In the latest look back on historic moments in Irish football, Marcus Cavaroli profiles Drogheda United’s Premier Division title win and how that affected the club.
Flashback by Marcus Cavaroli (Drogheda Independent)
What is the one event in Irish football that sticks out for you?
Given that 2014 saw me enter my 15th season covering Drogheda United, it has to be their Premier Division title triumph of 2007.
Why was it so significant?
Simply the fact that it was Drogheda’s first such title and the ultimate reward following the bold decision in 2003 of then directors Vincent Hoey, Chris Byrne and Eugene O’Connor to go down the full-time route and appoint Paul Doolin as manager. Drogheda were perennial strugglers before that and in the 2000/01 season they only won four our of 36 games in the First Division – forcing them to apply for re-election to the League of Ireland.
Who were the major people involved and what impact did they have?
The directors had the vision in the first place and Hoey, who was club chairman, pointed to that fact after the team had won the title when he said: ‘It was a rather brave decision at the time, but we were tired of mediocrity’.
Doolin was the perfect appointment in terms of putting time the full-time structure into practice and maximising its potential, together with his back room staff. And what a fantastic squad of players he put together too. The first-choice XI included players like Dan Connor, Brian Shelley, Jason Gavin, Graham Gartland, Simon Webb, Shane Robinson, Stuart Byrne, Paul Keegan, Ollie Cahill, Eamon Zayed and Declan O’Brien.
Is there a particular moment from that event that stands out?
A win at home to Cork City would secure the title, no matter how other results went elsewhere, with three games to spare. It wouldn’t have been quite so appealing to clinch the silverware in Waterford the following week or on the Monday when another game might decide the outcome.
So picture the scene…the clock has ticked into the 90th minute, the score is 1-1, the crowd of 2,500 spectators are getting anxious, and creating history is on the line for Drogheda. Then Cahill plays the ball up to a gangly-looking Geordie by the name of Guy Bates – who had only signed a few months previous – and he buries a superb 20-yard shot beyond Cork keeper Michael Devine. With that strike, he was guaranteed to go down in Drogheda folklore.
What was the knock-on effect from it?
In typical League of Ireland fashion, the champs became chumps only a year later. Drogheda went into Examiership and only emerged with the club intact after €200,000 was donated by fans in the space of a few short weeks. That all happened following the scrapping of an ambitious new all-seater stadium development which ran into planning difficulties.
However, but for the width of a post, those traumatic weeks over Christmas in 2008 would never have happened. Drogheda almost pulled off a massive shock against Dynamo Kiev in their UEFA Champions League qualifier, but Robinson hit the woodwork and Adam Hughes blazed over a great chance. Kiev edged it 4-3 and then hammered Spartak Moscow in the next round to reach the lucrative group stage. It’s a funny old game.
Looking back on it, is there anything that still surprises you about it?
Yes, that Drogheda didn’t manage to hold onto many of the supporters that jumped on the bandwagon that season. Attendances were poor the following year, although the club could have perhaps done more to encourage them to turn out.
On the playing side, it was surprising that Doolin didn’t adopt a more attractive brand of football, because on the occasions when he did allow the players to express themselves in the big games, they were fantastic to watch. One can look back to the Setanta Sports Cup final away to Linfield, the FAI Cup final of 2005, and the European games against HJK Helsinki, IK Start, Levadia Tallinn, Dynamo Kiev and the home game with Helsingborgs as examples.
And did anything happen in later years to those involved?
Doolin went on to manage the Republic of Ireland Under 19’s, taking them all the way to the semi-finals of the UEFA European Championships, and he is still in charge there developing young players and picking up positive results.
A few players have retired, some have moved to the other side of the world – Shelley (New Zealand), Gavin, Steven Gray (Australia), Hughes (China) – and some just across the water to – Connor (coaching at Wigan Athletic), Keegan (playing for Doncaster Rovers), Zayed (playing in Malaysia), while Declan O’Brien recently left Drogheda after a second spell for Glenavon.
Bates, who scored that memorable goal, pitched up with Glenavon for a couple of seasons, while Sami Ristila is managing in his native Finland and Tony Grant cut his teeth in management for Duleek in the Meath & District League.
Check previous Flashbacks from SWAI members…
Gareth Maher on Ireland Under 19’s reaching the European semi-finals
Noel Spillane on Brian Kerr’s youngsters at the FIFA World Youth Cup
Arthur Duffy on Derry City’s memorable UEFA Cup run
Philip Quinn on the night Ireland qualified for Italia ’90
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile