Rice’s Field of Dreams

It is the little details that can make all the difference. We have all probably heard Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday talking about football being a game of inches, about being one half step too late or too early and that being the difference between winning and losing. Last week with seventy minutes on the clock in the humid Tel Aviv evening, Shamrock Rovers got a throw deep into Bnei Yehuda territory. The inches that might have made the difference between winning and losing were those that Aidan Price had over his Israeli marker enabling him to flick the ball on from the throw into the path of Thomas Stewart. Stewart was that half step ahead of the Bnei Yehuda defender allowing him to sweep the ball home for the only goal of the game. Maybe the difference was the inches that Stephen Rice gained on his long throw by cheekily wiping his sweaty hands on the Israeli ball boy just before taking his throw in which means that tonight the Italian giants of Juventus visit Tallaght Stadium.

It is a mere seven days since Shamrock Rovers overcame Bnei Yehuda in the Europa League second round qualifying game. For the club’s back room team, on both the playing side and administration side, it has been an incredibly hectic week trying to get ready for what has to be the biggest game of the season so far and one to rival any of Rovers’ previous European encounters. The players and club management only returned to Ireland close to midnight last Friday night and on arrival got a very pleasant surprise. Waiting at Dublin Airport was a couple of hundred eager Rovers fans, one very eager club mascot Hooperman and Print and TV media from all over Ireland. It is not often that Rovers get a piece on the Saturday night nine o’clock news but we did last Saturday. RTÉ’s cameras, who are always here covering the game live tonight, got a real sense of the pride that Hoops fans had in their team with their coverage of the homecoming. Stephen Rice was one of the players that just couldn’t believe his eyes and ears on entering into the arrivals hall to be greeted by the Rovers fans belting out the Irish terrace classic of ‘Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Italy, Que Sera, Sera.’ “It was unbelievable! It was something else, I never even thought it would be like that,” Rice told Hoops Scene on his return to Dublin.

Rovers had made the long journey to Tel Aviv earlier in the week for the second leg. It was a trip manager Michael O’Neill had made two weeks previously to scout out his opponents and check the weather conditions in the city on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. “We got there at 5 o’clock on Tuesday morning and trained that evening,” said Rice. “We trained Wednesday evening and it was very warm. The heat was unbelievable, it was humid and very hard to get used to the conditions.”

It was an injury time goal at the first leg in Tallaght, courtesy of Robert Bayly, that had left the tie so finely balanced. Rice and his teammates were confident that they could go and win against the team that finished fourth last season in the Israeli Premier Division. “We always felt, even with how the game went in Tallaght that we looked the more dangerous side. We felt we would create chances which we did in Tallaght. They had a lot more possession than us but we were more dangerous when we did go forward. Out there I don’t think they underestimated us. We had a game plan that we went out to play with and we were patient. They had a lot of the ball at times and had chances but you expect that at European level. We knew we would create a number of chances which we did and we scored from one to win.”

It was a select group of Rovers fans who made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the game with close to 80 Hoops fans in the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa that night. For most of those fans it was the best night of their lives following Shamrock Rovers. Those fans stood and sung making their voices heard in the sparsely populated stadium and the players responded. The celebrations for the goal and more especially at the end of the game, with players throwing their shirts into the crowd, were very special. “The celebrations on the pitch and over with the fans at the end of the game were amazing. You know what it means to the fans, they’ve spent their hard earned money to travel. It was great to get a result for them having spent the money and time to go out there. There were great scenes of celebrations at the end and that continued in the dressing room with singing and even a bit of dancing!”

Those celebrations were echoed by all the Rovers fans that couldn’t make the trip but watched the live feed from Israeli TV on the internet on their computers. In the Maldron Hotel across the road from the stadium here in Tallaght, several hundred fans squeezed into the bar to watch the live internet coverage on the large screen. A casual visitor to the hotel would have been bemused by the celebrations with plenty of tears and the perfect strangers hugging each other at the conclusion of the 90 minutes. The Rovers away contingent will have plenty of reinforcements next week with an allocation close to 1,000 tickets available for away fans for the third round tie.

The draw for that next round was made after the first leg and so by the second leg both Bnei Yehuda and Shamrock Rovers knew they had the opportunity of playing Juventus, the most successful club in the history of Italian football, in the third round. The Rovers players were trying to concentrate on the immediate obstacle of getting through the tie but Rice acknowledged that it was hard and when he first heard the news of the draw he didn’t quite believe it, “I was talking to a friend on the phone that day and I thought he was winding me up at the start when he said we got Juventus. It was such a big incentive for us. There was a bit of talk in the dressing room about playing Juventus, you couldn’t help that.”

This time last year Rovers played an equally famous club in Real Madrid when they came to Ireland for the start of their pre-season. With Cristiano Ronaldo making his debut following his world record transfer to Real Madrid, the world’s media descended on Tallaght. Many thought we would not see the likes of it again but tonight’s competitive fixture is not far off. It took a late Karim Benzema goal from a Real side filled with internationals to defeat Rovers in that friendly. Like all players Rice has dreamed of playing against the big footballing sides. “You want to play at the highest level, playing against the best teams. It was Real Madrid last year and we thought that it was a bit of a one off and here we are playing Juventus.” He also recognises that while that game was good preparation for the club that “lots of our current players didn’t play in that Madrid game.” Indeed only five players including Rice from the win over Bnei Yehuda were involved in the game against Real Madrid last year.

Stephen Rice has some previous European football experience from his time at Bohemians in 2005. “I played the games against Gent with Bohs.” Having won the home leg, Bohs lost the tie 3-2 on aggregate but that result was a lot better than last week’s 4-1 loss over two legs to Welsh side TNS. The defeat was “shambolic and embarrassing” and that was the verdict of their own manager Pat Fenlon. With Sporting Fingal losing to Portuguese side Maritimo 6-4 on aggregate and Dundalk being outclassed 8-0 by Levski Sofia, it meant Shamrock Rovers were the last Irish side to be involved in European competition this year going into last week’s second leg. Rice explained that they didn’t concern themselves with other results but were concentrating on performing for themselves, their team mates and for the fans. “We were not really thinking about that, people just linked it all together with the bad results and what happened during the week.”
UCD were due to visit Tallaght last Monday night for an Airtricity League fixture but Rovers looked for a postponement which the Students and FAI thankfully acceded to. “I wouldn’t say it was a relief to get the UCD postponed,” said Rice, “but it just allows us more time to recover and prepare. We got back late on Friday evening and trained Sunday evening.” And has he had many ticket requests? “Ah stop, the phone hasn’t stopped hopping and they are not just looking for one ticket but people are on looking for six tickets!” Those lucky enough to have a ‘golden ticket’ for tonight’s game will be hoping that at the very least Rovers can extend their 15 game unbeaten streak. But can they really dream of a win against a squad containing Del Piero, Melo, Grosso, Salihamidzic, Camoranesi, Trezeguet to name but a few? “You are kind of putting me on the spot there as they obviously have some quality players but we wouldn’t be going out on the pitch if we didn’t think we could get a result. We will do our best and try and enjoy the game.”

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