“Obviously, 25 years is a long time and everybody has their own recollections of what happened but I just think Shane had one of those games… he probably never had another one like it, put it like that!” Liam Coyle.
A quarter of a century later and Shane Curran remembers it like it was yesterday.
‘Cake’ is renowned in GAA circles following an illustrious playing career that spanned two full decades between inter-county and club football. However, mention of the maverick’s name, for many, brings back recollections of Athlone Town rather than Roscommon GAA.
This week marks 25 years since the League of Ireland’s most dramatic of finales when three clubs, Derry City, Dundalk FC and Shelbourne, entered the final game of the season looking to take home the title. Athlone Town wasn’t one of the three but the legacy they, and in particular, Curran, left on that season is forever etched into the annals of Irish football history.
Name on the trophy
Derry City rolled into St. Mel’s Park that late April afternoon with one hand on the title. However, they would leave devastated and trophyless a few hours later.
Curran was the hero with a career-defining performance. But, for every act of sporting heroism, many are left with lingering regrets. And on a day where every ball seemed to bounce in Athlone’s favour, Derry City were left licking their wounds and wondering ‘what if?’
Only, the question of what if applied to the season as a whole, not just the final game.
“The funny thing about it was, we saw Shelbourne as more of a threat than Dundalk because we’d beat Dundalk twice that season, at the Brandywell and in the Cup in Dundalk,” Liam Coyle tells Pundit Arena.
“So Shelbourne were the team closest to us at that stage and Dundalk came up late. It came down to the last game and all three could have won it. We just always thought that Shelbourne were a better side but Dundalk were digging out results every week and scoring late goals and kept at us.
“Even when we got ahead in the last few weeks they still managed to hold on but the last game of the season, it was just one of them days you just didn’t know what was going to happen. It really was close.
“We didn’t lose the league in the last couple of weeks, we lost the league earlier in the season by dropping too many points.”
Back to the finale
“That 94/95 season, near the end, ended up being a bit mad,” Shane Curran tells Pundit Arena.
“It was funny because the result didn’t really matter to us because we knew we were going into a playoff with Finn Harps for promotion/relegation.
“It was helter-skelter from the get-go, from when we arrived in Mel’s, the place was buzzing. There was a lot of Athlone Town fans obviously, but there would have been a lot of fans from the Roscommon League and obviously the Derry City fans travelled in huge numbers.
“The place was jammed to the rafters, you had RTE there as well covering it. The place was rocking.”
The match was a story in itself as the underdogs took the lead with virtually the first attack through Donal Golden before Coyle equalised 15 minutes later with a wonder strike fit to win any league title.
From there on, Derry laid siege upon the Athlone goal. However, Curran was equal to everything thrown at him.
“I think from memory, Liam Coyle put a ball into the top corner from about 25 yards, it was one of those ‘camera dives’ from me, you know those ones that look good but you know you’re not gonna save it.
“He was the best player I ever played against. An amazing talent, I think he was Premier League standard but his knees just didn’t allow for it. That was 1-1 before half-time and there were numerous chances for them, just on the day everything went for us.
“Then, 15 minutes into the second half, the penalty was given and nobody could understand why and even when you look back on it through YouTube, it really was a phantom penalty.
“It was Stuart Gauld, he took the penalty and I dived the right way, it hit my hand and went out for a corner and from the resulting corner we actually had the ball headed off the line.
“For the final 10 minutes it was just bedlam and then the game ends and that’s when the real crack happens. Obviously, they weren’t happy and were listening to the results coming in from Dundalk. Stuart wasn’t happy at all, he cut an isolated figure and Phil Coulter was at the game and in fairness to him, he came up and said well done to us, great performance and so on.”
While Curran’s recollection is on point, he seems reluctant to discuss his now-legendary performance.
Liam Coyle isn’t, however. The Derry City great is honest in his assessment that it was a bad day for the northerners and that the Candystripes came up against a goalkeeper who would not be beaten.
“Listen, it was a bad day,” Coyle recalls.
“Stuart Gauld scored, I don’t know, 39 penalties out of 39, then he misses one. It could have been so different. It’s down to a bit of luck too, you know, we gave away a goal in the first 13 seconds.
“I scored a goal that brought us back into it then and only for Shane Curran in goal having one of those games that goalkeepers only have once in a lifetime, and unfortunately for us, that game was against us.”
The match has long been indoctrinated into League of Ireland folklore. However, it isn’t down to the significance of the game, the brilliance of Coyle or the heroics of Curran, but rather the tale of Phil Coulter and his case of champagne.
The story goes that the world-renowned musician, then honorary president of Derry City, arrived at St. Mel’s Park… actually, we’ll let Curran tell the tale in his words:
“We used to arrive there an hour and a half before kick-off and go through some of your tactical stuff and things like that.
