Echo Sport Replay: Baker on the best of days in the League of Ireland
By Stephen Leonard
RICHIE Baker certainly cherishes his bountiful days in the League of Ireland, insisting that period around the turn of the millennium was among the best for top-level club soccer in the country.
Throughout his three spells at Shelbourne that totalled some nine years, the Tallaght man stormed the wings for The Reds, helping them to no less than four Premier Division titles and one FAI Cup.
Tallaght native Richie Baker reflects on a great League of Ireland career that saw him help Shelbourne to four Premier Division titles and FAI Cup success before playing his part in seeing Drogheda United crowned champions for the first time
The first player to twice scoop the PFAI Young Player of the Year accolade, Baker's time in the game included a year in the MLS with New England Revolution and a title-winning stint with Drogheda United, before he bowed out at the age of 30 as a Bray Wanderers player, severe back trouble bringing his playing days to a premature end.
And while, the 5'7" winger did experience, first-hand, the economic downturn the league suffered as his career drew to a close, he was fortunate enough to have enjoyed the days when the purse strings of Premier Division clubs were a lot looser and the league was awash with international talent.
“I was lucky enough to play in the League of Ireland in those days, because I definitely think that time, from 2000 to 2004/05, the league was just so good. Every team could beat everyone” recalled Baker.
“Back then it was always a real fight to try and win something. It was just a great league to be involved in” he insisted.
Growing up in Springfield, both Baker and his older brother Dessie started out in soccer with local club Marks Celtic before moving to Stella Maris.
Quickly identified as a precocious talent, he began playing with teams two years above his age group, but the development of a blood clot on his leg denied him the chance to travel to Leeds United on trial with Stephen McPhail when that opportunity arose.
But while one door closed, another one soon opened in the form of a FAS course that was being headed up by Shelbourne under the club’s then Director of Coaching Mick Neville.
“The team that Mick had put together for the FAS course was unbelievable and after about five weeks of being on the course, Mick brought me into the first team” Baker recounted.
“Dermot Keely was the manager and we played a friendly against Shamrock Rovers in Tolka Park and that was my debut.
“I scored a goal in that and I had a fantastic game and that stood to me. Mick pulled me in about four or five days later and said ‘The club want to sign you.’ It was a semi-professional contract at the time. I was delighted. I couldn’t believe it.
“And within that year I had signed two different contracts again. I signed a contract for two years and then at the end of the season, a really good season when I got PFAI Young Player of the Year, they said ‘You’ve done really well and we want to give you a three-year contract.’
“It was fantastic and at the end of that first year I remember Dermot and Ollie Byrne bringing me into the dressing room and they said ‘Listen, Bristol City have put an offer in, 100 thousand sterling, but we’re not taking it.’ I said ‘Grand’.
Robbie Keane and Richie Baker enjoying some fun during a Republic of Ireland Under 20 squad training sesssion at the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1999
“I had no issues. Everything was going great at Shels at the time. We were after putting a good squad together so it didn’t really bother me.
“And that second year, 1999-2000 was great. We won the league and then we beat Bohs in a replay to win the FAI Cup and do the double.
“I was a regular player in the team by that stage. Dermot had a lot of faith in me and it was great. I was playing every week.
“That second season was when everything started to become more professional. Everything started changing in the League of Ireland.
“The first year I was there we were getting on buses and going in the morning to play the likes of Finn Harps, Derry, Cork and coming back at night time.
“And back then we didn’t have the roads that we have now, so they were three and a half, four-hour drives.
“On the way home the lads were drinking cans on the bus. Now I’m a pioneer, I never drank then, but there’d be trays of cans there in the bus on the way home.
“Jesus, lads were watching bleedin’ pornos, there was poker being played. It was absolutely crazy. I was only 18 and I was like ‘What the hell is going on here?’
“But that year, you could see the changes. We’d go to hotels and get our meals, made sure we prepared properly for the game.
“We started staying overnight then. And I remember that a film crew came with us on the first weekend that we did that and that really kicked it off. A good few clubs started doing it after us, going the night before and preparing that bit better for games.
Tallaght’s Richie Baker celebrates with former captain Owen Heary and Shelbourne secretary Ollie Byrne in the dressing room after the Reds secured the eircom League Premier Division title back in 2006
“We started doing things right and all that drinking on the bus stopped, there was no messing going on. We stopped off for food as well and they looked after us.
“Then going into my third year there it started getting even more professional. You had your doctor with you all the time, you had a physio all the time, then you had the strength and conditioning coach who came in as well and we were training every day.
