Something In Reserve.....
WATERFORD DECEMBER 1990
Life is a funny thing. Nothing hits as hard as it. It can bring you to your knees and keep you there if you let it. Supporting a football team can have the very same effect. There are times when you laugh and cry. Mourn and grieve. Feel joy and pain.
When things are bad we take comfort in the thought they could always be worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad they can only get better!
There’s even a time when standing on the terraces supporting your club is not enough. Paying through the turnstiles and enjoying ninety minutes of football at your chosen level, is a national institution. But every so often there comes a brief moment in time when roaring your heart out for the cause is not enough. A chance comes along to change the direction of the club you love forever.
Just for one week 17 years ago, I experienced this first hand. What it felt like to play a small but pivotal role in the history of our proud club.
Seven days in December which started with an innocent phone call that placed a club into turmoil, and ended with a bright new future for a new generation on Waterford players. Above all, it also proved the sacred yet underestimated value of two small words: Reserve team.
The morning of December 14th was no different to any other. The festive season was in full swing, and parents were frantically spending a years mortgage money, and using a colourful array of credit cards, so little Jimmy could have his new Scalextric set and the latest Barbie doll and matching Ken for baby Lisa.
I’d just finished early for work, and was looking forward to Waterford’s upcoming weekend game against high-flying Derry City. It hadn’t been the best of starts for United. They'd regained their Premier status six months earlier by virtue of the club’s first league title in almost two full decades. The Blues had been thrown into turmoil by the shock departure of manager and crowd favourite, Johnny Matthews.
Only weeks after leading United to the first division crown and a return to the League Of Ireland elite after just one season out of the limelight, Matthews had departed leaving former sixties team-mate and fellow Blues legend, Shamie Coad to pick up the pieces at Kilcohan Park.
Not that this was surprising. Turmoil was part of everyday life as a Waterford United fan. For months now the board of directors had been under increasing pressure from fans. They were annoyed with a perceived lack of funds to bolster the squad, and were in despair at the depths the club had sunk to after a glorious day in April, when United had seen off the challenge of a plucky Limerick side, to take the First Division title.
I served on the supporters club and exchanged frequent pleasantries with the club Chairman. Organising of coaches, updates on supporters club activities, general chitchat.
Nothing however prepared me for the phone call I made that Friday afternoon, and the ensuing drama that was about to unfold.
Popping into a phone box, I picked up the receiver and dialled our Chairman’s number. I needed details for that weekend’s game; the arduous 230 mile, five hour trip to Northern Ireland to play the Candystripes of Derry City.
Five minutes later I put the phone down in a state of utter shock.
Put simply, Waterford were broke. The board, worn out from arguing with the Waterford supporters, trying to make ends meet, fighting a losing battle, couldn't go any further. A year long sparing match that had seen words exchanged on both sides and pitch protests. Some of the board had announced they were stepping down and no arrangements had been made for that weekend’s trip to Derry. I was stunned. Things had hit an all-time low. No Chairman. No board. No chiefs to hold the fort.
With less than 48 hours to go to United’s match, not one single arrangement had been made. No coach called. No accommodation booked. No idea what to do.
Worst of all, no money.
When I gathered my senses, the obvious occurred to me. With no funds for the weekend, how in the name of Christ was Waterford going to get to Derry, let alone play them?
Of course there were more far-reaching, serious implications. If Waterford failed to fulfil their fixture, there would be automatic penalties. A points deduction. Fines. Maybe even expulsion. With only half the season gone, and the Blues rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, the last thing needed was a loss of points making the mountain even more insurmountable.
What started out as Ben Nevis, was now shaping up to be our Everest. With a board of directors seemingly gone , and with it, any small imput of money the club might have had, a crisis was unfolding right before my eyes. This was something that just couldn’t be turned around in the blink of an eye. There were no investors in the town. Nobody willing to bail United out of the mire to the tune of even four figures, let alone five. There simply was no knight in shining armour. The club had traded around the poverty line for quite some time now but this was an astonishing twist in the tale.
