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Billy Stickland/INPHO Noel Larkin and Paul Carlyle of Derry City with the cup.
# LOI Legends
Lining out in the San Siro aged 20, playing with two legendary Irish sides and moving to Australia
Former Athlone, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City player Noel Larkin reflects on his career in football.

NOT MANY FORMER footballers can reflect on a career encompassing 15 major trophies, as well as sharing a pitch with sides of the calibre of AC Milan, Manchester United and Liverpool, but Noel Larkin is a rare exception.

He started learning the game, while growing up in the 1960s, down the back of a little street called St Patrick’s Terrace. Endless summer nights were spent playing until it got dark. 

He grew up in a soccer stronghold, with Athlone Town, founded in 1887, the oldest club currently in the League of Ireland. The British army barracks established in the area ensured there was a considerable interest in the foreign sport at a time when it was certainly not embraced by a substantial part of the country.

So perhaps inevitably, a number of good players have been produced from the area. Nonetheless, before Larkin’s time, the club had just a single major honour to their name — triumphing in a 13-team FAI Cup in 1924, when in front of a reported crowd of 18,000 people at Dalymount Park, Dinny Hannon scored the only goal as Athlone beat Cork side Fordsons 1-0 in the final.

Initially, Larkin played for another local side, Pioneers. He showed plenty of talent in GAA too, winning an array of county medals at underage level.

However, it was primarily a love of soccer that characterised the Larkin family. Athlone Town had competed in the league between 1922 and 1928, before a lengthy absence that did not see them return until the until the 1969–70 season. Consequently, Larkin’s father only played locally, in addition to competing in boxing and athletics, though his uncle on his mother’s side, Jackie Quinn, lined out for Sligo Rovers and would later manage Athlone.

It was somewhere between the ages of 15 and 16 that Larkin joined Athlone. He had a brief stint in the reserves, but by 17, he had made his first-team debut, and at 18, he was a regular in the side.

Larkin’s emergence coincided with an era of unprecedented success for the club that remains comfortably their most successful period to this day.

When I was a young lad before I even got into the teams, you’d be down there, you’d probably bring your boots just in case somebody didn’t turn up and you might get a game,” he tells The42. “That was the way you did it, I suppose being cheeky in a way. But it was always a dream as a young lad to get involved and play with Athlone. Thankfully, that came true.” 

At one point, Larkin was playing well enough that talk of a move to England ensued. He spent a few weeks on trial at Arsenal. Then Gordon Jago, the boss of second-tier Millwall got in touch and was keen to sign him. However, the Lions could not come to an agreement with Athlone and so Larkin returned home to resume his League of Ireland career.

soccer-football-queens-park-rangers PA Gordon Jago tried to bring Larkin to Millwall in the mid 1970s. PA

It should be noted that this was an era in which English football was not the lucrative industry it is today. Larkin would have been playing at a higher standard had he made the switch, but would have had to part with friends and family, and so he wasn’t overly disappointed when the move fell through.

“I didn’t think I was good enough to go over and make a career out of it in England,” he admits. “I really didn’t have a desire. I wanted to focus on working and building a career for me some way [at home] and concentrating on playing League of Ireland football.

“There were some lads that did really well, not many. But back in those days, it was difficult to build up enough for yourself and be able to see yourself through for the rest of your life. If you had 10 years over there, then you’ve got to start finding out what you want to do [afterwards].”

Moreover, in spite or perhaps because of the decision to remain in the League of Ireland, Larkin has no shortage of fabulous memories to look back upon.

Among the highlights was a Uefa Cup tie with AC Milan, which saw Athlone put in a highly creditable display, drawing 0-0 and missing a penalty at St Mel’s Park, before their dream ended with a 3-0 defeat at the San Siro in front of a reported crowd of 60,000 spectators. Larkin was only 20 at the time and started both legs.

“I was playing in midfield for that game. There was massive interest throughout the country. We all worked, trained in the evening time and played at the weekends.

I was working with [the software company] Ericsson and you had all the reporters coming down from Dublin, coming out to where I worked, taking photographs and doing interviews — you felt like a superstar. The achievements on that particular day down in St Mel’s Park were just unbelievable.

