Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup Final

Dundalk FC helped avid supporter Allan Mathews through his darkest days

The lifelong supporter has made a full recovery from illness, will be at the Aviva on Sunday

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

Dundalk FC helped avid supporter Allan Mathews through his darkest days

Allan Mathews. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)

For any followers of Dundalk FC on Instagram, Allan Mathews is the man behind the password on a match night and an avid Dundalk fan. Follow him on social media and you’ll learn of his love of the club, and follow him on a Friday night and all roads will lead to Oriel Park.

It’s his routine at this point. One of three boys, his upbringing revolved Oriel Park on a Friday night, formerly a Thursday. It was a phenomenon harvested at their family home in the Mourne Vale Estate, with his mother Clodagh being the foremost instiller of the Dundalk FC bug.

“Our addiction to the club has progressively got bigger and bigger as time has gone on by,” Allan told the Dundalk Democrat.

“It’s all we talk about. We have a family Whatsapp group and my wife hates it because it’s just Dundalk talk.

“I remember during the week leading up to a game when I was at the Marist, I’d be talking to friends and saying ‘are you going up (to Oriel Park) because I was always going up. My parents used to always take me, more so my mother because my father sort of eased off as his work got busier.

“I’d come up with my brothers, my mother and a couple of friends of ours. It was great, it was the craic building up to it all week at school and even when we weren’t doing great and half our time was probably spent messing as you see the kids doing now.

“My grandfather used to come up here and take my mother. She was one of six kids and a good few of them would have come up, but she stuck with it. She would have sat in the stand here every Sunday and that was when it was really big here with thousands and thousands. People would have their Sunday dinner after mass and come up here.

“She met my father here. He would have sat behind her so we have a bit of history here. It’s just following on, we know no different and I’d say that’s it for a lot of people in the town who no different.

“Football is a family thing. We were never a GAA family, never a rugby family, Dundalk is still number one and it’ll continue to be as long as the club’s here and there’s good football to be watched,” he said.

Allan married Doireann in 2011. They live in Kingswood, just a Dublin Road’s drive from the heart of the town. They’re “blessed” with two children, five-year old Feilimí and Bláthnaid, whose second birthday they will celebrate in November.

The Dundalk sensation has been passed on to Feilimí.

“It’s kind of changed now because whereas I was coming up here with my mother, now I’ve my son coming with me and he’s mad into it. He’s only five, but he’s got the jerseys and he came out here in the last game of last season with Dane Massey and he hasn’t shut up talking about Dane Massey since. He thinks he’s going out with him at the Cup final,” he quipped.

“This is his third Cup final in a row and he just takes it for granted every year that we go to the Aviva. He’s known nothing else since. Oriel, coming up, the whole Friday night experience, it’s great and it’s great that we’re in a purple patch at the moment where a lot of kids are getting to see it. They’re the next generation of what I was growing up,” said Allan.

But, while football remained a part of his routine and helped him through, the last year has been very challenging for Allan. Aged 33, he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the lead-up to last Christmas. He was even told that last year’s festive period could be his last. It put life into some perspective, though getting down in the dumps was never an option.

“I got diagnosed with cancer on the 23 December, two days before Christmas. It wasn’t the easiest Christmas at all. Basically, I found a lump on my neck at the start of December, went to the Doctors the next day, she didn’t play it up or down. She didn’t mention cancer, but I was sent for an ultrasound on December 21 up in Drogheda. He sent me for a CT scan in Dundalk the following day and then he wanted me to for a biopsy on the 23rd.

“As I was lying there taking the biopsy he told me it was cancer. That was a funny hour with stuff spinning through my head. Obviously, I’d to go out to the waiting room and tell my wife, and look her mother died of cancer. It was very tough for her and then I’d to go home and tell my whole family and friends.

“Leading up to Christmas was probably the worst time to get the news. But we rallied around even though I had to wait for the results, which took a ‘long week’ and fair play to the Doctors, they rushed me through and made sure the results weren’t hanging over me for too long.

