The following article originally appeared in Newcastle United fanzine The Popular Side in May 2016
I have a confession to make; despite being a regular reader of this fine fanzine, I’m not a Newcastle United fan, and have yet to visit your wonderful city. When people think of Newcastle United, the first thing they will usually think of is one of the following: the fanatical support, the iconic number 9 shirt, the globally recognisable barcode shirts, the famous Gallowgate End, Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Supermac, Kev Keegan’s Entertainers that came oh so close to glory, dramatic 4-3 defeats to Liverpool, Local Hero, Inter-City Fairs Cup winners, Bobby Robson’s class and dignity, Mike Ashley and his garish takeover, fan’s protests, supporters punching horses.
But not me. No; when I think of Newcastle United, the first thing that goes through my mind is one Jim Crawford. The Chicago-born Irishman may have had a limited impact during his 2-game spell on Tyneside (including a cameo appearance at Anfield in one of the aforementioned 4-3 games) but when he returned to his hometown of Dublin he played a key role in leading my club, Shelbourne, to four League of Ireland championships in 6 seasons, but is probably most fondly remembered by Reds for sticking with the club in 2007 when the club faced financial meltdown and it’s very existence was in jeopardy. Jim’s status as a cult hero was secured in that dark year of 07 as he played on a seriously reduced salary as a favour to the club that resurrected his playing career, leading a team of players sourced from our underage set up and cast offs from other sides. For probably 99% of you reading this who don’t know, Shelbourne are a League of Ireland football club and are presently based in Tolka Park, Drumcondra, a suburb close to the north inner-city. Since 2003, we’ve played a summer season; with the campaigns kicking off in March and coming to a climax in October. We are generally considered to be one of the so-called Big 4 Dublin clubs, with Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers (Ringsend’s 2nd team) and St. Patrick’s Athletic our city and main rivals.
I was very lucky in that I started following Shels as a kid in the early 90s. I gorged on those success and trophy-laden times, I experienced all the glory years. Silverware in the form of League Championships, FAI Cups and League Cups were amassed, European football was a near constant for a decade and a half and a poor season was considered to be a third place league finish. Title races, cup finals, big games, and relatively big crowds. In my late teens and early 20s I was fortunate enough to go on a number of European aways, visiting such far-flung places like Iceland, Spain, and, errr, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We also experienced the novelty of having our UEFA Cup home fixture against Rangers in July 1998 moved from Drumcondra to beautiful Birkenhead, for “security reasons”, an experience in itself. We actually took a shock 3-0 lead that memorable night in Prenton Park before succumbing to a Rangers onslaught led by Jorg Albertz and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, and losing 5-3. Unlike a lot of my mates who go the match, I had no prior link to Shelbourne- neither my father or grandfather supported them; I had no family in, or link to, Ringsend. I had no distant relation who donned the red shirt with the three castles on it. No; I followed the Reds of my own volition, when I was 10 they were the best team in the League of Ireland, with the best players, best stadium, had all the links to the glamorous English clubs by way of preseason friendlies, and wore an iconic Red strip that screamed serious football club. They were the nearest team to where I grew up as a kid and many of the lads in my class in primary school spent their Monday mornings raving about the previous Friday evening’s trip to Tolka Park. It wasn’t a tough choice. As soon as I started going regularly with mates from school, I was hooked. The sight of the floodlights as you approach the ground along the winding Richmond Road, Tolka Park encased by terraced houses on one side and factories and industrial space on the other, the echo of the PA into the gloomy night sky, the click of the turnstiles as the impatient masses queued to get in, stepping into the ground and seeing a terrace behind one goal and seats down the far end, the smell of the hotdogs and oxtail soup emanating from Moore’s shop behind the Ballybough End of the ground, the anticipation of seeing the teams burst out of the old dressing rooms onto the park. I was hooked. Better times for sure. Things are a bit different these days with the club currently sitting mid table in the second tier of what passes for the pyramid system of Irish football. We’ve won the League of Ireland Championship 13 times and FAI Cup on 7 occasions, and we still remain the 2nd most successful club in Irish football, despite spending the last decade in the doldrums. Nowadays, I’m a member of the supporters trust, the 1895 Trust, as well as Reds Independent, the independent supporters group who produce the fanzine Red Inc., the longest-running fanzine in Irish football, and I’d also have links to the Ultras group, Briogáid Dearg.
