New blood and family ties are driving Shelbourne's emotional reawakening
Richmond Road hummed with activity last Saturday evening. The atmosphere was a throwback to the time when Shelbourne provided the electricity in this part of Drumcondra.
The celebration of their promotion from the First Division had a reunion vibe. After a dozen years filled with darkness, a reawakening is underway. However, there is a road to travel before it can fully be described as rehabilitation.
Barry Crossan would endorse that view. The long-time supporter was selling Shels fanzine 'Reds Independent' outside Tolka Park before the lap of honour match against Limerick, but he would not be going inside to watch. He boycotts home matches, while attending every away fixture,
That was a stance taken by a group of fans that objected to the communication of the proposed move to Dalymount Park as part of a ground-share with Bohemians. The arrangement, overseen by Dublin City Council, remains a thorny subject.
It's moving slowly but the local authority bought Tolka off the debt- stricken Reds to redevelop it and help finance the construction of the new football solution for the northside rivals in Phibsborough.
Barry concedes that the numbers of stayaways has dwindled due to the pull of watching a rejuvenated side, with the investment of former Shamrock Rovers director Andrew Doyle central in putting together a new board structure and strategy. Sceptics still make their voice heard inside the ground, with anti-Dalymount chants sporadically heard.
The song says they want to stay in Tolka, but time is ticking on a facility that represented modernity through the 1990s. With the council now in charge, the Shels hierarchy can only try nudging them to make necessary changes to meet Premier standards. Dated advertising hoardings need replacing while health and safety concerns have ruled the Ballybough End out of action and raised fears about the stand behind the goal that houses the dressing rooms.
The joy of promotion under rookie boss Ian Morris allowed those problems to be put aside for a week. Shelbourne have lived on life support since the 2006 title win that ultimately brought down the curtain on their period in the ascendency.
Ill-health claimed Ollie Byrne, the charismatic and controversial figure that was the face of their golden years, the European games with Deportivo and Hadjuk Split, the scraps with rivals and authorities, and much more besides. He passed away in August 2007. and Shelbourne were never going to be the same again.
But his legacy lingers in many ways. At half-time in the Limerick match, the 28-year-old chief executive David O'Connor, who shelved his League of Ireland playing career to take an off-the-field role after the arrival of Doyle, is called up to answer the door on several occasions.
Fred Davis, the ex-Shels goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach, has come to offer his congratulations. The next knock is from Mark Rutherford, the Englishman who raided the Tolka Park wing in the 1990s, at a time when a black player in the League of Ireland was a novelty.
The Lucan resident went on to play with all the big four Dublin clubs, yet admits that Shelbourne hold a special place in his heart. "Still my first club," he says, with a smile, after a facile 7-0 win for the hosts. "I was reminiscing during the game about the times I had here."
Behind the goal, there's a sweet shop that is run by Joanne Kennedy-Byrne and her family. She's married to Ollie's nephew Andy, who was involved with the club from his teens in a variety of roles, including as acting CEO when his uncle was struck down.
"You can still feel his presence here," says Joanne, smiling at the mention of his name. Andy and Joanne's son is named Cian Oliver. He was born with a rare condition that has confined him to a wheelchair, but he has clearly been adopted into the Shelbourne family. Every player stops with their medal for a word and a photograph.
"I'd say tonight he would be looking down smiling," says Andy, who has resumed his Shels relationship with their U-8 side. "He'd already be thinking about next season. Tapping players up. Well, not tapping up players (he smiles) but making phone calls and trying to get sponsorship. Unfortunately the league doesn't have people like Ollie any more."
"But the club is on the rise again. A couple of years ago, we got back up and we weren't ready. Now we are. Going to Dalymount is a good thing. Ollie, in his heyday, was pushing for it. We had spoken to Bohs and there was a few people that didn't want to do it at the time. It's a no-brainer.
"Some of the fans don't realise the financial situation. We can't afford to stay here. At the end of the day, a ground doesn't make a club. The people, the fans, the players on the pitch make a club. And this is a real family club. You look at the turnstiles, the security, it's all the same people. We're all a bit older, a bit wiser, a little less hair."
The most emotional part of the evening was the round of applause and the pause in play when retiring goalkeeper Dean Delany was given a standing ovation as he was substituted. He's the one player in the Shels dressing room with a link to the glory days, having served as Steve Williams' understudy for the Champions League run in 2004 and being part of the team that won the league two years later while going without wages for long periods.
"My sole purpose of coming back was to be involved in a promotion," says the 39-year-old. "Bring me to any part of this ground and I can look at it and I have a memory. If the groundshare goes to plan, it will be a very sad time to see the ground go. From the highs of Europe and beating Hadjuk Split to being in the doldrums of the First Division. I've witnessed it all.
"The club hasn't changed in an awful lot of ways. It's a lot of the same people. I'm not saying that other clubs don't have that family aspect, but a lot of people don't understand that's what Shelbourne is.
"You look at people like (board members) Joe Casey and Shay Weafer, (kitman) Johnny Watson, they have been here from the start.
"I guarantee you speak to any of these people, it's nothing to do with money, a slip of the hand and getting a few bob here and there. People are doing this out of their own will, their own love for the club, their own pride. They are genuine unsung heroes. For me, they're just as much a part of the club as anyone else."
The challenge for Shels is to make itself relevant to a new generation, and Delany feels they are following the lead of Bohs with advances in the community department. There's a new partnership with DCU, the growth of their senior women's side, and key appointments in the schoolboy section. Delany left the dressing room for the last time followed by a posse of kids that would have no recollection of Wes Hoolahan, Jason Byrne or Owen Heary, among others, wearing red.
Still, there's a hardcore that has a motivation to ruffle feathers because of the past.
There's a feeling that the FAI made an example of them for their mistakes, whereas other clubs formed new trading companies and were prescribed a kinder dose of medicine when they hit on hard times. Chants about the FAI hierarchy were en vogue at Tolka a decade before tennis balls were being tossed onto the Aviva Stadium pitch.
This old club is far from cured, but it's healing.
As a giddy crowd waited for the trophy lift, the PA system blasted out the opening verse of a Rick Astley classic.
A group of thirty-somethings positioned to the side of the main crowd dance in a huddle on the pitch. Barry is suddenly back on the premises and in amongst it. The lyrics sat perfectly with the spirit of the Shels revival.
"Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you."