Milltown memories draw mixed emotions on 30th anniversary of Shamrock Rovers' last game there
Thirty years ago today, Shamrock Rovers changed forever.
Their final game at Milltown against Sligo Rovers was a fraught affair, with supporters engaging in protests in the hope that the controversial sale of their hallowed ground could be stopped.
"They were not amused," wrote the Irish Independent Soccer Correspondent Noel Dunne. "But to their credit, they were well behaved."
All their efforts were in vain. Louis Kilcoyne, a future FAI president, pressed ahead with Plan A along with his family.
Despite the shadow hanging over the whole operation, Rovers and their player-manager Dermot Keely would go on to complete the league and cup double in 1987.
Keely, who had taken over from Jim McLaughlin after three successive title wins, subsequently admitted that he was sold a 'dummy deal' with regard to Milltown.
He reckoned the sale of their ground for development purposes would give Rovers the funds to strengthen their position at the top of the tree.
His sole focus at the time was on the rewards from winning trophies and his priority was strengthening the squad for the following season at Tolka Park.
He didn't realise that crisis was coming around the corner for Ireland's dominant force; the fans that swarmed onto the pitch at half-time in the Sligo fixture had a bad feeling.
They carried banners decrying the imminent move to Tolka Park and accusing the Kilcoyne family of greed.
"They were very emotional," explained Keely, in an interview with this week's LOI Weekly Podcast (which will be available on independent.ie from tomorrow morning).
"But at the time, my motivation was personal. I loved football then. I didn't love the League of Ireland or Shamrock Rovers.
"So I had to get them off the pitch so the game could go ahead. There was no nastiness towards the team or towards me at that stage. And at the end I helped to convince them to go off, there was no point in giving the game up.
"But at that stage, I didn't see it. I didn't understand the difference between Milltown and Drumcondra; I thought we could win wherever we played. It's clicked with me now."
The KRAM (Keep Rovers at Milltown) pickets around Tolka were the main reason the Hoops made headlines in the 1987/'88 campaign as the balance of football power shifted and the rancour over the loss of their beloved Glenmalure Park base was the catalyst for a traumatic period in the club's history.
Keely resigned at the end of that season, unable to get his head around the supporters outside the ground who would not come in to home matches.
Now that he's out of the game, he lives in Dundalk and is an Oriel Park regular who says he would be distraught if they were to leave their traditional base. He sees it from the other side of the fence.
If any optimism lingered about Rovers' immediate future post-Milltown, it was quickly extinguished.
The Kilcoyne family left in 1988 and new ownership involving a consortium of fans came in.
Temporarily, the RDS offered a window of opportunity; the crowd of 22,000 that turned up for their first game there against St Patrick's Athletic in 1990 hinted at latent potential. And there was a league win in 1994 in front of a much smaller core of regular patrons.
But the wilderness years in Santry, Tolka, Richmond Park, and even the Dalymount home of arch rivals Bohemians, brought Rovers to the brink of extinction.
The creation of the '400 Club' and the completion of the protracted move to Tallaght in 2009 finally brought a degree of closure to a dark chapter.
League wins in 2010 and 2011 and Europa League group stage qualification suggested that the good old days for Hoops fans - Rovers first, the rest nowhere - were on the way back.
This week, the Hoops are honouring the 30th anniversary of the Milltown's final match with a series of events leading up to Friday's game with an appropriate opponent - Sligo Rovers. (They also played the Bit O'Red on April 12, 1997 but that landmark was largely overlooked in press coverage at the time.)
It comes at a point in their development which is testing the patience of a faction of supporters.
Thirty years ago, Rovers had everything they needed to put a successful first team on the pitch and little else.
Now, they have a permanent abode in Tallaght, terrific training facilities at Roadstone, and a burgeoning academy that is becoming a serious player on the underage scene in Dublin - ruffling a couple of feathers in the process.
The focus on the youth structure accelerated last year following additional backing from leading shareholder Ray Wilson.
With former midfielder Shane Robinson running that side of affairs, and household name Damien Duff a key part of the structure, Rovers are one League of Ireland club that has belatedly embraced the concept of spending on age-group sides.
They are actively competing with the established schoolboy operations for promising youngsters at all ages and putting noses out of joint by doing so.
What it means is that the Hoops have the security and structure which was so clearly lacking when the rug was pulled from under them in 1987.
What they do not have, however, is a first team that appears to be capable of challenging for honours and offering investors any kind of return.
Five defeats from eight this term under new boss Stephen Bradley is not what was anticipated when they strengthened in the off-season, with the capture of Ronan Finn from Dundalk the major statement.
It was always going to take a bit of time, but their alarming run of results has invited unwelcome pressure at an early stage.
After all, a generation has passed and, while senior Hoops followers may always view the club's lifespan under two headings - Before Milltown and After Milltown - the newer breed have recent memories of success with Michael O'Neill that was supposed to function as the launchpad for more.
Instead, they've become something of a basket case with Stephen Kenny, Trevor Croly and Pat Fenlon coming and going through the revolving doors.
The hierarchy have put their faith in Bradley partnered with sporting director Stephen McPhail and they cannot afford another short-lived experiment. From afar, it's clear that the club is in a better place now. The fresh commitment to initiatives like corporate hospitality at the ground and other aspects of the match-day experience would suggest an appreciation of the details that are too often ignored in the league.
And they needed to make an effort to regain the momentum that drew new faces in during their early days in Tallaght.
But the most important part of the match-day experience to punters of a Rovers persuasion is the result - that is the easiest way to create a positive atmosphere.
Nostalgia that produces images of the great four-in-a-row side will always lead to reminders of how good things used to be on the pitch.
The veterans of their struggle will always be able to keep football disappointment in perspective; today's problems pale in comparison to what they faced in the lost decades.
Still, 'Bringing the past into the present' is one of the catchlines that Rovers have used on their social media channels this week.
That past was always about the results business; and they need to start getting that right from this Friday.
The trophy game
The list of Shamrock Rovers honours offers an insight into the impact of losing Milltown. Comparing the glory days of the eighties with their exploits in the period that followed makes that point with the 2009 switch to Tallaght bringing a return in fortunes.
Rovers in the '80s
4 Leagues (1984, 1985, 1986, 1987)
3 FAI Cups ( 1985, 1986, 1987)
Rovers in the '90s
1 League (1994)
Rovers in the 2000s
1 First Division title (2006)
Rovers in the 2010s
2 Leagues (2010, 2011)
1 League Cup (2013)
2 Setanta Cups (2011, 2013)