Dundalk, barely clinging to their Premier Division status, had endured a torrid season, including two separate thrashings by Shamrock Rovers to the discordant tune of 6-0 and 7-0. Waterford, who had finished second to champions Limerick in the First Division by just four points, were considered favourites by many to prevail against the struggling Lilywhites in the play-off, especially after they secured a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Oriel Park.
However, on a night of deep disappointment for the Blues on home soil, they lost the second leg 0-2 at the RSC, rudely terminating another false dawn for the club and condemning them to a fifth successive season in the second tier.
Dundalk, making the most of their reprieve, appointed Stephen Kenny as manager and so began one of the greatest rags to riches stories of all time in Irish sport, as a runners-up spot in the Premier Division just 12 months later was followed by three successive league titles, an FAI Cup win and qualification for the group stages of the Europa League.
Waterford, floundering in the First Division, could only look on with envy at what was happening up at Oriel Park, as managers came and went at the RSC, finances crashed and, by the end of the 2016 season — in which the club finished fifth out of eight — home crowds had dwindled to demoralising lows of just a couple of hundred.
Then, just when it seemed that the very club was threatened with extinction, came the game-changing power-play: In the form of one Lee Power, to be precise. The Swindon Town owner, former Irish international and Premier League player with Norwich took over the ailing club, cleared its debts, and proceeded to lay the foundations for a new era at the RSC, while simultaneously evoking memories of the glory days of Kilcohan Park with a reversion to the historic name of Waterford for the first time since 1982.
A successful businessman, he looked closely at what Dundalk had achieved in the five years since they had been in that survival scrap with Waterford and was inspired by the possibility of emulating their success, especially in terms of the rewards which come with European qualification.
“It’s unbelievable, when you look at it,” he said at the time of the takeover. “The job they’ve done there is ridiculous, phenomenal, but it just shows it can be done.”
The dual appointment of a native son, Alan Reynolds, as manager, and Pat Fenlon, one of the best known names in the game, as director of football, was followed by the assembling of a squad designed to fend off all-comers in the First Division, Which is precisely what they did, Waterford securing the 2017 title — and the only promotion place up for grabs to the slimmed-down top tier for 2018 — with an eight-point cushion over runners-up Cobh Ramblers.
The close season just past has again seen the club ambitiously active in the transfer market, the acquisition of quality signings like Bastien Hery from Limerick, Izzy Akinade from Bohemians and Gavan Holahan from Galway United signalling Waterford’s intention to compete on as equal terms as possible in the Premier Division.
Also, the team more than lived up to the soaring hopes of their supporters on the opening night last Friday, when, after pitch-clearing volunteers had helped ensure that standing water would not be allowed stand in the way of history, the Blues marked their return to the top-flight after an absence of 10 years, with a stirring 2-1 comeback win over Derry City in front of a euphoric crowd of 2,500 at the RSC.
Among those enjoying the occasion was one of the city’s most famous footballing sons: At 78, Alfie Hale, still a regular attendee at the RSC, has been there and done that with Waterford, from starring in the celebrated three-in-a-row title-winning side of 1968, ’69 and ’70 to, as boss of the Blues, handing current gaffer Reynolds his debut as a player in 1991. “Ah sure, I seem to have given everybody their debut,” he says, chuckling.
However, it seems nothing could have prepared even the experienced Hale for the kind of operation transformation which Lee Power has undertaken at the club.
“For anyone looking in from the outside in Waterford, it does look like the Messiah has arrived,” he says. “Anybody who would question the new takeover would have to be a pessimist at heart. Everything they’ve done seems to be very well structured.
“Of course, experience teaches you to wait and see, but I have to say it does look very hopeful and there’s a great sense of optimism around the place. It’s also coincided with the fact the whole country has come through the recession, but Waterford was probably hit harder than most, in the sense that the unemployment level here was so bad that everything was down and there were negative vibes all over the place.”
And not least at the football club, as Reynolds recalls.
“Look, it was on its knees. There was nobody going to the games, you couldn’t entice players to play,” he says. “[Former chairman] John O’Sullivan had done his best with a thankless task, but, no matter who had been running it for the last 20 years, they had just been fighting a losing battle, putting in money and struggling to see any return and, with the recession, there was no help from anyone, because the county was on its knees. You had nowhere to turn. Now, Lee Power has come in and obviously has some type of dream about where he wants us to go and it has definitely ignited a new lease of life.”
To dream is one thing, but making it a reality is something else again, says Reynolds, who, while happy to aim high, feels it’s important to try to keep a lid on expectations.
“The first step when Lee came in was to get out of the First Division and I suppose I was backed financially there to make sure that we had enough to get across the line,” Reynolds reflects. “That was the first part of it. Now, we’re at a stage — and I’m going to give you the manager’s spin here — that it’s going to take time to build. I’m sure Lee looks at it this way too, but he’s also looking at the fact that four qualify for Europe out of 10. That’s his end of it.
“Where I’m going is, let’s see how we develop and gel. It might take a bit of time. Nobody needs to get ahead of themselves. For the players, there has to be a level that, whether we win a game or lose one, we stay steady and focus on what we have to do next.
“Before the season, you’d be looking at these fixtures, Derry first, Cork away next, then Pat’s at home, and you’re thinking: ‘Is there any week that you can relax?’ But there’s just not going to be and we’re prepared for that. With no disrespect to the teams we played last year, I wouldn’t have got players like Bastien Hery to sign for me or even held on to Paul Keegan if we weren’t going to be playing the elite teams in this country.”
They don’t come any more elite in the League of Ireland than reigning champions and cup holders Cork City, who
tonight host Waterford in a long-deferred resumption in the top-flight of this fabled Munster derby. As a former assistant coach to John Caulfield, Alan Reynolds won’t be lacking for insights into the kind of test his team can
expect at Turner’s Cross.
“Over the season, we will have ups and downs, there’s no question about that, but on any given day I believe we can beat any of the best teams in the league,” says Reynolds.
The rebirth of the Blues is about many things, on and off the pitch but, ultimately, he likes to remind you: “It’s about the players and we will need all of our players to perform at their max to get something out of the game.”
- Pat Fenlon will step down from his role as Waterford FC’s Technical Director to take a new position as consultant to the club’s owner Lee Power on his world wide projects, Waterford announced last night.
SSE Airtricity Premier Division: CORK CITY V WATERFORD FC
Turner’s Cross, 7.45pm
City 4/11, Waterford 6/1, Draw 17/5