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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 16 January 2021

Ronnie Whelan’s homecoming during the tumultuous summer of 1981

The young, former Home Farm midfielder was part of an eventful Dublin stay.

Ronnie Whelan in full flow for Liverpool in 1983.
Ronnie Whelan in full flow for Liverpool in 1983.
Image: EMPICS Sport

WITH A HEADLINE screaming ‘HUNGER STRIKER NO. 10 DIES’, the Evening Herald hit the capital’s news stands just in time for the after-work rush.

It was Thursday, 20 August 1981 and having gone 60 days without food, Michael Devine, a 27-year-old member of the INLA, was the 10th and final of the H-Block Hunger Strikers to die.

Since the death of Bobby Sands on 5 May the roll call of death had escalated both inside and outside the H-Blocks all summer long. All the Hunger Strikers who died were under 30 years of age — during the strike Sands had been returned as an MP to Westminster while two fellow Republican prisoners had been elected to the Dáil.

All summer long death seeped under the door of the prison cells and into the streets of northern towns; in the south, supporters of the Hunger Strikers and their demands for political status marched, occupied buildings, hung black flags and used sporting events such as that summer’s GAA Championship, as a platform to garner publicity and support.

Michael Devine’s funeral came quickly. He was buried on Saturday, 22 August, two days after his death, in a Derry City cemetery beside Patsy O’Hara, the 23-year-old who had been the fourth Hunger Striker to die that summer.

In Belfast and Bangor that Saturday afternoon two bombs exploded within minutes of one another.

The Evening Herald reported, over the course of five paragraphs, how the bombs had caused extensive damage to property, caused terror amongst afternoon shoppers and injured some with flying glass and debris.

Bombs that didn’t kill struggled to pique the interest of news editors and readers alike.

Screenshot 2020-12-08 at 3.26.30 PM

While bombs ripped through Belfast and Bangor, the Evening Herald’s front page was concerned with the work of “vandals’’ who sneaked into Tolka Park early on Saturday morning digging a 20ft wide and one foot deep ‘H’ into the centre of the pitch.

That evening, newly-crowned European champions Liverpool FC were due to visit Tolka Park and take on Home Farm in a money-spinning friendly for the struggling Irish side. (In such encounters the Irish side should always be prefaced with the word ‘struggling’.)

The ‘H’ had been discovered by the Tolka Park groundsman at 9am with Home Farm club officials believing that the vandals had crossed the River Tolka early Saturday morning to gain access to the pitch. An hour after its discovery a team of volunteers had assembled to re-sod the affected area.

Home Farm club secretary Dr Brendan Menton – father of a future FAI General Secretary of the same name – re-assured the Evening Herald that the game would go ahead that evening before questioning why ‘an organisation that does so much for youth in the area would be singled out’.

When asked for a statement on the ‘H’ which was dug into the Tolka Park turf, the H-Block/Armagh Committee in Dublin said “Our policy has always been a peaceful and non-destructive one. This action does not contribute positively to our campaign.’’ 

Having recently spent £100,000 on improving Tolka Park and with plans in place for a new stand, Brendan Menton and Home Farm desperately needed the cash injection that Liverpool and a full house of 15,000 spectators were to bring later that evening.    

The 1980/81 season had seen only three League of Ireland clubs return a profit – champions Athlone Town on a turnover of £80,000, made a profit of £2,500, runners-up and Cup winners Dundalk with a wage bill of £27,000 and a turn-over of £121,000 made a profit of £5,000, while members-owned Bohemians ended the season in the black thanks to the sale of Anto Whelan to Manchester United and an increase in match-day bar receipts.

Though thirsty, the crowds had long since dried up at Irish football grounds and they wouldn’t be coming back.

That is apart from when glamorous English sides like Liverpool were in town. But at 9am on that Saturday morning Liverpool weren’t in town just yet.

The plan had been for Bob Paisley and his side to fly into Dublin Airport late on Saturday afternoon before returning straight after the game.

The Evening Herald broke the news to the Liverpool manager – who was at this point still on the opposite side of the Irish Sea. “This is the first I’ve heard about the pitch being damaged. But we are going to Dublin for tonight’s game – there is no problem.’’

In June 1944 Bob Paisley had taken part in the liberation of Rome, riding into the city on top of a tank as the fascists fled North. He would bring his men to Dublin. 

