Walking through Inchicore en route to Richmond Park, the vast amount of gardai patrolling the Emmet Road area is striking. For a first-time visitor popping his League of Ireland cherry, this feels strange.
Fears are compounded when a cop’s directions lead down a little sideroad that feels like a cross between an alley-way and somebody’s back garden because that’s exactly what it is.
The pre-match boombox is audible but not yet visible as the noise becomes a guidance system leading towards the Friday night lights.
It’s St. Patrick’s Athletic versus Cork City on March 6, just before the shutdown. Two high profile clubs, rich in history yet desperate for points despite the fact the season is barely a month old.
Upon entering Richmond Park the pre-game fears immediately dissipate as the back of the main stand is awash with people of all ages, from pre-adolescent teens barely old enough to remember Pats’ 2013 league title to veterans of the stand, around long enough to remember the glory years under Brian Kerr who led his boyhood club to a first league title in 34 years back in 1990.
What is evidently clear from spending an evening at Richmond Park is that it is a club steeped in family values.
The first 10 minutes are spent wandering the facilities, chatting to whoever will talk. First, it’s the programme seller whose warmth is welcoming on a cold March evening. Following that is the people of Shay’s Burger Van, happy to help facilitate catering needs while also having a bit of craic along the way.
My guide for the evening soon arrives. Ronan O’Flaherty, author of ‘Oh My Word’, a weekly column that has become a staple of the home team’s matchday programmes. The lifelong St. Patrick’s Athletic supporter was first brought to Richmond Park by his dad at just four years old.
The father’s here tonight, located in the main stand, his usual spot, and although Ronan doesn’t sit with him, I notice they are in constant discussion throughout the game.
The power of smartphones.
What’s striking as we circle the ground pre-match is how many of these fans know one another. We’re stopped for a brief chat with a local patron before seconds later we meet Claire, she seems to be in a rush, however.
Turns out she’s frozen having been at the ground since half six getting the club shop ready so the kids aren’t short of snacks and parents cups of tea. Our meeting with Claire lasts barely 20 seconds but it’s clear she is a key cog in the St. Patrick’s Athletic fans experience.
Next, it’s Paul and his young son Daniel, already a regular fixture at home games even if he doesn’t realise it yet. Upon hearing that we’re headed for the stand behind the goal, the father and son join as it’s a more kid-friendly area.
The stand itself has an interesting side story.
It was financed by the fans themselves as part of the ‘Patron Saints‘ initiative that sees fans become members and contribute towards the long-term development of the club.
Through the initiative, they have played a key role in projects such as the Emmet Road mural, team kits for the Under-19s, heart monitoring equipment, renovations to the media room, west stand repairs, club shop rejuvenation, grounds keeping equipment, strength and conditioning equipment and Player of the Year Awards Nights.
The match itself proved a bit of a damp squib but at least the home fans went home happy after Billy King snatched all three points with a tidy finish past veteran Mark McNulty in the Cork City goal.
It’s a first home win of the season that sees St. Pat’s jump into fourth place and despite the fact the season is still in its infancy, the win is vital given that in seven days time, they travel north to face champions Dundalk FC.
Only, that game never went ahead.
Less than a week after King’s goal injected the club with a timely boost, there’s no more football to be had.
For how long?
Well, nobody quite knows.
Friday Night Lights
The lack of Friday night football is a sorry situation for a league, and many of its clubs, already struggling to tread water through no real fault of their own.
For the fans, though, it’s a real kick in the teeth following what’s been a tumultuous two years for Irish football’s die-hards. Following the eye-opening experience of visiting Richmond Park for the first time, the feeling of sorrow for its Friday night inhabitants remains in the pit of one’s stomach.
For these people, this is more than just a game. It’s cliched but it’s the truth, St Patrick’s Athletic is a way of life.
Marty and Betty Moran are both in their eighties. They never miss a home game. They adore St. Pat’s and would do anything for the club. They are the lifeblood of the place.
And that’s no cliche but a literal statement.
Betty’s blood runs deep throughout the fabric of the club. Her father, Dick Regan, was a founding member back in 1929.
“I’m getting withdrawal symptoms!” Comes her response when asked about the current lack of action. She’s under lockdown, isolated from the rest of her family. A sentiment that has become all too familiar in the first quarter of 2020.
At least she’s got Marty, though, her dear husband who’s also mad about the club.
“Ah! Missing the football, yeah! I’ve been following them for 54 years now so it’s strange that there’s no games, but sure your health is more important.” Marty says. Another sentiment that has become all too familiar in recent months.
From talking to the couple, it’s clear the love they have for St. Pat’s. It’s a love that is very much reciprocated and replicated as Marty reveals they have remained in constant contact with the couple while on lockdown.
The pair won’t be left wanting. Combined, Marty and Betty Moran have had this club’s back for well over a century, now is the time the club has theirs.
The Programme Seller
Next, it’s Pat O’Callaghan.
Only, it turns out I’ve already met Pat.
He’s the programme seller who put one’s mind at ease upon entering the stadium. It’s obvious that Pat and the programme seller are one and the same as he’s been doing it since 1986.
“I’ve been involved in the club and going to games since 1976.
“Brian Kerr took over then in 1986 and he was looking for people to help out and volunteer with various aspects of the club, so I said ‘Yeah, I’ll volunteer and take care of the programmes.'”
A veteran of the club, Pat is also in his eighties now, however, the fire still burns bright with his dedication to the club as strong as it ever was.
“The gates open for a 7.45 pm kick-off at seven o’clock but I’d be there usually from about five o’clock just getting the programmes organised and ready.
“A few odd jobs so I can sort a few things out, then come seven o’clock I’ve made up a little stand to sit the programmes on and people come in and if they want a programme they are greeted with a smile and are welcomed.”
You see, he is a bit of a legend around Inchicore. Pat is steeped in St. Pat’s. So much so, that he even bought a house from them.
In 1976, he stumbled upon a house for sale with no letting agency or auctioneer.
Turns out, St. Pat’s manager Jack Burkett, an Englishman who made 142 appearances for West Ham, was leaving the club and selling the house.
It later transpired that the tenant in the house prior to Burkett was John Colrain, a proud Scotsman and former Celtic player, the club’s previous manager.
That was in 1976. Pat bought the house and has been going to Richmond Park ever since.
It’s people like Pat, Marty and Betty that keep clubs up and down the country running.
They don’t do it for themselves, though, that’s the important thing to remember. As Pat so eloquently puts, it’s their job to keep the club alive, not just for future generations but also the past.
St. Patrick’s Athletic is not just a football club but a family.
“I always say, we owe it to the people who pay their hard-earned money into the place and the people who have gone before us, back as far as 1929. It’s up to us to make sure that the reputation isn’t sullied in any way by bad administration or bad conduct.”
“It’s a massive cliche but I really do believe that we are only minding the club, we’re minding it for future generations as the people before minded it for us.
“That’s why I’m involved really. I just enjoy it, It’s a hobby but it’s also ingrained in me.
“And my son.
“And his son.
“And the rest of my grandchildren, my daughter and her children. They are all St. Pat’s fans.
“Maybe not by choice but they are.”