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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 17 February, 2019
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‘You're in Limerick watching Match of the Day and 10 years later you're actually out there playing at Old Trafford’

Willie Boland played in the Premier League with Coventry and was named Cardiff’s Player of the Year in 2002.

Boland during an Ireland U21 international game in 1997.
Boland during an Ireland U21 international game in 1997.
Image: © INPHO/James Meehan

THE EIGHTH OF May 1994 was a special date for all associated with Manchester United; supporters, players and Alex Ferguson too, but perhaps most of all for Bryan Robson who was preparing to pull on the famous red jersey for the very last time.

You can just imagine Lou Reed’s hit “Perfect Day” providing the soundtrack as the legendary midfielder prepared to make his bow. The league had just been wrapped up, with Coventry’s midweek win against Blackburn mathematically denying Kenny Dalglish’s side the Premiership title.

All United had to do was show up and lift the trophy to crown another brilliant season, a fitting way for Robson to leave the club after 13 years and 461 appearances, his second league title in his final two seasons, this time around it would be a double alongside the FA Cup.

It was fitting that Coventry would be their opposition on the final day of the season given they had kindly beaten Blackburn to hand United the title just six days beforehand.

It also seemed fitting that Willie Boland would finally get the chance to walk out at the Theatre of Dreams for the very first time. Wearing the number 16 shirt and all of 18-years-old at the time, he remembers it all still today. It’s not an occasion you’d easily forget, getting a front row seat to a Premiership trophy lift.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Coventry City v Manchester United Boland in action for Coventry against Manchester United in December 1997. Source: EMPICS Sport

“It was an amazing experience,” Boland recalls. “It was the last game of that 1993/1994 season and we had beaten Blackburn midweek 2-1. United had won the Premiership and because of the result — we had taken it away from Blackburn.

“So we were going to Old Trafford on the Sunday, last game of the season, and we had helped win the title for them in a weird kind of way. So there was a great buzz about the game. I had some friends and family come over from Limerick, and I remember it was Bryan Robson’s last game for the club as well. I had idolized him growing up.

When we got to the ground there was a great atmosphere around the place. We had to clap them onto the pitch with a guard of honour and I don’t think our manager at the time Phil Neal was too happy about that, to be honest with you,” Boland laughs speaking about the former Liverpool defender.

“After the game they lifted the Premiership trophy, had the celebrations and we went into the changing room with them as well. The game wasn’t bad itself, it finished up 0-0. We had finished off that season seven games unbeaten, ended up 11th place in the Premiership, which was a good finish.

“I had been out of the team from Christmas up until those last seven games. So to be part of those last few matches and play against Man United for the first time was a great personal end to the year for me, having grown up supporting them as a kid.”

Animated GIF-source (1) Boland (16) gets the assist as Julian Darby scores to beat Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn and hand the title to Man United in May 1994. Source: Youtube.com/TJS Sports

Boland was born in Ennis but dismisses any notion that he is anything but a Limerick man through-and-through. “Sure I’m just jumping on the All-Ireland bandwagon with the hurling,” he jokes.

He would make 63 appearances for Coventry in the Premier League between 1992 and 1999, having moved across the water just before his 17th birthday, routinely battling against some of the most iconic stars of 1990s Premiership football throughout the decade. Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, Stamford Bridge, he’s graced them all.

A tough-tackling midfielder who, although not born with the talent those stars he looked up to as a kid such as Robson and Eric Cantona and Roy Keane had, he compensated by working and battling with hard-nosed determination to be among that tiny one percent of hopeful young kids that successfully make it as a Premiership footballer. As we know, most don’t make the cut.

He would leave Coventry at the end of the 1998/99 season, later enjoying successful spells with Cardiff City, Hartlepool United and one appearance for his native Limerick back in the League of Ireland, where he is now director of the club’s academy out in Garryowen.

“I like being around the football environment. I enjoy watching young players develop, I enjoy working with the first team, coaching, the management side of it. I love all of it,” he says of his role at the Markets Field.

Soccer - Premier League Trophy - Manchester United Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson lift the Premiership after drawing with Coventry. It was Robson's final Man United game. Source: EMPICS Sport

Boland never won a major trophy in English or domestic Irish football, but did secure three brilliant promotions during a career where his time at Cardiff is still fondly recalled by fans of the Bluebirds today, making over 200 appearances for the club through good days and bad in the Football League, through relegations and promotions between 1999 and 2006.

They had a chant for the Limerick man, even if it made absolutely no sense. “Willie… Willie Boland,” the Cardiff fans would sing. “He’ll never play for Poland.”

