Dunne ready to take on old 'master' Keely
TOMMY DUNNE will never forget his first encounter with Dermot Keely. It was a formative experience.
He was 16, and thrust into defence for Home Farm reserves alongside a veteran Keely, who, with his bearded appearance, resembled a savage in the eyes of the intimidated youngster.
"It was frightening," recalled Dunne. "Before the game, he said 'don't go in behind me. If you do, I'll kill you'."
The Dubliner lived to tell the tale, and his respect for Keely grew from there. Alas, they will be in opposite dugouts this evening, when Dunne brings the hastily assembled players of Cork City Foras Co-Op to the capital.
In the small world that is the League of Ireland, things have a habit of turning full circle. Nevertheless, the meeting of Keely's Shelbourne and a rebranded Cork side at First Division level this evening stands out from the fixture list.
The last time a Cork team visited Tolka Park for a league encounter with Shels was in August of 2006, a year which ended with title success and subsequent financial implosion for the hosts.
That game ended in a 2-2 draw, and featured a plethora of recognisable figures from the domestic scene. Indeed, of the 22 players that started, six are now employed by clubs in the UK and five are with the league's current big two -- Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers.
There are three survivors -- Shels keeper Dean Delaney, who returned to the club for a second stint, while his left-back that night, Dave Rogers, has ended up down in Cork for the latest stage of his colourful career, with Michael Devine also back at Turner's Cross this term following a spell with Waterford.
Certainly, the overall standard of player will be well short of that level tonight, but Keely is looking forward to the occasion.
With Waterford, Derry and Cork competing at the top of Division 1, he believes that the second tier arguably has a wider appeal than the top flight this term. It supports his assertion, shared by Dunne, that the authorities need to scrap a 10-team Premier Division and go for one league which ensures these kind of games are restored to their former status.
"This is where we are in this country," said Keely.
"It's not big enough for two leagues. Of course, the First Division is inferior (quality wise) but you have a Premier Division that is effectively a Leinster League and a First Division that is a National League.
"It's absolutely crazy to have a top flight that doesn't have big cities like Cork and Derry and Limerick represented. And then you have Shels, who would have their own following as well.
"I know people will think that I'm banging on about it, but it's just not workable financially. You need a 16 or an 18-team league."
Still, the arrival of some notable faces has added a buzz to a graveyard division. Trips to the Brandywell and Turner's Cross have offered players an opportunity to show their wares in front of crowds that many Premier Division clubs can't attract.
Dunne is heartened by the manner in which the new Cork entity has been received on Leeside.
"Because the club is being run by supporters, I think there's been a good response," he said. "It's been hard for everyone around here but there's a determination to get things right.
"We had 4,500 there against Waterford and over 2,000 against Mervue and Longford, and we brought 800-1,000 supporters to the away game in Limerick.
"We'll have plenty of our own fans in Tolka, and it'll be great when Shels come down here because they're considered a big club. It could be the biggest crowd of the season. I had great times at Shels myself, and they really should be in the Premier. Hopefully, if the FAI decide to go for a 16 or 20 team league, then they'll be in there."
As it stands, only one team is guaranteed promotion from the First Division with the next three entering the play-offs. Shels have the experience, although Waterford look the team to beat for now.
Dunne had just over a week to put his squad together, and says he will learn a lot about their prospects for the rest of the season from this test.
Keely, frustrated by the small-time nature of most games in this sphere, is just looking forward to a sense of occasion. "It will feel like real football for a change," he said. A welcome break from a grimmer reality.