It wasn’t today or even yesterday that things began to quieten on Arranmore Island but last June’s Annual General Meeting of the local soccer club was a particularly muted occasion.
Only three people - Hugh Rodgers, Conal Kavanagh and Sally Brady - attended at the local community centre to discuss the plight of the only island club affiliated to the Football Association of Ireland.
Arranmore United were on the life support machine and the plug was about to be pulled. Danny Rodgers and Frankie Rua Early had overseen a difficult campaign and stepped aside as managers.
At home in Leabgarrow, Jerry Early, a publican by trade who was one of the club’s founders in 1987, had decided he wasn’t going to attend the Emergency General Meeting that was called seven nights’ later.
He’d long since lost count of his involvement since then but with a guesstimate says: “I was always involved some way or the other, probably playing or managing for 23 or 24 out of our 27 years.”
He could remember playing as a centre-forward in the fledgling years of the club alongside the likes of Tony Boyle, Patsy McGlanaghy, the late Seamus Boyle, Pat Ward, Danny Bonner and all the Kavanaghs.
“Things were good on the island with the fishing,” Early says of those years. “We won the old CT Ball Division Three in 1987/88 unbeaten and won Division Two the year afterwards.
“The third season, 1989/90, we came second in Division One and lost to Donaghmede, who went onto win the competition, on penalties in the FAI Junior Cup in front of 1,000 people on the island. But then the slide started.”
That slide, although gradual to begin with, saw the club on the brink of extinction last June.
Early’s only son, 14-year-old Paul, had asked his father why he wouldn’t attend the EGM and couldn’t convince him to go.
“My wife Pat said: ‘Shame on you,’” Jerry Early recalls . “She reminded me that I had been involved in the club for years and after all that, there I was not willing to go and take my own son when his time would come.
“Pat deserves a medal for, as they say, manning the ship when I’ve been away with the team. She convinced me to go to the EGM.”
After a week of whispers on the island, Early, under his wife’s instruction, made his way to the community centre - to a much better attended meeting with the seriousness of the situation becoming even clearer.
Nobody was forthcoming to take charge and the issues that had blighted the club remained. Talk went round in circles.
The ailing island population, restrictions and the demise of the fishing, competition for players left the future of soccer on the picturesque island somewhat uncertain. Just as damaging was the fact that on an island of proud and often indigenous people, the appetite to sustain the club was also dwindling.
Early stood forward and offered to take charge of the team.
“I told everyone I was willing to put my shoulder to the wheel,” he continues. “I was just another guy, one person just like everyone on the whole island who wanted the club to survive.”
Early realised that for that to happen, it was essential the club moved from Sunday to Saturday football. As it was, the young squad found it hard to commit, especially so with results seldom going their way.
Those who did found too little time on darkening winter evenings to play and then try and make their way back to college or work far from home.
The squad, in recent years, had
often travelled with barely 11 players. Early himself frequently togged to make up the numbers. They made an appeal to the Donegal League, unsuccessfully, to move to Saturday football as there were already too many teams.
“Saturday football gave us the option to have a squad, as players could commit. But we were turned down,” Early says. “We appealed to Nigel Ferry, the Gweedore area rep.
“The Donegal League called an executive meeting and Hugh Rodgers and I went down last summer. We put forward our case. If Saturday football was off the table then we were gone.”
Early and Rodgers weren’t even home from Ballyare when the phone rang. Christina O’Donnell, the Donegal League secretary, said they would do all they could.
“Our aim at that stage was to survive,” Early says. “Sometimes people can criticise the powers that be but they moved heaven and earth for us. St Catherine’s second team facilitated the move by moving to the Saturday Division One.
“The league and the clubs helped us. And we haven’t forgotten that. We understand it’s a big expense on a club to come to and go from the island but, as we’ve been saying for 27 years, they do it once a year and we’re prepared to do it every other week.”
Early also insisted on taking over as manager again on a two-year term, to see through the transition and get the chance to continue to drip-feed the island’s young talent.
He admits to being shocked by the lack of fitness at the first pre-season get-together on July 1, although was consoled due to the fact there was sufficient time upon which to improve the levels.
“It was very important we started well and if that was to happen the season could take on a life of its own,” he adds. “For that to happen we had to be really fit. The senior players, because of the lack of interest, were not. But they worked really hard.
“I felt for the club to prosper, lads like Michael McHugh, Daniel O’Donnell, Gavin McGlanaghy, Declan Proctor and Ruane Reynolds were the ones we needed to commit.
“They were the catalysts, all good footballers who had gone a little stale because of the position we found ourselves in. They are all still relatively young but had good league experience. They could provide the backbone and that would entice the older and youngsters in the fold.”
Arranmore certainly made a good start to their new surroundings and by the mid-season break had won all but one of their first nine outings. Donegal Town had left Rannagh Park with a deserved 3-1 win in November. That was the copybook’s only blot.
“There was league break and I was looking for a reaction,” Early adds of December. “I called an impromptu training session on St Stephen’s night. Out of the blue, I sent out a group text from the bar: ‘Training tomorrow morning 11am.”
On December 27, barely 12 hours after that text, at the most desolate football ground in Ireland, every single one of the squad were present. Hail battered their faces.
“There were wind gusts of 103 miles an hour,” Early says. “It was the worst day over the holidays but they were all there, some admittedly in better shape than others.
“We did a bit, even moving to the beach, and had a good chat. I looked around and knew from then we would get over the line. I could see it in their eyes. All credit to them. They drove me on.”
Last Saturday Arranmore defeated Tullyvinney Rovers 4-0 to win the Glencar Inn Saturday Division One. John Terry, never one to miss a celebration, was even photo-shopped in the selfie that surfaced on social media later that evening. Texts from well-wishers flowed.
“People might say that we stepped down to Saturday football with a lesser standard but I was pleasantly surprised,” Early says. “Although we won well on Saturday, every game was tight. We worked hard to get where we were and our fitness helped us. The lads deserve great credit.”
This Saturday, Keadue Rovers visit Arranmore and afterwards, the Glencar Inn Division Two trophy will be handed over. It’s the first time ever Arranmore will have lifted a trophy as league champions at a home fixture; thus it’s also the first time ever a league championship trophy will presented off the mainland.
Last Saturday night ran into the early hours. The watches have always been a little slower on Arranmore. This weekend, Easter, will give some of those whose circumstances have taken them away from the island - but follow the team’s fortunes - a chance to join the festivities.
“We, as a club, have received messages from everywhere you can imagine,” Early adds. “There are people who do so much great work behind the scenes – like Hugh Rodgers, Conal Kavanagh and Sally Brady and so many more – so it’s brilliant for them.”
Although Arranmore have won the battle, their predicament - off in the distance from the forgotten county of Donegal - means there will always be a war to fight. With no underage structure, youngsters from the island play their youth football on the mainland, keeping them involved before they can choose to rejoin their native club for whom they are involved in competitive kick-abouts from their early teens.
“As sure as the tide comes and goes, we’ll be weakened again,” Early says. “We can never say we’ve got it cracked. Other clubs are feeling the exact same thing now that we had for years – emigration and lack of opportunity leading to dwindling numbers. Our demographics are that we’re an island with an aging population.
“For now, though, we’re secure. We’ll have football next year again, we’re going forward and the mood is good. We’re not getting complacent but we’re in as good a position as we have been in quite some time. And last year that’s all we could have dreamed of.”