Unprecedented. Impossible. Preposterous. Unthinkable. Unobtainable. Yet, by the end of sixty gruelling minutes in this years Staff. vs. Students soccer match, played in honour of former teacher and soccer enthusiast Mr. Brendan Cullen, the magistri of Clongowes Wood College had bravely gone to the brink and succeeded where no football team in the history of the school had gone before them; the seemingly insurmountable task of five successive victories in a row had been achieved. The build up to the match during the week had been palpable in the school with the question pulsating from the lips and minds of all – staff, student and Jesuit – the very same.
It could be heard from the 1929 building as boys looked up at each other sporadically from Ipads, Ipods, and ‘calculators’ to converse in anticipation, discernible during the sports day awards in the boys chapel on Thursday morning, dimly audible over another energetic café in the school refectory on Wednesday evening, with consultation and debate on the question rife over another coffee in the staff room that lunchtime, and even discussed amongst those who strolled the avenue in the evening for some fresh air the night before – could it be done?
Could this team of unlikely heroes venture where greats in the sporting echelon such as the Kilkenny team of two thousand and ten under the tutorship of the colossal tactician Brian Cody, Bill Shankly’s great Liverpool team of the early eighties, or indeed Juventus’ glorious team of the early nineteen thirties under the tutelage of Carlo Cacarno had gone but ultimately capitulated upon the final inspection of their dominance. Could they go one better? Could they jump the final hurdle on the route to sporting immortality? The drive for five was well and truly alive.
Much had been made of the diminishing resources available to the staff squad given the brilliance that had moved to pastures anew since that first memorable victory in two thousand and eleven. Names that had been adopted into Clongowes footballing folklore and many inducted into the hall of fame for the inspiring talent they displayed on the Vinnie Murray Pitch during their service and contribution to the drive for five; Sharkey. McElwee. Gorman. Collins. Brennan. O’Brían. Jackman. Gibbons.
The majority of those listed would be seemingly irreplaceable yet a number of new recruits in recent years, compounded with an impressive old guard, such as Maloney, Shalvey, O’Hara and Bowen to name but a few had left a quiet confidence amongst the staff that the dream could be realised. Additions such as Corcoran, Maxwell, Beere, Wright, Leahy and Mulcahy meant that Rhetoric 2016 should underestimate them at their peril.
The build up seemed eternal for the staff squad, as Fr. Jack Hackett would say, the wait interminable. Team manager Mr. Tom Carroll (channelling his inner José Mourihno) and his assistant Mr. John O’Donoghue gave this reporter an insight into the feeling in camp the night before the game and addressed some of the tabloid talk, pertaining particularly to the insinuation from Rhetoric that they had lost some of the old magic, ahead of Thursday’s heavyweight bout: “It is like having a blanket that is too small for my king size deluxe memory foam mattress and bed. You pull the blanket up to keep your chest warm and your feet stick out. But I am content because the blanket is cashmere. It is much more than an ordinary blanket. I am not one for hyperbole or indeed metaphors, as you well know, but it will most certainly be a game of three halves.”
O’Donoghue was similarly coy when talking up the chances of the staff team and played down the importance of the game, reminiscent of another scouse manger in his prime who used to endear his fans with interesting musings on the beautiful game; “To be honest with you boy, I heard someone say that this soccer thing is more important than life and death. I’m always disappointed when I hear that like. They’ve obviously never played rugby”.
With the scene set the teams emerged from their respective dressing rooms and out on to the hallowed turf of the VMP for a 15:45 kick off on an overcast Thursday afternoon. Rhetoric 2016 welcomed their adversaries with gusto and in an attempt to rattle the quiet assuredness that was seeping from the staff quarters in the lead up to the game, demonstrated their best imitation of a scene straight from the Donnybrook stands by forming a circle at the student end of the pitch and screaming loudly in an unidentifiable language, most probably a warning for what was to come on June 24th when a much more formidable test would be done and dusted for the young men. As the rest of the school’s student population looked on in anticipation hoping to see some staff members ‘buckle’, Mr. Noel Mason blew the whistle and the titanic struggle began.
It was the staff who started the brightest and early interchanges between Garry Corcoran, leading the line, with Shane Beere and Daryl Maxwell in midfield looked promising for the staff side. Rhetoric were struggling to make anything stick up top, with the staff having great success by contrast; Corcoran’s ability to win ball in the air providing an outlet for the marshals at the back, Colm Maloney and Matthew Wright. Rhetoric seemed far more comfortable on the ball but for all their fine possession, Finn Colfer in particular demonstrating some pieces of individual skill that Ronaldo would be proud of, they troubled Shalvey to a limited extent in the opening fifteen minutes. Maxwell was veracious in the middle of the field, covering every blade of artificial grass almost as if a certain Higher Line Prefect had assured him that success in his endeavour would provide a lifetime supply of extra small skin tight Clongowes t-shirts from the book room.
