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Sunday 6th July 2014 ko 16.00

League of Ireland Premier Division


DERRY CITY 1 (P McEleney 20)

Att 354

Entry €15

Programme €3

Badge €3

NB. The Irish tour’s cost of £285 included entry into all the 3 games, and programmes, all transport, all excursions, and 3 nights bed and breakfast at Dublin City University

The relaxed nature of the weekend was neatly summed up by its final day. A leisurely breakfast was followed by a trip west to Athlone for a boat trip on the Shannon. It turned out to be a mecca for the birdwatchers, and for the boat a chance to meet two residents of its birthplace Southend-on-sea! Even the RNLI badge was still attached!

From there we went well and truly native and visited Sean’s Bar, apparently Ireland’s oldest pub, complete with sawdust on the floor. Under the circumstances a pint of Guinness was the only beverage to order, and that “When in Rome” attitude extended to the restaurant next door where a quite delicious Irish stew was demolished!

The Athlone Town Stadium is found in Lissywollen to the east of Athlone, and is rather reminiscent of the new-build stadia at East Fife and Dumbarton consisting of one stand containing all the club’s facilities. That said, unlike their Scottish cousins the other 3 sides are accessible to spectators although on a showery evening the vast majority opted to stay in the stand.

The stadium was opened in 2007 and replaced St Mel’s Park which had been home since 1929. The club admitted St Mel’s was a little tired but home was where the heart was and there had been some famous nights there. Unquestionably top of the list was the night of the 22nd October 1975 when Athlone met the might of AC Milan in the UEFA Cup. The legend has it that as Milan manager Giovanni Trapattoni exited the coach, stepped down into a patch of mud, and espying the tumbledown venue was heard to comment, “Is this some kind of a joke?”

It was one of those occasions where every Athlone resident still claims to have been there! The Irish gained a highly creditable 0-0 draw, missing a penalty, before losing the 2nd leg 3-0 in the San Siro. I do wonder whether, years later, when the FAI interviewed Trappatoni for the manager’s position of the Ireland team, he was reminded of that evening! Some quite wonderful footage was captured by RTE>

As Chris Berezai’s deputy I decided to seek out a teamsheet for the line-ups. I called in at the offices and was immediately struck by what a wonderfully friendly club they are. Not only were teamsheets provided for the entire party, but secretary David Dully organised an impromptu tour of the ground. He explained that unlike any other LoI clubs, only the manager and players get paid, and the club always seeks to break even each season. This aim will helped by forthcoming friendlies against QPR and Dundee United, and he also explained why the grounds we’d visited had more seats than the clubs’ needs.

It transpires that for FAI licencing requirements, needed for league membership, a stadium’s capacity is set at the number of seats in the ground. Moreover the FAI take 2.5% of the gate money so perhaps that’s why few attendances are published! Athlone won last season’s Division One, but have found the step up to be a real struggle, propping up the table with just 8 points. However David explained how a change of manager has led to an upturn in fortunes with a spirited draw away at Bohemian, and a 6-0 mauling of Drogheda at home. You can imagine how the entire party wanted to see Athlone do well after that wonderful welcome from their officials.

Sadly as much as the English tourists wanted a home win, it never looked likely. In fact it was almost painful to watch as everything Athlone tried failed, as forward Phil Gorman’s propensity to stray off-side and a general lack of confidence across the team saw the visitors collect all three points courtesy of a 30 yard blaster of a free-kick. It was stunning goal, worth of winning any game but up until the final whistle you just wanted, in spite of themselves Athlone to find salvation.

It wasn’t to be and we strolled back to our coach watching the Derry fans heading back to Northern Ireland. It did seem strange seeing the UK number-plates.