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Dublin’s soccer history makes it deserving of a place on the European stage

As the Europa League final unfolds at the Aviva, let’s hope an Irish club is inspired to stage another big European night this year

Stand on Liam Whelan Bridge in Cabra, gaze down Connaught Street and the floodlights of Dalymount Park rise up on the horizon. There, on September 25th, 1957, Dublin’s relationship with European football began. Sixty-seven years on, it will have another handshake tonight when Lansdowne Road hosts the Europa League final between Atalanta and Bayer Leverkusen.

Dublin will feel like a European hub, for 24 hours at least, a European soccer city.

The Italians and Germans descending from afar may notice, or they may not. It is 13 years since fans of Porto and Braga arrived for the first-ever big Uefa final at Lansdowne Road, but as Brian Kerr said last week: “It seems a long time since the Braga-Porto match, and there wasn’t as much excitement about it.”

In those 13 years, it feels like interest in soccer has reached another plane of popularity, fuelled by individuals such as Lionel Messi, clubs like Real Madrid, World Cups and whole Premier League seasons.


That might seem impossible given soccer’s saturation level, but it can be seen in the recent League of Ireland revival, Dublin-centric and indisputable – imagine how much greater it would be were there adequate resources and infrastructure.

Ronnie Whelan said in 2011: “When I was growing up in Dublin in the 1960s, you would never have dreamed about something like a European final coming to the city.” And Dublin, the soccer city, remains a disadvantaged player in a contested sporting space.

But anywhere that can produce Whelan, Patrick O’Connell, Jimmy Dunne, Johnny Carey, John Giles, Liam Brady and Robbie Keane (among others) can take its place in the conversation.

Which is something Joe Cunningham mentioned. When the draw for the 1957-58 European Cup was made in Paris in late July ‘57, the League of Ireland was involved in the competition for the first time – as was the Irish League via Glenavon. Shamrock Rovers were the first entrants and they received the plum draw of Manchester United.

This was not just any version of United, these were the Busby Babes, with Liam Whelan thriving among them. “Even better,” Rovers chairman Cunningham told the Manchester Evening News, when it was confirmed the first leg would be in Dublin.

“We are very pleased for it gives the public something they were talking about.”

Officially 45,000 were reported as being in Dalymount Park for a 6.15pm kick-off between Rovers and United – Rovers’ ground Milltown was deemed not large enough for the demand – and they saw United score six. Whelan got two of them. The syndicated match report said “United showed all the poise and greatness expected”, but left room to praise Rovers keeper Eamonn D’Arcy and inside forward Liam Hennessy.

In the return leg at Old Trafford, United again won but it was 3-2. Maxie McCann and Tommy Hamilton scored for Rovers.

McCann was a Dubliner, as were D’Arcy and Hennessy. Hamilton came from Bray and alongside player-manager Paddy Coad, from Waterford, was the only non-Dubliner. It says something of the playing talent in the city that these part-time players could push a team of the Babes’ stature – it was 0-1 at half-time in the first leg. Yet Dublin was not celebrated as a soccer city.

As Conor Curran, author of Soccer and Society in Dublin’ (2023), says: “Dublin then was really a nursery for players to go England.”

Many went, one piece of a multi-layered explanation as to why no Dublin club has threatened to be even a temporary or minor force in Europe.

Curran offers other factors. No fewer than eight Dublin clubs have played in European competition, when Home Farm, UCD and the brief entity Sporting Fingal are added to the more recognised names of Rovers, Bohemians, Drumcondra, Shelbourne and St Patrick’s Athletic. (Bray Wanderers also made it twice).

Each has had its moment, but as Curran says, Milan, a city of three million compared with Dublin’s one million, has just two major clubs. It also has a “cathedral” – San Siro – to stage and salute Italy’s national game.

“Dublin never had a big cathedral of football like other European cities – Madrid with the Bernabeu, London with Wembley, Milan,” Curran says. “Of course there was Dalymount Park, there from the early 1900s, but it wouldn’t have had the infrastructure to stage those big matches. Dublin wasn’t one of the big European centres at the time of Rovers in 1957. You look at the famous final of 1960 and it’s in Glasgow at Hampden Park.

“You had Shamrock Rovers, Drumcondra and so on but these teams were only part-time – Bohemians were amateur until the late 60s. So they were never going to challenge or become a big European force.

“Compare Dublin to a city like Milan and it has these two big clubs, whereas you have four or five local clubs in Dublin with good local support, but there just wasn’t the professional structure. Look at early English football and there was an industrial base behind it. Dublin didn’t have that. Belfast was the initial centre of Irish soccer and much of that was to do with industry – Linfield, Distillery.”

There were 127,000 for the European Cup final at Hampden in 1960 (including Alex Ferguson) and it is telling that Rovers’ United games were sandwiched between Glasgow 1960 and the October 1955 Ireland-Yugoslavia match which Archbishop Charles McQuaid told the public to boycott.

“Twenty-two thousand people still turned up,” Curran says. “But 1950s Ireland was really Catholic and Gaelic games had the backing of the Catholic Church. That’s massive when you think of the grip the church had on society.

“Then in the 1970s British & Irish Ferries started putting on weekend breaks to matches in England, beginning in 1971 I think – Dublin to Liverpool. You could reach Manchester as well. You could see George Best, a higher standard of game. And you see League of Ireland attendances starting to decline.

The Big Match arriving on Sunday television at League of Ireland kick-off time did not help.

Tonight Dublin isn’t competing, it is hosting and this is good company to keep. Atalanta and Leverkusen are excellent teams with impressive managers. This is a prestigious final for the city. Soon (June 18th) the draw for next season’s Uefa competitions will be made. Let’s hope an Irish club is inspired to stage another big European night this year.