Shelborne, Tolka Park

You may not know or realise but Dublin is a great footballing city, it’s a historic hotbed for the game containing Ireland’s two most successful clubs in Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians as well as St Patricks, UCD and today’s hosts Shelborne. In a similar way to the Scottish Lower Leagues, the League of Ireland is one of the last places you can see what I’d call traditional “British Isles Style” stadiums. These rustic, some may say ramshackle grounds need have been in decline for decades now and if the FAI has its way that will be changing. Tolka Park has been on the to do list for a while, on a previous trip I’d poked my head in and what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in heart. Tolka’s days may be numbered though with Shels potentially making the uneasy move to the redeveloped historical home of Irish football and Bohemians, Dalymount Park. The Save Tolka Park campaign which, is being led both by Shels supporters and the local community in Drumcondra that is hopefully going to be allowed to redevelop Tolka and both stop developers from knocking the ground down and the club have to move the 2.5km to Phibsborough.

As for Tolka itself, nestled between terrace houses and the Tolka River the ground has a real old school vibe to it. The barrel roofed Richmond Road stand similar to the away end at Roots Hall is the first thing that greets you. Take away the modern cars and streetlights and this could be a scene from the 1970’s or earlier. After a brief nosy around I made my way to the pub for some rather pricey beers. Fagan’s a short walk from the ground is probably best known for being the boozer that Bertie Ahern took then US President Bill Clinton for a pint an ornate place it’s well worth a couple if you ever find yourself in town. As kickoff approached I made my way back to the ground, there was a buzz about the place with Shels top of the league. As I entered the ground I was greeted by the New Stand to my right and Riverside Stand opposite. The Riverside Stand is essentially an old covered terrace with seats bolted on and is where Shels Ultras currently reside after a fire in the New Stand in 2019.

The game itself saw top taking on bottom in the Irish First Division, Shels aiming for a return to the top flight after losing the relegation playoff in 2020. Shels burst out of the blocks to the joy of their raucous support. There’s a level of fever around Irish football that is rarely seen in England any more, a lot of clubs have Ultra groups who are more than willing to use quite a lot of pyro and give vocal support throughout the match. Within 13 minutes Shels were 2 up with a man advantage and made it 3 in the 23rd, Wexford looked utterly devoid of any real plan. What then followed was the hosts essentially going into cruise control scoring a 4th and final goal just before the hour mark. The sheer ferocity that Shels attacked Wexford in the first 25 minutes urged on by their support was a pleasure to see after plenty of time without fans in grounds.

Ireland may not be the first place you think of for a football weekend but, with Friday night fixtures and plenty of cheap flights to Dublin it really can kick off a fantastic weekend in the capital. Backed with passionate support each club has it’s own little quirks that make it an enjoyable place to go. With Ireland having a Summer league running from March to October/November the ability to pick up some matches during those hot summer months is always worth considering. Dalymount will always stand out for me with it’s Leitch crush barriers and 125 foot floodlights who have their own urban myth but both Tolka and Richmond Park are beautiful examples of “British Isles” style stadiums. Tallaght on the other hand is a reasonably smart new build but still attended by vocal ultra groups. I do hope Tolka remains, I hope it grows and thrives well into the 21st century. Football can quite often forget itself, it’s place in local communities and while a move of 2.5km doesn’t seem far it removes the feel of home. For Shels, Tolka is and will always be home.

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