When it comes to football, is there anything purer than derby day? The build-up starts weeks before, and by the time it reaches 3 pm on a Saturday, you are drenched in anticipation. After days of imaging every possible outcome the moment has arrived, and the players cross the white line, onto the lush green grass into a cauldron of noise. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up, there’s a shiver that courses through your entire body, and everything is electric. For a moment, you feel yourself floating out of your body, looking down at the mass hysteria. Scarves proudly raised, fists pumping, teeth clenched, eyes bulging, this must be heaven, you think.
Across the world of football, every team has their derby. It’s the first fixture of the season you look for, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your team is, there is no bigger game. And as I arrived in Dublin on one fine August day, there was only one match that everybody was talking about as Bohemian FC got ready to host Shamrock Rovers. Ireland’s oldest club against its most successful. Enemies until the end of time.
Nobody wants to lose a derby game, this is what makes it
“This is simply the biggest game in Irish club football,” explains Mark Lynch, Head of Media and Communications at Shamrock Rovers. “Rovers are the dominant force in the league with 21 league wins, well ahead of the next club on 14, and our Dublin city rivals, Bohemians on 11 wins.
“The South City Hoops take on the North City Gypsies four times in each league season. Everybody talks about these games, they get the biggest media attention, the biggest attendance and the best atmospheres.
“The matches may only last 90 minutes but the talk of the game starts at the beginning of the week and runs on for days after it. Nobody wants to lose a derby game, this is what makes it.”
As I arrived at Dalymount Park, the home of Bohemian FC, it struck me how authentic this derby is. It’s genuine because all of the elements in this derby are so far removed from the corporate world of football, which is doing its best to kill the game. The environment is humble. The fans are real, no glory hunters. It’s also a derby with a rich history and comes equipped with a fierce atmosphere. Dalymount Park is a stadium that has played host to the likes of Pelé, Bob Marley and Zinedine Zidane. But it’s only today that matters. Not the past.
The Irish live life uniquely, so you can imagine just how electric a derby is here. I guess for some it might seem like a random destination for a proper football rivalry, but for me it has everything.
To the people of Dublin, there is no game bigger than this. You see it in their faces. You can see how nervous they are as kick-off approaches. Listening to the fans talk about their team, the opposition, the referee. I love it. Pure unfiltered and raw passion. I have to confess I cannot for the life of me understand a word that’s being said! But it’s fantastic.
When the teams emerge from the tunnel, the noise and feeling from both sets of supporters is something I wish I could have bottled.
Fuck off with modern football
Bohemians recently won the race to sign Drogheda United winger Dayle Rooney, a stand-out performer for Kevin Doherty’s side throughout the season. It was a signal of intent for a club tired of sitting in the shade of their nearest and dearest rivals.
“Bohs are a huge club,” explained Rooney. “They are also my local club, so I can’t wait to get going. This is the club I want to settle at, show what I am capable of and hopefully be here for a long time.”
It struck me as I sat in Dalymount Park, that Bohemian could have done with Dayle Rooney as the score remained level at the half-time break. From the moment the game kicked-off, and throughout the first half, I was blown away by the thunderous pace and ferocity of the game. It felt like a Cup Final. It was breathless and every player was playing as if it was their last game.
The crowd sits so close to the pitch that at times, it looks like they are about to descend onto the field of play. The players are at their mercy as they hear every single word of abuse coming their way in the close confines of the stadium. It’s a hostile, unforgiving environment. It’s what football is all about. I have friends on both sides, all of whom said more or less the same thing:
Pride in our Past, Faith in our Future
It’s not just the intensity and ferociousness of the derby that stood out. It was the standard itself. Both teams genuinely tried to get the ball down and play football. “The profile of the League of Ireland has improved dramatically in the last decade,” Mark Lynch tells us. “More clubs have become professional, full-time operations. The pitches have improved, the playing standard has improved and we have seen breakthroughs into the UEFA Group Stage tournaments for two clubs.
“More broadcast attention is now paid to the league with an increasing amount of live broadcasts on National TV supported by every league game being available on the league’s streaming platform, LOITV.
