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Sives savours Serbian Steamrollers Test

Published in Hoops Scene 14 August 2011 Shamrock Rovers v FK Partizan (Europa League)

The recent taste of Champions League action has whetted the appetite for more European football amongst the fans and players alike here at Shamrock Rovers. The Hoops are hungry to continue their European campaign and do so tonight against FC Partizan from Belgrade in the first leg of their Europa League play off. Since elimination by Copenhagen from qualification for the Champions League two weeks ago, Rovers have won both their games in the Airtricity League beating Bohemians 1-0 and UCD 6-0.

Craig Sives and his team mates would certainly be happy with another clean sheet tonight against the Serbian Champions who began their own league campaign last Saturday with a 5-0 win. “I think we need to keep a clean sheet at home,” said Sives speaking after the Europa League draw which he watched on Eurosport. “They grouped it so we knew who we were getting. It was a difficult group which included Athletico Madrid.”

As it turned out the unseeded Rovers, who are the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition, were paired against the lowest ranked seeded team so it could be viewed as a favourable draw. “You can look at it like that but they were in the Champions League last year,” said the Scotsman. “Now I think they lost every game but the fact that they were in the Champions League group stages means that they are no mugs. It is not going to be easy put it that way.”

In Rovers’ last European game against Copenhagen, the Hoops gave another team with plenty of Champions League experience lots of difficulty. The knowledge gained from those games and the win over FC Flora Tallinn in the previous round is something that will prove very valuable against the experienced Partizan team. “We can take confidence in how we performed especially in the Copenhagen away leg and the first forty minutes of the return leg in Tallaght. You want to challenge yourself against better players and see what kind of level you are at. As a player it has been good when you come up against those sort of players. We handled ourselves really well. We can all be pretty proud of our efforts. Personally I have certainly enjoyed it.”

Having lost the away leg 1-0, Rovers had Copenhagen under huge pressure in the second leg in Tallaght when they could have led at the break rather than go in a goal down. Alas Chris Turner’s header came back off the bar rather than under it. “If Chrissy’s header goes in, it changes the whole complexion of the game,” explains Sives. However, Copenhagen were able to capitalise on Rovers not scoring and they grabbed their a goal of their own just before half time which left Sives and his team“totally deflated, as deep down we knew our chances of progression had pretty much gone.”

Both Rovers and St. Pats have competed well in Europe this season. They will play a minimum of twelve European games between them this season and the Hoops will obviously hope to play more by beating Partizan over two legs. Sligo Rovers really should have won away in Ukraine in their first leg against Vorskla Poltava. Sives has his own opinions on the question of what Irish clubs need to do to be able to progress and qualify for the group stages of a European competition. Part of it is down to just a bit of luck but the other is down to fitness.

“There is the luck side of things,” said the centre half. “If we had scored out there (in Copenhagen) when Billy (Dennehy’s) chance was saved by the keeper who got lucky and saved with his heel. If Turner’s header goes in, it changes the whole tie. I watched MNS the other night and the guy in Sligo smacked it over from two yards. If he scores there, then they have the vital away goal. There is a small margin.”

Rovers had the advantage over Copenhagen in terms of match sharpness as the Danes had only just begun their playing season. Similarly, Partizan have themselves only just begun their campaign whereas Rovers have played 37 competitive games to date this season. However, the amount of time that the clubs can spend on overall fitness is a different story. “To really truly compete the club’s have to be full time,” states Sives. “Unfortunately the way the financials are in Ireland it is not going to be possible. Copenhagen have a state of the art training facility of their own. They will be in every day working on football specific stuff in the morning and work on their physical condition in the afternoon like most full time clubs work. Until that happens, it is always going to be hard. We are not that far off. We competed really well. I think over there, especially in the second half, we were on top of them. You could see that they were maybe a bit tired with it being the start of their season. But the general size of the guys, they were all big strong guys. There was an occasion in the first half and the ball has gone out wide and I’ve tried to run around the guy N’Doye. He has stood his ground and I ran into him and it was like a brick wall. He’s ridiculously strong! And that goes for their centre half as well who I was marking at corners; he was really strong. They do have something in the other leagues and other countries that gets them into that condition.”

Next Thursday, the Hoops will line out in the Stadion FK Partizan against the team known as Parni Valjak or the Steamrollers. Domestically Partizan have lived up to their nickname winning the last four Serbian titles. However recently in Europe they have shown some frailties. In the Champions League last season they played in the same group as Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk and the Europa League runners up Braga but lost every single game. Just two week ago, they were eliminated from the Champions League, at the same stage as Rovers, by Belgian side Racing Genk.

