• Aaron Renehan

Morton Stadium to Immortalization: How one Irishman's name will live long in the famed Tehran Derby

Updated: Mar 23

When the topic of football rivalries comes into discussion one may find it hard to think past the notorious examples such as; the Old Firm which sees Celtic Football Club take on their local and most despised city counterparts in Glasgow Rangers, El Clásico which displays the ferociousness and tenacity of fans from the fiery Spanish cities of Madrid and Barcelona, or possibly the Superclásico, a bitter rivalry between the Buenos Aires clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate which is similar in name to the previous, but also in stature as this game is renowned in the world of football for producing one of the most electrifying atmospheres in the game.

One that may slip the mind of all football faithful's out there is the lesser-known Tehran Derby. Deemed the 22nd most important football derby by World Soccer, the Red-Blue Derby as it is more commonly known as, features two of the most successful teams in not only the city but also country as the Red of Persepolis and the Blue side of Esteghlal account for a total of 20 national titles since the league's foundation in 1970. Esteghlal the 8-time winners have found scattered success during the league's 50-year tenure posing great sides of the 1970s and 2000s including the now current manager and former Asian Footballer of the Year runner-up Farhad Majidi who carved out an excellent career as a professional in his native land.

Persepolis the more decorated of the sides claim 12 of those Iranian Pro League titles, the most recent of which came in the 2018-19 season, showcasing the clubs ever strong ability to find and produce talented footballers. Numerous players have worn the beloved Persepolis red, most notoriously Ali Daei, a Guinness World Record holder known for his incredible goalscoring feats at international level which have left him poised at the top of the all-time leading international goalscorers list, with a staggering 109 goals. In more recent memory, Karim Ansarifard whos 90th-minute equaliser stunned a confident Portuguese side with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2018 Fifa World Cup, also showcased his ability at this very proud club.

The Azadi Stadium plays host to both of these historic Persian outfits, with both sets of fans flocking in their thousands to watch whosever team is at home that weekend. However, when this turns out to be both, an extra level of noise, support and hostility radiates the entire city. Crowds of over 90,000 spectators will blow the roof off the ground-shared Azadi Stadium on any given derby day, the 20,000 unfortunate ones without tickets will be left to cheer on their respected sides from the outside, whilst millions more will tune in from the numerous provinces across the nation.

So when League Of Ireland striker Éamon Zayed was togging out for the newly formed Irish league side Sporting Fingal during their initial rise, in front of roughly 85,500 fewer fans each week in Dublin's Morton Stadium, one may never have seen the heights this so-called 'journeyman' was yet to reach. Born in Dublin to a Tunisian father with Libyan roots, Zayed started his career in the Irish amateur leagues playing for clubs such as St. Joseph's Boys and Broadford Rovers. An unsuccessful spell at the Leicester City academy left Zayed with little choice but to return to the Emerald Isle where he would go on to make his breakthrough at Bray Wanderers with loan spells at Crewe Alexandra and Norwegian side Aaelesunds along the way. Zayed had a knack for scoring goals, and it was when he made his move to Drogheda United that his talent for finding the net began to flourish, with his goals proving pivotal for the Drogs on the way to winning their one and only League of Ireland Premier Division title in 2007.

Just a year later with the Louth based side finding itself in financial difficulties, Zayed received a call from Sporting Fingal, the new kids on the block. He didn't have to travel far just a quick trip down the M1 to the booming Fingal area in which this new affluent club was being for want of a better word 'constructed'. An Irish soccer experiment one might call it, and it worked! well, sort of. Zayed continued to do what he does best, scoring numerous times for Fingal on their way to achieving promotion to the Premier Division in only their 2nd season. 2009 proved to be an astonishing year for Fingal as alongside this promotion, they only went and won the cup too. Zayed played his part again scoring two goals in the semi-finals against his former side Bray to secure a 4-2 victory at Morton Stadium, setting up a tie against Sligo Rovers in the final. The biggest game in the club's small history was decided by two late Fingal goals giving them a 2-1 victory over Sligo and thus securing a Europa League qualifying place in only their third ever season. Not many clubs can boast that.

Drawn against C.S. Maritimo of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, an obvious class difference between the two leagues was apparent. However, over the two legs, Sporting Fingal almost completely matched their opponent's skillset losing narrowly, both home and away to an eventual 6-4 aggregate win for the men from the island of Madeira. Coming on as a substitute in the 2nd leg, Zayed bagged himself 2 goals including a sublime finish after he had completely turned 3 defenders, however, it was not to be for Liam Buckley's men.

Things went from bad to worse for this Sporting side after their incredible achievements of the season prior, as bills began to pile up. The Irish economy collapse and recession of 2010 did not help things either and soon enough Sporting Fingal became just another name added to the list of Irish clubs who went bust. With all players left clubless, the likes of Eamon Zayed, Ronan Finn, and now Millwall and Irish international Shaun Williams being available, it is no doubt that opposition managers would have been licking their lips at the possibility of poaching such good national players.

