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Q&A | Dundalk FC fan Nicky McCourt on his beloved Lilywhites, Oriel Park, King Kenny and the owners

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Q&A | Dundalk FC fan Nicky McCourt on his beloved Lilywhites, Oriel Park, King Kenny and the owners

In the first of a new series, Nicky McCourt, well known in Dundalk entertainment circles, but above all as a serious Oriel Park fan – or maybe fanatic – answers the questions. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

When did this love affair with Oriel Park begin?
In the 1955/’56 season.

First game?
Dundalk versus St. Patrick’s Athletic, taken there by my father. It ended in a draw with Shay Gibbons getting the equaliser for Pat’s. Sundays were all about rushing the dinner and then racing up to Oriel for a 3:30 kick-off.

Some of the teams and players?
Leo McDonagh was a classy wing-half and Ted McNeill, the goalkeeper, would jump on a hand grenade to save a shot. But my all-time favourite was Jimmy Hasty, the one-arm maestro. Ronnie Whelan, St. Patrick’s, was a great inside forward, and Evergreen United’s John Coughlan was a tank of a centre-half who took no prisoners. Ronnie Nolan was another great defender, and the sight of him and his Shamrock Rovers colleagues arriving at Oriel in Princess cars was something else. Talk about style.

Were you in Dalymount for the 1958 Cup win?
Unfortunately, no – financial constraints in the homestead. I listened to the game on the radio (or the wireless, as it was in those days) and remember Philip Greene shouting when Hubie Gannon scored: “Someone is waving a bucket in the Dundalk fans.” Liam Hennessy missed a penalty for Rovers, and I remember meeting Ted McNeill many years later and he told me that he tried to put Hennessy off by wishing him the best of luck. His reply: “Get back in those goals.” He then kicked the ball wide. The referee was an Englishman, Denis Howell, who later became a Minister in a Labour government. The FAI used to bring over English referees because they didn’t trust the home guard to be neutral.

Another landmark was the game marking the first game at the ‘new’ Oriel Park in 1966, when teams began to play ‘the other way around’. Were you there?
Yes, this was the start of a new era. Jackie Carey was manager of Notts Forest and Joe Baker, signed for a then record £100,000, was at centre-forward, and Welsh International, Terry Hennessy, at wing-half. Musical entertainment was provided by the Portadown Brass Band, led by no other than Ted McNeill.  

We’ll come back to soccer later. You’re an ex-CBS boy and in your days at school, Gaelic football was the only game. Did you ever play?
Yes, in the old Gaels field. In secondary school, Thursday afternoons were devoted to games. I was always played in goals, where I could do least damage.

Ever in Croke Park?
Yes, at a Leinster hurling final. I was brought there courtesy of a good friend in Macardles Brewery, Gerry O’Hara, who was a great Kilkenny fan. Kilkenny won.

.... and St. Brigid’s Park?
As I was born on the Doylesfort Road I was considered a “Dowdaller”. I saw Louth play there a long time ago, and I think that was the only time I was there.

What about the San Siro? (That’s the Sean O’Mahony’s pitch, not where the two Milan teams play)
Yes. I was reared in the Quay, and saw O’Mahony’s on a few occasions, but I was in the neighbouring Clancy Park, where Quay Celtic play, more often.

Did you celebrate O’Mahonys’ championship win four years ago?
I was delighted with their success. As the founding honorary secretary of Quay Celtic, I can say there was always a good relationship with O’Mahony’s. Even at the time of the infamous ‘Ban’ both committees made sure their fixtures never clashed so players could play with both teams as required. This was a typical example of the Quay community spirit.

Tell us about your stage career?
My first stage appearance was in the Dominican Hall with Tommy Clarke’s Group Players, in the Righteous Are Bold, a play about devil possession. Heavy stuff for my debut. The late Anne Casey played the lead role superbly. After that I played with Tom Tynan’s Genesian Players, and also The Castle Players with Paddy Craven as director. All were excellent stage men. I was also involved for many years with Geraldine McGee’s Dundalk Dramatic Club, in musicals and drama. The plays covered both comedy and mystery. I owe a lot to Geraldine. She taught me everything about stagecraft. A marvellous director, who, happily, is still with us. I often meet my former colleagues, and we love to recall the great days. There’s always laughter.

Let’s talk Panto?
My first taste with pantomimes was with Dundalk Theatre Guild, with the late Sheila Boyle, who was great with her directions and help. We did four pantos in total, the first one, Aladdin, in 1967, and I was the baddie, Abanazan. Great times and lots of fun.