It’s not the most imaginative chant, is it?,” he grins. “I suppose it rhymes, that’s about the extent of it.”

He would play for Ireland all the way up to U21 level, but never got picked by either Jack Charlton or Mick McCarthy to make a senior international appearance, even during his days as a Premier League regular under Bobby Gould, Phil Neal, Ron Atkinson and later Gordon Strachan at Coventry.

But it is often not appreciated just how hard it is getting over to England in the first place. Talent alone will get you on the plane across the water, but having a clear-minded determination is crucial to actually staying there.

John Boland Boland is currently Limerick's academy director. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

You’re a teenager living in a foreign country, a new city where you don’t know anybody, fending for yourself. Playing football is the easy part, what you get out of bed in the morning for, Boland says. It’s everything else that goes with it that so often goes unnoticed in the makeup of a successful professional footballer at the very highest level.

Having that resilience is such a big thing and it’s something that I’m starting to look at more closely in our young players at Limerick now,” he says. “You need a lot of determination and resilience and mental strength to make that step up, because you don’t want to put kids in situations where they’re uncomfortable and they’re going to fall out of love with the game.

“Listen, my time in England was great. But I would put myself down as maybe not the most outgoing person. So it was pretty difficult initially, that’s why the fact that I knew some of the Irish underage lads in Coventry before I moved over made my decision easier. For the first three or four months I was extremely homesick and wanted to come back to Limerick.

“It was the usual thing that most Irish boys go through. There’d be phone calls back to the mother and the whole lot, and she’d tell me that ‘if you come back here Willie, you’re not moving back into this house’ that sort of thing,” he laughs. “So I’d no choice but to stay over there, and it worked out.

Soccer - AXA FA Cup - Third Round - Cardiff City v Leeds United Boland and Leeds United's Alan Smith battle for possession. He would make over 200 appearances for the Bluebirds. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I was 16-years-old and went over in July 1991. I signed a professional contract on my 17th birthday with Coventry. At that stage I also had the chance to sign for either Aston Villa or Everton. But I chose Coventry because there were a few boys I knew over there through the Irish set-up, plus my relatives didn’t live too far away as well. There is a big Irish community over there.”

You can’t speak about Boland’s career in isolation to those games against Manchester United, he the young supporter growing up watching back in Limerick in the 1980s, and he will be the first to say that whenever he got the chance to play against the club he supported as a boy were all hair-raising occasions.

It is a weird twist of fate that as a child Boland’s first experience of English football would be to travel over as a young fan and take in a game with some of his relatives living in England: Coventry City vs Manchester United, as it turned out.

Sitting in the stands as a young child watching his Red Devil idols, he never imagined for a minute that he would be playing against some of them less than a decade later, playing against Bryan Robson during his last appearance for the club on that fateful May day in 1994 when he lifted the Premiership side-by-side with Steve Bruce.

SOCCER The Limerick native made 63 appearances for Coventry City. Source: EMPICS Sport

“It was a mad coincidence, to be fair. To think I would move to Coventry all those years later. I suppose it was like a dream come true when you go over and you see a match as a kid in the flesh.

You’re watching these players on Match of the Day every Saturday. But then you’re actually one of those players out there on the pitch at Old Trafford — it’s kind of surreal. When you’re over there doing it, you don’t think about it at all. Talking about it now and reflecting on it, it was a kind of fantasy.”

Boland is happy to recall his memories of his days as a Premier League player, but is struck by just how normal and every-day it seemed at the time. One day a young hopeful in Limerick playing in the Kennedy Cup, and a few years later sharing a dressing room with players like Peter Shilton, Phil Babb, Dion Dublin, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister.

There was a large Irish contingent in Coventry at the time, too. Over the course of his time at the club during the 1990s, Boland was part of squads with Babb, Colin Hawkins, Tony Sheridan, Gary Breen, Barry Quinn and Gavin O’Toole, to name just a small few.

“There were a lot of Irish lads there,” he says. “Coventry as a city has a strong Irish contingent and community. That Irish contingent in the area and in the squad is probably one of the main reasons why I went there in the first place. You had Shero, Billy Woods was there as well, Karl Wilson, Michael Stevenson.

“I could probably name two teams worth of Irish players that were there at the same time as me. It was great. Being an Irish lad it’s great to have loads of other Irish lads around as well, you have that bit of banter with them. Anytime Ireland were playing in international matches we’d all watch the games together and have a bit of craic. It’s great to have people there with the same sort of background as you.”

