Bohs v Rovers: The biggest rivalry of them all

Bohs versus Rovers, what was the first flashpoint that turned a local game into one of the biggest rivalries in Irish sport? Well to understand we need to travel back almost a century.  Over the course of the month of April 1923 Bohemian F.C. and Shamrock Rovers played each other four times in various cup competitions. As the old saying goes “familiarity breeds contempt” and the final of these matches almost ended in violence after two Bohemians players had to be stretchered from the field due to rough tackling by Rovers. At the final whistle, the Bohemians’ half-back Ernie Crawford removed his jersey and challenged Rovers star forward Bob Fullam to a fist-fight. Crawford was born in Belfast and was the full-back and Captain of the Irish Rugby Team, he was also a decorated World War One veteran. Not a man to be taken lightly.

Fullam himself was no shrinking violet, as well as being an accomplished footballer who was capped twice by Ireland he supplemented his income as a docker in Dublin Port. He had finished the 1922 FAI Cup final amid a mass brawl after Rovers were beaten by St. James Gate. The fighting only ceased when the brother of the Gate’s Charlie Dowdall reportedly confronted Fullam with a pistol.

Could we perhaps trace the beginnings of perhaps the fiercest rivalry in Irish football back to these events in 1920’s?

In the early decades of football in Ireland the Dublin Derby were the games contested between Bohemians and Shelbourne. Both clubs had been founded in the 1890’s with Bohemians finally settling into their permanent home in Dalymount Park in 1901. Shelbourne had their beginnings in what is now Slattery’s Pub at the junction of South Lotts Road, Bath Avenue and Shelbourne Road in 1895. Founded by a group of dock workers from the local Ringsend/Sandymount area, their name was reportedly decided upon by a coin toss between the names of the various nearby streets. It was these two clubs who would have the great north -south city rivalry of the city.

By the 1904-05 season Shelbourne and Bohs were the only Dublin-based clubs who were competing in the Ulster dominated Irish League and they faced off against each other in the final of the 1908 Irish Cup which Bohs won in a replay. This was the first time the final had been contested by two Dublin sides.

Bohs didn’t even face Rovers in competitive games until 1915. In a Leinster Senior Cup first round tie on the 9th January 1915, Bohs won 3-1 thanks to a hat-trick by forward Ned Brooks. Later that same year the Rovers were elected to the top division of the Leinster senior league, their second game at this level was against Bohs where they again lost 3-1. This game came just two weeks after Rovers young centre-back James Sims died tragically in a shipping accident in Dublin Bay. At this time Bohs great rivals were still very much Shelbourne F.C.

By the early 20’s the FAI had split from the Belfast based IFA and founded a new league for the clubs in the nascent Irish Free State. Shamrock Rovers didn’t compete in the League in that first season but they made their mark, reaching the Cup final against eventual double winners St. James Gate. The following season they were elected to the league and finished as Champions.

The 20’s would begin an era of fierce competition for Bohs and Rovers, before the decade was out both clubs would have 3 league titles apiece to their names. Rovers would have also begun a run which would establish their reputation as “Cup kings” by winning the FAI Cup five years in a row. The first of those five-in-a-row titles would begin with victory over the holders Bohemians in the 1928-29 final in Dalymount Park. The initial game finished 0-0 but in the replay Rovers ran out 3-0 winners, with two goals coming from John Joe “Slasher” Flood and another from that man again Bob Fullam.

On 22nd April 1945, almost exactly 22 years since the tussle between Ernie Crawford and Bob Fullam and 16 years since their last cup final meeting Bohs and Rovers met again in Dalymount Park in the final. To date it is the last cup final meeting of the pair and remains the biggest attendance ever for an FAI Cup Final. Depending on which estimate you read there were anything from between 39,000 and 45,000 packed into the famous old ground that Sunday afternoon. Among Bohs ranks was the Irish international Kevin O’Flanagan, newly qualified as a doctor. He had an untypically poor game that day, perhaps due to the fact that he’d failed to diagnose himself with the flu and had played the game with a 103 degree temperature! Podge Gregg, the Rovers centre-forward broke Bohemian hearts in the second half as he converted from a Mickey Delaney cross to score the game’s only goal. On the Rovers bench that day as coach was a man well familiar with the fixture, Bob Fullam.