“I was involved with teams at Shelbourne where you had a squad of 20 and all those players would have easily played in any other team and it was a fight to keep your spot. Every day you had to prove yourself to keep your place.
“We were lucky enough that we won things, but we didn’t drop off because you won the year before. That was the mentality that was instilled in us by Dermot and then Pat Fenlon when he took over.
“There wasn’t that mentality that someone could take the piss in training because the other lads would absolutely slaughter them if you didn’t do it in training.
“I had so many fights with my own brother in training because he’d be a real centre forward who’d get you goals all day long, but didn’t really want to do the running.
“When you were in training then, you’d be doing the running for him and f**king screaming and shouting at him ‘You lazy bastard, run!’
“You’d have your fights alright, but as soon as you’d leave the training ground it was all gone.
“We were just getting the best out of each other. We weren’t allowing anyone to slack off and that mentality was always there.
“I remember in my first campaign in the Champions League qualifiers [in 2000] I scored a free kick against Sloga Jugomagnat from Macedonia and that was the first match an Ireland team had won away from home in the competition for about 20 years.
“We won 1-0 and it was a free kick over on the right hand side. It was a fantastic night for the League of Ireland, let alone the club.
“We won that round and we went through, but we were beaten by Rosenburg in the second round” he remembered.
While Baker had quickly been making an impact on the domestic and international club scene for Shels, he was also catching the eye of one Brian Kerr within the Republic of Ireland underage set-up.
“I only started to come into the international set-up when I was about 18” recounted Baker.
“Brian Kerr start bringing me in to the Ireland squads and I remember getting the call off Brian for the World Youth Cup over in Nigeria.
“The squad had been put together already and they had all been getting their injections to go away. They had to do it over six weeks or so.
“Anyway I got a phone call about three weeks before they were about to travel.
“Brian Kerr was on the phone and I thought it was the lads messing and so he rang me and he said ‘Richie I’m bringing you into the squad. I need you to go and get your injections.’ And I was like ‘Yeah Brian, whatever’, thinking the boys were taking the piss.
“Brian was like ‘Richie, it’s me. You’re in the squad.’ And I was like ‘Oh Jesus, sorry, I thought the guys were messing.’
“So I went in and got all the injections and I was in. That was huge for me. We had a really good squad that went over there.
“We did well. We got to the last 16 where we were beaten by Nigeria themselves.
“I remember we were in the dressing room before the match and Brian came in and showed us the card. It was so funny because almost all the date of births for the Nigerian team were the exact same.
“And you’re going out beside them and these guys are built up like bricks, big beards hanging out of them and you’re like ‘What the ….!’ It was just crazy.
“We lost on penalties. It was a very tight game and we were very unlucky.
“The stadium was full to capacity, and at the end of the match the crowd came on to the pitch and, in fairness, they were congratulating us for having done so well. It was a fantastic experience being over there.
“We also won bronze in the European [Under 19] Championships over in Sweden. Again another squad that Brian had put together. It was unbelievable.
“Even talking about it and the memories it brings back, the camaraderie that was there between everyone, it was just fantastic.
“We had a really good squad back then with the likes of Robbie Keane, Jason Gavin, Richard Dunne, Barry Quinn, and we surprised a lot of people doing what we did.
“Shels won the league again in 2001-2002. That was the season St Pat’s had been deducted points and we were eventually awarded the title.
“The club and Ollie then went all out buying everyone. The squad they put together was absolutely scary.
“That was the year you really had to make sure you were on top of your game, because if you weren’t, the boys were coming straight in behind you.
“There was a lot of money put in that year because Ollie was trying to progress in Europe and trying and get to the group stages.
“It was an unbelievable team and we won the league in 2003, but again it was still tight. You weren’t running away with anything.
“The other clubs were putting squads together and bringing in ex-players from the Championship, League One and Two. There were players coming from Brazil and all over the world to play in the League of Ireland at that stage.
“We had Joseph N’Do and what he could do was absolutely scary. We had Wesley Hoolahan at the time as well and then we had Glen Crowe, Jason Byrne, Gary O’Neill. It was just so hard to pick who was playing.
“But in 2004 I left Shelbourne and went to America. The father of my girlfriend at the time, Eric Barber used to play for Shelbourne and Rovers back in the day and he gave me a lot of information and guidance on football because he had gone through it all.
“I literally followed in his footsteps because he left Shelbourne and went to America and played in the MLS.
“I had won every trophy that you could in Ireland so I decided that I’d go over to the US and give it a go, because my girlfriend then, Nadia, all her family lived there.
“So I went over and met Steve Nicol who was the manager of New England Revolution at the time and he said ‘We’d love to have you.’
