Archive | April, 2017

30 Years since Milltown’s last Hurrah: My Greatest Memories.

12 Apr

“Well Holy God” as Miley from Glenroe would’ve said when that RTE rural soap opera was being beamed into Irish homes on a Sunday night thirty years ago.  Rovers fans would probably still have been in Hoops Club bar in Milltown or the nearby Dropping Well or other adjacent pubs after a Sunday afternoon watching our beloved Shamrock Rovers.  Back in 1987, Sunday afternoon was matchday, there was no live League of Ireland action on television other than the FAI Cup Final and barely ever highlights packages.  So Sunday consisted of Mass and Milltown (and Miley if you were into Glenroe).

Holy God, I just can’t believe it’s thirty years since that Irish Press story broke in April 1987 that the Kilcoynes –  then owners of Rovers – were moving the Four-in-a-Row League champions to a “Stadium of the Future” in Tolka Park and selling off our Glenmalure Park for development.

The circumstances that enabled the Kilcoynes to acquire ownership of Milltown from the Jesuits soon emerged as the Jesuits were led to believe it was the Kilcoynes’ plan to develop Milltown into a more modern stadium.  The Kilcoynes planned to develop it alright, for housing.

At a Shamrock Rovers Supporters club meeting in May 1987, Louis Kilcoyne stood in front of us all and stated the reason the club was moving to Tolka Park was for “football reasons” and not to bail out the ailing Kilcoyne business Healy Homes.  He expected us to buy this rubbish, we didn’t of course buy any of it.  It wouldn’t be the last thing we wouldn’t buy off the Kilcoynes as the implications of the move began to hit home to us all.

I’d been going to Milltown regularly as a fan since 1979 when I initially tagged along with my late brother Myles who’d been going when John Giles returned to become Player-Manager in 1977.  My Dad had brought me a few times when I was younger, but in 1979, this impressionable 12 year old soon became hooked on the magical Green and White hoops, the smell of Bovril and booze in the shed, the merciless sarcasm towards our own players if they dared not give 100% and the colourful language to referees such as John Carpenter, Eamonn Farrell, Michael Caulfield and Aidan Gallagher when  they made a poor decision (and by God they made many).    I loved the immaculate carpet of the renowned Milltown pitch and was there when the Shamrock Rovers Development Committee finally helped cobble together the money to have floodlights installed at the old ground in 1982.

The Giles era promised much but delivered little (a sole FAI Cup win in 1978), but from becoming entrenched as a Hoop in 1979, I loved the likes of a young Robbie Gaffney, the teak tough Noel Synnott, the cat-like Alan O’Neill in goal and knew a  young  Jim Beglin (who recently blocked me on Twitter!)  would be lost to the First Division in England (Liverpool came in for him).  I resigned myself that the deadly duo of Campbell and Buckley would eventually be broken up (not before they finally delivered us a title in 1984), but for all my idols in those title-less years, there was always a Tommy Gaynor, a Denis Clarke, a Gerry McGowan or a Ronnie Murphy to have us tearing our hair out in frustration and exasperation.

The arrival of Derryman Jim McLaughlin changed everything in 1983.  Giles had left and his replacement  Noel Campbell, had also failed to bring the title back to Milltown.  McLaughlin however was a proven winner with a superbly talented and physically strong Dundalk team. They had given a decent Celtic team the fright of their lives in a European Cup clash in 1979 (3-2 defeat at Celtic Park and a 0-0 draw in Oriel Park, when the European Cup was knockout only) and McLaughlin didn’t take any nonsense from his players,  he was a proven winner indeed.  McLaughlin referred to Rovers as a “sleeping giant” when he was appointed.  The giant was roused from his slumber and ready to wreak havoc once McLaughlin got to work.

The title was clinched at the end of McLaughlin’s first season at Milltown in 1984 against Shelbourne and so began a glorious four year era at Milltown, three of them under McLaughlin (who found the lure of his hometown club Derry City too good to resist as they were admitted to the League of Ireland) with the final four-in-a-row title won under  Dermot Keely (player/manager).

There were some memorable players in that Milltown era, the predatory instincts of Campbell and Buckley (both were transferred to Belgian and Spanish football after winning the 1984 title) to be replaced by an equally deadly duo in Mick Byrne and Noel Larkin.  Jody Byrne in goal, after a disastrous debut became a reliable and consistent keeper, the telepathy of Kevin Brady and John Coady down the left led to many a goal, the experience and drive of Noel King, the explosive shooting and ball carrying of Liam O’Brien, the exciting wing play of Neville Steedman, the class in defence of Jacko McDonagh (who left for French football after that first title), the versatility and eventual centre-half polish of Mick Neville and led by example from the inspirational, tough, skilful and brilliant leader Pat Byrne.  What a combination of manager and captain in Jim McLaughlin and Pat Byrne, four leagues in a row and three League and Cup doubles from 1985 to 1987.

The European games in Milltown were also great memories.  From a bitter, nasty, spiteful atmosphere against Linfield (Rovers went out on away goals in a 1-1 draw after a scoreless one in Belfast) in 1984, to an heroic 1985 European Cup effort at home to a brilliant Honved team (a 3-1 defeat, but a brilliant performance) and then the memorable but rueful 1-0 defeat to Celtic in 1986 (a late Murdo McLeod goal sank us in game Rovers dominated for long spells), the 1987 European game against Omonia Nicosia at “the stadium of the future”  I’ll come to later.

There were also big scalps in friendly matches at Milltown when the weather in Britain forced the likes of Man United and Arsenal to seek games here.  Both returned to the UK beaten by this vibrant Rovers team, Noel Larkin heading the winner against Arsenal with Larkin again scoring in a 2-1 win over United, Mick Byrne bagging a spectacular winner.  Great nights, great games, great memories.