Shelbourne FC was founded during the dying embers of the 19th Century in 1895, by a group of lads- including James Rowan, Patrick Finn, and the Wall brothers, with Rowan being the main protagonist- who lived around the Bath Avenue area of southeast inner-city Dublin, taking its name from the nearby Shelbourne Road. From the start, the colour Red was adopted as the club’s colour, leading us to having those original twin nicknames- Shels, or the Reds. Like all good football clubs, Shels were at the heart of a working class community, established to represent the working people of the fishing village Ringsend, and thus can legitimately lay claim to being the original working class club of the city, with the club drawing its support from dock workers, plus labourers and carters, from the South of the city but also the North inner city. Many of the club’s first players worked on the docks and were casual workers. In contrast to our rivals on the Northside, Bohemians- who were established to represent the professional middle classes and drew it’s supporters, members and players from the professional classes such as doctors, accountants, solicitors and vets- the Reds represented the working man and were often referred to as ‘the Dockers team’ in the early days. From the very start, there was a social divide on class lines.
Our first pitch was located beside the present day stadium at Lansdowne Road. Shels joined the then all-Ireland Irish Football League in 1904 and was one of the founding members of the League of Ireland in 1921. As you would expect for a football club established over a quarter of a century before the modern Irish State was even founded, Shels are steeped in history and our rich history is intertwined with that of this city and country. In 1913, Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union organised and mobilised one of the largest workers’ strikes in Irish trade union history, with the noble aims of improving working conditions and the right to unionise. At the beginning of the 1913 Lockout in September of the same year, Shels opened their new ground at the Ringsend Road end of the Southlotts Road, named Shelbourne Park, with a game against local rivals Bohs. Tensions were high in the city with the outbreak of the Tram dispute, and it was reported that a picket of about a hundred tramway men were had gathered outside the ground. There were a number of strike-breaking scabs in the Bohs’ ranks (denounced openly in Larkin’s own newspaper Irish Worker) and it was little surprise the picketing workers kicked off at these parasites, and a riot ensued. With the Shels’ staunch working class support, and the location of the game, it’s fair to assume that some of the picketers would have held Red allegiances and would have been non too impressed with scabs visiting their neighbourhood. Formed by the bourgeoisie, populated with scabs- that’s Bohs for you! In a similar vein, a few years later, Shelbourne’s Metropolitan Cup Final against Bohemians in Dalymount Park was postponed due to the small matter of the Easter Rising in April 1916. If you ever visit our home ground in Tolka Park, you can see newspaper clippings from that week adorning the walls of the club bar. Or in 1921, when the country was to be partitioned following the War of Independence and Civil War. Shelbourne were to play a central role in the split in Irish football. Up to that point, football on the island was governed by the IFA, which had been founded in 1880 as the governing body for football for the whole of Ireland. Tensions between the North and South were strained and exacerbated by the War of Independence, which disrupted contact between northern and southern clubs and prevented resumption of the Irish League. Shels were Cup holders at the time and travelled to the North to play Glenavon in the cup semi-final, and the understrength Reds team earned a scoreless draw. Convention dictated that the replay would take place in Dublin, but the IFA ordered that the replay would also take place in Belfast, claiming that Dublin was in an unsettled state as a result of the ongoing violence. The Reds refused. This was the climax of a series of disputes about the alleged Belfast bias of the IFA, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Despite some last minute back-pedalling from the Belfast clubs, the die was cast. The FAI was formed in Dublin in September 1921 by the Free State League (League of Ireland), founded the previous June, and the Leinster FA, which had withdrawn from the IFA in June.
Football on this island would be fundamentally changed forever. It wouldn’t be very Irish without a split, would it?
