As one of Irish football's most valued off-field assets, 'Foods' didn't die wondering

Like the dawn of any new year, the beginning of a season offers the opportunity for resolutions to be made.

THE USUAL PARKING spots in the vicinity of Turner’s Cross were already occupied even an hour prior to kick-off throughout last season. The price of success.

Forced to risk the wrath of residents, the car was often abandoned on one of the tributaries of Pearse Road before I joined the green procession along Curragh Road towards the stadium.

The number of younger supporters making the expedition to the home of Cork City Football Club seemed to increase each week. As we made our way towards the turnstiles, I resisted the urge to grab them by the shoulders, look them in the eyes and insist that they savour days like this while they last, because there won’t always be Sean Maguire hat-tricks and annual trips to the Aviva Stadium.

Ryan Delaney and Chris Shields Cork City and Dundalk players clashing during last September's 1-1 draw at Turner's Cross. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Next weekend, football supporters around the country will embark on their own personal journeys to SSE Airtricity League grounds as the 2018 season kicks off. But for Dundalk’s game against Bray Wanderers on Friday night, as well as this afternoon’s President’s Cup clash with Cork City, there’ll be a notable absentee.

On the eve of the new season, Robert McLoughlin is at the forefront of the minds of many connected to Dundalk Football Club. In keeping with their pre-match traditions, his friends will convene in McGuinness’ Bar before heading up Carrickmacross Road to Oriel Park.

Inside, they’ll find their usual spot in The Shed from which they’ll endeavour to roar their team towards a victorious start to 2018. But the volume of Dundalk’s support will forever be a decibel lower from this year forward.

On 21 October last, 29-year-old Robert McLoughlin was killed when he was struck by two cars while trying to cross the road to reach his home after exiting a taxi. His immediate family — parents Sid and Attracta, siblings Stephen and Kim — lost a son and a brother. Many in Dundalk and beyond lost a friend. A football club lost one of its most valued supporters.

Nicknamed ‘Foods’ because of his family’s frozen food business, Robert McLoughlin was familiar to the majority of regular visitors to Oriel Park — including the players. Just over a week before they played Cork City in the 2017 FAI Cup final, members of the Dundalk squad formed a guard of honour at his funeral, which was also attended by manager Stephen Kenny.

“A lot of people were distraught when it happened because Foods was a very popular fella,” says Stuart McDonnell, one of his closest friends. “He was the life and soul of our group, always so positive and always great craic. Never in bad form. His passion for Dundalk FC and the League of Ireland was just huge.

foodstribute Robert 'Foods' McLoughlin Source: Stuart McDonnell

“When Cork went 18 points clear of Dundalk in the table last year, we were all saying ‘fuck it, this is gone’, but Foods was the one saying ‘it might not be, and even if it is, let’s win every game and be ready to go again next season’. We had all given up but he was always the optimistic one.

“Rain, hail or shine, he never missed a game. He lived for it. It was like a religion for him. On a Friday morning before a game he’d send on Snapchats of himself singing Dundalk songs on the way to work. He used to stay in work late on Fridays during the off-season so he could finish by 4pm every Friday when the games were back on.

“He was known for wearing his blue hoody and his Dundalk jacket no matter where we went. He’d be in the local nightclub with the Dundalk jacket on. We’d be pleading with him to take the jacket off but he’d be having none of it.

“He was just so proud of Dundalk and he loved wearing his gear. He was our best mate, but I can’t even imagine how his parents feel. He’s massively missed by a lot of people up here.”

As well as being a staunch Dundalk fan, Robert McLoughlin was a Republic of Ireland season ticket holder too. Forking out to attend Euro 2016 didn’t prevent him from travelling to Iceland and the Netherlands later that summer to support his club in their games against Hafnarfjarðar and AZ Alkmaar during that memorable European run.

Stuart McDonnell has been central to the many tributes which have been paid to his late friend since his passing. Signed Dundalk shirts and charity football matches have raised money for the Irish Road Victims’ Association, but perhaps the most significant acknowledgement occurred during the FAI Cup final last November.

b193b2d3-cd45-4102-9b93-2534bc654662 Robert McLoughlin's friends had a banner produced for the 2017 FAI Cup final. Source: Stuart McDonnell

In the 29th minute of the game between Dundalk and Cork City, supporters from both clubs in the 24,210 attendance stood for a minute’s applause in memory of Robert McLoughlin. Just a few weeks earlier, he had covered the cost of match tickets for 19 of his friends. As it transpired, they didn’t get a chance to reimburse him.

“I remember speaking to Foods on the day he died,” says Stuart McDonnell. “Cork already had the league won but he was just absolutely buzzing for the cup final. It was all he was talking about.

“Being at the Aviva on the day without him was a weird, weird feeling, even though the minute’s applause was very heartwarming and overwhelming. That occasion would have meant more to him than anyone and he wasn’t there for it. It was tough.”

It may still be regarded as a somewhat niche interest, but thousands of football fans in this country — Robert McLoughlin among them — couldn’t imagine a life without the League of Ireland. Unfortunately for those closest to him, this year the League of Ireland will have to grow accustomed to life without Robert McLoughlin.

Like the dawn of any new year, the beginning of a season offers the opportunity for resolutions to be made. If you’re a procrastinating football fan, this is as good a time as any to give the League of Ireland a chance to win you over in the same way it did for him.

Don’t die wondering, as they say. Robert McLoughlin certainly didn’t. A few hours before he passed away, he attended Dundalk’s fixture against Bohemians, the club’s last home game of the 2017 season.

Dundalk fans applaud in the 29th minute in memory of Robert McLoughlin Dundalk supporters paying tribute to Robert McLoughlin in the 29th minute of the 2017 FAI Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was fitting, Stuart McDonnell points out, that the final day of his life centred around a trip to Oriel Park, and it’s likely that he’d do the same again if given the choice. Blue hoody, Dundalk jacket, McGuinness’ Bar and a brisk walk up the Carrickmacross Road.

“On the day of the Bray game next Friday, a group of us will head out to his grave together first,” McDonnell says. “There will be a void that evening, definitely. There’s no getting away from that. We got a flag made up as a tribute for the cup final and that’s now set up in the ground, so that’ll be there to represent his presence. That’s the way we look at it.

“The hardest thing will be the trip to Cork later in the season, because Foods used to organise that every year for the last five years — heading down on the train and staying overnight. He made it a ritual for us. That’ll be tough, but this is the reality now.

“We just have to get on with it like we know he’d want us to.”

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Paul Dollery

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