Football fans the world over will have marveled at the incredible comeback Barcelona staged on Wednesday night to overturn a 4-0 deficit from the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Paris St. Germain. I watched the game with my 6 year old son Blaise. He was sure Barcelona could do it. I was more skeptical, but I did think it was possible. I’d seen my own team Bray Wanderers do the near-impossible before, 22 years ago. Welcome to ‘the swan story’.
Back in 1995 things were changing for Bray Wanderers. Pat Devlin, the man who had guided us to the 1990 FAI Cup, had returned to the club and there was a hint of a second flowering, some bright days ahead. The 1995/96 campaign began with Wanderers advancing to the semi-finals of the League Cup, a best-ever showing at that point. We’d topped our group after wins over Bohemians and Home Farm and drawn with Shelbourne. In the quarter-final we drew with Dundalk in the Carlisle Grounds, coming back from 2-0 down thanks to Kieran ‘Tarzan’ O’Brien to force a draw and advanced after a penalty shoot-out.
In the semi-finals of the League Cup we lost at home to Shelbourne. There was wind in our sails though and we were progressing in the First Division Shield. Again, we’d topped our group with 3 wins and the final pitted us against Waterford United over 2 legs. The first leg was in the RSC and we lost heavily, 3-0.
Even the die-hard fans were struggling to imagine there was a way back after that. On returning to Bray a few pints were had to drown our sorrows. A couple of the lads were walking home to Little Bray after the pub and so had to cross what is now Fran O’Toole Bridge. A swan came through underneath the bridge into the lads’ view. Then another. And before they had fully crossed the bridge a third swan came through. The lads took it as a sign. Bray would get a 3-0 win in the home leg.
Having been heavily involved in the Supporters’ Club at the time I heard this story before the second leg was played. On the day we did indeed win 3-0. Philip Gormley scored twice from the penalty spot in the first half, and Richie Parsons added the third after the break. A penalty shoot-out had been forced. There was only going to be one winner. Bray’s goalkeeper Pat Trehy was the hero as we won the shootout and the Shield for the only time in our history.
The night we won the Shield I wasn’t able to celebrate as I had to go on into work. When I got in I rang my grandfather [then almost 90 and a life-long Wanderers fan who was no longer able to attend games due to ill-health] and went through the game with him, blow by blow. He was delighted.
That season Bray won promotion back to the top-flight. An impressive squad had been assembled by Devlin, some of whom went on to play in the 1999 FAI Cup win. Graham Coughlan, just signed from Cherry Orchard, was so impressive in these League Cup and Shield outings that he was snapped up by Blackburn Rovers [then the reigning Premier League champions] before the league proper even started here.
I’m sure many League of Ireland fans have similar stories about great heroics performed by their own teams. Hopefully the Barcelona game on Wednesday allowed you to revisit them. I watched the game on RTE and didn’t want to turn the coverage off. Darragh Maloney and the panel [Liam Brady, Didi Hamann and Richie Sadlier] didn’t want to stop talking about the match, they knew they’d just witnessed something historic.
I had to laugh when I turned over to Sky Sports News from RTE and the Barcelona triumph was relegated to second place behind in-depth analysis of the 0-0 draw between Manchester City and Stoke. No goals but they showed all the fancy camera shots of the chances that were nearly goals. Making something out of nothing. It reminded me of the Arlo Guthrie song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ where the police take ‘’27 eight by ten colored glossy photos, with circles and arrows on the back’’ of a pile of garbage.
After the Barcelona game Blaise said he wanted to wear his Barcelona jersey in on Friday for a jersey day in his school. I let him sleep on it then told him ‘the swan story’ in the morning. The Barcelona jersey was out and the Wanderers jersey was in. Sure he’d be wearing it on Friday anyway for the evening trip to Dalymount Park.