“We had a good team, great individual players, People like John Minnock, Dougie Wood, Carl Humphries and Terry Daly. We just clicked on the day and put up a really good show. Even when we went to Milan then at the San Siro, it was a close enough game up to 63 minutes. Then we lost our way a bit.”

The second leg marked the return after a lengthy absence of legendary player Gianni Rivera, who had featured in the World Cup final just five years previously and captained Milan to two European Cup triumphs and three Serie A titles during his career. His return ensured a significant attendance for the fixture, while Larkin was handed the unenviable task of marking him.

“It’s something that nobody has ever forgotten. Anybody that was at the game at St Mel’s Park or was associated with it in any way shape or form, it just lives in their memory forever, which is wonderful.”

Accustomed to more glamorous surroundings, Larkin adds that Milan were distinctly unimpressed with the facilities at St Mel’s Park, which reportedly packed 9,000 fans in for the occasion. 

“It was a very tight ground and people were leaning on the fence probably less than a metre away from you on the pitch. It was a muddy old day too and there’s a great photograph shown over the years of the bus arriving and all these Milan guys getting out in their lovely gear into the muck, [reluctantly] walking into the dressing room.

“So it would have been a bit of a shock. It probably wasn’t even equal to any of the training grounds that they were training in at home, never mind the main football pitch.

“It was a wonderful time for the club, the people involved. People like [the late former chairman] Seamus O’Brien, whose heart and soul went into Athlone Town. For him to be there and see something like that was just really great.”

The Milan match was, however, only the beginning of the best period in the club’s history to date.

A lack of stability with a succession of managers coming and going in a short period of time had undermined any progress they had previously enjoyed, but that all changed when former Dundalk and Bohs player Turlough O’Connor was appointed in 1979.

O’Connor helped turn Athlone into the best side in the country, with top players including Stefan Fenuik, Harry McCue, Eugene Davis, Larry Wyse and Denis Clarke.

They triumphed in a competition played between clubs in the North and the Republic of Ireland, the short-lived Tyler All Ireland Cup, beating Drogheda 3-2 in the 1979 final. While it was not the most prestigious trophy on offer, it was undoubtedly a sign of better days to come.

Then in 1980, Athlone won their first-ever League of Ireland Cup, and that same season, they finished third in the table, eight points off champions Limerick.

It was an extremely open period in Irish football. Between 1970 and 1980, seven different sides won the title, so the outcome of each campaign was anything but predictable and the gaps that exist between the champions and the rest in contemporary times was not so apparent back then.

Athlone were clearly accruing significant momentum though, and the 1980-81 campaign would finally see them crowned champions for the first time in their history, while they would repeat the feat two years later.

The excitement in the town and the celebrations after we won it were just absolutely massive,” Larkin recalls. “I played most of my career in lots of different positions for the club. I started out at left-back. Two weeks later, I was playing up front. [Turlough] had sold Frank Devlin, who’d been playing with us. Then he put me up front, himself and his brother Michael, we formed a partnership that season. I ended up leading goalscorer [in 1983] and picked up a few player-of-the-month awards and got the Soccer Writers’ Player of the Year award and the league title on top of that. 

“We won two Championships and three League Cups in the space of about four or five seasons. So you always had that desire each year to go out and pick out another win.

“The one thing I always regret, we came close a few times with the FAI Cup, but we never got there. Ever since then, Athlone have never been near the final. It would have been nice to have picked up a cup medal with them.”

retroloi / YouTube

A little over a year after that second league triumph amid a standout individual season for Larkin, he departed Athlone, joining a Shamrock Rovers team who had just won the first of their famous four league titles in a row.

His exit was largely caused by a difference of opinion with O’Connor. Key defender Harry McCue had departed the club for Athlone. Despite having been leading goalscorer the previous season, Larkin was moved to centre-back to compensate for McCue’s absence, with Roddy Collins brought in to occupy his place in attack. 

“Towards the end of that season, I went back up front and started scoring a few more goals. And then just at the very beginning of the following season, Turlough and I didn’t see eye to eye and I just said: ‘I’ve had enough.’”

