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Legends of the LOI: Shelbourne 1999-2006

The second installment in this series of articles from Shane McDonnell remembers the Shelbourne side from 1999 to 2006 who not also won 5 league titles and an FAI Cup, but made great waves in European competitions.

The so-called “golden era” for Shelbourne football club really began in the season of 1999/2000 when manager Dermot Keely led the club to it’s historic first ever League and FAI Cup double, winning 19 games and losing just 2 in the league, they finished 11 points ahead of second placed Cork City. They also beat Bohemians 1-0 in a cup replay thanks to future manager, Pat Fenlon’s goal following a 0-0 draw at Tolka Park. And so, the era of success for Shelbourne football club had began.

The following season in 2000/2001, the league title slipped away from The Reds on the final day to Bohemians. But in the same season, the club claimed their first ever away victory in European competition, beating Macedonian side Sloga Jugomagnat in the UEFA Champions League Qualifiers with Richie Baker scoring a late free kick to give Shels a 1-0 win. They beat the Macedonian side 2-1 at home to advance through to the second qualifying round and were rewarded with a tie against Norwegian giants Rosenborg. Despite an excellent performance at home, they lost 3-1 which all but sealed their fate. The only consolation was a very respectable 1 all draw in Norway which led to Shels going out 4-2 on aggregate with Richie Foran scoring in both legs. The club also failed to retain their FAI Cup title, going out in the quarter finals.

The 2001/2002 season was marred with controversy as it had been discovered that title rivals St Patrick’s Athletic had fielded an unregistered player and were docked 9 points, which were later  reinstated. Following that, it emerged that Pats had fielded a second unregistered player, and so the league docked 15 points off them. This led to Shelbourne being crowned the League of Ireland winners of 2001/2002. It was a disappointing year in the cup, going out in the third round. In Europe The Reds were dismissed easily by a strong Brondby side, 5-0 on aggregate, losing 3-0 at home and 2-0 away in Denmark.

In 2002 Dermot Keely left Tolka Park and was replaced by former player, Pat Fenlon. That season, Shels finished 5 points behind Champions Bohemians, went out of the cup in the 3rd round once again, and also, embarrassingly, were knocked out in the Champions League qualifiers by footballing minnows, Hibernian of Malta, drawing 2-2 away but conceding a late goal at home that sent them out of the competition. Not the best of managerial starts for Pat Fenlon.

In 2003 the FAI saw fit to change the league’s schedule from the traditional August-May system to a summer football schedule. This saw the league start early in the year and run right through to October/November time. It proved to work for Shelbourne as they reclaimed their crown, winning the league by 5 points, again contesting with Bohemians, the two Dublin clubs dominating the Irish game around this time. Shels also continued their growing tradition of exiting the FAI Cup in the 3rd round, for the 3rd season in a row. 2003 saw Shels play NK Olimpija of Slovenia in the UEFA Cup, but exited Europe following a 1-0 away defeat and a 3-2 loss at home.

2004 was arguably the year that Shelbourne really kicked on and came alive in Europe. The club retained their league title, the first time Shelbourne had ever won 2 titles back to back, which was an achievement in itself, but also went out in the third round of the FAI Cup for the 4th consecutive year. However what really caught everyone’s eye was the club’s run in the Champions League/UEFA Cup.

The club began this run in Iceland beating RK Reykjavic on away goals. In the second round, Shels were drawn against Croatian champions, Hadjuk Split.Shels went to Croatia and lost 3-2, but went back to Dublin with 2 away goals in the bag. Shels’ midfielder Stuart Byrne said about the away tie in Croatia, “It was the most hostile atmosphere I’ve ever played in, you could hardly hear yourself think on the pitch.”

Following the 3-2 defeat away from home, The Reds beat Hadjuk Split 2-0 at Tolka Park to become the first Irish club to reach the Champions League 3rd qualifying round. The club were drawn against Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna. Shels got a very respectable 0-0 draw at Lansdowne Road, but were finally defeated with 3 second half goals in a  3-0 defeat at Estadio Riazor.

Following their Champions League adventure, Shels were entered into the UEFA Cup and faced French outfit Lille. The Reds went out 4-2 on aggregate following a 2-2 draw in Landsdowne Road and a 2-0 defeat in France, ending the then-record of the longest European run in Irish football history.

Shelbourne went into 2005 with a strong chance to make it 3 league titles in a row, following a memorable year in 2004. As it turned out, they would be disappointed with their league campaign, finishing third behind Cork City and Derry City. They also went out in the second round of the FAI Cup, but were optimistic of another run in Europe. They overcame Northern Irish counterparts, Glentoran, 6-2 on aggregate, winning 2-1 in The Oval in Belfast, and 4-1 in Tolka Park. They were drawn against Romanian side Steaua Bucharest in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, and after a sell-out crowd in Tolka Park which witnessed a 0-0 draw, the Romanian outfit defeated Shels 4-1 in Bucharest. An ultimately disappointing season for The Reds.

Shels entered the 2006 season still as strong contenders for the title following their blip in 2005. And for the 3rd year in a row, the fate of the League of Ireland title would be decided on the final day. Shelbourne defeated Bohemians by 2 goals to 1 following a Stuart Byrne penalty and a Glen Crowe winner. Derry City beat Cork City 1-0 but ultimately it was Shels who claimed the title as Derry had an inferior goal difference. As they had failed to finish in the top 2 the previous season, Shelbourne would not compete in either the Champions League or Uefa Cup in 2006. What awaited them was the Intertoto cup and a first round tie with Lithuanian side Vetra. Shels dismissed the Lithuanian side easily enough with a 5-0 victory on aggregate. Odense of Denmark awaited them in the second round, but following a 3-0 defeat away from home, a 1-0 victory in Tolka Park was not enough and Shels went out of Europe.

Turmoil awaited Shelbourne following that league title in 2006. As the financial problems of the club came to a head, Pat Fenlon resigned as manager and a number of players left the club. The club were demoted to the First Division and withdrew from the UEFA Champions League and Setanta Cup for the 2007 season. Tragedy also struck the club as owner, Oliver “Ollie” Byrne, died of a brain tumour in August of 2007, aged 63.

Shelbourne Football Club currently play in the Irish First Division and have not returned to the heights they experienced during those 7 years. But even though they have struggled in recent years, the success of the club in this period will live on in the hearts of many players, fans and Irish football supporters for years to come.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.