With Exiles back in London after 20 years in Reading we look back on the club’s 1999/00 season at The Stoop as tenants, when you didn’t have to Irish to enjoy the Craic
After 20 years of playing its home games in Reading, the Exiles are coming home to London – to the Brentford Community Stadium.
Declan Kidney’s London Irish side will run out there for the very first time on Sunday, when they face Leicester Tigers in the Gallagher Premiership.
Just the other side of Kew Bridge from The Stoop, the team’s homecoming is sure to stir memories of the club’s season at the home of Harlequins in 1999/00.
A year when Irish won matches, the Guinness flowed, the fans partied, and The Stoop was turned green.
“…..there will be people of a certain vintage who remember the time London Irish were ground-sharing at The Stoop and it was the hottest ticket in town on a Saturday afternoon. If you can get back to those times……”
The words of Declan Kidney in an interview he gave to the Irish Independent on the eve of last year’s season.
And what a season it was, as word soon spread of the Craic being had at London Irish’s ‘home’ games in the heartland of English rugby.
Those Saturday afternoons (and nights) are indeed the stuff of London Irish legend.
For London Irish’s former media manager Paddy Lennon, 1999/00 remains a seminal season in the club’s history, vindicating as it did Irish’s decision to leave its spiritual home at The Avenue in Sunbury-on Thames.
For all its charm, the Exiles had outgrown it.
In the season before the move to The Stoop (1988/99), Irish attracted crowds of 6,700 against Saracens, 6,600 versus Bath and 6,000 for Gloucester. Match days were “madness” says Lennon.
In 1998, Spelthorne Council shut down an approach by the club about the possibility of developing the ground – located in the middle of a residential area – to increase capacity.
The council’s stance left Irish with no other option but to look elsewhere.
The club’s ensuing search included knocking on the door of both Chelsea and Fulham to enquire about a ground-share. Both said “no”.
That led Irish to The Stoop, where they found Harlequins more agreeable. A two-year deal was signed, with a break clause after 12 months. For Irish, it bought the club time to find a more permanent solution.
Before a pass was thrown, or a tackle made, London Irish made their first telling signing of the 1999/00 season, Aer Lingus.
As part of £1.25m worth of sponsorship deals agreed by the club, the airline was unveiled as its new main sponsor in a two-year deal.
One of the driving forces behind it was Paddy Lennon, who worked for the airline for 15 years, both directly and as a consultant. It was a major coup.
The branding of Aer Lingus – with its shamrock and green – lent itself perfectly to Irish’s plan to turn The Stoop green on match days.
“London Irish literally took over The Stoop and made it their home,” says Lennon – a member of London Irish since the late 1970s who was brought in as media manager by Dick Best in 1996.
“People arriving would be doing a double take as to whether it was Harlequins’ ground, or London Irish’s.”
Aer Lingus would emblazon London Irish’s new Cotton Traders jersey – baggy shirts were still in vogue.
The new strips incorporated the logos of both London Scottish and Richmond, following the merging of the three clubs’ professional arms to form one ‘super club’ – effectively a takeover by London Irish.
The logos of Richmond appeared on Irish’s shorts – next to them was the words The Craic.
At the time, the investment by Aer Lingus was the largest ever by an Irish company in Britain. Keeping the Irish company and brand theme going, Allied Irish Bank and Guinness were also on board, to be joined later by JCB – the first non-Irish international company to become involved with London Irish.
Amongst other things, JCB would sponsor the Exiles’ new mascot – Digger the Wolfhound.
“We are determined that all rugby followers will want to experience The Craic at The Stoop this season,” said London Irish chairman Geoff Read.
“Home and visiting supporters will enjoy more than 80 minutes of great rugby when they come to see us play.”
The Craic at The Stoop was one of a few hugely successful marketing slogans which became synonymous with the Exiles’ season at The Stoop – along with More than 80 minutes of Rugby and You don’t have to Irish to enjoy The Craic.
The work of the club’s sales and marketing manager Malcolm Ball, they clearly all struck a chord, as Irish recorded record season ticket sales. 1055 season tickets were sold in pre-season, compared to 110 for the same period the previous year.
