IT’S LATE ON a Friday afternoon when Patsy Freyne gets up from a table in the Tory Top Bar to order another drink.
Cork City’s home game against Derry City will kick off across the road in just under two hours’ time and supporters are gradually filing in for pre-match hydration. The presence of one of the greatest players ever to represent the club hasn’t gone unnoticed.
At the table adjacent to where he has spent over an hour regaling me with tales from his career, one Cork City fan — probably in his early 20s — uses Freyne’s brief absence to confer with a friend.
“Patsy fuckin’ Freyne, boy! My old man always goes on about him. He was supposed to have been some player.”
It’s 15 years since Freyne last played a game for Cork City, but he’s usually able to ensure that his night shifts with Musgrave’s don’t prevent him from making it to Turner’s Cross when the team are playing at home.
After nursing a couple of 7-Ups on this particular afternoon, he watches his former club record a 3-0 win before getting back into his car and heading home to a pot of tea and the Late Late Show.
It’s the first time Cork City have won their first eight league games of the season since Freyne was pulling the strings in midfield. City failed to make that start count when they jousted with St Patrick’s Athletic for the title in the 1998-99 season, but he expects a more favourable outcome for the current crop.
“They’re looking good,” he says before the game. “I think they’ll do it this season. I talk to John [Caulfield, manager] a good bit and I think he’s got the squad now that he’s been looking to have for a while.
“Dundalk were the better side for the last few years, no doubt about it. But the fellas they’ve lost, [Daryl] Horgan and [Andy] Boyle, you can’t just replace players of that quality at this level in the space of a few months.”
The lack of a league medal on the mantlepiece in his Baker’s Road home on the northside of the city still rankles with Patsy Freyne. He made his Cork City debut in 1986 and didn’t play his final game for the club until 2002. But when City won their first Premier Division title in 1993, he was in the midst of a five-year hiatus that separated his two spells with the club.
In discussions over the greatest player in Cork City Football Club’s 33-year history, Freyne is often the main challenger to Dave Barry, his former team-mate who brought him back to the club when he was appointed manager in 1996.
More cult hero than superstar, Freyne is still revered by those who were fortunate enough to see him play. Standing at five-foot-nine on a good day, he was never the most physically imposing midfielder. However, he was head and shoulders above the vast majority of his peers in the domestic game when it came to footballing intellect, first touch, vision and his range of passing.
Even against the sternest of defences, Freyne could identify an opening and possessed the ability to exploit it. Pat Morley and John Caulfield, Cork City’s joint leading goalscorers of all time, were often the beneficiaries. His skills were worthy of a stage greater than the League of Ireland, yet he never ventured any further.
Therein lies the conundrum of Patsy Freyne.
That he didn’t manage to carve out a professional career in England wasn’t necessarily down to a lack of opportunities either. He played hurling and football for St Vincent’s GAA club but Shandon View FC got the best of his teenage years.
At 16 he was invited over for trials with Bolton Wanderers, who were then in the old Second Division, with the likes of Brian Kidd, Frank Worthington and Sam Allardyce all playing for the club. Freyne’s time in Lancashire was short and not very sweet.
“I went over there for a few weeks but I hated it. I had never even been out of the northside. It just wasn’t for me,” he says. “I was homesick and fellas there were giving me a hard time — ‘IRA, Paddy’, all that kind of stuff. Looking back, it was a bit of slagging, but I was too young to realise that then. I took it to heart and went home.
“It actually turned me off football altogether for a while. I hated the experience. Knowing what I know now, I would have accepted it as the kind of banter that goes on. But I was too young to know any better at the time. If English clubs were interested in me after that, I didn’t even want to hear about it.”
After his dalliance with the possibility of a career in England, Freyne went back to playing locally in Cork — first for Shandon View, then Central Rovers. While doing so, he came to the attention of former Cork Hibernians defender Noel O’Mahony.
When Newcastle West AFC — Newcastle United as they were known then — became founder members of the League of Ireland’s First Division in 1985, O’Mahony was at the helm. He brought several Cork players with him to represent the Limerick outfit at national level. Patsy Freyne was one of them.
Freyne’s style displayed hallmarks of the two players he most admired — Liam Brady and Bryan Robson — and O’Mahony was impressed. He was appointed Cork City manager for the 1986-87 season and made sure Freyne followed him to Turner’s Cross.
“It meant a lot to my dad actually,” Freyne says of his move to Cork City at the age of 23. “I suppose he was probably more of a GAA man so he saw it as me representing Cork. He got a kick out of it. I know he was proud of me for that, which was nice.”
Cork City were a mid-table team in the Premier Division for the majority of Freyne’s first spell with the club, but he did play a part when major silverware was captured for the first time in City’s four-year existence.
