Milltown loss was 'criminal'
It was a field of dreams which turned into a long-lasting nightmare.
And even today, the 30th anniversary to the day of the last game of football played at Glenmalure Park in Milltown, there's still anguish in the voice of Mick Byrne as he reflects on what happened to his once-treasured stomping ground.
"It was criminal, what happened, it was horrendous. I think that killed the club for a long time," Byrne told The Herald.
The former striker enjoyed much success in a playing career which included a spell in Holland's top flight. But there's one item on his CV which is most unwanted.
Thirty years ago today, Byrne netted the last-ever goal scored at Milltown, in an FAI Cup tie against Sligo Rovers. Never again would football be played on the park which had been the club's home since 1926, when the Hoops moved in, renting the site from the Jesuits for £150 a year.
"The fact that I scored the last goal there, I only thought of that much later on, someone mentioned it to me one day. It wasn't a good thing to hear, not something to be proud of as we lost so much when we lost Milltown," says Byrne.
Three days before that game against Sligo, news had broken that the ground was being sold to a property developer, Rovers moving to Tolka Park.
Club owner Louis Kilcoyne, who died in 2012, had only bought the site outright from the Jesuit order in 1985 and the rapid sale of Milltown in 1987, for a reported fee of £900,000, so it could be cleared to make way for houses, was very painful.
Rovers fans campaigned, protested, appealed for support from the business community and the political class. The team moved on to Tolka Park, with Kilcoyne making empty promises of a new home and a new era, but the fans stayed away, and a boycott of home games started. Supporter Martin Keating recalled in the oral history We Are Rovers that at the final 'home' game in that first season at Tolka Park, only 45 people paid in. A tiny gate attended the European Cup tie at 'home' to Omonia Nicosia, where Dermot Keely's side limped out of Europe on a 1-0 aggregate scoreline.
Keely, who would suffer personal abuse for having stayed on after the loss of Milltown, would later admit that he naive to have believed KIlcoyne's line that leaving Milltown was an economic necessity and that the club would be provided with a state-of-the-art new home in Tolka.
"I am the first to admit that the position I held back then was wrong. All I wanted to do was keep winning matches," Keely told club historian Robert Goggins. "As a player you don't have the sense of history when you are at a club, it's only when you leave, or look back in time, that you realise it. Players don't have the sense of history that fans do."
Mick Byrne admits that players were also misguided. "We knew there would be a move and maybe we were a bit naive. We thought, we wished, that a new stadium would be built for us and the club would have a home, and of course that didn't happen, we didn't have a home for 20 years," he says.
Two of the key players in the four in a row side, Pat Byrne and Mick Byrne, would go on to manage Rovers in unhappy times, and both men are still regulars at home games in Tallaght, as supporters.
They will be there on Friday night when the Hoops play Sligo Rovers in a repeat of that final game at Milltown 30 years ago.
But for Mick Byrne, the pain remained, in the short-term following his move to Dutch side Den Haag.
"I went away, to Holland, soon after we lost Milltown," Byrne says. "When I was back home for a visit, I drove over to Milltown, to see what the place was like, we got in through an old fence. I stood on the pitch and I just couldn't believe what had happened. The grass was three-foot high. This had been the best pitch in Ireland, the whole place was run down and it was horrible to see."
Byrne admits that the club was "in tatters" and still suffering from the loss of Milltown when he managed the side (1997-99). "We were all over the place. We had no sense of home, we never knew where we were training from week to week," he says.
Rovers moved 'home' time and again from 1987, a real low point for the club coming when they had to play a home game against Cork City in Cork as no ground in Dublin could be sourced.
The move to Tallaght Stadium (2009) has given them a sense of place, but for those who played, and watched, in Milltown, the loss was omnipresent.
"I think there's still a sadness there about how it was lost to football. We have talked about it loads of times, the players from the four in a row team," says Byrne.
"It was such a sad time and it lasted for so long, until the move to Tallaght. Jesus, we loved it there in Milltown. We always felt, going out on the pitch there, that we'd win, with the support behind the goal we felt we were 1-0 up before the game started. It was that kind of place.
"There was never pressure on us playing, the pressure came when we left Milltown and it was a sad time, what followed. I feel for the supporters.
"Players and owners move on but supporters don't, they are there through thick and thin. Now they have a place to call home and hopefully things will turn and they will win things again."