In 2002, McGeough himself had a certain curiosity value. He’d been a vital member of the Waterford team (the United has been added since) that dominated league soccer in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Back then on damp Sunday afternoons, and often on mud-soaked pitches, at home and around Ireland, the Blues showed that that it was possible to play the beautiful game in Ireland.
The reason observers doubted the current team’s chances was that the once semi-pro league is increasingly reliant on seasoned, full-time professionals, whereas most of Waterford’s players are part-timers and younger than the norm.
“Much younger. The average age is about 20,” McGeough said. “Some of our ‘professionals’ are on a FAS program — government-sponsored jobs.”
They play football and go to school part-time. “The idea is that if they fail to make it in soccer, they can always fall back on something else,” the manager explained.
However, now the team is flying high in second place, four points behind league leaders Shelbourne and also in the chase for cup honors. Whatever happens from here on in, they’re not going back down in 2003 — an achievement in a tough league that has been unkind to the newly promoted.
Journey from America
McGeough, his wife and four children came to America in the late 1970s, after he began his coaching career with Thurles Town, a new league team. He signed on with the New York Apollos as a player-manager. Over the next 25 years, he coached simultaneously at various levels up to college, but his main job was always with a professional or semi-professional club.
In an interview with the Irish Echo 7 years ago, McGeough, then a coach of the Long Island Rough Riders, said of his children: “They’re well settled now, three of them are married, so my wife and I have no real ties. I still have ambitions to go home; it may be sooner rather than later.” He’d had tentative offers on a vacation to Ireland the previous summer.
“In another couple of years, I’ll be clearer in my own mind,” he added in the 1996 interview. Nonetheless, he stayed on in America.
Later, he became assistant manager with a Major League Soccer club in Florida. But the Tampa Bay Mutiny collapsed. “The franchise was folded, so I was out of work. At Christmas, I was home for the first time in quite a while, picking up the pieces,” he recalled.
“My sister’s son, who’s a journalist, said to me: ‘There’s a job vacancy in Waterford, if you’re interested.’ And I said: ‘Ah, I’m a long time out of it now.'” But his nephew called the club chairman and talks led to more talks and then a job in early 2002.
The biggest difference he noticed after 25 years was the state of the pitches. “They’re absolutely immaculate now,” he said. “Before, you cut the grass and that was it. Never mind if there were holes here, there or anywhere, which most times there were.” On top of that, the Eircom League is experimenting with summer soccer. “I think it’ll be successful,” he said.
Born in Belfast in 1943, Jimmy McGeough got his break in his teens when the Northern Ireland youth team played England at Wembley Stadium. Several of the Irish lads were offered a start in professional soccer with English clubs. McGeough signed papers with Sheffield Wednesday. He also got married just as his pro career was taking off. However, his young wife became homesick and they decided to go back to Northern Ireland. (Nowadays, Margaret McGeough is in New York, working as a nurse. “She’s got another couple of years to go before she finishes,” he said. “My entire family is in America.”)
McGeough transferred from Wednesday to Derry City, then playing in the Irish League north of the border. In his short time there, he won cup and league medals. Recently there’ve been reports that he was being wooed by Derry City, who are now in the Eircom League.
McGeough, though, is not about to make the return leg of the journey he took to Waterford in 1965.
“There was a genuine interest there, but I made it clear that I’ve got a good thing going here in Waterford,” he said. In addition to the first team, he’s very happy with the progress of the squad that plays in the under-21 league.
He’s building. Thirty-eight years ago, he was transferred to a Waterford side that was near completion. The team won six championships in eight years — the first title in the 1965-66 season and the last in 1972-73.
Among the stars playing alongside McGeough were two Waterford natives, John O’Neill and Alfie Hale, who won caps for the Republic of Ireland while at the club, Dubliner Vinny Maguire and three Englishmen, Peter Bryan, Peter Thomas and Johnny Matthews. The last two became naturalized Irish citizens and members of the Republic’s squad, with Thomas winning a full cap.
