TRUDGING slowly over gravelled sand, back to the dressing room where your clothes – and Sony Walkman – were stolen.
Caledonian Park, our fields of dreams, is lying relatively fallow to football these times. “I see the boys of summer in their ruin,” pined Dylan Thomas, although, in relation to Cals, Don Henley’s “after the boys of summer have gone” might be more accurate.
Prospect Priory, one of the distinguished elders of Limerick football, still play at the ground and keep the light on. Weston Villa remains one of the original tenants but now play elsewhere. Hyde Rangers were once tenants but moved to their own premises in the vicinity in the late 1990s.
Back in the day, at this time of the year, the ground would be virtually booked out with inter-pub, inter-firm, schoolboy and junior matches, with reports in the Limerick Leader to follow.
If you saw your name in the local your week was made, your friends were jealous – and the Guards had a fair idea of where you lived, like!
In my case, my name was usually mentioned in sentences such as, “how did he miss from that distance”, or, “if he had brought any less concentrated effort to his task he would have slipped into a coma.”
In football, a daisy cutter is a low flying shot a few inches off the ground. Likewise, one report described how a “30-yard daisy cutter flew inches over the bar,” implying, as it did, that the grass in Cals was seven-foot-high, and we were, in fact, playing in the Duck N’ Drake inter-pub semi-final in North Vietnam.
For the record, the surface at the Hyde Road venue was always well-manicured by the excellent ground staff. Some may recall Joe dangling from the crossbar hanging up the nets; nets that most of us never rattled.
Cals, where do you begin? On one occasion, I mentioned to the ref that the ball was as hard as a rock because someone had pumped too much air into it. “I won’t be kicking it,” he said. Helpful.
On another occasion, we started against opposition who were using 13 players. They, because the subs took exception to being subs, were using the revolutionary 4-4-4 system.
Many of the top managers in England back in the 1980s were immediately attracted to this ground-breaking format, but the great John Giles pointed out a technical issue. Something to do with the rules of Association Football, apparently!
Speaking to Giles, I ventured the opinion that he and Leeds United were playing ‘totaalvoetbal’ (total football) years before the great Johan Cruyff-led Dutch teams laid claim to the concept. Giles naturally agreed.
“His (Cruyff) vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one can see in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam, wrote David Winner in Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football.
It’s doubtful if Norman Hunter was ever loafing around admiring Vermeer, a talented artist but less creative than Cruyff, particularly if he was trying to amble through the Elland Road midfield.
Jordi Cruyff, meantime, tells a wonderful story about his dad. None of the kids in their neighbourhood would pick a kid with Down Syndrome – also one of our cherished boys of summer – and he would sit there with his ball watching them play, excluded. One day, Cruyff senior had a kick around with the kid exclusively.
A few hours later every team on the block wanted him on their side. Sometimes all it takes is a tiny gesture to change perceptions, and when you reach the top you have a moral obligation to pass the ladder back down. Cruyff was not only one of the top five greatest footballers of all time, he was also a humanist, although it remains a mystery why he didn’t line out for the Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup.
Argentina, a wonderful side nefariously influenced by a homicidal junta, beat the Dutch in the final. Who knows what would have happened if Cruyff was there.
Meantime, 20 minutes into the first half of the recent Ireland versus Austria World Cup qualifier the mice started throwing themselves in their traps. Thirty minutes in and the budgie nailed himself to the bars of his cage. Ireland are playing a breed of football that is even more dreadful than the Jack Charlton era.
Given their abysmal first half performance, it would be as well if they didn’t qualify at all. The World Cup is the greatest sporting show on earth. All nations bring something to the table: attitude, style, technique. But all we appear capable of doing is playing football from the game’s deep dark past.
If the World Cup was a musical festival the various countries would be giving us fine renditions of Beethoven, Bach, Miles Davis and Steely Dan.
But all Paddy would be offering would be Tommy Drennan covers, on an accordion. Contrast our sybarite millionaire footballers with the SFAI Kennedy Cup, once again magnificently hosted by the Limerick District League at the University of Limerick (UL) last week.
Every league in the country is under the one roof for five days. Each team gets five or six games. It takes 96 games to complete proceedings. Sligo / Leitrim, one of Ireland’s smallest leagues, were this season’s giant-killers. They reached the final but were beaten 2-0 by the defending champions, the Dublin District Schoolboy League (DDSL).
All three local sides, Limerick District, Limerick Desmond and Limerick County, gave good accounts of themselves. The young athletes, because of the positive influence of their coaches, are playing without that low-level anxiety that seems to grip a lot of professional players from this neck of the woods when they are in possession of the ball.
Numerous cross-channel scouts, and one from an American University, were in UL mining for unpolished diamonds. Years back there was even a scout from Rangers in UL. You can imagine his dilemma. “You’re some player, son, but what’s your take on the 2nd Vatican Council, eh?”
But something happens when some of these young men enter the semi-professional and professional ranks. A strange fear grips them and they just couldn’t play, to paraphrase Morrissey again. It seems that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, like Charlton before them, don’t trust Irish players to be creative and send them out to play a sterile percentage game.
Meantime, the great John Delaney, who is now employed by UEFA, was also in UL for the Kennedy Cup. The FAI head banana gets €300 a day walking-around money with UEFA, according to reports. It remains unclear if he was on the clock in UL. Incidentally, if you jog around, as opposed to walking, does UEFA cough up €600 a day, improving to €900 a day if you do the full Usain Bolt?
Nice work if you can get it, as Billy Holiday might say, but you wouldn’t get it walking around Cals.