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'We used to kick lumps out of each other in training and Pat Fenlon would just sit back and laugh'

Former Dundalk and Shelbourne defender David Crawley looks back on his playing days.

Crawley celebrating a goal for Shels in 2004.
Crawley celebrating a goal for Shels in 2004.
Image: INPHO

JOHNNY WARD ONCE called David Crawley ‘the Irish Stuart Pearce’ to his face.

The Dundalk native laughs at the comparison.

During a career that saw him play for Shelbourne in their glory years and lift the FAI Cup with his hometown club, he’s been called worse.

Had things worked out and homesickness not kicked in, his path and Pearce’s may even have crossed. Crawley was at Manchester City as a youth in the early 90s and Peter Reid, then manager at Maine Road, took a shine to him.

“Peter told me that he could get me into the first team if I stayed,” Crawley tells The42, “I can remember him pleading with me to stick it out.

But he got sacked, and I went home…”

Home was Dundalk, but so many of his good days were in Dublin. Drumcondra to be specific. Tolka Park being exact.

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Born and bred ‘down the Quay’, a good 20 minutes’ walk from Oriel Park, his earliest memories of football relate to Jim McLaughlin’s side, and those Sunday strolls through town and up the Carrick Road with his mother, often to watch his older brother, Willie, turn out for the Lilywhites. It was there that childhood dreams were made.

“As a young fella in Dundalk, it’s the pinnacle to be able to play with your town team. Willie played with Dundalk so it was always in the family. It was something that I wanted to do.

Willie Crawley David's brother, Willie, led Sean O'Mahony's to their first Louth SFC final in 2015. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We used to walk the whole way up. Going to those games, the buzz was there and I was saying to myself: ‘maybe, one day, I’ll get the chance to play for Dundalk’.”

And, eventually, he did, making his debut in the title-winning season of 1994/’95 — against Shamrock Rovers at the old RDS.

But he had previously pulled on his town’s powder-white jersey, when his life almost changed for good.

“I got the chance to play for Dundalk reserves when I was 14, which was massive,” he recalls.

“They were looking for left-footers, you couldn’t really get them at the time, and so I played a couple of games and did quite well, and there was a businessman in the town called Harry Collins. He was on the Manchester City board and he’d seen me a couple of times.

I remember being out late one night playing football with the boys. It was lashing rain and I thought my mother was going to kill me when I got home. She called me in and said ‘The Man City scout wants you to go on trial…”

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Sunday 7 April, 2002: Dundalk are on their way to Tolka to face Stephen Kenny’s double-chasing Bohemians. It’s the day of the FAI Cup final and Crawley has the captain’s armband, the one given to him by Martin Murray upon his appointment as manager the season before, the one he almost lost after a dip in form, the one that means so much to him. He is Dundalk’s 22-year-old leader.

The campaign — and the club’s preceding years — had been laced with difficulties, both on and off the field. Promoted the season before, the Lilywhites fell victim of the FAI’s three-team culling of the Premier Division, suffering relegation on 39 points.

David Crawley and Garry Haylock 7/4/2002 Dundalk captain David Crawley celebrates with goalscorer Garry Haylock during the 2002 FAI Cup final at Tolka Park. Source: INPHO

But the Cup was a release, and a way of making a disappointing season ultimately one to remember. They set off from Oriel Park that morning, practically an all-local side. No such thing as staying away the night before. A matter of hours after giving his son, David, a night feed, it was time to hit the road.

All was good. The jovial forenoon atmosphere something to savour, grown men saluting the bus as it headed down past the Harp brewery. Dublin, full steam ahead, or so they thought…

“The bus broke down at Donabate and it was only an hour-and-a-half to the game. Bohs were out on the pitch wondering ‘Where the fuck are Dundalk?’. Forty minutes to the game and we weren’t even at Tolka Park.

“But when we got to the Cat and Cage you could see the black and white scarves. The buzz, it was just giving me goosebumps… It was one of the best days of my career. I still look at the pictures now.”

That 2-1, come-from-behind, Garry Haylock-inspired victory is Crawley’s ultimate career memory. Delight dripped from his face, welled eyes, as he became the first — and only — local to lift the Cup for Dundalk.

