In the history of association football in Dublin, Ringsend holds a special place. Shelbourne F.C were born there in 1895, and in 1901 it was to prove the birthplace of Shamrock Rovers. The first meeting of the club took place at 4 Irishtown Road. Depsite beginning their football playing days in Ringsend Park, Shamrock Rovers will forever be synonymous with Glenmalure Park, which was commonly known as just ‘Milltown’.
Milltown was home to the club from 1926 until 1987, when it was put on the market by the Kilcoyne family, who had been the owners of the club since 1972. An obituary at the time of the death of Louis Kilcoyne in 2012 noted that:
The Kilcoynes were applauded for digging deep into their pockets and laying a superb pitch before embarking on the experiment of full-time professionalism under their brother-in-law John Giles in 1977. Giles arrived at Rovers from West Bromwich Albion, where he had been player-manager and led the club to promotion to the Football League’s first division (then the top tier of English football) in the 1975-76 season. He signed Eamon Dunphy, Paddy Mulligan, Ray Treacy and former Chelsea captain Bobby Tambling; his aim was to be a force in European football. Reflecting this ambition, Kilcoyne had plans to redevelop Glenmalure Park into a 50,000-seater stadium.
The Kilcoynes claimed that it was in the face of falling attendances that they lost faith in the Milltown project, and developed ambitions of moving the club across the River Liffey to a groundshare scenario at Tolka Park with Home Farm. Magill magazine highlight the fact at the time that the fact “the Kilcoyne family make their living from a property development company named Healy Homes has led many of their detractors to believe that the decision to leave Milltown had more to do with their entrepreneurial streak than their passion for soccer.”
Out of fan frustration with the proposed move to Tolka Park, the Keep Rovers at Milltown (KRAM) campaign was born in 1987. Games at Tolka Park were picketed by Rovers supporters, while a sometimes vicious war of words broke out in the press, with Eamon Dunphy claiming in his Sunday Independent column that the KRAM campaign was “unconvincing, funny, sad and in some respects, outrageous.”
The last game Shamrock Rovers played at Milltown was an FAI Cup Semi-Final against Sligo Rovers on 12 April 1987, which brought in a crowd of six thousand spectators. The Irish Press called the occasion “a day of nostalgia and angry protests.” RTE asked Rovers fan entering the ground if they would follow the club across the river to Tolka Park. Some were adamant they wouldn’t, one man said he “probably would” but at that moment in time it was a no from him too. The game played out a one-all draw, but is best remembered today for the half-time pitch invasion of Shamrock Rovers fans, some of whom carried banners with slogans including Fuck Tolka and the question Will Greed Kill The Hoops?
The journalist Ken Curtin recounted the passionate scenes on the pitch:
Hundreds of fans converged on the pitch at half time and voiced their opposition to the proposed move to Tolka Park next season. The second half of the Cup semi-final against Sligo Rovers was delayed by 10 minutes. At one stage, the Rovers fans were joined by Sligo supporters in front of the grandstand. A large force of Gardaí present did not interfere with the protesters and it was left to Rovers player/manager Dermot Keely to persuade them to leave the pitch.
The half time protest was front page news the next day, with the Irish Independent describing what had just happened as the “end of an era.” Noel Dunne wrote that while the fans “were not amused”, they were well-behaved, though “admittedly one of the banners waved aloft carried a rather unprintable slogan, with that four-letter preceding ‘Tolka Park’, and some pretty uncomplimentary remarks were also directed at the directors’ box.”
It didn’t take long for the frustration of supporters to find an outlet. Magill magazine wrote that:
Within days of the announcement of the leaving of Milltown, Rovers fans and former players rallied to form KRAM. They included Brian Murphy, Chief Executive of the Diners Club in Ireland,Gerry Mackey, the former marketing manager of BP–who has subsequently become spokesman for KRAM, former Irish youths coach Liam Tuohy and Paddy Coad. The latter three all played for what most veteran Milltown fans regard as the best Rovers team of all time.
When Rovers moved to Tolka Park in the 1987/1988 season, many supporters boycotted the games there, something that Paddy Kilcoyne admitted in an interview with the Sunday Press was “effective”, before stating that “in real terms there isn’t any public interest in this issue and the behavior of these people had not really affected our determination to succeed at Tolka.” The Irish Times wrote too that the KRAM boycott had “undeniably been successful.” A meeting of fans in the Clarence Hall to discuss the boycott tactic received plenty of press attention. Fans ultimately decided only to boycott home fixtures, and to attend away fixtures. The boycott tactic was aimed at hurting the Kilcoyne owners financially. By attending away matches, fans could continue to voice and display their displeasure.
