Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One Night in Bray

 This is a longer version of the piece I wrote for the Irish Daily Star after watching Shamrock Rovers bid to seal the 2010 Airtricity League title among their fans in Bray Wanderers' Carlisle Grounds on Friday, October 29.

Hooperman and friends (© Irish Times)
The performance wasn’t pretty but Rovers fans didn’t care. Champions again after 16 years.

“This is right up there with the birth of my kids,” said lifelong fan Michael Glackin.

“Words don’t do justice to how good this feels. Sixteen years and all we’ve been through; losing Glenmalure, losing Milltown. It’s just unbelievable.”

Rovers never make things easy for their fans and so it had proved once again. They’d done enough and no more.

Before the match the prevailing mood was one of cautious optimism. Rovers fans knew the title destiny was in their own hands but have seen too many false dawns over the years to ever get over-confident.

Outside the Carlisle Grounds the revellers in the Hibernia Inn in spilled out on to the street as the Irish Sea descended into blackness. The party was already underway.

“The Hoops are having a party...and Bohs are going bust,” rang the chant for anyone a bit slow on the uptake.

Some had experienced the Bray pub in quieter times and a small group started a chorus of “where were you when we were sh*t?” Sorry lads, but you’ll have to be more specific.

Inside the arena Hooperman was doing his best the stoke up the atmosphere, goading Rocky the Seagull, his Bray counterpart, to the delight of the away supporters.

The pair decided the settle things with a dance off; Hooperman trumping Rocky’s haka by walking like an Egyptian. The surreal spectacle ended with the pair embracing. Mascot solidarity.

Soon after, the teams emerged from the dressing room and the real fun and games began.

The electric atmosphere couldn’t hide the tension and a couple of speculative early efforts from Bray induced more than a few skipped heat beats. The cries of derision when the danger had subsided were borne out of sheer relief rather than arrogance.

The nerves proved justified minutes later when Bray took the lead through Jake Kelly. But after a brief stunned the Rovers chants began soon again. Nobody could accuse them of only singing when they’re winning. “Mick O’Neill’s green and white army” was constant.

A sardonic Build Me Up Buttercup also got a couple of renditions. Rovers fans had been built up and let down by their club on infinite occasions over the years and it was starting to look like they’d blown it again.

Referee Alan Kelly was on the receiving end of the growing frustration but in adversity the supporters retained their sense of humour. “Whatever Bohs are paying you they can’t afford it,” was the reaction to one perceived injustice. “UEFA my arse!” was another less subtle jibe.

Gary Twigg’s scrappy goal just before half time settled things down a bit and renewed Roveres title hopes. But despite the fact that they were still top of the table at the break, the fans were under no illusions about what they’d just seen.

“Rovers are absolutely shocking,” was the assessment of Dave Dolan.

“They just can’t pass the ball. You can’t blame nerves because this has been going on for the last six or seven matches. I think the manager’s negativity is rubbing off on the team and we’ve just been found out.

"It's an eerie atmosphere. You can tell how nervous everyone is. But hopefully the goal will settle us down and we’ll come out with a bit more positivity.”

That they did, and Tommy Stewart put them ahead after their first passing move of the match. His cool finish sparked an explosion of noise, flares and fireworks as Rovers edged closer to the finishing line.

Gary Twigg and Tommy Stewart celebrate Rovers' second goal. (© Irish Times)
Things got better later when news filtered through that Bohemians had conceded an equaliser at home to Dundalk but Gary Shaw’s leveller for Bray soon provoked the first extended silence from the away support.

The destiny of the title was once again in the balance but there were few scares from then on as the match petered out to give Rovers the point they by then knew would be enough.

The final whistle sparked mass jubilation and a pitch invasion to rival any All-Ireland final. Of those that stayed in the stand, some had champagne ready and the first rendition of “championes” rang out.

Among the fans in the stand was former player Jason Caldwell.

“I’m relieved,” he said. “That’s the overriding emotion. I was Rovers before I played and since. It means a lot to a lot of people. The first title is the hardest so hopefully this is just the start“

Also there was former club kit man Michael O’Connell.

“Relieved is the word,” he said.

“I can’t believe it. I was the kit the man in the 60’s with Liam Tuohy and Frank O’Neill and all of them. This is just fantastic.”

The pitch invasion meant that little of the trophy presentation could be seen and at one stage it looked as if the podium would be swept away by the crowd. Nobody cared. It was the dawning of a new era in Irish football as far as they were concerned.

“Sixteen years of heartache broken,” said Harry from Knocklyon, a Rovers fan of 40 years. “The is the beginning of a new era and the place to be is Tallaght. And the best thing about it is Bohs are going bust!”

He was soon drowned out by a cacophony of car horns as supporters went to bring the celebrations back to Tallaght. The Hoops were having a party alright, and after sixteen years of hardship no one could begrudge them that.