You can feel the excitement when you cross the border into the Deise, yes – there is a footballing revolution happening in Waterford.
From the west side of Waterford county in Dungarvan, right down to the quays in the city – there is promise oozing out of each and every crevice, most notably buoyed by the return of Waterford FC to the Airtricity League Premier Division after a decade-long absence.
Alan Reynolds’ side have so far been the surprise package this campaign, sitting in third place – four points off current league leaders, Dundalk. Though many tipped them to do well and easily fight off the threat of relegation, few could have imagined how easily the Blues would find it to adapt to the top flight.
Four wins from their opening five fixtures set the RSC side off to a flying start – beating Derry City 2-1 on the opening night, before falling 2-0 to reigning champions Cork City. One could have been forgiven for thinking that Waterford were a good side but not quite yet able to compete with the experience the likes of Cork and Dundalk possess.
However, wins against St. Patrick’s Athletic, Sligo Rovers and Bohemians reassured us, as well as a harsh last-minute defeat away to Dundalk – but once again, they responded in style, reeling off three consecutive victories – against Shamrock Rovers, Limerick, and most notably – Cork City, whom they saw off 2-1 on April 6th in an infamously fiery encounter.
Ill-discipline can largely be blamed for recent slips, as Stanley Aborah, Bastien Hery, Gavin Holohan and Sander Puri have all served suspensions in this month’s fixtures, and their loss showed on the pitch – with Alan Reynolds’ side suffering back-to-back 1-0 defeats at the hands of Derry and St. Pat’s.
A huge psychological boost will come however from their 3-0 win over Bray Wanderers last week, which acted as the catalyst to dump their neighbours Cork out of the EA Sports Cup by virtue of penalties, after a 1-1 draw following extra-time.
For this writer, it’s been incredibly strange how fast everything has unfolded at the RSC. The last time I visited the ground was in late 2016, when Waterford United as they were then known, took on UCD in the First Division.
On that occasion, they opened the scoring and my friends and I were looking forward to a presumably satisfactory performance from Roddy Collins’ side, one that would hopefully propel them up the table into the hunt for promotion.
By the time we had left that evening, it was 8-1 to UCD – and we had conceded that Waterford was a club destined for absolutely nothing in the near future, only administration – thankfully, we were wrong.
Since Lee Power has invested into and rebranded the club, new life has been breathed into football not just in Waterford city, but throughout the entire county. Waterford’s youth teams have been dominating and competing at the top of almost each and every underage League of Ireland, while at junior level – clubs from the Deise have represented their county extremely well as of late.
The likes of Carrick United, Hibernians, Villa, Ferrybank and Dungarvan United have all reached the latter rounds of the Munster Cup in recent seasons – with Carrick also consistently a name thrown into the contender’s ring when it comes to the matter of the FAI Junior Cup.
At schoolboy and youths level, there has been great success even in the past few months. Waterford Youths were crowned All-Ireland champions in April of 2017, Tramore AFC won the National U17 cup final in Turner’s Cross that same month, despite the fact no U17 league even exists in County Waterford.
There is also the potential for even more success this coming weekend – as Tramore face St.Kevin’s Boys in the FAI Youth Cup Final at Ozier Park on Sunday, before Dungarvan United do battle with Douglas Hall at Turner’s Cross, in their attempt to be crowned Munster Youth champions.
Talent nurtured near the confines of the River Suir has also fared incredibly well overseas. Derrick Williams, formerly of Tramore – has been drafted into many of Martin O’Neill’s preliminary Republic of Ireland squads, as he has helped his side Blackburn Rovers secure a return to the Championship.
There was also a professional debut for Brighton’s Jayson Molumby – as he featured twice in their Carabao Cup campaign, as well as making the bench for multiple Premier League fixtures.
Lee O’Connor has captained Manchester United at youth level, appearing for their U-18s, reserves and U-23 sides as well as receiving a nomination for the Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Year Award – won in the past by the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Marcus Rashford.
There has never been any shortage of great footballers to emerge from Waterford down the years – the likes of John O’Shea, Jim Beglin, Daryl Murphy, the Hunt brothers and Alfie Hale to name but a few.
Make no bones about it, the next crop of talent coming through have the capability to make it at the very highest level of the game – and now that there is seemingly a secure well-performing League of Ireland club in place to help them bring such talent onwards, the sky is the limit for Waterford footballers, at every age group.
Lying in a Europa League qualification spot at present, with each passing game the dream grows bigger and bigger in the city of blue and white, that one day they will be the ones to beat in Ireland, and their crop of homegrown talent exceeds that which the rest of the country has to offer.
On current efforts, there is absolutely no reason why that dream isn’t achievable.
It is a good time to support Waterford football of all levels, and it will only get better with time.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena.