An Irish team doing well in Europe is nothing new. But 15 years ago, it was totally unheard of. It’s in a little tea room in the Ballymun United clubhouse where I would learn how an Irish club was 45 minutes away from being the first ever Irish team to qualify for the Champions’ League Group Stage.

One of the players involved was Owen Heary, then captain and now manager of Shelbourne. Despite having seen better days, the club was in its prime in these days around 2004.

Shelbourne never really had quite a good record of being in Europe, but it was one night in 2000 against Sloga Jugomagnat that Owen really believed they started to get confidence of playing in Europe.

New Beginnings 

“I remember our first away win in Europe, which was the first in 18 years for any Irish club in Europe, we won 1-0”.

With their new confidence, Shelbourne took their good form into the qualifying rounds of the 2004/2005 Champions League. Shelbourne had built a successful team over the years, winning the League of Ireland three times since 2000. It was a team that Owen was immensely proud of and something that he is keen to stress and it wasn’t helped by just money.

“People say we were successful because it was just money, money, money which it wasn’t. I’d been there six years before Pat [manager Pat Fenlon] came in. We didn’t have money then, it was just one or two additions that he made that brought us league titles”.

They began their campaign in the first qualifying round, drawing KR Reykjavík of Iceland. Despite having a new found confidence the team struggled, first going down 2-0.

“We were 2-0 down against the Iceland team {KR Reykjavik} you do start doubting it. But we had a good team belief that if we did get one goal back and took it back to the second leg we were capable of beating them. Thankfully we did get another back, Alan Moore stepped up to the plate and we managed to get two goals to draw”

They had drawn Hajduk Split of Croatia. Despite going up 1-0, Shelbourne would soon run into an attitude that must’ve been felt by many Irish teams before them in Europe and how they were treated.

“We still had that belief that if we could get one goal, the game was on. Alan Moore got one at the end to make it 3-2 and at the end a fight broke out. It was a digging match, bit of argy bargy. Our security lad had to separate players”

 Build-Up To The Second Leg

Owen recalled with a smile the sense of enormity of the situation that was before them.

“Before the game the atmosphere was amazing. It’s interesting with Irish clubs in Europe. You see Bohs fans, Pats fans and Rovers fans all down supporting! You wouldn’t see that anyway else in the world. That’s how good the support is for all Irish teams when they’re in Europe”.

Up until the 70th minute it was still 0-0 but as they say, cometh the hour cometh the man. The man in this instance was Dave Rodgers.

“Thankfully Dave Rodgers popped up with a worldie, top corner. If you look at the goal and you see the deflection the ball takes before Davy hits it he has to adjust his body to connect with it.

At the final whistle Shelbourne had become the first ever team to make it toward the last qualifying round in the Champions League and two games with Spanish side Deportivo La Coruña.

“We know the draws been made, we know we’re playing Deportivo, our European journey isn’t over. We’re facing the big boys”.

What is very much interesting to note was that a young 22 year old Wes Hoolahan was very much an important part of that squad.

“It took a while for people to notice him, which is really unfortunate. In the Deportivo games he was easily the best player on the park. We were delighted that he did go on to make a name for himself”.

Their manager at the time Pat Fenlon, was key to mapping out Shelbourne’s success and created a team that would dominate League of Ireland at this time.

“I remember when he was thinking about taking the job and he talked to me about it” Owen recalls. “I said it was perfect because we had the players coming up. It was a bit hard for him at the beginning but soon he really started having a successful run. He always stressed that the next game was the most important”.

A Chance To Make History

By the 11th of August 2004, Shelbourne were playing the last qualifying round of the Champions League to a packed out Lansdowne Road, the first Irish team to reach this stage of the new reformed era of the Champions League. Playing against Deportivo La Coruna of Spain. It was this chance that provided a fascinating insight into the mind of a footballer at such an important historic occasion.

The team was experiencing more media scrutiny than they had ever experience before being at the focal point.

“Players have ego, which isn’t a bad thing. Knowing you have to compete at a top level. Look at Ronaldo and Messi. People always criticise them but, every time they come up and deliver, that’s the top quality that they have”.

The game itself was a crucial point in the history of Irish teams in Europe. Shelbourne were able to hold a team that, just the previous season before were 45 minutes away from making into the Champions League final. They had lost to eventual winners that year in Jose Mourinho’s Porto.

The 2nd leg of the qualifier elevated the team from small League of Ireland situations towards a huger presence that the team had never experienced before.

Having done what no other Irish team had done before them, like Dundalk years later but not quite similar, Shelbourne were given a shot of redemption by qualifying for the Uefa Cup. This time again, they would have to go through another qualifying round, something that Dundalk didn’t have to go through.

Shelbourne had been drawn against Lille, a very young and up and coming team in Europe. A team that just a little over a year later would beat Manchester United in the group stages of the Champions League. But for Owen, the game was a step too far.

It was during this process that Shelbourne’s winning mentality came to the fore again amidst a humbling experience as they would pick themselves up from despair and go on to win the 2004 League of Ireland.

“With Lille maybe it was a game too far. We were just probably too tired by that stage and didn’t have anything left to give”

A Personal Victory

By the end of the year Shelbourne had played 8 European games, had never lost at home and only conceded two goals at home. Despite this amazing achievement, they didn’t qualify for any European competition.

So what had this campaign shown? What it had shown was that League of Ireland player were more than able to hold their own against European players. So how come none of Irish players at Shelbourne really got to shown themselves in the Irish international team? Apart from Jason Byrne [who got two international caps in friendlies] no other Irish players in the team got a chance. It’s something that Owen just accepts as being a part of the view of the League of Ireland.

“We were all offered to go to England, but we were enjoying our football at home so we saw no need to go over to England. But if a manager doesn’t want to pick you then they don’t have to pick you. It just wasn’t meant to be”.

By Emmet McCabe