Sporting Passions: Samantha Libreri’s 27 years of joy and despair with Shamrock Rovers

‘Over the last year you miss the people, you miss the atmosphere, you miss the games’

Shamrock Rovers fans at Tallaght Stadium. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Shamrock Rovers fans at Tallaght Stadium. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

I was 11 when I went to my first Shamrock Rovers game during a season in which they won the league. Dad had lured me in under this false sense of guaranteed success. I thought that winning titles was just what Rovers did. It would be another 16 years before they’d win their next.

But there was no going back after that day in Dalymount Park when they played Bohs. Now, 27 years on, Rovers remain a huge part of my life.

Samantha Libreri is a reporter for RTÉ and has followed Shamrock Rovers for 27 years.
Samantha Libreri is a reporter for RTÉ and has followed Shamrock Rovers for 27 years.

It was the chaos and exuberance of it all, the wildness and the fun, the noise and the colour, the atmosphere utterly intoxicating. I’m terrible at remembering dates, results, scorers, all that, but I just recall our celebrating goalscorer jumping up and rattling the cage that encased us away fans. I was hooked at that moment.

I hadn’t been in to football at all, but the excitement of Italia 90 and then the 1994 World Cup sowed the seed.

Despite coming from Finglas, on the northside of Dublin, Dad took it upon himself to become a Rovers fan, when his three brothers all followed Bohs. So he’d go off to Milltown, on the southside, to support his beloved team.

In later years I would often be asked, “what’s a Finglas girl doing supporting Rovers?” I was born in Holles St, though, so maybe I was entitled. The only other question I was asked as much was, “does your family own a chipper?” Sadly, no, the Libreri roots were in Malta - the home of my great grandfather - and not Italy.

Property developers

I never stepped foot in Milltown, it was before my time, so I’ll probably never understand the pain of Rovers supporters when the ground was sold to property developers.

Rovers fans walk from Milltown to Tallaght in 2012. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Rovers fans walk from Milltown to Tallaght in 2012. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Ironically, when I was in my 20s I rented a place in Milltown and my Dad came over to inspect exactly where it was - just to make sure it wasn’t on Rovers’ old ground. Otherwise he was going to disown me. It was actually just next door, so I was on dicey ground.

But in the more than two decades that followed, Rovers were homeless, so myself and Dad had spells visiting Tolka Park, Dalymount, the RDS and Morton Stadium to support them.

Back then, I remember looking around and thinking, “there are no girls here”. I’d look along the terraces or stands and wouldn’t see any girls’ faces in the crowd. Nobody had ever said to me that girls don’t go to football, but it was very apparent that I was surrounded by men and boys. But I never felt that I didn’t belong.

People were very good to you, you were kind of minded when you were a small girl among a group of men, they looked after you, they’d let you go to the top of a queue, that kind of thing. It was never a bad environment to be in, but it didn’t feel like it was made for girls.

The most vivid memory is the women’s toilets in Tolka Park. They were pitch dark, the light bulb long since expired, you’d have to feel your way across the wall to find a cubicle and then hover in the hope of hitting the right spot. And there was never any toilet paper.

It was a fairly grim experience, there just were no facilities for women. So when Rovers finally moved to Tallaght in 2009, I smiled when I saw the beautiful, shiny, clean women’s toilets - with lights! But there were no sanitary disposal bins, so I emailed the club about it. They put them in. And then Rovers got involved in the Homeless Period Ireland campaign, and I remember just thinking, ‘God, it’s come so far from the days of those Tolka Park women’s toilets’.

And you see the demographic shift over the years, for games out in Tallaght there are as many little girls with their dads as there are boys, so you just feel encouraged about the future. And the all-round effort with kids is amazing. When I took my son Finn to his first game, he was taken in by the Junior Hoops, they had a juggler entertaining the kids, they were handing out stickers and sticker books, Shamrock Rovers tattoos, they gave him a flag and minutes later he’s on the pitch waving it in the guard of honour, with Hooperman high-fiving him. It was brilliant. They’ve put in a huge effort to making the children feel like they belong and giving them a really special place.

