The 2013/2014 season was a momentous one for Dundalk Football Club. For the first time in 19 years they have just brought the most coveted trophy in League of Ireland soccer back to Oriel Park, by winning the SSE Airtricity League. They also won the EA Sports Cup in a final which saw Oriel Park filled to capacity. Attendance at these matches reached several thousands.
Just two years ago I attended Oriel Park in a league relegation play-off with my son Cillian, where just three hundred supporters turned up to cheer on the team. Fortunately they managed to stay in the Premier Division and went on to completely turn the tide in the last two years with their new manager Stephen Kenny.
I have written before in Frontline (Issue 89, Winter 2012) about my 17 year old son Cillian’s devout love for Dundalk FC, whether for their battle to stay in the top division or bidding to become league champions. The one constant that has been his dedicated following of the Lillywhites. And that devotion is not just one way. For the last number of years, Dundalk FC have helped my child in more ways than they could ever know. Yes, they are champions of the country now in soccer, but they are also champions as sportsmen and true gentlemen.
Throughout this year several players were sidelined through injury and forced to sit in the stand for the weekly matches. My son, who talks and questions nonstop, asked one night if he could sit with Keith Ward and Stephen O’Donnell, the team captain. It was one of the first times that Cillian has left my side, and from then on they have included him as one of the lads, answering his never-ending questions and encouraging his love for the team all the way. I am full of admiration for these young players, many of whom are not much older that Cillian himself and who week-after-week include him at their games.
At the EA Sports Cup final match, a home win for Dundalk, the celebrations were electric. We were sitting in the stand and managed to make our way to the front, where we tried to get as close to the players as we could. One official who knows the bond between the team and Cillian allowed us onto the pitch where the team celebrated their amazing win with hordes of fans surrounding them. Cillian has very restricted mobility and was quite happy to savour the mood watching the celebrations and feeling the electric excitement. All of a sudden Keith Ward, who had been so good to Cillian all year, ran over to us and placed the medal which he had just received around Cillian’s neck – saying simply ‘That’s for you, Buddy.’
I am never normally stuck for words, but even now words fail me when I think of that most wonderful gesture. I remained frozen to the spot, cried, then tried to protest—pointing out that he would need the medal back. Cillian, of course, not realising the significance of the gesture, simply said thanks, and carried on as if it was the most normal thing in the world. To me, it was the most generous thing ever and one I know we will never forget. Keith replied that he won it for Cillian and was happy to give it to him. It’s hard to believe that such a young lad would be so generous and unselfish, giving away his first major soccer medal. The pitch was packed with fans, but I felt as if there was just the three of us on the field.
There is a mental health campaign called ‘#LittleThings’ running at the moment, where people are encouraged to talk about the little things that have helped them improve their mental health. Every time I hear it advertised, I think of Keith Ward and all the lads on the Dundalk FC team. Keith’s gesture was no ’little thing’ in my eyes—but it will forever remind me of a most unselfish act and it keeps me going on a bad day. The only problem I have now is trying to get Cillian to take off that medal. He is firmly a member of the team in his eyes and he has Stephen Kenny plagued for a contract for next season! Unfortunately Keith Ward has now signed to play with Sligo Rovers next season. I haven’t told Cillian yet—we’ll deeply miss him, but wish him every success at his new club. Sligo Rovers are extremely lucky to get such a true sportsman.