“We have a saying ‘Pride in our Past, Faith in our Future’. Rovers are the standard bearers for the league, we set standards and continue to seek to improve in all aspects of the game, on and off the pitch.
“We have a glorious past in terms of providing more players to the Irish National team than any other club, League and Cup wins and we have set the foundations for our Future with our Academy development and growth of the club off the pitch. In 2024, the club celebrates 125 Years since its foundation – Pride in our Past, Faith in our Future. We look forward to it.”
Despite Shamrock Rovers dominating the League of Ireland, the level of competition is continuing to improve and can only help to grow attendees, drive the league forward and become a more attractive proposition.
In my opinion, it is a league with a huge amount to offer. There is a great deal of pedigree, and with names like Derry City, St Patrick’s, Dundalk, and Shelbourne, there is no question about its competitive nature.
I know what the club is about
At half time, I tucked into some local fayre, and the feeling amongst Bohs fans was one of frustration. With chances before the break being spurned, there is a sense from the supporters that they may live to regret not taking them, “To be fair the atmosphere has been great, but fuck me, we should be winning,” remarked one incredibly animated Bohs fan.
His words would prove to be prophetic as Shamrock Rovers burst into a one-goal lead nearly directly after the restart. Green smoke billowed from the away end as ecstasy ensued. “I fucking knew it,” echoes the disgruntled voice of the Irish Nostradamus.
As the sense of disappointment was just starting to set in, Rovers decided to go in for the kill as Estonian Markus Poom (Poom Poom shake shake the room) put his side two goals ahead. The Bohs were on their knees.
“Growing up in Ballymun, a lot of my friends are Bohs fans so I know what the club is about,” says Dayle Rooney. As the Bohs trailed Rovers by two goals, I was about to find out exactly what the club and this derby was all about as the game descended into a breathless and enthralling encounter.
As the game reached the last 30 minutes, hope reigned supreme as Johnny Appallabi fired one back for Bohemian. With tension growing mistakes started to creep into the game. “From playing at Dalymount, I know the support the club has,” explains Rooney. And It is that very support that whipped Dalymount into a frenzy as James Clark equalised to bring Bohemians back from the dead.
I can see the emotions etched across the faces of nearly every single fan in the stadium. I can feel the foundations shaking and almost taste the agony and elation of both sides. I am absolutely and completely besotted by football.
When the full-time whistle sounded, I felt mentally and physically exhausted. Both sets of supporters stand to their feet and acknowledge their heroes. It’s obvious just how much pride the fans have in their teams and as Mark Lynch explains, “The fans are what makes any club special; Rovers fans stepped up in 2005 when the club was in financial ruin and bought the club.
“This ownership continues to this day where the ordinary club members (fans) own 50% of the club, this is a real commitment – emotionally and financially. The fans, through this club membership, have a direct influence on the direction of the club at a strategic level whilst volunteering to help manage many aspects of the club’s operations. This is why we say “We Are Rovers.”
I can’t understand travel without football
Shamrock Rovers would once more be crowned Champions of Ireland as the season reached its climax, but on that day in Dublin, I saw the meaning of derby day. It is an occasion where anything can happen, and where league form and standings go out the window. When you share the field with your fiercest rival, the only predictable outcome is unpredictability.
The season would end in heartbreak for Bohemian as they faltered to 6th in the table and lost in the FAI Cup Final and Dayle Rooney spoke of his determination to bring back glory to Dalymount. “The club has reached the FAI Cup final twice in three years, and they are the kind of big games that I want to be playing in with the club, and I want to help bring success to the club.
“I feel the team here will have a fire in their belly after the disappointment of losing the final, and we all want to push on now from that. There is a lot of expectation at the club but that is what you want as a player.”
Throughout my trip, I discovered so much about Dublin and its relationship with football. As I can’t understand travel without football, I also made my way down to Belfast, Derry, Galway and a town near Limerick, which I want to keep a secret because I was so happy there. I felt like the man on the moon. It was the most isolated place I’ve ever been. In each place, I found a passion for football that will live with me always. It was a journey that I had dreamed of my whole life.
All imagery was taken by the Groundhopping genius that is Natxo Torné who you can follow here
Natxo is an incredible photographer, digital creator, social media and fan culture producer