The League of Ireland needs rivalries like in the days of Ollie Byrne and Pat Dolan
Late 90s and early 2000s had an edge between Shels and Pat’s that’s missing today
Shelbourne chief executive Ollie Byrne is held back by a steward and goalkeeping coach Fred Davis during a clash with Drogheda United at Tolka Park in 2004. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho
“Nothing personal Emmet, but I’m suing you because I’ve had enough of that fat fuck.”
The call came January 24th 1999, the morning after The Irish Times had run a lengthy interview with Pat Dolan in which the then St Patrick’s Athletic chief executive had referred to the FAI’s handling of a dispute between himself and Byrne over the use of Tolka Park by the Inchicore club for a Champions League qualifier against Celtic thus: “You don’t sit Adolf Hitler down with Winston Churchill and ask them to compromise. You can’t because you just have to side with good.”
Answers on a postcard as to which of them Dolan reckoned was which.
I thought of the pair as I sat in Turner’s Cross after the President’s Cup game on Friday night. It was an entertaining evening with Cork doing enough to suggest that they will be better again than last year but Ollie and Pat could teach the respective managers a thing or two about a rivalry.
There have been countless ones down the years but between around 1998 and 2003, theirs seemed to border on lunacy at times and there was rarely a dull moment covering the league as a result.
The on-field stuff, to be fair, was pretty good too. Both clubs had strong sides who could play some decent football. When Clydebank were talking about relocating here, BBC Scotland sent a couple of radio guys over to size up the league here and they sat beside me at one of the cup replays between the two Dublin clubs that took place in March ‘98. There was a big crowd there, some quality football and a real edge to the proceedings.
At the final whistle one of the Scots asked me what we wanted with Clydebank and the Scottish league when we had the likes of this. Not many people there that night wanted much at all to do with Clydebank or the Scottish League, I explained, but they should be clear, not every Irish game bore much resemblance to this.
The two clubs met four times in 11 days that month and the intensity to it all was tremendous. St Pat’s won the league, then retained it before slipping back and leaving the door open for their cross-city rivals to take over as champions.
Cork City were a good side too and managed six top three finishes in eight seasons before eventually lifting the title themselves in 2005 but the era was defined by the two Dublin clubs and the animosity between them, something that was driven, at least as far as the rest of us were concerned, by the relationship between Dolan and Byrne.
We won’t be holding our breath as the season proper kicks off this weekend
It all came to a bitter head in 2001/02 when sanctions imposed on St Pat’s for administrative cock ups cost them the league.
Ostensibly, it was simply a matter of the league enforcing its rules but Byrne was a very active participant in a series of events that clearly had major implications for his own club.
It looked for a while as though St Pat’s would survive “the Paul Marney affair” but when it became known that Charles Livingstone Mbabazi had not been registered for his club’s first five league games, the league had little option but to act and the resulting points deduction ultimately plunged the southside club from top spot to 10 points off it.
Byrne’s gloating afterwards was unseemly but entirely unsurprising. The ongoing slanging match between the two clubs included allegations of everything from excessive watering the technical area so as to destroy Dolan’s shoes and suits, to an assault. The latter was rooted in some post-match argy-bargy in Tolka where the dressing room area after their games sometimes had the sense of a three ring circus to it.
Turner’s Cross could not hardly have been more different. John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny seem like two of the more civilised characters ever to get into the game. Would you want to inject the full madness of 15 years ago into their rivalry? No. Would the odd bit of needle here and there add something to the whole show on occasion? Well, yes, quite possibly actually.
We won’t be holding our breath as the season proper kicks off this weekend. The talk is simply about whether Cork can catch up on their rivals after three straight second place finishes and whether, perhaps, Shamrock Rovers can gatecrash things at the top of the table.
Given the quality of the football, it is hard to complain too much about having to settle for that.
As for my chat with Ollie all those years ago, I knew the call was coming – we got on okay, I think, but part of the deal was me having to stand my ground on the regular occasions when he rang to berate me over something I had written – and was only surprised really that it took until Sunday morning for it to arrive.
I was half asleep when it came and though it went on for a while, I attempted afterwards to roll over and doze off again but forgot that there was a pint glass of water beside the bed and so I destroyed the handset as I attempted, lazily, to drop it to the floor.
It took others, at Shelbourne, meanwhile, to persuade him that a court case over a comparison to Hitler by a rival administrator would be a fiasco too far for him, his club or the league to bear.
Is it just down to the passing of time that I remember it all so fondly?