The Fall and Rise of Shelbourne FC

I wrote this for The Brendan McKenna Memorial Award, he was part of the Sports Writers Association of Ireland. I’m not really sure it’s my best work, I do like sports, but writing about them is tough. Anyway, if I’m lucky enough to win, result, if not I can always say ‘Award-Losing Journalist’ on my CV, right? I did win a swimming trophy when I was 6, so I could always go with ‘Award-Winning’ on that basis…

The Fall and Rise of Shelbourne FC

James Keating

It was a strange kind of disappointment for Shelbourne FC and their fans after losing out on both the first division title and the FAI Cup in the most dramatic of circumstances.

The league fell from their grasp after a 94th minute winning goal for champions Cork City. Shels had only needed a draw to clinch the first division title. The cup was even more heartbreaking, 10 men hanging on for a draw against premier division runners up Sligo Rovers, only to lose in the penalty shootout.

Players and fans always want to win, but just being in the position they were was a minor miracle for the club. It’s been five long years since the heady days of European competition ended abruptly amidst financial turmoil.

Shelbourne are synonymous with Irish soccer, having been founded in 1895. They have won 13 league titles and 7 FAI cups in an impressive history. Their success over the years has few equals in Ireland, and despite a lean period in the 70’s and 80’s, they remained a respected and important part of Ireland’s domestic league.

By 2000 Shelbourne were the dominant force in Irish soccer. They secured a league and cup double and by 2004 were playing in the third qualifying round of the Champion’s League. The team, under manager Pat Fenlon, were achieving things no Irish club had before. It was a fan’s dream come true as the club put Irish soccer on the European radar.

Success can come with a heavy price, and Shels’ meteoric rise to European competitiveness and domestic success has parallels. Leeds United, Bradford City, Icarus. What rises must fall, and Shelbourne flew too close to the sun.

With mouting debt the team almost disappeared entirely. The players fled, wages unpaid, many to Drogheda United, who would go on to win the premier division in 2007. Shelbourne fell to the first division for the first time since 1986, when they spent one year in the second tier. This time, they wouldn’t return to the top flight so quickly.

Despite being league champions in 2006, the team were demoted. To make matters worse, Chief Executive and majority shareholder Ollie Byrne passed away. The money that sustained their phenomenal success was gone. The club were at arguably the lowest point in their history.

Even with so many players gone, the team managed to come fifth in their first year outside the top flight. The following years saw repeated heartbreak as they came close, but ultimately failed to make their way back to the premier division.

Late goals and play-off losses doomed the club to repeat their attempts to gain promotion. Rising and falling seemed to have become part of Shelbourne’s character, leading to a Groundhog Day in the first division. Each year they seemed destined for promotion, only to fall at the final hurdle.

2011 would be their year at last. It almost wasn’t to be however, as once again they conspired to rise, only to fall again. A great start to the season and an impressive lead in the league were followed by collapse.

It began with a 4-1 loss to Cork City, who began to cut the points deficit between the clubs. 2008’s failure reared its head as Limerick came to Tolka Park and won with a late goal. Monaghan United took more points away soon after. By the last day of the season Shelbourne only had a two point lead, going into a match with Cork City, two points behind in second.

At that point, it was almost irrelevant. A change to league rules meant Shels were already guaranteed promotion thanks to a 4-0 thrashing of Finn Harps in Tolka Park days earlier. Fans ran onto the pitch in celebration as five years in the doldrums ended with emphatic victory.

Few players had a bigger role in the promotion than David Cassidy, who scored 15 league goals over the season and created even more. “It means everything to the fans who’ve stuck with the club over the last five years. They’ve had to deal with hard times.”

Cassidy’s contribution was at its most obvious as Shels beat their 90’s FAI Cup rivals St. Patrick’s Athletic in the semi-finals of the same competition. He scored the goal to put them up 3-1 and was named man of the match as Shels reached the final, an incredible achievement for a first division club.

Perhaps it was the hangover from promotion, or maybe just bad luck, but with their return to the premier divison secured, Shels would lose their next two games. With them, they lost the league and the cup.

Shelbourne’s tendency to rise and fall made a final appearance in the first division’s last game. Cassidy put Shelbourne level after an early goal for Cork, but at the death Graham Cummins’ headed goal kept the trophy from the grasp of Shelbourne’s players.

The FAI Cup final was no less dramatic. Shelbourne’s Barry Clancy was sent off for diving but the team hung on for a draw, taking the game to penalties. Sligo’s penalty-saving specialist Ciaran Kelly duly gave his team a 4-1 win in the shootout. Shelbourne were left with no silverware to add to their collection.

Disappointing, definitely, but for Shelbourne’s fans, who have endured five years of waiting and hoping, the season has been a tremendous success. Once the initial period of disappointment wears off, Cassidy’s comments before the cup and league defeats become all the more poignant.

“A cup would be nice to put in the trophy cabinet, but promotion was the main thing for everyone.”

It’s been quite a journey to get there, but Shelbourne can now begin a new chapter in their history, and finally leave the disappointment of the last five years behind.

One Response to “The Fall and Rise of Shelbourne FC”
  1. As a Cork City fan, I was in the Riverside Stand that night in Tolka. The final minutes were incredible and something I will never, ever forget. If the past season has thought us supporters in Cork anything though, it’s that you need to be playing clubs that mean something to you. You’d take beating any Premier Division club 1-0 than crushing Athlone 7-0 any day. I’m glad both clubs were promoted and I just hope there are stable years for the year ahead after all the heart ache. Owners, managers and players come and go. Supporters are the only constant element.

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