, and with Sean and his friends on the local AstroTurf pitch in the summer of 2009.
I enjoyed immensely the thousands of hours of soccer that I played, which now seem like a lifetime ago. I couldn’t have been doing anything better with my time. My companions and I went our own ways, and no lifelong friendships were formed (at least not by me). Albert Camus famously said that ‘what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to [playing soccer]’. That would be an exaggeration in my case, but I’m sure I must have learned some things.