Euro Vision and Reality

Published in Hoops Scene 13 (Shamrock Rovers v UCD, 10 August 2011)

Ahead of the club’s entry into the Europa League, Macdara Ferris chats to some Hoops players about the recent Champions League campaign…

After the recent Champions League qualifying campaign, it is back to domestic action for Shamrock Rovers tonight as the Hoops take on UCD. Rovers know that if they want to replicate this season’s European football adventures in 2012, then they need to go about securing three points tonight against the Students in the Airtricity League. The Hoops currently sit joint top of the table on 48 points along with Sligo Rovers and Derry City but with a game in hand.

In the league there is a certain level of expectation that surrounds Rovers this season. Manager Michael O’Neill has brought in several new players to the squad that won the league last season and the talk in some quarters, but not at the club, was that this could be a side that might dominate the domestic league for a number of years. The last team to have a strangle hold on the League of Ireland was the Shamrock Rovers four in a row league winning side in the mid-1980s during the last days of Milltown. However that historic team failed to reproduce their domestic dominance in Europe being eliminated in the first round on each attempt. It was therefore nice for the current Rovers squad to make their own history last month when they became the first Rovers team to win a European Cup match following their 1-0 win at home to Flora Tallinn. They did so on the night that the club celebrated that four in a row team by hosting a reception for them in the stadium 25 years on from their game in Milltown against Glasgow Celtic.

This season’s European campaign in the Champions League qualifiers to date and Europa League playoff against Partizan Belgrade to come have been a nice distraction for Rovers away from the pressure of trying to retain their League of Ireland crown. A number of the Rovers fixtures have been re-arranged to suit the European schedule and tonight is Rovers’ first home game after the short mid-season summer break in the league. “It’s good to have a break and take your mind off it,” said Rovers full back Pat Sullivan. “You have so many Friday-Tuesday games in the league and sometimes that can get on top of you. Breaks like this, and getting one or two games moved, it’s quite nice and we have the summer break which is even better.”

Last season, Rovers were very effective in juggling their domestic and European commitments. The Hoops garnered 25 out of the 27 points on offer in the middle third of the season that coincided with Rovers defeating Israeli side Bnei Yehuda before playing Juventus. Sullivan, who was watching those games last season on the sideline due to a lengthy injury layoff, was quick to point out that “it was our best period coming off the back of Europe”.

European games afford the team a chance to go up against new players and new playing systems. “In league games you know the teams and what systems you’re going to play,” explains Sullivan. “When you’re playing higher level teams in Europe, you raise your game. The more we raise our game it makes the club and us look better. It improves the club’s reputation and our reputation and that’s what you want.”

With the 1-0 aggregate win over Flora Tallinn and the fine performances in the defeats to Copenhagen, the Hoops have shown they are well able to compete on the European stage. The club will be expecting more ‘Sold Out’ signs to be going up in Tallaght Stadium ahead of next week’s Europa League playoff first leg against the Serbian Champions Partizan. Rovers will be hoping for a similar atmosphere as to the one here in Tallaght against Copenhagen in front of the capacity 6,000 crowd. These games are the prize for what the club achieved last season in winning the league and they mean a lot to the team as Stephen Rice explained. “It’s great, it’s a reward for the achievement of last year,” said the central midfielder. “A lot of time in Europe, it’s been a reward for clubs and has just been a reward. But I think Irish clubs are now going into Europe looking to progress which is a positive thing.”

The good results from Irish teams in Europe in recent years do bring a certain level of expectation to progress through at least the opening round. If teams go out “it’s not a good sign,” said Pat Sullivan. With the European matches squeezed into a tight schedule the players go into the game knowing who they will face in the next round should they progress. “It doesn’t help knowing who you can potentially play,” said Sullivan. “That doesn’t do anyone any favours as it potentially puts pressure on you. If you don’t get through a round, you’re going to be disappointed.”

The holy grail for an Irish team of qualifying for the group stages of a European competition still has not been attained. Rovers had Copenhagen under real pressure in the second leg of their third qualifying round. How the tie would have developed if Chris Turner’s powerful header had bounced down over the line rather than up and out, we will never know. Is it a realistic ambition to get to the group stages of the Champions League? “I think it’s a fair stretch to get to the group stage,” said Pat Sullivan. “The way European competition has gone, there seems to be more rounds. You have three qualifying rounds in the Champions League and then a [play off] qualifier round. It never seems to end. We’re a part time team but train like a full time team. Training itself is done in a full time manner, we just train in the evening and some mornings. It won’t change the fact of will qualify for something or not. The fact there are more clubs in Europe that are allowed try and qualify in the first and second rounds makes it harder. I wouldn’t say never but it will take a lot to qualify [for the group stage]. But when a team does, I hope it’s something that could happen more regularly.” His team mate Stephen Rice has this view on where Irish teams stand. “We’re still progressing,” says Rice. “I think that has a lot to do with the summer league, playing against clubs that are only coming back from pre-season and us being mid-season helps.”

Rovers’ elimination from the Champions League qualification process has resulted in the club being parachuted into the Europa League play off round with the prize of entry into the group stages if they can overcome Partizan. The Rovers manager Michael O’Neill is well aware of what his team have to deal with in terms of the number of European games that are taking place alongside domestic action like tonight’s game against UCD. However, O’Neill feels the minimum six European fixtures that Rovers will face this season can also aid his side domestically. “Our intention at the start of the league was to retain the title and that is still the case,” said O’Neill. “The European thing is something that can be positive. You have to deal with fatigue and more games but you get a togetherness with your squad that is difficult to get on a weekly basis. We will gain in terms of player unity and their relationships and we will be stronger as a result.”

Player photography by George Kelly

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