Arthur Mathews: Portrait of the artist as a League of Ireland fan

Fr Ted writer Arthur Mathews has been going to the Drogs for years. Liam Mackey finds out why. 

Arthur Mathews: Portrait of the artist as a League of Ireland fan

Look up the Wikipedia entry for Arthur Mathews and you’ll discover chapter and verse about his stellar career in comedy writing, including co-credits for such luminous achievements as Fr Ted, Toast of London, Big Train, and I, Keano.

Under the heading ‘Personal Life’, by contrast, just this one sentence appears: “Mathews has supported Drogheda United since the 1970s.”

As someone who has known the man for many years, I’m pleased to be able to reassure readers that, despite Wikipedia’s hint at a desperately truncated personal life, this is not actually the whole truth. But, by the same token, it is also very definitely nothing but the truth.

Arthur, for sure, is a committed football man and, in particular, a faithful devotee of the League of Ireland. He does, however, baulk at the notion that he might be considered a shining example of the species.

“I wouldn’t be in the top 10% of fans, I’m nothing like the real fanatics,” he protests.

“There was someone in the ’70s in the town who never had a job and was living at home. His mother finally managed to get him a job interview and apparently it was going OK, so the prospective boss says, ‘you can start on Wednesday’. And your man says: ‘No can do. Midweek replay against Athlone’ (Laughs). And so he didn’t get the only job he was ever offered.”

Growing up in Termonfeckin, the young Arthur Mathews had been brought to Lourdes Stadium by his father a few times in the late 1960s but the first game to really earn a permanent — and painful place — in his memory was the 1971 FAI Cup final, in which Drogheda drew 0-0 with Limerick at Dalymount Park and were then beaten 3-0 at the same venue in the replay.

The 11-year-old attended both games and the effect of the crushing disappointment on his fragile, eggshell mind was, he doesn’t mind admitting, acute.

“It had a huge impact,” he tells me. “I think it did affect me. It made me kind of presume that I would be a loser all my life (laughs). At the same time, I was following Leeds, who would invariably finish second in everything.

“The only reason I started following Leeds was because Johnny Giles played for them. I remember looking at Tiger or one of those magazines and naively thinking, ‘George Best is good and he plays for Northern Ireland so who’s good and plays for the Republic?’ And that was Johnny, who was streets ahead of any other Irish player at the time.”

But, despite their serial underachievement, it was Drogheda — later, Drogheda United — who continued to have first call on his loyalty.

“You keep coming back for more,” he reflects, almost with a sigh. “You’d always go into the ground full of hope.”

Ask him how long he had to wait for his faith to be repaid with success and he pauses while doing the maths in his head.

“From ’71…let’s see…eh... 34 years (laughs). That was the FAI Cup in 2005 when they beat Cork City. And then they won the League in 2007. But they did also win the League Cup in 1984, I do remember that.”

One memory prompts another, as he begins reeling in the years.

“I remember when Mick Meagan was the manager and Ronnie Whelan Snr, Ronnie’s dad, was playing with them. And I remember the barrel-chested goalkeeper Leo Byrne. He looked like he took up half the size of the goal. Or maybe his jersey was too small.

“But I’ve seen all sorts of players at United Park. I saw Bobby Charlton playing there in a charity game. And, of course, I saw Spurs hammer them in the Uefa Cup 6-0 in ’83. Mick The Mod (AKA Michael McEvoy, producer/director of the wonderful Drogs video history ‘All The Young Dudes’) was telling me recently that he saw Deli Alli playing there with MK Dons.”

Talk to Arthur Mathews about what he finds most appealing about the local game and his answer gets close to the heart of what it is to be a supporter of a League of Ireland team.

“It’s live football and if you’re into football it’s what you do — you support your local team,” he says, as if this should be the most self- evident thing in the world.

“I read (West Brom aficionado) Frank Skinner’s autobiography and he said it’s simple what team you support: look at a map, see where you were born and work out the nearest league team to you.”

He notes that, as well as the fare on the pitch, there’s also the considerable attraction of the social dimension.