League titles were won in every decade from the 1920s until the 1960s, when the Club entered a serious trophy drought. This was accompanied by severe financial difficulties, with the Club having to be re-elected to the league on a number of occasions. Throughout this period, a number of private owners ran the Club, and directors using personal funds to cover losses at the Club were a common occurrence, which is also ongoing up to the present day. There were also a number of ground relocations, making growth of the Club’s fanbase difficult due to it not being settled in one geographic area. Success only returned to the Reds in the early 1990s, when Ollie Byrne, revived its fortunes, with the financial backing of businessman Tony Donnelly. Located in Tolka Park, which was upgraded to become a state of the art facility by League of Ireland standards, Shels ended a 30 year drought and won the league championship in 1992, when Pat Byrne led us to the promised land, with FAI Cup triumphs following in 1993, 1996 and 1997. The most successful period in the Club’s existence commenced in 2000, with a League and Cup double. The Club won five league titles in eight seasons from 1999/2000-2006, as well as a famous run in the Champions’ League in 2004, which saw Hajduk Split dramatically knocked out on balmy August evening at Tolka and Deportivo LaCoruna- Champions League semi-finalists a few months previous and conquerors of holders AC Milan- held goalless until the final 30 minutes of the second leg, with a place in the lucrative CL group stages beckoning. This period also saw Shels incurring significant financial losses, running into the millions. A highly complex property deal, intended to fund current expenditure at the Club as well as provide a new stadium, started to unravel in 2006, with a winding up order also being issued by the Revenue Commissioners for unpaid taxes. A falling out between Byrne and one of the primary investors in the deal lead to funds being cut off and the Club’s ability to continue as a going concern was questioned by the auditors. Byrne’s health also deteriorated during this time, and responsibility for running the Club fell to a number of other directors and shareholders in the Club. Denied a license to compete in the Premier Division, despite being the reigning champions, the Club were forced to compete in the First Division for the 2007 season. Apart from two seasons since then (2012 and 2013), the Club has remained outside the top tier, struggling for crowds and carrying a significant legacy debt.
Some of the illustrious names privileged enough to wear the famous Red through the years include Tony Dunne, who starred at full back for Manchester United in Matt Busby’s sides European Cup triumph over Benfica at Wembley in 1968, and Wes Hoolahan, current Irish international and diminutive talisman for Norwich City, who lit up Tolka Park during his spell at the club, winning three league championships in the process. Lisbon Lion Jimmy Johnstone also went on to have a spell at the Reds, a decade after lifting the European Cup with Celtic. The late, great Eric Barber is the club’s all-time record goalscorer with 126 goals, and was also capped for Ireland.
The League of Ireland itself is equally brilliant and at the same time horrifically shit. The league suffers from an image problem and systemic, structural issues- clubs are generally poorly supported, the league is often ignored by the mainstream media, many of the grounds including our own beloved Tolka Park are deteriorating and are in a state of disrepair, a lot of the clubs are poorly run with a good few regularly demonstrating an inability to budget adequately, and there’s a drastic shortage of income streams for all. The administration of the league is inept and clubs struggle from one crisis to the next. It’s a perfect storm and for some time it has appeared the league is on life support. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, becoming “the Irish Rosenborg” was the dominant narrative in domestic football. Perceived wisdom at the time said that emulating the Trondheim side’s European exploits was the best way for an Irish club to make a breakthrough, the best way to succeed, increase support, become the dominant force in Irish football, and in doing so secure the long-term future of your club. After all, if a team from a little league in Scandinavia could do it, why couldn’t we here with a new-found Celtic Tiger confidence/arrogance? What happened next can only be described as the League of Ireland spending arms race, resulting in its own form of Mutually Assured Destruction. Buoyed by a sense of optimism but also a feeling of desperation at being left behind, club after club lined up to frantically splash the cash and sign the best players available. Whilst this undoubtedly raised the on pitch standard of the league with more and more clubs signing more professionals, severe problems were being created down the line. Everyone was at it- Bohs, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, but like many things in Irish football we at Shels even did this better and with more