We were down on the ground getting the proverbial kicking, and now there was a steamroller waiting in the wings to finish us off. If something wasn’t set in motion quickly, the club could only be a matter of weeks from folding.
There were only two options. Sink or swim. Unfortunately, since yours truly had been the only one privy to the bombshell that had just been dropped and the first expected to react, I took the burden of a club in crisis on my narrow shoulders, and briefly tried to be some kind of an unwitting saviour of sorts.
The things we do for love!
Now I had plans to bring my wife out for a meal that night and could have done without the ensuing heart attack this problem was almost certainly going to give me, but I had a plan.
The next 30 minutes were spent making frantic phone calls to members of the supporters club. I proposed that myself and four other people either associated with the club, or in a position to help out, would meet at 5pm in a hotel lobby to set in motion a plan of action.
To a man, everyone agreed, and within an hour, five men arrived at the Granville Hotel in an effort to save the club.
Milo Corcaran was the Chairman of the supporters club, and seemed shocked but not entirely surprised at this turn of events.
Micheal Hayes, another who had done trojan work at the club, was informed him of the meeting and arrived next.
Nicky Denn was involved locally at Junior league level. The Southend man was well respected and a man to get things done. If you were knee deep in shit, or fighting in the trenches, Nicky’s the guy you want alongside you.
Finally David McCarthy was a friend of mine and man with a mind choc full of ideas. A person who could help us out no end.
After pleasantries were exchanged and a few more heads scratched at what was unfolding before our eyes (I’m bald now and convinced my follicly challenged noggin began to lose hair from that precise moment!), we calculated that a total of around £1,000 would be needed to cover the expense of the weekend game in Derry.
The idea was that if five of us could raise £200 each, then Waterford would be able to travel and therefore fulfil this vital fixture.
Trouble was we needed the money that night!
With a trip to the Brandywell - home of Derry City, the club would have had a coach departing from Waterford City at around 5pm Saturday at the very latest. Although things were tight at the club, an overnight stay would always be a must for the longest trip in any of Waterford's seasons. They mightn’t have been much chance of a shock at the Brandywell that Sunday, but when eleven players arrive with deep vein thrombosis after six hours on a bone-shaker of a bus, your chances range somewhere between slim and none. £1,000 was needed, and needed tonight.
With that, we all agreed to meet back in the Granville Hotel in two hours, in the hope that five of us would somehow collectively have a grand in Irish money to hopefully save the day.
It was cold. It was bitter. It was winter. Thankfully it was also two weeks before Christmas. Friday night late-night shopping meant a better chance to catch a few local businesses whilst they were still trading. A warm fire and hot brandy would have been so welcoming at this point, but here I was, like a fool, with four other deranged idiots, out begging for cash so our club wouldn’t go under.
This was insane. Had it actually come to this? Five grown men running cap-in-hand into every butcher’s shop, publican’s bar, and restaurant pleading for money for a club they may never have seen, let alone set foot in Kilcohan Park for. And this was 1990 folks! This was light years away from prawn sandwiches and Premiership Prima-Donnas who moan if the temperature in the dressing room is one degree lower, and are paid sickeningly obscene amounts of money.
We had no dig outs from corporate clones with the feeling of a serial killer and the passion of a stone. Imagine, Roman Abramovich telling Chelsea he’s selling up, and Peter Kenyon & Jose Mourinho popping down the local off licence for a loan of a few quid to pay Andrei Shevchenko’s wages this week!
There was no honour in having to effectively beg Bob the Butcher and Paddy the Publican for some money, but there simply was no alternative for us. Even if we did succeed, it would only be temporary, and there would be several more daunting bridges to cross. If we were to actually stop and think of the insanity of it all, we might have gone home and prayed for a miracle in this time of goodwill to all men.
