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Sullivan serves up a Serbian screamer

“Rovers have a corner. Comfortably dealt with this time as the SHOT COMES IN! Oooooooh, what a screamer! 1-1. Pat Sullivan. Man Alive! Out of nowhere the right back has given Shamrock Rovers a Europa League life line…On the volley, absolutely unstoppable.”
Nigel Bidmead (Setanta Sports)

It was a goal that will linger long in the memory both for its sheer quality but also its importance in the history of Shamrock Rovers and indeed League of Ireland football. Pat Sullivan’s superb 58th minute strike against Partizan in Belgrade, along with Stephen O’Donnell’s extra time penalty, earned Shamrock Rovers a 3-2 aggregate win in their Europa League play off. The result propelled Rovers in with the big boys of European football and into the unchartered territory for Irish football clubs of the group stages of the Europa League. Sullivan’s shot resonated around European football and the result was a hold the front and back page moment in the Irish media and made top sports billing on both TV and radio.

Speaking a week or so on from the event, Pat Sullivan hasn’t bored of talking about his goal, the drama of game in Belgrade and the win’s importance to Shamrock Rovers. “It is great when it’s a goal that means something rather than a goal when you’re two nil down,” said Sullivan. “It was great to celebrate it when it meant something in the game with us getting back into it. It is worth even more. The coverage has been something different. I do the odd paper interview but over last few days I had radio interviews, papers and been on RTÉ which is not something I’m really be used to but it has been good. If you score a goal like that, it works out that your going to get some of the headlines.”

On match day in Belgrade the temperatures were as high as 41 degrees but dropped to a relative low of 32 degrees by kick off. The atmosphere was just as hot in the FK Partizan Stadion with the Grobari Ultras in place well ahead of kick off generating intense noise. “It is not something I really find a problem,” said Sullivan about the heat. “The noise was pretty incredible at the start and it was something you had to get used to. After 20 minutes you were used to it and were concentrating on the match.” There had been a significant security presence surrounding Rovers in Belgrade but the team had no difficulties. “There was a police escort but there was no danger. We had it all week in training and had a lot of police in our hotel. We got out of the hotel for a walk and never had anyone come up to us or talk to us. So we never really felt threatened.”

Partizan led 1-0 at half time thanks to Vladimir Volkov’s header but Hoops boss Michael O’Neill made some changes to personnel and team formation in the second half, which provided rich dividends culminating in Sullivan’s fantastic goal. “We started the second half and changed our shape a bit,” said the Rovers right back. “It showed in how we got back into the game. We got at them. We made some changes to freshen it up.”

It was a difficult task to face into 30 minutes of extra time in the heat of Belgrade but O’Neill gave his team clear instructions. “It was to continue what we had been doing,” said Sullivan. “When we won it, to keep it, get forward and put them under pressure. You can’t chase it; if you do they will open you up, as they were decent on the ball. We never said anything about just getting to penalties, there was nothing like that said. We went about playing the same way because we knew we would get chances the way they play and luckily we took one in the end.”

Sullivan didn’t think that Rovers were lucky with the result but that the team earned it during the course of their European campaign and with the hard work done in the game in Serbia. Substitute Stephen O’Donnell was to play a crucial part in the Rovers win with his goal from the penalty spot and with a couple of great last gasp tackles. “Over the course of the other European games, we had a bit of harsh luck in the chances we missed in Copenhagen and when we hit the bar in the second leg,” recalled Sullivan. “Stevie (O’Donnell) came on to keep our shape and make sure we got on the ball. One or two times when Stevie did make a last ditch tackle, it’s as much down to good play than getting lucky, as it is about tracking runners when you could easily let a runner go and they could score. I don’t think we were lucky but they had a few chances that came their way which they hit straight at Ryan (Thompson).”