Boycotts, by their very nature, are divisive affairs. For the fans who chose not to pay in to Tolka Park however, there was a real camaraderie in it all. Reflecting on the tactic, the Glenmalure Gazette fanzine recalled that:
The first match to be boycotted at Tolka Park was a League Cup match against Athlone where no more than 300 people went in. Louis (instead of giving the crowd as lower than it actually was, as he did when he was on the fiddle at Milltown), inflated the gate. But there was no disguising the fact that Rovers fans hadn’t fallen for the lies and the aroma of pretense which surrounded the move to ‘The Graveyard.’ We certainly had some good craic outside Tolka despite the hardship we had to endure in not going to see the team we loved.
The KRAM campaign had its critics, none more vocal in the media than Eamon Dunphy, who had a history with Shamrock Rovers, having played there under Johnny Giles. Giles had told Vincent Browne in an interview with Magill that “Ultimately, I want to win the European Cup with Shamrock Rovers. This may sound fantastic, but if you consider the amount of football talent there is [in Ireland], it isn’t all that outrageous an ambition.” While the club won the FAI Cup with Giles at the helm, the project was ultimately a failure, and Dunphy came away from his time at Rovers embittered, claiming in his memoirs that:
It is the kind of people that are in the League of Ireland. There is a breed of person in it that is small town,county councillor, freebie, who contribute nothing and take as much as they can … Nothing is ever allowed to develop here because they don’t want anyone to do it. We tried … but they didn’t want it … no thanks, because it will interfere with our club.
In May 1987, Dunphy used his column in the Sunday Independent to claim that “it is because domestic football has died that Milltown is closing down.” He attacked both Philip Green and Con Houlihan in the piece, claiming that “Green had wept his way across the airwaves giving sentimentality a bad name in the process”, while Con Houlihan’s pledge to donate £1,000 to save Milltown was dismissed too. Unsurprisingly, Dunphy was in turn ridiculed in the pages of Shamrock Rovers fanzines.
With Rovers out of it, Milltown was allowed fall into rack and ruin. A year on, Magill magazine reported that:
A year after Shamrock Rovers vacated it, Glenmalure Park is like a disused set from an old Hollywood movie, gloomy and silent, lacking only the ghostly tumbleweeds. The ground has deteriorated,the crowd barriers on the stone terracing have been sawn off and the pitch -once regarded as one of the finest playing surfaces in Europe– is no longer the hallowed turf that contributed to many memorable Rovers successes for half a century. The stands have fallen into disrepair and the changing pavilions are wrecked. Only the floodlights,purchased with the financial aid of Shamrock Rovers patrons, remain intact…
Tactically, it wasn’t all about boycotting. KRAM marked the first anniversary of the club’s decision to leave Milltown “with a march and an all-night vigil outside Glenmalure Park.” Support was sought from public personalities too, with The Housemartins responding to a letter from Rovers supporters. The iconic band, fronted by Paul Heaton, noted that “it seems obvious that these people have no genuine interest in the club itself and it’s history and importance to the community.” A very impressive £2,000 was raised by football fans in Australia in support of the campaign, with the Irish Press saying it was the efforts of a young recently emigrated Hoop that made it happen. Probably the strangest bit of news coverage relating to it all was an article in the Irish Independent claiming that Donnybrook businessman Terry Byrne had “pledged to pick up the tab” for sending Rovers fans to the Vatican, in the hope that they could discuss the issue with the Pope. There was some support from the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Bertie Ahern, who claimed that “when Drums went, that broke part of Dublin city.If you take Rovers away from Milltown then you’re breaking away another part of the city.”
Some in KRAM were hopeful of raising the money to buy the ground from the Kilcoyne family, though as things became more and more bitter Kilcoyne made his feelings clear in the press, claiming that the fans were “flogging a dead horse” and that the campaign could not convince his family to change their minds:
In the end, the Kilcoyne family succeeded in selling Milltown, and the Irish Press predicated ‘war’ in November 1988. One newspaper reported that the stadium was sold for £950,000, above and beyond anything KRAM could have hoped to raise. KRAM responded immediately by saying “the fight goes on.” In the year of the Dublin Millennium, Rovers chairman John McNamara pointed out the irony in a part of Dublin’s history disappearing.
Despite legal challenges, the ground was leveled in 1990 for property development. As Rovers fan Macdara Ferris has noted, “at different stages after leaving Milltown, Rovers played games in Tolka Park, Dalymount Park, RDS, Morton Stadium, Richmond Park and even played one home game 200km from Milltown in Turners Cross in Cork.” A monument today marks the spot where the football stadium once stood. This 2008 feature from Monday Night Soccer is worth watching, as it includes great archive footage of Milltown and the pickets at Tolka Park. In recent years, an original turnstile from Milltown found a home in Tallaght Stadium, a reminder of the days of old.