One of the lovelier days was when Finn was a mascot at the 2019 FAI Cup final. I was five when Rovers last won the cup, he was five that day. And they won. And he got to hold Jack Byrne’s hand as they took to the pitch.

Favourite players

Finn, as I’ve often had to clarify since his birth, wasn’t named after Rovers’ Ronan Finn. But that was the rumour once Dad put Finn’s photo in the Rovers’ programme when he was born. But my Finn kind of thinks he was named after Ronan. Mainly because Ronan was one of my favourite players – so hungry to win and I loved how he conducted himself.

Ronan Finn celebrates scoring against St Pat’s in 2019. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ronan Finn celebrates scoring against St Pat’s in 2019. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

I occasionally present Morning Ireland and one morning Darren Frehill says to me, “didn’t you name your child after Ronan Finn?” I said, “I did not”. Finn was just a name I always liked. But sure look, if Finn thinks he’s named after Ronan, and Ronan thinks Finn is named after him, who am I to get in between them?

But Finn being a mascot that day was all the more special because my dad, John Libreri, was there to see him. And spending all these years following Rovers with my dad, and having this thing that we share, is a big part of it all for me, a big part of our relationship and me growing up with him.

His love for Rovers was infectious. I think the only time I ever saw him cry was when they were relegated back in 2005. I cried too.

He’s a very reasonable, sensible man. Except for when it comes to his football superstitions. It’s a madness that he admits to, but it’s just the way he is.

When we walked up those steps together in Tallaght Stadium back in 2009, Rovers finally having found a home after all those years of wandering following the sale of Milltown, he picked our seats. And I knew from that point that that’s where we were going to sit for the rest of our lives. Us changing seats would, after all, negatively influence the outcome of Rovers games.

And if you can’t be at a game, you must never check the score before it ends. Back in the Teletext days, if I checked to see how Rovers were doing, usually for an away game we couldn’t be at, and they were leading but went on to lose, it was my fault. Pressing that button had actually led to the defeat.

Nor will dad ever watch Rovers on television. That, too, will bring them bad luck. When I was keeping an eye on them beating Bohs in April when I was working my shift in RTÉ, dad was probably walking up and down the street. Me and mum would be texting back and forward on nights like these. She’d say “are you watching it?” I’d say “of course - but don’t tell him”.

He’s also a very reserved, quiet, polite man, but when he’s watching football … the language out of him. If fellas were shouting out stuff at games, he’d be muttering “shut the **** up” or “he’s a gobshite”. But as a young girl, I felt safe to roar back, so I’d shout things like “AH, THAT’S RIDICULOUS!” Nobody ever gave out to me, they just laughed.

I miss going to the games so much. I miss being there with my dad. I miss taking Finn. And I can’t wait to take Laoise, my four-year-old daughter, to her first game.

Experience and privilege

Rovers use the motto ‘Nothing Beats Being There’, and we’ve all never felt that more than in the last year. You can’t describe to people what that actually means, because there really is nothing like being there. I feel a little bit sorry for people who only support Premier League clubs because if you’re not going to live games you don’t have the experience and the privilege we have had, living through those highs and lows, being with the team, the atmosphere that goes with it, I just can’t imagine being a football fan and not going to games. The two of them go hand-in-hand for me.

Following Rovers these past 27 years has been some journey, the highs made all the more joyous because of the depth of the lows, not least when the club’s very existence was threatened. It’s been hard not to have been part of it this last year, you miss the people there, you miss the atmosphere, you miss the games.

I crave the day when everyone can be back, when you can see all the kids about the place, when you can see the families coming in on a summer’s day, when you have to try to stop your dad from roaring and using bad language, especially when you’re sitting in the family section. Thankfully the recent news that two Rovers matches have been chosen as part of the Government’s pilot events scheme means fans will return to Tallaght again.

And I miss my husband Niall, whose sporting passion is mountain-biking, complaining that “the wife’s off to the football, I have to stay in and mind the kids”. Yeah, you’d miss it all.

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