This feature is part of A Tale of One City
Dublin is a city with an astonishing history. Walking through it, you find yourself regularly captivated by a building or statue that reminds you of a key moment in Irish history, like the bullet holes in the General Post Office from the 1916 Easter Rising or Kilmainham Jail.
While Tallaght Stadium and Dalymount Park aren’t exactly monuments that stand out, it nevertheless stages the League of Ireland’s most ferocious rivalry, between Dublin’s two most distinguished clubs: Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers. It’s a rivalry that can be traced back to a century ago and, today, in 2015, remains one of the fiercest in European football.
It’s an enmity that stems from factors beyond the football field and is a classic case of a north-south divide. Traditionally, if you’re from the working-class north of the Dublin, you will support Bohemians, while if you hail from the south side, Rovers are your team. Kept apart by the River Liffey, which runs through the heart of Dublin, the two clubs and sets of fans count down the days until the next derby with great anticipation. An anticipation that no other League of Ireland fixture can conjure up. It is the shimmering showpiece of a league not in great health.
Of course, as with many cities covered in this series, this rivalry would be nothing without the exuberance and passion of the fans. The League of Ireland campaign runs right through the summer so, if you’re suffering in the absence of the Premier League or whatever league you follow, book a weekend trip to Dublin and buy a ticket for a Bohs-Shamrock game – it’s the definitive example of the football season not being over.
The standard of football will not be that of El Clásico or a Manchester derby – and the fans will be the first to admit that – but that is immaterial when you experience the intense, ultra-charged atmosphere when these two teams face off. While soccer in Dublin may not hold the same status as GAA or rugby – Croke Park can regularly pack around 80,000 into its famous stands while the Aviva Stadium attracts a healthy gathering of 50,000 – the atmosphere at Bohs/Rovers game is something particularly more inflamed.
From the bouncing terraces of Tallaght Stadium and Dalymount Park, you can feel the incredible energy of the ‘ultras’. While footballing ultras can sometimes garner a negative reputation around the world for being associated with acts of violence and, in some cases, organised crime, they are the reason the Dublin derby comes to life. The Shamrock Rovers ultras see Bohemians as their arch-nemesis and vice versa. There is a shared animosity. Some locals would describe it as ‘banter’, but it can sometimes descend to something much worse.
For both clubs, reflecting on a history that holds 28 League of Ireland titles between the two of them – Rovers with 17, Bohemians with 11 – can often be more exciting than looking ahead to a future which will seemingly continue the rise of Dundalk.
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Although Rovers have claimed more titles than any other club in the country, they haven’t been crowned champions since 2011, while Bohemians’ barren spell extends two years further back to 2009. It’s a somewhat difficult period for the derby and, although the passion between the fans remains in good health, the derby fails to hold the cutting-edge feeling of a title showdown. Travelling back though, there’s been plenty.
Many would point to the classic encounters of the 1970s as being the starting point of their history, but in truth, the rivalry can be traced as far back as 1915, when Bohemians defeated Rovers 3-0 in a Leinster Cup tie – a year they would go on to win one of the 30 cups they hold today. The hatred was intensified when Rovers claimed an FAI Cup semi-final success 3-0 in 1922, but perhaps the high-point of the rivalry in its relative youth came in 1945, when a record attendance of 37,348 (according to the Irish Times) watched a historic FAI Cup final between the two sides.
It was billed as the ultimate showdown between the northside and the southside. Defeat for either was unthinkable. Never had the Dublin derby been staged with such grandeur or fandom, excitement and prestige. It was a tensed and cagey affair – as most cup finals tend to be – and there was always the sense that it would be decided by the odd goal, perhaps a mistake or piece of magic. As it were, some slack Bohemians defending allowed Podge Gregg to latch onto a square pass from Delaney, firing his shot of the insight of the upright and netting the winner for Shamrock. It was an occasion of jubilation for the Rovers fans. If you’re going to claim bragging rights, what better way to do it than in the cup final in front of a record crowd?
Interestingly, Bohemians and Rovers had another successful Dublin club to contend with in the 1960s – Drumcondra FC. Based on the banks of the River Tolka, Drumcondra won the league in 1961 and again in 1965 during a period that was very much their heydey. However, in 1972 they amalgamated with neighbours Home Farm and left Bohs/Rovers to take centre stage in any discussion of a footballing rivalry in Dublin.
It was during that decade that the Bohs/Rovers rivalry reached new heights and shaped much of the animosity that still exists today. It was a time when Irish club football became awash with regrettable incidents of fan violence. Writing in the Irish Press in 1972, one sports journalist asked with tongue firmly in cheek why was it that, “Irish footballers are not able to emulate English footballers to some small degree, when their supporters have no trouble in successfully aping the cross-Channel hooligan element”.
It’s not to say that Rovers fans were the worst perpetrators of this type of “fan behaviour”, but their actions in one particular incident sent reverberations around the sporting and political spheres of Ireland, thrusting a club game between St. Patrick’s Atheltic and Rovers onto the front pages of national newspapers.
It was March 1972, a date which marked the low-point of Irish football hooliganism. As written by the Irish Independent in their match report, “Some fans came to the match determined to cause trouble.” The match was a wildly entertaining one, with St. Pat’s hauling themselves back from a despairing opening period to eventually draw 3-3. Thrilling on the pitch, but shameful off it.
The Shamrock Rovers fans chanted slogans of a political nature and declared their allegiance to Glasgow Celtic. The St. Pat’s fans hardly acted like angels either, incessantly entangling themselves in the mess with foul-mouthed abuse towards the Rovers supporters. Then, a brief but violent fracas in the terraces resulted in a youngster being stabbed on a night which highlighted the idiocy of a minority, prepared to ignore some of the best football the League of Ireland had to offer in favour of asserting their authority.
