The following piece was first published in the June 2018 edition of the Shelbourne FC fanzine Red Inc., produced by the group Reds Independent (as reported here at the time). As a festive, end of year treat we now present online this special “print debut” installment of Pyro On The Pitch in full.
Although a health and safety aficionado’s nightmare, the practice of pyrotechnics emanating from the stands and ending up on the playing surface at football matches has a proud, mischievous tradition that goes back decades and can represent several profound meanings. Sometimes it’s appearance acts as a symbol of euphoria upon a goal or team victory, while on other occasions flares and smoke bombs have been used as a tool by disaffected supporters in “political” fan actions. Random pyro on the pitch was somewhat of a regular occurrence in the ’80s and ’90s in certain European grounds with players and referees alike often happy to play on around the flaming phallus on the grass, contently accepting an intimidating and difficult atmosphere as simply part of the magic of the game back then. Of course on other occasions, it was a straight forward act of belligerent “hooliganism”.
The League of Ireland is no exception to any of these tropes, with it’s own unique supporter culture added into the mix. Indeed the use of pyro in Irish football has a far longer heritage than one might imagine, with a Dublin newspaper reporting in 1905: “Tar Barrels and bonfires were blazing across Ringsend and Sandymount that night as the Irish Cup was paraded around the district”. The team responsible for such celebrations were local side Shelbourne FC, the first winners of the IFA Cup not to have come from present day Northern Ireland.
In the early 2000s, the modern cultural ancestor of that 1905 mentality emerged in the form of the Irish ultras scene, now approaching two decades of existence at the time of writing. Tifo-centric features such as pyro, large flags, stadium displays and most notably organised named groups have become commonplace for the larger League of Ireland clubs. St. Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers led the way with establishment of the Shed End Invincibles and SRFC Ultras respectively in 2001, and heavily influenced by continental leagues that had become accessible in the media driven ’90s, “tifo flags” began appearing at clubs even yet without groups – as evident at Shelbourne vs Drogehda United in 2003:
Shelbourne and Drogheda supporters with flags in 2003. Credit to Marucie Frazer - Youtube
By the end of that season Shels would have their own group in the form of Briogáid Dearg (BD), with the appearance of an “SFC Ultras” banner at games even preceding this. The one remaining Dublin club, Bohemains, were still on the “tifo flags level” and would take a few more years to progress to a named ultras group in the Notorious Boo Boys, although the existence of the Bohs Soccer Casuals since 1992 perhaps filled the vacuum. Meanwhile, BD would be recognised among the Irish supporter culture community as an influential player with it’s own unique identity, and will no doubt go down in future histories as an integral part of the original scene.
Despite this, as most Shelbourne fans will know, it is common for derision to come from the likes of Bohs regarding the perceived gap in support between the clubs. Obviously this sort of “banter” is tiresome at best, and while it may be true that there is somewhat of a gulf in numbers at games these days, it is also likely that the Bohemian support base would find themselves in a very similar position had their club gone the through the financial collapse and year-after-year of First Division football that the Shelbourne loyal have had to put up with.
Further to this, the league can actually thank Shelbourne fans for being among the original pioneers of bringing the European supporting style to Ireland, even before any of Ireland’s ultra groups had been conceived of. For the reasons why, we must go back to the proto-years of the era we have been talking about.
Non-club affiliated “supporter units” were nothing new as, like in England, feared organsied mobs had sprang up in the 1970s. The “Black Dragons” and skinheads of Limerick FC, along with “Red Alert” and the boot-boys of Sligo Rovers were among the most notorious and violent. Waterford also had a bad reputation, and games involving certain Dublin clubs always had the propensity for trouble.
Front page of a Limerick newspaper after some of the worst Irish domestic football violence to date, involving a mob of 80 Sligo youths following a tense Limerick FC cup game against Sligo Rovers, 1975.
***For more old school League of Ireland grittiness, click here for Football Special Report#2: Derry City vs Shamrock Rovers 1994***
For Shelbourne, the ’70s were a decade of gradual decline that would continue into the ’80’s when the club experienced one of their lowest ebbs until modern times. For comparison, in the domestic attendance golden age of the ’50s, a league game against Shamrock Rovers had drawn 11,000+ spectators to Tolka Park and the ’60s saw European competition for the first time. But many poor years cumulated in 1987 as the Reds suffered relegation and were soon being watched by a paltry fraction of the above figure at a derelict Harold’s Cross.
However, there was one bright spark born of the dark days of the era. This arose in the form of a new supporters group, autonomous from the club but also not hell bent on mindless violence like the chaotic mobs of the ’70s. The politically minded and opinionated Alternative Reds Club (ARC) was formed in the 84/85 season, with a new mentality more in style with continental sides.
While Shels were not in European competition themselves, some ARC members were known to travel abroad with the national team and perhaps this experience of foreign environments was influential at club games back home. Either way, Shelbourne’s long awaited return to success with a 1992 league win saw some exemplary fence climbing on the last day of the season away to Dundalk, fitting for any classic European arena; or indeed Oriel Park:
One outlet for the ARC to express themselves was through the group’s fanzine “From Home To Home” (presumably the first fanzine in Shels history) from which their philosophies could be spread to other supporters. The title was in reference to the clubs varied history of home grounds which included Shelbourne Park, Irishtown Stadium and at times Dalymount Park, as well as the aforementioned Tolka Park and Harold’s Cross. It remained an appropriate name as Shelbourne moved again to Tolka Park on a more permanent basis in 1989.
A 1993 ARC fanzine.