panache than the rest. And we’re still paying the price for that gross irresponsibility to this day. Short-term success came by the way of increased attendances in the early to mid-2000s for many of the bigger clubs in the league, and the improved playing standard along with the advent of the summer football season contributed to a spike in Irish teams’ results and performances in Europe. Teams of the calibre of Hajduk Split, Malmö, Djurgårdens, Nijmegen, Appollon Limassol, IFK Göteborg, Skonto Riga, KR Reykjavik, Gretna, Aberdeen, HJK Helsinki and BATE Borisov were regularly dispatched by Irish clubs in Europe, with the likes of Deportivo La Coruña, Lille, Paris Saint-Germain, Odense, Steaua Bucharest, Kaiserslautern and ironically enough Rosenborg all being run close by their Irish opponents. Empires built on sand, and it just couldn’t last. And the closer some teams got to making the great breakthrough, the more they and others were encouraged to spend, spend, spend. Clubs recklessly gambled with their futures- some like us and Bohs selling our grounds to fund current expenditure, Rovers squandered government grant money that should have been ring-fenced for the construction of a new stadium on players’ wages- and tax bills went unpaid and creditors and small businesses became creditors and were left to wait for their cash. Cork, Drogheda and Derry all went into examinership/administration and came back as zombie clubs. The cycle of boom and bust in Irish football circles was evident when virtually every side that won the league title from the late 90s to the present day experienced some form of financial crisis either before or in the aftermath of their league success. It was a crazy time for the league in retrospect; Galway United even employed convicted fraudster Nick Leeson to run the club under the guise of being a financial expert. Yes, only in the League of Ireland! I wouldn’t mind, but he probably wasn’t even in the top 5 nefarious characters operating in the league at the time… To this day, clubs continue to struggle financially, with some clubs dragging out the begging bowl a mere few weeks into the season to the surprise of absolutely no one.
But while I’ve painted a fairly grim picture of domestic football here in Ireland, it has to be said that it’s not all negative, and believe it or not, is actually quite enjoyable to follow. Following the league, but especially the Reds, even when it’s shit, it’s great. It’s affordable and fairly inexpensive to go to, with most match tickets costing between €10 and €15. Similar to most smaller leagues around the world and grassroots football generally, the sense of community and comradery is fantastic. There is a tangible sense of involvement with your club- most clubs depend on a network of volunteers and supporters to continue to function. It wouldn’t be unusual for me as a fanzine editor to be on nodding terms with the chairman who I might pass on the way to a much-needed half time pint, or to have a good chat with the manager’s Ma and Da in the bar after a home match. Despite intense inter-club rivalry, it would be quite common for you to know a good few main faces at your hated rivals, especially given how small the league is. Away days are fantastic, are the lifeblood of the match-going fan and really give you a taste of what the LOI is all about. The buzz of the day out, the possibilities for the day ahead being endless. The giddiness of anticipation for the game ahead playing second fiddle to having a laugh and drink with your closest friends with some great sounds soundtracking the day. Getting on a bus with a bag of cans and a gang of your mates and heading off to some distant godforsaken part of the country is something every match-going supporter can relate to, is one of life’s greatest simplest pleasures and something that you never really grow out of. But in the LOI, I get the impression that this might be even better due to the chaotic and at times shambolic nature of the league. Of course you’re gonna get gargled and have a laugh with your pals when you know there’s a possibility the game you’re attending might count for sweet FA when the result gets expunged because the opposition will drop out of the league. I’ve actually experienced this twice myself in the past decade, with Dublin City and Monaghan United dropping out of the top flight midseason. The esteemed editor of this fanzine, Ian Cusack, and Galwayman and regular Popular Side contributor Declan McGrath, joined me and a group of comrades on a journey to Waterford last July and I think they enjoyed the experience. The First Division, where the Reds find themselves currently trapped, has been dubbed the Discover Ireland what with it being the only possible reason you may actually venture to places like Cobh, Limerick and Longford. As a wise man once said, the thing about football- the important thing about football- is that it is not just about football. Or, to paraphrase an even wiser man- in every football ground in the world, there are a certain number of nutters; it’s just that, in the League of Ireland, everyone else forgets to show up.
