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John Giles and the Shamrock Rovers Project
Giles Returns to Irish Domestic Football
In July 1977 Johnny Giles returned to Ireland after a very successful football career with Leeds United and a short stint as player/manager with West Bromwich Albion. In his brief time as player/manager with West Brom the club won promotion to the old First Division in his first season followed by a seventh place finish in the next season. Having become disillusioned with the English football management scene due to the lack of any real control over club matters he quit.
John Giles' brother-in-law, Louis Kilcoyne, persuaded him to come back to Ireland to be player/manager with Milltown-based Shamrock Rovers. In 1972 Kilcoyne and his brothers, Barton and Paddy, had acquired Rovers from long time owners, the Cunningham family who had owned the football club since the 1920's.
Rovers had been a powerhouse in the League of Ireland having won the league more often than any other team, however the club hadn't won the league since 1964. The Kilcoynes were now prepared to invest in the club in an effort to bring success back to the Glenmalure ground in Milltown on the southside of Dublin.
John Giles Dream for Shamrock Rovers
Upon his return to Ireland Giles outlined his ambitions for Shamrock Rovers, "I want to see Irish football standing on it's own feet, to set standards to be followed by others rather than for us to be led. We should not worry about England but set our own standards at League and international level. We must entice young boys to stay at home and create something worthwhile here."
Offering a hostage to fortune, in December 1997 he told journalist Vincent Browne in an interview with Magill magazine, "Ultimately, I want to win the European Cup with Shamrock Rovers. This may sound fantastic, but if you consider the amount of football talent there is [in Ireland], it isn't all that outrageous an ambition." Later he would be misquoted when some commentators said that John Giles had claimed that Shamrock Rovers would win the European Cup within five years.
Shamrock Rovers Embraces Professionalism
Giles established a full time policy and brought in qualified football coaches Eamon Dunphy and Ray Treacy along with senior professional players Paddy Mulligan and Bobby Tambling to Milltown. Ambitiously he also established an apprenticeship scheme to cater for up and coming young Irish talent thereby providing a domestic full time professional outlet for the best young Irish footballers. Johnny Giles wanted to stem the exit of Irish soccer talent out of the Irish game over to England. He wanted to introduce and embed top notch coaching methods to get the best out of Irish talent in Ireland.
Off the field the the Kilcoynes announced plans to upgrade Glenmalure Park (Louis Kilcoyne later referred to the Milltown ground as a "... jaded old s**thole.") to a 12,000 seater stadium, with the ultimate goal of building a stadium with a capacity of 50,000. This was hugely ambitious especially considering that the average attendance at football matches at Glenmalure had fallen to about 500 prior to the arrival of John Giles.
These were the bases of what Giles and Kilcoyne hoped would be an Irish soccer revolution at Milltown.
John Giles and the Shamrocks Rovers Project had Detractors
Almost immediately the detractors and begrudgers emerged. John Giles was already player/manager of the Irish senior international team and by the middle October 1977 Ireland's chances of qualifying for the 1978 World Cup finals were gone. Ireland had finished last in a three team group comprising France and Bulgaria despite the fact that a Liam Brady goal had given the Irish a win at Lansdowne Road over group winners France.
Giles had drawn criticism for the slow methodical possession game that the Irish had adopted under his tutelage. There was also an residue of resentment from his Leeds days when Giles often missed Irish matches due to, what some considered to be all too convenient, injuries. There were accusations that he put his club before his country.
Anger at Giles for Playing for Philadelphia Fury
Some questioned John Giles motives for taking on the Shamrock Rovers job and that money was his main driving force. This wasn't helped when it was announced that Giles would spend the Summer of 1978 playing in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for Philadelphia Fury. Giles justified it thus "We have a lot to learn from the Americans about football promotion and development." Rovers supporters felt that he should have been in Ireland preparing for the new season. Ireland supporters felt that he should have been at home preparing for the 1980 European qualifiers.
Johnny Giles Testimonial Hangover
There was also a residue of ill-will towards Johnny Giles from a year earlier when Louis Kilcoyne had helped to organise an Irish testimonial match for his brother-in-law. Don Revie, who was then the manager of the English international team, brought over a team to play a Johnny Giles Irish XI at Lansdowne Road (now the Aviva Stadium). Forty-five thousand people paid to watch John Giles play for the last time - as Giles had claimed - for an Ireland eleven. The match was a very disappointing 0-0 draw - highly unusual in a friendly. Giles left the field with ten minutes remaining to the sound of mutterings that he was off early to count his takings. Giles exacerbated the bad feelings when he went on to pick himself for the Irish team for a further 15 caps. John Giles eventually resigned as Irish football team manager on 16th April 1979 stating "... it was no longer possible to combine it [the Irish manager's job] with my duties at Shamrock Rovers."
John Giles and his Ambitions for Shamrock Rovers Run Aground
Although Shamrock Rovers won their first match 0-1 away to Dundalk in Oriel Park the manner was less than convincing. The Irish Independent reported on the match as follows: "The eagerly awaited meeting of the new-look Shamrock Rovers and FAI Cup winners Dundalk brought the expected big attendance which paid £2,000 at the stiles to Oriel Park last night, but Rovers did not show enough to justify the widely held belief that they will sweep the decks this year." As results continued to disappoint Eamon Dunphy was the first to take his leave of the Rovers dream:
"I thought about it for twelve months, but then I got out ... there were players robbing us, putting in for overtime they never had to do playing matches ... Giles had to put up with awful stuff from players, by other people, by other clubs; there was jealousy, the press was hostile, and the schoolboys leagues were hostile - they wouldn't even let us in to play in their top league. It was hopeless. They wanted to keep it down at their level ... they didn't want us to rise because they knew they couldn't rise and they didn't want a professional club dominating the League ... I even gave my FAI Cup winner's medal away after we won the FAI Cup in our first season ... I didn't think nothing of it ... I had utter contempt for them. I have never been back to a League of Ireland ground since."
