Bray Wanderers were idle this weekend [due to Cork City’s involvement in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round] so I took myself off to my ‘home from home’ Tolka Park on Friday 05 August to see Shelbourne host UCD in what turned out to be an entertaining game in the SSE Airtricity First Division.
Shelbourne had been on my mind a bit during the week. Pictures had gone up online showing the terraced seating adjoining the Riverside Stand at Tolka, or rather what’s left of them. They’ve been left to rot in situ like a real-life demonstration of entropy. Sad to see. There was also footage put up on various feeds during the week in the wake of Dundalk’s heroics showing another heroic night in League of Ireland history – the night in August 2004 when Shelbourne overturned a 1-0 away deficit to Hadjuk Split by winning the home leg 2-0, setting up the tie with Deportivo La Coruna [in which Shels came up just short and missed out on the Champions League Group Stages for 2004-2005].
Jason Byrne, a hero of 2004 era Shelbourne, was back at his old club, albeit in UCD colours. Now 38, the League of Ireland’s second highest ever goalscorer must have had memories of those glory nights as he sat on the UCD bench [he wasn’t brought on]. Being a Bray fan I have my own happy memories of Jason in Wanderers colours, and indeed there was a bit of a Bray reunion feeling about the game, what with Pat Devlin involved with UCD and ex-Wanderers like Jason and Kieran Waters playing for UCD now [another ex-Wanderer, Daire Doyle, is now with Shelbourne but didn’t feature in this match].
Tolka Park hasn’t had any work done to it since those glory days. Instead, it’s kept going by a club struggling for finance. But what struck me on Friday night was that however poor Shelbourne or indeed any other League of Ireland club is for finance, they are rich in a much more valuable commodity – the spirit of dedication of their club members, volunteers and supporters.
If you walk around Tolka Park during the daytime you see a stadium falling apart. But on match night, even though it’s down in the First Division, even though there are only a few hundred people there, even though the RTE cameras are nowhere in sight, even though John Delaney has chosen not to sit in on this one, even though the stadium is decaying, there is still that spirit, that feeling. Two clubs are on the pitch, giving their all. Two League of Ireland clubs. Their supporters are willing them on. United by a common bond, a noble bond, of surviving against the odds and daring to hope that the future will be brighter.
You get that special feeling too after the game, as the crowd files out onto Richmond Road, like many many crowds have done in the past. You pass the house Eamon Dunphy grew up in. His dad worked in Tolka on matchdays. As you head up to Drumcondra, past the Gardai on match duty and the ambulance crews attending the game, you have that special feeling that you get after any football match, even ones at huge stadiums with mega crowds.
I was looking at some League of Ireland feeds at half time and read about Derry and Pats saying they’ll not be drawing down the derisory 5K FAI development plan grant. I can see where they are coming from, crumbs from the rich man’s table and all that. 5K won’t do much for Tolka, if indeed it has any future [I keep hearing it is going to be developed as real estate but yet it survives, year-on-year]. The FAI really should be ashamed of themselves when they look around Tolka or Dalymount. Surely 5 million could be spend on stadiums like these, with their history and tradition, not 5K. Maybe that’s the problem – they are never in these stadiums to notice their decrepitude.
Back to the game. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s so relaxing watching a game as a neutral. UCD had gone two up in the second half thanks to goals from Gary O’Neill and Jason McClelland but James English got one back for Shels right at the death. In the words of the song the stadium PA played when the home side scored, ‘’I Feel Good’’ summed up my mood as I left [that PA person must be a James Brown fan – ‘’I Feel Good’’ when the team scores, and Pigbag’s ‘’Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’’ as the walk-out music]