Sunday 20 August 2017

'They had lads who'd been in the World Cup final that year. And we came close'

Daniel McDonnell talks to Hoops legend Johnny Fullam about the good old days when Rovers struck fear into hearts right across Europe

ON the quieter days, when the mood takes him, Johnny Fullam ventures up to his attic and opens his treasure chest of nostalgia. It is a box of memories, a series of cuttings from a time when Shamrock Rovers took on the world without a trace of fear. Big European nights were the norm and Fullam, who appeared in more such games than any of his contemporaries, holds the memories dear.

The Dubliner is thrilled that the Hoops' class of 2010 will get a genuine taste of the big time tonight in the first leg of their Europa League joust with Juventus. He can relate to the buzz that will accompany the occasion, an adrenalin surge he enjoyed frequently as an integral member of the all-conquering Rovers team of the 1960s, an era where sell-out crowds and high-profile visitors were an annual feature of European involvement.

He claims that his memory is fading before contradicting himself by running through the individual stories of his seven consecutive campaigns with the Hoops in detail. The games they won, the games where they underperformed and the games they never should have lost. Adventures that allowed him to rub shoulders with the aristocracy of the game.

It helped that Rovers had their own aura, an inheritance of self-belief which allowed them frighten star-studded opponents, most famously the Bayern Munich side who escaped by the skin of their teeth in the 1966/'67 Cup Winners Cup and duly went on to win the competition.

After the protagonists registered a goal each in Dublin, the Hoops pulled back a two-goal deficit in Munich and were six minutes away from progression on the away-goals rule and a place in the quarter-finals. A late intervention from a certain Gerd Muller spared German blushes.

"They were top of the class at the time," recalls Fullam. "They had lads who'd been in the World Cup final that year. Muller, Franz Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier are the ones who spring to mind I suppose. And we came close.

"But then we always felt we were in with a chance with that team. We had a great belief in ourselves. Even going to Munich after the first leg, we felt we could get a result.

"We never had a defeatist attitude. What could I call it? Confidence, I suppose. For me, Shamrock Rovers always were and always will be the Manchester United of Irish football."

So what of the other sepia-tinted stories, the footsteps which today's generation are following in. First, there was the 1957 clash with the Busby Babes, an occasion which came around just before Fullam's time. Five years later, he took his formative steps in international club competition against Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv, a tie which concluded with a 5-0 aggregate defeat and a journey he'd never forget.

"We got hammered at home and in the second leg we gave a better account of ourselves but the journey was a nightmare," he recalls. "We flew to Sofia and got this six-hour bus to Plovdiv but the roads were horrific, like boreens. The way back was worse. We got a flight to Sofia and thought that would be better, but it was one of those planes where you walk up the deck like Mount Everest. We took off from what was basically a ploughed field. I know the lads last week had a long trip to Israel, but I think it's a bit easier now!"

Nevertheless, that reverse was an important learning curve, for that group of players steadily became more competent in their subsequent endeavours. They flirted with a big breakthrough without ever truly achieving it. Fullam (right) lists off the tales. Valencia in '63, when they led the decisive away leg only to be sucker-punched. Zaragoza two years later, when his goal left the tie locked at two apiece after a solitary strike from each team in Dublin. The Spanish pulled the winner from the locker.

He vividly remembers the pain of 1968, when Danish side Randers led by a goal from the initial meeting on their own turf, and arrived in the Irish capital. "We should have hammered them at home," he sighs. "It could have been five or six at half-time." Fullam struck for the hosts on the night, but the Danes grabbed two. "They were great trips," he admits.

"The sympathy I have for the lads now is that they don't get to create those kind of situations too often. We used to have it every year. Even the first year, against the Bulgarian team, I think there was something like 30,000 at the first game in Dalymount."

Nevertheless, he is confident about the future now. Indulging in hyperbole would be out of character, but he feels that the move to Tallaght could propel Rovers back towards better days.

"I think Rovers could be the saviour of Irish football," says Fullam. "I know the crowds they get in Tallaght are small compared to what they used to be, but they're good by the standards of today and they've got a great catchment area. And they still have this charisma about them."

He'll be watching on television this evening, though, ashamed to admit that his only visit to the club's new home was the opening night against Sligo last March. These days, the competitive urge is fuelled by regular games of golf at Hermitage, but he promises that some day soon he will shell out for a season ticket. The heart is telling him to do so.

"I'm delighted to see them back having this success," he continues. "It's a great reward for the supporters who kept the club alive in the hard times. I know there's a few people like Jack Wilson who have passed away -- he was a fantastic man -- and I hope they are remembered.

"I just really hope these games work out for them but no matter what happens they can hold their heads up."

If they match the belief of their predecessors, they can start their own chapter.

Irish Independent

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