For most football fans, the divide between players and fans is a chasm that is only widening as the money being pumped into the game continues to skyrocket. In modern football, the multimillionaire players have little in common with the fans that support them. But there is a place in the football world where this does not apply. League of Ireland; a place where players cycle to training and matches, leaving their bike in the tunnel during the game. Where players live next door to you and not in a secluded mansion in the leafy, affluent parts of town. Personal sacrifices are common for the professional footballers in the League of Ireland and Bray Wanderers’ striker, Anthony Flood, affectionately known as ‘Bisto’, is a product of the country’s conflicted domestic football culture
Flood began his career in 2005 when he signed for St Patrick’s Athletic, making a handful of appearances before a couple of loan spells to Athlone Town and Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland First Division. From early on in his career he had to deal with the constant insecurity of being a professional footballer in Ireland. During a brief spell with Dundalk in 2007 he was let go after what was described as a ‘breach of discipline’
‘I had a falling out with John Gill [Dundalk manager] in the dressing room after a game, I didn’t agree with his opinion and I moved on.’ Bisto then signed for Shelbourne and considered what happened with Dundalk as a blessing in disguise of sorts. ‘I actually grew after that [incident with John Gill], it was a lot better to get out of Dundalk, they were in the First Division at the time and Shels were in there as well, because I wouldn’t have met Dermot Keely. He put me on the straight and narrow, he was one of the best managers I worked under and he certainly got the best out me.’
Shelbourne had financially imploded the year before Flood signed for them but despite the instability at the club he settled in comfortably, scoring 37 goals in 76 appearances for the team. Unfortunately, Shelbourne couldn’t get promotion to the Premier Division off the back of his goalscoring form, but Bisto did get his move up to the Premier Division with Galway United. Off the back of a good half season with Galway where he scored 7 goals in 16 games, his goal of using the club as a stepping stone to get a move out of the League of Ireland was reached. Perhaps surprisingly, he rejected a contract with St. Mirren, instead choosing to move to Sweden and Örebro SK.
‘St. Mirren came in and then the Swedish team came in and I could have made a better decision. In Sweden, I got injured on my calf, I still have the scar. I had over 100 staples in it. It was basically a bad tackle and I felt something warm on the back of my leg, it was my calf. I was getting physio and stuff on it and the physio put an icepack on it that caused the staples to infect my leg. I had to get 3 skin grafts on it, I was out for 8-9 months, it was horrendous.’
Although there was an offer from Örebro to extend Bisto’s contract he just wanted to return home to Ireland. Bohemians, who were going through their own financial difficulties and instabilities at the time, offered Flood a contract for the 2011 season. It was also the start of his striking relationship with Christy Fagan.
Just a year after joining Bohemians be earned his move abroad, this time to League Two club Southend United in England. He never got any momentum and manager Paul Sturrock refused to select him because he had been signed by the chief executive, and not him. In the end he was released at the end of the season, along with former West Ham and Rangers player Christian Dailly, having made only one appearance as a substitute. Flood returned to Ireland and re-signed with his first club; St. Patrick’s.
Going into the 2013 League of Ireland season it had been 14 years since St. Patrick’s had won the league. Flood remembers that within the squad there was a belief that they could challenge the current champions, Sligo Rovers. What would be integral to their title ambitions would be their strike force of Flood and Christy Fagan, his old teammate from Bohemians. The manager, Liam Buckley, employed a system that only had space for a lone striker, so both strikers shared the role that season and with devastating effect.
‘Liam got it right with us; I think he knew when to play us and he got the best out of us. There was sometimes when I was disappointed to be on the bench and Christy was starting and I’d say Christy felt the same as well. There’d be one week Christy would have a great game and then the next week I’d start and have a great game but we were happy, the team was winning, both of us were scoring goals – it was a great team’.
The rotation of both strikers worked wonders; Fagan scored 8 league goals while Flood got 10, together firing St. Patrick’s to their first league title in 14 years. An interesting aspect to the season was how Flood dealt with being a target man in a team that preferred to keep the ball on floor and play passing football.
