To the great unwashed, I am just an ordinary soccer supporter. I go to Tolka Park every other Friday and usually sit in Section D. There are a few people with whom I have a nodding acquaintance, but mostly I am content to sit on my own, spend ninety minutes shouting abuse at the referee and then go home. Most people around me are completely unaware that the balding, buck-toothed, middle-aged man in their midst is actually responsible for most of what goes on in the eircom League. Nevertheless, it is true. I am the Clark Kent of soccer in Ireland, the puppeteer par excellence. Let me explain.
I was always interested in football, even as a foetus. Most expectant mothers are thrilled when their babies kick. I used to do diving headers and sliding tackles as well, much to my mother’s discomfort. And when her womb eventually lost patience and gave me the red card, the midwife held me up and announced, “It’s an inside-forward.”
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that my passion for soccer was only matched by my complete ineptitude at the game. As the saying goes, I had two left feet, which wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d have been left-footed, but the sad fact was that I wasn’t even right-footed. I was completely talentless, the football equivalent of Gareth Gates.
However, I was undeterred in my love of soccer and resolved, from an early age, to become a soccer guru. To this end, I haunted football grounds, I made the acquaintance of managers, players, ballboys, and fourth officials. Not only did I live football and sleep football, I danced, dined and fornicated football, though not necessarily all at the same time. I took night courses in Soccer Guruism in Bolton St and participated in the era-defining Soccer-Gurus-against-the-Bomb marches of the late seventies, which paved the way for the safer world we live in today.
Emerging as a fully-fledged guru in the early eighties, I was distressed to learn that the bottom had fallen out of the guru market. Throughout the country, gurus were leaping to their deaths from tower block windows as the depression bit. I have to admit that in the darkest hours, I sometimes felt like following suit, but I only had the courage to jump out of a ground floor window, with negligible effect.
It was Jim McLoughlin who inadvertently pulled me through. He had just left Dundalk after accepting the Rovers job, and quite frankly he hadn’t a clue how to go about transforming the fortunes of the Hoops. I gave him a quick course in tactics and advised him to acquire certain players – Pat Byrne, Noel Larkin, Dermot Keely amongst others. He took my advice and the rest, as they say, is history. We often laughed about it afterwards, though not in each other’s company.
Throughout the late eighties and the early nineties, my reputation grew. In those days, of course, gurus weren’t allowed to advertise, but word of mouth was such that a steady stream of managers beat a path to my front door, which was great, as I’d always wanted a path. Some of my successes were more spectacular than others. Back in 1993, an ex-footballer, recently returned from England, came to see me. He had been offered the manager’s job in Cork, but was unsure whether it was a good career move. I laid it on the line for him. “Damien,” I said. “Go for it. You’ll be a success. After a few years, you’ll land a big Dublin club. However, it’s well to have a back up plan as well. Here’s a dictionary. Learn ten words a day and I guarantee you, you’ll pass as a television pundit within ten years.” He still sends me a Christmas card every year, wishing me felicitations for the nativity sojourn.
In 1998, another young manager came to see me. He had remembered me from years earlier, when I’d advised his brother to take up boxing.
“Pete,” he said, after giving my path a bit of a sweep. “I’ve just taken over at Bohs. Things didn’t go well in Bangor, and frankly, I’ve no idea how to manage. What should I do?”
I took the sweeping brush off him. “Roddie,” I said. [He always insisted on me calling him Roddie. I have no idea why.] “Roddie. Look at yourself. Brown corduroys! I mean to say! And a turtle neck sweater. You should be shot for crimes against fashion. Think threads, man! Go and see Louis, get yourself a whistle. And maybe a hat. You are what you wear you know. You’ll never inspire confidence in brown cords. After a couple of years, you’ll be managing one of the top teams in England, I guarantee you.” He looked nonplussed, the way Ferguson did when I told him to take the United job. But after a while I could see a new, more ebullient Roddie coming to the fore.
I have to be very careful when dispensing my advice though. One current manager, who shall be nameless, came to see me a little over a year ago.
“Pete,” he said nervously, as he tucked into his fifth helping of gooseberry pie. “I can’t seem to motivate my players any more. Help me, please!”
I thought about it for a while, while he attacked the pecan pie. Eventually, I came up with a plan. “What you need to do,” I said, “is to turn the rest of the league against you. Then you can instill in your team an us-against-them attitude, a backs-to-the-wall job”
“How do I do that then?” he asked, turning his attention to the Mississippi mud pie.
“Well, just off the top of my head, how about, say, if you accidentally forgot to register a player?”
“The league would deduct us points. Is that blackberry and apple?”
“Elderberry. You’d get the points back eventually. Make sure you get a receipt from the Post Office. Everyone’ll see it’s a genuine accident. Act aggrieved. Be defensive in the media. Play the I’m-just-a-poor-boy-nobody-loves-me card. I swear to you, you’ll get the points back.”
He leapt up and thrust out a pudgy hand. “Pete, you’re a genius!” he said, wiping the crumbs off his lips. “Thank you, thank you.” And he almost skipped down my garden path in delight. Luckily for me, I’d always liked crazy paving.
“You’d better make damn sure that the rest of your players are registered correctly, though!” I called after him, but I’m not sure if he heard.
And so I sit in Section D on a Friday night unknown and anonymous. Occasionally, Richie Baker will score a goal and run towards me in celebration. Such a nice young man, and always grateful to me for steering him away from the future he saw for himself as a goalkeeper……