It was Derry City who was graced with the goalscoring exploits of Zayed in what proved to be his best-ever season in the League of Ireland. In his first season at the Candystripes, in-form Zayed's 23 league goals contributed massively to another chance at possible Europa League Qualification and also a massive league cup victory over Cork City. On a more personal side of things, his achievements included grabbing the PFAI Players Player of the Year award, but most notably his call-up to the Libyan National Football team. Making his debut in a friendly against Niger, it was this along with 3 more caps in the 2011 Pan Arab Games which drastically changed his career forever.

Zayed was brought to the attention of the Persepolis scouts, and subsequently, he was signed without even a trial taking place. A brave move which turned out to be rewarded in spectacular fashion. It was February 2nd, 2012, Persepolis had not completed a victory over their blue rivals in the last 4 meetings between the two sides. The red side of the city had grown both anxious and impatient waiting for this triumph over their bitter rivals. Well, who would have predicted that a Dubliner was about to write his name into the Iranian football history books forever?

Unknown to most, Zayed had only played 10 minutes in his previous match coming on as a late substitute. Things had a familiar feel to it in this derby game with Zayed again taking his position on the Persepolis bench just hoping for a chance to make a name for himself, in what was to him a strange and foreign league. “Iran? You’re not serious, are you?''. This hope may have turned to doubt, as Persepolis found themselves a man down and trailing 2-0 with just 10 minutes of normal time remaining. Step forward Eamon Zayed, coming off the bench, this Persepolis side was about to throw the kitchen sink at it.

82nd minute, a long ball up the pitch fell kindly in front of Zayed who proceeded to whiz past his marker, slotting kindly past the keeper into the far left corner of the net. Those Persepolis fans pictured leaving the ground stopped dead in their tracks. 2-1, and game on! Just a minute later, Zayed latches onto Mehdi Mahdavikia's cross from the right side putting it beyond the keeper into that very same left-hand corner. The equalizer, and with that came eruption from the crowd. Fans who were walking out, sprinted immediately back to their seats. 2-2, 6 minutes plus stoppage time remaining! A draw on the cards.

92nd minute. The dying embers of the match. Both sides contributing to a classic, however, in came the spirit of the fighting Irish. Persepolis winger Hossein Badamaki worked his magic down the left before delivering what one might call a 'pea-roller' of a cross into the opposition's box, straight to the feet of the man on a hat-trick. Still, with a lot to do, Zayed turned on a sixpence, shifting the ball onto his stronger right and firing past Iranian international and Esteghlal goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati for the 3rd time since his introduction just 10 minutes prior. Straight into that very same corner, like a magnet was in the ball. With this goal came the pandemonium often associated with a last-minute winner. However, this was different. The jubilation could be seen all across the red side of the ground. Substitute players and coaching staff running onto the pitch to join Zayed in his celebrations, fans in a state of ecstasy knowing they had just completed one of the greatest turnarounds, if not 'the greatest' in the Tehran Derby history. Zayed later recounted to the Irish Independent how one young fan unfortunately even had a heart attack due to the shock value which came with the goal. The craziest moment in Zayed's much-respected career no doubt.

After this everything became a whirlwind for the virtually unknown striker. even named him as their World Player of the Week. Zayed was showered with love and affection from the passionate fans and players of Persepolis, putting into perspective the enormity of what he had just done, he recalled hilariously that:

''When I got back to the hotel there was a wedding on and the people wanted me to join them as a special guest. An old man offered me $100. He told me how grateful he was and that he wanted to give me a gift. And this being Iran, it wasn’t the drink talking''.

Still to this day, the 10-10-3 game as fans more commonly know it is, will forever be remembered in this fantastic football-loving city, but more importantly, of course, is the man who stole the show. Invitations to dinner, praise, showered in compliments, you just have to take a look at his Instagram comment section a whole 8 years later to put into perspective the magnitude of those 3 goals he grabbed that night. Zayed's work wasn't finished at his new club as he went on to score 2 more hat-tricks for the club including one in the AFC Champions League against Emarati side Al-Shabab, finishing with a season total of 12. He was dubbed 'Mr. Hat-Trick' in the Persian language. After 2 years at Persopolis, he made a move to another Iranian side Aluminium Hormozgan for a total of 7 months, before deciding to return to Ireland plying his trade for Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers. A quick year in Malaysia for Sabah FA brought Zayed's goalscoring ability back to the continent of Asia, and in more recent times Zayed has enjoyed himself greatly in the United States playing in the NASL & USL leagues just below the MLS for Indy Eleven, Charlotte Independence and finally, Chattanooga Red Wolves where he remains today in only the club's 2nd ever season.

Nevertheless, it is in the Iranian capital of Tehran where natives will adore him for eternity. The name Eamon Zayed will long be remembered in this ancient city, provoking memories of joy and jubilation for those in red, whilst for those who sport the blue colours of Esteghlal, possibly nightmares. The Prince of Persia meets Molly Malone.


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