Ireland is a traditionally parochial environment. A perpetual suspicion of the outsider remains though that’s eased somewhat through the schmalz and notoriety gleaned from the Celtic Tiger years.
At the core of the country there’s a clan mentality. But there exists a paradox that we’ve forever been uncomfortable with. We embrace the underdog yet dream the big dreams.
Forever realists but punch-drunk on possibilities. Fuelled by success but felled by inevitable failure. There are those who maintain the country’s economic plight is a proper Ireland.
Suffering is something we’re good at. And maybe that’s true.
Suffering has brought domestic football back. Well, it’s always been there but over the last decade or so, the face of it changed. In many ways, the ill-fated push to professionalism was inevitable because of the country’s new-found ‘wealth’.
Clubs stretched themselves to the limit and beyond, inspired by the lies, driven by the drivel peddled by the country’s leaders. The good times were good. Dublin side Shelbourne claimed 5 titles in 8 years. They famously headed to Deportivo La Coruna for a Champions League qualifier second leg, perched on the edge of the group stages after a scoreless first game.
A 3-0 defeat in Spain followed.
Within two years, Shelbourne languished in the 1st Division, banished for gross financial mis-management. Some estimated the Tolka outfit owed 10 million euro to numerous creditors, including the Revenue.
From the 18-man squad that reached the dizzying heights of the Riazor Stadium on that fateful August evening in 2004, one remained with Shels as they began life in the lower tier. In January 2007, Ollie Byrne, the iconic CEO and majority shareholder for so long was rushed to hospital with a brain tumor.
By August, he was dead.
But that paradox once again. The curse of the league championship saw ’07 winners Drogheda enter examinership the following year.
With 27 full-time players, the club from the smallest county in the country had over-stepped the mark. With plans for a new 10,000 capacity stadium shelved, supporters rallied and somehow the club was saved.
This writer remembers speaking with the club’s chairman Vincent Hoey after getting hold of a financial report outlining how much Drogheda owed the Revenue. Hoey wanted to sue. It was lies. A complete fabrication. He was adamant.
And it didn’t stop there. One glance at the First Division current standings sees Cork City currently in second place. The top-tier champions from 2005 were in examiner-ship three years later.
The club’s holding company was wound up and due to an incredible hardcore fan-base the team were eventually granted a licence to compete in the lower tier, albeit with a temporary name – Cork City Foras Co-Op.
So much scar tissue means fans will never forget. And they shouldn’t. Because it wasn’t real.
Nothing about League of Ireland football at this time was genuine, barring the switch to a summer schedule. The charade seduced us. And in typical Irish fashion, we didn’t see it coming.
The arrival of players from the lower leagues in England coincided with the crash of ITV Digital. They sought refuge. And better salaries, of course. The clubs began to envisage themselves playing consistent European football and revelling in UEFA’s qualification money.
That meant better facilities, a better stadium, perhaps even a new stadium, TV cameras, fame.
But unfortunately, that’s not us.
We don’t like attention.
We don’t like cameras.
The suspicion of the outsider once again. So, the clubs had to embellish and act a bit. On those big European nights, instead of embracing them with childhood innocence as magic or fantasy, there existed a genuine belief from within that Irish clubs belonged there.
Fast-forward to Thursday and a different atmosphere will engulf the Tallaght Stadium.
Shamrock Rovers, the reigning Premier Division champions, have qualified for the group stages of the Europa League. And this time it’s different.
Relegated to the 1st Division in 2005 with debts of over 2 million euro, they re-emerged from the flames with the supporters as owners. Six years later and the club’s biggest earner rakes in 50k per year.
The Dublin 24 side are now a semi-professional outfit. They’re not supposed to be here. But they’ve earned it. Navigating past Flora Tailinn in the second round of Champions League qualifying before being knocked out by Copenhagen left them facing a Europa League play-off against Partizan Belgrade.
The concession of an away goal in the first leg clash in Dublin ensured the return game in Serbia would surely prove insurmountable. And even though adorned with green and white hoops, Rovers cast aside their subtle religious roots by embracing Islam.
They let that mountain come to them. And in particular, to Pat Sullivan. His stunning equalizer shortly before the hour mark made it possible. The paradox waited. Ready to pounce.
But Belgrade couldn’t conjure a winner. And in extra-time, substitute Karl Sheppard (more religious imagery) was taken down in the box with 7 minutes left.
Another replacement, Stephen O’Donnell, converted. They were the underdogs, they dreamed the big dream. No gimmicks, no pantomime. Just Irish.
There are counter-points to entertain.
Full-time football proved detrimental in the long-term for clubs. But for certain players, it was a critical developmental stage in their careers.
Kevin Doyle and Shane Long both began at Cork City (Doyle was briefly with St. Pat’s before that) and the resources provided for them ensured that when they both moved to Reading, first-team possibilities for the pair became a reality sooner rather than later.
Doyle and Long are now both important internationals and Premier League strikers. So, will the standard of the international team drop as a result of the domestic game reverting to part-time football?
Doyle and Long are exceptions to the rule. Many of the league’s better players have managed to make a decent living from the game across the lower divisions in the UK but have never staked a claim with the Irish senior side.
For others, like Celtic’s Paddy McCourt, the League of Ireland presents players with a second chance after a spell in Britain has ended badly.
Remain consistent, continue to work hard and talented players will go far. In many ways, the chaotic last five years probably cost many players the chance to re-start elsewhere. The delaying of wages, the non-payment of wages and the lack of any long-term stability at any club ensured players lived month-to-month.
In some cases, it was week-to-week. The much less-hectic and frenetic semi-pro environment has its drawbacks, certainly. But it’s a much safer place for both clubs and its employees.
Along the way, Irish domestic football has lost many friends. Kilkenny City, St. Francis, Dublin City, Sporting Fingal and Home Farm.
At one stage or another, each side plying its trade across two divisions has probably wondered if they’d make it to the end of the year. A decent number probably wondered if they’d see the end of the week.
And for that reason, this Europa League campaign isn’t just for Rovers.
It’s for an entire country that desperately needs a positive story to inspire the masses. Like Italia ’90, the Eurovision or Brenda Fricker winning an Oscar.
We’re a small country. But a brilliant one.
We’ve made mistakes.
We’ve suffered the consequences.
Irish heroes aren’t glitzy.
And that’s why we love them. And that’s why Shamrock Rovers are modern-day heroes.
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