By the time of that final Bohs star was already on the wane. Their strictly amateur status meant that they tended to bring through and develop players before losing them to other Irish or cross channel clubs who were prepared to offer professional terms. As just one example the following year Rovers lost the FAI Cup final with four former-Bohemians in their line-up; Frank Glennon, Noel Kelly, Charlie Byrne and goalkeeper Jimmy Collins. The team that defeated Rovers in that 1946 final was Drumcondra F.C. For the next two decades as Bohemians drifted towards the lower reaches of the league table the great north-south Dublin rivalry would be between Drumcondra and Rovers in what many view as the competitive peak of the League of Ireland.

Between the end of the 40’s and the early 60’s Drumcondra would see players of exceptional quality grace Tolka Park. Among them future Ireland legends Con Martin, Eoin Hand and Alan Kelly Snr. as well as the likes of Tommy Rowe, “Kit” Lawlor, Christopher “Bunny” Fullam, Ray Keogh, Dessie Glynn, and Jimmy Morrissey to name but a few. They would win five league titles and another two cups. In Europe, they would knock out Danish side Odense from the Fairs Cup and also face the likes of Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Rovers would claim three more titles in the 50’s. This was the era of player-manager Paddy Coad and his exiting young side that became known as Coad’s Colts and featured the likes of Liam Touhy, Paddy Ambrose and Ronnie Nolan. The matches between Drums and Rovers, whether in Tolka Park or at Milltown were huge fixtures in the sporting calendar. Well before TV coverage became the norm and when direct experience of British football was through occasional newsreels and the odd pre-season friendly or player guest appearance, the Rovers/Drums rivalry capturing the sporting imaginations of the Dublin sporting public in a way that has happened seldom since in relation to the League of Ireland.

As this great rivalry played out during the 50’s and into the 60’s Bohs were very much in the back seat. However, in the early 1960’s they experienced a turnaround in fortunes thanks in no small part to their new manager Seán Thomas. He was the man who had just led Rovers to the 1963-64 league title but quit after a bust up with the club’s owner’s, the Cunningham family. His next port of call was Dalymount Park where he helped revive the fortunes of the struggling Bohemian club. In his first season Bohs finished an impressive 3rd place, a huge improvement on 12th the year before.

By the end of the 60’s the Bohemian membership had decided to make the biggest change in their history. They were going to scrap their amateur status and begin paying players. The policy quickly began to pay dividends. Only a year later Bohs would win their first major trophy in almost 35 years when they defeated Sligo Rovers in a 2nd replay of the FAI Cup final. Among the Bohs XI were a number of seasoned pros, which included  several names more than familiar to the Rovers faithful, among them Ronnie Nolan, Johnny Fullam and the first professional Bohemian, Tony O’Connell.

Over the course of the next decade Bohemians would win another two league titles and another cup during a relatively fallow period for Rovers. Despite bringing in Johnny Giles as player-manager (and a certain Eamon Dunphy as player-coach) and signing Irish international Ray Treacy a solitary FAI Cup was all their reward. Things would change by the beginning of the 1980’s. Manager Jim McLaughlin, backed by the finances of the Kilcoyne family brought unprecedented success to Milltown and in some ways the basis for a lot of the modern enmity with Bohs crystallised in these years.

By the early 70’s Drumcondra were on the wane before their League spot was eventually taken over by Home Farm. With the disappearance of Drums from League football so went over 20 decades of a great footballing rivalry. A resurgent Bohemians in the 1970’s meant a rekindling of an old enmity that had never truly disappeared. While as we’ve seen earlier players swapping the red and black of Bohs for the green and white hoops of Rovers has never been particularly uncommon many Bohemians supporters with longer memories still clearly recollect the movement of several significant players from Dalymount to Milltown. From the 70’s, 80’s and into the 90’s many prominent players such as Pat Byrne, Terry Eviston, Paul Doolin and Alan Byrne all made that journey southside which tended to create a certain amount of rancour amongst Bohs supporters.

