The Sheppard Network

The Shamrock Rovers manager has a wealth of talent to call upon in the striking department. As well as the league’s top goal scorer for the last two seasons Gary Twigg, manager Michael O’Neill has three other strikers to pick from and all three were new players signed ahead of the start to this 2011 season. In Gary O’Neill, the Rovers manager has a player who it is apparent he has long admired and in Ciarán Kilduff, O’Neill welcomes back a player to the Hoops that he was sorry to see leave for UCD a couple of seasons ago. Making up the quartet is Karl Sheppard, who has scored some crucial goals so far this season with nine in total and this includes the winners in 1-0 wins over Bohemians, Sligo Rovers and his former club Galway United.

With Galway last season, Karl Sheppard played all bar one of United’s 36 league games. He finished Galway’s joint top scorer on eight league goals alongside another of Rovers’ 2011 acquisitions, Stephen O’Donnell. Both Sheppard and O’Donnell were instrumental in shaping the destiny of the last league championship as Galway managed to take 10 points from the available 12 from eventual runners up Bohemians. Even the Champions Shamrock Rovers couldn’t manage that, only claiming seven points against Bohs. So how did United manage to get three wins and a draw against the Gypsies? “Sean Connor [Galway’s manager] had us very pumped up for those games,” explained Sheppard. “We just seemed to play like we had 12 men on the park in each of those games. Even in the last game when we had four of our main players suspended, the lads still went out and beat them 3-2 on the second last day of the season. I don’t know really, we were just a big jinx on them!”

Amongst his goals this season, Sheppard has managed to score quite a few with his head. Not bad for a player that is conceding a few inches in height to teammates like Ciarán Kilduff as well as some opposition centre halves. Last season, Shamrock Rovers reputedly had the smallest side in top flight world football, second only to Barcelona! It is surprising to hear that none of Sheppard’s goals last season were scored with his head. “Last year I didn’t score one headed goal,” said the 20 year old “and this year I’ve got five headed goals out of nine goals in total.”

His latest headed goal was in the recent 6-1 win over UCD in Belfield. It was a match that took a while for Rovers to get going in but when they did UCD were on the receiving end of Rovers’ most comprehensive win of the season so far. “Up until Twiggy [Gary Twigg] scored, it looked like it was going to be a difficult night. Once Twiggy got the goal then we kind of knew that the game was over because our defence has been top notch this year. We kept pushing on to get an extra few goals and thankfully I got involved and I got one of them. It is always nice to get on the score sheet.”

Everyone was keen to get in on the act especially in the second half when Rovers wingers Billy Dennehy and Gary McCabe got behind the UCD defence to fire in crosses against a team who were down to ten men by that stage. As the game reached the last quarter, Gary Twigg was eyeing up his hat-trick and Alan Mannus was eyeing up another clean sheet. But both men would be visibly disappointed with Twigg having to make way for Kilduff and Mannus unhappy with seeing a late shot sail into the top corner of his net. This fierce determination to succeed from both players shows the competitiveness that is required to be champions and even to be in the Rovers team. “Alan is a top pro and he wants to keep a clean sheet every game. Understandably him and the defence were annoyed at conceding. With Twiggy up front, strikers just want to score goals. Me and him were joking just before his number went up saying it is going to be his turn. Everyone just wanted to stay on, as strikers just want to score goals and that’s what he wanted to do. We’ve been threatening to give a defeat like that to someone because in some games the manager has been saying we’ve only been staying in third gear. That night we stepped it up an extra two gears and we really showed what we could do.”

When Twigg came off after 70 minutes, it gave the opportunity for Ciarán Kilduff to try and get on the score sheet on his return to UCD where he scored 15 league goals for the Students last season. “When you look at the squad, there is so much competition everywhere,” said Sheppard. “Once you get the chance you have to take it and to be fair to Killer he grabbed two goals and played really well when he came on. I’m pleased with how I am playing at the moment. I have six in the league now. I just need to start getting more than one goal in a game! It seems like against UCD there was a brick wall up once I scored that one. The ball got cleared off the line and then hit the post, I just couldn’t get that second. I’ll take one every game if they keep coming like that.”

Rovers fans were quite pleased with his solitary goal in late May which was the difference between the sides in the big Dublin Derby in Tallaght against Bohemians. It was another headed goal and one that Sheppard ranks very highly. “It is probably up there with one of the best moments yet in my career. It is such a big game and to get the winner is always nice. I think more importantly we were just trying to get the win as, to be honest, we were a bit disappointed when we played them in their place [in a 1-1 draw]. We obviously knew they were a big three points and we were delighted to get them.”

That win against UCD by Rovers has been followed in the re-arranged fixture list with three consecutive home games. Just three days after beating UCD, Rovers were held 1-1 at home by Derry City. Next up as the regular Friday fixture, the Hoops take on Galway United and then four days later Dundalk visit Tallaght Stadium. How does Sheppard find playing all these games in such a short amount of time? “It doesn’t really bother me too much,” said Sheppard. “I probably prefer it that way. You do get a bit tired playing but I find we have the best squad in the league so we can cope with it. It is a good place for us to go and pick up maximum points when other teams feel extra tired because they don’t have the squad to do it. I think it favours us the most in the league at the moment.”

