LIAM MACKEY: Keeping home fires burning

THE Queen might not have made it to the Aviva Stadium — or even to dear old Dalyer to doff her crown to the Jodi Stand — but Irish football had its own reasons to feel the hand of history on its shoulder this week.

It could hardly have been otherwise when a figure as beloved as Philip Greene was being laid to rest on the morning of the day that the capital city hosted its first European club final.

That would have been out of the question just a decade ago and certainly unimaginable back when Philip’s was the voice of the football nation, although packed houses were the norm for even the domestic game in those far-off days, the faithful in regular and overflowing attendance at holy grounds like Milltown, Tolka, Dalymount, Oriel, Flower Lodge, Kilcohan Park and the rest.

And there was another big gate for the great man’s send-off on Wednesday at the church in Foxrock which, inevitably, the more irreverent renamed for the day as Our Lady Of Perpetual Soccer.

Philip’s devotion to Shamrock Rovers is well-known, of course, so it was appropriate and touching that he was dressed in a Rovers tie and his coffin draped in the club flag as it was carried to the altar by supporters, officials and members of the current squad. Also in attendance were some of the super Hoops of yesteryear, including household names like Mick Leech, Damien Richardson, Pat Byrne and Liam Buckley.

In his eulogy, veteran journalist Peter Byrne recalled that Philip used to enjoy his relationship with the fans on the terraces, especially revelling in the kind of caustic wit which he felt was the stock in trade of his native Dublin.

One yarn he loved telling was about the day a player missed the proverbial sitter right in front of goal. “Would ya gerrof the pitch,” roared an outraged supporter, “you’re only a ham”. His sidekick turned to him, looking suitably grave. “It’s worse than that,” he pointed out, “a ham can be cured”.

Two nights before Philip’s final journey, MNS on RTÉ paid him a lovely tribute in the form of a montage of match action from the past, interspersed with images of a dark-haired Philip in studio and in the commentary box. All of it was in glorious black and white, naturally, which only added to the sense of deep nostalgia as, once again, we heard his exultant commentary and watched the Leecher patting the prostrate Peter Thomas sympathetically on the head after he’d scored the third goal in Rovers’ celebrated 3-0 win against Waterford in the 1968 FAI Cup final, a day when around 45,000 crammed into Dalymount.

The lure of the good old days is powerful.

For sure, League of Ireland football was a real power in the land back then but, in recent years, we have spent so much time bemoaning its decline and reporting on its various trials and tribulations, that we can overlook its enduring if undeniably diminished appeal.

Yet, while exceptional, the 36,000 crowd who watched Sligo Rovers beat Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup final at the Aviva last year, showed what can still be achieved when the passion for certain clubs is maximised by the prospect of a big game, top-notch facilities and accessible ticket prices.

On a more modest scale, the same point was made when, just hours before Philip Greene passed away, a scene similar to ones he would have witnessed many times in his career was unfolding in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, as another Shamrock Rovers captain lifted another piece of silverware to the heavens, after the Hoops had beaten Dundalk in the Setanta Cup final in Tallaght Stadium.

And the night before that, your correspondent was in attendance for a football occasion which, though it registered few enough mentions in print or on the airwaves, was as rewarding and life-affirming as any I’ve been to this year.

Shelbourne v Cork City in the Airtricity League First Division, meant a rare and welcome return visit to Tolka Park, still one of the loveliest little grounds of all, for a game between two great clubs who, having fallen on hard times, are both going the right way, on and off the pitch, about plotting a return to the top flight.

By the time the sides took the field, there were just over 1,000 in the ground, a very respectable turn-out for a First Division game (it’s worth noting too that, at Turner’s Cross, City have been drawing crowds of 2,000 and more since the start of the season). At Tolka, the two teams certainly gave the paying customers value for money, serving up some fine, fluent football in the course of an absorbing game, which ended 1-1.

As someone remarked afterwards, players might now be on €150 in contrast to the €1,500 they were getting when the Celtic Tiger got its claws into the domestic game, but at least now they know they’re going to get paid, as clubs have learned to cut their cloth.

And then there’s all those volunteers who continue to do what they do simply for the love of club and the good of the game. The Queen’s visit to Croke Park rightly drew attention to the importance of Gaelic games in Irish history and in Irish life, with much favourable mention in speeches and commentary about the GAA’s role at the heart of the community.

All of which is true, but the way in which the old garrison game is sometimes made to suffer unfavourably by comparison is unfair.

From the man setting up his PA for another night’s work in the service of his club, to the fan cradling his ancient teddies in red and white, to the unmistakable sight of Big Ben Hannigan taking up his customary seat in the stand, there was flesh and blood evidence all ‘round Tolka Park of the commitment and passion which has kept the home fires burning for Irish football.

They don’t all wear green and white but you know Philip Greene would approve.

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