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Wednesday 7 December 2016

The end of an era for Shels

Tolka Park will be demolished and the site used for housing. Pic: Sportsfile
Tolka Park will be demolished and the site used for housing. Pic: Sportsfile

For football fans of a certain generation, the sadness that will ensue when Tolka Park hosts its last football match at some point in the next five years will be matched by the sadness at the state the old northside ground has fallen into.

It's fitting that two old stadia on the north of the Liffey, within a mile of each other, will be torn down between now and 2021 but only one, Dalymount Park, will have a new lease of life as Tolka will close its doors to football.

The Drumcondra venue, which has hosted the Irish national team, soap stars, generations of League of Ireland players, clubs like Bayern Munich, Everton and Celtic in European ties and was a home for Shelbourne FC, is no longer fit for business, Shels finally admitting that yesterday when the club confirmed that they will leave Tolka in the near future and move into the redeveloped Dalymount Park.

Scene

Tolka was the scene for new beginnings (Jurgen Klinsmann's first goal for Tottenham), fresh starts (Roy Keane's first public appearance following the chaos of Saipan was in a Shels-Manchester United friendly) and glimpses of the future (10,000 paid in to see Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne play, and lose, in the Republic of Ireland B side, their first real exposure to the Dublin soccer public).

It hosted concerts, rugby league, even a vicious riot between two rivals Dublin gangs in 1942. On a bizarre winter's day in early 2001, a crowd of 8,000 punters paid in to see Shels play Harchester United, a fictitious team from the Sky TV drama Dream Team, double the attendance at a real Dublin derby between Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians that same day.

Shels moved into Tolka in 1989, after a long period as itinerants, and hoped to create a ground and team ready for the next century. But Tolka struggled to keep up with the times, the place destroyed by a flood (2000) and always dogged by legal issues over the site's ownership. Now, the club have admitted defeat in their attempts to stay at the venue and, once Dalymount is rebuilt, Tolka will be levelled and used as a site for houses.

"It will be sad to see it closed, but the way it is now, it just can't be saved for football and this is, really, the only move for the club," says Owen Heary, a former captain of Shels who is now back at the club as first -team manager.

"There's just not the investment there to bring Tolka up to the standard you need in the modern era, it's fallen too far behind. Hopefully, when all the work is done, we will have a 10,000 capacity all-seater stadium in Dalymount which will be a home for both clubs. I will be sad to see it go, but there's just no way it could be kept in football the way it is now."

Sale

Tolka Park opened for football back in the 1928, Drumcondra FC the first tenants. Over the years, Shelbourne (for three spells, before a final move there in 1989) and Home Farm had a home there, Shamrock Rovers moved there after the sale of Milltown, and the Irish international team played there twice, in 1981 and 1993.

Since 1989, Tolka has belonged to Shels, and Heary was there for some of the glory nights, but glory is now hard to find: only 439 punters paid in to see Shels' last home game.

Attempts to renovate the place have run aground due to lack of finance.

"We had progression, but it's stalled over the last 15 years," says Heary.

"We had great nights there, I remember Roy Keane being here with United, his first time to play in Ireland after Saipan, I still have the pennant from that game," says Heary.

"The European nights with Shels were special, especially beating Hajduk Split in the Champions League.

"And I'll always remember here at the end of the 2006 season, when we won the league but then the club went bust.

"I think I will miss Tolka, I had nine years there winning trophies, but Tolka Park's time has been and gone."

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