“Jesus, we might just do it this year ya know,” I said to my 11-year-old self at the 90-minute mark.
Friday 6th April 2001; I distinctly remember the date; I’d finished another day in class, threw my school bag into the house and headed down to the coast in Clontarf with a football, went to the butchers in Vernon Avenue to get string and fat so myself and a few mates could go catch a few crabs; that wasn’t the highlight of my Friday though.
Tolka Park and Shelbourne FC hosted my club Bohemian FC and the night turned out to be the highlight of the 2000/2001 season from a personal point of view.
At the time I always felt the big rivalry was not Bohs and Rovers but Bohs and Shels.
Shelbourne were the double champions from the previous season sauntering to the league championship and beating Bohs 1-0 in the FAI Cup Final replay in Dalymount Park; a night to forget concluding in Bohs fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone which was salt in the wounds as I’m also a Manchester United fan. Something I’ve never heard sung at Dalymount since, thanks be to God.
Shels at the time were a serious force; the likes of Scully, Doolin, Fenlon, McCarthy, Geoghan, Heary and the Baker brothers all household names in the League of Ireland; they had an aura about them, they were strong in all areas with huge LOI experience and promising youth coming through.
This is not to say that the Bohemians team they faced that night were nobodies; they were more than capable of challenging Shels and beating them with the likes of Shaun Maher, Tony O’Connor, Dave Hill, Mark Rutherford, Dave Morrison, Kevin Hunt (God), Trevor Molloy and the best striker in the league, Glen Crowe.
Bohemians went into the match 8 points adrift of Shels with a game in hand. A defeat would have ended the title race with six league games remaining.
Being honest I remember not being confident going up to the Richmond Road that Friday night. It was April but could have been a January evening, it was murky and grey but the wind held up which meant the supporters who attended had the possibility of a decent game of ball.
It was a cagey start to the game as myself and my father watched on from the Riverside stand full with fellow Gypsy faithful. Shels probably edged the early proceedings but then on 14 minutes Bohs got a freekick on the left hand side, it was swung in by Tony O’Connor, aka Toccy, our ever reliable right back; not the greatest delivery but it found the bald head of our centre-back Dave Hill who got down brilliantly near the penalty spot to nod low into Steve Williams’ left hand corner to put the Gypsies 1 up. Get in there!
Before we could settle, Shelbourne were down to 10 men, Richie Foran the young centre-forward and a loose cannon on a good day had hit our goal scorer a smack, Dave Hill going down. This wasn’t a finger nail to Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfect face. It was a punch to the jaw by Foran who saw a straight red – his fourth in his first year in senior football tells the story itself. Twenty minutes gone, Bohs 1 up and a man up; dreamland.
The remainder of the first half turned into a backs against the wall job for Bohs as Shels pounded the visitors’ final third. They were good and probably felt aggrieved being down to 10 men so early. A great battle took place in the middle of the park with the super experienced Doolin/Fenlon partnership for Shels against the younger/less experienced Hunt/Caffrey for Bohs. It was full blooded but Bohs hung on into the half time break a goal up thanks to some astute defending from the back four.
When the half time whistle went, I remember being very happy that we had the advantage in more ways than one but also very apprehensive as this was the double champions we were facing and they were more than capable of getting back into the game.
The second half resumed as the first finished; it was frantic with tackles flying in. The pressure was mounting on Wayne Russell’s goal and it finally paid off in the 63rd minute; a free kick just inside the Bohs half delivered by Pat Fenlon was headed in by the Shels captain Pat Scully. A looping header over Russell. My immediate thought of: ‘Oh shit here we go, another night against this lot,’ was swiftly squashed within eight manic minutes.
Two minutes after Scully’s equaliser, Bohs were back in front. Alex Nesovic, our burly centre-forward was hacked down when turning in at the end line in Shelbourne’s box. Trever Molloy our summer acquisition from St Pats thumped the ball into the roof of the net and Bohs were ahead in the blink of an eye. Two turned into three within another two minutes when Nesovic himself nodded in a brilliant header from a Simon Webb cross. 3-1 and I’m ecstatic! I think my old man was as stunned how things were panning out. But yet again before we could catch our breath it was 4-1 to Bohs.
Our star man that year Glen Crowe, having the season of his life, found himself through on goal after a long punt from Webb at left back. He still had work to do as he was followed closely by Pat Scully but he shrugged the defender away like a schoolboy and slotted it past Steve Williams. ‘We’re fucking winning this one.’ The Riverside stand was in raptures knowing we were beating our biggest rivals and putting a massive dent in their title challenge.
Shelbourne did pull one back that night through Stephen Geoghan but the 3 points went back to Phibsborough. Walking out of Tolka Park was the first time in my five years supporting Bohs where I felt that we had something to really challenge for in league terms. We had got the Shelbourne monkey off our back and Shels had a tougher fixture run-in.
The rest is history, Roddy Collins’ Bohs won five of their last six games drawing the other and lifted the league title for the first time in 24 years in Buckley Park, Kilkenny on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May. A week later we travelled back to Tolka Park for the FAI Cup Final to face First Division Longford and won our first League/Cup double in 74 years. History makers.
That April Friday night for me is the highlight of an incredible season, yes we beat Aberdeen over two legs and beat FC Kaiserslautern on their home soil in the UEFA Cup, beat Rovers 6-4 in Santry, had our day in the sun in Kilkenny and Hunty lifted the cup in Tolka but beating that Shelbourne side seemed to completely shift the momentum of the title race. It’s hard to believe that night was 19 years ago.
This Friday the rivalry is rekindled in Dalymount Park, seven years since they last faced each other in the league with Shelbourne back in the top flight. And it’s a fixture that still evokes the best of footballing memories for me.
Craig Banks lives and works in Dublin and has a life-long passion for League of Ireland. Follow @Cr_Banks
Original images by @EamonnDonohoe