In his 2008 book, ex-England and Newcastle United manager Bobby Robson beautifully described the effect a football club can have on a young child.
What is a club in any case?
It’s not the directors, television contracts or executive boxes.
It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.
It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time,
gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed turf beneath him,
and, without being able to do a thing about it,
falling in love.
For me, it wasn’t St. James’ Park, nor was it the Premier League. It was Morton Stadium on a Friday night with my dad and my brother. It was perfect.
Growing up, a lot of my friends had dads who were football mad. Ross and his dad regularly went to Tolka Park to watch Shelbourne, Marty and his dad often travelled over to Old Trafford, while Tadhg and his dad rarely missed an Ireland game. This wasn’t the case in my house.
I wouldn’t go so far to say my dad “hated” football, but he certainly wasn’t its biggest fan ! “Why would anyone want to watch 22 men run around for 90 minutes?”, he’d often wonder. It must have been a challenge for him to have two football-mad sons annoying him about football jerseys, boots, and stickers!
Then came Sporting Fingal.
Sporting Fingal was born out of a chance conversation in 2006 between Fingal County Council’s John O’Brien, and Irish football legend Niall Quinn. Both men recognised the potential a new club had to represent Fingal, an area that had one of the fastest growing populations in Europe at the time.
Within two years Sporting Fingal entered the 2008 First Division. After an opening day 5-1 defeat to Longford, Liam Buckley led Fingal to a respectable fourth paced finish. That winter Buckley made a number of key signings, including Shaun Williams (now at Millwall) and Gary O’Neill. No one in Irish football could have predicted the success 2009 would bring, as the club won the FAI cup and promotion to the Premier Division.
In and around this time, my dad began taking myself and my brother to Morton Stadium to see Fingal play. Those memories of Santry stick out in my mind like it was yesterday. The car ride past the airport, buying our family ticket outside, the long windy walk towards the main stand and annoying dad for a bag of chips at half time! Looking back on it now, for my dad it was a chance for the three of us to spend some quality “lads time” together, the football was secondary.
We loved trying to teach him the offside rule, or how to say Eamon Zayed’s name properly. Dad would even let us wait around after full time to see if we could get an autograph from Conan Byrne or Ronan Finn. I think that the most valuable thing that a parent can give their child is time, and all those nights we shared in Morton Stadium mean the world to me.
2010 proved another impressive season for Fingal. Buckley led them to fourth place, only five points off champions Shamrock Rovers. They also played Martimo in Europa League qualifying that summer, losing 6-4 after two legs. Fingal, who had originally hoped to gain promotion within five years, were miles ahead of initial expectations. However, cracks began to emerge that Autumn.
Fingal’s main backer, property developer Gerry Gannon was being pressured by NAMA to cut ties with the club as the Irish property bubble began to implode. Other sponsors soon began to walk away, while Fingal County Council stepped in to find a replacement to Gannon. With the 2011 season approaching, last-ditch attempts were made by the council to secure a deal, which was never found.
Ten years ago, this month, Sporting Fingal’s players were brutally told that the club had ceased and that they were now free agents. Some, including Buckley, feel that the council should have done more to secure a future for the club:
They got cold feet in the end, they should have backed us more and honoured their commitment.
O’Brien was scathing when describing FCC’s handling of the situation.
In the space of a few weeks, FCC’s pride in the project had been transformed. I was given strict orders to shut the club down and was instructed that no outstanding wages were to be paid from club funds. In the end they actually seemed happy to let the club die.
For a club to win promotion, an FAI cup and play in Europe, all in the first three years of existence was extraordinary. Who knows where the club would be today if a backer was found, or if the council took charge?
Fingal played their final ever game on 29 October 2010 beating UCD 4-1. It was also the same week my dad passed away, oddly enough. I feel really lucky that we got the opportunity to support Fingal together. I’d give anything to spend a Friday night sitting in the freezing cold with him again.
So, thank you Sporting Fingal. Thanks for providing me with those irreplaceable memories. Every time that I pass by Morton Stadium I smile and feel his hand in mine.