The announcement of Irish’s off-the-field dealings combined with director of rugby Dick Best’s squad being officially announced for the forthcoming Allied Dunbar Premiership One campaign, with the team posing for a photo on The Stoop pitch.
New arrivals included Brent Cockbain, who’d go on to win 24 caps for Wales, but the squad was largely the one which had helped Irish to finish seventh the previous season.
Among five development players signed was current London Irish assistant coach Declan Danaher.
“That season was brilliant; we won a lot of games there, and it was a fantastic experience,” recalls Danaher.
“I remember Kieran Campbell, who was a friend of mine, scoring a couple of tries in one game, and the sheer excitement of seeing him do that.”
The Exiles’ squad included Jarrod Cunningham, Justin Bishop, Niall Woods, Stephen Bachop, Brendan Venter, Kieran Campbell, Neil Hatley, Adrian Flavin, Ryan Strudwick, Jake Boer, Kieran Dawson and Isaac ‘Zak’ Fe’aunati, who went on to star in Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus, alongside Hollywood A-listers Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
The captain? Conor O’Shea. Who else?
Danaher recalls a squad of “brothers” – a “tight bunch of players” – who “didn’t fear any team and played some unbelievable attacking rugby”.
The unfortunate Woods would pick up a cruciate ligament injury playing for a Premiership 15 against England, in their final World Cup warm up match, and miss much of the season.
The Exiles, themselves, had six players on World Cup duty – Julian Loveday (Canada), Isaac Fe’aunati, Stephen Bachop (both Samoa), Malcolm O’Kelly, Kieron Dawson and Justin Bishop (all Ireland).
“It was like the United Nations – we had 11 players from 11 different countries. They called themselves a Band of Brothers,” recalls Dick Best.
“It was a good place to be and a very happy time.”
After back-to-back wins on the road, away to Saracens and Bedford, the Exiles started life at The Stoop with a bang, hammering 1997/98 champions Newcastle Falcons 56-8 in front of 3,951 spectators.
It sent the Exiles top of Allied Dunbar Premiership One for the first time in the club’s history. The Craic was certainly mighty at The Stoop that night.
“That created the momentum and drew people to come and watch us,” says London Irish and Ireland winger Justin Bishop.
For Best, it was a winning yet “bizarre” return to the ground he’d spent 23 years as player, coach and director of rugby, before taking over the reins at London Irish in 1996.
Defeats followed to Wasps, Leicester (by a point) and Northampton Saints, while there was a draw at Bath.
In the first of the season’s battle of landlords versus tenants, it was Quins who came out on top (17-16).
“It was strange,” says Justin Bishop. “When it was our home game the ground was branded up green, and then for their home game it was branded up as Harlequins.”
There were extraordinary revelations at hand after the Quins defeat, with Dick Best confirming that Irish were one of six Premiership sides interested in signing New Zealand World Cup star Jonah Lomu, no less.
The cups provided Irish with some of their sweetest moments that year – none more so than a 47-7 Tetley Bitter Cup Round 5 humbling of Leicester Tigers at The Stoop on 29 January 2000.
Kieran Campbell (2), Rob Gallacher, Neal Hatley and Richard Kirke all crossed, while a “near-faultless” Jarrod Cunningham kicked 22 points.
The Stoop reverberated to the sound of The Fields of Athenry and O’Shea, O’Shea, O’Shea.
“That ranks as one of the best results by that team,” reflects Dick Best. “We were riding high on the field, and it was very enjoyable off it.”
It was Leicester’s worst cup defeat for 28 years. Coached by Dean Richards, the Tigers team included the likes of Neil Back, Pat Howard, Ben Kay, Martin Corry, Graham Rowntree, Dorian West, Lewis Moody, Will Greenwood, Richard Cockerill and Austin Healey.
Irish “tore the cream of English rugby talent apart with a full blooded tigerish display” wrote the Irish World. Best’s side “dismantled the Tigers with sheer guts, precision and controlled aggression”.
