Former Cork City stalwart Neal Horgan speaks with ex-Ireland international John Herrick about the rich history the League of Ireland has and how this legacy must have a role to play in shaping Irish domestic football’s future.
The League of Ireland receives its fair share of criticism. Many commentators, including myself, have been focusing on the need for radical change within the league. So when I had the pleasure of a chat recently with ex-Cork Hibernians and three times capped Irish full-back, John Herrick, I anticipated that same sort of conversation would occur.
Herrick, during a fantastic period for Cork Hibernians in the early 1970s, won the league (’71) as well as the FAI Cup and Blaxnit Cup (both ‘72). However, by 1976 ’Hibs’ were no more. With his first-hand experience of this sudden extinction, combined with the financial troubles experienced by LOI clubs over the last few years, I expected a bitter critique from Herrick on the unrelenting woes of the League of Ireland.
I wanted an elaboration from Herrick, who after his time in Cork, enjoyed spells at Limerick, Shamrock Rovers, Drogheda, and Galway, on the best way forward, which would surely involve a clean break from the difficulties of the past. So I went straight for the juggler.
“How did you feel when Hibs went under?” I asked.
“Do you know”, he said, “Nobody has ever asked me that before. Surprised, I felt surprised. Some people might have seen it coming but I didn’t.”
“And was it tough as a player, to see your team pulled apart?” I again prodded. “Well, we just got on with it. That’s the nature of football; you move on. One can often get complacent as a player if you stay at the same club.
“When Hibs went out of business, we (the players) became the property of the League of Ireland, and I was signed by Limerick. I enjoyed my time at Limerick and particularly at Drogheda, they were the best run club I played with and the whole experience was really wonderful.”
This was not going to plan.
John’s son Mark played with Cork City FC from 1996 until 2001, and I asked how it felt to come watch City during that period.
“The buzz was great as they had a very good team, the fans and the atmosphere was similar but there was one element missing.”
“What was that?,” I asked nervously. “Flower Lodge.”
Ah Flower Lodge. Quite a prickly issue.
“It was such a great place. The surface was immaculate. We had fantastic occasions. I often speak of Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Gunter Netzer. He was the best I ever played against. He was a genius, a few moves ahead of us in everything he did.
“It was a really special day at the Lodge. I suppose I feel sadder about the old ground than I do about Hibs. I can’t even pass the place now.”
For the next few minutes Herrick countered my ideas that seek a radical change from the past. He feels that the recent change to ‘summer-soccer’ means the league now lacks the atmosphere, culture, and mud of the winter game.
“I miss the physicality of the league during the winter time. I miss the way a ball would fly out of the mud. Summer soccer makes the players more vertical. Winter football involves players closer down near the ground. I prefer it. I think the standard is quite good now and there is a lot of clever footballers around the league but I’d love them to have to battle the elements.”
I jump at one last chance.
“Would you say the League of Ireland could be described as a perpetual battle against the elements?”
“Well it comes down to money doesn’t it. Nobody can stay on the top forever. Hibs had a guy named John Crowley, he was the club really. When he left, that was it. But we had average crowds in one season of 8,000 and some people still remember us.
“I live in Galway now and I was recently on the Aran Islands creating a sign for a pub (Herrick designs and paints the artwork for the signage of premises). A guy approached me on the ladder and (after seeing my van) asked was I the guy who played for Hibs in the 70s.
“He had watched us at the Lodge when he was in college in Cork. I was taken aback. We were on the Aran Islands.
“But looking around today there is lot that I am happy about regarding the league. I am delighted that Dalymount wasn’t sold, that Tolka is still there, that Rovers have a ground again. Turner’s Cross is a great venue and it will be great when Markets Field returns in Limerick.”
Herrick had artfully manoeuvred the conversation toward the real strength of the league – its heritage. I felt defeated, but enlightened, similar to how Hibs’ players must have felt after Gunter Netzer’s performance at ‘the lodge’ in 1971.
Neal Horgan, Pundit Arena
Neal Horgan is the author of Death of a Football Club?, the Story of Cork City FC: Season 2008.
His book, which provides a first-hand perspective of one of the most turbulent times in the Leesiders’ history, can be purchased digitally here, or alternatively, the print version can be ordered here.