The saga of Shamrock Rovers
ASSOCIATION FOOTBALL in the Republic has never known the same financial rewards, glamour, or the magnetic appeal enjoyed by the game in such countries as Britain, Spain and Italy. But if one team, through the years, has come close to achieving even a small measure of that appeal it is unquestionably Shamrock Rovers. Their successes have been consistent and considerable; their support is drawn from a wider spectrum than is represented by the partisan regulars who trek up to Glenmalure Park on Sunday afternoons. A number of the club's season-ticket holders live nowhere near Dublin-three Wexford men were recently allocated tickets. It is fair to say that Shamrock Rovers (perhaps the name helps ?) have always seemed something more than merely a local Dublin side.
The Rovers' ball started rolling back in 1899 when the club was formed by a group of soccer enthusiasts in Ringsend.The move to their
present headquarters at Glenmalure Park in Milltown came in 1928. A glance at their record over the last seventy years reveals a list of impressive achievements that no other League of Ireland side can equal.
They have come out on top of the League on ten occasions and have been runners-up nine times. They have won the Dublin City Cup nine times and captured the Top Four Competition three times since it was started in 1956. Their record in the Shield is also impressive: they have won it eighteen times in forty seven years and been runners-up on eight occasions.
But it is by way of the F.A.I. Cup that the club has most emphatically underlined its name in the record books. Since the competition began in 1922 they have notched up a total of twenty wins and have been beaten finalists five times. Between 1929 and 1933 Rovers created an Irish record by winning the Cup for five consecutive years. Their opponents would be quite justified in believing that Rovers hold a lien on that particular trophy, for when the men in the green and white hoops beat Cork Celtic by a three-goal margin in the replayed Cup Final at Dalymount Park in April of this year they also beat their own long-standing record and set up an incredible new one in its place: six Cup Final victories on the trot.
To date, the complete record of Shamrock Rovers in the F.A.I. Cup (which includes twenty - five final appearances) is: total matches played 189; won 112; drawn 45; lost 32 ; goals for 388; goals against 201. Obviously one of the most interesting topics of discussion this year will be whether they can extend their own record to seven. If they do win what is becoming a traditional yearly pilgrimage then the F.A.I. may have to consider setting up a separate competition which their rivals can fight for.
Nor are Shamrock Rovers strangers to the international soccer scene. They have displayed their green and white hoops in a sufficient number of foreign countries to make them Ireland's ambassadors plenipotentiary in this sphere. They have played in England, Spain, Denmark, the U.S.A., Germany, Austria, France, Luxembourg and Bulgaria. During their most recent American trip in 1967 they clocked up 30,000 miles playing from east to west coasts. Rovers acquitted themselves reasonably well in the States, considering that they were a team of parttime professionals. They played in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Washington. They lost four games by a one-goal margin, had only one bad defeat (by Cagliari of Italy), drew with Wolverhampton Wanderers and caused two major upsets by beating Brazilian champions Bangu 3-1, and then defeating Aberdeen (who had gone eleven games without defeat) by two goals to one.
Miss Margaret Cunningham, a Rovers Director and one of the seven children of Chairman Joseph Cunningham, Sr., who handles the club's foreign correspondence, is able to confirm that Shamrock Rovers do indeed enjoy a considerable international reputation: "I can hardly get through all the letters asking for badges and photos that I get from Europe, especially from Czechoslovakia, England and Poland. They know all about the team, the positions of the players and so on. . ."
Their first European engagement this year will be on Wednesday, 17th September, at Dalymount Park. This is the first leg of their first-round European Cup-Winners Cup tussle with German team, Gelsenkirchen, from near Dusseldorf. The return game will be played in Germany on the first of next month.
Will Rovers win a seventh consecutive F.A.I. Cup? And how will they fare in Europe, in the League and in other competitions? Shamrock Rovers' past is sufficiently impressive to stand by itself: the club's future is more open. Their lion's share of the soccer limelight has been partially eclipsed in recent years by the strong showing of other teams such as Dundalk and Waterford, the latter in particular. But it would be surprising indeed if they failed to figure in the honours this season.
The club will certainly miss excaptain and Irish international Johnny Fullam (transferred to Bohemians for £2,000) whose services to the team contributed to many a victory over the past eight years. But Ben Hannigan, the inside forward who came to Rovers from Dundalk last March, should provide a healthy dose of inspiration during the current season by way of his tireless grafting abilities and happy rapport with centre-forward Mick Leech. The latter, of course, possesses a panache all of his own. And the charisma of this goal-poaching brewer from Cabra (last season's leading scorer) can be compared to that of another Irishman to whom he bears a physical resemblance: Georgie Best of Manchester United.Leech is in his fifth season with Shamrock Rovers, whose" B" team he graced in earlier days. Now, at twenty-one, he is the prime target for the autograph hunters and is the chief focus of adulation at Glenmalure Park. He h'ls already acheived the status of " idol" in the tradition of other Rovers greats such as Gerry Mackey, Liam Tuohy (now managing Dundalk), Ronnie Nolan, Tommy Hamilton, Paddy Ambrose and Liam Whelan.
Other players who should figure prominently during the season include: stalwart international winger Frank O'Neill, who holds the Irish Current
record for a home-based player of fourteen full international caps; Mick Smyth, the 28-years-old goalkeeper; Mick Kearin, who formerly played for Bohemians and is an amateur international; veteran left-back Pat Courtney, who has been with the team for many years and is also an amateur international; Eric Barber, fresh from a sojourn in the States; and amateur international and ex-Home Farm boy Damien Richardson who has been playing very well since the season started.
"We have at least as good a team, if not a better team than last year," says 76-year-old Rovers Chairman, Joseph Cunningham, Sr. " I think we should have a very good season. The League will be the one that we want. But it would be nice to win the Cup for the seventh time,"
So, in the year of their seventieth birthday, Shamrock Rovers go marching on. Their progress will be followed by fans in more places than Dublin. They are many soccer fans' favourite side-and just about everybody else's favourite enemy.And that in itself is a tribute.