FAI Cup Win but no League of Ireland Title
Although John Giles won the FAI Cup with Shamrock Rovers in the first year of his Milltown project, finishing fourth in the League was a major disappointment as it meant that European Cup football was off the agenda for another season. The sniping from the begrudgers was in full flow at that point and they were enjoying the discomfiture of John Giles and Louis Kilcoyne. One of the major problems for Giles was that, while the Glenmalure Park football pitch was top class, the condition of pitches for away matches stymied the Rovers style of football. Despite the urgings of some of his staff and players at Milltown Giles refused to adopt tactics more suited to the poor playing surfaces away from home. He simply couldn't bring himself to have Rovers play a more direct game and he continued to play a possession game keeping the ball on the ground even though the state of some pitches dictated otherwise.
John Giles Quits Shamrock Rovers
By 1981 Giles knew that the game was up. He decided to wind things down at Glenmalure Park. "...the full-time lads had to come in part-time and we phased the thing out." Giles accepted an offer to go and play for the Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada. In February 1983 the John Giles/Shamrock Rovers project and their dreams finally came to an end with just a single FAI Cup victory, and four appearances in the European Cup Winners Cup competition, to show for over five years of effort. Having started with a fanfare the Rovers / Giles experiment ended with a whimper much to the delight of many people in the Irish football community
Shamrock Rovers Project Comments
Former League of Ireland player, and current FAI director, Fran Gavin has been quoted as follows:
"I think the rest of the league weren't ready for Shamrock Rovers; the FAI weren't ready for them and they were ahead of their time. They won the Cup in the first year, they didn't win anything the next year, and I think there were problems then ... there was a lot of jealousy when they saw Rovers coming back ... they weren't encouraged amongst the clubs ... there was a bit of envy around the place."
Eamon Dunphy's memories of his time at Glenmalure Park afterwards were:
"It is the kind of people that are in the League of Ireland. There is a breed of person in it that is small town, county councillor, freebie, who contribute nothing and take as much as they can ... Nothing is ever allowed to develop here because they don't want anyone to do it. We tried ... but they didn't want it ... no thanks, because it will interfere with our club. They want what is best for the lowest common denominator ... people in the league feared them and tried to do them [John Giles & Louis Kilcoyne] down ... There was no place for people with aspirations or ambitions because we were going to Athlone and changing in the hut."
John Giles' take on things after the event was:
"When I arrived back [in Milltown] there would have been an attitude of, 'Who does he think he is?' Big shot from Dublin and all that ... I was probably seen as too big for my boots ... and the papers would go with the flow .. I thought the clubs would get on and we would work together. But instead they would try and bring you down ... I didn't feel any goodwill at all ... It was a case of, 'We have always done it this way, this is the way we will still do it.'
I think it was all too small-minded, 'F**k Rovers, we will show them.' ... it was just petty. It wasn't like, 'this is Rovers and they are trying to do something and if we go along with it, everybody will benefit.' That wasn't the case. I don't know if it is the case today even. I don't know. From what I can see, they are still bickering'."
This is certainly a view of Irish football that was confirmed by former FAI General Secretary Brendan Menton in his 2003 book Beyond the Green Door: Six Years Inside the FAI. (Menton resigned in November 2002 as General Secretary following the publication of the Genesis Report in the wake of the infamous Saipan affair.)
Conclusion on the John Giles Shamrock Rovers Project
What started out with grand ambitions ended, ultimately, in the sale of (what many people considered to be of the spiritual home of League of Ireland football) Glenmalure Park in 1987. The failed Giles project at Milltown was followed by a highly successful period under manager Jim McLaughlin when Shamrock Rovers won four League of Ireland titles. However neither period drew fans in sufficient numbers to justify the investment made and Kilcoyne decided to recoup his investment in the football club by selling Glenmalure Park to property developers.
It is doubtful that the ambitions for Shamrock Rovers held by John Giles and Louis Kilcoyne could ever have been realised. Notwithstanding the sense of begrudgery and small-mindedness that Dunphy, Giles and Gavin refer to above there were other factors conspiring against a vibrant senior domestic Irish football league.
Even with full support from the League authorities and the clubs the project would never have achieved the objectives set. The Irish market is simply too small to sustain the kind of league that Giles aspired to have in Ireland. Televised soccer from the UK was a growing distraction for Irish fans. The football grounds and facilities were woefully inadequate. The growing attraction of the GAA, particularly in Dublin, provided major competition for fan footfall. Taken in the round the Giles/Shamrock Rovers project was doomed to fail - but at least they had a go.
In 2010 John Giles launched the John Giles Foundation to give children an opportunity and focus with the help of football.
Irish Soccer History - Some key events, developments, people, and places in Irish football
Spain V Ireland 1965 - Glenmalure Park - Granny Rule & Ireland - John Giles & Shamrock Rovers