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My second (tier) favourite season

A Rovers return to the First Division was not on the radar for most of us. When the Tallaght era began for Shamrock Rovers in 2009, no one expected the club to be playing First Division matches here within five years. Thankfully though, it is our newly created reserve team that is lining out in the second tier of the Airtricity League this season, not our first team, with the aim of developing players that will help Rovers continue to win major trophies in Irish football in years to come.

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The move to Tallaght has brought the Hoops a nice trophy haul so far with two league titles, two Setanta Sports Cups, two Leinster Senior Cups and only our second ever League Cup win. In 2011, when we qualified for the Europa League group stages, along with retaining our league title and winning the all island Setanta cup competition, it gave me and most others Rovers fans their favourite season ever following the club.

However if you were to ask me what is my favourite year outside of the time spent here in Tallaght, you might be surprised to read that is the 2006 season. That was the only other year Rovers ever played in the First Division. The enjoyment garnered from that campaign wasn’t something that I was expecting when the club had lost their place in the top flight of Irish football for the first time ever at the end of the previous season. The tears that flowed following that play-off defeat would in 12 months time be tears of joy but a lot was to happen in the meantime.

Rovers had found themselves relegated after a 2005 season that had seen the Hoops flirt way to close to extinction. The club went into financial free-fall and was on its knees before the fans rallied around and took over the club following the High Court Examinership period. However, while the supporters saved the club, they couldn’t save the team from relegation.

There was a certain sense of renewal about Rovers when that First Division season began. Under new board room control and a new managerial appointment, only two players remained from the relegated squad, with our current goalkeeper Barry Murphy one of those players. He provided the defensive foundation, along with new captain Aidan Price, which paved the way for Rovers’ success that season under manager Pat Scully.

Scully was a determined and demanding manager who had one clear ambition for Rovers. Get out of the First Division at the very first bloody attempt but at half-time in the season opener, things were not looking great. The Hoops trailed 1-0 to Dundalk with Rovers’ young team seeming to freeze under the pressure of playing in front of the large Tolka Park crowd. As the players trooped off after the opening 45 minutes, I thought to myself this was going to be a long hard season. No doubt Pat Scully said at some strong words half-time and the players responded in the second half. The Hoops equalised, through Jamie Duffy, with 18 minutes remaining before substitute Willy Doyle got the winner in injury time much to the home supporters relief.

When Rovers came to town that season, as always we brought a sizeable away support but the visit of the Hoops always brought out the home fans. “You’re only here to see the Rovers” was a common refrain to be heard throughout the season from the travelling fans of the Hoops and Rovers got to see a multitude of away league wins, a pleasant change from previous years. The Hoops hadn’t been in the top half of a league table since 2003. In 2005, they’d only won two league games outside of the Dublin environs an improvement having had no victories the season previous to that. But this year was different as away wins were clocked up regularly; three wins and two draws from the first five away games.

There were to be no Dublin derbies in the league that year with Kildare County being the nearest away trip for the Hoops. After one away win in Station Road, the Rovers fans that were returning to Dublin by train stood on the platform in Newbridge in high spirits after a 3-0 victory. The Iarnrod Éireann official in the station wasn’t used to his Saturday evening viewing being disturbed and announced over the PA “could the patrons at Platform 2 please be quiet as you are disturbing my watching Match of the Day.” He was met with a chorus of “You can shove your English football up you’re arse!”

Just prior to that season, I had purchased my first car and I put some mileage on it that year, in what was often called the “Discover Ireland” season. We got to go St. Mel’s Park for one last time before Athlone moved to their new ground. We stood on the terrace in Finn Park beside League of Ireland legend Brendan Bradley and made it over to Galway where disappointingly Rovers got beaten twice. We watched a dour 0-0 draw in Kilkenny in the rain on the night France and Spain played out a World Cup classic or so I am told as I’ve never seen the goals from France’s 3-1 win.

The Hoops did not run away with the First Division but led by a small margin for long spells in the season and were pegged back when other clubs benefited from Rovers’ points deduction for fielding an illegible player. The squad changed throughout the season, as players fell out of favour with Pat Scully and vice versa. But his team showed its class in the cup by knocking out Bohemians in a 2-0 FAI Cup replay win in Dalymount, before the Hoops were eliminated at the semi-final stage.

Andy Myler celebrates scoring in Limerick

Andy Myler celebrates scoring in Limerick

Back in the league, Rovers manoeuvred themselves into a winning position with a crucial away win in early November in Limerick. It was a very different trip to the city in 2006 compared to their current superb surroundings in Thomond Park for both home and away fans. Back then, Limerick were playing out of Hogan Park where the corporate facilities were a 40 foot trailer with the canvass side pulled back and a few garden chairs for the VIPs available. On a bitterly cold night on Shannonside, Andy Myler’s two first half goals earned Rovers a 2-0 win and put the Hoops on the verge of promotion. Even having to drive back to Dublin without a rear passenger window, lost thanks to a rock thrown through the car as we were leaving the area, didn’t dampen our spirits that night.

Rovers ended their First Division campaign in Cobh, where they began their 2014 First Division campaign last night. The Hoop hoards descended on the picturesque Cork town with the locals maybe not knowing what had hit them. There are many tales that could be told about that final weekend revolving around double booked hotels, diverted Ryanair flights or the look on the face of the steward who opened the gate to see the size of the away supporters queuing to get in.

Barry Murphy had made a habit of saving penalties all season and he did it again on that final night but it looked like the large Rovers travelling support would not see a trophy presentation when Cobh scored after 79 minutes. But with six minutes remaining on the clock, Tadhg Purcell grabbed a precious goal, his 11th of the season, to cement Rovers as the First Division champions.

At the final whistle, the supporters myself included paid no heed to the “stay of the pitch” requests and vaulted the perimeter wall to stream onto the pitch to celebrate with the players. It was a chaotic scene that would be replicated with even more fervour in Bray four years later when the Hoops captured the Premier Division trophy.

On this night though, one supporter who was on crutches even made it onto the podium pretending to be an injured player joining in the celebrations with his “teammates” when the trophy was eventually presented. The fans sung “Rovers are back” and they meant it. The lasting memory of the night for me was Pat Scully’s speech so it was great to see it pop up in the last month on YouTube. Scully was carried shoulder high by supporters off the pitch before perching himself on the ledge of the dressing room to speak to the supporters.

A hush fell in that corner of St. Colman’s Park. Scully’s speech was short, sharp and summed up what that season was about. “This is Shamrock Rovers and we want to play football. This is Shamrock Rovers and we fuckin’ win!”

Published in Hoops Scene 2014 Issue 2 (Shamrock Rovers v Derry City)

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