Galwayman Pat Dolan …“Comoffit, you must be joking,” says a voice before the sentence is properly started.
But no, it’s true. Pat Dolan and his twin brother Eamonn (currently caretaker manager of English 3rd Division side Exeter City, where he had previously been Youth Director) were born in Ardrahan, county Galway, in 1968, although it’s true they spent little time there before father Vincent and mother Mary Jo brought them to England in 1970, and they grew up in Chelmsford in Essex.
It was a normal childhood, even if the school sounds exotic: King Edward VI Grammar. There, rugby and cricket were the games of the day, and of course the Dolans were involved, but somehow soccer seemed to grab hold of them: “It was always the love affair,” he smiles, “with the other games more like an arranged marriage.”
The experience, and the pride, of seeing Ireland draw 1-1 in Wembley (in September 1986, when they were barely 8 years old), may have had something to do with that, and also with the intense Irishness Pat exudes once you’ve got around the accent. It also probably helped to cushion them against the constant low-level racism, the ‘Irish so-and-so’ factor, so prevalent in much of English society in those days.
Both boys were promising players, and once they had got their O-levels, clubs came knocking at the door. “The authorities at the school were horrified,” he recalls. “Nobody ever left King Edward VI at that stage, and they couldn’t grasp the fact that you could make a career of football, even when the clubs explained it!”
The clubs? Yes, the boys were finally to split up – Eamonn to West Ham and Pat to Arsenal, where he spent some time with the Youth team, and was selected fopr Ireland Youths as well. In fact he was approached for both the English and the Irish Youths – “but of course there was really only one option, to pull on the green jersey!”
That was at the stage when Liam Tuohy was captain, and Pat went on to succeed him in that position: one of his proudest moments was when he captained the Ireland team in the finals of the UEFA Under 18 Championship in the 1980s.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, however, and it was while associated with the junior international sides that Pat came across Irish racism for the first time – the reciprocal ‘English so-and-so’ factor, if you like. He’s philosophical about it, but he finds it worrying in the light of the increasingly multi-racial nature of Irish society.
For all the time he spent in England, and the short stay he had as an infant in Ardrahan, Pat says Ireland was always ‘home’ in his mind, and he always wanted to come home. Meanwhile, however, there was Arsenal, and he seemed to be a bit stuck in the Reserves, under George Graham.
He decided to take a gamble, and went to Walsall, against Graham’s wishes – a move he now regards as his biggest regret in football. “Arsenal is a fantastic club, and I didn’t really want to leave,” he says. But what’s done is done, and his next move was to be to the national League, where he played with Galway United: “a very proud moment, running out to play for my own place,” is his comment, which shows that local sentiment is by no means confined to the GAA.
And then there was Pats. The club had been improving, but things slowed down and even seemed to be declining again, and a number of players, Dolan among them, moved to Shamrock Rovers. But in 1991, with the Saints playing at Harolds Cross, he was invited to combine playing with being Commercial Manager for the Inchicore club.
A 3-year contract with a club that was on the verge of going out of business may not have seemed the most comfortable career move, but it was certainly challenging! Before his term was up, he had brought the club back to Richmond Park, and they were enjoying a measure of success, both on and off the pitch. “I felt lucky to be involved with a club like that,” he says.
Last season was a dark time for St Patricks Athletic, and at the time Pat was not inclined to be forthcoming – loss of points well-earned on the pitch as a consequence of off-pitch problems put a damper on the entire season, in which his efforts as manager, and the players’ commitment and enthusiasm, had brought the team to the top of the table only to see their triumph turn to ashes in the dying days of the championship. Leave aside the legalistic and administrative end of things for a moment, and admit it was hard.
Pat was sceptical about the big changes in the League, and the transition to a 10-team summer season. “I don’t think it addresses what’s really wrong with soccer in this country,” he said. “We don’t have the facilities for the public, the League is not promoted, there’s no TV coverage, and there’s no TV money as there is in some other leagues.”
Theres no doubt that these factors are mutually reinforcing: good TV coverage encourages the non-diehard fans to go and watch well-promoted matches, which boosts the gate, which boosts clubs’ revenues and allows facilities to be improved further.
“People will support the occasion,” he points out, “and if they’re given the encouragement, winter and summer don’t matter. Look at Ajax, with that huge stadium sold out for a Champions’ League match that was played in a temperature of –5 degrees.”
Football – Irish football – is very much Pat Dolan’s life. He has few hobbies – “I occasionally watch a movie, and it’s great to be able to switch off the phone!” – and he feels sometimes that there are things he’s missing out on.
“Take Christmas, for example: we’ve an away match against Derry the previous week, and we’re at home to Bohs the day after Stephens Day, so there’ll be no break in training, and all the pre-match work in the ground has to be done.”
But Dolan, you get the impression, is really only marking that down as a complaint people would expect him to make. If he was choosing a holiday venue, he’d probably check the fixtures at the local club first.
Pat Dolan is the off-pitch powerhouse that runs St Patricks Athletic, and if we were to remark here that he is St Pat, it would be neither the first time nor, one suspects, the last time that compliment was to be paid.
by Mícheál Ó hUanacháin
first published in Seagull Scene, 18 October 2002