Boland remembers his Premier League debut, a dead rubber away to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge at the end of the 1992/93 season. It was a 2-1 win for David Webb’s side at home in London where another Irishman, Tony Cascarino, scored the winner.

I got called into the squad a couple of days beforehand, and totally wasn’t expecting it. I was doing well and started playing with the reserve team. Because I was doing well with the reserves Bobby Gould called me up. It was the second-last game of the season.

“I suppose there wasn’t much to play for, so it was a good opportunity to give a young lad the chance to make his debut. I came on for the last 15 minutes of the game and probably touched the ball once, so not very memorable,” he grins. “But a great experience. It does give you goosebumps at that age and I think we forget about that.”

Boland played under some high-profile managers during his time with Coventry. Ron Atkinson was a larger-than-life figure, he says, but he did not see eye-to-eye with Gordon Strachan when the Scotsman took over from Atkinson having just come to the end of his own playing career.

Willie Boland 31/4/1997 Boland pictured during an Ireland U21 international game in 1997. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

“Ron Atkinson yeah… he is the way that he comes across. He’s quite jovial, he’s a larger-than-life character, loves a song, has great experience on the training pitch obviously. He still thought he was one of the best players when he was on the training pitch. He would have a good laugh and good banter about him, but he was a very experienced manager who knew the game inside and out. It was great to have that experience with him.

Gordon Strachan had come from Leeds in 1995 and when he arrived at Coventry at first he was like a player-coach. I think it’s always difficult to be a player-coach because you need to try and separate one from the other. Even myself now with Limerick, if I join in some training sessions with the lads, as a player you are so much different in the way you treat and interact with your team-mates.

“So I think when Gordon first came to Coventry he still sort of had that ‘player’ side to him. Sometimes you would bear the brunt of that, but I think looking at the career he’s had as a coach and as a manager he’s obviously progressed. For me he was a really, really good coach and an excellent player when he came to Coventry. I just felt that dealing with younger players probably wasn’t his strongest point at that stage of his career.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Coventry City v Everton Gordon Strachan and Boland did not see eye-to-eye. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I wouldn’t say we got on extremely well. But listen, you get that from time to time in football. Sometimes as a player you might not get on with a coach or a manager, whether he doesn’t fancy you or if he doesn’t like your personality, or whether he feels you’re not giving your best.”

There are lots of happy memories of his career with Coventry, especially those games against Alex Ferguson’s United, but one occasion brings back one of the ugliest and unfortunate incidents in 1990s Premiership football, which was the shocking leg break suffered by David Busst.

It was 8 April 1996, and less than two minutes into Coventry’s game away to the champions, Busst’s career came to a sorry end as he suffered a compound fracture, requiring 10 operations in 12 days.

Boland was on the substitutes bench that day and was immediately told to get stripped and ready to come on in place of his team-mate, who had to be stretchered off as players from both sides looked away in disbelief and horror.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Manchester United v Coventry City Boland replaced David Busst off the bench after the defender suffered a horrific compound fracture. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Boland recalls the reaction of Peter Schmeichel as the first indicator that something was not right, with the Danish goalkeeper reportedly vomiting on the pitch after seeing the injury suffered by Busst, also requiring counselling afterwards to deal with what had transpired.

“It was right at the start of the game, if I remember correctly,” Boland recalls. “I just remember the ball coming over to the far post and he was stretching to get to it. I think the ball into the box was from a free-kick or a corner.

“I remember him stretching with the outside of his right foot for it, and all of a sudden he was on the ground. Then I saw Schmeichel’s reaction, which straight away sent alarm bells going off in my head.

Dor-gceWwAEp9vn Boland (circled in red) during a team photo before the 1998/99 season with Coventry in the Premiership.

“You knew from his reaction that there must be something seriously wrong here, because he was shocked and had to turn away and cover his face.

“So I came on for Dave as a substitute and afterwards we were all asking what had happened. He was taken to hospital straight away, so we didn’t really have a clear indication what had happened to him.

“Obviously we later learned that he had suffered a terrible compound fracture. Unfortunately we all saw the pictures the next day in a centre spread in the newspapers, which was a bit upsetting to see, to be honest with you. But it was just an awful, awful injury and it finished off his career.

Source: TJS Sports/YouTube

“Bussty was a great lad, he’d only just started to establish himself in the team and then to get a horrible injury like that to finish his career was terrible. Man United came down to us at the end of the season and played in a testimonial for him, which was a great gesture by them.

