Shels are going up, and this time it feels different

Positive moves off the pitch have helped put the club on the right path again, but the Tolka Park issue still looms large.

THERE’S A SMALL bunch of football fans around the greater Drumcondra area who have found themselves humming the tune of M People’s classic, Moving On Up, over the past couple of weeks.

It’s 28 years since the single slipped out of the charts in Ireland, but on 1 October the song provided the soundtrack in those chaotic moments after the final whistle as Shelbourne clinched a 1-0 win over Treaty United, and with it, secured promotion back to the Premier Division.

shelbourne-fans-celebrate-getting-promoted-back-to-the-premier-division Shelbourne supporters celebrate on the Tolka Park pitch. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Flares were lit as supporters rushed the Tolka Park pitch to celebrate with Ian Morris and his team. For a moment, it felt like the Shelbourne of old again.

Movin’ on up, nothin’ can stop me”

In a previous life, the club used to celebrate far bigger victories than this. Five league titles between the years 2000 and 2006. Four FAI Cups across the 1990s. A series of famous nights in Europe. Basically, supporting Shelbourne was about as good as it got when it came to domestic football in Ireland. 

Not anymore. The downward spiral started back in 2006, when financial issues saw the club relegated to the First Division. They wouldn’t come back up for six years. The 2012 – 2013 seasons are the last time the club put back-to-back Premier Division campaigns together. When they last went back up in 2020, they won five games from 18 and walked straight back through the exit door following a relegation play-off defeat to Longford Town.

Through experience, the club’s supporters have learned to temper expectations. Yet this time, something feels different.

“I’d say right now the support is probably better than it has been for the last decade,” says Ian Maher, a member of The 1895 Trust, which was formed back in 2012.

There seems to be a big bond with the fans, and I have to say, you have to give the owners the credit for that. The chairman Andrew Doyle has put a lot of money into the club, you see some of the sponsorships over the last few years, that’s all brilliant.

“Then on the pitch both the men’s and women’s team have been great too, and that’s been the key, because if results are bad on the pitch then there’s obviously going to be issues. You know what group chats and social media can be like.” 

Barry Crossan is a lifelong supporter of the club, and editor of Red Inc, the longest running fanzine in Irish football.

“Since about 2017, 2018, there has been renewed optimism because the club, in some respects, have been getting their house in order on certain things, so you have to acknowledge that. They are trying to run it like a professional club.”

Despite the various challenges presented over the past 18 months or so, the often difficult relationship between the club and it’s supporters only appears to have strengthened.

Some of that boils down to fans being locked out of stadiums for so long, but as well as absence making the heart grow fonder, the club’s standing in the community has also improved.

Over the summer Shelbourne launched the League of Ireland’s first club-run full-time business course. There have been partnerships with The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. In February Alan Caffrey joined as Sporting and Technical Director while significant efforts have been made to improve Shelbourne’s youth structures and support the women’s team.

Essentially, it’s started to feel more like a club again.

“There’s some really good coaches underage,” Maher continues.

Luke Byrne (club captain) is down with Damien Duff at the U17s, Alan Reynolds was in, Noel King with the women’s team. And when you look down through the Academy you can see there are Irish caps left, right and centre – Abbie Larkin captained the Ireland U17s women’s team to a win during the week.

“You get the right coaches in with the right mindset and get a nice structure, then that all feeds up into the first teams eventually.”

It’s striking that both Maher and Crossan mention the success of the women’s team, who have grown into a major draw at Tolka Park.

“The women’s team is just as big as the men’s at the moment.” Maher explains. “If you look at some of the attendances for the women’s team, it’s been brilliant.”

“It’s great to see more people, different people, coming down, bringing their kids down, and just seeing a broader mix of people going to games,” Crossan adds.

pearl-slattery-before-the-game Shelbourne's Pearl Slattery. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s definitely a positive for the club. To talk to people who I’ve known for years, and for them to say that their daughter just talks about Pearl Slattery all the time and wants to go talk to her after the match, to see those people get elevated as superstars, that’s been fantastic.”

Of course, it’s impossible to talk Shelbourne and not talk Tolka Park, the famous old ground which has laid between Richmond Road and the Tolka River since the 1920s, and has served as the permanent home of Shelbourne FC since 1989. 

Dublin City Council took control of Tolka Park in 2016 as part of a plan which involved rehousing Shelbourne up the road at Dalymount Park, the Bohemians’ stadium getting a major facelift while private developers send in the bulldozers to level the seats and stands at Tolka.

