…for the loser now will be later to win.
It is a sign of changing times at the Carlisle Grounds that two defeats in a row have gleaned any sort of genuine disappointment from Bray Wanderers’ support. Starting this year’s league campaign with a 3-1 home defeat against Bohemians, perennial contenders for top honours, the Seasiders looked set for another season of toil and trouble at the bottom of the recently rebranded Airtricity Premier Division. Yet Director of Football, Manager and item of club furniture Pat Devlin finds his side 16 points from any sort of trouble, and only seven from the top of a congested league table having played twelve games.
Bray Wanderers were relegated from the Premier Division at the end of the 2009 season. They were gone, but so was Lazarus at one point.
November 2009. After finishing entirely at the wrong end of the Premier Division and losing a promotion/relegation playoff with the emerging Sporting Fingal, their fate seemed to be cast in stone. However, the dawn of the following season saw them kicking off at the League of Ireland’s top table yet again, a fifth successive season of Premier Division football. Cork City were denied the necessary licensing to play in the top tier due to financial difficulties and issues surrounding the ownership of the club. Thus they, rather than the Seagulls, began the 2010 season in the First Division, despite a third place finish the previous term.
Assuming that their lot lay in the First Division, Bray’s management opted to blood new, young players, correcting their wage structure, letting older players go and building for the future. Cork’s situation had been mused over in the national press but the extent of their troubles was not widely known, and Bray’s reinstatement in the Premier Division was a surprise to many.
2010 proved a tough year on the field at the Carlisle Grounds. Bray faced games against comparatively huge sides like Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians, rather than the expected opposition of Mervue United and Wexford Youths. While showing potential, the team struggled accordingly and again finished the season looking at a promotion/relegation playoff.
This time though, Bray stayed afloat, but only just. Monaghan United looked destined to be promoted at Bray’s expense, leading 1-0 with only minutes of extra time to play after former Seagull Don Tierney’s shot was deflected in off Bray striker Chris Shields in the 119th minute. However, in the dying seconds, Shields turned hero as he provided the cross that allowed Jake Kelly to clinch an equaliser. The tie ended in the fashion of an almost overly sugary fairytale. Shields scored the decisive penalty in a 7-6 shootout, saving his side from the drop.
Whether a year of hardship was an edifying experience or not for such an inexperienced team would only become evident when the 2011 season began. The home defeat to Bohemians certainly did not signal any immediate upward curve. However, the following weeks saw Bray take 18 points from a possible 27. Their first win saw them overturn a two goal deficit to pull out a 3-2 away win against St. Pat’s in Inchicore. This fantastic early season form has taken many by surprise, not least their loyal following.
Recently St. Pat’s returned the favour, stalling Bray’s momentum. Their 1-0 victory at the Carlisle Grounds the final result of what was, for seventy minutes at least, a dull and listless affair.
“Quality ball there,” says the young man sitting to my left. “Go on Gary Dempsey! Go on son!” He takes a sneaky sip from a can of lager, which he quickly tucks back under his seat. He tells me that he doesn’t know if he’s really allowed to drink at the Carlisle, but he wouldn’t care anyway; he’d just be worried that the kids would see him, and that would be a bad example.
“Gary Dempsey, pure quality, just watch him.” He traces Dempsey’s movement left to right across the middle of the park with his index finger. “He’s a genius, he should be massive. Him and [Danny] O’Connor there, they’re giving all the young lads a bit of balance.”
Dempsey previously spent half a dozen years between Dunfermline Athletic and Aberdeen in Scotland. Recently he had the poor luck to finish bottom of the English Football League with Darlington. Now, he struts and frets his ninety minutes upon Bray turf as only a well-travelled professional could, pulling the strings as it were. Alongside former Torquay United and Crystal Palace goalkeeper Matt Gregg and the big midfield unit of the previously mentioned Danny O’Connor, Dempsey is the tinge of grey hair and experience the young team needs. This core of relatively old heads keeps the side ticking over, facilitating a team that can swing between explosions of youthful exuberance and a lack of tactical maturity on any given occasion.
“It’s the long ball really,” he muses, “the long pass, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes it’ll be Dempsey spraying it forty yards to pick out the wingers, sometimes it’ll be straight over the top, sometimes it’ll be a few knocked back and forward and square at the back before a hopeful one goes up the line. But sure, isn’t it all long.”
Against St. Pat’s that was all it was, from both teams in fact, until a game broke out towards the end. Either team scoring could have been described as ‘against the run of play,’ insofar as neither team looked interested in winning. Football’s karmic balance gave it to the Dublin side. The Seagulls found some rhythm in attack once behind, although their opponents looked threatening on the break. Dempsey hit the angle of the post and crossbar just before a flash mêlée that resulted in defensive maestro Adam Mitchell losing what had previously been a cool head. He was sent off for what was described in the stands as an “aggressive head movement,” which didn’t seem to make any contact with the intended target.
“No, I can’t go up on Tuesday,” he says as we stand up at the final whistle, “can’t afford it. A season ticket here is only about a hundred quid, but it’d cost you that to get over and back to Sligo. And sure why would I anyway? They got my hopes up after the last few weeks. I thought Shieldsy (Chris Shields) was going to win us the league by himself.” He gave me his number and told me to text him to let him know how Tuesday went, so he wouldn’t have to wait to get the paper on Wednesday.
“3-1 to Sligo. Bray were pretty rubbish for most of the game, really missed Mitchell at the back.” About fifteen minutes after sending the text, I get a call back.
“Ah, listen. Go easy on them. They’re only young lads after all, and they’re our young lads. You never know what they’ll do next week, or even next year.”
It would be remiss to assume complete safety for Bray yet but, with Galway United and Drogheda United stuck to the bottom of the table, it is only reasonable to believe that these young lads are looking ahead rather than back over their shoulders. They aren’t the finished article by any means, but they have potential and, for now, that’s more than enough to get a few down to the Carlisle Grounds on a Friday night.