“If you were watching their games in the Champions League last year then you know that it is going to be a hostile and intimidating place to go,” said Sives of the trip to play against the team who’s fan group are known as the Grobari or Gravediggers. “It is all part of the European experience and if it is going to be intimidating and hostile, who cares. You want to play in front of big crowds. Me personally, I felt very comfortable in Copenhagen and also in the Cup Final in front of 30 odd thousand. I felt very comfortable playing in that sort of arena. I think a lot of the players felt that way as well especially in the Copenhagen game. They felt that this is the stage that we should be at. We felt very comfortable and obviously it showed in the performance.”

After the Copenhagen loss, Rovers returned to domestic action with a trip to Dalymount Park which has its own hostile atmosphere. Sives thought that the game “was the perfect way to come back. They may have felt we would be a bit tired but that wasn’t the case at all. We took the Copenhagen away performance and the home first half performance into the game. Once we got the goal, which was thoroughly deserved, we maybe took the foot off the gas a wee bit. I think Ger O’Brien had a couple of chances to score especially late on which was disappointing on our part at the back. I thought we were fantastic for the majority of the game. Going to Dalymount it is a difficult place to go. The game is always pretty tight. I think the tables have turned on that one and we are now the top team.”

Emotions ran high in the game with the Rovers captain Dan Murray and goalkeeper Ryan Thompson having a disagreement over a back pass but at the final whistle the pair were quick to embrace each other and celebrate with the rest of the Rovers squad after the hard fought 1-0 win. “These things happen in football,” said Sives of the back pass incident. “They are two strong personalities. Dan obviously thought Ryan should have come out and Ryan thought Dan should have played it back and neither happened. We were all laughing and joking about it after! Ryan has stepped up to the plate and has done fantastic since he has come in.”

There was also a disagreement over the Rovers goalscorer which was more light hearted. Both Dean Kelly and Gary Twigg met Billy Dennehy’s corner on the head for a goal that was either Kelly’s first league goal or Twigg’s first goal at Dalymount Park. “At the time we thought Deano had scored,” said Sives, “but when you watch it back and you see it from behind the goal you see it has hit Twiggy square in the face. I’m delighted for him that he scored his first goal at Dalymount.”

Since just before the start of the European campaign, Rovers manager Michael O’Neill has brought in Jim Magilton as his number two. Magilton has a wealth of footballing experience from both playing the game, including as an international teammate with O’Neill, and also as a manager. Sives is very positive about the Belfast man’s influence on the squad especially at the back. “It has been great. There certainly is a good buzz in training and everything is done with the ball. He works everyday with the back four quite a lot. Working on passing the ball and being comfortable on the ball. It has been great for all the players at the back and I think our performances have improved since Jim has come in. We are all hoping he will stay until the end of the season at least.”

At the start of this season, Rovers had to begin their league campaign without the 2009 Shamrock Rovers young player of the year. Thankfully Sives injury was nothing to do with his previous injuries that had jeopardised his career when playing with Hearts in Scotland. “I tore my hamstring in the first few minutes of the game down in Killarney in our very first pre-season game. I probably should have come off. I stayed on till half time but it was pretty clear I couldn’t continue. I came back in the Leinster Senior Cup game against Dundalk but it went again unfortunately. So it meant even longer being out which was disappointing but the defence performed really well without me.” When Sives did return he did so with a bang getting his name on the score sheet against Drogheda United. “I scored on my first game back which was very pleasing, as I don’t get very many goals! I’m just happy to be back fit again and playing regularly which I’ve always wanted to do.”

The European campaign has garnered plenty of good publicity for the club with live TV coverage of the away game in Tallinn, both games against Copenhagen and RTÉ’s cameras are here again to cover tonight’s game live. The Hoops also made an appearance on TV3’s Celebrity Head Chef with the ‘celebrity’ chefs preparing a meal for the Rovers squad. There was more publicity for the club when one of the chefs took exception to the criticism of her dessert and called one of the Rovers squad a peasant. “It was all good fun. Nobody really knows who the comments from Twink were aimed at. If it was aimed at myself than I don’t really care as I’d never heard of her until this programme came about! It is not a big deal as it was just a bit of fun and it was good publicity for the club.” Earlier in the season, Billy Dennehy told Hoops Scene that his signature dish was spaghetti bolognaise. So what would Craig Sives cook for the squad if he had to? “It would be basic stuff like a stir fry or chicken and pasta. Don’t believe everything you see on TV as I don’t make haggis at all!” Sives will be hoping tonight that the recipe of hard work served with plenty of skill and maybe garnished with a bit of luck will help his team devour the Serbian opposition.

Photography by George Kelly

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