‘At the start, when I had the pace, I played off the shoulder but when I went back to Pats you’d have Greg [Bolger] sitting in there with Killian [Brennan] out on front of him and John Russell as well and it was always, more or less, into feet and playing at angles. I enjoyed it, and when I settled into it and when I found my rhythm it was easier. It was a great side to play in, we moved the ball well and we scored some great goals.’
Prior to the beginning of the title winning campaign the decision was made that Flood and his fiancée, after years of sacrificing summer after summer in the pursuit of football, would go travelling and see the world. It would be bittersweet to miss out on playing in the Champions League but the decision to see the world brought them down under to Australia and Flood says that he undoubtedly benefitted from the experience.
‘It was a 3-year life experience, travelling the world it’s done wonders for me, I’ve an open mind coming back to Ireland.’
Upon his return to Ireland this year there was no doubt in Flood’s mind that he wanted to go back playing in the beautifully chaotic mess that is the League of Ireland. A return to Richmond Park and St. Patrick’s was on the cards but he eventually decided to sign for Bray Wanderers, because the manager, Harry Kenny, showed more desire in getting the deal over the line and the training setup with Bray suited him better.
The season had started brightly for Flood and Bray, with the normally relegation-threatened club fighting for a European place off the back of their off-season spending spree. It seemed too good to be true. As often is the case in the League of Ireland, it was exactly that.
On the 30th of June this year, the club’s main investor, Gerry Mulvey pulled the plug. Former Bray Wanderers chairman Denis O’Connor released the first of many baffling statements that night regarding the financial health of the club, as well as the very future existence of Bray Wanderers.
It was stereotypical League of Ireland behaviour, but now Flood was back in the middle of the instability and insecurity that plagues the domestic game in his home country, with particular scorn aimed at the FAI who consistently fail to act in regard to these situations.
The lads’ heads are gone, the lads just want to play football. It’s still happening to this day [clubs having financial trouble], it’s embarrassing really for the FAI to still have these problems. If you look at Iceland, the prize money they got from the Euros it’s all gone back into their league. What is the FAI doing with our money? When is it going back into our clubs? €5000 over a 5-year period, €20 a week, it’s ridiculous what they’re doing. The way I see it is, you need a football brain in charge of the FAI and I don’t think Delaney has ever kicked a ball in his life. He has all his men around him and has it all summed up, he’s not going to move from that position.’
He also pointed out that the confusion around the whole situation did not help the players who just wanted to know if they would have their wages on time.
We just asked for a simple request as players to get the money [to secure player wages] bonded, so the money is supposedly there. But we asked for that at the start of the transfer window and the lads were told; ‘Yeah, yeah it’s there’. But it just kept getting knocked back and the lads weren’t happy.
Then we were told we could leave and then that we couldn’t leave. It’s disappointing what’s happening out there now for me and all the lads. We were in great form and we had a good thing going. A lot of players were angry, we aren’t being told anything, we don’t even know who’s in charge of the club.
I’ve never been in a situation like this in my life. I’m there to play football and I just want to get the season over and see how we finish, hopefully we finish on a high because we’ve work great together as a group and it’s just sad that off pitch matters are after disturbing it’
You can’t help but feel sorry for the players in this debacle. They signed the contract that was put in front of them and they can’t be blamed for getting the best deal they could get. The fact that this situation was even allowed to get past the Club Licensing system on the back of a ‘letter of comfort’ provided by Gerry Mulvey stating that he would not pull his investment is another shameful indictment of the administrators of the domestic game Ireland.
Flood’s career has taken him to many places and giving him experiences to last a life-time. From humble beginnings at Shelbourne, via Sweden and England, to winning the league and having the best year of his career with St. Patrick’s, his career has had unbelievable highs and devastating lows. He says he has a few more playing years left in him but where they will be spent is anyone’s guess. Searching for stability in the League of Ireland is a challenge bigger than most, but the man they call ‘Bisto’ is still not finished making his mark on the “The Greatest League in The World”.