Monday 19 February 2018

Throwback to the glory days

Shelbourne back in spotlight after painful fall from grace

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

TURNSTILES clicking, crowds walking up Richmond Road, Gardai on traffic duty, television cameras in place, faithful fans singing and chanting -- it will be like old times at Tolka Park tonight.

Well, maybe not quite like the early years of the new millennium, when Shelbourne FC were synonymous with trophies, high-earning talent, big attendances and the heady ambition of a place in Champions League group stages.

It turned out that the fat lady sang, and when she sang it was a mournful wail of misfortune that confirmed yes, the party was truly over.

Shelbourne almost went out of existence as the extent of the reckless borrowing and level of debt was revealed in 2006.

A fifth title in seven seasons -- one of which, in 2001-02, was won when tonight's opponents St Pat's were docked 15 points for fielding an ineligible player -- offered no protection as Shels fell foul of FAI licensing committee requirements for membership of the Premier Division.

Former owner Ollie Byrne, who died in August '07, has never been accused of anything apart from an excess of zeal and ambition for his beloved Reds, but the eventual outcome was disaster for the club.

Demoted to the First Division for '07, and with no manager and no players signed, Shels were in a desperate situation when they called on Dermot Keely to take over.

Three days before the transfer deadline, and 10 days before the league began that year, Keely finally succumbed to Byrne's pleading. "It wasn't a job, it was a fire brigade manoeuvre," he recalled.

Keely and his patched-together side finished fifth in the First Division that year, and then the work began again.

For 2008, he had 24 in his squad, and only three of those had played in '07. Keely battled away until last year seeking that elusive promotion.

Shels came close but couldn't make that final push to re-join the top grade.

For this season, Alan Mathews has been in charge. Promotion is the holy grail and is still possible, but the glamour of the FAI Cup semi-final against St Pat's brings a little pep in the step of hardcore fans and hard-pressed board members.

The reality can be illustrated by Shels' playing budget. Back in the early years of the last decade, it was in excess of €1m a year.

For '07, reports suggested that businessman Ossie Kilkenny, who was involved in plans to buy Tolka Park and relocate Shelbourne, guaranteed a €20,000-a-week playing budget. After that, the club was on its own, and currently Mathews' budget is believed to be around €6,500 a week.

Tolka Park is being maintained with a minimal outlay boosted by volunteers. Sponsorship revenue has fallen, attendances that were once over the 6,000 mark for derby clashes with Bohemians are now averaging 700 for home games, and it's only dogged persistence and passion that keeps Shelbourne alive.

They caught a break earlier in the Cup competition when Sheriff YC beat them, only to be turfed out for fielding an illegal player. The FAI at first opted to leave Shels out as well, but on appeal that decision was rescinded and they went through to beat Limerick in the quarter-finals.

The arrival of the Saints to Tolka Park offers a welcome opportunity to make some money, but above all it reminds the wider sporting public that Shelbourne are still in business.

"The club has been through a very rough time over the last five years," Mathews said. "I was just talking to Pat (Fenlon) and the last time Shelbourne were on the television he was in charge, when they were winning the league in 2006.

"A lot went pear-shaped from there. So this is a good opportunity for us to just show where we could be, and for the players to show that they can play in games like this on an ongoing basis.

"For the club and the people who put in the hard work in keeping it alive, it's a good reward for them. We just want to push it and get to the final day. I'll stick with the principles and the belief that we have in the players.

"It's got us into the position where we are in the semi-final of a cup and got us into a position where we are at the sharp end of the First Division.

"Opportunity comes again. This is a big game for everybody. We just have to make sure we maximise it."

Shelbourne v St Patrick's Athletic,

Live, RTE 2, 7.35

Irish Independent

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