On the spot

With just six minutes remaining in extra time on a stifling hot night in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Stephen O’Donnell was the coolest man in the stadium as he slotted home the winner for Shamrock Rovers against Partizan. His calmly taken penalty ensured the Hoops progressed from their Europa League play off to the group stages of the competition, where they will debut tonight against Russian side, Rubin Kazan.

When Jan Valasek, the Slovak referee, pointed to the penalty spot against Partizan, it was Stephen O’Donnell who took on the huge responsibility of taking the penalty kick. “There was no one really designated to take it when the peno was given so I said I would take it,” explained O’Donnell. “Everyone was happy enough with that, as there were no real specific orders before the game. I suppose it is whoever feels confident at the time of when the peno is given.” There was a long delay in taking the penalty that included the referee making O’Donnell re-spot the ball before blowing his whistle for the kick to be taken. “I think one of their defenders booted the ball away so it took a while for another ball to come in. I knew what I was going to do so it didn’t really make much of a difference to me.”

There was immense pressure on O’Donnell as he stood over the ball. With just minutes remaining in extra time, it was a kick that could take Rovers into the Europa League group stages and all the rewards that would come with it. O’Donnell was effectively taking a one million euro penalty kick. However, he put any such thoughts to the back of his mind and it was only afterwards that the enormity of scoring the goal sunk in. “In the heat of the moment you don’t really think about ifs or buts; you just want to make a good connection and it is only after the match you think about the imponderables about what could happen. I thought about the consequences all right. I’ve thought about it a good few times since then and that if I had missed it I would have been feckin’ lynched! You’re not thinking like that at the time. You just want to strike it well and when it goes in, its just relief.”

Of course O’Donnell’s contribution was not just scoring the all important winner. As well as his fine ball distribution, his performance in Belgrade also included a couple of goal saving tackles that were crucial in keeping Rovers in the game. “I remember the first one as I was just on the pitch,” said O’Donnell who was a 68th minute substitute. “One of their players burst forward and he had a few yards on me. I was thinking please don’t let the ball be slipped through to him. It was just one of those where you run back and lucky enough he took another touch instead of hitting it first time so I was able to get back, slide and block it. The second one was pretty similar. You get nights like that. On other nights, the two of them could have gone in but it just happened to be our night that night. All the lads were throwing their bodies on the line and it was so hot over there especially for the boys who played 120 minutes.”

With the tie delicately poised following the 1-1 draw at home in Tallaght, the Hoops went with some hope of defeating the Serbian champions. This was to be Rovers’ sixth competitive game in Europe this season and that previous experience, in the Champions League qualifiers where they beat Flora Tallinn and the games against the Danish champions, were helpful in their preparation. “I think the Copenhagen game gave us confidence. I think before Copenhagen we might have thought, janey, we are up against it but over in Denmark I think we deserved to score to get a draw. Chrissy Turner then hit the crossbar with a header at home and I think it would have changed the whole tie against Copenhagen (if he had scored). I think for us to realise that we are not far off, that we are very close, gave us a lot of confidence. We were maybe slow enough to get going in the first half against Partizan at home but in the second half of the first leg we were up there. If the game went on 10 or 15 minutes longer, there was only one team going to score. That gave us confidence going over there. We knew it was going to be tough. We knew if we could hang in there especially with the fact that we knew if they scored, which they did to go 1-0 up, it didn’t make that much of a difference as we had to score to stay in the tie anyway. We didn’t panic. We knew we would get our chance to be on top and I think in the first 15 minutes of the second half over there we had them pegged back.”

It was at this stage that Pat Sullivan scored the screamer that has close on 200,000 views on You Tube. As the ball fell out of the Serbian sky, Sullivan connected sweetly from thirty yards on the volley to score with a superb strike. “Sully scored a feckin’ unbelievable goal!” exclaims O’Donnell. “I was on the bench. I wasn’t even on the edge of my seat when it was dropping for him because it was so high up. He was so far out, you are not even thinking that it is a chance. He has just caught it perfectly and its gone flying in. When that went in everyone was there, we are really in this. The goal gave everyone an extra lift that allowed us to go the extra few yards.”

The goal momentarily silenced the home fans but not for long. The atmosphere was something that added to the sense of occasion for O’Donnell. “We came out to warm up and they were booing us and it really felt like you are on a proper European stage. That noise; you hear about the Eastern European’s bringing an intimidating atmosphere but it was a great atmosphere to play in.”

Rovers saw out the few remaining minutes following O’Donnell’s penalty to secure a famous 2-1 away win. What was his reaction at the final whistle? “Just pure elation I suppose. When everyone ran onto the pitch we realised what we had achieved. It is not that it hasn’t sunk in yet but it will probably be at the end of your career when you look back, you think about what a night that was. But while we are still in the competition, we don’t have time to reflect on it. The night when you win games, when you win tough games, you get great satisfaction. The home fans, to be fair to them, when we were walking off the pitch they clapped us off. That was just a special night all round. In the dressing room afterwards, it was the best satisfaction thinking about the shift you had put in.”

Shamrock Rovers players watching a replay in their Belgarde hotel of O’Donnell’s penalty (O’Donnell second from left)

The Hoops returned to the team hotel in Belgrade after the win and watched the highlights of the game amongst the club officials, fans and Irish media before flying home the next day to a heroes welcome. “It was unbelievable talking to the lads about the match and reflecting on things that happened in the game and just the self satisfaction of it all was immense. It was just one of those nights, those unforgettable nights, which you will never forget. It was a phenomenal achievement. And then getting the homecoming we got at the airport on the Friday was unbelievable. I think that just shows the size of the football club. No other club in Ireland would get a reception like that so it shows how big Shamrock Rovers is, how many people support the club and how good a result it was. It has really given everyone a boost and Irish football a boost. I didn’t realise how big a news story it would be. Back in Galway everyone was talking to me about it. It is a great Irish soccer story.”

O’Donnell’s own soccer story began at age 15 when he was signed for Arsenal. His time there coincided with one of the best ever Gunners teams including, in his final season, the undefeated league winning team. “I had another year left at Arsenal but I knew I wasn’t going to get in. It was the time of the Invincibles and not many youngsters were going to get in. I went to Liam Brady (head of youth development) and told him I wanted to go and play first team football. Falkirk were interested and they were just after getting promoted to the SPL so I went there.”

It was at Falkirk that he got some experience with taking pressure penalty kicks. “I took one against Celtic in a peno shoot out in Celtic Park against Artur Boruc. I scored that one and we beat Celtic that night in the league cup so that was a good one but nothing in comparison with Belgrade. I was two years at Falkirk. They offered me another deal but I wanted to play in a more central position. I don’t know if the manager saw me as playing on the left but I wasn’t really happy with that. I had been over in England with a couple of clubs but nothing was really happening. I was at home and as time was going on I hadn’t played football in a couple of months so I signed with Bohs as they were interested in me. I joined midseason and the following year under Pat Fenlon we won the double. Bohs wanted to sign me up again but there was more interest from English clubs after that season. I thought a deal was done over in England but it didn’t materialise. Bohs thought I had left and they signed a few midfielders so Cork came on the scene and I signed for them.”

His time at Cork was a difficult one due to injuries for O’Donnell and off field matters where the club was in financial meltdown. “It was a disaster from the beginning,” recalls O’Donnell. “My first game I played for Cork I did my knee in on the first day of the season and I was out for five months afterwards. That season with Cork I was injured and I never really got going, with the whole thing being a bit of a disaster and then they went out of business.” With no club, O’Donnell took the decision to return home. “I just wanted to go back to Galway, my home town, and play a season and be at home without all sorts of worries so that’s what I did.”

His strong performances in midfield for the Tribesman with eight league goals, including a number from the penalty spot, alerted Rovers manager Michael O’Neill to the return to form of the player and he signed for the Hoops in January this year. It is probably fair to say that Rovers have yet to see the best of O’Donnell due to another injury hit season. “I had a decent pre-season under my belt but I had a suspension carried over from last season so I was suspended for the first two league games. I came on against Derry when I was back and tore my hamstring badly so I was out for two months with that. I was only really getting back to a half decent shape when, after the Tallinn game, I did my other hamstring and I was out for four or five weeks. I’m back now and touch wood I will have a good run till the end of season.”

Photo by George Kelly

Up until his goal in Europe, O’Donnell’s only other goal for the Hoops was all the way back in February against Dundalk in Oriel Park. How did the goal in Belgrade compare? “It was a big contrast from scoring in the Leinster Senior Cup!” joked O’Donnell. He followed up his goal from the penalty spot in Europe with another one from twelve yards against Dundalk in the first league game after the Hoops’ return from Belgrade. “It was good to get the win. It is always nice to get your name on the score sheet and it was another peno but we will take them any way they come.” All at Shamrock Rovers hope to see the player get on the score sheet again during the remainder of the season, a season that O’Donnell has already made an indelible mark on.

Photo by Bobby Best

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 17, September 22 (Shamrock Rovers v Rubin Kazan – Europa League)

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