“You would have to acknowledge the positive things that have happened off the pitch recently,” Crossan continues. “But I remain to be entirely convinced of their long-term vision if the club doesn’t have a permanent home of its own, so to speak.”

Anyone who has spent anytime in Dublin over the past year will likely have seen a Save Tolka Park sticker plastered on a set of traffic lights or on the wall of a pub toilet. The campaign is urging the council to rethink their plans for Tolka, their argument being that with the right planning, the site can become a hugely valuable asset for the local community.

Shelbourne FC does not officially support the Save Tolka Park movement, but a high number of Shelbourne supporters do.

“The 1895 Trust, in the last year or so the membership has triple-folded because the fans are speaking up,” Maher says.

general-view-of-tolka-park Shelbourne's Tolka Park stadium, Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“A vote went out within the Trust membership on whether we would support the Save Tolka Park campaign, and as expected, 100% of those who voted said yes, of course.

“I think the club, Andrew Doyle, he’s doing well as an owner but he’s not a fan, and he needs to listen to the fans because the fans don’t want that move.”

“The Save Tolka Park movement, that’s been a right shot in the arm for a lot of people to look at what’s happening not just in football and sport, but also to generally look at what is happening in terms of how we are planning our city and things like that,” Crossan says.

You’ve seen it with things like the Cobblestone Pub and Merchant’s Arch recently, where people are re-assessing what sort of city we want to live in. Obviously the housing issues and that are also very important, but what is a city if it doesn’t have any amenities for the population that live there?”

The hope among Shelbourne supporters is that the return of Premier Division football to Tolka Park, and the status that comes with that, will give more weight to the movement to the keep the club in a home it can call its own.

“Essentially the club’s position at the moment is that they are in favour of moving to Dalymount Park,” Crossan says.

“However, that’s been their position for a long time. With changing circumstances, you have to at least give yourself the space to re-asses how things might be. I’d like to see the club start engaging with the Save Tolka Park movement, local residents, the local authority, the FAI, because I do think there is a sea change of opinion on this.

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“More and more people are getting on board and seeing the value of having a football stadium in the community, and even having two football stadiums not too far apart, there is enough of a community out there to service both.”

“With promotion, it brings a lot of fans,” Maher adds. “You’d be surprised the amount of people that have said to me they’ll come up to games next year.”

Now, there’s no such thing as a bandwagon in the League of Ireland, the more the merrier! Every club needs the fans, so the hope is to get a few people signed up to the Trust as well, then eventually when we have enough money, to get a stake in the club and have a bit of a say.”

Yet for all the excitement and hope that comes with promotion, there’s also that lingering sense of fear. Based on past experience, who’s to say Shelbourne won’t find themselves back playing First Division football in 2023?

“Next year has to be about consolidation, first and foremost,” Crossan says.

“Even though we’ve had a good enough season and got a good core of players, the Premier Division now is a much stronger place than it was in 2012 and also in 2020.”

“The last time we went up we were signing players based on their name, and after a couple of games you could see they weren’t up to it,” Maher continues.

ian-morris Shelbourne manager Ian Morris. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I think the key this time will be to sign hungry players. Players that have to prove something. Maybe even call up a couple of underage players. You see Luke Browne and Gavin Hodgins playing for the Irish U17s this week. If they can do it for the Irish U17s, surely they can come up and sit on the bench, gain a bit of experience and get a few minutes?”

Shelbourne have lost just twice in the First Division this season, with a healthy goal difference of +26 to their name. Morris – who has tasted promotion twice and relegation once in his three years in charge – is a popular young manager, and there is reason to believe the club will bring through some talented young players over the coming years.

The Tolka Park issue aside, the general sense among Shelbourne supporters is that things are finally looking up again. At least for now.

“When I started following Shels, they were the top team,” Crossan says.

“The last 15 years, generally, we’ve been pretty rubbish, but we’re still here. Through adversity in many ways we’ve gotten stronger. There is a core out there who care deeply about the club.

“To see people in their early 30s going to games – when they were in their mid-teens we were really rubbish – so a lot of people have stuck with the club and the only trophies they might have seen us win is a couple of First Divisions and a Leinster Senior Cup.

“But these people are continuing to go to games, and continue to have a passion for the club despite the lack of success. I don’t think we’ll set the Premier Division alight next year, but I think there are many reasons to be optimistic.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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