An Irish team doing well in Europe is nothing new. 15 years ago, it was a completely different story. In a little tea room in the Ballymun United clubhouse, 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. He played when the club was in its prime back in 2004.

Shelbourne took their good form from the league of Ireland to 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 the success wasn’t  just down to money.

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

“We were 2-0 down against the Iceland team {KR Reykjavik}and at that point, doubt creeps in. 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. We won on away goals”

They had drawn Hajduk Split of Croatia in the second round. Despite going up 1-0, the Shelbourne players realised that they were in for a tough night.

“We scored early on in the game, we were playing well, but Hadjuk Split had got a couple of goals aswell.

“But 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.”

“But the draw had been already made to draw Deportivo. We were just thinking wouldn’t it be great to play them? So that gave us the inspiration along with their arrogance to take the game to them into the second leg”.

Talking about the build-up to the second leg, Owen recalled with a smile the enormity of the situation that was before them.

“When we came out it was just a sea of red. Packed to the hill. It was great for people like Ollie Byrne [Shelbourne chairman] and fans of the club to have another European adventure.

At the final whistle Shelbourne had become the first ever Irish 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 draw has been made, we know we’re playing Deportivo, our European journey isn’t over. We’re facing the big boys. In the first round you come to a team that’s on your level, then the next round you’re coming to a team that’s just above yourself, then the last round you’re playing the big boys.

“We hadn’t lost a home game as well in the journey. It was nice for the club that they had put so much investment into the team to get two more big games”.

A young 22 year old named Wes Hoolahan was an important part of that squad in this european campaign. Even then, Owen felt that he was being unfairly ignored by the Irish national team, something that would become a recurring theme throughout his career.

“He’s the best player I’ve seen in the league of Ireland. We told him at the time you should be playing a higher level.

“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.”

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, it provided the team with a chance to make history.

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

“Disappointed” Owen said. “We wanted to win. We should’ve won. There was people around us saying ‘you’ve drawn against Deportivo!’ but it would’ve been good to get a 1-0, go back to Deportivo and hold on for the second game. We were under no illusions. They were massive at the time, one of the big clubs in Europe so we knew how hard this was going to be”.

The second would prove to be even more competitive, with both Shelbourne and Deportivo effectively taking the game to each other respectively as recalled by Owen when they went into the dressing room at half time to get a team talk by manager Pat Fenlon.

By the time that both teams came back out for the second half, all that separated Shelbourne and potentially entering the group stages was 45 minutes, but they would have to score if they were to see that dream become a reality.

It was by the hour mark that the game began to change. It was Victor of Deportivo who changed the game within five minutes, scoring in the 59th minute and in the 65th minute of the second half.

“We were really disappointed. We really wanted to win that game. We hate losing. We didn’t want to go out and lose 3-0. The goals were all avoidable”.

Having done what no other Irish team had done before,  Shelbourne were given a shot of redemption by qualifying for the Uefa Cup.

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.

“I’m going to say now that Lille were the best team that we played that year. In the second leg over there they absolutely destroyed us even though they only won 2-0. The way they passed the ball was unbelievable.

In the Landsdowne leg, Glen [Fitzpatrick] came in and scored 2 to draw after trailing 2-0. If you look at our European record that year we were never beaten at home! We had a chance going over there but they destroyed us. 2-0 didn’t reflect the game”.

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.

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 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.

“A lot of players over the years were passed over. You look at Sean Maguire. He goes to England and then suddenly gets called up. Wes went away and eventually got called up. You look at most of the Irish team they all played League of Ireland. It’s that thing of getting on the plane to England and then you’ll get called up.

“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”.

Emmet McCabe