By Philip O’Rourke (@effect_phil)
I’ve covered a few clubs around Ireland. Cork, Limerick, Dublin, Kildare, Monaghan, Kilkenny are all counties that have had football clubs represent them at League of Ireland level throughout the years. It would be forgiven, however, if people didn’t associate this county with ‘soccer’. It is after all the home of the GAA, and at the time of writing this their county hurling team have just won their 28th All-Ireland title, following a 3-25 to 0-20 point win over their huge rivals Kilkenny in Croke Park.
As most of my research is conducted through the internet (with the exception for Brooklyn FC, who were basically non-existent on the world wide web), I decided it was time to really get a feel of what it is like to be a ‘Soccer club’ down in the GAA dominated countryside. Which is why I made the trip down to Tipperary and in particular to Thurles, once home to former League of Ireland side Thurles Town FC. A club, that did not leave much of an impression when it played in the league in the 70’s, it still had quite an interesting story to tell and I was determined to let the town tell it.
One thing is for certain, Thurles Town is a sports mad town and its people aren’t shy of showing it.
Thurles Town AFC was founded in 1950 and played in the North Tipperary District League. Their home ground is the Thurles Greyhound Stadium, a stones throws away from Semple Stadium. Nicknamed ‘The Town’ Thurles Town AFC decided to merge with Kilkenny side Peake Villa and consequently became known as Thurles Town FC. The merge was formed so that they could enter the League of Ireland in 1977. But their stay in Irelands top league was short lived and they only played five seasons, with their highest placed finish being 9th in the 1979-80 season.
Their first season, in 1977-78 ended with only a solitary win to their name and they finished in 16th and last place, drawing 8 and losing 21 times. The 1978-79 season saw an improvement in their form, and league position, as they finished 12th winning a total of 8 games, drawing 5 and losing 17. As previously said, the 1979-80 season was ‘The Towns’ best one in the League of Ireland, finishing 9th place above the likes of St Patricks Athletic, Shelbourne FC and Drogheda United amongst others. This was largely down to the goalscoring efforts of their top goal scorer Neville Steadman who bagged a total of 17 goals for the club, making him the third highest scorer in the league that year behind Alan Campbell of Shamrock Rovers (22) and Tony Morris of Limerick United (19).
As it would happen, Neville Steadman would go on to write a bit of history for another club in the League of Ireland, Shamrock Rovers, as he was the last man to score at Milltown in a reserve cup game back in 1987. He also won the League of Ireland with Shamrock Rovers in 1983-84, in a side that also had current Sligo Rovers manager, Liam Buckley and prolific goal scorer Alan Campbell.
You may think that it was all doom and gloom for this club, never winning anything and just basically making up the numbers. Even in their own District League they failed to win a title for 56 years, and you would have forgiven them for giving up and just joining in with the rest of the town in supporting GAA. However, the people connected to the club tell a very different story, and persistence paid off when in 2016 the club won their first ever North Tipperary District League title with a little help from their captain, Barry ‘Birdie’ Ryan.
The former Kilkenny City player managed to score 40 goals in the 2016-17 season and was named Tipperary player of the year. Barry told me about that season and what it meant to him and his family. “As a junior club they had never won the league in their 40-year existence. At the end of my career in 2016 I signed with them and captained them to their first league.”
Barry spoke about what winning that league title meant to him. “Yeah I went back with a few local lads that had been away with other clubs and we played for two seasons and won two leagues. It was a huge celebration for the club, to finally win a Tipp Premier League, (former Irish International) Kevin Kilbane came down to present the medals at an award ceremony. I scored 40 goals, so was lucky enough to get the club player of the year and the Tipperary player of the year, so it was special year for me. My father was also at the awards, so there was a bit of family history too, with both of us having played with them.”
As Barry said his family had already had a connection to the club with his dad Martin ‘Birdie’ Ryan playing for the Thurles Town FC that competed in the League of Ireland. But that wasn’t even the highlight of his time with Thurles Town FC. “My Dad was Martin ‘Birdie’ Ryan and I’m Barry Ryan and everyone calls me Birdie. We both played league of Ireland for Kilkenny City…My dad was a centre forward, he played with EMFA, which was what Kilkenny City were known as, and he won an Oscar Traynor with them. According to the Peake Villa website he trialled for the Irish u21 team with Frank Stapleton, he also spent 18 months in England with Reading FC.”
I asked Barry what he knew about his dad’s playing days for Thurles Town FC, when they were a League of Ireland side and the story he produced is one of folklore down here. “I was only born in 1980 so I missed out on all of that. Neville (Steadman) stayed in our house a few years back, he was down for some re-union, and I was told all about how he was a Rovers legend. Pat Dunne of Manchester United was the manager of Thurles Town for a while. My father played with Thurles Town in the League of Ireland, incidentally he scored against Peter Shilton when they played Stoke in a friendly. That Stoke friendly is still talked about in Thurles because both Garth Crooks and Peter Shilton played in it. The game finished 8-1 but Birdie Ryan nut-megged Shilton so it became a bit of local folklore. I’d say it was the highlight of his whole career!”
I’m sure it was a magical moment and one that made me smile, thinking of the local Thurles man make a fool out of one of the best goal keepers to ever play the game. (To make things look a little better I did a bit of research on that game, and in the record books it is down as a 7-2 win for Stoke).
As I always do, I asked Barry if he knew why the club dropped out of the League of Ireland, and would we ever see them back again. His answer was quite like that of the Kilkenny City fans, “there were hardly any local players on the Thurles team which is why it failed…No, Thurles Town wont be back in the League of Ireland, but I’d like to see them become a sustainable and successful junior club. It’s difficult in a GAA town. I do think 100% eventually we will see a Tipperary team play in the League of Ireland.”
When asked what League of Ireland club he currently follows now his reply was no surprise and may be have been influenced by a certain connection to Neville Steadman. “I’m a big admirer of Shamrock Rovers under Stephen Bradley. I like the football they play, plus they have so many technically good players like Greg Bolger, Ronan Finn and of course (Jack) Byrne.”
As I sit and look out the window in a café in the middle of the town, it is quite clear the people of Thurles are proud of their sporting successes and that of the current senior hurling team, with blue and yellow flags flying from house and shop windows. Nearly every pub I passed had a message of support on their windows or on the side of the buildings. I was at the game in Croke Park and the Tipperary fans in general are so passionate about their sport that it puzzles me as to why they do not have a football club representing them in the League of Ireland these days. Of course, junior side St Michaels have been successful, and this year will be playing in the FAI Junior cup, but that to me just makes it even more confusing about the situation now.
The fact Semple stadium is right beside the Greyhound stadium (pictured above) where Thurles Town FC play, and basically dwarfs it, may be a symbol of how the GAA dominates things down here. But I for one believe this town, and this county has more than enough potential to have a football club represent it at League of Ireland level. For now, though they have the memories of that Stoke City friendly and the recent league successes to look fondly back on.
Picture Credits: Barry Ryan, George Kelly (Shamrock Rovers), Philip O’Rourke.