Home Features MacKenna On Monday: A Short History Of My Love Affair With Football

MacKenna On Monday: A Short History Of My Love Affair With Football

For quite a few years, I’d a buddy that I considered to be completely crazy. In a good way of course, but the inclination was built on the extent of his allegiance to Drogheda United.

When the going was very good, he’d turn away weekends with us in the pubs and clubs, and save his wages so he could go on their European adventures. When the going got tough though, and the club was on the verge of collapse, he went much further. He took every penny he had and handed it over, and then went about fund-raising some more. Indeed on his days off, he’d do marathons on a treadmill in shop windows, with a bucket beside asking for any spare change.

The initial thanks he got was a place on their reformed board, although the same people that nearly destroyed his club were on it too and soon bullied him out of the room. Meanwhile, the initial reaction he got from others was, at best, a quirky look or a cheap joke at his expense.

Still, he kept at it.

Promotion/Relegation Play-off Final Second Leg, Finn Park, Donegal 1/11/2019 Finn Harps vs Drogheda United Drogheda's Mark Doyle attempts a header Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

On Friday he came to mind as Drogheda United lost out to Finn Harps in a promotion play-off that so many would sneer at, but checking the score it dawned on me. I never got him because I’d fallen out of love with the game. After a long struggle though, it’s begun to grow again.

Chapter 1: Innocent Love

A story to start.

Growing up in Athy, just a few doors down, my best friend had Sky Sports. The full package.

It being everything, it meant he had it all.

There was the exotic far-away games – in fact on one occasion during the 1991 Copa America when seeing an ad for Bolivia-Uruguay in what seemed like the small hours, we planned a sleepover. Only we forgot to inform his mother and when she told us to go to bed shortly after kick-off he was furious, a row erupted, and I snuck out as they went at it. I was furious also. Walking home I wondered what chaos I was missing. In South America, not his living room.

There was the staple of the Premier League as well, or at least it’s a staple now. Back then – be it marketing or mysticism – it seemed like a luxury to our young minds. There was Super Sunday and, come full-time, my friend, myself and his brother would retreat to their kitchen with sheets of paper and a pen and play a sort of Football Manager game long before we’d ever got near a PC.

Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup First Round, United Park, Drogheda, Co. Louth 10/8/2018 Drogheda United vs Shamrock Rovers Drogheda's Kealan Dillon Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

This sport was addictive. When there wasn’t his television set, there was BBC Five Live midweek with European matches where you’d to use your imagination on odd-sounding teams and hostile sounding crowds. Reception for this depended on the weather, with cloud cover highly preferable.

It’s strange looking back at the emotion it provoked. A tad embarrassing, as if a young crush. Still not a teenager I cried at an FA Cup final; and threw a tantrum after a semi-final loss; sat on the edge of the chair for draws hoping for an easy pass through one more round. The innocence of a child. Or just a more innocent time for football when it was easy to grab a hold of and cling to?

Chapter Two: The Honeymoon Of Marriage

One Saturday in a bar, caught alone in a dreadfully dull conversation that I’m sure had been pre-planned by our group, I tried to send a text from my pocket without drawing the attention of the person rambling on across from me. It simply read “HELP”. And it would have been a success but for the fact that at about 1am it went to the wrong person in the address book.

That wrong person was the chairman of Kildare County, and he rapidly replied.

“Are you okay?”

There was something in that behind the cringe initially and the humour of it later.

Eircom League 10/3/2006 Dublin City Manager Dermot Keely Mandatrory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

The club beat was my first job in the media and remains one of the best. It’s easy in sport now to step back from it and be what some would call out as cynical when it’s actually just a burst of realism, and it’s important too – but as a local journalist at that age, it was hard not to be a fan. Particularly with Dermot Keely in the nascent years pushing and pushing again for promotion.

One night after a game in St Mel’s Park, having failed to make it down to the dressing room for reaction due to bad internet and passed deadlines, he came running across the pitch in the dark. “Ewan, do you want some quotes?” It was gloriously small-time but on occasion, it seemed big time. Seeing the lights of Station Road had the feel of an event and journey far more important.

It was to be a part of something. And at times to miss out on something. Once, after a season of mostly ups, the last day saw a win-or-bust trip to Limerick. It started out on a train from Kildare to Cork, with the change at Limerick Junction. Swapping over I realised I’d left my coat on the original train, ran to get it, got locked on the Cork train, while my laptop made it to the proper destination. Two buses across Munster saw me get there 10 minutes after full time. We lost.

Memories.

Moving on in life, there was sadness in hearing of County’s demise, with the end involving the manager bringing his own set of jerseys which were handed out from the boot of his car. From afar, it had the feeling of an old couple years later visiting the house they first purchased, only to see their long-ago hopes and dreams replaced by a caved-in roof and rubble on the floor.

Chapter Three: The Messy Divorce

Business.

It always comes back to business. And it always ruins everything.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich looks on during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge on May 21, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images)

Stan Kroenke, Roman Abramovich, Abdullah bin Musa’ed, The Glazers, Abu Dhabi.

Hedge funds, stock prices, blood money, laundered cash, petrodollars.

