By Philip O’Rourke (@effect_phil)
When you hear the name Kilkenny, you automatically think of hurling. It’s like hearing the word wet and thinking water. But what about the other sports that play second fiddle down in the Marble County? A county that once played host to a League of Ireland club for years, unfortunately does not anymore. With a mixed history of highs and lows, here is the story of Kilkenny City AFC.
Originally known as EMFA, they were created and founded by a group of Leaving Cert students who were idle with their free time, a football club was born in Kilkenny City. EMFA, which stands for Emmet Street Fatima Place, they started off in the youth leagues and the club played their football at Freshford Road Grounds, St James Park and endured early struggles. At one point they could not even afford jerseys, which lead to them wearing all white as their strip as every player owned a white t-shirt of some kind. They soon changed colours to claret and blue, before changing again to claret and amber when being renamed Kilkenny City AFC in 1989.
The club EMFA joined the League of Ireland in 1985 following an unbeaten season the year previously, winning both the Junior league and Cup in 1984. In their maiden season the club finished 10th and under the name EMFA they recorded only one honour, winning the League of Ireland First Division shield, defeating Finn Harps 4-2 at Oriel park in 1987.
It was in 1990 that the name of the club was changed from EMFA to Kilkenny City AFC and so it stayed for the remainder of the club’s history. Kilkenny City AFC, under the guidance of their new name had few successes. In fact, they only picked up one piece of silverware as Kilkenny City AFC, which came in the form of the first Division title in the 1996-97 season. They triumphed by eleven points over their nearest rivals Drogheda United. Their stay in the Premier Division was short lived however, as they finished in 11th place and were relegated straight back down.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the club though, as they made a few good memories for their faithful fans throughout their history, with the most notable of these being when they reached the 1991 FAI cup semi-final. They played host to Shamrock Rovers, losing 1-0 at a record high attendance of 6,500 at Buckley Park.
Peter Redmond, a former fan of Kilkenny City AFC remembers that day as a special one in the club’s history. ‘I was lucky to be working at a local radio at the time and myself and a colleague broadcast from a heaving Buckley Park a Cup tie against Shamrock Rovers. Beaten by a single goal if memory serves. Watched from a cherry picker with the best view.’
Kilkenny City AFC did manage to gain promotion to the Premier League after beating Waterford United in a promotion/relegation play-off at the end of the 1999-00 season. Once again they found themselves way out of their depth and were relegated the following season, making their fans endure a nightmare season, only picking one victory in the whole campaign.
It wasn’t until the 2005 season when Pat Scully took over that Kilkenny fans had something to cheer about again, although they had to wait for at least half a season. Somehow the club went from bottom of the table only recording one victory in the first part of the season to resurrecting themselves and finishing 4th in the table by the close of the campaign. The arrivals of players like David Cassidy and Tadgh Purcell helped mid-season, but their stay along with Pat Scully was short-lived as bigger clubs took attention to what was happening.
Shamrock Rovers came in for Scully and the Kilkenny manager could not turn down an offer from a bigger club. The players followed suit and it left Kilkenny looking bare the following season.
A host of managers took over from then on as the club jumped from one caretaker manager to another, never really bringing stability to the club. It was on November 10th, 2007 when Kilkenny City AFC played their last League of Ireland game, a match they lost at home 3-1 to Finn Harps. In the January that followed, Kilkenny City AFC officially resigned from the League of Ireland. Poor attendances, a lack of interest and lack of investment were the reasons for this clubs demise.
Peter reckons the basis of this had been set a long time ago, even in the early days of the clubs history. ‘It was strange, generally small crowds… later changing the name to Kilkenny City, not sure they were ever forgiven for leaving the local league. I saw a local cup final taking place at Tennypark – within the same complex – attended by thousands who walked past Buckley Park as a League of Ireland game was about to start.’
Other contributing factors according to Peter was the lack of local players getting involved and this didn’t settle well with the Kilkenny people. ‘I’m not sure but my suspicion is that the other clubs in Kilkenny and district were jealous. Not only that, to be successful, they mainly brought in players from Dublin who had no affinity with or connections to the city. That and they didn’t have a lot of local players didn’t help’.
One player Peter does remember was Jimmy Donnelly. ‘The Best? Jimmy Donnelly, real class, ended up his career in the League of Ireland. Think he was in UK briefly.’
Another Kilkenny City fan, Jack McCarron, saw the positives in having a football club in their town, even if they weren’t very good. His memories show that football isn’t all about glory and winning but just the general enjoyment of watching and following your team with your friends.
‘When Pat Scully took over as manager the club had been in the toilet for a few years. Me and a few of my friends (who had all gone as kids with our fathers during the glory days) decided to start up a signing section and we went to every home game and some away games and got drums and big flags etc. Our drummer was a friend of ours, Jimmy Holohan, who has Down Syndrome. He used to start all the chants and the players loved him. When we started the singing section the team were bottom and then they went on an epic run of like 11 wins on the bounce and ended up finishing third. Scully went to Shamrock Rovers the following season and brought around 10 players with him, including Aidan Price. We finished bottom the following season and barely won a game but after the last game of the season the players came over and gave us all a jersey as a thanks for supporting them despite finishing last.’
Jack’s favourite memory probably captures what it meant to be a Kilkenny City fan. ‘Favourite memory? Beating Sligo Rovers at home on the last day of the 2005 season. They went up as champions and we finished 4th and it was Pat Scully’s last game in charge. Buckley Park was packed, and the place was bouncing. Ourselves and the away fans all sang together for the whole match. Real party atmosphere.’
Jack had plenty more stories like this, including a trip to Turners Cross where he saw his side beaten 5-1. But in true Kilkenny fan spirit they enjoyed themselves regardless. ‘About 30 of us travelled and we ended up in the old shed end with the Cork City fans. All good-natured slagging and chanting……but it was nice to see City play in a big game.’
Just like Peter, the local connection was clear with Jack as well when he was asked to pick his best player to pull on a Kilkenny jersey, ‘ I would have to say Mick Reddy even though he wasn’t there long……He was from Kilkenny as well.’
Despite no club in their county both Jack and Peter still follow the League of Ireland, both making the effort to see matches when they can. Peter follows Drogheda United, while Jack has a soft sport for Limerick, Wexford and Waterford.
Quite different to the previous clubs, where there was a rivalry and bigger crowds with more famous faces on show, Kilkenny City AFC captured what it was like to follow a club for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. So many lows for the fans did not stop them from singing, chanting and creating memories that would last with them forever. After they shared their stories with me I found myself smiling at the thought of Jimmy Holohan banging that drum, supporting the club he once supported, the club that gave him moments of joy. The club that, even though they weren’t successful, will remain in the history of the League of Ireland.
I should throw in that after doing this story, reading about the club and hearing some of the memories from the fans, I do hope we see a club in Kilkenny again. I wonder if the next club can give such memories. One thing is for sure, Monaghan United’s journey was just as tough, and they’re up next.