David Sneyd: Sharing the joy among Liverpool’s extended Irish family

Stephen Hegarty (on right) and a friend.
Stephen Hegarty (on right) and a friend.

Damien O'Leary delivers the line with the sort of comedic timing that, it might not be too unfair to assume, means this is not the first time he’s used it.

“If she loved New York, I’d have proposed in New York. If she loved the opera, I’d have proposed at the opera. But she doesn’t. She loves Liverpool, so I proposed at Anfield.”

O’Leary popped the question to his partner Karen while standing on The Kop together at half-time of the opening Premier League match of this season against Norwich City.

Jurgen Klopp’s side were 4-0 up by the time the break came round, yet this was when the nerves rattled around his stomach more than ever.

Luckily for O’Leary he had plenty of moral support. Seven of their eight children — six of whom are from the couple’s previous relationships, all of whom support Liverpool — were there to see the flag unfurled in the scoreboard corner of the Kop.

Damien O’Leary’s marriage proposal banner for partner Karen.
Damien O’Leary’s marriage proposal banner for partner Karen.

“Marry me, Karen. Be my Liverbird.” One rogue son, 15-year-old Manchester United fanatic Scott, couldn’t quite bring himself to stand amid the echoes of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with his siblings, who range from age one to 24.

“We all love the club, apart from Scott who follows United because of his father,” O’Leary, who was due to attend the final 10 games of the title run-in until the pandemic struck, explains.

“But the rest of the kids all love Liverpool and I wanted to propose with everyone together and involved, because Liverpool is a family club and we all get so much enjoyment from the club.

“I didn’t get down on one knee, I just said: ‘Take a look at that there’ and thankfully we are able to get two of the lads in that section to hang it up. It was a great moment, and of course she said yes,” he laughs.

O’Leary admits to a sense of “anti-climax” at not being there to witness the 30-year wait ended. He started travelling from Knocknaheeny on the northside of Cork at the beginning of the club’s drought in the 1990s.

He has now begun the slow process of passing the torch on to the next generation of travellers, with words of advice from the late Dessie Donnelly — a Liverpool die-hard from Leeside as far back at the 1970s, who passed away in January.

“I don’t really go to pubs here, I don’t drink a lot,” says O’Leary. “I get a lot of enjoyment out of travelling. I’ve come full circle, it started with trains, overnight buses, and boats to get to Anfield because it was the only way.

“Dessie was great, he showed us the right way to behave, how to carry ourselves around the city and treat people the right way.

“About 10 years ago a group of us from all over — Kildare, Waterford, Dublin, Meath, up the North, we all chipped in for a 16-seater bus so we could get back to doing our own thing with travel and not relying on flights and waiting for the Sky schedule.

“So we’ve come full circle. Thankfully I like travelling.”

Sinéad Mooney with fellow members of the south Dublin supporters’ club.
Sinéad Mooney with fellow members of the south Dublin supporters’ club.

Sinéad Mooney has two loves in her life: Liverpool and her husband Simon. It was their shared passion for the club that brought the two Dubliners together.

Mooney was one of the founding members in 2007 of the official supporters’ branch for south Dublin, meeting out of McGarry’s in Harold’s Cross. Thirteen years later she is now secretary, a role that can test the endurance of even the most passionate with daily emails and calls about tickets and trips.

“As a branch we will do one home game a month, but everyone also does their own thing and helps each other out,” she explains. “That is how she ended up sitting next to Simon at Anfield for the visit of Manchester United 12 years ago.

“I was a big Red before I ever met him. I was on the committee; he joined a year later. We had single tickets and ended up together for United.

“We won and went out celebrating that night in the city centre. We got together and now, for every Liverpool-United home match since, we go together, it’s our little tradition.”

Like O’Leary, the supporters’ club decided a minibus would be required to satisfy the appetite of more regular trips, so they raised money to buy one.

Football isn’t just about going to the match, watching for 90 minutes and then going home. It’s about the relationships you have with people and the friendships you make.

“That’s what we have with Liverpool. We meet people from all over, we’ve had people come to Dublin on holidays from Canada, America, Australia and we will meet up in McGarry’s.

“We were in Florida on holiday and the branch there put a day on for us to get together. For the Champions League final in Kiev [in 2018], we spent four days partying in Malta with fellas who had chartered a flight the rest of the way. That’s what it’s all about, memories like that with people along the way.”

Stephen Hegarty was on holiday in Barbados when he got a sense of how far it stretches. “I met another Red and we got on well. He’s from Liverpool and we’ve stayed in touch all through the years and he always helps me out.

“That’s how it works, I haven’t got a season ticket, I have one of the fan cards with credits — but sometimes you need help from the people you’ve got to know down the years.

Hegarty spent the best part of two decades working in the bar trade around Dublin from the time he left school at 16. Travelling to Anfield was his release, especially as he had to deal with United fans up close at work.

“Those Alex Ferguson days with United, it was soul-destroying, Ferguson nearly ruined your life at that age because he was winning everything with United.”

Hegarty is settling into middle age now, with a partner and a young son, and while he has had to reduce the number of fixtures he attends -“I’ve given up the midweek games because of the 9-5 job now”-, he no longer gets annoyed or frustrated at some of the jibes about being ‘a day-tripper’.

“The whoppers, the out-of-towners, the wools, day-tripper — I’ve heard it all. But sure we’re all like that at one stage, you have to start somewhere.

“I know what it’s been like for the last 30 years. Winning the league is the holy grail, this is special.”

Hegarty, the Mooneys, and several of the O’Leary clan would all have made the trip to see the title lifted until Covid-19 interrupted everyone’s plans.

Gavin Moore (centre) with his father Dennis and brother Gary.
Gavin Moore (centre) with his father Dennis and brother Gary.

For Gavin Moore, though, despite hitting the jackpot by becoming a season ticket holder when the main stand was redeveloped in 2016, it has prevented a possible mutiny.

“We have two season tickets between a group of three of us just to make it more affordable,” adds Moore, whose father is a childhood friend of Ronnie Whelan and lived on the same road in Finglas.

“We still hadn’t worked out who would miss out on the ticket for the game to lift the trophy. That could have got very messy, so coronavirus saved us from having that fight.” For now, anyway. Further glory days seem imminent after Liverpool ended this tortuous 30-year war.

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