When the Aston Villa Legends face West United - the club at which the late Eamonn Chick Deacy began and ended his soccer career, they can expect “hard tackling” and “tough and fearless” opposition, warns its manager William Grant.
As the Galway and West United X1s face the might Villans on Saturday evening at the testimonial game to honour the local soccer hero - who played for Aston Villa and the Republic of Ireland - they will be hoping that 10 weeks training coupled with a steely determination and will-to-win will see them distinguish themselves on the day.
As they line out at the Terryland pitch - which will be officially renamed Eamonn Deacy Park at 5pm, prior to the game’s kick-off at 5.30pm - Mr Grant says every player will be there to honour and remember a “true sporting legend”.
“The West United side will feature lads who played with Eamonn and all won various trophies with him,” he says. “A good few of them - Mark, Joe and Mike O’Toole, myself and my brother Alan and Brendan O’ Shaughnessy are all from the same street as Eamonn [St John’s Terrace in Henry Street] while Noel Mernagh (former Galway United ) and James O’ Toole grew up around the corner.”
Many of the players had not played in years, he says, but were delighted when offered the opportunity to take on Aston Villa, one of the oldest and most successful football clubs in England.
“Noel Flaherty, one of our players, retired in 2005, Joe O’Toole is gone for 10 years while “Plum” Connell is gone for 10/12 years. The older fellas were very keen to get fit and turned up for every training session. They thought they were finished playing but now they are playing against the European Cup winners.
It’ll be a far cry from the Swamp in front of 300 people
“Our lads are used to playing against local soccer teams, such as Hibs and Mervue, where they would line out before 20/30 people down at the Swamp. The biggest crowd they would have played against would be a few hundred. On Saturday they will be facing thousands at Eamonn Deacy Park.”
What are West United’s weaknesses? “A lack of fitness and we mightn’t pack as powerful a kick as we would have in the past!”
On the positive side, William Grant says as they are the underdogs and “Chick’s team” they will have the crowd behind them. “And hopefully Villa will be tired by the second half”. Their other powerful weapon is Packie Bonner, the former Republic of Ireland and Celtic goalkeeper who will be forever remembered for his famous penalty save at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy during the knockout stage. Bonner, who earned 80 caps for Ireland from 1981 to 1996 and whose twin brother Denis will play for Galway United at the weekend, will make a guest appearance for West United. He met Mr Grant earlier this year and when invited to play with his side was glad to oblige.
“We will be relying on Mike O’Toole, our keeper to make a lot of saves. Packie is coming on for West at the end so that will be great. We need all the help we can get. In fact, we might need to have two keepers in goals together!”
And his concerns on the day? “That none of our side collapse! We are hoping the Villa players won’t be too fit and that Eamonn’s old teammates don’t kick like he used to. What we have to remember is the Villa legends play regularly, up to 20 games a year, while many of our lads haven’t played in years. We know afterwards there will be a lot of aching bones and sore heads but it will have been worth it.”
Sports injury specialist James O’Toole will be drawing on his many skills on Saturdaywhen he lines out with West United, manages the Galway United side and co-ordinates the Villa Legends’ visit to the city. He has been liaising with the club since the testimonial idea was first conceived following Eamonn Deacy’s sudden death in mid February.
They are coming from a very high level
He says the Villa team are a force to be reckoned with and marry experience and youth to stunning effect. “The team is quite strong, these are experienced international players. There are some younger players too, in their early thirties. Gareth Farrelly [who made his debut with Villa in 1995 but moved to Everton two years later], for instance, should be dominant, it was not so long ago that he got his last cap.
“They will not be going out to trounce us but their reading of the game and the way they use the ball will be far superior to us. They are coming from a very high level.”
The Galway United and West United selections have played seven games in a 10 week period - three of these involved a combination of both teams.
