Fenntastic Voyage

As manager of Shamrock Rovers, Michael O’Neill has assembled a very strong squad here at Tallaght Stadium. Building on last year’s League runners up spot, this season O’Neill has brought in eight new players to improve the depth of the squad with the aim of winning a first major trophy for Rovers since 1994. The squad includes players with lots of international experience including senior, u23, u21 and youth level caps plus the squad has a host of league and cup medal winners.

A quick review of the honours won by players now at Rovers includes 15 league titles (8 League of Ireland and 7 Irish League titles) and 13 Cup medals (7 FAI Cups and 6 Irish Cups) as well as a number of other cup medals from both north and south of the border. The player in the squad with the most League of Ireland medals is new signing Neale Fenn who won the league with Cork and twice with Bohemians. Fenn made a lot of headlines when Rovers swooped for the former Tottenham Hotspur player last month following his departure from Dundalk mid-season and he has been involved over the last few games including last week’s FAI Ford Cup win.

Hoops Scene chatted with Rovers’ new acquisition following that hard fought cup win against Longford Town and started by asking him about the performance on an evening when Rovers couldn’t match their recent high scoring results. “The lads have had so many games, with so many big efforts and so many great results over the past few months, that a bad performance is bound to come sooner or later,” said Fenn. “The positives you can take out of it are at least we won the match and we are through to the next round of the cup.” Fenn, who won the cup as part of the double with Bohs in 2008, knows the importance of getting into the hat for the next round (where Rovers will face Galway United). “At this stage of the season you are still looking for the team to play well. Coming to a critical stage of the season now, it would be nice that in every game we play well but that isn’t going to happen. You can play bad and win the game, like we did against Longford, and you have to take the positives out of it.”

Shamrock Rovers went into that FAI Fourth round tie as Airtricity League leaders, five points clear of St. Pats, but were not allowed take anything for granted by Michael O’Neill. “The manager had drummed into us not to underestimate them or the game. To be fair to Longford they really made it difficult for us. They packed the midfield and stopped the ball getting into the front players,” outlined Fenn who hit the woodwork in the second half before Gary Twigg hooked the rebound back across the six yard box forcing an own goal to be scored. “Yeah, I was a bit unlucky. However, I really should have done better with the one in the first half where I should have hit it first time rather than taking it around the goalkeeper. I was stretching a little bit. Since I’ve been here at Rovers, the games I’ve been involved in, we have won them and that is the most important thing.”

Fenn pulled on the green and white hoops for the first time in a low key setting in the August Sunday evening sun when a Rovers selection took on the Manchester United reserves team in Tallaght. He went on to make his competitive debut when he started in the 4-1 win over Bray which was followed by his appearance in another 4-1 win, this time against UCD. “It takes a bit of time to get used to how everybody plays and for them to get used to how I play,” said Fenn. “Against Longford, it wasn’t a good performance and I can’t say I played well but I’m happy enough we’ve done okay and that we played well enough in the first half at least. Against UCD when I came on in the second half the game was already won and we managed to get a couple more goals.”

Having collected his last league medal in 2009 with Bohemians, Fenn is well placed to give an assessment of their challenge on the pitch this year. “The fact that all their players have been there and done it is so important. The hardest thing is that you are going to get games where, because you are top of the league, teams are just going to sit there. For Bohs they maybe won’t play well every week, they might not create loads of chances or dominate matches, but they are able to nick a goal whether it is in the first minute or the 90th minute. They’ve done that over the past couple of seasons and Shels used to do that when Pat Fenlon was there all those years ago. It is something he drills into his teams that winning is the most important thing.” So how crucial is that experience of having won medals previously? “I think it is important that you have a couple of lads in there that have won the league. However, when I was at Cork when we won the league, I don’t think anybody had a league winner’s medal there. It can be done that you can win it without that but I think it helps.”

Part of Fenn’s résumé includes winning a bronze medal at the 1997 FIFA World Youth (under 20) Championships. Fenn was part of a squad that included current Hoops player Dessie Baker, former Hoops player Trevor Molloy as well as Damien Duff and Glenn Crowe. It must be a tossup for the highlight of his career between that and the double with Bohs surely? Well not so. Every fan would love to get the opportunity to play for the club they support and that is something that Fenn got to do at the start of his professional career. “For me being a Tottenham supporter when I was playing in their first team that was the highlight of my career. Don’t get me wrong, the league medals and the international caps were brilliant but for me the thing that I look back most on is playing for Spurs. I was lucky enough to play for them a number of times.”

The signing of Fenn mid-season by Rovers was certainly seen as controversial but as has been joked before you can’t spell controversial without rovers. Fenn had made it clear to Dundalk that he wanted to retire but it didn’t take long for him to appear in Tallaght as a Shamrock Rovers player. So how did he come to join Rovers? “I made the decision I was going to leave Dundalk and that was final. I had nothing to do so I was going to go to the Juventus home game to watch it. I just really enjoyed it and I thought I would really like to play here. I got a call from Michael and that was it. I would like to have another crack of winning another cup and playing in the cup final as Dundalk was out. I thought I would like to give Rovers a go. With Rovers I give another option for the manager up front as he has some decent players up there.”
The Hoops will play in Oriel Park on Monday week and Fenn is under no illusions about what it will be like on his return to Dundalk. “I think it will be a pretty hostile reception from what I’m hearing from the lads up there. Whenever you leave a club, no matter how you leave, the fans aren’t happy about it even if you’ve done well with them. I will take it as a complement that they weren’t happy to see me go. I look forward to going up there and hopefully playing.”

Following tonight’s game the Hoops have just eight more league games to play and Fenn hopes to be involved in all the games between now and the end of the season. When asked when actually he would be retiring, Fenn was quick to say that he wouldn’t be “making any more decisions public.” He went on to explain that “the way football is now, there are no clubs who are going to sign you and pay you over Christmas. There is really no need to rush and say I’m going to do this or that. I think I’m going to just take my time and won’t make any statements about what I’m going to do. I’ll just see what happens.” And when that decision is made, will he stay involved in football? “Well, I’ve started up a little coaching business that I’m going to go more into and pursue that more full time. I do it at the moment but I find it hard to do with playing football as well. It is hard to balance that and playing. Whenever I do retire I’m going to put a lot of effort into that.” Hoops fans will hope that he will have earned a medal or two with Rovers before that day comes to pass.

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