The crucial chance that Rovers did create came when Karl Sheppard was brought down in the box for a penalty to Rovers in the second period of extra time. It was O’Donnell who was quick to get the ball in his hands for the penalty. Did Sullivan expect his former teammate at Cork City to score? “I was 100 % confident. I’ve played with him before and I know he is a penalty taker. I know he has taken penalties before in Scotland so it doesn’t faze him. At the time when we got the penalty he was the only one who went looking for the ball. He wanted the ball. When you see someone do that, you don’t have it in your mind that he is going to miss.”

Conceding the penalty left Partizan with just a few minutes to get back into the game but they lost their discipline getting a man sent off and never really threatened the Hoops. “When we celebrated the penalty and I turned around to jog back, I looked up at the scoreboard and the time hadn’t come up. I didn’t really know what was gone and then it came up that there was 11 minutes gone in the second half of extra time and I just thought two goals, they need two goals. The first thing I expected was their centre half would go forward. They needed a goal but they started playing the ball normally and that was it, I think they were done.”

The enormity of the result will probably only sink in when Rovers play their first game in the Europa League group stages next Thursday in Dublin against Ruben Kazan and the consequence of the win have the potential to be felt for years to come. So what was Sullivan’s reaction at the final whistle? “I stood on the pitch for 15 minutes trying to soak it up with the few Rovers fans that were there. It was phenomenal. It was a weight lifted off your shoulders with all the training and all the work we had put in, you could then let it all go. The fact that we won as well, we didn’t just do ourselves justice and come off with a narrow defeat. I’m still in a bit of shock how well we played. I know we can play that well but to do it on that stage and in that manner, it was amazing. We rose to their caliber as opposed to doing it for 45 minutes or 90 minutes but we did it over two games. Defensively we tried to keep our shape and that is as important as getting the ball, knocking it around and scoring goals. I’m proud of the fact that we only conceded two goals over the two games.”

The Rovers players travelled back to the team hotel where they were give a heroes welcome by all the Rovers fans that had made the trip to Belgrade. Both fans and players were then able to watch the match again over a few quiet drinks. “We had to wait around for Chris Turner and Brushy (Richard Brush) who were getting drugs tested. We went back to the hotel, had a bit of dinner upstairs and went and had a drink and watched the highlights of the game before heading out for a few more drinks.”

Qualification for the Europa League group stages adds another six games to the 2011 season with three games being played during the league season and three after its conclusion. Sullivan isn’t concerned about the additional games and sees an advantage in their timing. “I’m not that bothered (about the extra games). It is a bonus and we’ll take it as it comes. The fact we have three games after the end of the season is probably a help rather than playing all six in the season. We will have a full week’s training and preparation for those games (in November and December). It won’t be a rush. We will be able to have a day or two off and then go into training three days in a row to really work on our shape and play.”

The season’s run in Europe has been made even more special for Sullivan due to the fact he missed out on last year’s European games against Bnei Yehuda and Juventus because of a serious knee injury. The defender was close to getting back to the action for the Hoops last season. “The last month of the season it was more the fact I wasn’t fit enough to play games rather than being injured,” recalled Sullivan. “If there were one or two bodies less for the cup final, I would have got on the bench. I couldn’t play because I just hadn’t had a pre-season so there was no way I could get in ahead of anyone else who was playing.”

The player also missed out on European football while injured at Drogheda United but did play in Europe with Cork City. His time with clubs elsewhere coincided with the push for full time football in the League of Ireland. Sullivan is well placed to compare the set up of the so-called full time football and the set up here at Shamrock Rovers. “I’ve been with other teams full time and at Rovers where we train just as much, just at different times of the day. We are a professional team, just as much as anyone. We don’t do the wrong things when we shouldn’t. You do everything you can to win the next game. I missed a few European games with Drogheda and last year with Rovers. The only European tie I’ve played before was with Cork when we played FC Haka. It doesn’t seem like it’s been six or seven weeks playing in Europe. It seems like an in entire season itself because they were really enjoyable. I don’t think there was any time where I thought that we were really under pressure or anything like that. It was just so enjoyable to play in those games.”

Published in Hoops Scene 16 September 9 2011 (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers – Airtricity League)

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