Nothing is sacred anymore and then it dawned: Why cheer on the playthings of some asshole?

The bottom line slowly became more and more important. If you don’t believe it, look at how even Manchester United celebrate profits rather than results, social media following rather than achievements. As for the sides willing to make a loss, it tends to come back to a brutal regime using scorelines to wash off some child’s claret from their glistening, investable reputations.

Much like in life, these people are the pathetic winners. And there aren’t that many of them.

A year ago, I sat down and watched Red Star Belgrade fans invade the pitch after a dramatic win in Austria. It was the sort of throwback passion to less sanitised days, however, it left a hollow feeling. This, after all, was one of the most storied clubs on the planet, with some of the most fanatical supporters, and they’d been reduced to ecstasy merely by qualifying for the Champions League. Forget the fact they’d be throttled in the group stages, this was worth a small fortune.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich looks on during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge on May 21, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images)

This is the realm of the chosen few with more and more being driven away as if once-proud men reduced to feeding their now scrawny bodies with the crumbs falling from the top table. It’s dull.

The early part of this Spanish league season has been spent with endless coverage of crises at Barcelona and turmoil at Real Madrid, yet at the start of this November, they are out in front domestically. Ligue 1 is over with Paris Saint Germain almost assured of making it seven titles in eight years. Bayern Munich’s struggles see them sit on the shoulder and they will no doubt make it eight titles in those eight years. Juventus will go one better to nine in a row. Perhaps Liverpool are the last enduring storyline when it comes to conquering a major domestic league.

There’s a great shame in that. So much loss.

This isn’t worthy of cheering and these people and clubs aren’t worthy of any bar stool flirting.

Still, it takes over.

Unstoppable. Universal. Distant. And grim.

It’s a different game so high up and many don’t know what they’re missing out on.

If only they remembered the pride of what’s local.

Chapter Four: Relapse

For those of you who have never lived abroad, it’s a daunting experience. Thrust into the middle of millions, the first feeling is that you’re alone. Told how small the world is in this day and age, the first feeling is how far away you are. The initial party wears off and winds down and, as you look around at new surroundings, there’s panic. While so much should be familiar, everything is different. How they speak, how they drive, how they eat, how they drink, how they walk.

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 05: Robinho #19 and Orejuela #28 of Cruzeiro and Neilton #11 of Internacional battle for the ball during a match between Cruzeiro and Internacional as part of Brasileirao Series A 2019 at Mineirao Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photo by Juliana Flister/Getty Images)

You look for something to cling to.

In Belo Horizonte, that something was Cruzeiro. As different and manic as the football culture there was, it brought a sense of stability. Amidst the fighting and the flares, there were little shoots of home that grew and grew. This wasn’t watching a football club you’ve no connection to on television and forcing a feeling, this became being a part of a familiar experience.

Once, on an overnight bus through the interior of that vast land, a car awoke those of us sleeping on the way back from a match as it smashed into the side of our transport. A bullet came through the window, we were boarded by masked men with sawed-off shotguns, the driver was tied in the toilets, the bus was driven to the middle of nowhere and we were beaten as hostages as even the shirts on our backs were robbed. A couple of weeks later, the next bus journey was a genuinely terrifying experience, a sort of delayed trauma as if wondering if it might all happen again. But it had to be taken as the destination was a game at the Maracana.

Cruzeiro-Flamengo.

Some risks are worth it.

Leaving Cruzeiro was arguably the hardest part of leaving Brazil. Not renewing a long-held season ticket last week was confirmation that part of the story was over. A wave of emotion followed. After all, there was a huge sense of gratitude for providing a sense of place and belonging. Clicking delete on the email rather than on the credit card details made it dawn.

Football had returned to toy with any and all feelings.

Chapter Five: Settling For Friendship

In recent months, still abroad, the process has started again.

Espinho are a third division club in Portugal and last weekend I’d gotten to their match too early. There was no one at the gate, with a groundsman directing me to where I could get a drink, but lost on the way I ended up in the changing rooms. The visitors didn’t know the place well, so the home manager had a couple of players bring me up for a coffee. Having spent too long chatting, shortly after I was left to climb over a fence into the away pen as the gate had been locked.

Other fans tried to speak English.

I tried to speak what seems like a completely different Portuguese. Football felt good again.

But don’t get too close.

During the week I spent the morning reading about the hundreds of millions beautiful Cruzeiro are in debt, with their board having sold shares in child players, having to pay fan groups and journalists for their filthy support, having siphoned off millions in a massive money-laundering opposition. The vice-president and a key figure in a case now with the police there was even paid seven figures to leave rather than being thrown into a cell. Bad enough, yet after witnessing Espinho win, a chat revealed their similar troubles also. The previous loaded owners had run them into the ground, left them on the brink, to the point they’d to sell their stadium.

Playing down the road now, local authorities had promised a new municipal facility but in-fighting on the local council saw that plug pulled. Their president worries for their future.

That it angered however meant that it all mattered again.

Lately, through good and bad, anger and joy, my friend from Drogheda suddenly didn’t seem so mad. Or maybe I’d joined him and so many others in being completely and happily crazy.

About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.