His hard work and industry paid dividends as he intercepted in the middle third passing forward to Corcoran who played a neat one-two with Beere only to be hacked down recklessly by Sean McMahon inside the box. Corcoran arose to jeers of ‘Tom Daley’ and ‘ten out of ten’ from the hostile home support but kept his cool to slot home the penalty after a game of cat and mouse with Patrick Dunne in the Rhetoric net. The staff led 1-0, looking good for their lead at that. They were soon to double their tally when a smooth counter attack move down the right hand side involving good play from Emmet Condron, who was tireless throughout, and the mercurial, precocious young Aussie Conor Mulcahy led to a simple tap in for Barry Bowen at the back post.
The Dublin native and Cork blow in was a notable absence in last year’s decider and his relentless efforts on the left wing were again rewarded as he bagged himself another goal to leave the staff team 3-0 up after the first third. The staff, playing cohesively and seamlessly as a well oiled unit, were tactically far more astute than the young challengers keeping a fine defensive shape for the first twenty minutes. Rhetoric, for all their huffing and puffing before the game, appeared to have no answer to the inspired defending of O’Donoghue and co. at the back. The house remained intact.
Yet, the Rhetoric boys sensed that there were chinks in the armour of this staff side and a rally cry from Michael Broe, who was tasked with marshalling the continually influential Corcoran, at the beginning of the second third was to signal the beginning of the onslaught on Shalvey’s goal. The introduction of Fiachra Lynch and Joseph Gilmartin in the middle of the park for Rhetoric was inspired. Gilmartin, sorely missed by the Senior soccer squad this year due to rugby commitments, was outstanding on the ball and dragged the Rhetoric side back into the game kicking and screaming with a goal ten minutes into the second third.
As his namesake will attest to, there really is no show like a Joe show, and when Gilmartin bagged his second of the afternoon minutes later it seemed that the dream of five in a row was slowly unravelling at the seams for the staff team. With the defence retreating to the edge of their 18 yard line only gravity defying saves from Shalvey between the sticks and some superb last stitch defending from Wright and Maloney was keeping the wolves at bay. Fine efforts from Nicholas Rinklin and Barry Murphy were parried away, although how much Shalvey knew about the latter was up for debate.
The staff team had lost its shape and with the pupils beginning to dominate proceedings using fresh legs and the width of the pitch to devastating effect, the second interval came at an unfortunate time for the Rhetoric boys allowing the staff to regroup, reorganise, rehydrate and most importantly for some of the elder and not so elder statesmen, rest. Wright bellowed to the sideline in search of cordial to fuel the final hurrah, Carroll went in search of an inhaler, and Corcoran questioned his decision to wear tights that he borrowed from Panti Bliss.
As the curtain came up on the final third the stakes were as high as they had been in a staff student game in Clongowes Wood College, the tension unmistakable as the game became a physical and tactical battle between two outstanding sides. Rhetoric continued the final third in the same way they ended the middle one, emerging all guns blazing and heaping the pressure on Shalvey’s goal. It appeared that they had levelled matters when Niall McDermott had the ball in the staff net but referee Noel Mason made the correct decision ruling the goal out for offside. The battle in the middle third of the filed raged on with the hunger for possession evident on both sides, Maxwell was tenacious in the tackle with Eimhin Behan and Eimhin Ryan equally willing to put their heads where few would put their feet. Both displayed composure on the ball and kept Rhetoric ticking over and motoring forward.
The staff team had addressed the misgivings of their second third and defended with a much higher line, marshalled by their commander in chief Colm Maloney at centre half. Both he, Wright and Shalvey were excellent in the last third of the game and on one occasion the defensive unit held their shape to such rigidity, discipline and coordination that they purposefully caught Brian Maher in their well timed offside trap. In big games moments such as this change the momentum and can retrospectively have a significant impact on proceedings, as proved to be the case as this cracker drew to it’s gripping climax.
The event seemed to spur the staff side on, giving them a renewed potency, with Corcoran dropping into the middle of the field to plug the hole in front of the back four and Beere providing an outlet in attack with Bowen, the staff side set about seeing out the end of the final third and pouncing on the counter attack when the opportunity presented itself. With five minutes remaining it did, and Mulcahy, excellent for much of the afternoon, cooly stroked the ball into the bottom right hand corner of Michael Collins’ goal after good build up play from Beere and Condron. The staff had weathered the storm and a couple more fine saves from Brendan Shalvey towards the end of the game all but ensured victory for the fifth successive year. Noel Mason brought proceedings to their conclusion and the staff team rejoiced. History had been made and the drive for five was now to become the fix for six.
After the game Mr. Garry Corcoran gleefully accepted the Brendan Cullen perpetual trophy on behalf of the staff team. He thanked the boys in Rhetoric for what was a fiery but well spirited game and wished them the very best of luck going forward, not only in their Leaving Certificate but also in their endeavours further afield. The school would also like to thank Mr. Brendan Cullen who could not make the game but all in Clongowes wish him well and hope to see him return next year.
Finally, for this reporter not much remains other than to sign off on a splendid afternoon that was enjoyed by all, spectator and participants alike. For the Poetry pupils who looked on with eager anticipation there is a juggernaut on the horizon, and not merely the leaving certificate. I have no doubt that the words of Eric Arthur Blair will ring true when Rhetoric 2017 attempt to stop this staff side in their quest for an unprecedented six in a row ‘football is the continuation of war by other means’.