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Saturday 11th July 2015 ko 18.30

League of Ireland- Premier Division

LIMERICK 2 (Faherty 33 Turner 82p)

GALWAY UNITED 4 (Keegan 12 61 74 Shanahan 81)

Att 650

Entry €15

Programme €4

Badge €3

I first visited the Republic of Ireland when I was 11. My scout troop camped near a small town called Castletown Bere on Bantry Bay, and other than quickly finding out why Ireland is the “Emerald Isle” my abiding memory of the place was just how long it look to get there. Now it has to be said a fleet of cars including 2 Morris Oxfords and a Morris Ital on single track roads was never likely to be fast, but I do remember upon my return grabbing Dad’s road atlas and being surprised at it only being 190-odd miles from the ferry port of Rosslare.

Back then, in 1981 there were no motorways here, so in the here-and-now as three cars blasted south-west down the M7 I remembered the small child’s boredom back in the car, and allowed myself an inward smile at that most British of habits, whinging at foreign toll booths. The €1.90 seemed a price well worth paying under the circumstances!

We didn’t head to Limerick straightaway. Our first port of call was further west on the Shannon estuary to the small village of Foynes.  The settlement became famous due to early land take-off aeroplanes lacking the range for long-range, and especially trans-Atlantic travel so the sheltered waters became the perfect haven for flying boats who had the extra range, to land and take-off.

It didn’t last long, the first passenger flight from the USA arrived in 1935, the last departed in 1946, Shannon airport becoming a symbol of Foynes’ obsolescence. The terminal building is now a fascinating museum and it was here, in 1943, that a little piece of Irish history took place, the Irish coffee was invented!

The story goes that a flying boat took off, bound for America, but was forced back by poor weather. When the plane arrived back the chef Joe Sheridan saw the cold, tired, and probably frightened passengers and decided a restorative drink was needed. The mixture of coffee, cream and whiskey proved popular, and part of our tour was watching as one of our number, Eddie was taught how to make the famous drink!

When this tour was put together Limerick and Cabinteely loomed large. With Cabinteely, the raison d’etre was the club and ground being new to the league, but with Limerick the attraction was the club returning to its spiritual home, the Markets Field Stadium.

It started life as Gaelic sports venue (Hurling and Gaelic football) in the late 19th century. It quickly became better known as a venue for rugby, Garyowen RUFC called the place home from 1886 to 1957, and dog racing which continued until a new track was built in 2010. Limerick FC were formed in 1937 and quickly were accepted into Free State League. The club played here until 1984 when unrest between players and management triggered move away. The unprecedented sight of playing staff of Limerick United picketing the ground before a league match in 1983 could well have been the final straw for owner Pat Grace and his wife Ann and they set up negotiations with Old Crescent RFC for the purchase of their property at Rathbane, Hogan Park.

It could, possibly should have been a new beginning for the club, Northern Ireland hero Billy Hamilton was brought in as player-manager, and for the first few years attendances were healthy, but the problem was the lease. The club wanted 25 years, they got 5, and they soon found themselves in serious decline. Sam Allardyce produced a promotion back to the Premier Division in 1992-3 but he was gone in a year, Financial problems plagued the club and they had to rely on the goodwill of a local junior side, Pike Rovers, for a home ground for the 2000–01 season.  The club then moved to another former rugby ground, Jackman Park.

That failed to get a domestic licence on promotion back the Premier Division in 2013 so the club moved to yet another rugby ground Thomond Park. The 26,500 capacity home of the Munster regional team, is magnificent but far too big for the club’s needs, so a move back to the now derelict Markets Field was planned. That was facilitated in no small part by funds from a charity backed by Limerick born businessman JP McManus.

The ground needed a lot of work before Limerick could move back which they did on 5th June 2015, losing 2-1 to Drogheda United. The ground is still very much a work in progress with just the 1,350 capacity main stand complete, and a temporary 360 capacity stand behind a goal. It doesn’t need a scholar of stadium architecture even with, would you believe the club shop being literally out of the back of a lorry, to see the potential the site has.

The more immediate issue for Limerick is their parlous league position. You should always worry about any club that doesn’t print the league table in their programme, and the club are rock bottom without single league win all season. They don’t come across as the typical hapless side hurtling towards relegation, when Vinny Faherty equalised Jake Keegan’s early goal, they looked competitive. But when holding midfielder Lee-J Lynch limped off at half-time a gaping hole opened up in front of the back four. Keegan eased through the gears to complete his hat trick, with Gary Shanahan completing the rout. Ian Turner’s valedictory penalty offered no comfort whatsoever.

For the likelihood (certainty?) of relegation it was impossible not to warm to Limerick. The welcome was fulsome, and despite many assuming before arrival that the early evening kick-off was due to the lack of floodlights, the club settled on 6.30 to allow fans to take trains back to either Galway or Dublin easily. That reflects well on them, and I hope that now they’re settled back home, they can rebuild.