How can you narrow down Ollie Byrne’s running battles with adversaries to just one?

t’s a fair point. The combative streak of the late, great Shelbourne chairman was a central theme running through the League of Ireland across the tail end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century.

There were run-ins with the authorities, rival managers, media, and anybody who stepped in the way of his beloved Shels.

With Dublin foes, there was a bit more feeling to the tension. It seems wrong to skim through the jousts with Bohemians, the pantomime rows with Roddy Collins – which spilled over into the latter’s stay at Shamrock Rovers – and the sheer mischief of going on TV in 2004 to announce that Gypsies stars Glen Crowe, Colin Hawkins and Bobby Ryan had all signed pre-contract deals with their northside neighbours.

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St Patrick's Athletic manager Pat Dolan. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

St Patrick's Athletic manager Pat Dolan. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

St Patrick’s Athletic manager Pat Dolan. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

St Patrick’s Athletic manager Pat Dolan. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

But there were more layers to the fallings-out with St Patrick’s Athletic and, more specifically, the face of their club, a young Pat Dolan, the spokesperson for their cause.

He was both CEO and manager for a period where the Saints and Shels went head to head for major honours, with his role rotating before he returned to the dugout for the abridged 2001/2002 league season that was decided by registration irregularities.

Niggle

There was always a bit of niggle in the Shels/Pat’s rivalry going down through overlapping histories, but it spiked around the 1996 FAI Cup final win for the Drumcondra-based side and their subsequent snaring of Saints star Dave Campbell.

Shels were cast as the moneybags club, while Dolan preached about the values of his Saints side. They savoured league joy in 1998 when a last-day collapse from Damien Richardson’s Reds opened the door for the Inchicore team.

By a freakish coincidence, the duo ended up landing Celtic and Rangers in the first round of European action.

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Byrne is held back by a steward as he argues with a ref in 2004. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Byrne is held back by a steward as he argues with a ref in 2004. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Byrne is held back by a steward as he argues with a ref in 2004. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Byrne is held back by a steward as he argues with a ref in 2004. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

They even shared a plane home after Pat’s drew their Champions League tie in Parkhead and Shels gave away a three-goal lead to lose 5-3 in their ‘home’ UEFA Cup tie with Rangers that was relocated to Tranmere’s Prenton Park for security reasons.

Ground restrictions meant Pat’s had to use Shels’ Tolka base for the lucrative return with Celtic and there was a war of words over how it had all played itself out with suspicion in the air around deals that had been made around the time of the draw, with the ill-feeling continuing into the following year and beyond.

Games between the clubs were feisty on and off the park, both during and after games. Journalists on the beat were kept busy.

The newspaper columns of Dolan and then Shels boss Dermot Keely added to the theatre and it was a challenge to figure out the instances where the enmity over a particular issue was real or just exaggerated in order to drum up publicity and get extra bums and seats.

It worked in a weird and wonderful way; there was a passion for the league yet also a single-minded focus on the needs of their respective clubs.

But there were no winners as the aforementioned ’01/’02 season descended into a farce that became a stick to beat Irish football with.

Pat’s made administrative errors that ultimately cost them the title in a campaign where they picked up the most points on the pitch. It just so happened that Byrne was central in exposing flaws with the registrations of Paul Marney and then Ugandan Charles Mbabazi Livingstone.

After escaping with a fine for the Marney mistake, the revelation that Livingstone’s papers were an issue cost Pat’s 15 points. Byrne had publicly demanded a check on the Pat’s documentation on a day where he was spotted leaving HQ just before Dolan arrived for a meeting with the league’s commissioner Roy Dooney.

“It’s a very sad day for football,” said Byrne, when it became clear that Shels would be crowned champions as a consequence.

“We offered St Pat’s the chance to play all of the games but Pat Dolan turned it down. Everybody knows that to play in a match, you need to have a registration form.”

Needless to say, they doubted the extent of Byrne’s sadness in Dublin 8, where the interpretation of the turn of events was somewhat different.

They viewed any Shels success as tainted, with Saints players viewing themselves as the real champions. Their Shels counterparts pointed to their medals.

Dolan’s relationship with the Saints came unstuck in the year that followed and he went down south to Cork where the fires burned whenever Shels came to town.

With Byrne engaged in the never-ending struggle of trying to keep Shels afloat, the joy of dominating the league for half a decade was accompanied by a ticking clock and the walls closed in at the end of the 2006 season when the money basically ran out.

Tragically, his life was cut short by illness within 12 months and the league instantly became a greyer and quieter place.

Fringes

Dolan remains on the fringes as a columnist and advisor to players but he’ll never encounter an adversary like Byrne again, much as the transfer market is packed with characters laced with idiosyncrasies.

As Shels entered a lengthy hangover from the glory days, the show moved on but their Premier return this year allowed them to lock horns with the Saints before the Covid-19 shutdown.

For those who were immersed in the drama of that era, an old flame lingers which means it will always be a significant date on the fixture list.

But the electricity provided by the pair of larger-than-life characters is impossible to replace.

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