‘Papal Games’ – an article published in ‘Lakelands – Past and Present’ (December 2014)

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Lakelands – Past and Present, the collection of articles in which ‘Papal Games’ is included.

In time, references to ‘the Pope’s Children’ in the annals of Lakelands Close might refer to those of us born in the early ’80s, conceived amidst the euphoria that gripped the parents of the Close and beyond resulting from John Paul’s visit to Ireland.

The papal generation share many common images. Those of us who lived along the line of houses backing onto Sandyford Industrial Estate can probably remember the old Harcourt Street railway track behind our gardens. We remember the Travellers congregating in the industrial estate most summers, and our interesting encounters with their children, who would arrive over the wall backing onto Blackthorn Drive, or through the Crescent entrance to the Close.

We remember when there was no gap in the line of tall, majestic trees on the Close’s green, trees that only fluttered in the wildest of storms. We share the experience of that milestone of maturity when we were allowed to go down to the local shops – then McNeill’s or Hanley’s – where we would buy penny sweets, a Mr Freeze or soft drinks such as Club Shandy, which we could buy despite its alcoholic content. (Families were safe from infantile alcoholism as it tasted insipid). We all went to the annual fancy dress competition and barbeque every June – long, hot, June nights when the smell of sizzling meat hung in the air and adults drank, sang, played guitars and became inexplicably vociferous to us little people.

For those of us nestled in the enclave by its green, the bigger green by the Lawn and Avenue seemed remote despite its spaciousness and beautiful evergreens. It never seemed as conducive to sport, which perhaps explained why Sports Day, held down there, never felt as enticing.

There was an external world beyond our own self-contained one: the schools we attended; the local sports clubs and swimming pool; St Laurence O’Toole’s church; Stillorgan, with its bowling alley and cinema; and the nearby reservoir, where, story had it, braver children swam. Three Rock Mountain, with its dense carpet of conifers and communications mast at the peak, loomed down on our houses. I remember lying awake at night as a young boy hearing, beyond the sound of dogs barking, the roar of a motorbike in the industrial estate, and wondering to where in the mysterious mountains the biker was hastily travelling.

What bound the Pope’s Children of the Close most, however, was sport. With our bountiful, flat green, regularly mowed by the council, the world was our oyster. With the beginning of each sports tournament on TV our focus would change. When Wimbledon infiltrated TV sets in July, the wooden rackets were brought out and we played on the road, using the lines in the road as boundaries. When the Tour de France commenced we cycled around the green for time trials lasting hours. When Channel 4 showed the Ashes, we encouraged the kid with stumps and bat to give his gear a rare appearance.

When the Olympics entered the spotlight, the road around became a perfect 400 metre track and the pitch was host for the long jump etc. Ireland’s poor rugby record in the late ’80s didn’t stop us from playing with the oval ball. Though most of us played them at school, hurling and gaelic football were only ever exhibited as a few pucs or punts of the ball between friends.

Soccer, however, was our staple diet. We played the beautiful game morning, noon and night. Tournament on TV or not, we were always keen to fill the field with equal sized teams for a marathon game. If the numbers didn’t suffice, we resorted to two-on-two or three-on-three with a neutral keeper. Another variant was ‘world cup’: everyone playing against each other (possibly five or six), with a neutral keeper between the posts. A goal ensured passage to the next round, which had one player less. As we grew older, we played organised games against neighbouring estates.

Our fervency was undoubtedly enhanced by nearby greatness. The Close was home to former Ireland international Ray Treacy’s twin sons, Gary and John. One summer evening Ray gave us the privilege of a penalty shoot-out with him in nets. I was probably half his size, but couldn’t believe he saved my attempt so easily. Neighbouring the Treacys were the Beehans, whose grandfather was former Ireland international and Manchester United player (then scout) Billy Beehan. Renowned soccer commentator Jimmy Magee lived in Lakelands Lawn.

