It was a Sunday in the middle of October and town had never been so quiet. To an outsider or someone just passing through, it might have seemed like as though an entire community had been evacuated overnight. Mass – which was normally packed to the rafters – had attracted its smallest numbers in years. The priest might have been worried about his flock straying had he not been privy to the reasons for their absence – even he had been tempted to draft in one of his colleagues to cover for him on that particular day. Similarly, the steakhouse remained relatively empty despite the presence of the hugely popular Sunday roast option on the menu. The few customers that did show up were forced to wait at length for their food as the staff stood hovering around the old radio in the back trying their utmost to ignore the customer’s requests.
The clock was creeping up on three before they could be heard in the distance. It was faint at first, but unmistakable as they grew nearer. They were a returning army. Their victory song the chaotic cacophony of a dozen cars honking their horns in unison. They had done this through every town that they had passed on the way home, making sure that anyone who hadn’t been in Pearse Park knew just who had won the match that lunchtime. Many still wore the sweat drenched jerseys that they had on their back when the final whistle had been blown – their pride enough to temporarily mask the odour.
It was the day that the town had been waiting for. A cup had finally been brought home after so much pain and suffering and “late nights down the park”. I followed the parade at a slight distance in the backseat of my friend’s Toyota Starlet. I had been in the stands for the match. This was where I had watched most of the town’s matches over the previous few years. Despite having stopped playing football two years prior after U-21 had finished, I still maintained an interest in the game and would go along to any match that I could. There were only a few lads that I had played with underage that were still part of the setup – those that had it in their blood, to whom taking part was a way of life. The rest of us had drifted away from football due to any number of different reasons. Emigration and work had scattered some of the lads to other continents.
The celebrations were already in full flight by the time I got to the pub. The members of the panel, coaches and associates of the club had taken the positions of privilege at the bar and pints of beer or stout were immediately placed in front of them. The race to get in the drinks had already begun and there were crowds of well-wishers assembled around anyone who had done anything of note in the game earlier asking them what they would like from the bar.
Thomas was the most in-demand of all. He had made good on his youthful promise and was now the captain of the club and would be turning out for the county the following year. I found him down the back sitting next to a familiar face – Pascal. Pascal was no longer involved with the club, the four years of penance that he had served with us seemed to be enough to do him for a lifetime. He was still in the stands for every game though and we would share a steely nod in the streets whenever we passed one another.
‘I always knew there was the makings of something in that bunch of lads,’ he said, clapping Thomas on the back.
As the night progressed, the festivities escalated. The cup was filled with all manner of hard liquors and became increasingly unhygienic as it passed hands from person-to-person with not even the town’s grubbiest characters being skipped. Trays of sandwiches were handed around, as were mounds of chicken wings from the local Chinese restaurant. A local DJ got up on the decks and started playing a varied selection of traditional Irish standards and trance tunes from the mid-90s. It didn’t matter what he was playing though. There wasn’t anything that could dampen the spirits that night in that tiny bar in the midlands of Ireland.
Around eight, the pub crawl began. There would be a stop at all six pubs in the town. After each had been visited, the party moved onto the streets where an articulated lorry would acts as a stage. A local AC/DC cover band called AB/CD took to the stage and started ripping though the likes of ‘Back in Black’ and ‘Thunderstruck’ to the delight of the crowd.
It was getting late and I had to get the dreaded early train to Dublin the following morning. I wished the lads the best and told them to enjoy their night. As I made my way through the crowd, I spotted Barney reliving some of the match’s best moments in front of a rapt crowd. He spotted me too and fought his way past a few people. I knew what he was going to say before he had even opened his mouth. You never truly leave.
‘Togging out next year?’