Going to see Shels
By Joey Smith
“You must be wearing that shirt with pride today,” came the voice of an airport employee as I waited for a taxi home. Like me, he was a northside Dubliner who, week-in-week-out, followed a football team originally founded in the Ringsend area of the southside in the 1890s. The difference was that his club, Shamrock Rovers, currently resided even further away to the south in Tallaght Stadium, while mine, Shelbourne FC, had made the historic north Dublin ground of Tolka Park their home since the late 1980s.
The jersey in question, which prompted the short League of Ireland chat that followed, had been worn by Shelbourne the previous night in United Park, Drogheda, for what was essentially a first-division title decider. A 3-1 win for Shels secured promotion to the Premier Division for the first time in six years, with a grueling 11 of the last 13 seasons having been spent there overall.The set of kits introduced before the start of the 2019 season (February to October-ish in Ireland) were most notable for Umbro’s return as supplier. Umbro had been worn during Shels’ headiest years in the early 2000s, but then stuck around for the initial five-year stint in the second tier.
This was a dark period that had begun while still reigning LOI champions in 2006 after heavy debts triggered a demotion. On the left is the 2007 strip. The stint in the second tier ended in classically bittersweet Shels fashion in 2011 – while already promoted, a home loss to Cork City on the final day grant their opponents the first-division title.In time for the 2011 FAI Cup final – also a defeat, to Sligo Rovers – Macron took over as technical partner, which, along with sponsor Cab 2000, contributed visually to the Reds’ transition from trophy winners to underachievers.
After two seasons, the club found itself back in the first division for what would turn out to be an even longer run. Despite a couple of not-bad away kits over these years, the lacklustre Marcon era on the field combined with more lower-level shirt sponsors to seal Shelbourne’s new status as a perennial second-tier side.
The announcement of Umbro’s return, therefore, at the end of another disappointing, failed promotion push in 2018, gave hope for an upswing in designs at least. It was part of a semi-dramatic shift within the club as a whole. New backers replaced old boardroom staff – against whom a major rift with large chunks of the support in the preceding years had developed – and 32-year-old Ian Morris took over as manager from club legend Owen Heary.
When the kits were revealed, the main talking points were the minimal nature of both home and away strips and the black Umbro logo used on the away shirt, which was suggested sailed a little too close to rivals Bohemians’ red and black theme. Most, however, found its use acceptable as the black was over a white background rather than touching red (‘neutral black’, you could say, much like Poland’s use of a black trefoil on their white and red World Cup 1978 kit), and the current early 80s-style Umbro logo brought a touch of class back to Reds kits that had been absent for years.
To further the “case for black”, the colour had already been used on the likes of t-shirts and training gear, and on some supporters’ flags (with white font). But a more notable appearance in club canon comes through Shelbourne FC Ladies, whose merger with black-and-white-clad Raheny United in 2015 led to the adoption of a beautiful black and white away kit that in no way looked ‘Bohs-ish’, along with the addition of Raheny’s ‘Pandas’ nickname to the sleeves of their home and away Balon shirts (later sensibly morphing to Red Pandas as team moniker). In 2019 the ‘Ladies’ part of the name was dropped and both male and female wings of the club were given the same strips in a positive move for equality.
A small minority also bemoaned the template selections for both shirts as lazy and appearing amateur, backed up by the fact that a yellow and black third kit used a design and colourway already worn by Derry City several years earlier. But again, many enjoyed the clean, smart look of the first and second choices, even if they were teamwear, along with the absence of superfulous features that have come to plague many a jersey in the modern age.
Unlike the branding and the template, the new primary shirt sponsor – Dublin City University, who also agreed to a player development deal with the club – was met with near-universal praise. Reasons included: aesthetically pleasing logo that fit with the shirt, unlike Cab2000’s black and yellow rectangle; respectable, unlike Cab2000’s black and yellow rectangle; and representative of the club’s location, besides just the ‘Dublin City’ part as the university’s large campus is only a walk or short bus ride from Tolka Park.
Shelbourne started the 2019 season away to Galway United on February 22 (a Friday night, as is normal in the Irish system). With the home side in their traditional maroon, Ian Morris’s Reds would wear all-white for his first competitive game in charge.
The away shirt simply featured a red round-neck collar and shoulder panels, DCU sponsor (plus secondary sleeve and back sponsors, and league sleeve patch) and Shelbourne crest, which dropped an ‘Est.’ from previous iterations to a simple ‘1895’ beneath the three red castles of Dublin. As usual, it was accompanied above by a star for a winning ten or more leagues.
The shorts were even more minimal, with just a crest, maker logo, and one further sponsor, while the red trimmed socks strangely seemed to be from a previous generation, as their Umbro diamond was of the older, ‘stretched’ variety. Either way, the all-white Reds managed to fight back from 2-0 down to claim a dramatic 3-2 victory, setting the season, and the kit, off to a memorable start.