Our obsession with soccer coincided with Ireland’s ascension onto the world soccer stage. I just about remember Euro ’88, perhaps in part because my niece was baptised on the day Ireland played England. The ceremony was due to start at the same time as kick-off, but someone connected to this book, who I won’t mention following legal advice, conspired with the priest to defer the christening until late afternoon. He who can’t be named, the priest, and someone on high were vindicated. I remember Ronnie Whelan’s goal against Russia and the sense of achievement in drawing; the tantalising prospect of a semi-final as the game against the Netherlands closed out, only for Vim Kieft’s goal in the dying minutes to quench it.

Most of Ireland’s world cup games in 1990 were mid-week, which might explain the lack of atmosphere in the Close. The memories, however, endure: Sheedy’s goal; the painful draw against Egypt; Quinn’s heroic stretch against the Dutch and the subsequent lottery to see who played West Germany; the agonising 120 minutes against Romania before a nation held its breath. The same Pope who inspired our conception met Big Jack and the Irish team.

My dad promised to bring me to the tournament if Ireland got to the quarter-final and he kept his word. I cried when Schillaci tucked away Bonner’s parried save of Donadoni’s shot. I bawled at the final whistle. Different members of my family flew the flag for Lakelands at every unsuccessful game in the ’90 and ’94 world cups: Egypt and Italy in ’90; Mexico and the Netherlands in ’94. I’m sure someone on the residents’ association must have had a quiet word with the family before tickets went available for South Korea and Japan in ’02.

It’s memories of the first game in’94 against Italy, however, that probably endure most for the Papal children. The June night was warm and all my friends and I gathered in a friend’s house to watch the game. His parents’ friends and neighbours were also there. Ireland played to within an inch of its life. Houghton was again the scoring hero, after which we sat on the edge of the couch for an eternity. When the referee finally figured out how to use the final whistle, an earthquake hit Lakelands. We paraded around the estate deep into the night singing Olé Olé Olé and Put ‘Em Under Pressure. Ireland was on top of the world.

The next morning, tired from the previous night’s exertions but alive to the sweet promise of more glory, I had to leave for Irish college. It was painful being separated from all my friends and the prospect of countless hours of playing and watching soccer. I skulked aboard the train. Perhaps it was for the best. Rather than watch Ireland wilt in the US heat, and with them the carnival atmosphere in Lakelands, I was away for it all. The last 16 game against the Dutch was the first game I ever watched in which I realised at half-time a team was not going to win – an invaluable lesson for subsequent years watching the national team.

Life changes. We grew up. Games like ‘tip the can’, ‘hide and seek’, and ‘bulldog’s charge’ – played with the increasingly distracting girls who hung about on the edge of our pitch – competed with soccer for our time. Different kids went to different schools and found new friends. A more complex game called adult life eventually replaced those on our field of dreams. Irish soccer became a less inspiring affair.

The mountain behind the estate is barely visible from our childhood houses now, concealed by a Sandyford Industrial Estate unrecognisable from the ’80s. A tram whizzes past where the old railway line used to rust. The Pope’s Children have become adults. A new Pope, living in a Vatican guesthouse, is making waves, with his retired predecessor living a few miles away in a monastery.

Yet certain things remain and renew themselves. A new generation in the Close is finding its feet, running and playing ball on the same green as we did. The gallant trees still watch. The old evergreens on the other green have retained their magnificent verdant hues and still keep an eye on those on play beside them.

Driving through Lakelands on the day of the world cup final last summer, I remembered those halcyon days, especially that glorious night in ’94 when a giant was slayed in the Giants Stadium. Our roars and chants; the final whistle; a football rumbling down the road with us like a loyal dog as we paraded the estate’s streets: the images endure. There was something apt about preparing to write this article as the curtain fell on the career of RTÉ’s anchorman for every world cup since Italia 1990. We were very fortunate growing up in the Close. Those early memories will always form part of the excitement that comes with a new world cup.

Stephen Dineen

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