Shamrock Rovers are a giant of Irish football but spent years as nomads when forced to leave their south Dublin base. One fixture stands out as the moment the Hoops hit rock bottom, writes Macdara Ferris in Póg Mo Goal magazine Issue 6 which is available at www.pogmogoal.bigcartel.com
It was a Shamrock Rovers home game, but one played over 250km away from the Irish capital. The match that took place in Cork in 2003 marked perhaps the lowest point for the Dublin club during their nomadic years after the controversial sale of their Glenmalure Park stadium in 1987.
Rovers’ 25th FAI Cup win in 2019 came 32 years after they last lifted the trophy. The Hoops’ previous cup triumph came in their last season in Milltown before their departure from Glenmalure, after which they were reduced to renting home venues from their rivals across Dublin and beyond for over two decades.
Rovers’ only league title win during the period between leaving Milltown and finally making Tallaght Stadium their home venue in 2009 was in the 1993/94 season during the six seasons they spent playing in the RDS (the venue now used by Leinster Rugby).
Between 1987 and 2008 in all competitions, the Hoops played 441 home games across ten different venues including four home grounds in 2003 alone. In the league that season, they played nine matches in Richmond Park, seven in Dalymount Park, one in Belfield and an infamous match in Turner’s Cross – the home ground of Cork City.
They had expected to be playing in Tallaght Stadium by then since they had first announced in 1996 the proposed move to a new stadium to be constructed in south-west Dublin. The sod was turned on the stadium site by Ireland’s Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in 2000 but financial difficulties saw construction cease on site the following year with the shell of the main stand incomplete.
“Rovers began the 2003 season playing out of St. Patrick’s Athletic’s Richmond Park ground. There was talk that under manager Liam Buckley they could be title contenders – they had finished second and third in the previous two seasons.”
Over the next 18 months various stadium investors were announced including ‘Mrs. Brown’ herself with actor Brendan O’Carroll looking to invest in the venue in return for being able to develop a hotel on the site. In July 2003, Rovers were successful in seeking a 12-month extension on the planning permission for the arena which had lapsed but trouble was brewing off the pitch on a few fronts.
There were crowd disturbances after the Dublin derby between Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians in Richmond Park at the start of September 2003 with a handful of arrests made by the Gardai. Pressure from the local residents and businesses saw St. Pat’s evict Rovers. Speaking at the time, the Saints General Manager Brian Dalton said: “The feeling in the area was fairly intense. We have very strong links with the community and it had become a bone of contention with the local residents.”
The eviction left Rovers scrambling to find a ground for the remainder of the season. The following week Rovers played a ‘home’ match against University College Dublin in UCD’s ground Belfield Park – less than 4km from their previous abode in Milltown. For the next home game against Cork City at the end of September an agreement was made that the match would take place in City’s ground – 250km south of Dublin.
Rovers produced a match programme for the game in Turner’s Cross with Shane Robinson on the cover of this collector’s item – he later became Rovers’ Academy Director. The Cork club covered the Dublin side’s travel and meal expenses plus the match security costs. They also gave them advice as to where volunteers should best position themselves to sell the programme.
However, the City supporters were not so welcoming. There was talk of a boycott before the game to starve the Hoops of cash until the Cork Chairman Brian Lennox noted the situation around the match finances. “Some people are under the impression that all the gate money will be going to Rovers but that’s s not the case. It’s a home fixture for them and we have agreed to split the gate.”
With the takings expected to be around €30,000, it meant the Hoops would likely earn around €7,000 from the fixture. Ahead of kick-off some Cork City supporters unveiled a banner directed at the away section saying: ‘This is No Halting Site’.
Rubbing salt in the wound for the travelling ‘home’ supporters to the game, the Hoops emerged from the away dressing room ahead of kick-off, wearing their away kit. Writing a letter in the next Rovers match programme, supporter Jim Conroy noted his frustration with the choice of jersey.
“Saturday 27th September 2003 was the most humiliating day in the history of Shamrock Rovers FC… The one thing that sustained us was that we would see our beloved green and white hooped jerseys… The jersey is probably the only thing about our club in which we can still be proud. Sadly, even this last bit of dignity was taken away from us as we lined out in our away strip. The club agreed to this with Cork for the sake of a few Euros. How low can you get?”
The result certainly didn’t help the situation for supporters as they saw their team lose 2-0. After the game, Rovers managed to secure tenancy in Tolka Park, Dublin, for the rest of the year. However, the Hoops went into freefall towards the end of the season as financial difficulties hit the club. They went winless in the last nine league games ending in seventh place in the ten-team top-flight and finished the year being sued over a €3,017 dry-cleaners debt.
The club’s difficulties continued as the following year South Dublin County Council refused to extend the planning permission on the stadium which still lay idle with no finance available for completion. With mounting debts in excess of €2m, in May 2005 the High Court appointed an Examiner to prevent the liquidation of the club. When it became clear there wasn’t going to be an opportunity to develop non-football commercial units within the stadium confines, the interested parties who were looking for investment opportunities on the site dropped away, leaving the supporters 400 Club to take control of the club.
Rovers were relegated for the very first time in their proud history at the end of 2005, another low point for a side once dubbed “Ireland’s Manchester United.” They regrouped during 2006 winning the First Division at the first attempt, but the Gaelic Athletic Association took a court case in order to gain access to the stadium now controlled by South Dublin County Council providing one final hurdle for the Hoops to overcome to get to Tallaght. In this courtroom battle however, the council and Rovers were successful, allowing builders to return to site in 2008. The Hoops would play their final ‘home’ games in Tolka Park that season, and 22 years after leaving Milltown began their tenancy in Tallaght Stadium in March 2009.
Rovers would soon welcome clubs like Juventus and Real Madrid to their new home, while also becoming Ireland’s first ever representatives in the Europa League group stages. Their roving days were finally at an end.
Issue 6 of Póg Mo Goal Magazine is now available at www.pogmogoal.bigcartel.com
Macdara Ferris is a Shamrock Rovers fan and co-author of Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009 to 2012. He is a senior reporter with Extratime. www.extratime.ie
Main image: Bobby Best has been a full-time Shamrock Rovers photographer since 1996.