This week, thanks to netgalley.com, I've had the pleasure of reading Another Bloody Saturday by Mat Guy (expect a review in the next few days). The book centres around Guy's experiences following 'smaller' football teams over the course of the 2014/15, with a few exceptions, and calls to mind something that causes indignation among my friends when I mention it to them. Over the years, I've been to a Lazio-Roma derby, I've seen Arsenal beat Liverpool in the Emirates and was present at Mick McCarthy's last game as Republic of Ireland manager: In spite of this, I would regard the 2003 League of Ireland Promotion/Relegation Final Second Leg as the most memorable game I've attended.
First some backgrond: After a terrible season Drogheda United had finished 9th in the Premier Division (P27; W8; D6; L13; F26; A40; Pts30) and entered the Promotion/Relegation playoff alongside Finn Harps, Galway United and Cobh Ramblers. [Aside: Yes, we had the same 10-team, 3-game structure as the Faroes until a few years ago, and a report published this year recommends returning to it.] After beating Cobh at the semi-final stage (2-2 2-0 agg. 4-2) Drogheda travelled to Galway for the first leg of the final where they were defeated 2-0, a difficult result to overturn.
I remember attending the game with my dad and uncle, standing in our usual place on the United Park (called O2 Park in 2003) terraces, just inside the Windmill Road entrance. Like most League of Ireland games, it was played under floodlights, but this time around there was going to be no time to concern myself with how cold my feet were getting. I seem to remember the game being a fairly tight affair, indeed it took an Andy Myler (my favourite Drogheda player as a boy) penalty early in the second half to break the deadlock.
On sixty eight minutes Declan 'Fabio' O'Brien netted to cancel Galway's aggregate advantage and give the home fans hope that Drogheda could retain their Premier League status for the next season. [Second Aside: The years leading up to the 2002/03 season had seen Drogheda yo-yo between the Premier and 1st Divisions and victory over Galway would offer stability for the team. Indeed, I personally see it as the pivotal point for Drogheda winning their first and only league title in 2007.] Following Drogheda's second goal the game became a tense affair, going to extra time after a 2-0 final score. At some point after the second goal (I can't remember whether it was before or after the 90 mins) Galway had the ball in the Drogheda net for the second time in the game - the first having been disallowed. I remember the heads of the supporters around me dropping, indeed I was devastated to, until I noticed the linesman on the opposite side with his flag up. I remember turning to my dad "It's offside", no response, "It's offside" I repeated. As my dad and uncle started to take their heads out of their hands a cheer began to ripple around the stadium. We were still in this thing.
Of course, what joviality this inspired was severely dented in the 102nd minute when midfielder Mark Quinless received his marching orders. Down to ten men, with seventeen minutes to play, in the most important game of the season? We were screwed. I doubt Quinless had time to unlace his boots by the time that Danny O'Conner put Drogheda 3-0 ahead just three minutes later. The home side were able to hold on for the remaining fifteen minutes to unbelievably secure top-flight football for the following season. Absolutely brilliant.
And there you have it, a memory inspired by a book, and still the best game of football I've ever witnessed.