Noel Larkin Interview
Filed: 21/07/05 by Kevin O'Neill

Noel Larkin had a most successful career in League of Ireland football. The St. Patrick's Terrace native starred for Athlone Town, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City during an illustrious career that spanned over two decades, culminating in six League of Ireland titles, four FAI Cups, and four League Cups, as well as a Tyler All-Ireland Cup, making him Athlone's most successful ever footballer.

Now living in Australia, Noel returned to Athlone this week to visit some family and friends. And he took time out to speak to Westmeath Independent sports correspondent Kevin O'Neill about his honours-laden career.

Born in 1955 in Athlone, the son of Nuala Larkin (nee Quinn) and the late Frank Larkin, it was always going to be football for a young Noel.

Back then, football thrived in the town and you often struggled to get a game on the green behind St. Patrick's Terrace such was the thirst for the game among young sters. But being a nephew of Athione Town great, Jackie Quinn, and coming from a football mad family, Noel was always going to take to the playing field.

"My Dad played for years and was a big influence on me," Noel said, "and Jackie Quinn, my uncle, was also a massive influence. He played for Sligo Rovers during the sixties and I used to go to their games in the car with Jackie. He was a superb player.

"I started my football with Pioneers and loved it. There was a huge amount of young lads from our area playing for them, Cyril Barnicle, Sean Cummins, John Nicholson, Maft Scally and so on. We learned our trade by playing with grown-ups and watching the likes of Turlough O'Connor, who was a fantastic foothaller. I remember, though, Tom 'Bomber' Greene was possibly the best talent I ever saw. He had unbelievable skill."

Noel himself, though, also possessed terrific skill and everyone knew it. And before too long he was knocking on the door of his home town club Athlone Town.

"Everyone wanted to play for Athlone Town back then," he said, "that was the aim. And I was no different. I joined Athlone's reserves when I was 16. It was 1971 and I made my senior team debut just after my 17th birthday, it was against Shelbourne at Tolka Park. I actually played left-back and remember it well. I got a bit of a roasting in the first half by Terry Byrne, Pat Byrne's brother. But I got to grips with him in the second half and retained my place the following week against Dundalk in St. Mel's Park. That was a great day, making my home debut. I just kicked on from there then."

Noel's versatility was a major plus for Athlone down the years. In fact, he played in every outfield position during his time with the Town.

"Yeah, I played everywhere except in goal," he said, "I was never mad enough to play in goal. I left that to the like of Mick O'Brien," he joked.

The colourful Mick O'Brien was just one of many great characters and players in the Athlone dressing room when Noel broke into the side. Others included Eugene Davis, John Duffy, Carl Humphries, Dougie Wood and Andy Stephenson.

"It was fantastic to be involved with such great players," said Larkin, "and we did extremely well to finish second in the League of Ireland in 1974/75."

That second placed finish led to a UEFA Cup spot, the first time Athlone Town had qualified for European competition. They were drawn against Norwegian outfit Valarengen and Athlone comfortably dismissed of the Vikings challenge. Then the mother of all draws in the Second Round - Athlone Town v AC Milan. What was Noel's reaction to that?

"I thought it was incredible," he said. "We didn't really expect such a big name but we were all delighted to get Milan. They were full of international stars. It was a tremendous occasion for the town. Everyone was talking about the game, everyone was so excited. The press were all over Athlone. They couldn't get enough of us. The game was on a Wednesday afternoon and I think every Italian in Ireland was there. St. Mel's Park was packed. It was a great game and we really should have won.

"Obviously, John Minnock's penalty miss was unfortunate. But we had other chances and should have took one of them. In the end, they were happy to get away with a scoreless draw. It was an incredible result but, as I said, we really should have beaten them."

The second leg was a much more daunting affair. The famed Guiseppe Meazza Stadium in Milan, the San Siro, and 80,000 fanatical Rossenieri.

"It was some experience," said Noel, who was only 19 at the time. "The San Siro was full and it was very frightening. We walked out on the pitch before the game and loads of flares started shooting down from the stands. We had never come across this type of fanaticism before. It was a bit scary. We had also received lots of bad press from the Italian media because they felt we kicked their players too hard in Athlone. So there was quite a bit of bad feeling toward us. The fact our jerseys were the same colour as Inter Milan, their biggest rivals, seemed to annoy them even more!

