Soccer on the short-grass
This month is nirvana for followers of the “beautiful game”. The elite of Europe’s soccer talent is striding the stadia of France. And where once the Irish Wild Geese fought on foreign battle-fields their modern day counterparts are donning the green shirt on the playing-fields of France.
Soccer is probably as near as it comes to being the universal language. The simplicity of its set up – two coats thrown on the ground and a ball will do – accounts for its presence in every corner of every continent. Unlike most field games it can be played on a hard surface making it possible for youngsters to transform any urban patch of concrete into a field of dreams.
Soccer in an organised sense has had a presence in Kildare from the time of the British army on the Curragh where matches between the different regiments were a key part of social life among the ranks. Outside of the camp the dominance of the Gaelic Athletic Association where football became freighted with political significance meant that association football struggled to get traction. However, there was a surge of interest in the county from the early 1930s with new teams emerging, moves to establish a league, and match reports taking up increasing column inches in the local press.
A report in March 1934 proclaims that “Soccer followers in Naas will be glad to hear of the successful results of a committee’s efforts to form a Soccer XI.” It was not the first exposure to soccer for the sportsmen of the county town. The article asserts that about twenty years previously the town could boast as many as six association football clubs and, according to an old player, could hold their own with any provincial team in the country. A proposal was made to draw on the sporting talents of two existing clubs in the town, the Hockey and the Rugby clubs, to form a side which would play “the rest of Naas.” The ubiquitous presence of the Catholic church in 1930s Ireland was reflected in the unanimous choice of Father Flood, curate, for the presidency of the new club. However, the sporting curate had credentials in that he was a popular member of “the premier amateurs, Bohemians” and there were expectations that he would facilitate a crowd-pulling fixture between “Bohs” and the embryonic Naas side.
On a countywide basis things were moving to put a league structure in place for teams from the county and adjoining districts. A report in May 1934 related that a well-attended meeting in Newbridge had approved “arrangements which had been in progress for some time past for the establishment of a Summer League, embracing Association football clubs in the County Kildare.” The first Sunday in May was to see the inaugural matches in the Kildare District Summer League (KDSL) which was to be a force in the sporting life of the county for generations to come. The ties on that pioneering day for association football in the locality were: St Paul’s United (Edenderry) v. Newbridge Rangers at Edenderry, referee, Mr Flinters; Corinthians v Liffey Rovers (Ballymore Eustace) at Newbridge, referee, Mr Kerrigan; Liffey Rangers (Ballymore) v Parkview, at Ballymore Eustace, referee, Mr A.J.Weller.
Newbridge – as befitted a former garrison town — was in the van of Kildare’s soccer revolution. A match report from September 1934 sizzles with enthusiasm. It covered a replay match for a silver cup between Newbridge Rangers and a side known as Park View. The match was witnessed by a record “Soccer gate” and was brim-full of interest, sparking football, and clean, vigorous play. Newbridge Rangers had upped its game since the teams first met and raced ahead recording four goals to one by the final whistle. The star of the day was the Newbridge goalkeeper, one O. Warner. According to the soccer correspondent “Warner played as a man possessed. Some of his saves bordered on the sensational and his display was the best ever in Newbridge soccer circles.” Every other Newbridge player could “consider that his work was a credit to the game.” The Newbridge players on the receiving end of such encomium were named as: J. Maher, T.Mills, J. Geraghty, P.Geraghty, E. McMahon, J. Fitzpatrick, J.Callaghan, E.Maher, P. Dooley, T. Whitelely, and, of course, the “possessed” O. Warner.
Newbridge Rangers had ambitions to break out of the local sporting arena. The conclusion to the report of their scintillating win at Moorefield announced that the Rangers were to travel to Dublin later that month for their inaugural game in the metropolitan Sunday Alliance fixture with a match against Kimmage Rovers, a nursery of football talent in the young suburb to the south-west of the city.
Hopefully their expedition to the city was more successful than one in the opposite direction which had led to disappointment for Athy soccer devotees in June 1930. A patient reporter described how “a very large crowd wended their way to the Show Grounds (Athy) in anticipation of witnessing the match arranged between a team of Glasnevin players from Dublin and the local players.” With some understatement he reported the disappointment felt by the crowd when word came through that the Glasnevin team’s bus had broken down in Naas. But the Athy fans were stoic: “those present waited until near six o’clock in the hope of seeing the Dublin men arrive.” In the end the match was called off but, in the oldest sports reporting cliché in the book, that of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat”, the Athy club officials put out a positive spin declaring that the fact that their supporters waited so long proved that “soccer is very much alive in the town and has a keen lot of enthusiastic supporters.”
Domestic soccer would continue to have an understated status in the Irish sporting arena having neither the political clout of the GAA nor the elite patronage enjoyed by rugby. Yet played at its best there are few sports which have the charisma of the “beautiful game.” Leinster Leader 14 June 2016, Looking Back, Series no: 490.