Two hours later, we all rendezvoused back at the hotel. The warmth of the Granville was a blessing.
So were the four other bundles of notes staring across at me from four clenched, triumphant fists. I beg, stole and borrowed (metaphor folks!- I didn’t really rob anyone) and somehow managed to get my £200, but had no idea if my other four comrades in arms would be able to do the same.
But they came shining through! Everyone placed their money on the table.
Four bundles of cash that equalled £1,000. Some got it in one shop, some in a combination of four. But everyone had produced a result.
A mere four hours ago the club was looking at a possible points deduction and hefty fine from the big guns of the League. Now at three minutes past nine, an emergency £1,000 had been raised and the club had some much needed breathing space. The fat lady might have been clearing her throat to sing, but the bitch wasn’t at the microphone just yet!
Straight away a coach was booked. The team would be collected on Saturday afternoon and travel to Monaghan where we would arrange for an overnight stay. From there, they would make a ninety-minute journey to Derry and be well recuperated. The combined total funds we’d collected would just about cover the full expense - leaving possibly enough money for a sandwich and half a small bottle of Guinness.
After a much needed brandy with my cohorts, I finally arrived home and collapsed in bed. The burden of the world which had been thrown on my narrow shoulders shortly after 3pm that day had been temporarily lifted and my aching back could rest for a while.
Surely things could only get better from here? Of course I was an idiot.
The next morning another bombshell had dropped.
The players wouldn’t play!
It was a well-known fact, for almost a month now, that Waterford United’s players hadn’t been paid for the last three weeks. Although unaware as yet of the unfolding boardroom drama, some Waterford senior players had enough of it and refused to travel to Derry.
Having booked a bus, there were now no players to sit on it!
Having made accommodation reservations, there were now no players to sleep in the beds!
It never rains, but man, does it pour!
Manager Shamie Coad was at the end of his tether. Although he sympathized with his team’s dilemma and agreed with their determination to show some kind of a stance, he didn’t need it in the form of a stay at home Sunday by most of his senior soccer staff.
With almost half of his entire senior squad refusing to budge, the Blues were back to square one. It was at this point that the two most important words, that crucial weekend came into play.
Seen by some as a collection of men who cannot make the grade, a combination of injury-ravaged first teamers and young teenagers whose role in the scheme of Waterford United is reduced to a bit-part substitutes role in the last ten minutes of an end of season kick-about.
How wrong that would prove to be. Never before or after in the history of the Blues’ had the value of a reserve side been shown such worth.
With only a half dozen first team regulars wiling to get on a bus to Derry, Shamie Coad would have to call up the reserve squad at literally a moments notice. Even then there was no guarantee players were free.
For the first and only time that weekend, lady luck was shining on the Blues.
As it turned out, Waterford’s reserve squad were due to play at home to St. James’ Gate that afternoon. With not a moment to spare, Coad travelled down to where United's young and youthful reserve squad was playing.
Shamie knew he’d have no choice but to ask these young men to hop on the bus literally the minute they finished the reserve game, but if form were anything to go by, bringing everyone of these kids would be a godsend.
The young Blues’ side absolutely hammered the Dubliners that afternoon. A mixture of youthful exuberance and untapped talent, Waterford’s young pretenders made short work of the ‘Gate - eventually winning 7-1. No sooner had the game ended than Coad went to have a word with the fledglings.
Having told them of the precarious situation the club was in, he asked for a show of hands from whoever would travel to Derry and help out the club in its hour of need.
Not one hand stayed down.
To a man, everyone of the Waterford United reserve team put themselves forward as a willing passenger on the coach leaving in a matter of minutes. Sure, they’d be tired aching limbs, niggling injuries, and plans for a night on the town with the lads dashed, but none of these are a match for the innocence of youth and the sheer exuberance of playing football to these young men.
We’d dodged another bullet.
Finally that Saturday afternoon a bus did leave from the Quayside. Aboard it a squad of Waterford players travel to fulfil an obligation that didn’t look in any way possible 24 hours earlier.
I didn’t travel that evening. At the time I’m sure I was exhausted but looking back at what we had achieved, I’m a little disappointed I didn’t. The trip to the North is always a daunting one, so the players were treating the overnight stay in Monaghan like gold. A chance to recharge the batteries and get to grips with the astonishing chain of events that had them holed up in a hotel on the border when they should have been on a pub-crawl in Waterford.
By the time the Blues arrived at the Brandywell, news had got around about the dramatic saga that had unfolded at Waterford that weekend.
The Derry crowd seemed impressed at the way United had managed to pull together at the last moment, and even if the young Waterford side had as much chance of winning as a snowball in hell, they recognised the effort.
Finally, when all was said and done, it was time for Coad's young charges to walk out onto the Brandywell surface. A future still uncertain maybe, and a group of senior players on strike, but Waterford had at least made it to the home of the Candystripes to play the fixture.
As they walked out onto the field, the Blues’ were given a standing ovation by the Derry supporters.
It was a lovely touch that offered the hand of friendship. As much to say “ we know the shit you’ve gone through, fair play to you”. The Blues’ players responded by returning the applause and got themselves ready for the match.
Waterford started the match; Donnacha Mullane, Jim O’Brien, Paul Devereux, Brendan O’Callaghan, Alan Barry, Aidan Swift, Pascal Keane, Gary Coad, Derek O’Connor, Paul Cashin & Aidan Power.
Taking into account Richie Hale and Niall Hogan adorning the substitutes bench, Waterford had no less than EIGHT reserve team players in their line up. Players whose first team experience to date had been reduced to five minutes at an end of season kick-about or summer friendly against English opposition.
For young United goalkeeper Donnacha Mullane, it would be a baptism of fire. In front of him, the likes of Paul Devereux, Brendan O’Callaghan and Jim O’Brien were faced with the might of a Derry attack with the prolific Jonathon Speak still in his pomp. On the bench sat Ritchie Hale, who that day would create his own family’s piece of history by becoming the tenth member of the Hale dynasty to play senior soccer for Waterford. It continued a 60-year link that went back to Waterford’s first ever season in Free State Football league in 1930.
Before the Blues even kicked a ball, the battle had been won. Sure, the result was important to a relegation haunted side like Waterford United and it might prove be too late to reverse the trend of poor results, but at the very least, the club had overcome a massive obstacle on the way to the land of redemption.
Derry took the lead after 14 minutes when Felix Healy’s free kick avoided the despairing grasp of Mullane and nestled nicely in the Waterford net. However Paul Cashin hadn’t read Derry’s script of events (which predicted a 9-0 drubbing of the Suirsider’s- with Speak scoring eight), as the Blues’ got a shock equalizer on 28 minutes. Again it was a free kick, beautifully dispatched into the opposing end of the ground and past a helpless City goalkeeper.
Suddenly Waterford had the bare face cheek to go and try win the game!
A couple of corners were forced and a half chance for Pascal Keane, but parity was restored two minutes before half time when O’Brien was harshly adjudged to have brought down Carlyle. Stuart Gauld stepped up and duly dispatched the penalty past Mullane.
The United goalkeeper was kept busy for the rest of the half, as was his overworked, under-experienced defence.
Getting to the interval a mere one goal behind the Candystripes, seemed a very successful first period for the young Blues’ side, but two minutes after the break the game was effectively killed off by the home side when Donal O’Brien notched from close range. With an hour gone, United were 3-1 down and tired legs and weary bodies were beginning to tell.
In the 67th minute, O’Brien got his brace with a well-taken goal, and soon after, Dessie Gorman popped up to put the Candystripes 5-1 ahead.
It looked as if things were getting progressively worse for Coad’s young charges, but with 15 minutes left, debutant Hale reduced the arrears by pulling a goal back for the Blues. It was a fine strike and a proud day for the latest member of the Hale clan and he didn’t disappoint, in a fine display at the Brandywell. Ironically, to date, he’s still the only member of the Hale family to have scored in the Brandywell.
