After 31 years, Limerick soccer returns to its spiritual home at Markets Field

When League of Ireland soccer returns to Limerick’s Markets Field after an absence of 31 years tonight, those old enough to remember the good old days of soccer in Limerick will spot the changes inside the stadium immediately.

The old dog track is gone, meaning fans are much closer to the action; the main stand has been refurbished whilst the playing surface and floodlights give the feeling of a modern, neat football stadium.

Having joined the League of Ireland in 1937 as a replacement for Dublin side Dolphin, Limerick enjoyed league and cup success over the years with fans entertained at the famed venue by the exploits of stars such as Al Finucane, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Des Kennedy, Andy McEvoy, Joe O’Mahoney and Tony Meaney.

But all that came crashing down in the 1980s when a split in the club led to two rival teams fighting over the league place. A move away from the Markets Field was later followed by changes in name, ownership and several different homes before the ship was recently steadied by current chairman, Pat O’Sullivan.

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However the Markets Field has always been seen as the spiritual home of soccer in Limerick and ahead of the big return some of those who played a major part during the good times have been sharing their memories.

Former goalkeeper Kevin Fitzpatrick, who played with Limerick for over 20 years and earned one Republic of Ireland cap, remembers his debut in May 1960: “It was a friendly against Glasgow Celtic, I was doing my Leaving Cert at the time. I had played the previous Sunday for the minor team and we won the Minor Cup and then on the Tuesday I played against Glasgow Celtic. Charlie Tully was playing with us that day, against this very good Celtic team.”

Fitzpatrick played alongside many quality players but has no hesitation in stating who he feels stood head and shoulders above the rest. “Andy McEvoy, who came to us in 1968 and stayed until 1973. He was way ahead of everybody. He was such a gentleman – a shy man. He showed so much ability and was a lovely man, a lovely footballer.”

Fitzpatrick’s former Limerick team-mate Pat Nolan also enjoyed many years at the Markets Field with Limerick. He never played with McEvoy but did play alongside some equally great League of Ireland legends.

“McEvoy was just gone the year I started but for me, in my era, the best Limerick player by far was Johnny Walsh. He was capped by Eoin Hand for Ireland and we used to give him terrible stick over that. He got one cap but we reckoned it was two caps because he played against Trinidad and Tobago! But for me, pound for pound, probably the best player I played with. So gifted, so skilful but a little fella. I think he was about eight and half stone, nine stone at the most, but he could put himself about and I know that he was highly respected by other players and they spoke so highly of him. He was very talented.”

Now known as Limerick Utd, the club secured a second league title in 1980. Eoin Hand was manager and he soon realised that soccer played second fiddle to greyhounds at the Markets Field.

“The pitch was shocking and I remember, just to make a point, I got my own lawnmower and cut the grass. But I only cut it in the penalty area, I wasn’t going to do it all! I was making a point that a football pitch has to be a little bit level. The point was made and thereafter the pitch was as good as could be, but it was never a great surface.”

One of the highlights of Hand’s career came at the Markets Field in September 1979 when he scored all four goals in a 4-1 win over Cork United.

“Alec Ludzic was their keeper and said to me after the game: ‘I never saw you in the bloody game and you scored four times. I think you only touched the ball four times.’ I said to him well aren’t you lucky I didn’t touch the ball only ten or 12 times!”

Limerick secured that second league title with a 1-1 draw at St Mel’s Park in Athlone on April 20th. Limerick were level on points with Dundalk at the top of the table but Dundalk had completed their fixtures while Limerick had that one game left.

Remarkable, over 3,000 Limerick fans travelled to Athlone for the match but watched in despair as Michael O’Connor put the home side ahead on 36 minutes. However, prayers were answered on 68 minutes when referee Paddy Mulhall pointed to the spot after Limerick’s Ger Duggan was fouled by Stefan Fenuik.

Tony Meaney kept his cool, sent Athlone goalkeeper Mick Smyth the wrong way, and secured the point Limerick needed to win the title.

The League of Ireland suffered its fair share of crowd disturbances during the 1970s and early 1980s and a cursory look at the newspaper archives will often throw up an article about trouble or arrests at grounds around the country - the Markets Field included.

Nolan remembers: “We played Sligo Rovers in the League Cup semi-final at the Markets Field but it was marred by some vicious violence. There was some serious crowd trouble and it took away from what was a great win on the day. That stands out because I think we were called in off the pitch at one stage. Nothing happened in the return leg in Sligo and we went on to win the League Cup that year.”

The newspapers reported that gangs of youths sporting the red and white of Sligo charged up and down the greyhound track brandishing knives, bottles, chains and clubs. Some of the youths assaulted spectators, Gardai and Cork Examiner photographer Des Barry, who was knocked to ground and kicked about the head and body but escaped with minor injuries.

The league and cup successes Limerick enjoyed were rewarded with European football and there was joy in 1980 when they were paired with Real Madrid in the European Cup. Hoping to cash in on a big crowd the club opted to move the home leg to Lansdowne Road in Dublin but a paltry crowd of no more than 6,000 turned up for a 6pm kick-off.

The Markets Field saw European action for the first time a year later when Southampton visited for a UEFA Cup game and again in 1982 when AZ 67 of Alkmaar were the opposition for a Cup Winner’s Cup tie. Nolan has the distinction of being the only Limerick man to score a European goal in Limerick. Both the Markets Field and Thomond Park were used as home venues over the years with Nolan’s goal coming against Alkmaar.

“The two European games stand out, against Southampton and AZ Alkmaar, but the Southampton game particularly, when you consider the team they had which included Kevin Keegan, Mark Wright, Mick Channon, Alan Ball, Ivan Golic, Steve Moran and Nick Holmes who was an English left-back. And at that time we had Tony Ward and he tore them asunder that night, though we were beaten 3-0. But Southampton were very impressive and we went to The Dell and drew with them 1-1 over there.

“The other European game at the Markets Field was the Alkmaar game but unfortunately we never got to play Real Madrid in the European Cup there. That was played at Lansdowne Road and that was probably a mistake in hindsight. I scored in the Alkmaar game and I’m the only Limerick man to score a European goal in Limerick. Dessie (Kennedy) scored against Real but not in Limerick. We drew 1-1 with Alkmaar and they beat us in the 2nd leg.”

Ward, the former Irish rugby international, has fond memories of the 1982 FAI Cup success, but particularly recalls the third round win over Aer Lingus at the Markets Field.

“Despite the rugby commitments with Garryowen, I played in every game in the cup run in 1982 bar the drawn semi-final (at Dalymount Park versus Athlone Town) but played in the replay. But earlier in the cup we played Aer Lingus at home and we beat them 4-0. The crowd were always behind me and we got a penalty. I was useless at penalties in soccer. Anyway the crowd insisted I take the penalty and were chanting for me to take it. I took it and of course what did I do? I blasted it wide!

“My very last game of eleven-a-side soccer was for Limerick United against Manchester United in Pat Nolan’s testimonial at the Markets Field so it was a nice memory to go out on.”

These were good times for soccer in Limerick with league and cup success, big crowds and European football. But over the next few years things started to fall apart quickly.

What happened to soccer in Limerick back then could probably fill a book, but here’s the brief summary: Having become Limerick United in 1979, then owner Pat Grace (who was also the league sponsor through his ‘Famous Fried Chicken’ chain of restaurants) resigned from the club in the summer of 1983, claiming he was owed over £115,000.

He announced he would run a new club, Limerick City, which was duly entered in the League and League Cup competitions for the 1983-84 season. However a number of Limerick United officials not aligned to Grace sought to claim the league place for their club and went to the High Court.

A new phrase entered the lexicon of Limerick soccer fans when United secured an interlocutory order. They were given City’s place in the league but were a team without players or a manager. Cork great Noel O’Mahony was put in charge for United’s first league game, away to Bohemians on October 2. His side was quickly put together and with only three players with league experience, were hammered 9-0 at Dalymount Park. The FAI expressed concern at the strength of the club – both on and off the field – whilst there were issues surrounding the approach and registration of players.

If the situation wasn’t serious enough, it certainly was a week later when United’s home game against Waterford United was called off when Waterford’s players refused to pass a picket placed by the PFAI at the Markets Field. More trips to the courts followed along with intense talks with the FAI before eventually City were returned to the league, and the Markets Field.

Fitzpatrick says: “I had finished in 1982 after the Cup final. I retired and was doing coaching for the senior team and what happened was Pat Grace had this idea, an image for Limerick, of having their own stadium. I think he tried to get the Markets Field first but the greyhound board wouldn’t let it go. But the breakaway never worked out. For Limerick people the Markets Field was in a great location, in the centre of town, but they never got a chance to develop it on account of the greyhound people.”

Nolan agrees that Grace had good intentions for the club and soccer in the city.

“The Markets Field had great memories but it wasn’t a great pitch to play on and the dressing rooms there weren’t outstanding by any means. Pat Grace wanted to move to Rathbane and he wanted an identity for Limerick, a good ground and good facilities. At the time it was a brave move.”

Ward added: “When Limerick left the Markets Field and went to Rathbane and then went all over the place, to me that spelled the end of senior soccer in Limerick. It was the home, the spiritual home of soccer – much like Thomond Park is to rugby.”

A year later, the club moved out to Hogan Park in Rathbane but great success did not follow them. They were relegated for the first time in 1991 but came back up as First Division champions the following year under player-manager Sam Allardyce. They won the League Cup in 1993 but another relegation followed in 1994. The club, by now simply Limerick FC, battled on in the First Division until 2006 when the FAI refused them a licence. A new entity, Limerick 37, joined the league and it is this club, having since taken the name Limerick FC in 2009 that returns to the Markets Field tonight.

Fitzpatrick is hopeful for the future: “Pat O’Sullivan has put a lot of money into the club and a lot of effort. He started everything in the right way. He started with schoolboys and they go up to the senior team. A lot of money in the League of Ireland goes on wages, which are high, but O’Sullivan is putting money into the youth side of things and I hope it works out for him.”

Nolan agrees that club is on the right track.

“The current set up is great. Pat is a good friend of mine and his enthusiasm and what he has done for the club is nothing short of fantastic. The club is heading in the right direction and getting back to the Markets Field could put them back on a strong footing and once again be a force in League of Ireland football.”

When O’Sullivan took over the club he had three targets: To take the club back into the Premier Division; put the club on sustainable pathway through the development of underage structures; and return the club to the Markets Field. He has achieved two of those targets and the third will be achieved tonight when Limerick take on Drogheda Utd in the first match at the new Markets Field.

Many of the great players who entertained patrons at the venue over the years are sadly no longer with us. Men like Fenton, McEvoy, Shortt, Ludzic, Meaney and O’Mahoney.

But if the club and senior soccer in Limerick in general, can stay on the right course, there’s no reason to think that future generations of players cannot be spoken of in the same breath as those stars.

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