State of Play: Shels’ decline shows no signs of stopping
Boycotts and general apathy are accelerating the demise of one of Ireland’s biggest clubs
Shelbourne’s attendances have continued to decrease this season as their promotion chances disappeared early on. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
For most of my adult life, a sunny May evening in Tolka Park would have be an occasion to relish. But it has been hard to go to games at Shels recently, and I haven’t been relishing these occasions no matter what the weather is like.
Chasing promotion in the First Division or playing your rivals every week are both decent things for a fan to sink their teeth into, but being a poor team in a poor division doesn’t provide the escapism from the daily routine that regular football going is all about. And since we were relegated in 2013, there is no escaping how poor we have been, with a run to the promotion/relegation playoff a year later the sole highlight.
That last particular May evening, we welcomed back our 1992 league winning team for a reunion and presentation on the pitch during a game against Cabinteely. Managed by Pat Byrne, their victory ended a 30-year drought at the club and ushered in an era of success extending right up until our European run of 2004 and financial collapse after another league title in 2006.
Part of the fanbase is currently boycotting games, citing a lack of promised consultation and inconsistencies within the statement announcing the move to Dalymount
Players such as Mark Rutherford, Gary Howlett and Mick Neville mixed with fans eager to say hello and ask them if they’d still be willing and able to lace a pair of boots for the second half. Nobody could blame anyone who held such a hope, as Shels were to slump to a 4-1 defeat to Cabo that day. The contrast between the glory days lived out in the anecdotes after the game and losing heavily to a team only in its third season in the league remains on a lot of fans’ minds.
There are many different opinions on why the club finds itself in this state, depending mostly on who you talk to. The current board, who took over from Ollie Byrne after our demotion to the First Division in 2007, cite the time and money that has been pumped in to keep the club afloat as evidence of their commitment, and urge all concerned to support them in their efforts. There is no question Ollie Byrne’s vision of funding our success through a European run came at a heavy price to the club, and the effort put in to right the ship was monumental on the part of board and fans.
However part of the fanbase is currently boycotting games, citing a lack of promised consultation and inconsistencies within the statement announcing the move to Dalymount, and a general decline in attendances over the years has meant only a few hundred now regularly attend games regardless of the boycott.
For all of the ill feeling on both sides, even if there was unity within the club, the biggest challenge facing Shels would still be to build and maintain interest sufficient enough for people to give over their hard earned cash. The League of Ireland has adopted poorly to modernity, and the seemingly infinite ways to spend leisure time it offers, and Shels have been no different, with fans now drifting away at a quicker rate than they can be replaced by new ones.
Getting back to the Premier Division, and into more frequent on-pitch confrontations with Bohemians, Pat’s and Rovers would be one part of the formula for any revival, and the more modern facilities of a new Dalymount may help too, but there is still football to be played and bills to be paid before either of those things happen.
In the meantime, there will still be the history and name of the football club to sustain the few true believers left. Shels are integral not only to Irish football, but to the game itself, with the world’s fastest hat trick scored by Jimmy O’Connor in a derby game against Bohs, and our goalkeeper Ginger Reilly being cited as one of the reasons the rules of football were changed to forbid goalkeepers from handling outside their box, such was his skill at bouncing a ball upfield.
However, the recent history of the League of Ireland tells us that no football club can get by on goodwill or reputation alone. It takes cash, interest and determination to survive, much less thrive. As embedded as we may be within the game, the danger now is Shelbourne Football Club’s demise might be viewed as unthinkable, right until it happens.
Lee Daly is a founding chair of The 1895 Supporters Trust, an independent co-operative group of Shelbourne fans.