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The derby is a fierce, passionate affair with a lengthy history
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While that particular occasion didn’t involve Bohemians fans, their fans and the hardcore sections of the Rovers supporters have clashed bitterly throughout the years. Their hatred has been fuelled by a multitude of factors but perhaps the most crystallising moment was when Rovers recruited a number of talented players from Bohemians in the 90s and ended up winning the league four times in a row from 1984 to 1987.
This era began in the summer of 1983 when Rovers appointed Jim McLaughlin as manager, proceeding to completely overhaul the first-team squad, only retaining the services of a handful of players. He brought in players such as Anto Whelan from Manchester United and Noel King from Dundalk, and prompted the club’s golden era when they claimed the league title in 1984 and ’85 by a margin of six points from Bohemians on both occasions.
Bohemians were a good team at that point but, in the context of Irish club football, Rovers were a truly great side. Throughout the annals of football history in Ireland, that Shamrock Rovers side can be considered as one of the greatest, propelled by the goalscoring exploits of Alan Campbell. Bohemians did exact revenge, as rivals always do, of course.
The Gypsies ended a 23-year wait for a title in 2001 and followed that up with further triumphs in 2003, ’08 and ’09. However, their finest hour arguably came in a year when they didn’t win the league title, instead thumping Rovers 4-0 during a famous victory in 2012. Two goals each from Peter McMahon and Karl Moore lifted Bohs to their biggest win over their biggest rivals. Some Bohs fans would describe it as some of the best fun they’ve ever had in their life, pummelling rovers into submission and showing them no mercy in a display of unshakable dominance and superiority.
The joy was elevated further by the fact that two of the night’s goals came courtesy of errors from the Rovers players, leaving them exposed to a tirade of abuse from the Bohs fans. Rovers captain Ken Oman was at fault for the third in being dispossessed, while the fourth goal rounded off the night when Moore’s shot slithered underneath Rovers keeper Oscar Jansson. Misery compounded for Rovers, ecstasy completed for Bohs.
For hardcore Bohemians fans there is nothing worse than seeing one of the team’s best players signing for the Hoops, and vice versa. In 2004, incensed supporters threw a pig’s head onto the Dalymount Park field in response to Bohs signing Rovers duo James Keddy and Tony Grant. It was an act of footballing protest made famous by the Barcelona fans when Luís Figo returned to the Camp Nou in a Real Madrid shirt as a galáctico, but this was no small pig’s head. This was the rather enormous head of an Irish pig.
It shocked the players, for sure, and it was an indication of just how much betrayal was felt by Rovers fans in Bohs taking two of their players. It wasn’t the first time events off the pitch have overshadowed those on it but these two teams can certainly serve up a cracker.
You’re unlikely to catch a Bohs/Rovers game that sends shockwaves around European football like Manchester United’s 4-3 victory over City in September 2009 but there have still been some occasions to savour. What about a 10-goal thriller? Oh yes, it happened. Back in January 2001, Rovers and Bohs met at Santry in what would transpire to be one of the most whirlwind encounters between the rivals.
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Tony Grant fired Rovers into an early lead after shooting through the legs of Simon Webb. But after just 16 minutes, the game was tied at 1-1 when Hill fired low through a number of bodies in a congested penalty area to level the scoring. The afternoon was cold and misty and the pitch was far from pristine, but it didn’t stop the 22 men on the pitch giving us a blood and thunder match full of twists and turns and a near-miraculous comeback.
Sean Francis nodded Rovers back in front from the spot before Grant grabbed his second and Brian Byrne notched another to put Rovers in a seemingly unassailable advantage heading into the interval. They had tormented their opponents but the Bohs players proved that there is never a place for complacency in football, at any level. Following the break, Neskovic scored and shifted the momentum back in favour of Bohs, before Morrison and Glen Crowe fired in quick succession to suddenly tie the game at 4-4. It was unbelievable.
A Rovers midfield that had dominated throughout the first half had suddenly disappeared as the Bohs mounted attack after attack. After 80 minutes, the sensational comeback was complete when Mark Rutherford converted a cross. The Rovers fans were stunned. The Bohs fans were equally struck, but were whipped into a frenzy after a stirring display of courage from their boys, rubbing salt in raw wounds with a sixth goal – Crowe netting his second – to complete a calamitous capitulation from Rovers. Truly box-office stuff.
The fans love to be reminded that, because of the smaller scale in the League of Ireland, it actually means they are closer to the action. An average attendance for a derby game is around 3,000, a tiny fraction of what you would get at Old Trafford, but there is no shortage of passion and fervour. In fact, the Dublin derby represents a disparity from the pampered prima donna bubble of the Premier League elite in that fans can often be seen socially interacting with the players, either after the game or in the pub.
I mean, how often are you actually going to see Wayne Rooney walk into Trafford Bar after a game and have a few pints with those who have sung their lungs out in the Stretford End all afternoon? It can happen in the League of Ireland.
There is less of a fourth wall between players and fans, and this serves to improve a sense of connection. The sad truth is that a lot of football fans would still rather sit at home watching English football on the television instead of going out to experience a game in Dublin. It’s their loss. You can always support an English team but there is something special and invigorating about following the trials and tribulations of your local team. It’s what football is built on.
The crucial lack of television money plays a part for advertising the Irish game and it will almost certainly never match the excitement surrounding an All-Ireland Football Final at Croke or a Six Nations game at the Aviva against England, but it still holds great appeal for football fans. If you go to Dublin, do the usual sightseeing, visit the jail, drink some Guinness. But if you want to go a little deeper and experience a sheer carnival of passion and colour, singing and chanting, go to a match between Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians. You won’t regret it.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11
With thanks to Trevor Murray for his insight and knowledge. Follow @TrevorM90