“It’s great to see Tommy Keane make a comeback - the last time he played was 13 years ago. He was on Galway United’s FAI Cup winning in 1991. He has been training every week and doesn’t look like he was away at all. Gerry Mullen and Joe O’Toole haven’t kicked a ball in 10 years. Denis Bonner (Donegal ) and Kieran McDaid (Mayo ) are training on their own at home. Quite a few of the Cup winning team will be playing on the day. A lot of them are involved in coaching so they will be fairly fit. I’ll be playing with West - where I grew up.”
What are his fears when United take on the Villa? “That if we give the ball away we won’t get it back!”
He points out the match will be a celebration of Eamonn Deacy’s life and says the Aston Villa Legends and former manager Ron Saunders, who led the team to victory in the 1980s, deserve great credit for coming west to take part in the testimonial.
Aston Villa Legends player Ken McNaught, who was with the Midlands club from 1977 to 1983 and was instrumental in bringing the Villans to Galway, says the team has not played together for a number of weeks (good news for the Galway lads! ).
“We are so looking forward to this weekend but we might be a bit rusty,” says the Scotsman with more than a twinkle in his eye. He laughs heartily when this reporter says some of the opposition have not kicked a ball in more than 10 years.
‘My left leg is in a shocking state - I only use that one for standing on!’
Of course he is lying through his teeth about their fitness levels. When he returned to football three years ago to play with the Villa Legends an opposition player said to him it was no wonder he was fit because he was playing every week. Truth was he had not kicked a ball in 20 years.
Other chinks in Villa’s armour might be McNaught’s “bad” left leg, the fact that they normally only play 40 minutes a side in the charity matches they play in England, their preoccupation with getting into the lead very early in the game and “saving” their legs by “making the ball do the work”. The locals hope too that a sense of decency might prevail and that they might go easy on the underdogs.
He says all the team carry injuries, relics of careers as professional footballers. “My left leg is in a shocking state - I only use that one for standing on!” But before the opponents can rub their hands in glee he is quick to quip: “But my right leg was always the stronger one”.
Ken McNaught, whose honours include winning the League Championship, European Cup and European Super Cup with Villa in the early eighties and collecting a runners-up medal with Everton in the 1977 League Cup Final, says it is difficult to put the Legends team off their stride. Any plans to ply them with drink the night before the game might even work to the contrary. “Our lads play even better after a few drinks,” he says laughingly.
The son of Scottish international Willie McNaught, he stresses the team does not like to get beaten. They like to notch up very impressive victories in fact, in a recent charity game they won 16-2.
“Because we pass the ball so much we tend to wear teams down, we don’t just aimlessly kick it,” he says with a smile. “It’s hard for the opposition to last 90 minutes when they don’t get possession of the ball.
“We keep possession as much as possible. We save our legs and make the ball do the work for us. We try to make it as simple as possible. Ron [Saunders, the former Villa manager] instilled it in us, as soon as you lose possession of the ball you have got to get it back as quickly as possible.
“We still tend to work well as a unit. And if the opposition get a bit full of themselves? Well, we tend to put them back in their place!”
Ken - who retired at 31 due to injury and went on to live in America, Norway and China before returning to Birmingham three years ago to get involved again with Aston Villa - says the Villa team of the eighties, which featured Eamonn Deacy and which won the League in 1981 and the European Cup in 1982, always played to their strengths.
“We were very fortunate. We were all fit, we could change the tempo of the ball by moving it quicker and people like Tony Morley with individual flair could do special things with it. We were all workmanlike. Eamonn [Deacy] fitted into the scheme of things brilliantly.
“Nowadays all the games we play in England and abroad are for charity but Saturday’s testimonial game for Eamonn is very special for us. Six of us European Cup lads who played with Eamonn are coming over. So many lads are so disappointed that they can’t make it due to work [many are still involved with Villa]. If it could have been a free day for everyone we could have sent over two teams.”
The teams who will line out on the day are as follows:-
Johnny Morris Burke.
Manager: James O’Toole.
Manager: William Grant.
Guest player: Packie Bonner.
Aston Villa Legends.
The legends team, which will arrive in Galway on Friday and return to Birmingham on Sunday afternoon, will include many of the stars of the 1981-82 European Cup side