Unless you’re really embroiled into the League of Ireland, it’s very hard for a person to contemplate just how vital it is to survive in the Premier Division, thus avoiding the dreaded second tier known to us regulars as the graveyard of Irish Football.
While Limerick may have bucked the trend last year by, in many ways, benefitting from a year away from the spotlight, winning the First Division and arguably improving their squad compared to that of the side relegated agonisingly through a play off in 2015, going right back into the abyss would have been catastrophic.
That was the backdrop to their final home game of the season last Friday night against Galway United, a brace of good form when it mattered in the closing rounds of action leaving Neil McDonald’s charges just a point away from safety.
With their opponents too well and truly entwined in the race for survival, needing a win to realistically stay in contention, the game was set up to be one of those great nights in the Markets Field, a cauldron of noise backed up by a game to remember, and it didn’t disappoint.
As the large crowd filtered into the stands, there was a sense of anticipation among the home fans, that this was their night, that the hard work was done and a draw at the very least against their near neighbours was a forgone conclusion.
Just as the ground was about to hit fever pitch with kick off fast approaching, the infamous referee Anthony Buttimer found a way to add a new layer of anticipation to the fixture, while as usual annoying the league of Ireland faithful with the first of many peculiar decisions.
Buttimer felt the white sleeves of Limerick would be too hard for him to distinguish from the all white away jersey worn by the visitors, thus forcing the Super Blues to try to be just as super in green, as the game was delayed by almost half an hour.
The delayed kick off at the very least allowed even the latest of stragglers from the nearby bars plenty of time to finish off their drinks, thus the home stand was near capacity as the 8:10pm kick off time approached.
The home stand was a sea of blue, with the vocal singing section in the far corner leading the choir, as they unveiled and waved an impressive large blue and white display, as the two sides entered the arena to deafening noise from both sets of supporters.
With the journey only an hour or so and with the huge importance of the fixture, the Maroon Army travelled in large numbers to the Garryowen venue, adding much colour and noise to an already boisterous crowd.
FORMATION | The team is in! Here is how we think United will line out against @LimerickFCie tonight.
— Galway United (@GalwayUnitedFC) October 20, 2017
While the game itself was cagey to begin with, the same couldn’t be said for the supporters, as the banter from the opposing sets of supporters was enthralling, both trying to out sing and annoy the other with antagonising, yet nothing particularly hurtful, chants.
While the two clubs are clearly rivals, and have been separated by very little in their many battles in recent years, this game hadn’t the nasty bite you might get in derby games, be it the Munster or Connacht Derby.
After a strong opening from the Super Blues, the visitors began to take a foothold as the game entered its second quarter, but while around the main stand the singing was getting much lower and less frequent, there was still a calmness on the faces of the home support.
They may have been resting their vocal cords, as the noise of the Galway support began to echo its way around the ground, but it didn’t seem to faze anyone wearing blue, they still had a confident swagger to them backed up by the fine performances their team had provided of late.
— Galway United (@GalwayUnitedFC) October 22, 2017
If they could put the newly crowned champions of Ireland Cork City to the sword, and go down to Richmond Park and come from behind to rescue a point away to St Pats, what challenge did Galway really possess?
But that swagger was almost whipped off their faces when midfielder Gavan Holohan hit the ball into the back of net for Galway, only to be denied by the call of offside.
This was my first opportunity to really see how quickly an atmosphere can change, the jubilation of the away team coupled with deafening silence in the main stand. Seconds later, the silence switched to laughter and jeers, the jubilation to sheer frustration, an amazing array of emotions to experience in the space of a few seconds.
At this stage even the grassy bank opposite the main stand was finding their voice, as after weathering the storm, it was time for the Super Blues (or is that Greens) to earn their title.
Chedosie Ogbene was fouled inside the box by Colm Horgan, resulting in the first of three penalties throughout the course of the contest.
Watching the crowd and not the penalty taker is something tough to do, but it gives you an interesting perspective lost when only watching on TV.
There is faces of doubt, faces of anticipation, faces of fear all dotted around the ground, everybody eagerly awaiting to see which way the penalty taker is going to, and with the added importance of the fixture, you could feel the tension in the air as Rodrigo Tosi stepped up to the spot.
Shooting into the faces of the Galway fans, Tosi buried the ball home to put the Treaty men well and truly on the road to Premier Division survival.
Boos and jeers greeted Tosi, along with some colourful language from the away support, clearly venting their frustrations at referee Anthony Buttimer and Ogbene, who did get the penalty in dubious circumstances, but it was quickly blocked out by the cheers from around the Markets Field.
Boos turned to chanting as United fans urged their troops forward, but frustration was to turn to agony and the realisation of just how close they were getting to the dreaded drop.
Stephen Kenny found an unmarked Ogbene at the back post, and the Nigerian born attacker made no mistakes in doubling the home teams lead, to glorious scenes of jubilation amongst the home fans, feeling they’ve finally put Galway to bed.
For a team who have just returned from the abyss that is the First Division only this year, the vocal Limerick supporters seem to hold little pity for the plight of their neighbours, the ever present singing section quickly turning from focusing on their joy to focusing on Galway’s woes, as chants of “GOING DOWN” began to dominate the skies around Garryowen.