Jonathon Speak completed the scoring with 12 minutes left, beating Mullane with a trademark finish. The Derry striker was the most feared hit man in the league and boasted a prolific goal-scoring record. The last ten minutes were played out with aching limbs and strong hearts trying to carry Waterford over the finishing line, without conceding another goal to the home side. Speake’s goal (thank Christ) was the last, and gave Derry City a 6-2 win. It may have been a hammering, but the depleted Blues side gave absolutely everything, and then some. Nothing more could possibly be asked from the Blues’ side-reserve and senior together. Again the home fans applauded the young Blues off the field and their thanks was reciprocated by Coad’s men.
It had brought the curtain down on one of the most turbulent weekends in the club’s history. With a Chairman and board of directors gone and a new regime standing waiting in the wings to take over at the helm, it had been a dramatic turn of events from a simple phone call on Friday afternoon.
But there was still one final piece to fit in the jigsaw.
Although Waterford had fulfilled the fixture, there was still the small matter of a senior team on strike. With United due to play their last home game of 1990 the following Sunday against league leaders Dundalk, a resolution would have to be sorted (unless the Blues were going to play the rest of the season with almost all of their reserve squad!).
The following week in training, Shamie Coad assembled his full squad with us and the enormity of the situation was spelled out.
Right or wrong, the players had a principle they had stood up on and had made their point, but now we were asking for a fresh start. The onus had now fallen upon a new board of directors to care for the well being of Waterford United. All we asked for was some time, a little leeway, and some co-operation from the squad.
Everyone agreed immediately. Despite not being paid, and remaining at home whilst a bunch of fledging Blues travelled the 460 mile round trip to take on the Derry in their own backyard, they were Waterford players in the end.
Players who had proudly worn the blue & white every Sunday for seasons and gave their all, every ninety minutes for a pittance wage. Most had experienced the lows of relegation, the highs of promotion, and were still at the club they professed to love. Now with a new board to oversee proceedings at Kilcohan Park, the future had suddenly took an upturn in their eyes.
The team unanimously agreed to play the following Sunday at home to Dundalk whilst we looked after the problem of trying to put a few quid in their pockets. And with it Waterford United unveiled a new management committee at Kilcohan Park.
Milo Corcoran, one of my cap-in-hand £200 cohorts, would be installed as the new Chairman with Ger O’Connor as secretary and John Shelly as treasurer. I volunteered myself for the management committee along with Bertie Rogers and Doctor Liam McCann (who’s office was extremely handy for meetings!), and we set about trying to put in place a plan to oversee the immediate future of Waterford United.
Sunday the 23rd of December arrived in no time.
I was awoken by the sound of hailstones against my window and the tapping of a broken branch against a gutter. There was devastation outside. Gale force winds had knocked rubbish bins aside and litter adorned my front garden. The howling winds and pelting rain was not the start I had envisaged at the first game at Kilcohan under our new structure.
Dundalk were the visitors to Kilcohan that afternoon. The Lilywhite’s were leading the league with only one defeat in their first 17 games. It would be a tall order, but this was the season of miracles. Having overcome the shock of no bus, hotel and half a team on the picket line, we were still, somehow playing League Of Ireland football.
Having gone cap-in-hand in sub zero conditions late one Friday night before Christmas to beg for money from complete strangers, we had achieved a victory of getting a depleted, yet united Waterford side to Derry, even if that was the only win we had that weekend. Now all we needed was a final miracle from the little baby Jesus two days before his birthday and we’d all be happy.
Despite the weather, and the tempting sight of a roaring fire and a hot toddy at home, the Blues’ faithful turned out for the tie. Numbers were slightly up, though still firmly in the hundreds and nothing near the thousands. It had been a way of life for United that season. Bottom of the Premier and winless in their last eight games, the Blues had got used to a small hardcore support turning out in all conditions to follow their club through thick and thin.
