“There were only two certainties in life when I was a kid,” friend and colleague John Byrne told me when I bumped into him at the FAI Cup Final media day in the Aviva on Wednesday.
“Santa Claus would come at Christmas and Rovers would win the Cup.”
I knew John before I knew him, so to speak, he being a familiar face on the terraces at Milltown when I was a regular in the 1970s.
Not that he would have been too hard to pick out, that decade being something of a famine after the feast that was the 60s for the Hoops, with a precipitous decline in attendances to match.
As I can attest from first-hand experience, ‘The Bleak Years – 1970-76’ was the all too appropriate chapter title given to that era in the history of the club by Paul Doolan and Robert Goggins.
But for those of us, like John and myself, weaned on the glory days of Mick Leech, Frank O’Neill, Johnny Fullam and the fabled six-in-a-row, there was always an underlying belief that, no matter how bad things got, they would inevitably get better.
This was Shamrock Rovers, after all. And indeed they would get better. But they would get worse too. After Rovers had completed their six on the trot by beating Cork Celtic 4-1 in a replay in 1969, their seeming ownership of the FAI Cup — a staggering run of 32 games undefeated in the competition — ended abruptly at the first hurdle the following season, as two goals in three minutes gave Shelbourne a 2-1 win at Milltown.
To say that this came as a shock to the Irish game would be to woefully understate the seismic magnitude of that end of era result.
After all, it was a staple of ye olde football scribes that Rovers’ six-in-row was unlikely ever to be equalled or bettered, “except by themselves”.
Mind you, even when knee-high to a shinpad, I could see that this really made no sense at all. Football being cyclical, among many other things, it was obvious even to my fragile, eggshell mind that no one team, no matter how great — no, not even Brazil — could expect to enjoy uninterrupted success for ever and ever and ever.
And, for the same reason, there was no logic at all in suggesting that only Shamrock Rovers would ever stand a chance of out-doing themselves when it came to the club’s almost supernatural grip on the FAI Cup.
Still, it said something about the club’s aura that people would be prepared to suspend logic in that way and, as it turned out, Rovers would later have a decent crack at the record too.
After just the one win in the 1970s — when they beat the other Rovers, Sligo, with a Ray Treacy penalty in the ’78 final– the incomparable Jim McLaughlin restored the Hoops to greatness in the mid-80s, with four league wins on the trot from 1984 and three FAI Cups in succession beginning the following year.
It was a stellar run which ended with the completion of a hat-trick of doubles in 1987, player-manager Dermot Keely having taken over the reins from the maestro McLaughlin by the time Rovers were cruising past Dundalk in a final which gets its long-delayed sequel at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow.
There was no Aviva in 1987, of course, when the only football stadium making the news in Dublin was one that was on the way out, my former Irish Press colleague Charlie Stuart having broken the shock news, just two weeks before the final, that Glenmalure Park was up for sale.
‘Goodbye to Milltown’ was the headline that broke a lot of hearts . A mere four days later, the second leg of the Cup semi against Sligo — a 1-1 draw followed by a replay in which the Hoops prevailed — would prove to be the last game Rovers would get to play in their holy ground.
The final was, of course, staged in Dalyer but the shadow of Milltown extended right across the city from the south side to the north side, to make Rovers’ triumph a profoundly bittersweet affair.
I was there on the day, as was John Byrne, and when we recalled that 3-0 win last week, most of the talk was not about the goals by Harry Kenny (from the penalty spot), ‘Super’ Noel Larkin and ace striker Mick Byrne but about the pitch protest at the loss of Milltown and the aggro between rival fans which lead to another unhappy headline: ‘Batons Drawn At Dalymount.’
I can’t pretend that our recollections made it feel like it had all just happened yesterday, no matter how pristine and luminous the green grass and white walls of Milltown remain in the memory banks.
No, there’s no getting away from the fact that it was all of 32 years ago: just a few weeks after U2 released ‘The Joshua Tree’, a few weeks before Lionel Messi was born and with months still to go before a somewhat less celebrated footballer, a Scot by the name of Gary Mackay, would open the door to Ireland’s historic first-ever qualification for a major tournament, at Euro ’88.
It was also two years before Derry City made Irish football history of their own by claiming the first and – to date – only domestic treble. Interestingly, I don’t recall anyone suggesting at the time that, great side though they were, it was a feat unlikely to be equalled or bettered by anyone other than themselves.
And, indeed, that golden opportunity now knocks for another truly great League of Ireland team, with Dundalk on the brink of replicating Derry’s achievement at the Aviva tomorrow.
As for John Byrne and the rest of the Hoops faithful? If Shamrock Rovers can finally re-consummate their love affair with the FAI Cup after all this time, I suspect they’ll be only too happy to give Mr Claus this Christmas off.