Monday 18 December 2017

The night Hoops collided at Milltown

Celtic’s victory in Moscow on Tuesday was their first on the road in the European Cup proper in 26 years – their last success came against Shamrock Rovers in 1986. LiamKelly spoke to the Rovers captain on the night, Pat Byrne, about his recollections of a memorable clash in Dublin

FORMER Shamrock Rovers captain Pat Byrne still sighs with regret at the 'big one that got' away when the League of Ireland team of the '80s was at its peak.

The date was Wednesday, September 17, 1986. Glenmalure Park, Milltown was the venue, and a European Cup first-round clash with Celtic was on the agenda.

Irish soccer was buzzing with excitement. Celtic were -- and still are -- hugely supported in this country, and Rovers, the pride of the League of Ireland, fancied their chances of upsetting the mighty visitors.

Rovers had won the double of league title and FAI Cup in 1985-86 in Jim McLaughlin's last year as manager. Dermot Keely succeeded him, as player-manager.

Celtic, managed by David Hay, were Scottish champions and a force to be respected by all in Europe.

You may ask, so what? How is this relevant? Well, that September date in 1986 was significant in the history of both clubs.

Celtic won the first leg 1-0 -- but had to wait until this week, when they defeated Spartak Moscow in Russia for their next away win in the European Cup/Champions League proper.

For Rovers followers, the occasion was to be the last big European night at their beloved Milltown, although nobody present that night knew it.

Rovers won another double in 1986-87 season, but the Kilcoyne family then announced they were selling Milltown for development.

Huge

But in September 1986, it was all about Celtic coming to town. A huge match.

Estimates of Celtic fans in the attendance of over 18,000 numbered between 2,000 and 6,000. What can be stated for certain is that there were plenty of Scots in the crowd.

When the draw was made, speculation arose that Rovers might take the game to Lansdowne Road, as happened in 1970 when Waterford played Celtic, but the decision was to keep it at Milltown.

Temporary seating was erected on scaffolding. Cue a bizarre moment for Byrne.

"When we walked out from the dressing-rooms, I always remember the excitement rising in the crowd and hearing the cheers and so forth," he recalls.

"But you could actually see the scaffolding swaying. It was unbelievable. I remember thinking we were in the safest spot, because we were on the pitch!"

Celtic had Packie Bonner in goal, and big names including Brian McClair, Roy Aitken, Mo Johnston, Paul McStay and Murdo McLeod featured in their side.

They were up against part-timers, guys such as John Coady, whose day job was a postman.

Player-manager Keely, who had played for Dundalk in Europe against the Celts in 1979, was a secondary school teacher. Practically all the players had 'real' jobs -- the line-up also featured a sales rep, a civil servant and a decorator.

But none of that mattered when they crossed the white line. Noel Larkin almost scored early for Rovers, but Bonner pulled off the first of a number of great saves.

Liam O'Brien, under scrutiny from cross-channel scouts, Pat Byrne and Paul Doolin gained the edge in midfield. Celtic had to wait almost 40 minutes for a decent chance, a McClair header which came back off the woodwork.

In the second half, Rovers continued to give a good account of themselves and while goalie Jody Byrne had to make some timely saves, they were well in the hunt until Murdo MacLeod got a breakaway goal seven minutes from time.

Byrne recalls: "It was a great game and Packie Bonner played fantastically well. We really put it up to Celtic and gave them a right game. In fairness to their players, they were very respectful to us over the two matches.

"Afterwards it took me nearly an hour to come out of the dressing-room because I was so hurt by the result. To play so well and get nothing out of it was really hard to take."

The return leg took place on October 1. Rovers played in unfamiliar yellow jersies, blue shorts and blue socks.

Byrne probably should not have played as he had a knee ligament injury, but he convinced himself it would be strong enough for 90 minutes. He was wrong and had to be substituted at half-time.

A goal in each half by Johnston gave Celtic safe passage, but it had been a memorable two matches.

"The fans on both sides were fantastic. There was no trouble and it was an unbelievable experience to hear them chanting to each other and cheering each other at Parkhead," says Byrne.

The matches

September 17, 1986, Milltown:

Shamrock Rovers 0 Celtic 1 (MacLeod)

Shamrock Rovers -- Jody Byrne, Mick Neville, Peter Eccles, Dermot Keely, Kevin Brady; Paul Doolin, Pat Byrne, Liam O'Brien, John Coady; Noel Larkin, Mick Byrne.

Celtic -- Bonner; W McStay, McGugan (O'Leary 28), Aitken, McGrain; Grant, P McStay, Burns, MacLeod; McClair, Johnston.

October 1, Parkhead:

Celtic 2 (Johnston 2) Shamrock Rovers 0

Aggregate: 3-0 Celtic.

Celtic -- Bonner; W McStay, Aitken, Whyte, Shepherd; McClair (McGhee 80), P McStay, Burns, MacLeod; Johnston (Archdeacon 69), McInally

Shamrock Rovers -- J Byrne, Neville, Keely, Eccles, Brady; Doolin, P Byrne (Monaghan h-t), O'Brien (Whelan 67), Coady; Larkin, M Byrne.

Irish Independent

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