In our continuing series of 'League of Ireland legends',recalls glory days as player and manager, from a cup double with Shamrock Rovers to that long-awaited league title with Cork City.
‘If anybody’s looking for a speedy left-winger…”
Damien Richardson chuckles down the line from his home in rural Kent where, at age 72, he’s keeping fit and healthy through these lockdown days, mixing cycles of two minutes of running with 10 of walking as part of a daily hour-long exercise routine out in the good, clean air of the ‘garden of England’.
But then here’s a League of Ireland legend who hit the ground running from an early age and, after that, rarely found time to stand still in a packed
career as player, manager, pundit and, lest we forget, author of immortal programme notes. (Who else could have identified a team’s central malaise as
an absence of “inter-departmental choreography”?).
A product of the high-end Home Farm nursery in Dublin, he came into the game at the top as a 17-year-old, joining his boyhood favourites Shamrock Rovers in time to be able to play his part in the club’s historic six-in-a-row of FAI Cup successes, the 3-0 win against Waterford in 1968 and the following year, the 4-1 replay victory over Cork Celtic, a game in which Damien also got on the scoresheet.
“I’d seen all four of the cup finals that Rovers had won before that and here I was, at 19, and I had two FAI Cups,” he says now.
There followed three caps for Ireland and nearly 10 years of football in England, playing and scoring for Gillingham, the club with which he also cut his managerial teeth.
Then it was back home to the domestic game, taking the helm at Cork City (twice), Cobh Ramblers, Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers, and
Drogheda, as well as making a name for himself as a radio and TV pundit.
But, though he’d won the FAI Cup twice as a player with the Hoops and twice as manager of Shels, he would have to wait until 2005 before finally getting his hands on the league trophy, when a celebrated Cork City side won the title on the last night of the season with a memorable 2-0 victory over Derry City at a packed Turner’s Cross.
“When Brian Lennox asked me to take over from Pat Dolan, the one thing he said was: ‘We have to win the league’,” Damien recalls. “And I agreed to that, though normally I wouldn’t have. But I’d seen Cork City the previous year and I thought there was so much potential in the side that I was confident there was everything there to win the league.
“There was an early blow when Kevin Doyle left. He’d started off really well and we were flying, but then he went to Reading and I had to bring in Neale Fenn, which altered the style of the team a little bit. But in fact we became a more cerebral team because we went through Fenny an awful lot — he had the talent and the freedom to come short and set things up — and I think we became a more effective team in the long term.”
He relishes the memory of the intensity of the build-up to the final night decider.
“In the week leading up to the game against Derry, I did something I had never done before. Normally, when I was preparing for a game, as a player and then as a manager, I tended to isolate my mind and just concentrate on preparing for the match.
"But that week I read all the papers and listened to all the phone-in programmes in Cork. And it was one of the best moves I ever made because, although I knew well about the passion for the club, I could now tie in to the sense of urgency and immense desire among the supporters that this would be the game that brought the league to the city. And the players felt it too.”
Perhaps nothing summed up the mood of determination in the camp better than Derek Coughlan’s rallying cry as the team prepared to take the pitch. Richardson had spoken to the club stalwart — who would come off the bench in the game’s dying moments — about addressing the players in the changing room, but Coughlan decided to wait until they were in the tunnel before delivering what you might call a few well-chosen words.
“I remember him saying: ‘Look, this is our city, these are not going to come here and take this trophy out of our city’. And because it was in the tunnel, it was the most perfect thing. Because now he wasn’t just saying it to our team, he was saying it to the opposition.
“And he’s a big fella, his voice was booming. It was a great omen for what was going to occur.”
When he assesses the quality of that title-winning side now, Damien expresses a mix of satisfaction at what was, with frustration at what might have been.
“I watched my first League of Ireland game as a kid in 1955, Shamrock Rovers v Drumcondra. Then I played in the league and came back to it as a manager. I knew all the good teams. And I felt that (Cork) team had the potential to become one of the greatest League of Ireland teams of all time, if the money had been there to invest more in it. That would have taken things to the next level because it was already an exceptionally good team.
“The balance in it was as good as any I’ve seen. First-class goalkeeper, good back four with every one of them comfortable on the ball. In midfield, we had quality in George O’Callaghan and Joe Gamble and we had Roy O’Donovan on the right and Liam Kearney on the left and John O’Flynn and Neale Fenn upfront.
"Neale got injured in that final game early on, but Denis Behan went on and, tying into everything that had happened that week — and carrying into the game itself — produced a great performance on the night.”
The good news out of Kent these days is that Damien Richardson is fully recovered from the prostate cancer which was first diagnosed 10 years ago and, because of subsequent complications, required one final surgical intervention just over a year ago. “Everything is sorted now,” he reports. “I’m in the best condition I possibly could be in now.”
All that’s missing, of course, is the football.
“Everything at the moment reminds us of what life is all about,” he reflects, “And football is part of that. I miss it desperately. No, it’s not as important as life or death — but it’s not far off.”