Donal Fallon examines why defunct League of Ireland club Dublin City FC failed. From Póg Mo Goal Magazine, Issue 4.
It is difficult to believe, but during the Celtic Tiger years of unprecedented economic growth, the best-selling domestic Irish Football jersey in Dublin was that of Dublin City FC. Sponsored by the mecca of Irish souvenir shops, ‘The Vikings’ moved endless blue jerseys through Carroll’s Gift shop and Dublin Airport.
One presumes that more than one Dublin City FC jersey has made its way onto the walls of a Boston public house. Yet while the club may have won the hearts of visitors to the Irish capital, they failed to win the hearts and minds of the football faithful, and dwindling attendances played no small role in their demise.
That Dublin City FC came to embody much of what is wrong with football in Ireland is surprising, given the historic origins of the club. The team emerged from the famed Home Farm FC, founded in 1928 out of a street football league. Anyone who reads the childhood memoirs of Brendan Behan or his less celebrated (but remarkably talented) brother Dominic can’t help but get a sense how ingrained football was in the imagination of the children of Dublin’s north inner-city. Under the shadow of Croke Park GAA stadium, it was still the beautiful game that took precedence. Home Farm wore black and gold stripes in their first season, with club ‘lore suggesting this was owing to the kits being purchased at a jumbo sale, though blue became their predominant colour. They entered the League of Ireland in 1972, merging with a financially crippled Drumcondra, and subsequent decades brought mixed fortunes. A 1975 FAI Cup win saw the team compete on a European level, drawing 1-1 at home with French side RC Lens, before losing the away leg by six goals. Players to emerge from Home Farm included Ronnie Whelan, who represented the club in the League of Ireland XI who took on a Basque Country selection in Bilbao following the end of Francoism.
In 1995, the club was renamed Home Farm Everton. Home Farm had a long tradition of producing fine players who made it on the neighbouring island, and hence this led to Everton FC’s patronage, something which led to Richard Dunne making the move to the Merseyside club in 1996. Home Farm were not the only ones looking to England in the mid 1990s; there was also the rather ludicrous idea of Wimbledon FC being relocated to Dublin, something one critic believed would signal the “death of the National League within five years.” That fiasco is a story for another day, but gave important context to the debates around the future of football on the island in the second half of the 1990s. Many knew Irish football was in crisis, but the way forward remained a mystery.
In 1999, Home Farm were taken over by Ronan Seery, a businessman from a family who were deeply involved in the history of the club, going right back into the 1920s. Seery evidently envisioned a football club capable of winning support from across the capital, changing the name to Dublin City FC and adopting Dublin’s historic three burning castles as club insignia, a proud symbol already worn by Shelbourne and Bohemians. Seery and those behind the endeavour perhaps forgot that there were already deep tribal loyalties across the city on both sides of the River Liffey. Those who followed football – that is the people who view matches in stands and not public houses – already had teams to follow, often steeped in family tradition, and were unlikely to move for a blue jersey and three castles. Pulling in new fans proved a challenge too far. In one interview, Seery pointed towards the Belfast Giants hockey team, insisting that “the people up there needed a name and a team to identify with. So does Dublin.” Yet the success of the Belfast Giants and hockey there was owed to the unique circumstances of the northern city, where football – like just about every aspect of life – seemed entwined with politics.
With no permanent home ground, Dublin City found themselves constantly on the move, playing home games at Richmond Park, Dalymount, Tolka Park, Morton Stadium and Whitehall Stadium. Managed by respected League of Ireland veterans such as Roddy Collins, John McDonnell and Dermot Keely, the club was ambitious in terms of bringing in quality young players and loaning players from more established teams.
Seery announced to the media that the goal was “to provide European football on a consistent basis for this club.” Some scoffed, but others felt in a city with a population of more than a million people in its greater area, European football shouldn’t have been a distant dream.
Of course, none of this could happen without support. In 2004, the average home attendance stood at just 592, and the following season it fell to a mere 177. Frequently outnumbered by away supporters, even those who argued it would take years for a new team to find their feet and base acknowledged the scale of the uphill battle.
There were moments of chaos too, for example in 2004, when Roddy Collins resigned from his position as Dublin City manager to take on the job of managing Shamrock Rovers the very same day, something Seery said amounted to an attempt “to assassinate another club’s chances of survival.” Revenge came in 2006, when Dublin City defeated Shamrock Rovers in a relegation/promotion play-off. Rovers went down for the first time in their history, and up came Dublin City FC into a league in which they would bow out in spectacular style. Having played seventeen games in the top flight that season, the club announced in June 2007 that it was all over. The decision to leave the League of Ireland was described as “the most prudent and honourable decision and course of action to take” by the club themselves.
Like the Vikings of the ninth century, it seems the Vikings of Irish football were never quite welcome in Dubh Linn.
There is still a Home Farm today thankfully, as at the time of the birth of Dublin City, a split in the club saw one faction revert to junior football. It may not be as glamorous as a window display in Carroll’s gift shop, but it is the continuation of a tradition stretching to 1928.