By any benchmark, Treaty United ought to be feeling a touch light-headed by their debut League of Ireland season.
If sustainability and stability are understandable priorities in the context of what has gone before in the city, nevertheless the first division table doesn’t lie: Limerick’s hurriedly patched-together outfit has found its feet under Tommy Barrett quicker than anyone, anywhere, could reasonably have expected. They may not be the Harlem Globe Trotters, but they are in the conversation for promotion to the Premier Division of the League of Ireland.
In itself, that is a remarkable achievement. In a broader and perhaps more important context, they have begun the reconnection between football, football people, and a venerable quarter of the city. The game has endured its share of lows in Limerick, but the latest incarnation has breathed new energy into the storied old Market’s Field, where sporting luminaries have been making a mark since before the First World War.
By broad agreement, the playing surface is among the best in the league, with George Lee’s team of turf technicians tending the plot as their own. Wry humour suggests the smooth surface encourages visitors more than the hosts, but if the Treaty players haven’t taken half a day to appreciate their environs and its resonance, and future possibilities, they are doing themselves and their cause some disservice.
In an era when culture and identity have become essential threads in the tapestry of the collective, the Markets Field provides a tangible enrichment and, in this old part of Limerick City, is a vastly under-appreciated piece of Munster’s sporting lore.
It hosted the All Blacks in 1905 and Munster GAA Championship matches up to the construction of the Gaelic Grounds in 1928. Up to a decade ago, it was the home of greyhound racing in the city and, as Lee reminded me last night, it is the only ground in world sport that provided a word to the English language — the Garryowen.
Bookended by the red bricks of Geraldine Villas and Rossa Avenue at the Cathedral end of the ground, the original site adjoined the markets for selling wares, lying beyond the gates of the city — ‘Spitland’ was where the unfortunates with leprosy were colonised.
The blue-collar Treaty United players might appreciate too that the first generation of Garryowen Rugby Club was across the road, just as they might appreciate that during the Covid pandemic, their dressing rooms were utilised as sleeping bays for the good folk of the Limerick Fire and Rescue, who employed the Markets Field as a sub-station alongside the main base at Mulgrave Street, operating a dual 24/7 shift in both stations.
Tommy Barrett’s side weren’t extended to the point of putting out too many fires last night at home to Cork City, even if Colin Healy’s Leesiders had the better of the first period and looked a more menacing proposition in the opponent’s half of the pitch for an hour.
Such has been Treaty’s modus operandi this season; resolute, hard-working and together. It may not be ‘jogo bonito’, but it has secured them an impressive 10 victories and fourth place. In truth, they were slightly fortunate to beat Cork previously home and away but, under Barrett, they have developed a happy knack of turning the odds on the casino. Only this week, they lost one of their most talented youngsters, Ed McCarthy, back to junior football in the city with Regional United. His work was linked to those involved with the club and Treaty’s modest remuneration won’t get him a start in life.
They also went into last night’s Munster derby unable to start top striker Sean McSweeney through injury. When he was introduced on the hour, he immediately linked well with Jack Lynch and offered a different dimension up top.
Charlie Fleming soon headed over from close range after a corner was flicked on.
Given the tenacious way they’ve consistently accumulated Division One points this year, it would take a remarkable collapse after this draw for them not to involve themselves in the First Division play-offs, behind runaway leaders Shelbourne.
“The issue we have is our lads are young and inexperienced, most of them have come straight up from junior football,” Barrett pointed out last night. “They are not used to big crowds. It is marvellous to hear the roar again from the blue army, but they were tipping away without crowds.
“Now there’s a different expectation, and they looked a bit nervous and tentative when the crowds came back.”
What Barrett understands and the players are yet to fully recognise is that the fans only want honesty — and they are getting that in spades. They looked organised and dealt capably with Cork’s more measured build-up play.
“We are the outsider in any game we go into, a lot of teams have better players than us, but we are a good team. We dog it out. Ed [McCarthy] has played 22 games for us this season, so it’s tough when we lose that sort of quality, but no excuses.”
Treaty are strictly part-time, unlike last night’s opponents, or two of the three other sides above them in Division One — John Caulfied’s Galway and Shelbourne. UCD’s student would also train together frequently. Limerick’s part-timers have still to go to the latter pair, so it’s no midnight run to the play-offs.
Barrett literally cobbled a squad together at the 11th hour once Treaty’s licence was approved last January. Only then did they start thinking of a training base and a home ground. The Markets Field, purchased by the McManus Foundation in 2010, is run as a non-profit charitable trust by the Limerick Enterprise Development Partnership. George Lee oversees stadium operations and is the link with the fledgling outfit. He is also the unofficial local historian.
“The Markets Field is one of the oldest sporting theatres in Ireland, never mind Limerick or Munster,” he declared. “It’s a part of Limerick, in a part of the city we are all very proud of. And it’s nice to see such a healthy crowd converging here again tonight,” he said with the main stand filling up before kick off.
Given their respective positions, the 0-0 draw was more use to the hosts than Healy’s Cork, enhancing Treaty’s play-off prospects with the sort of substantive, honest effort that regulars at the Markets Field have come to recognise — and clearly continue to appreciate.