A midfield master

Published in Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v Bray April 2011)

Champions Shamrock Rovers have begun the 2011 Airtricity League of Ireland season in fine form and sit unbeaten on top of the table. It would be wrong to say that the Champions are continuing where they left off last season as nobody at Rovers needs to be reminded how the team in the title run in ended up stumbling over the finishing line in first place. Tonight’s opponents Bray Wanderers were Rovers’ opposition on the concluding night of the league last season. They gave the Hoops a tough game making them battle to the 2-2 draw which was, as it turned out, enough for Shamrock Rovers to crucially top the table at the end of the season. This is the position the Hoops find themselves after five league games in this campaign having started the season with four wins and a draw.

Ever present in the league for Rovers so far this season has been new signing Ronan Finn who joined the Hoops following the demise of Sporting Fingal ahead of the start of the season. Hoops Scene chatted to the midfielder ahead of tonight’s game and began by asking about Rovers’ comprehensive 4-0 away win in last week’s game against Drogheda United. “The pitch wasn’t great,” said Finn, “but we coped with the wind and I thought we dealt with the circumstances very well. We managed to be a goal up at half time. I thought we dominated the second half. The game was probably over realistically after about ten minutes of the second half when we scored our second. Michael O’Neill seemed very pleased after the game.”

The game in Drogheda saw the Rovers manager make his first alterations to the starting line up this season having started the same team in the opening four league games. The change in midfield was forced with Chris Turner, who scored the crucial first goal in the win over St. Pats in third game, failing a late fitness test. This meant a first start for last year’s Shamrock Rovers Player of the Year, Stephen Rice. “That is my first time playing with Ricer properly,” said Finn. “He has so much energy. He covers some ground and he was flying into tackles. I thought he played very well last night. I’m just happy to be playing in the team and I’m delighted that we are winning. It is a big squad and the manager feels when he has to change it, he will but at the minute all the players are doing okay. The fact that we are winning means there is no need to change the team drastically. Any player can come in for any game as the squad is so strong. Glancing at the table, we have scored the most goals in the league, which is nice to see. We have also conceded the least. I think the defence has been solid all year. I think it is nice to get names on the score sheet and this gives the players confidence.”

Finn has a slightly different role with Rovers than he had with Fingal last year where he scored 8 goals in 34 league appearances and he has yet to find the back of the net for Rovers. “I’m looking forward to scoring my first goal now. Last year I had more of a free role and I could get forward a lot more. There were a lot less restrictions on my defensive duties but now I am playing in a midfield of two so you really have to time your runs. Last year I was gambling every time but this year it means taking it in turns with the other midfielder. A lot of teams we are playing against have three in the middle so you are getting tracked a lot more by two runners. I will be patient and when it comes I will be delighted.”

Rovers dropped their first points of the campaign in the recent draw in the Brandywell. “Every time you go up to Derry you know it is going to be tough,” said Finn about the 0-0 draw. “It is not an easy place to go to. That was probably their strongest team. The season was only four games in. We will know a bit more about them when we go up the next time but it was a good point. Come the end of the season it could be an important point. I can’t see many teams going up there and getting all three points. I know Sligo did it in the first game of the season but speaking to a couple of lads in Derry, they say they should have won the game and were robbed.”

Ronan Finn began his career with UCD and some Rovers fans may remember his home debut in Belfield. “My first game was at 17,” recalled Finn. “I actually scored against Rovers in the last game of the season. It was a 2-2 draw and I got the equaliser. At 18, I didn’t get into the team until half way through the season and then I stayed in it for the next couple of seasons.” Following UCD’s relegation in 2008, Finn captained the Students as they bounced straight back up to top flight football by winning the first division championship. He did all this while successfully completing his degree in sports management.

It was the option of education that saw him sign for Sporting Fingal last season despite some attention from Shamrock Rovers. “Last year, Rovers approached me, as well as Fingal,” outlined the 23 year old, “but at the time Fingal could offer me college with a Masters in Business Management which they paid for. That was a real pull and I was kind of going down that route in education. But then the season went very well for me football wise with clubs looking at me from England. That masters is on deferral now as I don’t know whether I really want to go back to that. Over the next few years, I want to concentrate on football but come 25 or 26 I will want to reassess the situation. I have my degree and I can afford to possibly enjoy my football over the next few years and worry about getting a diploma or a masters later.”

While things at Sporting Fingal went right for Finn on the pitch last season with the club finishing fourth, it all fell apart just a few short weeks before the start of this season. It is a tale that has been all too common over the past few years in the League of Ireland. The club made no secret of the need for new financial investment and were making statements of confidence about new money coming into the club. However that money never materialised and when it ended, it ended very suddenly. “The setup had a lot of potential and the squad we had were all really good. We were training pre-season but it was always in the back of our minds that things weren’t 100%. We just got on with it as we were still getting paid but we were probably led on. It came to a head suddenly. We had a friendly match cancelled one day for no reason. Nobody read too much into it but then one of the lads got wind that something was happening. Then the text messages and phone calls started to go around. The next day we went into training and Liam Buckley [Fingal’s manager] wasn’t there. We started the training session but it got called up early. We went in and we were given our letters [terminating the players’ contracts]. So we had trained that day as a group and two hours later there was no club. It was weird.”

The collapse of Sporting Fingal left all their players, Finn included, scrambling around for new employers. There were plenty of suitors for the Ireland U21 and U23 capped international as Finn explains. “I was over in England on trial at a few clubs. Crystal Palace was the one that went best. I met with the manager Dougie Freedman after a week of training. There was a gut feeling that I wouldn’t be playing much as they were fighting for their lives at the bottom of the Championship. They were not going to be playing much football. The two lads they had in the centre of midfield were two grafters, hardworking who got the ball forward. He said he would look at situation in the summer but I couldn’t hold him to that. Michael O’Neill was in contact, as were Bohs and Pats, but I was always keen to go with Rovers if I couldn’t go to England. I was in constant contact with Michael. As soon as I came back from Palace, I wanted to sign for Rovers and in the end I was delighted to sign for two years.”

Looking at Rovers’ upcoming fixtures, the eye is drawn to next week’s derby match against Bohemians but Finn, ever the professional, has his focus very much on tonight’s game against Bray but did admit to discussing the upcoming game in Dalymount with the match winner from last year’s first derby. “We will treat Bray with respect. They won’t be easy. Bray are a good side this year and have come on a lot since last season. They are the games that you should be winning. They are the real important ones as they are the ones you can trip up on. Every time teams play Shamrock Rovers it is a big game, no matter what. They are playing against the Champions so they will raise their game. It is something we have dealt with well so far” said Finn before moving on to talk about the Dublin Derby. “It is the first game in the calendar that you look for. I’ve been at a few of the derbies. I wouldn’t live far from Dalymount. I have a few friends who are Bohemians fans and a few that are Rovers. I was speaking to Billy Dennehy about last year just the other day. He said it was crazy and the atmosphere was brilliant with such an edge to the game. The league table won’t really matter that day at all. Both teams will be up for it.”

The crowds and set up at Shamrock Rovers and in Tallaght Stadium are quite different from what Finn was used to at his previous clubs. The difference between Belfield and Morton Stadium is something he recognised quickly. “I was used to the small crowds at Fingal having come from UCD. When I was at UCD it didn’t bother me. As long as the pitch was flat and watered that was fine. At Fingal it was full time but there was no stability. The crowds were low and there was the potential for things to go wrong. The difference is massive at Rovers where there is a proper solid foundation. I’m so impressed with Rovers so far. The ground itself speaks so much for the club as it is really good. The setup at Rovers is second to none in Ireland and would be in comparison with the Championship or League 1 in England. It is great especially at the minute as we are doing well and the crowds are behind us. You can see it in Tallaght or like up in Drogheda when the goals were scored. It is weird, the fans in Fingal were far away so you never felt that close but in Tallaght when you score all the boys are celebrating with the fans. It is crucial. It is nice to see and long may it continue.”

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