Irish football in the 1970’s was particularly special for those lucky enough to witness the beautiful game during that period, which is why a former Irish Press journalist remembers it so fondly.
By Mel Moffat
When I arrived in Dublin from Scotland in early 1968, the only two Irish footballers I was aware of were George Best and Danny Blanchflower – both of course from the other end of the island.
I had heard vaguely of Johnny Carey, Noel Cantwell, Shay Brennan, and Tony Dunne, but only because of the Manchester United connection. And also Johnny Giles because he was partnering Scotland’s Billy Bremmer at Leeds United. I probably didn’t even realise they were all from the Emerald Isle and I was certainly unaware of any League of Ireland players.
But all that changed when I married into a family with a strong love of soccer: a younger brother-in-law made history with Home Farm (part of the side that made the Guinness Book of World Records for an unbeaten streak from 1968 to 1971), an uncle-in-law who had played for Bohemians, and a grandfather-in-law who was secretary of the Dublin Schoolboys League. And then there was Con Martin, a close friend of the family and all-round nice guy.
Even my wife (not a sports fan) was light years ahead of me in terms of Irish soccer knowledge, having been to Wembley as a girl to watch the Irish Schoolboys take on their English counterparts. She still has the autographed programme, which includes the signature of Ray Treacy.
I soon started working for the Irish Press, where Maurice O’Brien was the sports editor and Tom O’Shea was the soccer writer. I began as a sub-editor but after a couple of years switched to reporting and became Tom’s understudy – eventually replacing him as chief soccer writer in late 1971 when he took over as sports editor of the Evening Press.
I was also expected to do some reporting for the Evening Press, but it was Brendan McKenna – writing as The Whistler – who provided Dublin fans with the most in-depth coverage of the game I had seen. Brendan’s column usually filled an entire broadsheet page (no mean feat). He was also a sports sub-editor, but every Sunday night he would be seen hunched over a desk, sometimes writing in long hand, until a late hour to get his copy ready for Monday’s first edition. I’m delighted to see that the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland (SWAI) have honoured him with a unique writing award.
Pat Courtney was another sub-editor with the Evening Press, but more importantly, from my point of view, was the fact that he was a member of the highly-successful Shamrock Rovers team of the late 1960’s, early 70’s that won Leagues and FAI Cups almost at will. Apart from being a fine player, he was also a terrific journalist.
Brendan, of course, went on to become President of the SWAI, but when I started out it was Bill Kelly, a colleague of the Sunday Press, who held that position. RTE’s Tony Sheehan was secretary in those days and my greatest memory of him is the giant suitcase that he used to cart onto a train when going to cover games in Cork, Galway, Limerick or Waterford – it was like he was going on holidays, but only packing his radio equipment.
I was always envious of Tony, for come the final whistle of games his job was over. Mine was just beginning as I scribbled a few notes and then headed off out of the ground to find a public telephone box (long before the days of mobile phones) in which to file my report with a copy-taker back in the Dublin office.
In order to complete that feat each week, it meant racing against other reporters to reach the telephone box before they did. Youth was on my side back then and I often out-sprinted the likes of Noel Dunne (Irish Independent), Seamus Devlin or Peter Byrne (Irish Times), Tom Keogh (Daily Mirror), Derek Jones (Daily Express), or Dermot Gilleece (Daily Mail).
The 1970’s was a terrific era for Irish soccer – at league and international level. Giles was the catalyst for turning around the country’s international ambitions when he became player/manager and the Republic of Ireland were unlucky not to qualify for a World Cup or European Championship during his time in charge.
Looking back now, the quality of players at Giles’ disposal was awesome. There was Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Steve Heighway, Don Givens, Terry Conroy, Gerry Daly, Eoin Hand, Jimmy Holmes, Paddy Mulligan, Mick Martin, the aforementioned Treacy, and an emerging Mark Lawrenson. A mystery, indeed, why qualification was so elusive.
The home front was also littered with big names, but mainly visitors. Pele (with Santos), Diego Maradona (at 18 with Argentina), Best, Bobby Tambling and Geoff Hurst (Cork Celtic), Bobby Charlton (Waterford), Rodney Marsh (Cork Hibs), and both Terry Venables and Gordon Banks (St Patrick’s Athletic). There were fine Irish players too with Alfie Hale and Miah Dennehy to name just two and the competition amongst the press corps for scoops and quotes was red hot.
Still, the camaraderie amongst the journalists was always solid on away trips. Behind the Iron Curtain in those days was a nightmare when it came to filing your story back home. We all tried to support each other – even using telex printers – but communications out of the Soviet Union was particularly tough.
I remember once in Kiev (part of the USSR in those days) being given encouragement by Billy George (Cork Examiner) as I tried to raise Dublin after a European qualifier involving Ireland. I didn’t succeed and Michal Fortune (watching the game on TV) wrote the match report under my byline. It was one of my better efforts!
They really were different times back then. Even travelling north of the border was quite an ordeal and I recall going through check-points in Strabane and seeing young, nervous British troops. I also accompanied Patsy McGowan in his mini bus when he would collect players from Derry for training in Ballybofey with Finn Harps, passing by barricades and suspicious looks.
Probably my scariest time in my 12 years with the Irish Press was in September 1979 when Dundalk met Linfield in a European Cup tie at Oriel Park. The religious divide added up to a potentially explosive situation and I was punched by some Union Jack-waving visitor as I queued to get into the ground. The violence throughout the game was quite shocking with squads of Gardai at times running across the pitch (the game kept going) to get to the trouble spots.
I’ve since moved to Australia, emigrating to Perth in late 1981. The Irish influence, however, has never been far away. UCD, with the visionary Dr Tony O’Neill at the helm, toured Western Australia in 1982, and my new hometown welcomed the likes of Tom Kilkelly, Noel Larkin, Paul Kelly, Carl McDarby, and Eddie McGoldrick (who had a brief spell coaching here).
But I’ll never forget seeing a young Brady playing schoolboy games in Santry on Sunday mornings, running down Cabra Road trying to get a quote from Givens after his hat-trick against the Soviet Union, and being part of an emotional farewell to former Ireland manager Liam Tuohy.
Ah, the good old days!
*Mel Moffat worked for the Irish Press and is a former SWAI member
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile