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Keep on hoping and keep on hooping

Article for Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v St Pats, Oct 2010, FAI Cup Final Semi-final)

With a long and successful history Shamrock Rovers are well used to winning trophies. However, in the recent past, the stories of winning trophies on the pitch have been replaced with tales of off field drama. That drama has unfolded across many acts beginning with the sad loss of Milltown. There was a sort of homecoming when the club eventually returned south of the Liffey when the Hoops picked up their last league during their time at the RDS. The saga of Tallaght Stadium came next with Rovers wandering from ground to ground and the story even descended into farce with the Hoops ending up playing a home game in Cork. The tale continued with Rovers’ near death during Examinership before the resurrection as a fans owned club which was followed by relegation for the first time in the club’s history. Thrown into the mix is the court room drama that occurred when the GAA attempted to prevent Rovers getting into Tallaght Stadium. Everybody loves a happy ending and that probably occurred when the Hoops finally got to play here in Tallaght last season. A fitting epilogue though would be to capture some silverware this year and so today’s cup semi final is an important part of this tale.

With all this in mind it is almost strange to have the main drama surrounding the club this season being matters on the pitch rather than off it. The drama this season went on tour with the Hoops taking their production to Europe during the summer. The drama of the last month or so however, is probably something that the club could have done without. This is no Film Noir but it isn’t far off as the team has gone from having the Airtricity League destiny in their hands to hoping bitter rivals Bohemians will drop points in the last two league games. This afternoon Shamrock Rovers play Saint Patrick’s Athletic in the FAI Ford Cup semi final with the prize of a trip to the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road for next month’s final on offer.
Shamrock Rovers’ Europa League campaign was certainly dramatic and concluded with a cast of world class stars. The campaign started with Bnei Yehuda’s visit to Tallaght Stadium. Having trailed at half time in the first leg, it took a late cameo from Robert Bayly to “break the heart of the Israeli’s” (as the song goes) with his injury time equaliser. The result of the second leg was made even more important as the draw for the following round meant the winners would get a dream tie against Juventus. The best venue to watch that crucial tie was in the stadium in Israel but the next best was certainly the Maldron Hotel. The venue across the road from the Rovers stadium became the Mecca for fans who couldn’t make the trip to the holy land. When Thomas Stewart’s winning goal went in, there was mayhem in the stadium in Tel Aviv and in the hotel in Tallaght. Some Rovers fans in both Israel and in Ireland were wiping away tears of joy if not disbelief at the final whistle. There was an air of slight incredulity about the result as it sunk in that the most successful club in the history of Italian football would be playing the Hoops across the road in the stadium in just one week’s time.

The tie against Juventus is one that will live long in the memory. In the first leg in Tallaght, Juventus scored in just the third minute but Michael O’Neill’s men did not panic and stuck to their game plan but did eventually concede a second goal. In the second leg, it was a case of “We came, we saw, we didn’t conquer” but Rovers certainly gave a good account of themselves on the sodden pitch and rain soaked away section against Juventus. As the fans began to gravitate towards the stadium on match day, the heavens opened and Shamrock Rumours was in full effect with talk of a delayed kicked off or even a postponement of the game. There was no way the pitch was playable for the first 20 minutes of the game as the ball constantly got stuck in the pools of water on the pitch under the biblical deluge from the above. However, the Greek referee ignored the rain, which was like something from a disaster movie, and the players just got on with splashing around in the puddles. There was certainly no appetite for abandonment from the 900 or so Rovers fans that had made the journey. In years to come the number claiming to have been there that night will rival 10,000 no doubt.

Thunder rang out and lightning lit up the Modena sky above the 17,500 fans that were in the Stadio Braglia stadium. The curva ospitti was decked out with virtually every Rovers flag and despite the rain, the Rovers fans were in fine voice. Everyone in the uncovered away section was soaked to the bone by the time the rain eased towards half time with the score still 0-0. The half time singsong in the dry below the away stand had to be seen and heard to be believed. It was a disputed free kick and an Italian football legend that ultimately were the difference on the night. Substitute Alessandro Del Piero struck a free kick from all of 35 yards allowing Juventus to progress 3-0 on aggregate. As the players applauded the Rovers fans still standing in the rain they were met with the song “Don’t want to go home, don’t want to go home, this is the best trip I’ve ever been on” or was it “this is the wettest trip I’ve ever been on”!

Shamrock Rovers got back to entertaining domestic auditions following the sojourn in Europe and Tallaght was treated to some fine displays from the Hoops as autumn arrived. Eight wins and a draw from the nine games in series 3 of the league were well earned. Against Bohemians, the Hoops put in a fine performance. After going 1-0 up, Rovers had to battle with 10 men in the second half but still managed to score another two goals. This consigned Bohs to four defeats in their four attempts at beating Rovers in Tallaght. Many thought the league title was all but assured after coming from a goal down to beat today’s opponents St. Pats 3-1 in Inchicore in September. However, that was Rovers’ last away win as the team have subsequently lost three consecutive away games in matches against Dundalk, UCD and Bohemians.

Last Saturday’s game was heartbreaking for Rovers. The home side dominated the game against Sporting Fingal leading 1-0 with just three minutes to go. A string of chances were missed including a penalty when many fans queried why Clarke in the Fingal goal had not been shown a red card for preventing a clear goal scoring opportunity. The call had gone out to Rovers fans to get into the stadium early and generate maximum noise to spur on the team as part of the flag and scarf day. The atmosphere was amazing, especially for an afternoon game, with fans leaving with sore hands from clapping and sore throats from singing. However, they also left with heavy hearts as Sporting Fingal somehow managed to rob the game by scoring in the 87th and 88th minute. The final whistle was met with silence as the stunned Shamrock Rovers players and fans could not quite believe what they had seen with a win turned into a defeat at the death. The tears of joy from the win in Israel were a distant memory. There have only been a couple of occasions when this writer has slumped into his seat head in hands close to tears and Saturday was one. The previous occasion was the night in 2005 when Rovers were relegated. That night the mighty Shamrock Rovers had been relegated for the first time undone by mismanagement off the field by the old regime and mismanagement on the field by the manager who had been sacked towards the end of that season. That relegation actually resulted in a stronger club as the members consolidated the club’s finances following Examinership and replacement of the old board. Maybe the similar depression that was evident following last weekend’s defeat may spark something else positive as at least Rovers have today’s semi final and remaining league games to turn the season around.

While the league may be out of Rovers’ hands with the Hoops now relying on results elsewhere, the same cannot be said about the FAI Cup. St. Pat’s, who last won the cup in 1961, are the visitors today in front of RTÉ’s live TV cameras. While Pats did win here in Tallaght earlier on in the season, in the three subsequent encounters Rovers have emerged victorious. Michael O’Neill will be instilling as much confidence as he can muster in his team as they face into the last few matches of the season. His team must believe that they can come back from the recent disappointments and the fans must continue with the vocal support that was in evidence last weekend. Can Rovers claim one, if not two pieces of silverware, this season? Why not believe that this can happen? If you had said last year that Rovers would end up playing Juventus, only losing the away leg to a 35 yard Del Piero free kick, nobody would have believed you. Is there to be a final twist in this dramatic 2010 season? Let us keep on hoping and keep on hooping.

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