By Jay Mwamba
They play hard and they play tough, adding a Celtic competitiveness to America’s oldest amateur soccer league that even their fiercest rivals can’t help but admire.
They are the Irish members of the Cosmopolitan Soccer League: St. Barnabas, Shamrock, Lansdowne Bhoy, Astoria Gaels; clubs with names that give the 77-year-old organization a ring akin to the League of Ireland.
"There’s something about their never say die attitude that makes [their] games interesting to the end," said Frank Lackner, CSL’s First Division chairman. "They play hard but fair."
"We always enjoy playing against them," New York Dinamo coach Kristo Curanovic said. "They are very competitive teams. They bring the best out of us."
It’s the ultimate compliment from a man whose Dinamo team has had to run the gauntlet of the Irish sides in its meteoric rise from Third Division rookies to First Division contenders.
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Staffed by both immigrant and expatriate players, including some from the amateur leagues of the Emerald Isle, the Irish clubs do more than play Sunday afternoon soccer.
They also serve as magnets for Irish communities in their respective locales, and engage in social activities.
Along with the crunching tackles, the crosses into the penalty box and the goals come fund raisers, benefit events, picnics, and even — in Shamrock’s case — a network that helps Irish immigrants find employment.
These are the teams of Irish teams of the Cosmopolitan Soccer League:
Formed in 1960, Shamrock are the doyens of Irish soccer in the CSL. The Queens side enjoyed one of its most successful seasons last year when it beat New York Albanians 4-3 on penalties to lift the League Cup after finishing fourth in its rookie season in the First Division.
That giddy run, however, seemed to leave them winded at the start of the 1999-2000 season. After posting several indifferent results in the fall, Shamrock began the second half of the season last Sunday in seventh place (3-7-2, 11 points) on the standings, but determined to retain the League Cup.
"We have a good chance of winning the Cup again," said veteran midfielder John Guildea, who has been outstanding in the Sunnyside men’s run to this year’s quarterfinals.
The 35-year Guildea has been one of the pivotal figures at the club in the last decade. He has served stints as player-coach and is currently assisting Paul Wilson, who is now in charge.
Even at 35, Guildea remains a scoring threat for Shamrock, whose other notable players include the Chilean-born English striker Ray Elesseser, and Billy Henderson.
But with both Elesseser and Henderson currently unavailable, the ‘Rocks are pegging some of their hopes on the return of two attacking aces in Hofstra undergrad Paddy Gearty and Tim Cummins from Mercy College.
"He scores a lot of our goals," Guildea said of Cummins. Club President Scotty Shevlin is optimistic that Shamrock, who play at Downing Stadium, will recapture their cup-winning form this spring.
"I feel that after intense training during the break we are ready for the second half of the season and to defend the League Cup," he said.
In terms of numbers, Shamrock, sponsored by the Sunnyside bar J.J. Gilligan’s, is the largest of the four Irish clubs. It fields three teams in the CSL.
The Shamrock reserves began the Spring season in fourth place (6-3-3, 21) 10 points adrift of leaders New York Hungaria, while the club’s Third Division side led the field early in the season. They have since dropped to fifth position (7-4-1, 22) eight points behind undefeated newcomers Guyana Juniors.
Shamrock started off in 1960 as a rugby club. They played their first game in Central Park but quickly switched to soccer. Apart from its League Cup success last summer, the club’s major highlights include hosting the Irish Olympic team in 1989.
Hughie O’Malley, an assistant trainer with the 1994 U.S. World Cup team; former Irish youth internationals Robbie Kilbane, Kevin Daly and Tom McPhillips, and one-time European Cup vets Frank Campbell, Paul Whelan, Richie Blackmore, and Paul Wilson number among the old Shamrock favorites.
"St. Barnabas may have had the better teams over the past years, but we’ve been going since 1960," Guildea said. Indeed, Shamrock’s level of organization is such that they boast of some 250 members.
"It’s not uncommon to have up to 100 people watching us in the league," Guildea said. "We also hire a coach for big away matches."