Freyne has fond memories of a 1-0 League Cup final win in 1988 against the famous Shamrock Rovers side that had just come off a run of four consecutive Premier Division titles and three FAI Cups: “To even be on the same pitch as those fellas was a privilege. To beat them was incredible.”
He admired that Rovers side, but the Hoops were often fond of him too. During the course of his career, attempts were made to bring him to Dublin. Bohemians were also interested.
“That was never going to happen,” Freyne insists. “I couldn’t see myself going up to Dublin. Can you imagine me playing for Shamrock Rovers at the Cross? I’d have been run out of Cork. I would have had to fake an injury or something. I couldn’t do it, no way.”
It didn’t take long for Freyne to earn a reputation as a player capable of producing a moment of magic that could change a game. He was subsequently a marked man and the League of Ireland wasn’t a place for the faint-hearted. Freyne took plenty of punishment — but few shrinking violets have ever emerged from Gurranabraher.
“I never ran away from the rough stuff and that’s something you learn more about as you get older,” he explains. “I got kicked so much. You’d be up in Dublin and fellas are threatening you and kicking you. You’re either going to back off and get bullied, or you can say ‘Fuck you’ and stand up for yourself.
“As you get older then you get more clever about how you go about it. I got a lot of abuse but I had no problem with that. You might be black and blue sometimes but I didn’t mind once I was in one piece going off the pitch.”
He adds: “One incident that stands out from over the years was when I was more or less knocked out up in Derry one night by an elbow off the ball from Paul Hegarty — great player he was too. Outstanding player. I think he took offence because I got him booked after nutmegging him when we played them in the Cross. He got me then up in Derry.
“The GAA got me used to it as well. If I got a kick or a thump I’d always try to get up or keep running around, because they’d be wondering, ‘What do I have to do to quieten this bastard?’ Once you could give it back you were grand.
“The League of Ireland was very physical in the 80s and 90s. If you didn’t stand up for yourself you’d get nowhere. A lot of the football was played in the air back then as well; set pieces and stuff like that. The league would probably suit me better now.”
A defeat to Derry City in the 1989 FAI Cup final was enough to secure European football for Cork City for the first time. The trips abroad stand out among the highlights of Freyne’s career, although he wasn’t quite so keen on the means of travel.
City were drawn to play Torpedo Moscow in the 1989-90 European Cup Winners’ Cup. They were beaten 5-0 away in the first leg, before losing 1-0 at Turner’s Cross. But for a young man whose only previous journey abroad had taken him to Bolton for little more than a fortnight, Russia was an eye-opener.
“That trip was unbelievable,” he says. “These are all places you only ever think you’re going to see on the telly. We were used to playing in places likes Monaghan, not Moscow.
“I was shitting myself on the plane over. I hated flying. The plane was this huge Aeroflot jumbo jet. It was about the size of Turner’s Cross. I said to one of the lads, ‘How the fuck is this thing even going to get off the ground?’
“I was shook. We made it there in one piece anyway, but I was delighted because the woman sitting next to me was a smoker so I was smoking all her fags with her on the way over. You could smoke on the planes back in those days. They had smoking and non-smoking sections, which was fucking stupid when you think about it.”
Freyne later played for Cork City in Israel, Switzerland, Sweden and Ukraine, as well as being central to significant home wins over IFK Gothenburg and CSKA Kiev.
He adds: “I loved those European trips. They were incredible experiences. We might have enjoyed ourselves afterwards but for the few days away we took it very seriously. It was a chance for us to live like professionals. We had some very good performances as well.
“Apart from that game in Moscow, we were never beaten heavily. I don’t ever remember feeling out of my depth in any of those games. We were well able to hold our own for an hour. Our legs just went after that. It was the difference between full-time professionals and us. You always got more time on the ball in Europe as well, which I enjoyed.”
There were good times on the road closer to home too, although Phil ‘Biscuits’ Harrington might not necessarily agree when looking back on Cork City’s visits to Derry. Harrington, the club’s former goalkeeper and current goalkeeping coach, hailed from Wales, which his team-mates used for their own entertainment when entering Northern Ireland.
Freyne explains: “There was the old border crossing years ago up there and Biscuits used to be shitting himself at the back of the bus. We used to be shouting at him, ‘Biscuits, get down! If they catch you you’re fucked’. And he believed it at the time, the poor bastard.
“He thought he was going to be shot. Coming from Wales, he didn’t know any better about it. He’s a great character but he used to be a bit nervous going up north for the first couple of years.”
In July 1991, there was a trip away like no other. A few months after they missed out on their first Premier Division title following a decisive home defeat to Dundalk, City participated in the Shanghai Marlboro Cup — a pre-season tournament — in China.