Larkin promptly signed for Shamrock Rovers, but insists he holds no lingering resentment towards Athlone or O’Connor, despite the somewhat acrimonious manner of his departure.

“There was a bit of disappointment the first few weeks of it, but then everybody has their own opinion of what they want from players, particularly managers. I came to the stage where I just didn’t agree with what was going on. 

“Life’s all about timing. A couple of weeks into the season, Shamrock Rovers had played Linfield in one of the European games. Paul McGee was playing with Rovers. Not long after that game, he decided to go back to England. Jim McLaughlin needed a striker. For some reason, my name came up. I picked up the phone, made a call and we signed.

I had given Athlone 12 good years. We just carried on. We never fell out over it. Many a year, I went back to Ireland — my wife is from up there in the Navan Road near Blanchardstown. You’d meet Turlough, he lives up that way. We’d have a chat and there was never any [permanent] ill feeling. It was the best thing that ever happened [to me].”

jim-mclaughlin Billy Stickland / INPHO Jim McLaughlin brought Larkin to Shamrock Rovers. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

As one memorable stint came to an end, another was beginning. Rovers had recently lost two key attackers in Alan Campbell and Liam Buckley, but Larkin alongside Mick Byrne helped ease the burden in that area of the field. The team therefore remained as strong as ever, winning an incredible haul of three successive titles and three FAI Cups during the player’s time there.

“It was an incredible experience and a wonderful group of people, and Jim McLaughlin was just an unbelievable man-manager. He had all different characters in his team and knew how to work with the mind of every one of them.

“I came up from Athlone. I didn’t know how it was going to pan out, but I was made so welcome by everybody involved in the club and spectators in particular — we all formed a great bond and friendship.

It just went from strength to strength with the likes of Dermot Keely in the team and Pat Byrne, they were the backbone of what we achieved. Without those two individuals, we would not have achieved what we achieved. 

“Myself and Mick clicked very quickly and have been very good friends ever since then. Every time I get back to Ireland, I’m always making sure to catch up with Pat and Mick, having a few beers, telling a few lies to each other, that sort of stuff.

“And the competition in the League of Ireland back then, I don’t care what anybody says, you look at the titles we won, we didn’t win them by many points. We just had great belief in what we were doing. For the team talks on a Saturday, we’d have a bit of a five-a-side in the car park. We were up there playing in Dublin, you’d go into the dressing room and some serious talks went on for a couple of hours on a Saturday before the Sunday game. You wouldn’t want to be too sensitive in any shape or form. As soon as you went out, it was forgotten, but you made sure you did what you were told to do the next day.

“And it was generally the players that drove it too – people like Dermot and Pat. People didn’t shy away from what was expected.”

retroloi / YouTube

Larkin was as vital a part of the success as anyone. Highlights included scoring the winner in the 1985 FAI Cup final against Galway, while he was also on target in the triumph on the same stage as they beat Dundalk 3-0 two years later.

“There was a core group of people who supported us wherever we went. If we were heading down to Cork on the train, they’d be all on the train with you. After the games, you’d meet up with them. And there was that sort of relationship up at Rovers. We did have our celebrations to win your titles and your cups, but they were nothing compared to what it would be like with a club like Athlone.

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“Not only the whole town but the supporter base for Athlone Town in Dublin most days would come down from Galway, Roscommon, Mullingar, over as far as Tara, all that area. So the celebrations were just wild altogether.

“It’d go on for quite a while when I was with Rovers. You’d win a cup final on a Sunday, then on a Monday you’d go back down to Athlone and back to work. There was a friend of mine down there, Michael Sheehan, his son Alan played over in England with Luton. Michael would grab me during the week and say: ‘Come on, we’ll have a few pints and celebrate your win.’”

There was also a couple of glamour friendlies around this period. Rovers beat Ron Atkinson’s Man United team on two occasions at Milltown, with Larkin among the players on target, while they also got the better of Arsenal, the club he came close to joining all those years previously.

Like a lot of lads back home, I’m very fortunate to have played against clubs like that. I played against Liverpool at Lansdowne Road when I was playing with the Irish Olympic team, we played in the qualifying rounds for the Seoul Olympics. We played European Cups up in Parkhead. Playing Benfica in the Stadium of Light, the Olympic Stadium in Rome — wonderful occasions to remember.”