More than 100 fans watched Shamrock beat Dinamo 4-1 at Downing Stadium to clinch the Second Division title in the last game of the 1997-98 season.
Shamrock’s relatively large following can probably be attributed in part to the fact that the organization is akin to a social club.
"We have a kind of network for getting people work," Guildea said.
The club also organizes an annual summer family day in Sunnyside Gardens, with such attractions as children’s races and a 5-a-side soccer tournaments. They also host a Christmas Party for kids where presents are donated for charity, and a picnic.
At the end of last season, the Saints were in the doldrums, floundering in the relegation zone of the First Division after an exodus of key players left the team short staffed.
St. Barnabas considered consolidating all their three teams into one unit that would campaign in the Third Division. But as things turned out, it was their Third Division side that was absorbed into the first team, and six months later, the resurrected Saints are in strong contention for the CSL championship.
Going into last weekend’s matches, six points separated front runners Dinamo and St. Barnabas. In reality, the Yonkers outfit was much closer than that. They have three games in hand to both Dinamo and No. 2 side Albanians, and remain astounded at their hot form before the break.
"We were very surprised at how well we’d done before Christmas," club official Aidan Dennis confessed, adding that he hopes the club will maintain their momentum.
The Saints will be looking towards long time hero David Fitzgerald and old hands like midfielders Fran Morgan and Nick Hennessy, fullback Anto McKeown and the ageless Tom Whitty to lead their 11-year quest for that elusive first title.
"We’ve pretty much the same team as before Christmas. No new signings," Dennis noted. "We’ve been training for the last couple of weeks and hope to start on all cylinders."
And indications are that they are likely to avoid the woes of last season when they lost players to semi-pro leagues in the spring, significantly weakening their squad.
"I believe this year we’re not losing anybody," Dennis said. The Saints will certainly need to be at full strength to keep their championship dreams on track. They have key games against defending titlists Athletic Club and Dinamo, both of whom they’ll have to play twice.
St. Barnabas, who are back under the tutelage of the legendary ex-Concordia College coach Sean Kenny, were formed in 1989 to keep the Irish immigrants in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx active in sports.
Through Kenny’s involvement, Concordia and St. John’s University were early conduits for players, providing a steady supply of scholarship students from the Republic.
The club won the CSL Third Division in its maiden season and added to this the Flamhaft Cup. St. Barnabas picked up another piece of silverware in 1996-97 when they bagged the League Cup.
These successes, and strong runs in the First Division every season, would establish the team’s reputation as a force in the CSL, even while the big one continued to elude the Saints.
The closest St. Barnabas would come to winning the championship was on the last day of the 1994-95 season when they faced Ronan Downs’s New York Athletic Club, needing a victory by any margin to clinch it.
They led 2-0 after 20 minutes but collapsed down the stretch, enabling NYAC to prevail 4-2 and bag the first of Downs’ four championships.
Some St. Barnabas personalities of note, both past and present, include erstwhile coach/captain Ian Hennessy, who was once on the books of the MetroStars, Fran Morgan, Anto McKeown, and Mick Hennessy.
The club’s founders were Brian Conway, John Egan, Larry Carolan, Barry McCormack; former center-half Fergus O’Donoghue, who left three seasons ago to join the League of Ireland’s Cork City; Sean Kenny and Steve Mayo.
The Saints play their home matches at SUNY-Purchase.
In their first year in existence, just two and a half seasons ago, Lansdowne captured the CSL Third Division title — undefeated for that matter — to earn promotion to Division Two.
"Last year, we finished in the middle of the table and it looks like we’ll do the same this year," said Carlow native Kevin Madden, one of Lansdowne’s co-founders.
Although his side began the winter hiatus second from the bottom in the West (8 points), Madden, a big Roy Keane fan, is more than confident that Lansdowne will avoid the drop come June.
"We struggled at the start but then beat the first, second and third teams in the division. We should stay in the Second (Division)," Madden said.
The 36-year-old former Kilkenny City players has placed his confidence in veteran midfielder Simon Hopkins, who once had trials with Tottenham Hotspurs; hotshot Stephen Cassidy, sweeper Sean Mellee, player/assistant coach Paul Doherty, who starts in defense, and goalie Emlyn McAleer to keep the Bronx club afloat.