Amongst the Rovers squad is a handy seven a side Twitter team of Ryan Thompson, Enda Stevens, Stephen Rice, Paddy Kavanagh, Ciarán Kilduff, Gary Twigg and Karl Sheppard. These are the Rovers players that have embraced social networking in the form of Twitter and Sheppard would definitely be the captain of this Twitter team with over 3,775 tweets! The first to get confirmation of Sheppard signing for Shamrock Rovers in the close season were Sheppard’s followers on Twitter who got to read ‘Just signed for Shamrock Rovers great to be on board.’ With over 780 followers, Sheppard has just 15 followers less than the Bohemians official Twitter account. No surprise that the Rovers official account (@ShamrockRovers) leads the way being just 25 followers short of the 2000 mark! “It is a bit of fun,” he says about Twitter. “It is a good place to have a bit banter with the other lads on the team and with the fans as well. It is a good way to interact with people that you don’t normally get to see day in or day out.” And does he get much slagging from opposition fans over his social network? “To be fair I do. I get a fair bit off Sligo but it gives me that extra bit of incentive when we go and play them!”

In the week that former Hoops player and boss Damien Richardson was unveiled as the manager of the Airtricity XI in the upcoming Dublin Super Cup, Sheppard engaged in a twitter debate over the merits of that tournament. Last year, Sheppard had the opportunity to line out in the first football match in the redeveloped Lansdowne Road for the league selection against Manchester United. Sheppard tweeted “Everyone slating the Dublin Super Cup, why? I got so much confidence from that last year not only cause I was selected for the Airtricity Team but also getting complements off John O’Shea gave me a big boost and playing in front of 40 odd thousand is an experience no one forgets.” Sheppard went on to tell Hoops Scene that “I see a lot of people slating it and saying that it is just a money scheme for the FAI. But to be honest it was probably one of the biggest learning things in my career. When you are going out there in front of 40,000 to play and put yourself up against the second best team in the world at the moment, you are only going to get good things out of it. People say we lost 7-1 but it was against a team who’ve been together for years and we were only together for two days. I don’t know what people were really expecting but for me it was a really worthwhile tournament.” This season’s squad will get more of a chance to train together ahead of the games they will play against Manchester City and Celtic. “That will be really helpful as last year we really only had three training sessions together in the two days,” said Sheppard. “It was crammed packed and if it is a bit more organised this time, I’m sure the league will show itself to be a lot better than what it did last year.”

Hopefully, Sheppard will not be in the Airtricity League squad this year as the aim will be for him to be involved in Shamrock Rovers’ European campaign that is happening at the same time. As the Airtricity XI was playing in the Aviva Stadium last year, the Shamrock Rovers side were carrying out their pre-match training session ahead of the competitive game against Juventus in the Europa League. This year, the Hoops make the switch from the Europa League to the Champions League. Rovers will enter the competition in the second qualifying round and will do so as a seeded team. With the draw on June 20, these competitive European matches are something that Sheppard, like everyone here at Shamrock Rovers, is very much looking forward to. “We much prefer to be playing Champions League than playing in a friendly game. One of our priorities is to get through in Europe so we can get a few rounds in it. It is a massive reason why I came to Rovers. Seeing how well they did last year out in Israel and then against Juventus as well. These are the games you want to play in. When you are playing against teams in Europe, it is a big test and it is a great place to showcase your skills on a proper stage.”

It was with Everton that Sheppard began his professional football career following his move from Shelbourne. “I had just turned 16 when I went over,” recalled Sheppard. “It was a big change from living at home to move away from your family. I learned a lot when I was over there and educated myself there football wise. Obviously I want to do really well for Rovers and hopefully if the right team comes about I’d move back over to England. But it would have to be the right move for me and the club if I’m honest. Rovers have treated me very well this year and I just want to do really well for both them and myself.”

Sean Connor signed him for Galway United when his two and a half year spell with Everton ended. “To be fair he took a gamble on me. He didn’t know much about me but he said come over on a trial when not many other teams in the league were willing to take a gamble on it. Thankfully he was willing to do it.” Sheppard has subsequently enjoyed the switch from Terryland Park to play in front of the large crowds here at Tallaght Stadium. “It is much better. Last year we were playing in front of just 600 or 700. You couldn’t really get going because there was no atmosphere. Obviously Rovers have the best fans in the league by far. People use the excuse that it is a disadvantage when the crowd gets on your back but to be honest I don’t think I’ve found that once yet. I’ve found when we’ve gone down, you get the odd moan but most fans get behind the team and that helps us push on that extra bit. You find yourself getting an extra yard or two because of them pushing you on a bit.”

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