While Leicester supremo Dean Richards pointed to his side’s schedule of three games in seven days as a contributing factor, Best was quick to retort, “they (Leicester) had three games in seven days, whereas we had three games in six days”.
The Tigers had been well and truly tamed.
Off the pitch, London Irish’s match days were already becoming the stuff of legend. As soon as the final whistle blew, the crowd packed into the bar under The Stoop’s East Stand.
Standing room only, but no one seemed to care. Tony Wogan even made an appearance on one occasion.
It was a simple formula; a live rugby match, followed by a few drinks and a live Irish band. It worked; word of mouth did the rest.
Central to this was a group of young London-born Irish musicians going under the name Sláinte.
Ronan (guitar and vocals) and Ruairi McManus (bass), and a “dream team trad section” of Andy Nolan (accordion), Brian Kelly (banjo), Kane O’Rourke (fiddle) and Joe Moran (flute).
They’d also all learnt their music from the late and legendary Brendan Mulkere.
Aside from the band’s drummer, Tipperary-native Chris Kerrigan, they were all in their early twenties and their sound was the “perfect combination of London and Irish”. Irish trad mixed with rock.
They blasted out everything from Oasis to rap, to an appreciative audience.
It was a line-up that only performed together on London Irish match days, and would later morph in to The Biblecode Sundays.
What was going on beneath the East Stand, built on the post-match Craic in the old Top Bar at Sunbury. It was indeed, ‘More than 80 minutes of Rugby’.
For lead singer Ronan McManus the 1999/00 season was the “perfect storm” of a lot of things all coming together. The Stoop was the perfect size, and the perfect location.
“Everyone wanted to be part of it – everyone wanted to be there,” he said.
“I had friends who weren’t Irish or rugby fans, who became London Irish supporters that season. It was just a massive party every other Saturday.
“The crowd played just as much a part as the band and it felt like we were all on the same side. But I don’t know what we were against!”
Musicians would just turn up and join them on stage. McManus recalls Peter Couglan from the band Hungry Grasstrying to stage dive off the balcony in the East Stand bar, only to land on his head.
“It was an amazing time; I think we ruined their new floor, which they’d only just had done, with Guinness,” he adds.
In February, Conor O’Shea was one of those to pay the price for Ireland’s 50-18 defeat to England at Twickenham in the opening round of the Six Nations. Warren Gatland left him out of Ireland’s next game against Scotland.
London Irish’s captain fantastic responded by scoring two tries against Quins, as the loud and noisy tenants at TW2 7SX put one over their landlords – the Exiles storming to a 39-14 win.
It was O’Shea’s 70-metre score – the first of his brace – that “really brought the place to life”.
For Lennon, the two games with Harlequins provided some of the standout moments from that season.
“There were other great games – beating Wasps and winning 47-7 against Leicester in the cup in front of 6,161 people – but those two fixtures will always stand out in my head,” said Lennon.
The Exiles followed that by storming into the semi-finals of the Tetley Bitter Cup, with a 34-18 win over league leaders Gloucester at The Stoop in front of 6,640.
The Cherry and Whites had handed the Exiles a 40-15 beating at Kingsholm only a few months earlier.
The following Monday’s semi-final cup draw pitted the Exiles against Northampton Saints on 8 April at Reading’s Madejski Stadium – the ground that would later become Irish’s home for 20 years.
That same Monday, O’Shea was at The Galtymore in Cricklewood to receive an Irish World Millennium Award. O’Shea would later be named Allied Dunbar Player of the Month for February.
In the club’s last match before St Patrick’s Day, the Exiles were thumped 64-16 by Bath. The game, though, attracted 7,174 to The Stoop on 11 March. Dick Best called it a “good old-fashioned flogging”.
It was Irish’s biggest league crowd of the season and laid the foundations for the club’s famed St Patrick’s Party matches at the Madejski.
The defeat to Bath left Irish in seventh place in the table, after 15 Rounds. Europe, though, remained the club’s target.
For St Patrick’s, London Irish headed to Savannah, Georgia, for the second biggest St Patrick’s Parade, courtesy of club sponsor JCB.