“I got the results back and it was cancer. It’s wasn’t ideal, but I knew it was treatable and with surgery and radio-treatment, touch wood it would go away. The kids didn’t know any different. I still had a good Christmas as much as I could. I look back on the photographs and that day – the 23rd – I was told that I mightn’t see next Christmas because they didn’t know how extreme it was.

“The Doctor told me that as he was taking the biopsy. I shed a tear that day. But we had to keep going for the kids’ sake. We went to see Santa and looking back on those pictures, I had such a false smile and you can even see in Doireann’s eyes how upset she was even though the kids were delighted.

“I’d my surgery the end of January. It went well. It was probably more extensive that I thought it would be as it was eight-hours long. It was a long morning for me. I was into Beaumont at eight o’clock in the morning and didn’t actually go down for surgery until two.

“But as much as it was a long day for me, I was knocked out for eight-hours, so it was a lot longer for my family. The doctors were happy with how it went and then the recuperation, I was lying up for a few weeks. I couldn’t drive and was kind of left physically in pain because what happens in your neck can affect you shoulder and my right shoulder dropped. It’ll need a year or two of physio to get it back to normal.

“Though the mental side was probably worse because you’re thinking of your family and you don’t know how long the treatment is going to go. I’d the radio-treatment in May and I’d a scan two-days after the treatment and had another lump so that was kind of worrying, but the Doctors re-assured me that the radio-therapy takes a couple of months to work.

“I went back up two-weeks ago and had another scan and they said that it was clear which was a great relief because it was hanging over me the whole time, especially over the summer. And different things can come into conversation like when people start asking you where you’re going to be in ten-years and you’re wondering what’s going to happen.

“But, as I said, I’d a family to keep me going and the distraction of football and I’m also heavily involved in the scouts, so all those things helped keep my mind off it. I started a new job as well so as much as it was a tough year, it could have been worse. I’m still here to tell the tale.

“There’s people all over the world in far worse circumstances than me. I don’t dwell on it, I don’t sit there and sulk. I’m fine, I’ve a bit of pain, I can’t feel my neck, but if you only met me today, you wouldn’t know otherwise.”

He speaks so openly about it and, though, he’s the humble sort, he is an inspiration.

Typically, however, he spoke of the support he received from people and supporters he didn’t know. And to this day, he continues to receive inquiries from the lay men and women of Oriel Park. He considers Dundalk FC a family, as opposed to an institution.

“It was unreal, people were very, very thoughtful. I got messages from people I don’t know, other supporters around the league and even people nothing to do with football.

“I put it up on my Facebook and Twitter accounts a day before I went in for the operation. I told my close friends, but I didn’t want to tell too many people because people have their own worries and I just said, ‘look, rather than Doireann getting a lot of texts or people asking where I am’, I’d better put something up.

“I got a lot of replies from people who I maybe hadn’t talked to in years and supporters from the club. David Minto came up to me the other day at an ATM and he was saying ‘congratulations’ and people come up to me at the bar who I wouldn’t particularly know and say ‘I saw you got the all clear’.

“It’s great, it’s fantastic, but it’s hard to put into words what you think of people. It is like a family up here. Everybody out there knows about others on social media, but to know that people are thinking about you is great, it really is.”

He’s also thankful for his family’s support, his mother’s sustenance in particular.

“My mother’s a typical Irish woman. She’s strong, she took it really well. Maybe when I wasn’t there she didn’t, but she was very considerate and did everything for me. If it was a case that the kids had to be minded, she was always there, and I’m sure she was upset, but she never showed it.

"Like my wife, she’s be fairly strong and for the sake of maybe me breaking down, they were very strong. She was upset and of course she cried, but not she’s delighted that I’m all better. I’m very lucky to have my mother,” he added.

Coincidentally, our conversation took place at Oriel Park last Tuesday, three-years to the day since Dundalk lifted their tenth league title and first in 19 years. The night Cork City were beaten in the league decider is his best memory as a Dundalk supporter, closely followed by the 2008 First Division win at Station Road in Kildare.

He name checks so many of the players in the Kenny era as being special, though it’s a player from his days as a 12-year-old supporter who he ranks higher than all the others.