Afterwards, the run over to his mother, partner (Carla), son (David), and stepson (Lee), the embrace is something that sticks with him.

David Crawley 7/4/2002 David Crawley holds the FAI Cup aloft at Tolka Park in 2002. Source: INPHO

As he walks up the stairs of his home, he is reminded of that day by a picture of his trophy-lift in full flight. His stepson passed away soon after, which glazes the memories with sentiment.

Coming back to Dundalk that night, thousands on the street, all grasping for any memorabilia that was being hurdled from the back of the lorry carrying the players. Like a flashback from Crawley’s childhood, when he lined Hill Street Bridge and such places, welcoming the heroes of 1988.

“Magic.”

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Wednesday 5 August, 2004: “The night at Tolka Park was one of our best performances. We absolutely battered them.”

Shels vs Hajduk Split, scoreless in Dublin. Thirteen minutes or a little under to play. Crawley and co are pushing. A ball into the penalty area is headed clear, looping, it drops for Dave Rogers who belts to the roof of the net. Tolka has lift off. Joseph N’Do scored number two and Pat Fenlon’s men were through to the third round of the Champions League qualifiers.

David Crawley and Dave Rogers David Crawley and Dave Rogers during their days together at Shelbourne. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

The margins had been fine to that point. The year before Hibernian of Malta stunned them with a last-gasp winner, while a couple of weeks before Split came to town, they had stumbled over Iceland’s KR Reykjavík, going through on the away goals rule.

He recalls, the first leg in Croatia was vicious.

“We used to kick lumps out of each other in training and Pat Fenlon would just sit back and laugh. He knew what he had, but this was different.

They were very arrogant and we got stuck into them. I thought there was going to be murder after the game.

“We went 1-0 up, Wes Hoolahan played a lovely ball in for Glen Fitzpatrick to finish, but they got 2-1 and 3-1 and our heads went down. You’re like ‘Jaysus, now we have to score two in Tolka’. But I put a ball in for Alan Moore to score, 3-2, it felt like a win.”

Although, it’s a trip Crawley perhaps remembers better for losing a €200 bet with room-mate Jim Crawford, a wager that involved the latter doing ‘keepie-uppies’ with a pair of socks. He got to 30, the target, and Crawley sank into his bed.

“Jim had great feet. But, if you looked at him, he was bow-legged, like Clint Eastwood…”

Now 27, Crawley was on Greenore golf course when Shels were drawn to face Deportivo La Coruna in the next round, semi-finalists in the competition the previous season.

The first leg at Lansdowne Road saw 24,000 attend as the Reds got a scoreless draw.

They lost the second leg, 3-0; it’s a tie which remains a source of frustration almost 15 years later.

Deportivo, what a team; Valeron, Sergio and Pandiani, these were class.

“I can remember having team meetings around the time. We’re sitting there and Pat starts with the video analysis and there’s [Paolo] Maldini marking the fella I’m going to be marking, Victor Sanchez. You’re talking about Maldini here… that’s the level we were at.

David Crawley with Victor Sanchez Shelbourne's David Crawley and Victor Sanchez of Deportivo at the Riazor in 2004. Source: INPHO

“I think they underestimated us a little, because we really should have won in Lansdowne, and even in the second leg, it was 71 minutes and still 0-0.

“I put in a great ball for Jason Byrne that night. Ollie Cahill gives me a one-two and I went past Juan Pablo — the Spanish right-back at the time. I sat the ball up and it was one of them where I was going ‘Please, Jason, just please’. Nine times out of 10 he would have rattled the net.

“I listen to Ollie saying the best game he ever played was in Deportivo and it probably is for all the players who were involved that night, even Wes.

Wes ran the show in those two games. He was unreal, playing against World Cup players, Mauro Silva, and putting the ball through their legs.

“We were 20 minutes away from the groups stages, what an experience, just incredible.”

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“I had a great opportunity at City, but, listen, if it’s for you it won’t pass you.”

