WORDS: JOHN HYNES
Cycling through the wind and the rain, the youngsters of North Tipperary couldn’t wait to get their first glimpse of professional footballers in action as Crewe Alexandra came to Newtown. When they arrived, they witnessed a deluge of a different sort as the goals came pouring down on the local select XI…
North Tipperary, sometime in the mid-Nineties…
Footballers. Real, professional footballers. Guys who got paid for playing the sport we spent dawn until dusk enjoying. These were proper players; some of them had even featured in occasional matches on TV. And they were coming to our area to play a pre-season friendly against a North Tipperary selection. This was brilliant news, sensational to a teenage me.
It mattered little that the visiting side was Crewe Alexandra. I was a Liverpool fan, but had no idea who ‘The Alex’ were.
My only experience of them previously had been watching Liverpool win 4-0 in a televised FA Cup third round tie at Gresty Road in 1992, during which a returning-from-injury John Barnes scored a hat-trick, including a superb back heel.
I remember telling my dad about Barnes’ magic. A far-from-hardcore Manchester United fan, his reply was underwhelming: “The opposition can’t have been much good if Barnes scored three in his first game back.”
A superb side or a team floating about the lower divisions, it didn’t matter to me.
These were footballers that played in the English league and they would be performing a few miles from our town, in a nearby village known as Newtown. There was probably a match preview or some mention of the game in local papers, The Nenagh Guardian and The Tipperary Star, yet I can’t recall any real publicity before the evening arrived.
In pre-Celtic Tiger era Eire cars weren’t so plentiful, or at least not in our council estate anyway. Hiring a taxi to go to the game never occurred to us and, as teenagers, we would probably have been unable to afford the fare.
Instead we opted to cycle. Naturally it rained. And rained and rained. By the time our increasingly soaked peloton completed the journey between Nenagh and Newtown we were soaked to the marrow. That didn’t bother us though, we were focused on only one thing; seeing professional footballers.
The venue was a field, and nothing more. Soccer was, and to some extent still is, the poor relation of amateur sports in the area. Hurling and Gaelic football games were usually played in decent grounds around the parish, soccer normally took place in a field where we’d shelter by a ditch when changing. Now and again, if we were lucky, we might have jumped in a car to put on our kit. Rarely, and it was a novelty, there was a shed acting as a dressing room. Thankfully conditions have improved since then.
This was also prior to the GAA allowing ‘foreign sports’ such as soccer and rugby to be played on their soil. Thankfully that stance has relaxed in recent times, as demonstrated by the Irish national teams of those persuasions residing at Croke Park between 2007 and 2010, while Lansdowne Road morphed into the impressive Aviva Stadium.
I can’t recall if the Crewe players had to use their bus as a temporary changing facility or availed of the shed near the gate.
On the few occasions we used the facilities, while playing youth football, there had been a gap at the top of the wall that separated the makeshift dressing rooms. It meant team-talks had to be delivered in a whisper if you didn’t want the other side to hear your exact plans.
What I do remember is the large crowd assembled on the sideline, with a rope to keep them behind the white chalk. There were no temporary stands in place. Whether they just weren’t required, or nobody had suggested the idea, I don’t know.
What was also clear was the buzz of anticipation among those gathered. A few had been lucky enough to actually venture to Dublin for an international game. An even smaller number had travelled across the Irish Sea and come back with talk of Anfield and Old Trafford. For the majority though – including me – this was as close to the real thing as they had ever been.
“A dirty day” was how some described the weather, as the rain continued to fall prior to kick-off.
Watching the North Tipperary side warm up it was clear the best amateur players from the region were present. These were lads we knew were good, they could do things with the ball that most of us kids couldn’t imagine. Now they were about to show this against real footballers.
Even the surface, removed of its normal coating of sheep droppings, looked superb as the rain created a slick surface conducive to tiki taka, long before the phrase became popular.
Within seconds of the whistle, prompting what we hoped would be a close contest, the canyon in class was unmistakable. Seasoned traveller to English first division grounds, or brand new to the sport: you couldn’t fail to spot it.
The Crewe players’ touch and composure on the ball set them apart. They were quicker, sharper, better at passing, heading, shooting. Just far, far better. Their superiority was demonstrated by the fact that they actually didn’t seem to be trying too hard. Not even a typical Irish summer day not far from the banks of the River Shannon affected them.
While the ball slipped away from the feet of the ‘home’ players, or their passes were rendered over-hit by the fast surface, it was effortless for Crewe and, after a few minutes of mainly being in possession, they went ahead. Then they scored again. And again.
I seem to remember a mistake from the goalkeeper for one of the early strikes. Eventually all of the many goals blended into one.
I lost count at 10-0 in the second half, but I’ve since been informed by reliable sources that the final score was 12-0. There was no scoreboard to let us know the exact figure. If there had been, the operator would have ended the game with repetitive strain injury.
The humbling of our local heroes didn’t matter – we’d seen real life footballers in the flesh and they’d lived up to what we expected. Nearly two decades and many Liverpool games later, only rarely have my expectations been matched again in such emphatic style.