I’ll admit that I probably should have waited another year to write this but after becoming ensconced in a rabbit hole of late-90s nostalgia I simply couldn’t resist. 2018 would have been a full 20 years but hey, 19 is close enough and at the rate my mental faculties are declining I’ll be doing well to remember my own name 12 months from now, let alone the intricacies of two very different yet eerily similar European ties in the summer of 1998.
What a summer it was; at 16 I had a crappy summer job in an industrial laundry that allowed me enough money to buy beer, hash, CDs and one of those awful Ocean Colour Scene-esque bucket hats. I thought I was cool, had money in my pocket, was almost done with school and the football was going swimmingly.
Celtic were just off the back of the season of stopping the 10 and my local club, St. Patrick’s, had won the League on the final day of the season with a last-minute goal. On top of that, a sly double on St. Pat’s and Arsenal to win their respective leagues landed me £250 from the bookies…my largest (and only) win at the bookies to that point.
Difficult as it was, I was already squirreling away a few quid here and there from each wage packet; St. Pat’s were going to be playing a European Cup game and having not missed a domestic game all season before, I wanted to extend that record with a Euro-trip. Celtic was the dream tie that you dared not dream of; too impossible, fate is rarely that kind and so we braced for a typical draw to some far flung part of eastern Europe.
I distinctly remember the smells of the laundry; sweat, chemicals, soap, despair and hangovers, as I paced around waiting for the hourly news’ sports section. Hearing the draw live was not an option so we took it in turns to check the radio on the hour. A big draw for St. Pat’s in Europe…it could mean only one thing. Celtic were by far the biggest draw–the tie you didn’t dare dream could happen was happening.
Across the city at Shelbourne, a contrasting yet similar draw in the UEFA Cup meant that they, having finished as runners up, would be taking on the Scottish runners-up. You may remember them from your youth; they were called Rangers and they spent a small fortune that very summer to garnish new boss Dick Advocaat with a squad of players (Van Bronckhorst, Numan and Kanchelskis all arrived that summer) that would not have looked out of place in the Champions League proper.
For St. Pat’s and the fans of the Inchicore side this was the ultimate dream draw. Passports were renewed, flights were booked and plans made for the mother of all midweek sessions, but for Shelbourne the tie quickly became a headache. Security fears meant that they would have to play their “home” leg in Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park stadium in Liverpool.
While St. Pat’s planned an enjoyable trip and knew they could count on a huge, safe crowd at the home leg, Shelbourne countenanced the idea that this tie may now well result in them making a loss overall. At £25 per ticket and with their home ground, Tolka Park, then holding close to 10,000 at capacity they’d have made a killing. With the game switched, less than a thousand Shelbourne fans made the trip at all and only 3,000 could be tempted down from Glasgow. In terms of moneymaking, the tie was a bust.
This being 1998, qualifying rounds had not quite been divided and monetised yet. Both Champions League and UEFA Cup qualifiers took place on the same night so it was, in a real sense, a ding-dong battle between Scotland’s elite two and the League of Ireland. Many pundits feared a couple of hammerings but at this time the league was at one of its stronger points. As the first legs unfolded, few could argue that the Irish sides did not hold their own.
St. Pat’s managed to hold Celtic to a 0-0 draw at a pretty full Celtic Park with Martin Reilly’s strike hitting the outside of the post late on. It was a battling, exhausting performance but one that rightly sits as one of the best performances of any Irish club in Europe. Shelbourne v Rangers was the polar opposite; a truly bonkers affair with Shels racing into a two-goal lead early on. They made it three at the start of the second half until a visibly shell-shocked Rangers rallied to win 5-3 thanks in large part to some charitable refereeing and terrible defending. There could be no doubt though that both sides had more than held their own against players who were immeasurably better and higher paid.
For those of us who were there that night the memories live long. I don’t remember too much about being 16 but that night is forever burned into my mind. It seemed too surreal to be playing Celtic in a competitive game, to be in the away section of Celtic Park as a Celtic fan. The brilliant reception we got from the stands and the guys afterwards who were so eager to get a scarf or shirt from us to remember the occasion. It was pure elation for us–the greatest result ever, beamed back on RTE television for everyone back home to see. What a pity we never realise the great times are the great times when we’re in the moment–it only becomes apparent well after the fact.
After hope and elation, bitter reality will bite and it’ll feel worse than usual. Shelbourne had already had their glamour home tie ripped from them. St. Pat’s simply couldn’t wait to monetise the second leg. It was played (ironically enough) at Shelbourne’s Tolka Park with Richmond Park (St. Pat’s more modest home ground) deemed too small.
At the time St. Pat’s were doing pretty good attendance numbers. A standard home league game would rarely be under the 2,000 mark and derbies and important games would usually see around 4,000 or thereabouts. In spite of promises to the contrary the club sold tickets to Celtic fans left, right and centre, leaving little to no provision for the home support. It rankles to this day that the club chose to act in such a manner and when the day came, Tolka Park was a sea of green whilst we struggled to get everyone together in one section of one stand. People who had travelled all over the country and had been to Glasgow were left without tickets.
The concession seemed to spread to the pitch and Celtic won the second leg 2-0 in fairly comfortable fashion. Outgunned, outnumbered and out of sorts, St. Pat’s never really turned up on the day. Progress was always hugely unlikely but the desperate cash-grab that accompanied the second leg has never sat well with a lot of fans.
As for Shels and their trip to Ibrox? They brought very few fans again but the players did at least set a precedent as they engaged in an impromptu GAA match during the warm-up. They lost the second leg 2-0 for a 7-3 aggregate defeat that in no way told the story of how close they’d come. St. Pat’s and Shels had both gone out, but had done so with their heads held high–the future seemed very bright for both clubs and Irish football in general.
After the “derby”draws, Celtic and Rangers both exited Europe fairly quickly thereafter; Celtic going down 3-1 on aggregate to Dinamo Zagreb and dropping into the UEFA Cup alongside Rangers, they would then bow out in the second round to FC Zurich. Rangers would go one round further before being eliminated by Parma.
What Happened Next:
Celtic: like you need to be told, still exist in original form, winning consecutive titles and generally the top dog in the SPFL. In the immediate aftermath of this game Celtic went out to Dinamo Zagreb in the next round and went on to relinquish their league crown. Jo Venglos left at the end of the season to usher in the John Barnes era…
St. Patrick’s: Never quite hit those highs again. Have since won 2 more league titles and that elusive FAI Cup and had further success in Europe albeit mostly in qualifying rounds. Due to the cyclical nature of success in the league crowds have tapered off quite a bit. In relegation bother this season but remain one of the few clubs in the league to have never been relegated. Currently 8th in Premier Division.
Rangers: as big a fall from grace as you can imagine. Liquidated in disgrace in 2012 and forced to reform as a new club and start again from the bottom tier of Scottish football. Have since been promoted to the SPFL, though the team bear little to no resemblance to the successful iterations of the past. Currently 3rd in SPFL.
Shelbourne: fell almost as hard as Rangers. Relegated as champions in 2006 due to financial irregularities. Have spent all but a brief two-season return in the second tier since. Ongoing issues over a groundshare with Bohemians at Dalymount Park has reduced attendances further and Tolka park is in a state of terrible disrepair – they paid a heavy price. Currently 5th in Division 1.