Shelbourne’s famous European escapade

by Robbie Deighan

In anticipation of the important European ties looming large for Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers and St. Patrick’s Athletic this week, we’re going to revisit the best continental campaign ever waged by an Irish club, when Shelbourne went from Reykjavik to the Riazor in 2004.

Back then, progressing from the Champions League third qualifying round advanced teams into the group stages. Nowadays, another tie, the play-off round, awaits the winners of the third qualifying round and this year the likes of Arsenal and Bayern Munich will have to fight it out in the play-off round to reach the group stages. In ’04, Shelbourne became the first ever Irish club to reach the third qualifying round.

This season Shamrock Rovers have matched that feat, although another round lies in between them and the group stages, should they find a way past FC Copenhagen in Tallaght. Since Shelbourne’s accomplishments came under the old format, their European campaign represents the closest an Irish side has ever come to reaching the group stages of the Champions League, although Shamrock Rovers may have something to say about that should they overturn their one goal deficit against FC Copenhagen in Tallaght.

(Click here to read how the Irish clubs performed in Europe last week.)

Shelbourne won their 11th league title in 2003, their third such success in four seasons. During those seasons the club experienced mixed fortunes in Europe. In ’99 they briefly looked like causing an upset against Rangers in the UEFA Cup before capitulating. They reached the second qualification round of the Champions League in ’00, but Rosenborg effectively ended the tie in the first leg, scoring three away goals in Tolka Park. Shels proceeded to fall at the first hurdle against Danish side Brondby, Maltese minnows Hibernians and NK Olimpija in the following years. The 11th title win ensured the club’s entry to the first qualifying round of the Champions League for the 2004-05 edition of the tournament.

A restructuring of the qualifying rounds, coupled with Ireland’s decent standing in the coefficient rankings, allows the League of Ireland champions to now enter at the second qualifying round, which is the stage Shamrock Rovers entered at this year. But in ’04, Shelbourne had to face a tricky first qualifying round match against KR Reykjavik, Iceland’s most successful football club.

In the first leg over in Iceland, two goals in the ten minutes that followed the half-time interval looked like subjecting Shelbourne to another first round exit. However Alan Moore, Shels’ new left winger with eight international caps for Ireland and over 100 appearances for Middlesbrough, scored a vital away goal in the 83rd minute.  Just three minutes later the turnaround was complete when an own goal brought the game to 2-2, giving Shels the lead by away goals. Seven days later in Tolka Park the Reds held the game at 0-0 to progress to the second round and set up a tie against Croatian outfit Hajduk Split.

As recently as 1995 Hajduk Split had reached the quarter-final of the Champions League, going out to eventual winners Ajax. As one of Croatia’s most well-known and successful clubs, Shelbourne’s prospects of progressing were dim.

The Dubliners travelled to Stadion Poljud (capacity: 35,000) for the first leg on July 28th, having experienced first-hand the importance of away goals in the first qualifying round. Within five minutes Pat Fenlon’s men took a shock lead through striker Glen Fitzpatrick. The bright start from Shels provoked Hajduk into action and the Croatians scored three times to banish memories of Shelbourne’s surprise start to obscurity. But the hero of Reykjavik, Alan Moore, popped up yet again with a late goal, this time in the 89th minute. Shelbourne yet again took a tie to Tolka Park with two away goals to their name and again had given themselves every chance of advancing.

(To view the highlights of the first leg  against Hajduk Split click here.)

The draw for the thrid qualifying round was made just days before the second leg. Shelbourne or Hajduk Split would face Spanish giants Deportivo La Coruna. Deportivo were Champions League semi-finalists the previous season, only losing by a single goal to Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto.

But first, the outcome of the second leg had to be decided. Tolka Park was at maximum capacity to witness the greatest victory ever recorded in the stadium. Shelbourne, needing to score once to win on away goals, waited until the 78th minute to find the net. A cross to the edge of the Hajduk penalty area was met with a desperate attempt at a headed clearance from a Hajduk defender, and the ball dropped to defender Dave Rogers of all players, who unleashed a fabulous 20-yard left foot volley past the flailing arms of the ‘keeper. Tolka Park erupted, but with 12 minutes plus stoppage time to go there was still time for everything to go wrong. But it didn’t. Alan Moore extended his run of late goals in Europe with a 93rd minute tap-in to seal a date with Deportivo, following some lovely work by Joseph Ndo in the box.

Progression ensured at least four more European matches for the Reds. Losing to Deportivo would result in dropping down to the first round of the UEFA Cup. That round is equivalent to the play-off round of the Europa League. St. Patrick’s Athletic, and more realistically Sligo Rovers, have the opportunity to reach this round of the Europa League should they win their second leg ties this Thursday.

