The rebirth of Waterford FC has sparked huge interest in the capital of the southeast, a long-time power in League of Ireland football.
Lee Power, chairman of Swindon Town, took the club over last November, and the appointment of Pat Fenlon and Alan Reynolds as director of football and first team manager, respectively, has revitalised the club’s following, says general manager Paul Cleary.
“There’s a great buzz around the town, all good news after a year full of bad news — the club has gotten the kiss of life. There’s hope on the horizon now, we have good players coming into the club, a strong management team and there’s good news at underage level. It’s a very positive time and we’re all looking forward.
“There’s talk we’ll have 1,500 people at our first home game, so it’s a new start, new logo, new club, all of that, and it’s great.”
That excitement in the area is palpable, says Cleary: “You can see it, and hear it, absolutely, there are people talking about coming back to matches who wouldn’t have been there for years. People who don’t know anything about League of Ireland football are talking about Waterford FC.
“The interest and the buzz is there now but obviously results are important. The Waterford football community would be no different to the Cork or Galway or Limerick football community, if the results are good then they’ll keep coming.
“Going back to the Waterford FC name is harking back to the glory days — 1966 was our first league title, just over 50 years ago, and we’ve gone back to the old logo as well.
“We’re launching a modernised version of that old logo in a couple of weeks too, we want to write some new pages in that history going forward.”
Cleary knows there’s a deep well of passion for Waterford football to draw from.
“With League of Ireland you know the players, you’re on top of it, you can hear what’s going on — the manager arguing with the referee, all of that.
“If it’s your team it’s your team and you support them through thick and thin. Sometimes you nearly have to go to the bottom to see if people really want League of Ireland football in their town or city. Cork went to that stage, at the door of the High Court, but people stumped up when they realised what was at stake, and look at them now.
“The support we got from people in the community last year was unreal when they saw how we were struggling. A man in his 80s came up to me at one meeting and gave me €50 for the club, and that would nearly make you cry — that €50 is like €1,000 from someone else, and he just wanted to try to keep the club going. That’s what it’s about. We’re involved in the club at the moment but you want it to be still there in 50 years.”
The connection is different. Deeper.
“I won’t say the League of Ireland is a different sport, but you follow it for a different reason. Sky Sports and the Premier League is entertainment in terms of watching, but when you come and support your local team — a cold, wet Friday night, there’s almost a pleasure in the hardship, if you like.
“The team were training at the RSC the other day and there was a local game, Waterford Crystal were playing Hibernians, and a fella who was at that match came over to watch Waterford FC, and he could nearly name everybody who was at training.
“Those people are the lifeblood of the club.”
The history Cleary mentions is one of the “big reasons” the club was supported last year.
“Waterford’s history in producing players who’ve made it across the water — Jim Beglin, John O’Shea, Noel Hunt, all of those guys — that was a big part of the support.
“Our underage structures are important to us, and if League of Ireland had gone from Waterford, then the U17 and U19 teams would have gone as well, and where would a youngster in Waterford have gotten experience at that level?
“We’re delighted we got to the end of the season and kept things going. We’re lucky Lee came in and he wants to lift the club to the level it reached in the past.
“The connection with Swindon Town also means there’s a possibility we can bring players in and vice versa. If a young player with Waterford does well then there’s an opportunity for him, possibly, with Swindon.
“If a youngster with Swindon isn’t quite ready for that level then he can cut his teeth in League of Ireland football — no better testing ground for a player.”
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