“It was unbelievable. Every second week you were on a plane and I was going around, seeing America, playing in all the stadiums.
“It was a good year. I was under Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner, a great manager and coach.
“I played a good few games over there and done well, but there were politics there and other people running the show. I enjoyed my time there, but it was difficult at times.
“After a year, that was it for me. I’d had enough listening to certain players, so I ended up coming back home and signing for Shels again in 2005.
“The 2006 season was a tough one, because we ended up playing the last four months without getting paid.
“There were financial issues there, but the lads just stuck together and we went on to win that league without getting paid for the last four months.
“It showed that the lads weren’t just there for the money, they were there to win. That had been drilled into us from 2000 onwards, by Dermot and then Pat when he took over.
“Everything went belly up then, but I was one of the last to leave Shels. I was gutted. My professional football life had been with that club.
“Paul Doolin came in and I signed for Drogheda that year. He had put an unbelievable squad together.
“There had been a lot of money pumped into it up there because there had been the promise of land being sold where the pitch was and there was a new stadium being built somewhere else.
“There was a fella going in and pumping a lot of money into the club and we won the league that year.
“But going into our next year the deal fell through and that’s when that club went belly up.
“In fairness to Shels, we got back every single penny that we were owed. Then the Drogheda thing happened and the players were offered 12 percent of three or four months wages.
“Some people took it and about five or six of us said no. We just weren’t taking it anymore.
“There was a meeting arranged between John Delaney, Drogheda and the PFAI and an increase to about 24 percent was agreed.
“But about six to eight weeks later was the real kick in the teeth. Drogheda, having been disciplined, they stayed in the Premier Division and started signing new players, giving new contracts out. That was tough.
“I went from Drogheda back to Shels. Dermot [Keely] was back and Joe Casey came in after Ollie had passed away and he tried to steady the ship. It took a long time, but he and the committee did it.
“It was a bit of shock to go back down into the First Division. I had offers to stay in the Premier, but that didn’t really matter because Shels had done so much for me in the past, I always wanted to go back anyway.
“I was unlucky with Shels that year. I had a few injuries and it was a bit of a nightmare. I didn’t play as much as I would have liked and we were unlucky that year not to get back to the Premier.
“That was my last year with Shels. Eddie Gormley had been trying his best to sort out a move for me to Bray. It had been going on for weeks and I was very close to going down to Cork City.
“But just as I was about to travel down to Cork, he rang and he said ‘I’ve got it sorted’ and so I moved to Bray.
“I remember that was the year Shamrock Rovers won the title and my brother Dessie was playing with the team.
“They had to get a point in Bray to win the league and I actually came on in that game and helped set up a goal to make 2-2, but it was nice to see Dessie get another medal.
“That was my last season in the league. I had awful year with my back that year.
“I had to get an operation then and the surgeon said ‘It could easily happen again. If you put too much pressure on it, you’ll be back to Square One.’
“So I decided that was it then, I wasn’t going to go back.
“I was gutted because I was still young enough. I was 30. But I didn’t want to go through the pain I had that year again and f**k myself up for the rest of my life.
“I went into doing a bit of coaching after that. I went out to Granada. Karl Markey brought me in and it was good to get back involved.
“We left Granada and we had two or three other clubs. I stayed with Karl because he was very good, bringing me in.
“About four years ago now he rang me up and he said ‘Listen Richie, we’re going down to Rosemount Mulvey. We’re bringing the club back because it’s been gone the last three years or so. So I said ‘Right, let’s give it a go.’
“So we started off with one senior team four years ago and now I’m Director of Football at the club and we have two senior teams, we just got a senior ladies team this year. We have six junior boys teams, we have six junior girls teams, and we have an academy that takes place on a Saturday that we have 140 kids at now and we have an academy on Sundays which Maggie Doyle, our head girls coach, looks after, and they have 70 girls taking part.
“The club has grown so much. It’s amazing what the committee and the people at the club have done. It’s a real team effort and where we’re at now is unbelievable.
“And anyone who wants to come out and join can get in contact with me at email@example.com”
Now helping guide a new generation of footballers at Rosemount, Baker is delighted to pass on the knowledge and experience he garnered in the highest echelons of Irish club soccer in what was a particularly special time for him.
“I was lucky enough to come to the League of Ireland when I did” he said. “To have the teams, the squads, managers and coaches around me that we had, it was amazing.
“I say it to the lads I played with back in the day, I say ‘We were so lucky to be in the League of Ireland when we were. That was the best time in the league’
“Every single club between 2000 and 2005, they all had unbelievable teams and they were attracting players from all over the place. I was just privileged to be involved in it at that time.”
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