When The Cats Had The Cream.
There have been so many League of Ireland clubs that have gone bust over the years that I’m sure everyone at some point can remember the sad departure of at least one of those sides.
Drumcondra’s demise in the early seventies became one of the highest profiles. The first non-league winners of the FAI Cup, the first Irish team to win a tie in Europe, a club that’s boasted a huge array of talent and honours throughout the years which included 5 LOI titles, 5 FAI Cups and 4 LOI Shield’s. But for every trophy-laden cabinet at a Drumcondra, Cork United or St James’ Gate there was always a handful more of minnows whose very existence in the league proved their reward.
One such team was Kilkenny City.
I always had a soft spot for the ‘Cats’. Not from a logistical point of view ( just up the road from Waterford and therefore our nearest local derby), but the fact it’s owner and co-founder Jim Rhatigan had survived in a pond, threading water in the face of a humongous fish that swallowed up everything, everyone or every sport around it.
Bringing football to the folk of Kilkenny? An English sport surviving in the most nationalist of games in the home of hurling?
Possibly the most one-side battle since a young Israelite named David took on a Philistine giant measuring over nine feet tall and emerged victor by using merely a handful of stones.
And for a while it actually worked. There was a point in Kilkenny City’s existence, during the mid-nineties mainly, that locals went to Buckley Park to see what the commotion was about. A commotion that was cemented by silverware in the shape of the 1996/97 First Division Title. What made the victory even more astonishing was the fact that 2 years previous City finished rock bottom with 25 defeats from 27. Not a club anywhere in the world have made such a transition from chumps to champions in such a short space of time.
Though not a League of Ireland club until 1985, a bunch of Leaving Cert students formed the club during a free class in a Christian Brother school in 1966.
Originally called EMFA (the EM for Emmett Place and the FA for Fatima Place where co-founder Jim Rhatigan grew up) the club played locally until gaining entry into the inaugural First Division in 1985.
Stationed at Buckley Park, EMFA played their first league game at home to Derry City on the 20th October 1985. Jim Leahy would have the honour of scoring the clubs first league goal in that 1-1 draw.
That first season proved a harsh introduction to League of Ireland football. One win in 18 games meant “the Black Cats” finished bottom on 8 points, however just a season later the club picked up its first piece of top flight silverware. In possibly the most unlikely of victories, EMFA beat Finn Harps 4-2 to take the 1986/87 First Division League of Ireland Shield under manager Joe McGrath. The club changed their name to Kilkenny City in 1989 and went on an FAI Cup run two years later which brought them to the Semi-Finals. An astonishing 6,500 piled into Buckley Park to watch the Cats narrowly lose out to a Derek Swan goal for Shamrock Rovers.
Although still a minority sport in city & county, the fact the all-conquering hurlers were anything but all-conquering at this point began to help Rhatigan’s side. Between 1985-1991 and 1994-1999 Kilkenny failed to return from Croke Park with the Liam McCarthy Cup. In fact between 1983-1999 the cup only returned three times during a sixteen year period.
It’s not that die-hard patrons of Nolan Park renounced their idols, tore up their tickets and headed for Buckley Park on the outskirts of town, but it did make sure the turnstiles clicked a little more excessively. A fact helped by a local derby forged with Waterford United a mere 40 minutes down the road.
And there were a few spicy encounters, made more venomous when City became a haven for ex-Waterford United players. Though the Blues had the upper-hand on most occasions, the Cats crowning glory of the duelling duo came when City beat United in the 1999/2000 promotion/relegation play-off with a smattering of ex-Waterford players and a Suirsider (Paul Power) in charge of Kilkenny.
Though the Premier Division never agreed with the Cats (relegation always followed just as quickly as promotion) in terms of matchday experiences Buckley Park was loveable. This quaint little ground in the middle of nowhere that Rhatigan helped build on his own money and with the support of sponsorship deals with local companies like TC Tyres. A stand behind the south-end goal added to the main stand and at its zenith Buckley Park had 1850 seats in a 6,000 capacity stadium and a field that was always a lush surface to play on. A ground both for a mere £16,000.
But inevitably there was good with bad. Failure to field a team against Finn Harps in the 1998/99 FAI Cup quarter-final caused embarrassment, tacked on with a hefty fine.
Attendances dwindled during the new millennium and the resurgence of their hurling counterparts and the club found it harder and harder to balance the books.
Sadly Kilkenny City went under in 2012 for a mere €50,000 that nobody involved with the club could afford.
50K...what a waste.
A wise man once said ‘May the dreams of your past be the reality of your future’.
It will be a nice one if it that future involves Kilkenny City again