After a couple of dominant years with Rovers, everything swiftly started falling apart. The Kilcoyne family authorised the sale of Glenmalure Park in 1987, leading to fan protests and a number of years in the wilderness for the club. It is arguably only since the move to Tallaght Stadium in 2009 that they fully recovered from this controversial decision, having been left without a permanent home for a significant period.

“We played Tolka Park that year after the Kilcoynes did what they did. All the lads we knew, the supporters were outside the stadium every time we played. You’d go and meet them after the game and it was a very hollow season altogether. I remember Pat Byrne saying: ‘It’s like going on stage and you had no bloody audience.’ The place was empty. So we battled on that year. We finished fourth, [five points] off the pace.”

shane moore / YouTube

All this turmoil led to a number of key players departing. Jim McLaughlin went on to manage Derry, ultimately bringing Larkin with him, as well as fellow Rovers alumnae Kevin Brady, Mick Neville, John Coady and Paul Doolin.

Larkin continued to make the taxing commute from Athlone, as he had at Rovers, and remarkably, in his solitary season at Derry, they won a domestic treble.

“The scenes when we went back to Derry on that Monday after the cup final win against Cork were just unbelievable. The whole town square was full.

“There was only one mission that was asked of Jim — we had to win the title that year, because he had just taken over from Noel King and had to show something for it. 

“We started slowly, but we got ourselves up and running. We played Dundalk then in September in the League Cup final up at Oriel Park and we hammered them 4-0. They had just come off winning the double the previous season. So that gave us a lot of confidence and we went on from there.

“Liam Coyle came in probably around Christmas time. I actually did a hamstring against Cobh Ramblers. He came on at half-time, he banged a hat-trick in on his debut. He became a hero instantly and has remained a hero ever since, rightly so.

“Myself and Jonathan Speak were battling for that second position [up front] all the time. But it worked out really well in the end.”

A 1-0 replay win over Cork City in the FAI Cup final ended Larkin’s incredible League of Ireland career in fitting fashion, with over 500 appearances and a plethora of honours to his name.

I’m very proud of what I was able to achieve,” he says. “All you ever wanted to do was just to get out and play. The number of games didn’t matter. It was always play as long as I could play. That’s the way it turned out. I was one of the fortunate ones that just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right clubs.”

After winning the FAI Cup on the Sunday, he travelled to Australia the following Tuesday and the country subsequently became his permanent place of residence.

Former team-mates Michael O’Connor and Peter Eccles had both already spent time out there, and the former put him in touch with a couple of clubs.

After selling his house in Athlone, Larkin was ready for a new adventure, though the 34-year-old did not necessarily plan on staying in Australia for 31 years and counting.

But within a few days of arriving, he was already lining out for a new team, ultimatelt continuing to play until 1993. He spent five more years as a coach, before an intensive work schedule saw him decide to end his involvement in football.

“We had decided we’d give [Australia] two years. I came out first to make sure the deal I had done with the club was all above board and legitimate. My wife and kids arrived two months after that.

“I’d found work when I came out here as well — I was in the oil industry. We were on a sporting Visa at the time, so it would have taken a couple of years to start the process of getting residency.

“My wife loved it from day one, which was important. So we stuck it out and it was a really good thing we did. It was very hard on our families, very hard on my mum and dad in particular, and very hard on Marianne’s father, who lived on his own in Dublin.

It took us a while before we could get ourselves settled down and established and get ourselves into a position where we could go home quite often. But from about early 2000, we’ve been coming home every year.” 

He continues: “I still have a lot of interest in [football]. I look and see how Rovers are doing every week, I look and see how Athlone do. And I always look and see how Derry do.

“And luckily enough, I was able to get home last November. I had a family wedding and I attended [the Shamrock Rovers-Dundalk game] — myself, Pat and Mick all together there watching the cup final. But every time I get over, I always catch up. I get to Tallaght and get a game in.

“Then I catch up with family down in Athlone and meet people that are involved in the club, and reminisce.”

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