Both men still live in the area and go to Waterford’s games. Coventry-born Thomas, an eccentric and highly vocal goalkeeper, recently retired from the insurance business due to illness. “Johnny Matthews referees games locally. He’s also a journalist, covering games in Waterford and Kilkenny,” McGeough said.
In the glory days, it was the job of halfback McGeough to supply the skillful winger along the left side. Matthews, who most personified Waterford’s flair, weaved past the defenders of some of Europe’s top teams.
Both Manchester United and Glasgow Celtic met Waterford in the European Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League. United became Europe’s champions for the first and only time in the spring of 1968, beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley. It was 10 years after manager Matt Busby lost eight stars in the Munich air disaster. The victorious team included the great Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, George Best, Nobby Stiles and the two Republic of Ireland full-backs Tony Dunne and Seamus Brennan. In September, they went to Lansdowne Road, Dublin, to play Waterford for their first defense of the title, in front of the biggest crowd that had ever watched a soccer game in Ireland, 49,000.
McGeough and his colleagues were used to big crowds. They were the days when pro and semi-pro clubs at levels below the world-class leagues could fill grounds. In any case, the team from the Southeastern Irish port lost 3-1 that day. Denis Law scored a hat trick.
Waterford, with their free-flowing style, and without a coach or manager, were vulnerable to the counter-attacking of the big-league professionals. But even in defeat they impressed their various European opponents.
Waterford United today are ably coached by McGeough and his assistant, Giles Cheevers, but the former star retains much of the old philosophy. He hates the “long ball” game that managers resort to. Playing safe and keeping the ball in the air, he terms “ugly soccer.” He tells his young charges: “If you make a mistake, forget about it, get on with the next move. But keep it on the ground at all costs.” Remarkably for a team in second place, Waterford United have conceded seven more goals than they’ve scored (after 17 games), which indicates they’ve been playing open football and taking risks.
The manager has high hopes for some of his emerging stars. He believes that prolific goal-scorer Vinny Sullivan, who had a spell at Celtic, is likely to find his way to the big time in Britain. He mentioned also goalkeeper Dan Connor, who will win his second under-21 cap against Poland this month.
Injuries have been a problem, so he’s relied on intelligence networks to tell him about new talent. “The Dublin clubs pull all the strings, get sponsorship and the best available players and pay big wages,” he said. “I don’t have that luxury.” But he hopes that will change and that the commercial support will come back. A good sign is the increased attendance for home games, up from 1,500 last year to 4,000. And that, he believes, is something to build on.
Like a drug
McGeough offers no predictions about what will be the outcome after 36 league games played; he’s optimistic by nature, though — and good-humored. He bubbles with enthusiasm for all aspects of the game almost 50 years after he abandoned his first love, boxing.
Recently, he stayed up to watch Manchester United’s matches live from the U.S. He’s an admirer of manager Alex Ferguson and the club itself.
“I’m good friends with Martin Ferguson [brother of Alex], who was manager of Waterford. I’m in constant contact with him regarding players,” he said.
Retirement is far from his mind. He pointed out that Alex Ferguson is his senior. And 10 years older again is former England boss Bobby Robson, who at 71 is managing Newcastle United in the Premiership. “He’s an inspiration to us all,” McGeough said.
“It’s in your blood, it’s just like a drug, you’ve just got to keep going,” he said. And managers keep going for their clubs and the players.
“I can bask in my glory days. I would like to win a title more so for the players,” he said. “They’re a great bunch of guys.”
Cultivating the players’ ambition has been key to their strong showing so far, in the manager’s view. “I tell them: ‘You don’t realize that you could be playing in Europe next year, if you do all the right things.’ “
But beyond next season their plans should be grander. McGeough says to his team: “Don’t be content to play for Waterford. I want you guys to play for Manchester United, for Barcelona, for Real Madrid.”
“And if they don’t have that ambition, then I don’t want them,” he said.