“It took us three hours to get through the parade,” O’Shea told the Irish World at the time. “It makes you realise how spread out the Irish community is, and how many people want to be Irish.”
They returned to a 41-16 mauling from Leicester at Welford Road, as the Tigers got revenge for their cup defeat.
But the European Shield offered the Exiles another route to silverware. And Best’s side still had plenty to play for as the season moved into April.
April, though, would bring only cup semi-final heartache for Irish. In Reading, Northampton ended the Exiles’ Tetley Bitter Cup hopes by inflicting a 24-17 defeat.
O’Shea’s 70th minute converted try raised Irish hopes of forcing extra-time, but it proved to be the last score of the game. The Twickenham cup final dream was over.
Somehow the Exiles found it within themselves to bounce back seven days later at Ebbw Vale in the sides’ European Shield quarter-final.
Jarrod Cunningham’s injury-time penalty gave Irish a 21-20 win over the Welsh side to send them into a semi-final showdown with French side Castres in Colomiers.
“I asked the referee how much time was left and he said ‘that was that’, so I knew if I missed the game was over,” said Cunningham, who tragically passed away in July 2007 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease five years earlier.
Irish were starting to run out of gas. The long season was beginning to take its toll.
A heavy 41-27 defeat to Saracens in front of 6,067 at The Stoop dealt Irish’s Allied Dunbar top five, and European Cup, hopes a severe blow.
To compound matters, Castres then ended the Exiles’ bid to reach a first-ever European Cup final – the French side coming out on top 40-30 in the sides’ semi-final.
London’s Irish final home game of that season was a celebratory affair, as the Exiles signed off with a party. There were appearances by the likes London Irish Ceili Band, The Popes and even world-famous Tenor Luciano Pavarotti!
Aer Lingus reportedly flew in a record number of passengers for the game, while coach loads of supporters were making the journey from Cardiff and Edinburgh just for one last chance to sample The Craic at The Stoop.
There was also a crack at breaking the club’s own record number of pints of Guinness consumed. That figure stood at 17,800. Mission accepted by the 5,172 crowd.
“I can’t see that being a problem,” said the club’s sales and marketing director Malcolm Ball.
Sat on the bench that day was a young Declan Danaher. He didn’t get onto the pitch, but he recalls it lit a fire within him.
“Not getting on made me realise how hard I was going to have to work for the opportunity, and when I did get that opportunity again it probably meant more to me,” says Danaher.
After the game, the club bid farewell to Brendan Venter, as he returned to South Africa. A low-key presentation to him in the London Irish dressing room. No fanfare on the pitch, because “that’s just the kind of guy he was” says Lennon.
Two years later, Venter would return to help the club to Powergen Cup success.
For the record, Leicester Tigers retained the Allied Dunbar title, and Bedford Blues were relegated. Irish finished in eighth place (played 22, nine wins, one draw and 12 losses).
But for many the 1999/00 season was all about The Craic at The Stoop.
There would be no second season though; Harlequins cancelled an option for a second year. The tenants had upstaged the landlords, as the story goes. Irish were just “too successful” reflects Paddy Lennon.
“Quins were going through a bad patch and more and more Harlequins supporters were coming to watch London Irish. It opened their eyes to the Craic,” says Dick Best.
“Harlequins got annoyed and they exercised the break clause because we were embarrassing them to a certain extent as to how a rugby club should run.”
In total, Irish’s 15 home games that 1999/00 season – league and cups – attracted 69,992 spectators. A 23 per cent increase on the previous season at Sunbury.
Best adds: “It was a real shame [there was no second season]; there was an awful lot of Irish people living around that area and our games had become a good social community gathering, and the rugby wasn’t too bad either.”
The Madejski Stadium offered London Irish a life-raft.
What that solitary season at The Stoop did was show the huge potential for the club in that area of London. Apt then that when the Exiles return ‘home’ to London on Sunday, and the Brentford Community Stadium, they will do so just a Jarrod Cunningham punt or two from The Stoop.