"We played exceptionally well though and held them scoreless for most of the game. I think we conceded three in the last 20 minutes or so. We just caved in a bit. I played in the middle of midfield that night and marked Gianni Rivera, he was Italy's World Cup captain and was making his Milan return that night. That's why there was so many people in the stadium. He is a Milan legend. He came up to me after the game and told me I played well. That was nice and I'll never forget it."

Throughout his career, Noel developed a reputation for scoring spectacular goals. And there are two which stand out in his mind.

"One was against Linfield in St. Mel's Park," he said, "it was in the Tyler All-Ireland Cup. I got the ball just inside Linfield's half and saw Joey Dunlop, their 'keeper, off his line. I just decided to whack it and luckily it screamed in over Dunlop and into the top corner. I was delighted with that one. The other one was for the Irish Olympic team against France in 1987. The late Jackie Jameson was up front with me and he chested the ball down just inside their half. I struck it with my left foot and it just flew into the roof of the net. I was captain that night so it was extra special. Also, scoring goals in FAI Cup finals, which I managed to do throughout my career, was always special."

Noel was to play an enormous role in Athlone's first ever League of Ireland title win in 1980/81.

"I remember we had a great committee at the time. People like Seamus O'Brien, Johnny Keena, Noel Heavey, Michael Kent and Michael Francis, they were all brilliant. A few years earlier, they got Turlough O'Connor in as manager and we won the Tyler All-Ireland Cup. Then it just caught fire and we won the league by almost going unbeaten. It was fantastic and the people of Athlone deserved it. The celebrations were in the Marist gym after we won the title and it was packed. The players had to attend function after function and it was so special, a great time to be from Athlone. As a local lad, I was extremely proud."

Another title with Athlone followed in 1982/83 and Larkin finished the season as the club's top scorer.

"I suppose that made it extra special for me. I got the Soccer Writers' Player of the Year that year too so it was a superb season," he said.

However, things were about to come to a head between Athlone and Noel Larkin. All his career, his ver satility had seen him occupy every outfield position for Athlone. But such was his success as a striker in season 82/83, Larkin wanted to remain up front. Turlough, though, had sold Harry McCue, Athlone's centre half, to Dundalk and needed Larkin to fill in at the back.

"I did that for most of the 83/84 season and it was okay," he said, "but then Turlough put me back up front for the last six gamaes of the season. I really enjoyed it there and wanted to stay up front. But the following season, with Harry gone to Dundalk, Turlough kept switching me from back to front and I just had enough. I told him I wasn't playing anymore. Then Turlough agreed a fee with Jim McLaughlin at Shamrock Rovers and I agreed to join them.

"It was a bit disappointing the way it ended with Athlone but I got over it quickly. I had joined the biggest and most successful club in Ireland and Jim McLaughlin , a genius really, had developed some side at Rovers. I scored on my Rovers debut and then got the winner in the FAI Cup final that year. It was perfect."

Noel went on to win three league and cup doubles with Shamrock Rovers and cemented his name in the Hoops' glorious history.

In 1988, though, Larkin was among four Rovers p1ayers to join Jim McLaughlin at Derry City.

"It went wrong for Rovers when they left Milltown," he said, "and Jim McLaughlin decided to go to Derry City with the sole ambition of winning a title. He told me 'you've got to come up here and win a title, you'll be a legend'."

Amazingly, Derry City created history that year by becoming the only League of Ireland club to win the League, League Cup and FAI Cup.

"It was something else," says Noel, "we had a really good side and the people of Derry were in heaven. We started out with the aim of winning of the league but the treble was unreal."

Australia called then though. "Michael O'Connor had been out there playing foothall and made some good contacts. I planned to retire after winning the treble with Derry City, I was 34, but a couple of clubs from Perth contacted me. I decided to give it a go and negotiated a deal to play for Speanvood Dalmatina. My wife, Marian and our two kids came out after about two months when I was settled. And we have been there ever since. It's a great country.

Noel also spent four years at Sterling Macedonia, winning another League and Cup double, and eventually hung up the boots at the age of 38.

"I went into coaching then until 1998 but the company I work for, Castrol moved to Queensland and I had to move there. There is a lot of commitment needed for the job so I have not been involved in football since 98'. I don't really have any plans to get back in the game, the job with BP, who bought out Castrol a few years ago, is too time consuming."

Noel is now living in Brisbane with Marian and their two children, Eamon (22) and Niamh (21). © Westmeath Independent

 designed by ray egan © 2002-2006 athlone town football club