There may have been only 500 hardy souls there that day, but the rafters shook in the main stand as Waterford took to the field. Fresh from sorting out the picketing players, Coad reinstated most of his regulars but kept places for some of the reserve side that had helped United out in their hour of need.
It was hard to pinpoint one emotion for how I felt, as I watched our eleven men in blue & white take the field. Sure, there was delight and elation that matters had been resolved and Waterford was still here, but that was washed over by a feeling of overwhelming relief that I still had a club to support.
Alas, we didn’t get the fairytale ending our dream so richly deserved. Despite taking a 10th minute lead and holding onto it until the 50th minute, Waterford went down to three second half goals from Dundalk. The Lilywhite’s had been hassled and harried throughout the first half by a very determined Blues’ side, but the Lilywhite’s proved too strong in the end. Things could have been so much different had referee Pat Kelly not disallowed a perfectly good Ritchie Hale goal in the 70th minute. Mr Kelly didn’t have one of his better games that day in Kilcohan.
Crucially, the young striker was denied his second goal in as many games when he was harshly adjudged to have fouled Alan O’Neill in the visitor’s goal.
Despite that, Waterford belied their league position to keep forcing the issue with the league-leaders. McCarthy went close and Keane missed a vital touch on a driving ball across the penalty area by Reid. Just when it looked the home side might make a breakthrough, Dundalk countered and Martin Lawlor left Martin Quinlavin helpless with his drive in the 78th minute.
Waterford came again, and in the face of howling wind and rain, carried on regardless, in a plucky but vain effort to get United back into the game. It was a strange game. Despairing yet somehow enthralling.
How we would have loved a last minute equalizer. What I would have given for a last gasp goal from the boot of a reserve player. How fitting it would have been to end one of the most turbulent weeks in the club’s history on a high. What an adrenalin charge that would have been.
At the end of ninety minutes in atrocious conditions on a quagmire of a pitch, the final whistle shrilled into the cold evening air. Both sides were applauded off for the sheer effort in the face of provocation from both wind and rain.
Waterford were still bottom. Dundalk still top.
But things had changed forever that day. The club didn’t recover from its perilous position at the bottom of the table and were eventually relegated in April, but this would only prove temporary. A year later Waterford United would display fantastic resilience by returning to the League Of Ireland elite, a mere 12 months after vacating it as runners-up to First Division champions, Limerick.
Again the crowds came out to watch the Blues engage in a top of the table battle, which ended triumphantly with a promotion at the end of the 1992/93 season. Having piped Limerick City to the title, under Johnny Matthews just two seasons earlier, it was the Shannonsider’s turn to reverse the table and take the league title.
Having been beaten 22 times in 33 games the season before, Waterford lost just five of their 27 games in the First Division and piped Cobh Ramblers on the last day to return to the top flight.
That year, I watched in wonder as United blossomed. The reserve side, which had been so prevalent in that week in December, had come to fruition and several players from that team would become regulars in the senior squad. In an ironic twist several years later in 2002, it would be Shamie Coad, manager of the senior squad in 1990, that would take United’s under-21 team to the league title that year.
Fate has a funny way of showing its hand. A man who was indebted to a bunch of young teenagers a decade earlier would lead a new generation of reserve players to their finest hour.
Me, I still support the Blues. The venue may have changed, the players slightly different and my follicly challenged noggin still as bald as a baby’s bottom, but I look back on the weekend in December 17 years ago with affection. It caused uncontrollable stress and put four other men and myself on the verge of a heart attack but nonetheless I hark back to it with melancholy affection.
They say- whatever doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger.
I’ve never agreed more.
Martin Reid and Shelbourne's Bobby Browne in Waterford United's January 1991 clash at Kilcohan - the first game of Alfie Hale return after the turmoil of December 1990.