The following week on March 1, Cabinteeley of the south Dublin suburbs visited Tolka Park for Shelbourne’s first home game of the season and first outing in the new home kit. The shirt’s only real feature, besides the necessary adornments, was some subtle white trim near the collar and down the sides.
The same white shorts as used in the first game were worn, and red socks which were a near-reversal of the away version but with an added ‘Umbro’ under the diamonds.Even more so than the away, the home shirt drew ire from a few fans for the use of such an unremarkable template. It proved not to be a successful debut for the jersey either, as, in a repeat of the previous weeks result, the away side claimed a shock 3-2 victory to already slow Shels’ momentum.
Following a reassuring away win (Athlone) and a home win (Wexford), a trip to lowly Cobh Ramblers on March 22 – another side that favour maroon although with light blue shorts and socks – gave reason for the away shirt to be revisted, this time with red shorts as seemingly originally intended. With the county Cork outfit somewhat of a bogey-team for Shels over the years, history repeated itself with a 2-1 win to again stop the Dubliners in their tracks.
One week later, against black and red Longford, there would be another kit and another disappointing 2-0 loss – this time in the third strip which got its sole run-out of the season. Yellow has a history at Shels with yellow and blue away strips in the 1990s and 2000s, but, as mentioned above, the template was quite old and an odd choice here as white would have been more than adequate.
For a League Cup game against UCD the following Monday and the next league game at home to Bray Wanderers on Friday, March 4, the red shorts were inserted into the home strip, meaning four separate combinations in four matches had been worn. In recent years all-red has been as acceptable a first-choice as red-white-red, although there were some who took issue with the abandoning of more traditional white shorts.
The all-red kit continued as first-choice for the rest of the season – perhaps being seen as a turning point with a 1-0 win over Bray kick-starting the Reds revival – and would go on to be used for all remaining home games with one strange exception.
When Galway United came to Tolka Park April 24, wearing a seemingly suitable yellow and black away kit, the home side for some reason appeared in the white shirt with red shorts and socks – a look that had been used away to Cobh the previous season also, in the last of the Macron strips.
For away league games in Drogheda, Wexford, Galway (sides in the division played each other three times) and Cobh (a 1-0 loss extending the hoodoo) throughout the spring and summer, the white-red-white continued as first-choice away kit. This was to end with a run of huge games toward the end of the season: an FAI Cup tie away to Premier Division Bohemians in August (a 3-2 loss but a memorable and encouraging occasion), a crucial 2-0 away win against Longford and Friday, September 13, a night of a full moon, for what turned out to be a title deciding game.
The winners would be promoted with one game to spare, while the defeated party would enter a tiring play-off system against both the winner of a third/fourth play-off and the second last Premier Division team.For these matches, Shelbourne harkened back to the opening day epic against Galway by taking to the field once more in angelic all-white, lastly against a Drogheda in uncharacteristic red shirts and black shorts/socks in lieu of their usual claret and blue, honouring the club’s 100-year anniversary. In front a sold-out crowd of 2,000 at United Park, and a tremendous atmosphere, the away team secured the title with a 3-1 victory, sealing the legacy of what was now destined to become an iconic shirt for the club.
With the amount of disappoint and disillusionment over the last 14 years, it is no wonder that several fans claimed the night was the best of their supporting lives, perfectly displaying how games on front of only a couple thousand people can mean as much to those involved as any Champions League final. I, meanwhile, returning from an unfortunately timed holiday, could only review the reports on my phone and try to wear my shirt with pride, like the Rovers man had said.
While the claims made by those against the ultra-minimal kits may have been somewhat valid, they had still become the historic uniform of one of Shels’ most memorable seasons ever, and did so in a way that many modern kits cannot, with the basic colours allowing seamless mixing and matching between home and away.For the return to the Premier Division – currently paused after five games due to the Covid-19 pandemic – Shels fans were not to be disappointed following rumours of the 125th-anniversary special, as the club and Umbro knockeded it out of the park (or into the net?) for both home and away.
Thankfully employing a minimal but bespoke design and devoid of a sponsor at the launch, the marketing line back in October promoted Shelbourne’s historic European Cup Winners’ Cup tie with Barcelona in 1963 and brought back a classic navy and gold shield crest to reflect this, complementing the vermillion red jersey.
The template itself combines influence from several eras seamlessly, creating a glorious retro tribute to the clubs’ entire past, and white-on-white Umbro diamonds on the sleeves bars is a nice, subtle touch. The away version uses the exact same design but in sky-blue, it’s first appearance as primary away colour in years. Perhaps its revival is a reference to another European night against Panathinaikos in 1993, when unforeseen circumstances forced the use of a change strip in Athens (read more on this here).
Both home home away have been met with an overwhelmingly positive response online from Shels fans and non-Shels fans alike. Even more excitingly, there’s the prospect of some bizarre blue and red combinations with the shorts and socks – if the action resumes. Watch this space and, for Shelbourne kit history of a more classic ilk, click here for a look at some of their ‘forgotten’ kits of the 70s, 80s and 90s, originally written for the Shels fanzine Red Inc.