Traditionally April was the month in which the FAI Cup final was played. The decider of the Blue Ribband competition usually signalled the conclusion of the season unless there was a special competition such as the All Ireland Inter-City Cup, Blaxnit Cup or the Top Four competition. Before global warming and what appears to be some sort of change in the seasons (the natural ones that is), it seems upon looking back on the past that every April was, weather-wise, similar to the one we are enjoying right now. I always remember my late father telling me that inevitably the surface at Dalymount Park on Cup final day would appear hard but nothing that better watering wouldn’t have eased.
The 1962 decider was certainly one occasion when the sun shone. A fabulous attendance of 32,000 watched the Ringsend rivals, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne, do battle for the silverware. Shels were in the ascendency, a play-off with Cork Hibernians for the league title awaited them a week later. Rovers were in the process of rebuilding under Sean Thomas following the ending of the ‘Coad’s Colts’ era. The Hoops won the Cup that day with a 4-1 scoreline, Shels weren’t at the races at all. The following year the Reds did gain revenge though when the sides met at the semi-final stage. Shelbourne won the final, beating Cork Hibs 2-0. Imagine what might have happened though had Rovers won the semi-final instead of Shelbourne and repeated the success of a year earlier to retain the Cup? Assuming they would still have gone on and won the Cup for the next six years as they did, success in 1963 would have given the Milltown club an astonishing eight-in-a-row. Unfortunately, they had to settle for six!
God knows what was going through the minds of Bob Fullam and his teammates when they started out on the 1929 campaign. Probably not in their wildest dreams did they imagine they would capture the FAI Cup five times in a row. No doubt in 1932 they had aspirations to be the first team to retain the Cup but to continue on for a further three years bringing the trophy back to Milltown on each occasion was quite an achievement.
Even the great aforementioned ‘Coad’s Colts’ team didn’t manage to retain the Cup. They did qualify for the final for four successive years from 1955 to 1958 inclusive but lost in 1957 and 1958. The team of the sixties recorded one of the greatest achievements in the history of League of Ireland football. They became the undisputed Cup kingpins. Nobody ever thought that the five-in-a-row would be matched and likewise in later years the same with the six-in-a-row. However, had the travesty that occurred in relation to Glenmalure Park not happened God knows what level of success the Hoops team at the time, led by Pat Byrne on the pitch, might have gone on to. We had the best team in the land and we certainly believed they were almost invincible. At Shamrock Rovers we have teams from our history who set the tone in Irish football and led the way but none of them, even though they were rightly described as being the best of their respective eras, managed to do what the team of the 1980s did. And that is the stand out point in this article. On this day, 26th April, 1987, Shamrock Rovers defeated Dundalk 3-0 in the FAI Cup final and with that success came the completion of a remarkable treble double.
At that stage in the story of League of Ireland football Dalymount Park had fallen into a rather shabby state. Bohs were crippled financially; the stadium had become too big for their purposes. The ‘Grand Old Lady’ of Irish football grounds was basically no longer suitable for staging such an occasion. On the same day as the final in 1987 Dublin were playing Kerry in the National League Football Final at Croke Park. The FAI, and it has to be said the two clubs, rather stupidly insisted on going up against the game on Jones’s Road. Over 35,000 flocked to the GAA HQ; RTE Radio reported in its Sunday evening sports bulletin that 50,000 plus had attended the two finals. The newspapers the following day gave the attendance at Dalymount Park as 10,000 but the official figure revealed by the FAI at a later stage read a paltry 8,569.
What a shame that the historic achievement by Rovers, managed then by Dermot Keely who continued the success begun by Jim McLaughlin, was witnessed by such a small attendance. That team we had deserved to be playing before a much greater audience. The crowd of 33,111 at the 2019 final between the same two clubs at a modern Aviva Stadium is proof of what can be achieved if the marketing is right and the venue is fit for purpose. Back in the 1980s there seemed to be an air of acceptance that the best days were gone and that resistance to inevitable death was futile.
On the day of the 1987 final, I stood on the terracing at Dalymount where the car park is now. There was no such thing as a posh seat in the crumbling wooden main stand for me. It was a day similar to the ones that Cup finals in April used to be staged on. The weather for the 1984 and 1986 deciders was similar but 1985 was played in a downpour. Obviously winning the Cup in 1987 for a third successive year to add to the four league titles was very special but we didn’t feel any particular sense of joy that day. The spectre of the club quitting our beloved Glenmalure Park was very much in our minds, there was a half-time demonstration on the pitch by some Hoops fans, and we didn’t go overboard celebrating the win. It was ironic that in the previous years successes during the Four-in-a-Row the then official Shamrock Rovers Supporters Club, the only supporters club at the time, was snubbed by the Kilcoyne’s but in 1987 they invited the committee to join them and then the team for a meal and drinks after the Cup final. Needless to say, we did not attend and made our reasons for not doing so very clear.
So, beautiful day, small crowd, inadequate venue and Milltown hovering in the background, the team going for a third successive FAI Cup title, it all added up to a lot of mixed emotions. Of course, we were thrilled to beat Dundalk. They had beaten us in the League Cup final that year and were the only team to beat the Hoops throughout the league campaign. Harry Kenny’s penalty in the first half sent Rovers on the way. The dynamic duo of Noel Larkin and Mick Byrne both netted in the second half to seal the superiority. There was no disputing which was the better team on the day. The Hoops gave a polished display and once they got their noses in front they rarely looked like being in danger. The players wanted this. They knew they were history-makers and they wanted to keep it going.
It may seem strange for a historian who was actually present at the time to say that I don’t particularly like looking back on this day. It wasn’t how, just weeks earlier, I had envisaged it. I was in total shock at what was happening at Milltown. Even amongst Hoops stalwarts, I don’t often hear much talk about it. That’s not fair really because what the team achieved that day was magnificent. If only they had been allowed to continue.