Limerick FC players celebrate after winning the eircom League Cup final in the Brandywell in April 2002
THE sun was up by the time I turned off the laptop computer. Blast those evening newspaper deadlines, anyway!
But finally going to bed close to 6.30am on Friday, April 12, 2002, the tiredness didn’t seem as suffocating as one might suspect.
Having returned home from the 720km round trip from Limerick to the Brandywell in Derry for the second leg of the eircom League Cup final at 4.15am, this reporter was faced with filing a two-page spread of stories from the game.
But its amazing how much easier it is and how much lighter the eyelids feel when you are writing about a win even after doing an all-nighter.
At lunchtime on the previous day, I had travelled to Derry with two members of Limerick’s Live 95FM commentary team for the game, the station’s then senior soccer correspondent Leonard Burke and current soccer correspondent Mike Aherne.
Road trips were rare and the banter would be enjoyable.
The three of us travelled in hope rather than expectation that spring day. Stopping off in Sligo for some food on the way up, the locals treated us with a kind of curiousity.
Sligo’s a strong soccer town, of course, and the local football fraternity understood the scale of the task facing Limerick, despite the Noel O’Connor-managed Blues holding a 2-1 lead from the home leg at Jackman Park.
Limerick had recovered from a first half strike from Derry teenager Kevin Deery to claim a memorable win. Ciaran Foley restored parity on half-time before defender Derek Whyte converted from the penalty spot.
You see, back then, Limerick had finished bottom of the League of Ireland First Division and were up for re-election to the League of Ireland. Their very future in the league was at stake.
And Derry were sitting pretty in the upper reaches of the Premier Division. Only one outcome, surely?
This reporter had never been to Derry before. Growing up a soccer fan in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but being struck by the excitement generated by colourful Derry City’s switch to the League of Ireland in 1985.
Over the subsequent seasons Derry’s fortunes flourished. Their Candystripes colourful red and white jerseys, the abandon with which they played, the exotic names, Frenchman Pascal Vaudequin, South Africa’s Owen Da Gama, Northern Ireland’s Jonathan Speak, Brazilian goalkeeper Nelson da Silva, Derry were everyone’s second favourite team.
Now 15 years on, Limerick had the chance to put one over on them in a League Cup final.
It was tea time when we arrived at the Brandywell Stadium, situated just south-west of the Bogside.
Kick-off time rolled around, the sense of optimism heightened by a quick flick through the match programme which reminded us that despite finishing last in the First Division, Limerick had beaten Premier Division Shamrock Rovers, Cork City and Galway United along the way to reaching the final.
The nervous tension was heightened when the kick-off time was delayed by 15 minutes to allow the Derry City fans streaming down the Brandywell Road access the stadium.
Limerick were on the back foot for much of the second leg, but there was no questioning their spirit and workrate.
With the small but vocal band of Limerick fans beginning to sniff at upset, Derry went in front on 71 minutes in controversial circumstances.
A long ball inside the Limerick half sent the home side attacking and when Blues defender Eoin Poill raced towards it, tangling with sub Jamie Hughes, the Derry player went down and Dublin referee Dave McKeon pointed to the penalty spot.
The silken Liam Coyle kept his cool to put Derry 1-0 up on the night and level the tie overall at 2-2.
However, the match venue was shrouded in uncertainty as the end of the 90 minutes neared over whether away goals counted double. Had Derry done enough to claim the trophy?
An announcement from the PA put Limerick fans out of their misery. The tie would go to extra-time.
Derry looked certain to score a second goal in the 93rd minute, but Limerick netminder Jimmy Fyffe did superbly to tip Hughes’ chip over the bar.
Gritty Limerick held on with Pat Purcell and Paul Finucane superb at the heart of defence and the game went to a penalty shoot-out. Queue pandemonium in the press box as Live 95FM’s ISDN line went down. The mobile phones were hopping.
How was the penalty shoot-out going? Messrs Burke and Aherne relayed the drama of the penalty shoot-out down a mobile phone line.
Two terrific penalty saves from Murroe’s Jimmy Fyffe from spots kicks by Eddie McCallion and Gareth Mullan inspired Limerick to a stunning 3-2 penalty shoot-out win.
The League Cup was coming back to Limerick for a third time, the club’s first success in the competition in nine years. It was just the second time a First Division club claimed the title.
Queue bedlam in the Limerick dressing room. It’s 11.30pm. Limerick players are supporters are facing into a 360km road trip home – but who cares? Certainly not winning manager Noel O’Connor.
O’Connor said the victory had been especially sweet because it was achieved with home grown talent.
O’Connor told me: “I feel a lot of vindication for the players and everyone involved in the backroom team. I am just so happy for them.
“But this should only be a stepping stone for the club. It was so important for Limerick soccer to win some silverware. To do it with home grown talent is especially pleasing.
“If I was to finish my involvement with Limerick FC in the future, that win would have already guaranteed my personal happiness.
“There is a lot more to come from this side. They have huge potential and if they keep focused, they can achieve a huge amount.”
O’Connor revealed the squad had considered the possibility of the final being decided by a penalty shoot-out earlier in the day.
“We had a team meeting earlier and discussed the possibilities of penalties. Six or seven guys agreed to take them. But I wasn’t sure if they would fancy it quite so much if the occasion actually arose.
“However, as it happened, the same guys were just as up for it later.”
Team captain Brendan Hughes described it as the best night of his career.
“We are absolutely thrilled by the result. Fair play to the lads who came forward to take the penalties.
“They deserve a great deal of credit for having the courage to do that. We beat four Premier Division sides to win it, but we simply took it one game at a time.
“From here we need to improve on our league performances. We need to be more consistent. But for now we will nejoy this victory. To lift the Cup is unbelievable.”
While winning that League Cup was a monumental achievement for Limerick, the club didn’t manage to back it up.
It took a further decade for Limerick to regain their Premier Division status with the Blues winning promotion to the top flight ad First Division champions.
And if the current bunch of Limerick players are in need of inspiration ahead of Saturday’s League Cup final showdown with St Pat’s they need look no further than the boys of 2002.
If a side which finished bottom of the First Division can win the title, then surely the runaway winners of the SSE Airtricity League First Division should fancy their chances.
DERRY FC: Payne; E McCallion, McCready, McLaughlin, Doherty, Deery, McGlynn, Coyle, T McCallion, Moran Subs: Hughes and Mullan for Moran and McCready (61 mins), Gilmour for Coyle (112 mins).
LIMERICK FC: Jimmy Fyffe; Eoin Poill, Conor Molan, Paul Finucane, Pat Purcell, John Whyte, Shane O'Donoghue, Brendan Hughes (Captain), John Paul Stokes, Ciaran Foley, Brian Donellan. Subs: Frank Browne for Molan (23 mins), Brian Baker for O'Donoghue (79 mins).