State of Play: Love and loss - my League of Ireland story

Myself and and my one true love, Monaghan, have gone our separate ways

Monaghan United and Derry City are unable to capture everyone’s attention during a league game at Gortakeegan Park in 2012. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Monaghan United and Derry City are unable to capture everyone’s attention during a league game at Gortakeegan Park in 2012. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Love is cruel. One minute you’re head over heels and the next you’re sending out a press release announcing the end of the affair.

I have oft been accused of hyperbole and dramatics, but watching the League of Ireland dream die at my beloved Monaghan United was truly one of the most painful times in my life. It was like a death in the family. It was the death of my LOI family. It was the death of my love of football.

I had long had an interest in football, it was hard not to in a family where you are related to a World Cup goalscorer (Gerry Armstrong) but it was only a mild, sort of love/hate interest if I’m being honest. Then my eldest son Dylan, at the age of five, became obsessed. His dad and I were no longer together and I had moved back to Monaghan, so it was down to me to take him.

Out in Gortakeegan he signed up for coaching and we decided to go to some league games of a Sunday afternoon. This was the 2000/01 season and the Mons won promotion. We were hooked.

As we got to know people involved in the club and fellow fans, it became our second home. I was elected to the committee in 2001 and eventually became media officer, then club promotions officer. My kids played there, we knew everyone and it really was a family club. My youngest, Jake, doesn’t remember a life before Mons. I bought a house where you could see the ground from the back garden. I was smitten.

Years of frustration, fun and the occasional fantastic moment followed. Long drives home, downcast and disappointed (like the one from Cobh when we lost 8-1, or embarrassing cup losses to Wayside Celtic and Skerries) were occasionally punctuated with a jubilant journey such as the one from Athlone where we ‘did a Liverpool’ and came back from 4-0 down to draw 4-4. Or the ‘LegenDerry’ trip where we out sang and out scored City at the Brandywell (2-3).

These moments, however, didn’t come close to the pain experienced in Bray where our dreams of promotion collapsed. Nor did they beat the first cup final when Sligo were deserved winners, but we won something that night too - confidence. A belief that we were the little team that could.

The best night, though, was yet to come. It was a dark, damp November night in Galway in 2011 when all the hard work, commitment and determination finally came to fruition under the guidance of Roddy Collins. We had made it back to the promised land of the Premier Division. I cried tears of joy the whole way home. It was one of the best days of my life.

The planning and preparation for the upcoming season began almost immediately. Then the fear set in. Despite our (10-year) meteoric rise to the Premier Division, sponsorship would prove impossible and the end was nigh. We all knew it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t face it. Then we had an emergency committee meeting and voted to leave the league.

A little bit of me died that day. I still can’t bring myself to go to a game in Ireland. I only give a cursory glance at games on the TV. I’m torn between pride and jealousy when I see LOI teams feature in Europe and I feel like a child who no longer believes in Santa the night before the new season rolls around. My heart is still broken.

Five years on, Gortakeegan is still a buzzing place. I am no longer involved in the club, but have used their facilities for play rehearsals (told you I was a drama queen!). And while I can’t bring myself to look at the main stand, where some of my fondest memories rattle around like ghosts, it fills me with joy to see the many pitches filled with future dreams as the many juvenile teams train and compete.

Mons have continued to develop young players and some of the kids that I helped coach as five year olds are now playing at under 17 and under 19 level. Indeed, the under 17s won the Brava Cup in Spain last October. There are some amazing young players out there who will hopefully get a chance to go further in their careers. Without a League of Ireland club it may be more difficult, but I know that people like chairman Jim McGlone and secretary Padraig Cassidy will continue to do all they can to ensure that every opportunity will be chased.

As I write this, the grounds in Gortakeegan are being prepared for the FAI Schools Junior Ulster Cup semi-final between St Eunans (Letterkenny) and St Pat’s (Cavan), while many other such events are a constant on the calendar. The Airtricity League of Ireland under 19s and under 17s competitions are just around the corner too, adding to the busy schedule at the home of football in Monaghan.

The hills around Gortakeegan are still alive to the sound of football and, as a couple of rival managers noted, cows (I’m sure they miss you too Dermot Keely and Damien Richardson). Though as McGlone reminded us in our darkest hour, Monaghan United is a community club and pulling out of the resource draining league was the only way to keep it alive. The principles on which it was founded in 1979 still stand today - for the community, by the community.

Whether they will make their way back to the League of Ireland someday (and more importantly to some LOI fans, start selling the famous MonDogs again) is a question I can’t answer. Time will tell and maybe like in any great love story, I will be reunited with my one true love until the end of time and live happily (depending on results) ever after. That, would be a fairytale ending.

Working as a freelance web content creator, editor and web designer through her company Sherlock Editing Online, Julie-Ann Sherlock is currently dipping her toe in the digital nomad life on a trip to Asia.

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