“I’m probably one of the least social people in the world and this is definitely one of the few things that connects me to wider society. I’m alienated by everything else (laughs). But I always chat to the regulars I see there. They’re good people. I always take up the same spot, on the right as you go in. I still stand. I like to lean on the terraces.”

He has a theory about why his deep attachment to the League of Ireland is shared by the relatively few, rather than the many, in this country who profess to be football fans.

“I’ve thought about this and I think it’s the classic lack of imagination that you have in Ireland,” he suggests.

“People can’t make the connection that if you go and support your local club, the money will come in the gate, then the grounds will get better, the club will get better players and then they’ll be able to compete in Europe.

“It’s just a thing in Ireland that people can’t make that imaginative leap.”

So what would he say to those Irish football fans who are quite happy to support Man U, Liverpool, or Celtic, often from afar, but wouldn’t dream of darkening the door of a League of Ireland ground?

“I can speak as someone who was a Leeds fan for four or five years and now I just feel it was like a childish notion that I grew out of,” he says.

“I’ve a lot of experience of going to games in England and I know at least three people who used to support big teams but the whole Premier League thing has put them off so much that they’ve actually started supporting smaller clubs.

“The Premier League is abhorrent in many ways because of the greed but I accept that at its peak, the standard is fantastic.

“I still love the game and I haven’t stopped watching it. But a lot of the Irish fans seem to love only the big, glittery, glossy things.”

One team he has more or less given up on, however, is Ireland. And this from a supporter who was such a regular at international games from his very first in 1971 — “at Lansdowne Road against the great Italy team who finished runners-up to Brazil in the World Cup the year before” — that his sister Ria presented him with a customised ‘cap’ to mark his 100th game, a friendly against Norway in 2010.

This, of course, was during the Giovanni Trapattoni era, an age of austerity which finally caused something to snap inside Arthur Mathews.

“Oh god, yeah. The football was so awful. If you look at Ireland’s record at World Cup and Euro finals, do you how many times they’ve scored more than one goal in those games? Once. Against Saudi Arabia in 2002. And that was probably the only time at the finals of a tournament — when Mick McCarthy was manager — that they played good football.”

And Martin O’Neill hasn’t won him back.

“I actually agree with Dunphy when he said he wanted Brian Kerr and Stephen Kenny to come in. That would be interesting — and I know Brian had a go before — but it’s never going to happen, even though Michael O’Neill went from Rovers and has done a great job with Northern Ireland.

“But one guy I would be keeping an eye on is Paul Cook (the ex-Sligo Rovers boss, now managing Wigan). To all those people who slag off the League of Ireland, I’d say: look at the international team. You know? It’s rubbish. The way Dundalk played in Europe made the Irish performances even more disappointing.”

And so Arthur remains true to his first love, the mighty Drogs, even if a number of seasons of false dawns were followed last week by, well, a false start, when he was among the faithful who turned up at United Park for the first game of the new First Division campaign, against Finn Harps, only to see it postponed because the referee decided there were not enough working bulbs in the floodlights to provide the required illumination of the pitch.

“What can you say?” he laments, knowing full well how this will fit cosily into sneering perceptions of the league as a basket case.

“Look, the game could have gone ahead. Even the two managers said so. When kick off was five minutes late, then 10 minutes late, it was a case of, ‘what’s happening here?’ I had no idea. The lights aren’t the brightest but it never occurred to me they’d cause the game to be called off. Then over the PA, this very grim voice: ‘We have an announcement…’

“My first thought was that maybe there’d been a massive terrorist attack somewhere or North Korea had launched a nuclear missile. “I thought of those possibilities before I ever thought there might be a problem with the floodlights.”

So even Arthur Mathews didn’t see that coming, he who has seen so much, some of it surpassingly strange, over nearly 50 years of cheering on the men in claret and blue.

“I do remember being at a game early in the season about 30 years ago and looking into the field next to United Park and seeing a camel,” he recollects.

“There was a circus in town and a camel had strayed into the field next door. I mean, that’s pretty good.”

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