“Another fucking nightmare of a flight,” Freyne recalls. “I’m not sure how we ended up in this tournament anyway but it was mad. When we arrived there was a massive crowd at the airport and a load of TV cameras. We were wearing Ireland kit — the tracksuits, jerseys, the whole lot — so they must have thought we were the national team.
“We got some shock when we watched the first game. It was Den Haag from Holland versus the Romanian Olympic team and the standard was unreal. We had to call a team meeting that night. We hadn’t even trained. We just said, ‘Lads, we’re going to have to tune in here or we’re fucked’.
“We ended up losing 3-0 to Poland and 4-1 to the Chinese Olympic team. We were well beaten in the two games but we managed to avoid making a show of ourselves at least.”
As that summer of ’91 drew to a close, Freyne was about to head into his sixth season with Cork City. It was an exciting time for the club. Buoyed by how close they had come to winning the title in the previous season, supporters were attending home games in large numbers and Bayern Munich were about to visit for a Uefa Cup tie.
But just weeks after returning from China, Freyne was no longer a City player. A drinking culture existed in the League of Ireland at the time but the mentality was work hard, play hard. Freyne got the balance wrong and his time with Noel O’Mahony’s side came to an abrupt end.
“Of course it was hard,” he says. “That’s not the way I wanted things to go. I only had myself to blame but it was tough because it was a successful time for the club. Things were going in the right direction. The lads won the league for the first time the following season and I wasn’t involved. The big European games, Bayern Munich, Galatasaray, I couldn’t even go and watch. I missed out on a lot. Does that still bother me now? Yeah, it does.”
After parting company with Cork City, Freyne found a new footballing home 25 kilometres down the road at Cobh Ramblers. He eventually decided to leave the League of Ireland behind in 1994 and instead satisfied his appetite for the game by lining out for Cork club Everton.
Two years later, however, the appointment of a friend and former team-mate as Cork City manager paved the way for his return to Turner’s Cross. City were in a rebuilding phase, Dave Barry needed experience in his squad and he believed that the talents of Patsy Freyne, even at 33, were being wasted in the Munster Senior League.
He isn’t prone to cliché, so there was no talk of Freyne being determined to make the most of a second bite at the cherry. Nevertheless, lessons had been learned and changes were made when he returned to the Cork City squad for the 1996-97 season.
“I never thought I’d be back,” he says. “I was okay with that too, to be honest. I had let go of that thought by then. But it was good to be back and things were a bit different. I cut the drink out and probably just looked after myself a bit better. It didn’t do me any harm either.”
If Dave Barry felt he was taking a risk by bringing back a 33-year-old whose previous spell with the club was characterised by underachievement, Freyne didn’t take long to put his new manager’s mind at ease. At the end of November in 1996, he travelled to Dublin to collect the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland player of the month award.
It took a while, but tales of Patsy Freyne’s legendary exploits off the field were eventually eclipsed by his performances on it. Pat Morley, John Caulfield and Ollie Cahill made most of the headlines, but the darling of the Shed End was Patsy Freyne.
“Are a lot of the stories about me on the drink over the years a bit exaggerated? Probably, but a fair bit of it isn’t either. I suppose people had good reason to be feeling that way. I used to be in the pub the night before games, that’s true, but I never played a game while I was steaming or anything.
“After we won the FAI Cup [in 1998], all the lads were off out celebrating at a house party. I took the dog out for a walk, then I sat down at home with a cup of tea.
“I trained my bollocks off when I came back. I was the first to show up for training and I put in the work. I would have been found out otherwise. I ended up playing the best football of my career in my 30s and I did nothing in my 20s. It’s supposed to be the other way around.”
Although the drink was gone, the cigarettes were never likely to follow: “Davey [Barry] used to take me off if we were a few goals ahead late in the game. We were up in Sligo one day and we were two or three up with only a few minutes to go, so Davey took me off. I was sitting in the dugout and the crowd sent me down a lit fag, which I was delighted with.
“I smoked a fair bit — in the dugout, the dressing room, half-time, whatever — but I think people just thought, ‘Leave him alone, don’t be upsetting him’, that sort of thing. It’s all changed now but at the time I didn’t know any better. If anyone tried to stop me I probably would have packed up,” he laughs.
Thanks to a fourth-place finish in the Premier Division, City qualified for the Intertoto Cup at the end of Freyne’s first season since returning to the club. A trip to Israel for a goalless draw with Maccabi Petah Tikva had him back on a plane for the first time since China.
“The crowd we were playing against, there was some problem with their pitch, which meant the game had to be played about 50 miles away in Haifa, so there was hardly anyone at the game,” Freyne explains.
“But we had a bit of support out there because Eddie O’Halloran from Cobh was serving out in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission. Himself and about 50 of the troops came down for the weekend, which was brilliant.
