When the draw for the third round of the cup was made, I was delighted to see that Bohs had been paired with another of the Dublin sides. With the games being played midweek this ensured that I would definitely be able to make the game. Tolka Park is only a short drive from where I live so I left for the game around the same time I normally would for a match at Dalymount. Although I knew roughly where the stadium was I wasn't too sure exactly how to get there. I had arranged to pick up a friend on the way though and with him being a taxi driver, we were there in no time at all. His local knowledge helped out no end when it came to finding a place to park the car too. He directed me to a side street just off the main Drumcondra Road, which was only a short walk away from the stadium.
Even for an outsider such as myself, Tolka Park is a stadium that I had heard quite alot about. I have recently started reading Daire Whelan's book on the history of Irish football, which talks about how prominent a role Tolka Park has played in football on these shores over the years. I was quite excited about getting in and seeing what it was like for myself. After the previous week's bore draw against UCD, I was also hoping to see a few goals and a convincing Bohemians performance.
From what I had seen of it on television it always appeared to be quite a tidy little ground and one of the more modern stadia in Ireland. In reality though, the stadium is a bit of a blast from the past.
We were directed to an all seater stand on the far side of the pitch, where around a couple of hundred Bohs fans had already gathered. The stand had looked half decent from a distance, however, once we'd got a bit closer it was clear that it had seen better days. The roof of the stand looked like something from a farm rather a football stadium, with the metal work covered in rust and dirt. With dark clouds circling above though, I was just grateful that there was a roof there at all! Apart from one of the end stands, which was closed off for the night, the rest of the stadium seemed a little more modern. It was clear that a bit of money had been spent in recent years, as the stadium was now all seated and a new stand had been built behind one of the goals.
By the time the match started at 8 o'clock a fairly impressive number of Bohs fans had made their way into the ground and the atmosphere was already starting to build. We grabbed a couple of seats down near the front, two of the very few that didn't seem to be covered in either mud or bird shit!
A sparse scattering of Shelbourne fans were spread across the other stands, the vast majority of whom looked like school kids.. They appeared to be up for a good sing-song though so hopefully an entertaining 90 minutes lay ahead both on and off the pitch!
Although I'd never seen Shels play, I had read all about their problems over the past 12 months or so. Despite having won the Premier League title last season, the team had been relegated down to the First Division due to massive financial problems. The troubles off the pitch led to manager Pat Fenlon leaving along with the vast majority of the squad (two of which signed for Bohs - Glen Crowe and Owen Heary). A new management was appointed just days before the new season, meaning that a team had to be assembled very quickly.
This meant that the team that took the field against Bohemians was very young and hugely inexperienced. However, if the Bohs fans had turned up expecting them just to roll over for us, we were in for a bit of a surprise.
Shelbourne started by far the better and, if anything, it was Bohemians who looked to be a little on edge. Throughout the first half Bohs found it hard to keep hold of the ball and some of the passing was abysmal. With each mis-placed pass you could sense the frustrations of the Bohs fans growing. In my short time as a fan I've often stood in disbelief at the abuse given out to their own team by the Bohs faithful. However, on this occasion I felt most of it was probably justified. With the huge gulf in quality between the two sides, there was simply no excuse for some of the mistakes being made.
The highlight of the first half came when the floodlights suddenly cut out. This was met with a sarcastic cheer from the Bohs end. That sarcasm turned to hilarity when, moments later, a voice over the tannoy issued a somewhat desperate plea: "if there is an electrician in the ground, would they please make themselves known!". The Bohs fans responded in kind with chants such as "shit ground, no fans" and "No f****** money".
However, with the Bohs players seemingly incapable of doing even the simple things right on the pitch, it was beginning to look like Shelbourne may yet get the last laugh.
As the game went on though, Bohs slowly started to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and, despite a valiant effort from the young Shelbourne team, the difference in quality eventually shone through, with two late goals from Glen Crowe ensuring Bohs safe passage into the next round. I wondered how this must have felt for the Shels fans as just a few months previously Crowe had scored the goal that them the League - ironically against Bohemians. As if to rub salt into the wounds, former Shels captain, Owen Heary, had provided the assist for the second goal.
The sense of relief among the Bohs was clear and the atmosphere changed completely. The school kids in the Shelbourne end slowly skulked out as the Bohs fans went through their full repertoire of songs! The atmosphere in the old shed was electric and a few flares were set off behind us. Shelbourne may not be the force they once were, but you could still see how much the win meant to the Bohs support.
It was on the way out of the ground that we were given our last reminder about the state of Shelbourne. A simple quick trip to the gents turned into a bit of a nightmare with no lightbulb in the Trainspotting-esque toilet. Maybe they should have got the electrician to nip in there while he was fixing the floodlights! I got out alive though, and, as a guy said to me on the way out, I'm just glad it wasn't a number two I needed!
Bohemians will play Cork City at home in the next round.