After his retirement from football in 2009, Crawley went back to playing GAA with his local club, Sean O’Mahony’s, and has featured sporadically at both first and second-team level since, including in a senior championship match a few years ago.

In goals, a ball rained down and saw him and two outfielders attack it, only for Crawley to catch it full flush on the volley with his left foot, booting men and ball in the opposite direction. The man in a nutshell, and a decisive move in the game’s context, but hard decisions have never fazed the 41-year-old.

He left Manchester City having made an impression so early in his days at Maine Road, not just on Reid, but coaches Terry Darracott and club legend Colin Bell, too.

David Crawley Dundalk F.C. Teenage David Crawley at Dundalk. Source: © Tom HonanINPHO

“My first game at Man City, I was only 15 in an U17 game, they threw me straight in and my first tackle, against this big, strong lad, I absolutely creamed him. I could just see the other boys going ‘This fella, jaysus, he’d go through a brick wall for you’.”

And that was the case. A few weeks later he was off with the panel to France for a tournament which he felt was “make or break” for him. Break, it seemed, after he scored an own-goal in the opener, but he still emerged as City’s Player of the Tournament.

He eventually put pen to paper on a three-year deal, the first season of which was a youth contract, earning him a measly £43 per week. Much of it, he concedes, was spent on calls home. Placed in digs on his own, life quickly became miserable.

“I was coming home at one or two o’clock to an empty house, and you can imagine that for a 15-year-old in Manchester… Once it gets into your head, homesickness, and it is a sickness, you just don’t want to be there and can’t concentrate on your football.”

Reid’s replacement, Brian Horton, was a different character and there became less of an Irish influence at the club, Alan Kernaghan and Niall Quinn soon moving on. It wasn’t a place Crawley wanted to be, so he came home and played regularly for Dundalk for the remainder of the decade, making roughly 200 appearances by the time Murray made him skipper.

But after the major high of 2002, he reached a fork in the road. Blackpool were interested after watching him play for Don O’Riordan’s League of Ireland team, Shels too.

Trevor Molloy came up to me at the airport and over the years I’d have had serious battles with Trevor. I’d take lumps out of him and he’d square-up to me.

“He said that Pat Fenlon was getting the Shelbourne job, they’re going full-time and he’s mad to sign me. At that stage I couldn’t see myself leaving Dundalk so I thought nothing of it until we were back in pre-season and it began to spread around the papers. Martin Murray called me in and said the ball was in my court, because Shelbourne had offered a few pound for me.

“Pat came on to me — and I’d had a couple of run-ins with him, too, over the years — and as it turned out, I signed and he was probably my best manager.

David Crawley reacts Crawley at Dundalk in 2008. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I got [called] the ‘traitor’ name, ‘You’re this, you’re that…’ for doing it, but if anybody knew anything about football they’d understand why I went to Shelbourne. I wanted to do what Dundalk are doing now.”

He won three league titles at Shels, as well as playing 23 times in Europe, but it was clear towards the end of 2006 that things were getting tighter financially. The team subsequently broke up and, for this, Crawley doesn’t feel they get the credit their deserve for how good they were.

But despite the sour end, there is no ill-feeling, especially towards the late club owner Ollie Byrne, “Mr Shelbourne”.

He signed back with Dundalk under John Gill for two further seasons, winning his second First Division title in 2008, before Seán Connor let him go ahead of the Lilywhites’ top-flight comeback.

His final campaign, 2009, was spent with Dermot Keely at Shels, a long way from the glory days of a few years earlier. At that stage, Crawley felt he’d had enough. Retirement.

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Like many of his former Shelbourne team-mates, media duties have been forthcoming in recent times. Locally, in Crawley’s case, and he’s got the chance to commentate on many of Dundalk’s major successes.

The night in Alkmaar, where the Lilywhites drew 1-1, saw him bellow “Get in there ya lad ya” across the airwaves, reacting to Ciarán Kilduff’s late leveller.

“I probably say that five or six times a week,” he giggles, “it’s just a Dundalk thing I’d say.”

But isn’t that just him?

“I’m a staunch Dundalk man and always will be. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly, league and cup wins, bouncing cheques, relegations, promotions, managers coming and going… but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

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