Cat-calls and exasperated rhetorical inquisitions rang out like cluster bombs spread haphazardly amongst the stands as the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle confirmed a third straight league defeat for my local team, Waterford United, last Friday night. Once a leading light of Irish football, ‘The Blues’ have now been stranded in the second-tier of domestic football for the last four years and what remains of the club’s loyal fanbase has grown increasingly restless after watching their side come agonisingly close to promotion in each of the last two seasons, the first of manager Stephen Henderson’s reign on Suirside. But the young boss’ tactics and transfers have been subjected to fierce examination, and indeed condemnation, this campaign, which is less than ten games old. These scenes following the frustrating 1-0 home defeat to Shelbourne, who played almost an hour with ten men, last week were the kind that often invoke a supporter to scan one’s brain for the comfort of past glories. Having watched their team lose a devestating Munster derby to fierce rivals Cork City in the previous home game, I wondered how many of the few hundred die-hards present amongst the hissing and swearing went in search of fading recollections of better times.
In their halcyon days during the ’60s and ’70s, Waterford played their home games just across the city from their current home at the Regional Sports Centre (or ‘The RSC’ to give it its more aesthetically pleasing name). Kilcohan Park was the scene of numerous league triumphs, six of them in eight years, and even bore witness to European football as Waterford eliminated Glentoran on route to the last 16 of the 1971 European Cup. This was one of the few fixtures during the club’s time in continental competition to be played at their home ground, with many moved to national stadia in Dublin in order to facillitate the expected crowds for more ‘glamorous’ ties. One such tie came in 1968, again in the European Cup, as holders Manchester United came to Landsowne Road and emerged 3-1 winners in the first-leg against a plucky ‘home’ side. In the return leg at Old Trafford, in front of almost 42,000 spectators, the great Bobby Charlton grabbed a goal in a comfortable 7-1 victory. Eight years on, the English World Cup winner would find himself lining-out briefly for the team he helped dismantle.
In 1976 Charlton was in the twilight of his glittering career. Having left Manchester United three years earlier, the Red Devils’ then-record appearance holder was in search of fresh challenges. It was this which lead him to Irish shores, and to becoming surely the most prominent Rosbif to have played on the Emerald Isle. And yet, his is probably the most brief of spells in the league. Charlton played just three times for his new club, scoring once. His playing contribution may be negligible, but the wider reprocussions of his soujurn are significant. Having lifted the most prestigious trophy in world football just ten years earlier, and having been one of the most gifted players to have played with one of the world’s premier clubs; Bobby Charlton had now graced the Kilcohan turf, and played in front of the delighted masses who follow the team in blue.
One year later, it was a player famous for playing for ‘The Blues’ across the Irish Sea who would follow in Charlton’s almost mythical footsteps and add his contribution to the burgeoning legacy at Waterford. Chelsea’s all-time leading goalscorer Bobby Tambling arrived in Ireland, and Cork, in 1973, following his religious duty as a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Having once been the youngest captain in English league history to gain promotion to the top-flight and scoring hatfulls of goals as Chelsea’s replacement for Jimmy Greaves, himself a Rosbif having departed for Milan. The now 31-year-old Tambling joined Cork Celtic upon his arrival before being approached by Waterford manager John McSeveney ahead of the 1977 season. Having been supremely prolific in his native England, the aging Tambling scored just eight goals in his solitary season at ‘the other Blues’ as part of a transitional team. He did however represent the club in a League of Ireland XI which travelled to play Argentina just two months before the South Americans won the World Cup. Tambling departed the South-East at the end of the season, joining Dubliners, Shamrock Rovers.
It may seem slightly strange to select two players who played barely more than a season for Waterford between them as my favourite Rosbifs. But in light of the recent negativity and despair at the club’s on-field failings, I couldn’t help but think of the names that have transcended league positions and statistics. Names that offer ample reminder of past glories in a time when they seem a world away and considerable pride in following the ‘Blues’ of Ireland. The ‘Blues’ of Charlton and Tambling.