Wednesday, July 04, 2007

DERBY DAY

The fun-filled rivalry between supporters was a treasure to behold at last weekend's coming together of Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians at Tolka Park. The enchanting media build up had featured photos of cuddly young footballers giving of their time at Children's Hospitals and other terrorist targets.

Even the inclemency of the late June weather was becalmed by the atmosphere of love and kindness generated between two aged rivals. A balmy evening was gifted to the healthy crowd - although I observed that not all in attendance appeared to be healthy - a perfect setting for football.

As I eased left onto Richmond Road, licking the salt and vinegar from my fingers, it was clear that the Garda Siochana had not been lulled into a sense of false security by the prematch love-in; after all it is their job to provide such a sense. Hefty horses had their gumshields in and stab vests on, just to be sure.

Within the confines of Tolka Park, the red of the Premier League Champions had ceded to the green and white of the First Division titleholders. Fertile ground indeed! The music on the PA reminisced of halcyon days for the Hoops. The air was punctured by the boys in the Ballybough end. Cleary a diligent bunch, they unveiled their Derby Day project - TALLAGHT STADIUM Home of Thomas Davis - appeared to be the message for the speechless Riverside Stand. 1-0 to the visitors.

Kick off was within sight. The protagonists re-emerged, assembling around the centre circle. A touching tribute to two deceased friends of Shamrock Rovers was broadcast; one minute of silence requested. Heads dropped in solemn reflection and appreciation. There was a general hum from my left hand side; possibly supporters outside the ground, unaware of the hushed proceedings inside.

One Rovers fan decided that his club had been humiliated enough. A flat Dublin accent ran around the stadium; something like 'Bohs come.' The Gypsy fans were deeply touched by this, one so much so that he too broke the silence - 'Rovers thankers', but I could be wrong. The verbal exchange was repeated. The minute passed.

No more niceties - football reigned. It was helter-skelter football in the opening half; neither side capable of controlled passing movements. Rovers looked a little thin at the rear. Mark Langtry and Dean Lawrence are apprentices at this level. Stephen O'Brien was guarding the goal behind them; he has seen the sun setting many times.

Mark Rossiter lined up on the Bohs right against Langtry, but seemed reluctant to test his novice opponent on the outside. Darren Mansaram and Glen Crowe faced up to Lawrence and Barry Ferguson. The more seasoned of the centre backs did Trojan work to compensate for the absence of his regular defensive partners.

Nonetheless, the prospect of picking up Darren Mansaram for the first time must compare to holding on to your soap in the Mountjoy showers. A slippery and unpredictable operator at the worst of times; and if it wasn't him in front of Lawrence it was the cutehoor that is Glen Crowe.

It seemed a strange decision on the part of Sean Connor not to try out Chris Kingsberry against young Langtry. Here is a winger with all the razzle-dazzle and close control of a Jack Russell when on the ball. Akin to the vertically challenged canine, there is seldom a cutting end product. Ger O'Brien is a confident footballer and was only too happy to let the former Linfield winger procrastinate on the ball. That said, Kingsberry was largely anonymous in the opening half, effectively pitting 10 v 11 in the Hoops' favour.

To afford the benefit of the doubt to the diminutive winger - he has undoubted talent, and did not feature regularly at Linfield in the lead up to his move south. He may need games to find his pitch; Sean Connor made quite a show of congratulating him after withdrawing him from the action. In reference to his left-sided positioning - Ger Rowe was causing havoc down that side of the field for Rovers, Mark Rossiter would surely have provided better cover and assistance for Conor Powell.

There were some beefy challenges, eventually we saw yellow. Ferguson's hand of god effort was missed by only three people in the ground - having already been booked, he must consider himself a lucky man. Further on, Pat Scully bemoaned the fact that his side were denied a penalty - these things even themselves out over a season - sometimes a game.

The pre-match publicity had quite an effect on the fans. They were so touched with the tender images that they wanted to come together; so determined were they that the nice men in orange and yellow had a fierce job keeping them where they belonged. Eventually, both sides seemed satisfied to hug and embrace the garishly clad helpers. It brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat to see grown men express their emotions so freely in public. Humbled, was I.

The outpouring of affection was unrelenting. Now the fans were offering each other drinks. Plastic bottles flew from the Riverside to the Ballybough end and back. Where else in football would one experience such concern for one's guests needs'?

Out on the field the second half action was far superior. Pat Scully reminded his players that there was a game to be won. Their performance level upped significantly. We began to see passing movements, creative football, and the odd goal chance. Given the defensive records of the combatants it was going to be difficult to register on the scoresheet. Sean Connor surprised everyone by withdrawing Kevin Hunt and replacing him with Thomas Heary.

As I peered through a veritable Who's He of injured and suspended footballers the game rolled on towards it's inevitable stalemate. Was it nervousness that caused the visiting fans to regress into childhood securities? The Willy Wonka Oompa Loompa song was garnishing an excellent evening's entertainment - after Stephen O'Brien had rolled back the months with a superb stop from Glen Crowe's header the singing inexplicably ceased.

The evening concluded with some good clean family fun. The Rovers fans were to leave the ground first; then when the men in yellow and orange said so, the Bohs fans could come looking for them. I still haven't been caught.

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