Half-time and with Limerick leading, I overhear a steward talking to a Galway fan and admitting he has no idea how his team are two in front, but overall the mood around the ground was positive as you’d expect, as I hear the sounds of happy fans mingling, while taking in the delightful smells of the nearby chip van.
— Limerick FC (@LimerickFCie) October 20, 2017
As the second half got underway, the taste of the half-time burgers wouldn’t have left their mouth when the Westerners were given a lifeline, courtesy of the hardworking Ronan Murray who won back the ball and blasted home two minutes after the break.
And while some Limerick fans were still making their way back to their seats, the East stand hosting the Galway supporters was rocking, the raucous fans testing the strength of what is more akin to a temporary structure than a fully fledged stand.
Announcements were made at half-time that the academy program the club runs would be cancelled the next day due to Storm Brian being on the way, and the first signs of that seem to hit the Treaty city as the second half progressed.
After what happened to the stand in Cork City following Storm Ophelia, fans must have been worried as they watched the roof blow from side to side as the early storm winds gusted in. But despite its temporary nature, it is very well enforced and capable of taking the hits, luckily hits much less drastic than that of angry Ophelia.
Still holding a lead, the home side began sitting back more and more. The changes by manager Neil McDonald reflecting that. But the crowd kept vocal, albeit to a much lesser extent than was seen earlier in the game.
While still remaining a very loud presence in the corner of the main stand, the singing section’s influence was dwindling in line with attacks on field also drying up, but they had played their part already.
— CW Photos (@CWP_Limerick) October 20, 2017
They had sung their hearts out, help rally the troops and see them muster up a 2-0 lead, and while the Tribesmen might have pegged back a goal, a draw was enough to see Limerick safely into top flight football for 2018 and with 20 minutes left on the clock, they felt safe of achieving that feat at the very least.
While the Super Blues couldn’t wait for the final whistle to blow, assured in the knowledge safety looked assured, the same couldn’t be said of the visiting fans, who with results not going their way either here or around the country, they were dreading what appeared to be inevitable.
Most put on a brave face, continued to cheer on their side as chance after chance went a begging. Others were hard pressed to hide their emotions, some barely able to look on as the clock ticked down closer to the finale.
And then a lifeline was given to the men in maroon, once more Anthony Buttimer involved in a dubious penalty call, this time ruling in favour of United, as Marc Ludden was taken down inside the box.
This time my attention was solely focused on the visitors, as their star attraction Ronan Murray stepped up to take his most important penalty to date in front of his own supporters.
The East stand has a large area at the front, where the most vocal of supporters usually stand to sing and chant. But here there was no noise at this moment, those who dared to look were clinching the front of the stand, as if it was the only way to stay upright.
The others just couldn’t look on as the Mayo native stepped up to take the penalty. However, Freddy Hall would guess right, breaking the hearts of all Galwegians in the process, as the main stand found their voice once more.
The party had begun around the ground, as it looked like nothing could stop the Limerick men from making it three wins from three at the Markets field. Finally clinching survival, yet there was still a few more twists in the tale.
— CW Photos (@CWP_Limerick) October 20, 2017
Broken and disheartened by the penalty miss, the hard work from the away side was once again rewarded with nine minutes to go, another penalty given as the heroes and villains reversed roles, Murray winning the penalty as Hall earned a yellow card for getting to Murray instead of the ball.
For the third and final time of the night, a player came face to face with the Galway fans for a penalty, hoping to bag a crucial goal. This time the responsibility falling to Eoin McCormack.
Once more the crowd silenced, as the Galway man stepped up in the hope of keeping his team’s survival hopes alive, and he duly slotted his second goal in as many games.
Que scenes of euphoria in the East stand. A little known fact among the Limerick faithful was defeat on the night could have spelled the end of the fight for the Tribesmen, if Sligo successfully beat Derry City the next night, which they went on to do.
Remarkably, another call for a penalty and late winner came and went for Shane Keegan’s Galway side, who in the end had to settle for point. A point which may possible be the one which keeps them up. Or perhaps just prolonging the torture just that one game further.
The away fans had their moment with the equaliser, but the 1600 strong crowd finally got their time to celebrate, as the referee blew the full-time whistle to officially clinch the Super Blues’ spot in the 2018 Premier Division.
The whistle was greeted by a huge roar, as the crowd showed their approval for a team which had gained survival the hard way.
FULL TIME: Limerick 2-2 Galway United. pic.twitter.com/o0YRq9PjT1
— Galway United (@GalwayUnitedFC) October 20, 2017
Overall, while there were jubilant scenes straight after, the result wasn’t greeted with the same vigour you would expect of a team achieving survival, especially one who had just been promoted that season.
Maybe it was because they had a lead for so long, they could celebrate throughout the second half, knowing a Galway victory was quite unlikely? Maybe it was because they felt last week’s win against Drogheda United was when they unofficially avoided the drop? Or maybe it’s because the hardcore fans knew that European football was at one stage on the horizon, and that just being close to going down should be seen as a disappointment?
The players, management, and fans will have all winter to debate the merits of this season, and with their Premier Division status earned, at least they can enjoy the off season knowing the big guns of Irish football will be returning to the Markets field in 2018.