IT’S A LONG WAY TO ABBEYCARTON .
By Brian Kennedy
Travelling all of the 137.8 miles to be at the City Calling Stadium this week will be fans of a rejuvenated Waterford FC. It’s a long way to play “De Town” – but we live in hope the journey is worth the trip.
Longford have a few things in common with us. We both had long spells in a greyhound stadium, both won the FAI Cup twice, Alan Kirby remains a favourite of both sides and Longford Town’s biggest league defeat is 8-1…courtesy of us! We also share a particular cup final in October of 2004 which gives me more nightmares then when I first saw The Shining!
Although founded in 1924 it would be a full sixty years before the town built on the banks of the River Camlin finally took their place in our domestic football league. Since then they’ve managed to avoid some of the financial downfalls of many a league club and add a few honours along the way.
I’m sure there are many Town fans that can remember the day Longford Town first stepped up to the top table and mixed it with the best at the start of the 1984/85 Premier Division. Under the management of Charlie Walker, Longford’s first game in top flight football took place in the mountains of Donegal at Ballybofey in a 2-1 defeat to Finn Harps. Jim Mahon would get the honour of scoring Town’s first ever goal in top flight football.
It was a huge change for “De Town”. Before this the clubs golden era of three FAI Intermediate Cups between 1951-62 meant the club became the most successful amateur club in the land. By this stage the club inhabited the first of their three grounds – like us, it was a venue more in line with four legged animals then the two legged kind. Nestled away nicely in Park Road in the heart of the town, the local greyhound stadium served the club well from the late forties to 1972. In that time the clubs amateur status was among the best in the country, and they had even managed a 1955 FAI Cup semi-final there (losing to Paddy Coad’s Colts of Ringsend) along with a few other shocks throughout the decade , before Abbeycarton came along in ’72.
Of course the call to the top table which came unexpectedly (the club had been trying for years but an extension of 2 more teams to the Premier meant Longford got promoted to senior status) meant things had to change. Training became more rigorous and frequent (manager Charlie Walker admittedly got burned out travelling from work in Dublin to Longford several times a week) and a need for the locals to come out and support the club. And they did this from the tiny confines of Abbeycarton – a ground that had the hallmark of non-league, yet became a favourite for the home fans. Unfashionable and dismissed by visiting clubs, it became a little patch of green where the new kids on the block took their stand as they rode out the best the rest could hurl at them. In the end, many a club ended up enjoying the rivalry with Longford Town up there.
Dermot Keely, who went on to manage Town, always maintained the club should play there even to the point of dismissing the clubs move to a more spacious ground on the Strokestown Road.
“I loved Abbeycarton, just as much as I loved my time at Longford. At Abbeycarton we had a tiny ground where we could push up and get in people’s faces. And it worked on several occasions and we’d actually become hard to beat there. When I heard about the proposed move to Flancare Park I was very vocal. Let’s just say I used a stream of several choice words to voice my opposition to it.” – Dermot Keely.
Though relegated in their opening season, Longford managed to reach the final of the inaugural First Division Shield in 1986 under the tutelage of Billy Bagster. The Dubliner was, and still is, a charismatic figure that the club took to heart. That final against Derry City proved a step too far, but it was against a “Candystripes” side that would go on to dominate the Premier Division, FAI and League Cup just a couple of years later.
After many years at Abbeycarton the club felt the need to branch out and so upon the Strokestown Road horizon at the turn of a new century came Flancare Park. It wasn’t long before somebody coined the phrase ‘Flansiro’ and it actually coincided the with best spell in the clubs career. After 14 depressing seasons in the First Division the club made the big-time in 2000, (through Stephen Kenny) though few could have predicted just how well Longford Town would fare over the next handful of seasons.
An FAI Cup runners up spot in 2001 meant a first trip into Europe (defeat to Litex Lovech) but the Blue Riband was captured two seasons later. Under Alan Matthews the club were beaten in the 2003 League Cup Final against St. Patricks Athletic though Matthews’s men were not to be denied and on the 26th of October 2003 goals from Sean Francis and Shane Barrett against the “Saints” meant the 2003 FAI Cup would reside on the banks of the river Camlin for the first time in its history.
12 months later……yep…we know!
What seemed to be a routine 1-0 win in the 2004 FAI Cup final after Willie Burton had put Waterford United ahead, turned into a two minute late, late nightmare when first Waterford born Alan Kirby equalised and Paul Keegan struck the winner to give Longford Town back to back FAI Cups – the first team from outside the capital to do so since 1973.
Flancare also became one of few all-seated grounds in the country at this point. As ambitious as it was – the grounds official capacity was once 6,000 with a seat and view for everyone – the problem of the inclement weather that our friends get up north meant you would have a seat but your ass might still feel the cold, or rain, or snow. Crowds certainly improved with the move – the main stand boasts a 1500 capacity – and Longford Town’s standing in the Premier Division. It was a position they held for seven straight seasons until 2007, however relegation from the Premier to the First Division has had one advantage ….Athlone Town.
It meant that the most ferocious rivalry in world football…OK I’m going on a bit but it’s still competitive and could kick off again. ‘El Classico’ (and I have no idea who coined the phrase for this rivalry – probably the same guy who came up with Flansiro) is regularly the tie between both Town’s. On my visit to both clubs for the book the rivalry was as fierce as it was when they first locked horns as League of Ireland teams in the eighties.
The capacity on Strokestown Road has reduced and it’s now the City Calling Stadium but our similarities and rivalries with Longford Town might not end just yet. Apart from tonight’s game there is an increasingly likely scenario that maybe it will be us two that contest the one spot for the holy grail – first place.
I mean anything’s better than a play-off right?
Brian Kennedy – Author of Just Follow The Floodlights.