Hoops, dreams and nightmares

THE household names have given way to the names of households.

Glenmalure Park is now Glenmalure Square. But in the memories of the players and fans of Shamrock Rovers, this little rectangular patch of ground in south Dublin will be forever Milltown.

From 1926 to 1987, Ireland’s most famous football club called this place home. Supporters loved it for an atmosphere that was at once intimate and intimidating. Successive generations of players revered it for its immaculate playing surface and the chance to walk in the footsteps of legends. And, more often than they would have liked to admit, opponents knew it as a place to make them tremble, the team which wore the green and white hoops setting the bar at an unprecedented high for the domestic game, making historic waves in Europe and enjoying prolonged periods of trophy-laden success, from Coad’s Colts in the 50s through the six-in-a-row side of the 60s to the team which claimed four titles on the trot in the 1980s.

As a 10-year old growing up in the even deeper south of Tallaght, I latched on to Rovers in 1969, just in time to appreciate the last of those six FAI Cup wins in succession, Rovers beating Cork Celtic 4-1 in a replay at Dalymount Park. But the folks ordained that I was still too young to go to the games, so my first couple of years as a Hoops supporter were spent cutting out pictures of Mick Leech from the papers, recreating great victories over Waterford on the Subbuteo pitch and lapping up the modest amount of highlights which RTÉ used to broadcast back then.

And when I finally did get to see my heroes in the flesh for the first time, it was at Dalymount, not Milltown. In 1971, Rovers and Cork Hibs finished level on points in the league, requiring a play-off to decide the title at what was then Irish football’s national stadium. A family friend having been sourced to take me to the match, I wrapped my brand new green and white scarf ‘round me and took my place in a crowd not far off 30,000, almost expiring with the excitement of it all.

Unhappily, it was to prove a baptism of fire, the joy of seeing a typical Leech equaliser outweighed by the pain of a Miah Dennehy double which helped Hibs to a 3-1 win. Tears were almost certainly shed.

My adult guardian, a Man U man as I recall, then began shepherding me to Milltown on a regular basis but, strangely, I retain no memory whatsoever of the opposition or the result for my debut at the holy ground. Presumably, we must have lost again. What I do recall vividly is getting Mick Leech’s autograph after the game. The great striker was out injured that day and the sight of him in civvies was exceedingly strange to young eyes accustomed only to seeing images of him as a god-like figure in the famous hoops. Amazingly, it appeared that he was human after all. Leaning on a crutch, he signed my scrap of paper with his free hand and I would have instantly floated up and out onto the Milltown Road had I not then spotted his fellow Rovers legend Frank O’Neill close by. Too good to be true! But this time, a bunch of other kids were on the case and I suddenly found myself in the front row of a scrum barely able to keep my feet as we all crowded around the legendary winger.

“Stop pushing,” he told me crossly. Frank O’Neill giving out to me! The mortification! And it wasn’t even me doing the pushing, it was the kids behind me. Anyway, I got my second autograph of the day, escaped with dignity just about intact and left Milltown already dreaming of the next visit.

AND there would be plenty more in the 70s, as adult supervision was gratefully shed and myself and a schoolpal became regular attendees. But there wouldn’t be too many scrums for autographs or crushes on the terraces as, under the incipient onslaught of televised football from England, the League of Ireland went into freefall, the six-in-a-row team split and Milltown crowds collapsed from fabled highs of 20,000 to numbers that were almost too embarrassing to think about. Yet, in what was a bleak decade for the Hoops – at one point the club was forced to seek re-election to the league – I still retain happy memories of Donal Murphy rocketing a few into the top corner and a chap you might have heard of by the name of Tony Ward beetling up and down the wing for a spell.

After the false dawn of John Giles’ attempts to fully professionalise the club, the 80s would be the best and worst of times for Rovers. Four titles in a row made them nigh on invincible again but, with crowds still rarely topping the 3,000 mark, 1987 saw the announcement which would bring the club to its knees – owners, the Kilcoynes, had decided to cut their losses and sell the ground.

The rest is infamy. Supporters protested and politicians postured but, after a final game against Sligo Rovers on April 14, 1987, the gorgeous old stadium was first colonised by weeds and then succumbed to the wrecking ball. The supporters group KRAM (Keep Rovers At Milltown) fought and lost an often bitter battle but even as Rovers began their wandering years around the football grounds of Dublin, one supporter did his best to keep Milltown at home.

In ‘We Are Rovers’, Eoghan Rice’s splendid oral history of the club, Macdara Ferris tells the poignant tale.

“I dug up a bit of the pitch and stuck it in a crisp bag. I kept it in a Chinese takeaway dish for around three years. I used to water it regularly so it was still growing and I put little Subbuteo men on it. Unfortunately, one day I dropped something and it hit the shelf that I kept the grass on and a part of Glenmalure Park flew across the room and fell into countless bits. I tried putting it back together but it was gone.”

Gone but not forgotten. The housing development which went up in 1990 would now be described as mature, its rectangular interior roughly echoing the dimensions of the old pitch, with a water feature now standing where the centre circle might have been.

Stories are told of Rovers-supporting taxi drivers who, more than 20 years on, still refuse to drop their fares into Glenmalure Square. For most Hoops fans, if they can bear to bring themselves up the Milltown Road at all, it’s only to pay homage at the slim monument on the pavement which commemorates “the glorious years” when Rovers played there. Loyal supporters paid for it to be put up in 1997 and they still maintain its upkeep, occasionally being called upon to give it a facelift after rivals supporters have defaced it with paint.

To find a happy ending to this story, you must head to my old childhood stomping ground of Tallaght where, after all those years of living dangerously, Rovers have made a splendid new home for themselves, one fit for title-challengers and visitors of the calibre of Real Madrid and Juventus.

But they haven’t forgotten their roots. On the front wall of the new stadium are two street signs.

One says ‘Whitestown Way’, the current address.

The other says ‘Milltown Road’.

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