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Pat Dolan - a fans' viewpoint by John Owens

When Pat Dolan first arrived at Richmond park on loan from Walsall in 1988 nobody cold have foreseen the impact he would have on St. Patrick’s Athletic, Inchicore and the whole Irish football scene. He wasn’t an instant hit and soon returned to Walsall. The following few seasons he roamed the league playing for Galway and Shamrock Rovers without that much success before being resigned by Brian Kerr for Pats in 1992. He came at a time when the club was particularly low ebb. After the championship win of 1990, Kerr’s side was ripped asunder by successive failures at boardroom level and was only saved from extinction at the last minute by a consortium of local businessmen and fans (Kerr included).

To justify Pat Dolan’s full time salary he was given the extra responsibility for commercial activities, primarily fund raising. Despite no experience Pat attacked this side of job with gusto and although his football skills were deteriorating, his business acumen was soaring. He attracted the attention of businessman Tim O’Flaherty who had built several Air conditioning companies up and convinced him the putting money into the club Tim had always supported would not be wasted.

After so many false dawns O’Flaherty and Dolan brought St. Pats back to their beloved Richmond Park, after a 4 ½ year stay in Harold’s Cross, in December 1993. Dolan’s enthusiasm and refusal to accept defeat endeared to many top businesses and for the first time ever St. Pats was the most successful and progressive club, off the pitch. His re-branding of the club as the SuperSaints paid off handsomely as the youth of Inchicore and West Dublin flocked to see their local side.

Back at their spiritual home, with hugely increased crowds and good sponsorship money coming in, the SuperSaints started to flourish. The driving force of O’Flaherty, the commercial and PR brilliance of Dolan allied to the tactical genius of Brian Kerr saw the team transformed from mediocre to the best in the country. In 1995/96 season St. Pat’s won the league playing good football and backed by the most passionate and colourful supporters in Ireland. The scenes of celebration in oriel park are unlikely to be witnessed again as a club who only 5 years previous were on the brink, returned to be the strongest club in Ireland on all fronts. A sense of pride was restored to Inchicore and the people’s club would not let them down.

In late December that year Brian Kerr was asked by the FAI to become manager of the Irish underage squads. After 10 years in the Pats hot seat (crowned by a 5-0 thrashing of Bohemians on his anniversary) Brian took the opportunity to begin the road that would eventually lead him to the Irish senior team’s manager. Everybody at St. Pats, although shocked at the news, wished Brian all the best. Pat Dolan was appointed manager in a move that shocked many. Although he had some coaching experience in America he was mostly associated with St Pat’s terrific commercial turnaround. Dolan vowed to do both jobs successfully. Some Pat’s fans expressed reservations that he could perform both functions and nobody wanted our commercial success to be halted. Kerr’s assistant Noel O’Reilly remained for one season.

In Dolan’s first season as manager, the league was clinched in unbelievable fashion as last day leaders Shelbourne lost away to relegated Dundalk and Saints clinched league with a nervy win in Kilkenny. That night Pat Dolan was the King of Inchicore as the team he had assembled, at considerable cost, won the clubs 3rd league title in the 90s. During the summer his Pats team held the Scottish giants Celtic to a 0-0 draw in Glasgow and Dolan had reached the zenith within Pats’ circles.

The home leg of that game saw the first major conflict between Dolan’s club, as many perceived it, and the fans. Ticketing arrangements were shambolic and many Saints’ supporters didn’t get to see the game. Some fans held Dolan personally responsible. After only 1 game of the season and with Noel O’Reilly gone to assist Kerr win two European Championships, Dolan stepped down as manager and appointed Liam Buckley (Kerr’s former assistant who left when he wasn’t offered job in Dec 96). Dolan would continue as Chief Executive (A sometimes differently titled position he has held for nearly 10 years)

Buckley’s team walked away with the league playing beautiful football but a crushing defeat in Europe followed by indifferent domestic form saw tension emerge from the club. After 3 successive defeats Buckley was sacked with Dolan to take over the managerial reigns again. He managed to steer the club to 6th place.

Early the next season saw perhaps the first open hostility between fans and Dolan as Pat verbally attacked fans in Cork. He claimed personal abuse was aimed at some players. His subsequent programme notes, were he accused fans of being under the influence of drink, upset all who were in Cork. The first anti-Dolan campaign started then.

The following season a merger was proposed with St. Francis F.C. Dolan and O’Flaherty had met with some St. Francis people with a view to creating a new club – Dublin Saints. This was met with furious anger by most Pats fans. The details of the proposed merger (which never happened) were never finalized but many saw it as a way of moving Pats to Baldonnel. The club used the moniker St. Patrick’s Athletic FC (Incorporating St. Francis FC) for a while before the deal was finally called off. Through out the whole fiasco many fans pinpointed Dolan for criticism and he didn’t help things by constantly calling the club Pats-Francis, Dublin Saints and various other pseudonyms in both his programme notes and perhaps more worryingly in his weekly tabloid newspaper column.

The following season saw Saints improve drastically on the pitch before the news that we had played an improperly registered player (Paul Marney) for the first 3 games of the season. After having initially been docked 9 points, an appeal saw them reinstated and all hell break lose between St. Pats and nearest challengers Shelbourne. Subsequently we were docked 15 points for a similar offence and the FAI investigation found many other errors among clubs but Pats were the only ones docked points as their errors were seen as most serious. The whole episode was the darkest in the clubs recent history as Pats admin errors cost us the league title and Dolan’s and Keely’s constant bickering in their respective newspaper columns causing much embarrassment to all connected to the league.

Although some fans celebrated the fact our team had won more points on the field, others pointed to what could and should have been. Relations between the club and fans, despite the best efforts of some, were at an all time low. Pat Dolan as manager and chief executive took the bulk of this criticism. After a brilliant Inter-Toto cup campaign most fans were on his side but a succession of defeats saw the team slide down the table. Never noted for his beautiful football, Dolan’s team was now dreadful to watch. While winning this is overlooked but now in the face of relegation the crowds dwindled. Those who remained became involved in an at times quite bitter terrace row revolving around the Pro and Anti Dolan camps. Some pointed to his past record, others to his more recent record.

If Pat had have remained in the commercial side of things after his managerial exit in 1998, he probably would have remained the most popular man in Inchicore and a St pats legend. However his petty attitudes and inability to adapt has seen him go down in the majority of Saints’ supporters’ minds. Its unfortunate that a man who worked so hard and done so much for this great club may be remembered for fights with players and fans alike. I, for one, would like to thank Pat for all his hard work and wish him the best in all his future projects.

John Owens, 20 Feb, 2003

John Owens is a Pats fan who has written for Pats fanzines, creator of the old Inchicore Saints site and has been a guest contributer to radio shows such as 'On the Ball' on Newstalk 106. He is the Treasurer of the Independent Saints Supporters Club.

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