It should be mentioned that the movement wasn’t totally one-way, and that (whisper it) even the legendary Jackie Jameson began his footballing career at Shamrock Rovers before making his name at Dalymount in the 1980’s.

Despite the success of the Jim McLaughlin era the 80’s were also a time of disharmony for Rovers. Owner Louis Kilcoyne decided to sell the club’s home ground of Glenmalure Park in Milltown which would then be developed for houses and apartments. Glenmalure had been home to Rovers since the 20’s and the fans acted swiftly by forming the pressure group KRAM (Keep Rovers at Milltown). Their actions however couldn’t halt the sale of the ground and the by the late 80’s Rovers had migrated northside, first to Tolka Park and then, for two seasons to Dalymount Park, home of arch-rivals Bohemians. No doubt a galling episode for the small group of supporters who chose to attend games in the Phibsborough venue, tenants to their great adversaries.

The 90’s were to be fallow years for the Hoops, a solitary league title in the 1993-94 season, when the club were playing their games in the RDS was the sole silverware of note. The club had plans to relocate to a permanent new home in the south Dublin suburb of Tallaght as far back as the mid-1990’s but it was to be almost another 15 years of wandering before Rovers would kick a ball at a completed Tallaght stadium. In the meantime, the intervening period contained more lows than highs, including examinership and a first ever relegation in the 2005 season. But there were a couple of notable victories against their old rivals Bohemians, perhaps the most pleasing would have been Rovers 1-0 win thanks to a Sean Francis goal in Dalymount in 2001. That victory sent Rovers briefly to the top of the league but it also meant that they had defeated their great rivals in their own back yard on the 100th anniversary of the opening of Dalymount Park. Rovers may have viewed that as some form of revenge for a result earlier that year which has gone down as one of the most storied in League of Ireland history.

That particular game took place on the 28th January 2001 in the then-home of Shamrock Rovers, Morton Stadium, Santry. Rovers then managed by Damien Richardson swept into a commanding 4-1 lead by half-time having got their first goal through Tony Grant only two minutes into the game. At half-time Bohs manager Roddy Collins gave a rousing team-talk, exhorting his charges to go out and “win the second half” what followed has gone down in legend for Bohemians supporters.

Five second half goals followed unanswered from Alex Nesovic, Dave Morrison, Mark Rutherford and a brace from Glen Crowe. Bohs left the pitch 6-4 winners and on a roll. Many players from that side have credited that result as part of the impetus that would see Bohemians haul back league leaders Shelbourne and finish up winning the double by the season’s end.

Today whenever the two sides meet they is likely to be action and drama and plenty of colour and pageantry in the stands. There have been times when footballing passions have spilled over as happened all those years ago with Crawford and Fullam. In 2003 Rovers were forced to move from their then-base of Richmond Park in Inchicore after crowd trouble during a match against Bohemians. A year later at a match in Dalymount former Hoops Tony Grant and James Keddy who had just signed for Bohemians were greeted with a torrent of abuse, then pig’s feet and finally a large pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch. A not so subtle message from the Rovers faithful about what they thought of Grant and Keddy’s move cross-city. Grant, interviewed by the Sun newspaper several years after the event described the Derby games in this way,

That game, it’s a religion to the supporters, it’s a cult, it’s what they live for. It’s the same for both sets of fans.

The noughties did nothing to diminish the rivalry between the two. The move to Tallaght stadium was to revitalise Rovers who took the title in 2010. Despite being in the ascendance and Bohs encountering financial troubles of their own the Derby games have remained wildly unpredictable. While recent seasons have been dominated by exceptional Dundalk and Cork City sides the Bohs v Rovers rivalry remains the biggest game in the Irish football calendar.

This article first appeared on the SSE Aitricity League website and in the “Greatest League in the World” magazine, issue one with artwork by Barry Masterson.

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