Shelbourne take the long road back to the big time

Sat, Nov 5, 2011, 00:00

EMMET MALONEtalks to present Shelbourne chairman Joe Casey and past manager Dermot Keely about their return to the top of the pile

IT’S ALMOST a decade now since Keith Duggan of this newspaper interviewed Ollie Byrne during the lead up to a big derby game against Bohemians and produced a piece that caught rather wonderfully the charm of a man whose ducking and diving did so much to take Shelbourne to the top of Ireland’s football pile.

The day before it was published, though, an email arrived in from an irate reader who had called into Tolka Park earlier that day to buy a couple of student tickets for the game.

Ollie, who must have endorsed the decision to have the discounted admission, had abused him, insisting students had more money than the rest of the club’s supporters. The letter nicely complemented the feature and provided a more balanced view of the club’s controversial chief executive, but in the end it was decided there simply wasn’t space to run both.

It is, to put it mildly, hard to imagine Joe Casey losing it with anyone in quite the same way as Byrne did with the student that day.

He comes across as mild-mannered and endlessly amiable as he sits and talks about an involvement with a club that started over a curry with Byrne in Fagan’s pub, a meeting he had organised to buy a couple of 10-year tickets for the club’s new stand. “That was,” he says with a smile and a shake of the head, “the most expensive curry I ever had.”

Ten years on, Casey, an accountant by trade, is chairman of a somewhat slimmed down Shelbourne and one of its larger creditors.

“I’m owed a substantial six figure sum,” he says when pressed on the extent of his financial commitment. “Whether I ever get it back, only time will tell.”

There are plenty of others in the same boat including, he acknowledges, a few people from whom Ollie, in his desperation to keep his dream alive, borrowed substantial amounts of cash. All have been obliged to wait for their money until the sale of Tolka Park is completed. Nobody, including Casey, is remotely sure when that might happen now but everyone, he insists, “has been very reasonable about the situation”.

The Dubliner, who started going to Shelbourne games around 20 years ago with his Shamrock Rovers-supporting stepfather was, in fact, one of nine people to take centre stage when Byrne died in 2007.

The club’s financial problems were well known then but the scale of them took a while longer to emerge. He became chairman because his accountancy firm had a staff that could take on the administration of the club and it was he who would be handing many of the day to day financial issues.

The ownership actually passed to a trust administered by solicitor Mark Killilea – but the likes of Colm Murphy, Shay Weafer and Niall Fitzmaurice stuck around to share the burden while Finbarr Flood was always at the other end of a phone line with good advice.

As he reflects on it now, Casey is far from uncritical of Byrne, but there is still an unmistakeable warmth to most of his references to a man he admits he was once “slightly in awe of”.

He cannot, he says, overlook “the mess he left behind for others to clean up, but the fact is that whatever mistakes Ollie made you knew he wasn’t lining his own pockets, it was all, however misguided, for the love of Shelbourne Football Club”.

Many assumed at the time that the club’s relegation to the First Division by the FAI might well have finished it off, but gradually the board members started to get to grips with things. Dermot Keely was brought back in as manager because, he insists, nobody else would do it.

A team was put together in a matter of days with little regard to how they would get on over the course of a season. “It was like being in a trauma ward after a car crash,” says the former Shamrock Rovers player, who will make his almost annual appearance at half-time tomorrow with the Hoops’ cup-winning team of 25 years ago.

“You just try to get through it and you don’t have time to worry about what’s going to happen even the next day.”

Casey maintains that when Shelbourne managed to play their first game that year against Kildare County he started to believe the club might just survive. When they turned a €19,000 profit for the campaign he started to become confident.

The plan was to save the club, then stabilise it, then win promotion back to the Premier Division.

The latter target, was achieved last week on a budget of around €7,000 per week (barely a sixth of what was being spent five years ago), although it took two years longer than had been hoped.

The delay, all agree, has cost the club as fans drifted away with current boss Alan Mathews observing that “five years is a long time to be away from the top division” before adding: “I was here in 2000 when we won the double and the crowds weren’t great then, so it’s no great surprise that we’re going to be looking to build again now from a pretty low base.”

Murphy admits that many familiar faces drifted away and, like Casey, admits the difficulties that the club has encountered in attracting new blood because of the “legacy” the board has inherited.

Despite it all, he expresses an understandable pride too in the fact that the same people who were there when the club was winning leagues and prompting talk of the major breakthrough in Europe, stuck around to rescue the club when it was on the brink of extinction.

It seems almost like another lifetime but when the club played Deportivo La Coruna in 2004 their European run netted them €600,000 that reduced the shortfall that year from €2.3 million to €1.7 million.

“And Ollie considered that success,” says a bemused Casey, who predicts that the loss for this year will be €12,000 and not even that if they beat Sligo Rovers in tomorrow’s cup final.

“It’s a much smaller club now,” says Murphy, “but over the last few weeks we’ve been seeing people come back to Tolka that we hadn’t seen in a long time, including journalists. Hopefully next year there’ll be more and we can build on that.”

One thing he is looking forward to next season is the return of significant numbers of away fans to Tolka which, though showing obvious signs of wear and tear due to lack of investment, remains one of the league’s best stages for a big match. “This year,” he admits, “there were a number of games at which we had less than 10.”

More important to everyone at the club, though, will be the sense that the club are back where they belong. Nobody expects them to make a huge impact on the top flight, with consolidation the immediate target, but Mathews expresses some satisfaction that it is “a proper club now right up from the youngest schoolboys to the senior team”.

Keely agrees, stating: “Being part of a club gets a hold on you. It’s like an addiction and after going back it all got into me again because Shelbourne is a great club.”