“I remember vividly, it’s very funny, I remember vividly going into the ground with Barry Murphy, who is a gas man, he was definitely the best centre-half, himself and Frank Derby, that I ever played with. He was capped by Jack Charlton as well, a brilliant player.
“But Derry were coming off the bus and Felix Healy was coming off the bus as well and for some reason when they were taking the gear off the bus, for some reason, they took out the champagne, presumably for the celebrations afterwards and it was Barry who brought my attention to it and he says in his thick Dublin accent:
“‘Jaysus Cakeo, ya see that, they’re bringing in the champagne.'”
They say there are two sides to every story, and 25 years on, Coyle maintains that Cake’s recollection may be a touch skewed.
“There’s been a lot of talk down the years, people have mentioned things about champagne and Phil Coulter, I remember Shane Curran doing an interview and saying we landed in our shiny suits and our buses and it was a load of nonsense, we showed up as normal as we did for every game. We came prepared the way we did for every game there was nothing exceptional about it.
“We all knew the importance of but I think the Athlone players made more out of it than we did because we just came as we did for every game because Felix would never allow us to look further than the game we were about to play.”
Whether the pre-match tale is true or false, at this point, is irrelevant. But Cake does recall asking Coulter for a bottle of said champagne post-match.
“Yeah, I did actually, I was thirsty. It was Barry who shouted across:
“‘He’s only after getting the man of the match award, can he have a bottle of champagne.’
“Barry was a great character, and it wasn’t a bottle, they had a case of it. I remember Mickey O’Connor (Athlone manager) saying afterwards that we didn’t have anything to celebrate.
“We knew we were the party-poopers and it wasn’t going down well. I did ask Phil for a bottle of champagne, though, and he took it in good oul jest and we had a laugh at it, fair play to him.”
In a strange twist of fate, Curran’s encounter with Coulter wasn’t the last meeting between the pair as the Roscommon man recalls.
“In a funny twist of fate, when we (St. Brigid’s) won our first All-Ireland 18 years later, the first person I met when we entered the Hudson Bay hotel after winning our club All-Ireland was none other than Phil Coulter who was playing there that night and we reminisced about it.”
Looking back, it really was a disastrous day for a Derry City outfit many expected, and wanted, to see crowned league champions. It’s easy to read into the champagne tales and say they got complacent but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
A quick look back at Derry City’s run-in towards that final game paints the picture of a team running on empty.
“We were in the cup as well, Dundalk had been put out so we were going for the double and we’d three games against Bohs in the semi-final of the cup,” recalls Coyle.
“Now, you play one and it goes to penalties but we played them at Dalymount then it went back to the Brandywell on the Tuesday night and it ended 0-0. Then we tossed it up to see who was home or away and we got home, so we had to play them again on the Friday night, then we were away to Shelbourne on the Tuesday and then away to Cobh on the Friday.
“So we’d about six or seven matches in the space of two weeks and come the Athlone game you could see that a good few of our boys were running on empty.”
“Dundalk obviously ground the results out and won the league and they deserved that. But aesthetically we were the best team to watch and pleasing on the eye, us and Shelbourne, but it was frustrating for everybody. Had we lost the cup to Shelbourne two weeks later it would have been a catastrophic season for us but luckily the cup win kind of softened the blow a bit.”
For Curran, his League of Ireland career was never about winning trophies. Throughout his seven seasons with the club, Athlone consistently struggled to keep their head above water.
However, 25 years on, he’s able to look back on those days with fond memories.
“They were great times, it was always fun going to places like Finn Harps and down to Cork City and Sligo Rovers, even up to Dublin against Bohs, Rovers and Shelbourne, you always had a bit of banter. But those few years were really good years.
“And those games were the games for me, they were brilliant when you had the atmosphere of the crowd and the build-up to the game, even the build-up in the week leading up to the game.
“It’s easy to get motivated for them, it’s easy to train, easy to practice but the League of Ireland at that time was basically about those games.”
For Coyle, he’d leave a legacy behind as one of the league’s greatest ever players (Curran described him as the Lionel Messi of the league in his autobiography). He left his beloved Derry that summer for Glentoran, however, he would return to his boyhood club after just one season where he remained until his legendary career finished.
His return to the Bogside, coincided with Derry’s eventual return to the top of the table. But the league legend can’t help but look back on those years wondering ‘what if?’
“The players we had at Derry, we should have won four, five maybe even six titles. I’ve two runners up as well as two winners medals but the players we had, we should have won a lot more than we did.
“It was great to get over the line and win in ’97, but it still didn’t make up for ’95.”