Shamrock Rovers back where they belong

Dermot Keely is an Irish soccer legend, a man who has won everything there is to win in the domestic game, both as a manager and a player.

He is also someone you don’t say no to. Ever.

I knew that much on a very wet and windy night some 22 years ago or so when Dermot invited me to walk out of the Tolka Park dressing-rooms with him.

At the time he was the manager of the Shamrock Rovers side that dominated domestic football on the field, but was beset by huge problems off it.

Those problems were all down to the decision, by the Kilcoyne family who owned the club, to sell Glenmalure Park in the Dublin suburb of Milltown to developers at the end of the 1986-87 season.

The day they left the most famous football ground in our capital city, Rovers left as League of Ireland and FAI Cup champions.

They began life the following season as the nomads of Irish football with a controversial move across the Liffey to Tolka, where their diehard fans boycotted their home games and staged protests outside the ground as they played on.

That’s why Keely invited me to go for a walk with him on that 1988 night, to experience at first hand the wrath and the frustrations of the supporters gathered outside Tolka who just couldn’t understand why the Kilcoynes sold their beloved Milltown.

The reason was a simple one -- money. And in football, no matter where it is played, money will always come before emotion or loyalty or even sympathy.

It hurt that night to bear witness to the destruction of a football club that meant so much to so many. Rovers may have had the double in the bag at the start of that 1987-‘88 season, but they had lost their soul.

Keely left at the end of the season, and by then Rovers were soulless and their fans helpless. It’s taken them a long time to get back their soul -- and their respect.

They did win the league at the RDS, under my old mate Ray Treacy, in 1994, but times have been hard in the years since then.

The club flitted from one venue to another, was relegated to the First Division of the League of Ireland and even went broke as the supporters awaited a return to their native Southside.

Thankfully, those very same supporters put their money where their mouths are three seasons ago or so and put the finances together to keep their club alive when all looked lost.

Their dedication paid off when a move back to Southside finally happened and Tallaght Stadium -- only completed by the generosity and foresight of the local council and the government -- offered Rovers a return to something close to home and normality two seasons ago.

Things have never been the same since as the move to Tallaght heralded a new dawn for the club, a bright new dawn if events last weekend are anything to go by.

On Friday night, I stood with another Shamrock Rovers manager at the end of an important game, and he too offered me an invite to walk and talk.

This time, though, there was nothing awkward about the invitation, nothing to worry about as I stood and chatted with Michael O’Neill outside the Hoops dressingroom at the Carlisle Grounds in Bray.

In front of us, as there were at Tolka all those years ago, were hundreds of diehard Rovers fans. This time though, they were happy. They were delirious. They were celebrating.

The history books will record that Rovers and Bray played out a 2-2 draw beside the Seaside on Friday night.

The result did little other than raise Bray’s morale ahead of Tuesday night’s difficult relegation playoff away to Galway, but it meant so much more for their visitors.

It was a different story for the visitors. Thanks to that point, gained courtesy of goals from Gary Twigg and Thomas Stewart, Rovers finished the Airtricity League season on top of the Premier Division table, level on points but ahead on goal difference as they pipped a Bohs side chasing a third successive championship to the title.

O’Neill was calmness personified as his players received the League trophy and their medals out on the pitch.

He wanted to leave them to bask in their glory, preferring to hug each and every one of them as they made their way into the dressingrooms at the end of a long and eventful night in the history of this club.

There were tears in that dressingroom. There was champagne. And there was relief.

At times this season, Rovers looked too nervous to win the League. They were eight points ahead of Bohs at one stage, but only got right back into it when the Gypsies lost in Galway a week ago.

Even on Friday night, they looked like a bride standing at the altar and waiting for someone to come bursting through the door and tell her why she couldn’t get married.

That didn’t happen. Rovers held on for the point they needed.

O’Neill won the league in only his second season with the club, his second season as a League of Ireland manager, and the Rovers fans had plenty to celebrate on the weekend the clocks went back but their club went forward.

A week and a bit from now, O’Neill and Shamrock Rovers will chase another League and Cup double when they play Sligo Rovers in the Ford FAI Cup final at the wonderful Aviva Stadium.

The last time they won the double, under Dermot Keely in that 86-87 season, Rovers went into freefall. That won’t happen again.

The disservice that was done to Rovers with the sale of Milltown was finally righted, in a manner, when they left Bray last Friday night and brought the Airtricity League trophy back to their new home in Tallaght and a new life as a club reborn.

Rovers will be favorites for the Cup final but they won’t care. After years in the wilderness, their very survival is a bonus now. Success is just something to really savor.

Sideline Views

SOCCER: There’s a suspicion that former England under-21 captain Mark Noble will be named this Friday in Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland squad for the forthcoming friendly with Norway. Former England youth team skipper Ciaran Clark will be in it after switching allegiances. Which sort of makes you wonder where all the young Irish players have gone to? And what did the FAI do with all the World Cup money made in Italy and America and Japan and Korea?

RUGBY: The IRFU have admitted they got it wrong with their ticket prices for the autumn internationals after a near mutiny from their clubs. They’ve even promised a full review of their ticketing structure. Hardly surprising considering they expect fans to pay €100 on average to watch South Africa this Saturday. That’s madness in this day and age.

GAA: Well done to the 60,000 who went to Croke Park to see Australia beat Ireland in the Compromise Rules series on Saturday night. I wouldn’t bother with it myself, but the series might just have a future. And congrats to Micheal O Muircheartaigh on his retirement after he broadcast live for the last time from the game. He will be missed.

SOCCER: Speaking of ticket prices, congrats to the FAI for their decision to charge just €10 for adults and €5 for kids for the forthcoming FAI Cup final between Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers. We’re bringing a bus load from Dunshaughlin Youths to see the game -- at that price it’s a great chance to see the new Aviva Stadium.


HERO OF THE WEEK

Dessie Baker will retire from professional football after the FAI Cup final against Sligo Rovers at the Aviva Stadium on November 14. A former Manchester United trainee, Baker has been a great servant to domestic football in this time with Shels, Longford and now Rovers. He won his fourth League of Ireland medal with the Hoops in Bray last Friday night. And he deserved it.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK

Stephen Ireland still thinks he’s too good to play for his country, but his new club boss Gerard Houllier clearly doesn’t think he’s good enough to play for Aston Villa. Houllier left Ireland on the bench in Sunday’s scoreless draw with Birmingham, then questioned the Irishman’s desire to make it as a top player. Maybe the idiotic Ireland could do with playing for his country again.

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