That evening Richmond Road could have easily been mistaken for a side-street in Liverpool as thousands of red and white clad supporters made their way to see a football match. Buses ferried fans to Drumcondra from as far away as Kerry and Cork with some Liverpool fans from the actual city arriving on the actual ferry.

Liverpool didn’t disappoint those assembled with Bob Paisley fielding seven players who had started that May’s European Cup Final win over Real Madrid, with the newly acquired signing of Irish international Mark Lawrenson coming into the side at left-full. 

Liverpool and Home Farm were operating at two extreme opposites of the football world – but as the 1980s progressed, regulars on the Kop would have a lot to thank the Dublin side for as more trophies were added to the Anfield cabinet with ex-Home Farm man Ronnie Whelan becoming a central part of that glorious Liverpool side.

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Aged 17, Whelan had moved from Home Farm to Liverpool in September 1979 for £35,000 but in August of 1981 the Fingals man had yet to burst into the starting eleven. The approaching season was to be his breakthrough.

The pre-match build-up had spun the encounter as a homecoming for Whelan and suggested that he would play a half for each side.

Earlier in the week Home Farm manager Dave Bacuzzi had said he would welcome Ronnie into his side but noted how his plans had been disrupted in the past when guest players had let him down at the last minute.

Bacuzzi’s words would prove prophetic on the night with Whelan having a last-minute change of heart and deciding to go all in with Liverpool. He was quick to put his old side to the sword scoring the first of the game’s five goals after 13 minutes with what the Irish Press reporter recalled was ‘a fine opening goal’.

By kick-off the morning’s tension had given way to joy. Liverpool paraded the European Cup to the packed ground with Alan Kennedy signing an autograph for a young supporter who ran onto the pitch during a break in play.

Bossing it alongside Graeme Souness in midfield this was Whelan’s second goal for Liverpool, his first coming the previous season in a League Cup tie against Stoke City. His parents were in the crowd on both occasions. 

liverpool-v-tottenham-hotspur Ronnie Whelan (left) shows his delight he scores his second goal for Liverpool in the League Cup Final at Wembley in 1982. Source: PA

Post match, the newspapers would reflect on the shyness and politeness of the 19-year-old, the Irish Press being particularly enthusiastic in its praise of the young Whelan’s use of the term ‘Mister’ when speaking to former mentors and managers from his Home Farm days.

The Irish Press was effusive in its praise of Liverpool’s good grace and manners, their reporter noting that; ‘Smaller clubs could learn from Liverpool. They truly are the People’s Champion.’

Though he ended on a less positive note when commenting on the fickleness of Irish football fans, stating how very few of the thousands assembled in Tolka Park that Saturday evening would cross the road to watch a local game.

That November a Liverpool side, of sorts, was back In Tolka Park sooner than they would have thought, when during an international window an Irish Select managed by Eoin Hand hosted a Liverpool side minus its English internationals.

Once again 15,000 fans paid into Tolka Park for what the Irish Press match report described as ‘the most monotonous game imaginable’.  A smoke bomb and other items were thrown onto the pitch by restless fans who at times refused to give the ball back when kicked into the crowd.

Liverpool, featuring Ronnie Whelan, beat Ireland 1-0.

History would repeat just over two decades later in August 2005, when before a particularly fraught Shelbourne v Bohemians league game, Bohs fans, in the dead of night, sneaked into Tolka Park and daubed the word ‘Judas’ onto the playing surface.

This attack on the Tolka Park turf was in reference to the acquisition by Pat Fenlon’s Shelbourne of Glen Crowe, Bobby Ryan and Colin Hawkins from Bohs.

Shels would beat Bohs that night, but just like the vandals of 1981 the Tolka Park art invaders remain at large. 

Home Farm v Liverpool line-ups

Home Farm: O’Brien; Ryan, Breslin, O’Riordan, Brady; Walsh, Neville, Robinson; Roddy Collins, Connolly, Coyle. Subs – Finnerty for O’Brien, O’Connor and Thomas for Robinson and Coyle (half-time).

Liverpool: Grobbelaar; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, Lawrenson; Ray Kennedy, Ronnie Whelan, Souness, McDermott; Dalglish, Craig Johnston. Subs – Lee for Whelan and Alan Kennedy for Neal (half time).

Ref: P. Daly (Dublin) 


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