The ARC were also making their presence felt in the grounds with the appearance of an another important development: the group banner. Along with other flags, the banners went a step further in using the platform of the football stadium to deliver an overtly political message; also a feature of certain continental support basses. At the above mentioned Dundalk game for example, we can see the classic ARC banner baring group initials along side hammer & sickle, while at a home game against Bohs the same season, an actual Soviet Union flag is also present. Both left little doubt regarding the direction of the group’s leanings:
At the corresponding fixture the following year – where we can also see another beautiful ARC banner, in this instance devoid of other insignia – the hammer & sickle flag (now with added Irish tri-colour) is humorously placed near an American Confederate flag. The “Battle Flag”, as it is known to American history, is commonly displayed as an extreme right-wing symbol in certain European countries, but more than likely innocently employed for the colour-scheme here:
Despite the appearance over the coming years of some other left-associated symbols at Shels games, such as Che Guevara (see the picture vs Drogheda above), the Starry Plough (associated with Irish socialism), and the national flags of Euskal Herria & the Lebanese Republic, the support base remains apolitical on the whole. If anything in these divided times, the club provides a common ground for Dubliners of different ideals to come together over the slightly absurd but shared cause of the Reds, which can only be a positive thing. In that way, the Confederate flag sitting side by side with the Soviet symbol is an apt image, although a little extreme for most supporters real ideological beliefs these days.
Speaking of flags and banners, the European style was also appearing through external forces as Shels’ resurgence on the pitch brought back continental competition. Being drawn in consecutive years against recently independent Ukrainian opposition – Tavriya Simferopol in the 92/93 Champions League preliminary, Karpaty Lviv in the 93/94 Cup Winners Cup preliminary – meant that at first very few away fans were present, with ARC banner again visible at the latter; perhaps wisely without hammer and sickle:
But victory against Lviv meant the visit of ultras royalty Panathinaikos in the Cup Winner’s Cup first round proper on September 29th, 1993, and the resulting adornment of Tolka Park with several impressive standards displaying exotic Greek characters and symbols:
Visible on one banner is a “13”, of course referencing the mammoth Gate 13 supporters association that was founded in 1966 – more than likely the first ultras group to be represented in Tolka Park. At the same game on the Shels side, a very pleasing, long red and white banner could be seen, the bold simplicity of which is quite beautiful. The thoughts of one inspired and heroic supporter (or several) going to the effort of constructing this piece, bringing it to matches, and erecting it on fences brings us much joy, as well as indicating the increased pro-activity of the display minded Shelbourne fans:
At Dalymount Park (home of Bohemians) in the same season, the Shels fans inhabited the Tramway End (now closed) behind another classic parameter fence, perfect for hanging flags. While the ARC flag appears notable by it’s absence (or just off camera), an amazing large red and white banner with huge black “SFC” text can be seen to the left of the goal, more than making up for it.
The ARC would soon wind down as an active and cohesive unit, their mythical place in Shelbourne folklore already sealed as the revered, original fan culture group of the club. But the next generation had already begun, doubtlessly spurred on by the presence of a respectable “in the know” group like the ARC paving the way. This new attitude was especially evident the following season, as yet another game with northside neighbours Bohemians would provide a seminal supporter culture moment for the Reds.
The game in question was the first of three league encounters between the sides for the 94/95 season, with a home tie for Bohemians on October 23rd, 1994. Again the away fans were in the Tramway End, as always providing a perfect banner hanging fence at the front of the terrace with the vintage staple of some steamers on the pitch. An interesting red and white saltire is also in view:
But from that same terrace early in the game would come the whole reason we are writing this article, bringing us right back around to where we started hours ago. As a Shelbourne team in sky blue away shirts (unlike the previous year’s white) defended their goal, a small but definite smoking flare landed on the pitch just inside the box:
If you had to classify it, the throwing of the flare was of the random mid-match variety that we highlighted earlier; a truly pure endevour of European supporter passion. As was expected of professionals in this gilded age, the players played on around the burning hazard and the game continued without question, as a closer camera angle gives us a better shot:
After this, the match went on as usual and eventually ended in what would probably be described as a thrilling 3-3 draw in some publications. But more importantly, history had gone down with what we are calling beyond doubt the first reported incident of pyro on the pitch in League of Ireland history (that may not be true but it suits our narrative). Incidentally, we have it on very good authority that the launcher of said flare, also present as a young supporter at Dundalk in ’92, would unsurprisingly go on to be a highly influential member of the Shelbourne supporter community.
Up until this point we have not yet included an “Aftermath” section in our articles, but our story here certainly warrants it’s debut. As the decade progressed, usage of pyro at games involving League of Ireland clubs increased, all leading up to the inevitable evolution to actual ultras groups post-millennium. Sligo Rovers, for example, could be seen lighting up Tolka Park’s Ballybough End away to Shels in the 1996 League Cup 2nd leg, a match that we will cover in full in the future:
As for Shelbourne themselves, new groups such as Reds Independent and BD would pick up where the ARC left off, resulting in this very fanzine and many future flags, banners and displays at Shels games. While the likes of Shamrock Rovers will always try to boast the biggest following, and St. Pat’s the earliest Irish ultras group, we have demonstrated here that Shelbourne supporters were as important as any in introducing a more dynamic atmosphere to the country’s domestic league, as well as a new mentality. And since that Dalymount game in ’94, rightly or wrongly flares have made their way on to the pitch to accompany several other historic Reds moments including a last minute winner away to Bray Wanderers, an FAI Cup Final goal in the Aviva Stadium, and perhaps some other obscure occasion. Of course we would never condone or condemn such actions, as we are a 100% objective website. We are simply reporting history.