Best of enemies ready to go at it

 

EMMET MALONEon the eagerly-awaited meeting of champions Bohemians and born again Shamrock Rovers

IT SAYS something about the rivalry between Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians that when the latter’s honorary secretary, Gerry Conway, is asked about games between the sides, he starts to come over all misty-eyed about a Leinster Cup final from 20 years ago when Pat Fenlon, a Hoops fan in his youth, scored the winner for the northsiders.

Paul Doolan, co-author along with Robert Goggins of The Hoops – A History of Shamrock Rovers, prefers to dwell on a league win in January 1987 at Miltown when late goals from Pat Byrne and Mick Neville clinched a win for the hosts that set them firmly on course for the title.

Both seem oddly confident their side will be remembering this evening’s game for similar reasons a quarter of a century from now.

The pair were not always the city’s big rivals, with Doolan pointing to the start of the professional era at Bohemians as the point when Rovers fans, previously preoccupied with Drumcondra and Shelbourne, started to take the Gypsies more seriously.

Tony O’Connell, a Rovers fan then player who became the first one to be paid at Dalymount Park, where he finished his career, became a major sponsor and is still honorary life president agrees.

“I think what happened was that under Seán Thomas, Bohemians put together their first really strong team in a very long time with the likes of Turlough O’Connor, Jimmy Conway and Kevin Murray,” he says. “I remember games between the two clubs with 20,000 watching and while Rovers had been the team here in the ’50s and ’60s, as Bohemians turned professional and moved into ’70s, they had to be taken seriously as rivals, that’s when the rivalry really started to grow.”

O’Connell describes Bohemians as his “first love” now but admits to retaining a “gra” for Rovers – which makes him unique in Dublin football circles.

Doolan, though, insists for the most part, the rivalry is more a good-natured sense of competition between the clubs and their fans.

“ A couple of headbangers from both sides apart, ours is a very friendly one,” he says. “We can have a pint together before or after the game. It’s just for the 90 minutes we can’t look at each other.”

Given the scale of the Rovers resurgence this season, with new arrivals like striker Gary Twigg playing starring roles, he reckons tonight’s game in Tallaght will be “the biggest League of Ireland game in years”, which should be good for the league as a whole but Conway has his doubts about the importance stretching that far.

“Personally, I don’t subscribe to the theory that any one team being strong or weak is good for the league; the league is bigger than individual clubs, but Rovers being strong is good for us. As long as they’re second,” he adds with a slightly nervous laugh.

Rovers boss Michael O’Neill insists he sensed immediately the importance of the meetings to those in the stands.

“You can feel the games have a bit of an edge to them and that’s fine as long as it doesn’t have a negative effect on the occasion,” he says. “It’s been a new rivalry to me, of course, but there was certainly little doubt about how much it meant to the Rovers fans to win that first game at Tallaght.”

And it’s not just those fans who have been managing to get into the games (tonight’s, like many others this year, is sold out) who have been revelling in the club’s title challenge in their first year in their new home. The wider local population have bought into the Rovers project in a big way.

“Something intangible has happened out in Tallaght,” says Willie Sheils, a senior executive officer in the community services department of South Dublin County Council. “It really has taken off with the local residents, you’ve only got to walk around the Square to see it.

“The stadium is open less than seven months and we’ve had Real Madrid there, Newcastle United, Hibernians, we’re going to have a cup final and a rugby A international. And, of course, Rovers are challenging for the league.

“We’re happy with the way it’s progressing. They must be. It’s hard to imagine, really, how it could be going any better.”