After that?
In 1992, Rosemary Winkless approached me on behalf of Dundalk Musical Society to play the Dame in Cinderella. The Society was planning to revive the pantomime in Dundalk after many years’ absence. I played opposite Derek Grimes (sadly, no longer with us), a very talented youngster. Peter McCourt and Alvaro Luchessi were magnificent Ugly Sisters.

How many years as the Dame?
Twenty-six. This year the Society’s Dublin director, who directed me for seven years, decided on a change and didn’t cast me. Disappointing, but, hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to be the Society’s Dame again – a role I relished. I love panto as I get the chance to engage with the audience. They are part of the pantomime, and people love that too. You hear stories of people going into the Town Hall and saying to the front of house people: “Don’t tell him I’m here”, but really they are looking forward to their name being mentioned.

Did anyone ever react angrily?
Thankfully no, and no solicitor’s letters, either. The rule is to laugh with the people and not at them.

Let’s change tack again – your favourite book, film and TV show?
Book: Against The Tide, by Dr Noel Browne; film: Inglorious Basterds, Brad Pitt; TV show: Ros na Run, TG4.

And you name Browne as your hero?
Yes. He was Minister for Health in the 1948-’51 Inter-party Government, and is remembered as the doctor who rid the country of the scourge of TB. His Mother & Child Scheme, which was about giving free medical help to mothers and children up to 16 years,  could have been a forerunner of a genuine health service for all. He was a visionary who was vilified by the combined power of the medical profession and Catholic hierarchy. Disgracefully, he was stabbed in the back by his own government.

Back to soccer. You’ve seen the highs and lows – when were the darkest days?
When the club was in the hell of Division One. I’ll never forget the feeling, standing in Oriel for the first game against St. Francis. I thought to myself, ‘is this what this great club has come to?’ It looked as if the club was going to go out of existence.

Fast forward to the now. Is this the best ever?
Without a shadow of doubt, the Stephen Kenny era was something special, and is continuing. As the late Jim Murphy said many times, “We are living the dream.” League champions, Cup finals, European football, and all the time playing highly acclaimed, attractive football, and winning against the cream. Kenny’s teams provided a great morale-booster, not just to the club’s fans, but to the whole town. The players he had under him were ambassadors, and still are, involving themselves in the community.

Can Kenny do a job at senior International level?
Yes, and yes again. The fans will flock to The Aviva to watch true football after the previous sterility. His style is both attractive and winning and he is never overawed by the opposition.

The other eras?
Jim McLaughlin, Turly O’Connor and Dermot Kealy deserve never to be removed from the memory bank. O’Connor gave the club its second Double. McLaughlin began by winning the league in 1976, nine years after their previous win. He had some great players, the likes of Jimmy Dainty, Tony Kavanagh, Tommy McConville (one of the greats), Richie Blackmore and Alan Spavin. Kealy, a partner with McConville on the winning league team, was a success as manager. Will we ever forget how the title was clinched – a last game win, with a Tommy McNulty goal? Magic.

You gave an enthusiastic welcome to Dundalk FC’s new owners – have they lived up to expectations?
Yes. They backed Stephen Kenny to the hilt, and they are doing likewise with Vinny Perth. They didn’t give any hostages to fortune. Their priority – and they made no bones about it – was to have a European club playing in the League of Ireland. They must be given great credit as they have not removed any player, admin staff or the team’s backroom team from the payroll during the coronavirus crisis. Vinny Perth has nothing but the highest of praise for them, and that should be good enough for anyone.

Is a move from Oriel realistic?
No. I wouldn’t like to see the club moving from their spiritual home. A new Oriel on a greenfield site would cost in the region of €10 million. If the club did decide to invest in that, forget about investing in players. We could end with a new stadium, in the First Division with a core attendance of 300. No thanks.

Do you fear for the damage Covid-19 could do to sport?
Until a vaccine is found, there’ll be a huge problem. Sport behind closed doors would be nothing more than glorified training sessions.

Best advice given?
From one of my teachers, the late Hugh O’Hare. “If you ever visit anyone in hospital and you are not grateful that you are not a patient, there’s something wrong with you.”

Favourite saying?
Carpe Diem – Seize the day.

Invite four (dead or alive) to dinner.
Stephen Kenny, Michael Caine, Jennifer Aniston and Ken Dodd.