More personal memories that stand out from my days at Milltown are former Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley selling “Soccer Reporter” at the Milltown Road end of the ground after we had played football together at Newbrook Celtic in Ballyboden that morning; Liam O’Brien’s spectacular volley from 35 yards against Bohs in a 3-0 win; Pat Byrne’s late winner also against Bohs as we came back from 1-2 down to win 3-2; fans arriving on a bitterly cold and snowy morning to help clear snow off the pitch and ensuring a match went ahead at Milltown; several Rovers players playing for an Irish Olympic qualifying team and more than acquitting themselves in a thrilling game against  Hungary (I remember the late Barry Kehoe of Dundalk starring in that game, Ireland lost 2-1); Michael O’Connor standing huddled beside a floodlight pylon with his sleeves tucked into his hands as he was so cold; Kitty Mellon and Cindy; the temporary stands for that Celtic game in 1986 that would’ve miserably failed Health and Safety regulations nowadays; so many memories, so many great players (Rovers and opposition), so many great fans, so many golden times.  We’d won Four in a Row and three successive doubles, Rovers were ruling the roost.  Then it all ended in a heartbeat….

The disastrous move to Tolka almost signalled the end of the club.  It certainly tore the heart out of it.  Many fans never returned to support Rovers after Milltown.  The supporters club led a picket outside Tolka Park in the 1987-88 season.  A beatable Omonia Nicosia were Rovers’ opponents in the European Cup that season.  A sparse crowd and an atmosphere of doom saw the Four in a Row team lose 0-1 as we stood outside angry, depressed, disillusioned but determined to return Rovers to Milltown.  A four man team, Gerry Mackey, Brian Murphy (father of RTE Sport’s Con Murphy), Jimmy Keane and Ed Kenny formed the Keep Rovers at Milltown group (KRAM).  Friends and colleagues were encouraged to donate, TDs were lobbied, some of them helped us, some didn’t.  We tried, God knows we tried to save Milltown but sadly it was not to be.  The Kilcoynes acquired their planning permission for houses, An Bord Pleanála threw out any appeals.  We’d lost.  We tried but we lost.  The Kilcoynes were driven out of the club as the fans’ boycott deprived them of any semblance of gate receipt money and various new owners came and went in that dreadful era post-Milltown.   The Four in a Row team fell apart and three key players, Doolin, Brady and Neville rejoined McLaughlin at Derry City as Jim continued his Midas-like touch by bringing silverware to Derry.  Rovers languished and went from ground-sharing to renting the RDS.  A surprise 1994 title under the late Ray Treacy at the RDS brought about a false dawn as key players Alan Byrne and Stephen Geoghegan jumped ship that Summer to Shelbourne.

What followed in those post-Milltown years was 22 nomadic and  -1994 apart – miserable years.  Tallaght Stadium stalled so many times.  Rovers were relegated under Roddy Collins in 2005, on the park the misery was now complete.  The creditors were closing in and the noose was tightening around the club’s neck.  Pat Scully had replaced Collins and Rovers were back in the Premier League at the first attempt in 2006.  The fans ensured that noose was removed and finally, on 13th March 2009, the ghost of Milltown was finally set free as we played our first proper competitive home league game away from Milltown as Tallaght Stadium finally opened its turnstiles.  Fittingly, the last competitive match in Milltown was against Sligo Rovers in an FAI Cup semi-final and Sligo provided the opposition in Tallaght.  On an emotional night, Gary Twigg had to be the man to get the first goal in Tallaght as Rovers won 2-1 (Dessie Baker also scoring).  Amazingly as the week of the 30th anniversary arrives, Sligo provide the opposition this Good Friday in Tallaght.

Who knows where this club would’ve gone had Milltown not been sold?  It’s reasonably safe to say we’d have made it five in a row.  It wasn’t to be however.  While Tallaght has seen us with a fine, modern, convenient and comfortable stadium with superb facilities, it still doesn’t have the emotion or history Glenmalure Park had and Milltown for me will always be in my heart as the spiritual and family home of Rovers.

Tallaght has given us  Gary Twigg.   Despite all the great players I saw at Milltown, Twigg is my favourite Hoop of all time that I was privileged to see up close.  From his first goal in the first game in Tallaght, he set the new stadium alight and did it for four glorious goalscoring years with 88 goals in 160 appearances.  Tallaght gave us two successive titles and Europa League football.  Tallaght has made a real and tangible impact on the huge catchment area of Tallaght and nearby suburbs and is increasingly entrenched in the Community which promises to bring us talented players and more importantly, new generations of Rovers fans.

I last stood in Milltown on St Patrick’s Day in 1988 with my other brother Kevin, we got in to take photos (photos I gave to the Rovers Heritage Trust).  The crush barriers were already bent into the terracing concrete, the lush carpet of green grass was knee high, weeds and tufts of grass littered the terracing and the old rickety stand rang out with ghostly sounds of agony, ecstasy and fans no longer here to witness the demise of this great old ground.  I took my photos and got out of there after one last look, sad, angry and rueful.  What a waste, what a poxy waste.

So many great Rovers fans saw their beloved team for the last time on 12th April 1987 in Milltown.  So many Rovers fans remained after Milltown but sadly didn’t survive to see us playing in Tallaght.  Glenmalure Park will always be the spiritual home of this great club.  Every time I drive by that monument in front of those bloody houses on the Milltown Road I fill up with nostalgia, shaking my head in anger and my fist in defiance.  “Going down the Milltown Road, to see McLaughlin’s aces”.

Thirty years ago, Rovers almost died.  Slowly but surely throughout the following years, the Rovers supporters eventually won the day and took control of the club. For that we are forever in their debt.   Thankfully we didn’t die.  We’ll never die.

Phelim Warren
12th April 2017.