“To be honest with you the rest of the game was played in a kind of strange atmosphere. After the incident there was no real tempo to the match, because a lot of people were still in shock after what had happened. It was very sad, because he was such a great lad. To have his career cut short like that after one incident was shocking.”

Eric Cantona would score a second-half winner to secure a 1-0 win for United that day. Cantona, Boland says, was the best player he ever saw and the greatest he ever played against.

I was lucky to play against some great players, but the best was definitely Cantona. At that time when I was in and around the Coventry first-team he was the main catalyst of what Man United achieved.

Even the Man United players looked like they were in awe of him. That kind of stuck with me — to have these great players look up to him, this one player in this team full of great players was amazing to see. He was a huge influence on that team and on the club.”

13043-zoom Boland signed for Coventry on his 17th birthday in 1991.

Boland would leave Coventry four seasons later, succeeding in making 63 appearances for the club. Cardiff was his next destination, where he earned the affection of the side’s supporters at Ninian Park both with the “Willie Boland, he’ll never play for Poland” chant, and being sincerely likened to Chelsea’s Claude Makelele for his meticulous work running the midfield alongside Mark Bonner and Graham Kavanagh.

Perhaps his career-highlight with the Bluebirds was scoring on his debut, a penalty against Millwall on a day when travelling hooligan supporters rioted in Cardiff city before and after the game, with the away section chucking coins and bottles as he prepared to take his penalty.

The Millwall fans were a scary bunch and they were battering me with coins before I scored. But I slotted the penalty away, turned my back and headed back towards the centre circle. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of a reaction, I’d scored and that’s all that mattered.”

Now heavily involved with Limerick in charge of of the side’s youth teams and academy down at the Markets Field, Boland says that he enjoys casting his mind back for a momentary spell of nostalgia when prompted, to reflect for a brief while on his own playing days, now at the age of 43.

Source: danny dyer/YouTube

He would have liked to push on further and try and establish himself as a senior Ireland international, sure, but there are very few regrets in a career where he made the best out of the ability he had. Not gifted with the grace and glory of a Cantona or a Robson, but not allowing that fact to stand in the way of his dream to play against them one day.

It’s a poignant image, a coincidence as he describes it — that his very first experience of English football would be to see Coventry City take on Manchester United as a spectator, before playing in the fixture himself a decade later.

To go from watching his idols on television in Limerick, to lining up against them at grounds like Old Trafford, Anfield, White Hart Lane and Highbury was an incredible journey and one well worth the ride, he explains.

“I look back at it and, listen, it was successful to the extent that I won three promotions, played in the Premier League, represented Ireland at most levels except senior level. Every club I went to, there is still an element of respect there for what I did, so I think if you look back on it in that way you’ve got to be pleased enough.

Source: ILuVManUTd09/YouTube

“Some players go through their career and they’ve never gotten promoted, never got the chance to play in the Premier League. So, listen, I still feel as every person does that I could have done more. Everybody feels that. But at the same time, as a footballer I wouldn’t have ever been the most gifted player. So I think the fact that I worked so hard — I was quite determined and mentally strong — that’s what kept me in the game for so long, to be honest with you.

Not for one second when I was sitting down watching Coventry play Man United as a kid did I believe that I would ever be out there. Being a huge Man United fan and growing up when Liverpool were dominating all the time, and then to be playing against them when they took over the Premier League under Alex Ferguson, it was great to be around that.

“To play against the likes of Bryan Robson and Roy Keane and then the likes of Beckham and Scholes and Nicky Butt and players like that, it was a great experience, something I thoroughly enjoyed. Then the chance to play at Old Trafford as well was amazing. Listen, they were great times. You look back on them now, but you didn’t really soak it in when you were doing it at the time.

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“When you’re playing in big games against Man United or Liverpool or Arsenal or whoever, it’s already part-and-parcel of what you’re doing, because it’s your job. It was amazing to play against them and obviously to see the dominance of United in the 1990s was great to watch. It’s something that I never imagined would happen. It really was a surreal time in my life and one that I’m very grateful for.”

As it turns out, Boland got the assist for Julian Darby’s second goal against Blackburn Rovers in May 1994. That 2-1 win against Kenny Dalglish’s men ended the title race, with the Limerick midfielder, in a strange way, playing a small part in Bryan Robson lifting the Premiership title before his eyes when the pair battled at Old Trafford later in the week.

One Limerick footballer, 18-years-old and playing his first game at Old Trafford. The other 37-years-old and making his last ever Man United appearance by winning the league title. It was a perfect day, of sorts, for both men at the Theatre of Dreams.

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Aaron Gallagher

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