The decision was made that Shelbourne’s home tie, the first leg, would be held at Lansdowne Road instead of Tolka Park. UEFA regulations forbid the use of terraces; reducing the potential capacity to 24,000. Tickers were sold-out well in advance.

Deportivo had an array of top quality talent on display in Lansdowne that night. Juan Carlos Valeron, Jorge Andrade, Walter Pandiani, Jose Molina, Mauro Silva and Albert Luque were just some of the names to feature in that game; remarkably, Shelbourne kept them relatively quiet all night. Deportivo had just the one clear-cut chance, but Albert Luque sent his effort harmlessly wide when one-on-one with ‘keeper Steve Williams. The best chance of the night actually fell to the home side, but was squandered by the usually lethal Jason Byrne when he miskicked Owen Heary’s pull-back right in front of goal.

Shels, who were seemingly not overwhelmed by the occasion whatsoever, walked away with a hugely creditable 0-0 draw. It was almost unfeasible that all they needed was a score draw in the Riazor to beat Deportivo and reach the hallowed group stages of the Champions League, yet that was the situation that all their hard work and determination had put them in.

The return leg began with an early onslaught from the Spaniards. When the early goal they sought didn’t come, thanks to Shelbourne’s valiant defending, frustration infected Deportivo’s play. They were still dangerous; players of that quality always are at home, especially against such lowly opposition, but after a shaky few opening minutes the Shelbourne defence looked rather comfortable as the first-half wore on.

Eventually Deportivo’s obvious superiority shone through, but it is with great testament to Pat Fenlon’s tactics and the quality of that Shelbourne side that it took 90 minutes in Lansdowne Road, and another hour in the Riazor for the Spaniards to take the lead. Victor Sanchez scored with a low shot from the edge of the area, before sealing the win six minutes later with an unstoppable 35-yard strike. Walter Pandiani added a third in the 89th minute.

The Champions League dream was over. The loss demoted them to the UEFA Cup first round and an encounter with French side Lille to determine who would make the UEFA Cup group stages. Again, Lansdowne was selected over Tolka to host the match.  The first-half at home to Lille was even crueler than than the second-half in the Riazor, as Lille notched two away goals. It seemed the UEFA Cup dream was now over as soon as it had begun. Even when substitute Glen Fitzpatrick headed home an 80th minute consolation goal hope was faint with just 10 minutes left. But all it took was three more minutes and Fitzpatrick’s big old head for Shelbourne to draw level at 2-2. Somehow, Shelbourne entered another second leg with a chance of progressing.

It was a full two weeks before the second leg was played in France. When the match was played, Lille won 2-0 and that was that. But from July 14th to the 30th of September of 2004, some of Shelbourne’s wildest European dreams became a reality. Sneaking through on away goals, last gasp equalizers, an outstanding winning volley from outside the box; Shelbourne won the admiration of Irish football fans like no other club before with their continental conquests that season.

It was only seven years ago, but it feels like 70 considering what happened to Shelbourne not long after. Shamrock Rovers already have a taste for the glamour European tie having played Juventus in the Europa League last season. They even kept the match in Tallaght, which added to the spectacle. Here’s hoping that Rovers can turn it around against Copenhagen, that Sligo don’t throw away all the hard work they put in over in the Ukraine, and that we can see an Irish club go further than Shelbourne did in 2004.

6 Responses

  1. Neil Sherwin Neil Sherwin says:

    Ahhh the memories. Super article Robbie, it was a great campaign.

    Being a Shels fan, the years from 2004 to 2006 were just fantastic with some superb players and great memories. Celebrating on the Tolka pitch after winning the title in ’06 is an experience that won’t be forgotten (especially with Stewie Byrne’s epic rant).

    Pity it all went tits up straight afterwards.

  2. sebthered says:

    Great article. My favourite time as a Shels fan, this.

    We’ll be back in the big time next season, and then we can see about recreating such exploits in seasons to come :)

    Briogáid Dearg Abú

  3. Robbie Deighan says:

    Cheers lads.

    With Alan Matthews at the helm, and the title all but in their hands, some good times should be coming back to Shelbourne at long last.

  4. Rob says:

    I relive those moments in my head on a daily basis and sometimes spend a day watching my DVDs of the games.
    Dont want to jinx it by guaranteeing our return to the Premier and Europe in the near future after coming so close to promotion, under Keely, in recent years only to blow it on final day deciders(which i also relive on a daily basis), but the squad Mathews has assembled is easily the best we have seen in the 1st division and barring injuries in key positions (up front), its lookin likely.
    Will either be more confident if we can get a result in Cork on friday.

    Forza Shelbourne

  5. Armando Diaz says:

    This is a great article. Its nice to remember teams from countries who aren’t always at the top of Europe in terms of league play.

  6. nicko says:

    Great article, happy happy dayz nd memories, those few beers outside the riazor will live in memory!

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