After that, Lansdowne plan a major recruitment drive before launching an assault on the First Division.
"It’s going to be a process of recruiting quality players and people who will make this club tick," said Madden, who plays forward. "We’re looking for players and members willing to take on any responsibility."
Sponsored by The Lansdowne bar and restaurant at 615 Broadway in Riverdale, the Bhoys currently have a membership of 40 recreational members. But they have a growing following, mainly comprising friends of the
players. Like the Shamrock, the Bhoys host occasional fund-raisers and other social events for members of the local Irish community.
Three special guests last fall were Packie Bonner, the former Irish World Cup goalkeeper; Scotsmen Tommy Burns, a former international now on the Glasgow Celtic coaching staff, and Bertie Auld, a member of Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning side.
Lansdowne’s Celtic connection is evident on the field, where the Bhoys wear the green and white hooped strip of the popular Scottish giants.
New as they may be to the CSL, Lansdowne probably boast of the best facilities among the 55 clubs in the league.
The Lansdowne bar, which was opened by Madden, Edward Duffy and Larry O’Brien in 1992, is across the street from the Van Cortland Park field, where the team plays.
The bar has such features as two huge locker rooms with shower facilities, a lounge for players to relax, and a giant screen on which the players can watch video tapes of all their home games.
Players interested in joining Lansdowne Bhoys should call (718) 549-6088.
Lying at the foot of the table in Division Two (East) with only one win from 11 games before last Sunday, Astoria Gaels are already planning to regroup in the Third Division next season, said team manager Jimmy Ralph.
"We’re looking to going back to one team," he said, adding: "It has been a very interesting season for us, learning wise. It was a great experience."
But even more interesting is the fact that Gaels, who came up from the Third Division last year, started off as a Gaelic football club in 1992.
"We have a rare distinction in that we started off as a Gaelic football team," Gaels chairman Pat Mulery said. "Three quarters of the soccer team play Gaelic football. It is very rare that you find both codes in one club, even in Ireland."
Mulery counts himself among those players with double loyalties, playing defense for both soccer and Gaelic squads. So does star striker Derek McKenna, goalie Eugene Coyne, and left back Joe Harris, the Gaels’ Player of the Year in 1999. Forward Kevin Nagle is the Gaels’ other ace.
According to Mulery, the soccer team’s struggles this season can be attributed in part to the challenge of players maintaining commitments to both sports.
"Compared to clubs that are solely soccer clubs, we are slightly disadvantaged," he said. "We don’t get a break because the Gaelic season finishes in September and then the soccer season begins. So, the soccer players don’t get a break."
But prior to this season, the double code approach had worked pretty well.
While the Gaels’ soccer team was scooping the Third Division crown last season, the Gaelic squad was putting together a fine run in the Junior Championship in New York. They reached the final.
The Gaels’ soccer program was launched by Johnny Hunt, in the wake of the euphoria that followed the Ireland’s exciting USA ’94 appearances in New York, where they beat Italy 1-0 and tied 0-0 with Norway.
Hunt was a former League of Ireland player who had joined the club in 1992.
"We played in the Third Division the first couple of year. It was tough until Dave Clear came along," Mulrey recalled.
Clear took charge of the side, leading Gaels to two second-place finishes before Jimmy Ralph, a self-acclaimed "Merseyside prodigy" from Liverpool steered the team to the 1998-99 Division Three title, and promotion to the Second.
On what went wrong after Gaels’ promotion last season, Ralph said: "Manpower and commitment. Eighty percent of the guys played two games every Sunday."
Nonetheless, the Gaels’ current soccer woes haven’t put a damper on the club’s community mission. Gaels are a magnet of sorts for the Irish community in Astoria. Their annual dinner dance is enormously popular — it usually features a $15,000 draw Mulrey notes — and one of their pet causes is an old folks home in Astoria that they support.
"During Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day week the players and club members put on plays there," Mulrey said. For that, Gaels will always be winners.