So what of my beloved Reds in 2016? At time of writing, we’re just a point outside a promotion playoff place with one third season gone. Under the tutelage of club legend Kevin Doherty, this young Shels team, mainly comprised of kids in their late teens and early 20s, is more than capable of securing a playoff berth come October. As an aside, Kev would be considered a Reds hero to many Shels fans, a fella who joined the club as a player in 2001 following an injury-ravaged spell at Liverpool. Gerard Houllier was quoted as saying that Kev was one of the best young defenders he’d seen, and Houllier would know a thing or two about quality young players given his work with the French underage set up is considered the basis for France’s international domination in the late 90s. Doherty’s first season as Shels manager in 2015 wasn’t great, and his inconsistent side ultimately missed out on the playoffs. We can’t be too critical however, considering it was his debut season managing a first team, and he was operating off a fairly low budget even for LOI First Division standards. This term, Doherty has the team playing a much more attractive brand of football, with the emphasis on playing good neat passing ball on the deck, in contrast to much of last season’s direct football. We tend to keep possession well, control the midfield, and we’re beginning to reap the benefits of this results-wise. He has assembled a good young side with a lot of heart and commitment, and no little skill. At a fan’s forum a few weeks back, Kev spoke about wanting to instil a passion and feeling for the club within his young charges, and this identity he’s looking to establish is evident in two young players- Adam O’ Connor and Ryan Robinson- sticking with Shels, despite offers from elsewhere, on the basis of the rapport they’ve built up with the manager from their time under his watch as an underage coach at the club. Our current squad is padded by the experience of a few senior players in their 30s, including the composed figure of midfield lynchpin Daire Doyle, and only last month we signed ex-Ireland international Stephen Elliot on a season-long contract, a player who you may know best from his time at a club just down the road from you. If we can keep our goalscorers like James English and Jamie Doyle fit and firing on all cylinders this season, and we put a stop to conceding daft goals from set pieces every week, we stand a great chance of making the playoffs.
Off the pitch, things are looking altogether more disturbing. Because of the large legacy debt run up, and because the club in effect sold Tolka Park over a decade ago, Shels will soon be in the unenviable position of having no ground to call our own. The FAI and Dublin City Council want us to groundshare in Dalymount Park, home of Bohemians. It is understood, DCC will pay Bohs a fee to acquire Dalymount and redevelop it. The FAI wish to have the stadium redeveloped as part of a legacy project for Euro 2020. DCC is then reliant that they get Tolka Park, which means acquiring the leasehold from the land developer. It is understood that this has now happened. Funds from the redevelopment of Tolka would be used to leverage the purchase of Dalymount. In essence, Tolka would be sold off for redevelopment (in whatever form- social housing, commercial, who knows) in order to fund the purchase of Dalymount. The money going to Bohs will then be used to pay off their debt owed to a bank. It is understood Tolka could be demolished and redeveloped in order to help DCC recoup their investment in Dalymount. The redevelopment of Dalymount into a modern stadium was dependent on the Council getting Tolka and selling it off. I’m obviously biased, but I think it is shameful that a local council who within the last decade was designated the European Capital of Sport is considering putting a historic football stadium beyond municipal sporting use. But by all accounts it is a done deal, the tarnished legacy of the Ollie Byrne era. Whether we end up in Dalymount on a temporary or permanent basis is up for debate, but the impression I get from speaking to fellow supporters from our different supporters groups, is that this proposed move should be used by all at the club to regroup, assess, rediscover our identity and restructure the club into a supporters-own and run institution. Personally, I’d love a return to our Ringsend/Irishtown roots, as pie in the sky as that may seem today, and could be the basis of a future article here. For the time being, Tolka remains a great if somewhat dilapidated stadium. It’s a cracking place to spend a Friday night, and the rows and rows of terraced houses that surround the ground give it that quintessential traditional, old-school charm. If you’re ever in Dublin for a weekend, and there’s a game on at the grand old ground, I’d really recommend a visit. Get in touch, we’ll go for a few pints and you can savour a bit of living history of this city before it’s consigned to the past for good.