He specifies “Tom McNulty, just because of his commitment. That’s the type of player I like.

“He was a real leader who was brave going into every tackle and I suppose people would look at Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, they were obviously different levels, but of the same mould.

“We’ve had a lot of great players who have come and gone over the years. Daryl Horgan was a brilliant one and I’d be a big fan of Chris Shields. I get a lot of stick over liking Chris. He’s here six-seasons now and he was probably the best of a bad bunch at the time (2012) and like anyone else he might have questioned why he was staying before Stephen Kenny came in.

“But he’s proven everyone wrong and that first season that Stephen Kenny came in, he started playing really well from July on. I remember him playing against Shelbourne and we won 5-0, he played left-back and he was unbelievable. I’d been away on holidays and my mother said he’d started the last two matches and was brilliant, and he was. He came into his own and I truly believe had he started the match against St. Pat’s up in Inchicore in 2013 that we’d have won the league. We’d have caught up with them.

“We have loads of great players to choose from. Like (Patrick) McEleney, his skill level is just off the wall. I thought the Rosenborg game here, he made them look like children. The things he’s pulled off, the goals he’s scored this season, they’re just unbelievable.

“Robbie Benson, he’s so skilful and always pops up in the right spot. I think David McMillan is the smartest player we have. For a striker, he runs himself into the ground and when he drops into midfield he always sees the pass.

“I really like those type of players. They really dig in, get stuck in and they’d nearly die for the cause. Stephen O’Donnell as well. I mean he’d run his legs off for the shirt. He’s injured all the time, but yet he played 120 minutes against Rovers. It’s phenomenal, it really is. But Tom McNulty was Tom McNulty,” he quipped.

But perhaps Mathews is most synonymous with Oriel Park, and the shedside, for a different reason, a lighter moment.

“There was a very funny thing a few years ago. At half-time a few years ago, my friend dropped his programme and I’m a bit taller than him so I said I’d jump over to get it and as I jumped over, I don’t know how I did it but, I ended up slipping and had my legs in my air and my head facing down. I was looking back towards the shed and them singing ‘who are ya, who are ya…’. That was very embarrassing, but very funny I suppose. The lads still go on about it,” he chuckled.

He speaks so fondly of Stephen Kenny too.

“He’s a gentleman. He’s one of the most successful managers the league has ever had, yet he’s very down to earth. He’s probably a perfectionist without being OCD about certain things. He’s a people person. He gives it his all and he comes across so well when you meet him.

“He can be good craic too and there was one year that we went into his office after we won the league, got him to sit down and pretend to be signing one of the guys on a contract. He went along with it whereas if he had have kicked us out you’d totally understand why. He’s just a lovely man and we’re so lucky to have him as manager.”

Towards the end of our conversation we reverted our chat back to personal life. We spoke about his brothers, David and Robert, and his father, Austin, and his relationship with them. Though I was attracted to Allan’s place of work, mainly because even after all he’s been through his day-to-day routine involved helping others. He’s a special needs assistant and deals with autistic children, as he puts it, who are trying to overcome their own individual challenges.

“As of the start of September, I’m a special needs assistant in the Redeemer Boys school. We have an autistic unit which has just opened up of two classes and it’s great.

“I thoroughly enjoy it. They’re great kids. They have their obstacles to get over and we’re trying to make sure they get along in life. We’re trying to teach them life skills and a lot of them might have different problems and be at different stages of the autistic spectrum, but every day is different.

“It can be challenging, but I’d go home with a smile more times than I go home upset. It’s tough work and heavy going at times, but they’re great kids and it’s an enjoyable type of atmosphere. I love working with them,” he added.

When you consider everything that Allan has been through from having to deal personally and mentally with his illness to maintaining his strength for the sake of his wife and young family, one puts him on a pedestal. He’s a remarkable guy with a remarkable tale and a passion for his football club that runs in his veins.

He’s thankful for the game, though, and as he put it himself, Dundalk FC helped him through the difficult times.

Across the board, this team owe nothing to the town. They have given us so much, more than we could have ever imagined. But how fitting it would be for Allan, at the end of a long year, to see his team win the Cup again.