“But they had a young lad with them who was after stepping on a landmine over there only a few weeks earlier and it was his first time out since it happened. They brought him down for the trip and to watch the match to try and give him a bit of a boost.
“There was me worrying about the flight and the fact that we had to try and get a result away from home, and this poor fella was in a wheelchair after just losing his leg. You wouldn’t be long getting a reality check with something like that.”
Freyne got his hands on an FAI Cup medal when City defeated Shelbourne in a replay to win the competition for the first time in the aforementioned 1998 final. After that, he came close to making amends for the league title triumph he missed out on in 1993 when City found themselves in consecutive title races.
Ultimately the achievement eluded him, however, as a Cork City team comprised of experienced veterans and young up-and-comers fell short against St Patrick’s Athletic in 1999 and Shels in 2000. A second League Cup medal, again at the expense of Shamrock Rovers, was scant consolation.
“It was probably because we were getting old — the likes of myself, Caulfield, Morley, Deccie [Daly] — and the young lads were a bit too young. Fellas like Ollie [Cahill] and Derek [Coughlan] went on to win leagues with Shels and Bohs after, which shows it,” Freyne says.
“If they were a couple of years older and we were a couple of years younger, we would probably have won leagues at Cork City. It’s something that still gets to me, to be honest. I’d love to be able to say I won a league. I thought I was good enough to win one but I never did.”
Freyne, who’d eventually go on to earn substantial coaching experience with his local Munster Senior League club Castleview, got his first taste of life on the touchline when Liam Murphy was appointed Cork City manager in 2001 and asked him to be his assistant.
Freyne: “There was no big ending to my playing career with City or anything like that. When Liam took over, I was assistant manager but I’d play if we were caught. Things just petered out really from there.
“But I know I cried going out the gate at the Cross when it ended. I knew I was after playing my last game — I think it was against Bohs — and the tears were streaming down my face as I was leaving. I knew I was never going to play for City again. I was on my own heading to the car and I cried away.”
When Corkonians wax lyrical about Patsy Freyne’s ability on a football pitch, there often tends to be some embellishment involved. Spend enough time at Turner’s Cross and the patrons will have you convinced that Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester United would have battled for his signature had he been a model professional in the early days.
Such assessments may be fanciful, but there’s an element of method to the madness. Freyne played the game in a manner which, even now, is seldom associated with footballers from these shores. Moreover, age was no longer on his side during his second spell, yet he never used it as an escape clause when the mission required grind over guile.
They recognised his brilliance while he played and the passing of time has only served to increase the affection Cork City fans have for Patsy Freyne. That’s something they won’t allow him to forget. It’s why supporters who are too young to have seen him play know their history when the name ‘Patsy’ is mentioned.
“That kind of stuff, I just feel embarrassed about it really,” he says, stirring uncomfortably in his chair. “It’s not the kind of thing that sits easily with me. If someone stops me in the street it’s nice, but only because I know they used to go to the Cross and you’d have that connection with them then.”
He adds: “As a player, I just liked to pass the ball. That’s the way I was wired. You don’t make a conscious decision to be the kind of player who likes to pass the ball. Every player is different. I think a lot of it is down to how well you understand the game. I think I could understand the game while I was playing. That was it.
“To say I could have had a great career in England, that’s only bollocks. I don’t know if people really believe that. I certainly don’t. I don’t think I was anything special. I wasn’t able to keep it together earlier in my career to get the best out of myself, but the only regret I have about that is that it meant I wasn’t able to be better for Cork City.
“Any regrets I have are nothing to do with playing in England or anything like that. Cork City were my club, I knew I could have been better for them, could have given them more, and I didn’t. That’s what I regret.”
Freyne’s assertion that he didn’t do enough for Cork City is unlikely to find much agreement among supporters on Leeside, in spite of a first spell with the club which was sometimes more rough than smooth. That’s evidenced by the warm welcome that still awaits him when he walks through the Turner’s Cross turnstiles.
He’s taking good care of himself nowadays too. Cigarettes and alcohol have been replaced by vaping and shandies. The arrival of his first grandchild has given him a fresh outlook on life: “I suppose it’s the kind of thing that makes you realise that you want to be making sure you’re around for as long as possible.”
After making the short walk from the Tory Top Bar to Turner’s Cross, Patsy Freyne and I go our separate ways inside the ground. As I’m heading for the press area, I bump into one of my former secondary school teachers behind the Donie Forde Stand.
“I see you’re keeping good company these days,” he laughs. “I spotted you in the Tory Top with Patsy earlier. Isn’t he looking well? I’d say he could still do a job too.”
Even at 53, that’s a team selection many Cork City supporters still wouldn’t argue with.
Therein lies the legend of Patsy Freyne.