Ian Rush scored 346 goals in 660 appearances for Liverpool. EMPICS Sport
unfamiliar territory

When a Liverpool legend lined out for Shelbourne amid the '90s heyday of PL-LOI crossovers

Mick Neville on how Ian Rush ended up playing for the Irish side against Brondby.

IT’S 25 YEARS this week since Ian Rush lined out for Shelbourne against Brondby in a memorable friendly.

The former Wales international was coming towards the end of an illustrious Liverpool career, which saw him score an incredible 346 goals in 660 appearances — to this day, he remains the club’s all-time leading scorer.

In February 1996, however, Rush was no longer viewed as indispensable by Roy Evans’ side. £8.5 million summer signing Stan Collymore and a young Robbie Fowler were challenging the Liverpool legend for a spot in the team.

Rush needed game time against top-quality opposition and Damien Richardson’s side were all too happy to provide it.

On Monday 26 February, Rush played the full 90 minutes as a ‘guest’ player in a friendly against the Danish champions.

Shels had beaten Bohemians 1-0 in a league game the previous Friday, and made six changes to the side for the Brondby match.

The Shels team for the night was as follows: Alan Gough, Greg Costello, Dave Smith, Henry McKop, Ray Duffy, Robbie Devereux, Brian Flood, Darren Kelly, Ian Rush, Alan Byrne, Mark Rutherford.

At half-time, Stephen Geoghegan, Mick Neville, Tony Sheridan, Declan Geoghegan, John O’Rourke and Gary Howlett replaced Rutherford, Duffy, Devereux, Byrne, Kelly and Smith to give the Dublin team a more familiar look. A further 88th-minute change saw Anto Brennan come on for McKop..

By half-time, Brondby — who just under than five years earlier had become the first-ever Danish side to reach the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup (now known as the Europa League) and had also knocked Liverpool out of that same competition earlier in the season — were 2-0 up.

Future Tottenham star Allan Nielsen was among the players to feature, as Kim Daugaard opened the scoring early on, before Per Nielsen, who would go on to earn 10 Denmark caps, doubled the visitors’ advantage just before the break.

Shels recovered well, however, in the second half, ultimately earning a creditable 2-2 draw. Geoghegan made an impact off the bench, as his shot from the edge of the area deflected into the net, looping over the goalkeeper in the 61st minute.

And then, as the Irish Independent match report from the time put it: “On 67 minutes, John O’Rourke powered through the middle, laid the ball to Rush and the ace marksman dispatched the equaliser with absolute aplomb.”

“The first memory I have is him coming into the dressing room,” recalls then-Shelbourne defender Mick Neville. “There was excitement that Ian Rush was coming to play for us.

“For whatever reason, Brondby ended up in the home dressing room and we were in the away dressing room.

“[Rush] came in and was sound, just like an ordinary fella. 

“Andy Byrne was [then-Shelbourne CEO] Ollie’s nephew. We always called him ‘Fowler,’ because he looked like Robbie Fowler.

“We said to Ian Rush, when he came into the dressing room: ‘Wait until you see our kit man. You won’t believe it.’

“With that, Andy walked in the door. I said ‘this is Fowler’ and he couldn’t stop laughing, he couldn’t believe it. He said ‘Jesus Christ, he’s after following me over here.’ We had ‘Fowler’ and Rush on the same team. 

“But he just thought it was hilarious. Andy had his haircut like Robbie Fowler and everything then, he looked exactly like him.

“It was a good start, it kind of settled him in.”

And does Neville remember much else about the game?

“They were a big, physical side, a typical Scandinavian side. It was a freezing cold night. There weren’t that many at the game.”

He continues: “Rush would have been a top, top player. He was still in great nick then, the way he looked after himself..

“He still had it — one chance, one goal. We had Stephen Geoghegan at the time, what a duo that would have made.”

He jokes: “We told [Rush] we’d let him know at the end of the match if we wanted him back again. ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll give you a phone call.’

“But he was very good in and around the dressing room, there were no airs or graces about him. Most top pros are like that anyway, but he was great. He came in, made no big deal or fuss about it, and he got a great laugh out of ‘Fowler.’” 

Shels would go on to play Brondby again, facing them in the Uefa Cup in 2001, and ultimately losing 5-0 on aggregate.

Their then-manager will be a familiar name to Irish fans — Age Hareide — who notably oversaw Denmark’s 5-1 win over the Boys in Green in a 2018 World Cup play-off.

Neville had by then retired from playing and was Director of Coaching at Shelbourne.

“[Hareide] wasn’t a really nice guy, a very arrogant fella,” he says. “When we went to Brondby the second time, he was very disrespectful to Shels.

“[He said] ‘Amateur team,’ he just disrespected the whole League of Ireland for me. Everything was ‘amateur’. They’re an ‘amateur’ team, we should beat them easily and all that kind of crap before the game. I wouldn’t have a lot of time for it.

“I remember we were out training in Brondby’s ground. He was there and he just had a sneer, you know that kind of way?

“But he was still worried about us if he was out having a look at us training.”

bob Bobby Charlton had a brief spell with Waterford towards the end of his career.

Rush was far from the only footballing superstar who lined out for a League of Ireland side.

Bobby Charlton, George Best, Dixie Dean, Geoff Hurst and Uwe Seeler are among the big-name players to have made similarly fleeting appearances for Irish teams over the years.

“It happened to us in Derry when we brought Steve Bruce over,” Neville adds.

“I went out for dinner with him, his wife and [then-Derry manager] Jim McLoughlin. I stayed up in Derry that night, myself, Paul Doolin and Kevin Brady. We actually beat Leicester 2-1.

“And he was great, even with the younger kids. Brilliant on the pitch. But they’re unique events really. Steve Bruce then would have been a top player at Manchester United.

“He was suspended and they let him come over to Ireland, we were turning on the lights at the Brandywell, it was Derry City and it was a big event. When you think about it now, you wouldn’t get near [a Premier League player].”

While Irish teams and Premier League sides were not exactly on a level of footing in that era, it was before the influx of foreigners made the English top flight a truly international competition, and so the gap was not quite as seismic as it is now.

While these days, Irish fans might at best get a sporadic chance to see the U23 side of a top English outfit play a friendly in Dublin, back in the ’80s and ’90s, such visits from clubs’ first teams were commonplace during pre-season.

“We played Liverpool two or three times and it’d be all Scots, Irish and English,” Neville recalls. “There’d be very few foreigners playing. 

“Sometimes, the League of Ireland teams would put it up to them.

“I was part of the Rovers team that beat Man United twice in a year and beat Arsenal in the same year as well. They would have been huge results when you think about it now. Charlie Nicholas was playing for Arsenal. 

“We beat a United side with Rovers 2-1 when Ron Atkinson was the manager. He said: ‘I’ll come back with my full team.’ He came back with his full team and we beat them 2-0. So they would have been unique moments.”

He continues: “I met [former Leeds boss] Howard Wilkinson a few years ago. I was doing my pro licence in Switzerland. Howard was talking on it. We went out to do a session on the pitch. He was walking right beside me. I asked him: ‘Do you remember Ollie Byrne?’

“He said: ‘Ollie, oh yeah. We had a summer home nearly in Dublin, we were over there that often with Leeds. Leeds used to come over nearly every second bloody week.’

“They brought their first team over. And we played Leeds 3-4 times. Tolka would be full. Leeds were still a huge draw. But he remembered Ollie and he remembered coming to Shels like it was yesterday. They used to stay in the Regency Hotel.

“It was just a short trip for them, they used to love coming over. The players would have a game of golf, go out on the town after the game and then fly back to Leeds.” 

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