To understand what it means for them to be taking to the Aviva pitch, just a little under two weeks after the club booked its return to the Premier Division, you have to appreciate how far Shels had to fall before they could rise again.
“It’s a great occasion for the club,” said manager Alan Mathews. “The thing nearly went bang and it was kept alive by the likes of [chairman] Joe Casey and the board of management and the directors here. It’s brilliant to have the club back in the Premier Division, first of all, but to then have a day like this is something else.
“The final last year was a wonderful occasion, a great day, a full house, a great stadium – it was brilliant. I was working with Nutsy [Pat Fenlon] at the match on the radio and I was talking to him again the other day and remembering that last year the two of us were saying: this is proper football. And for us to be there now, it’s terrific, it really is for everyone associated with the club.
“And everyone is welcome to hop on the bandwagon,” he added with a smile.
“The ones who’ve lapsed? Come back! Put a red and white scarf or t-shirt on you and support the club again. And start coming back to Tolka. It’s been very, very difficult – they were playing in front of 27 or 28,000 people against Deportivo at Lansdowne Road and a couple of years later they were playing in front of 27or 28 people in various locations around the country. Where there’s no seats. And I’m not being disrespectful to anyone, but that was the fall.”
Mathews might be slightly massaging the figures but the point is well made. Shels were the archetypal boom and bust club in Irish football, the star-studded team which dominated on the home front and even briefly threatened to take Europe by storm. But success on the pitch was exceeded only by excess off it, with the result that Shels almost imploded under a crippling burden of debt and, demoted to the second tier, had to spend five years in the First Division licking their wounds.
Inevitably then, this long-awaited season of plenty on the pitch has prompted many to think about what it would all have meant to ‘Mr Shelbourne’, the late Ollie Byrne.
“He was the best in the world but his own worst enemy,” said Joe Casey with evident affection.”But the reason people stuck with him is because people knew that he wasn’t doing it for his own ego or for his own pocket. Any mistakes he made, it was for the love of the club.
“There would be other owners or chairmen who made money themselves out of it. Ollie wasn’t like that. He lived a very simple life. Yes, he did some stupid things. It was hard to rein him in.
“You’d have a board meeting. We would decide one thing and he would do completely the opposite the following day, and you would accept that. You knew that’s what you were getting.
“Maybe, in retrospect, three or four of us should have stood up and walked away, and that might have brought it to a head but I don’t believe that would have worked. I think he would have gotten other people in to fill those gaps. Even the last year we won the Premier Division, 2006, it was on quicksand. Everybody knew it. The Deportivo run, we made €700,000 but all it did was to make our loss €1.6m instead of €2.3m. And Ollie defined that as success. That was him in a nutshell.”
The outstanding debts from the old era, still numbering millions, won’t be settled until Tolka Park is sold – and, though a contract for sale has long been in place, that’s not going to happen any time soon given the severe economic climate. As for as Joe Casey is concerned, Drumcondra will remain Shels’ home for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, the goal is to build prudently on this season’s success. And, of course, to hope that the relief at mere survival will be eclipsed by celebration on the double today – with promotion already in the bag, the First Division runners-up have no intention of going in against their Premier Division counterparts as lambs to the slaughter.
“You go open against a side like Sligo and you’re going to get picked off,” said Alan Mathews. “We won’t be silly, we won’t go gung-ho but we’ll try and play our own game at the right times. Look, they’ve a rake of good, good players. You’ve got to match them for workrate and for quality on the ball.
“But we’ll try to get our good players playing too – we want to get the likes of David Cassidy on the ball, players who have been good for us all season.
“Yes, we will be underdogs, there’s no doubt about that. But we go in with no fear. We go in respecting our opponents but also knowing that we’ve got some very, very good players too. Underdogs yes, but no fear.”