To Belgrade and beyond

The best night ever. With so many superlatives that you could use about Shamrock Rovers’ win in Belgrade, that simply sentence sums it all up for me. It was a phrase I had heard from those lucky enough to see Rovers win away in Europe against Odra Wodzislaw in 2003 and from those fans who travelled last year to see the win against Bnei Yehuda. Now it is a phrase I can use especially as I was privileged to be part of the small number of Shamrock Rovers fans who were in the FK Paritzan Stadion for last month’s historic European win. Each of the 43 Shamrock Rovers fans that were there in Belgrade were not just representing themselves but were also representing those fans that had made the previous trips in Europe this year, the 450 or so club members and the 3,000 season ticket holders. Whether you were in the ground or not, the win that night was for each and every Shamrock Rovers fan. The win writes another chapter in this amazing Shamrock Rovers story which in recent seasons has seen the fans save and take over the club, emerge from the relegation finally getting to our home in Tallaght and now compete at the highest level in Europe.

Since the win every Rovers fan has inundated with congratulations; be it from friends, work colleagues, old girlfriends, fans of other League of Ireland clubs or random strangers like the Bohs fan who came up to me in Vienna airport on the way home from Belgrade who offered me his congratulations when he saw my club colours. The Rovers fans obviously weren’t the ones who scored the goals, made the saves or put in those tackles against Partizan, but watching the game that night in the ground or on Setanta TV each fan felt like they were kicking the ball or making those runs and each of us celebrated at the end as if we were a player. That can be seen in the You Tube clips of fans watching at home, in the Vintage Inn in Ringsend or in the away section in the Partizan Stadium.

With the trip to Belgrade being the third away trip in just six weeks, the travelling support for this trip was much lower than the 400 supporters that went to Tallinn or the 200 fans who were in Copenhagen. The flights weren’t cheap and required independent travel to get to the Balkans with fans having to take a couple of days off work to make the trip. Fans now have the problem of having to find money and time off work for another three additional away trips right into December but this is still a nice problem to have all the same. There had been some concern about security in Belgrade with the city’s football fans having a certain reputation. The police were taking no chances on the trip with each fan landing in Belgrade given the phone number of ‘Ivan’ to ring if there was any trouble. Thankfully, that call never had to be made. A policeman was positioned in the team hotel and also in the hotels where the Rovers supporters were staying. Fans avoided wearing Rovers colours but we probably stood out more because of this; that and probably the fact we had four policemen accompanying us on the day of the game including when a group of us went to the Kalemegdan Citadel overlooking the Danube for some sightseeing!

The security continued at the game with Rovers fans bused in under police escort to the ground just after the team had got a similar escort. We had never seen such security and spent a couple of minutes getting photos in front of the riot police with their helmets and shields before entering the ground. The Rovers fans were placed in the ‘VIP’ section in two rows at the back of the main stand with stewards and plain clothes police around us. We were able to hang our flags on the railings off to our left with stewards minding our flags during the game and they even took them down and returned them to us at the end of the match!

It was unseasonably warm in Belgrade during the trip with the temperature having dropped to ‘only’ 32 degrees by kick off at 20:30 local time. There were 16,000 Partizan fans in the stadium with their Grobari or ‘Gravedigger’ Ultra group located at one end of the ground. The noise they generated during the game was incredible. It was intimidating, hostile and just plain loud. The small pocket of Rovers fans tried to make our presence felt but the home fans just increased their noise to try and drown us out.

When Rovers fell behind to Vladimir Volkov’s header from a 34th minute corner, it certainly presented Rovers with a challenge but the comment was made amongst the fans that we always needed to come and score to progress. And score we did and what a goal! Any away goal would have sparked massive celebrations amongst the away section, but Pat Sullivan’s goal made the celebrations as sweet as his superb second half strike. Rovers had begun the second half by bringing on Karl Sheppard and changing the formation to take the game to Partizan. The home side had chances to wrap up the game but the Rovers defence stood firm taking the game into extra time.

It was incredibly tense in the stadium during extra time with Rovers pushing for that second away goal which would effectively end the tie. Different Rovers fans handled the pressure in their own way. Some concentrated on berating the referee who made plenty of erratic decisions during the evening. Others watched with their hands on the head as if unwilling to believe the Hoops were in extra time playing for a place in the group stages. I did some tapping into my phone giving twitter updates and had to be reminded to watch the game in front of me.

The dreaded spectre of penalties hung over the situation for Rovers supporters but it was to be a penalty that would be the winner for the Hoops in extra time so maybe we can say our luck with penalties has now changed. Even though Rovers faced an extra 30 minutes in that sapping heat, they never let their efforts drop during extra time. Michael O’Neill had spoken previously about playing in the heat of Europe as being “a 14 man game and having to use three players off the bench.” His three substitute players combined for the crucial goal of the game. Ciarán Kilduff got in on the left and after adjusting his feet was unlucky not to score past Radissa Ilic who took down Karl Sheppard as he got on the rebound. We waited to see would the referee point to the spot and when we did Karl Sheppard and the fans around me celebrated as if it was a goal. It was Stephen O’Donnell who took the pressure penalty kick for Rovers. He wasn’t fazed by the delay in taking it or having to re-spot the ball by the referee. We implored, screamed and prayed for O’Donnell to score and the Galway man was the calmest man in the stadium slotting the penalty into the bottom right hand corner of the goal. The celebrations in the VIP section where the away fans were located had screaming, shouting, hugging and tears – and that was just my reaction!

At the final whistle, there was delirium on the pitch and in the stands. The reality of result has maybe even still not sunk in to those who were there to witness the greatest result for Irish football in Europe. When some of the board members, were spotted by the Rovers fans they were serenaded with the ironic chant of “sack the board”! The Grobari Ultras were gracious in the defeat to the visitors, clapping the team off the field at the end. How gracious they were to their own team remains to be seen? When Shelbourne knocked out another team from the Balkans in 2004, the Hadjuk Split fans subsequently broke into their own training ground and dug eleven graves in a 4-4-2 formation so I wonder what the Partizan Gravediggers will do!

When the ground eventually emptied of the home fans, many of whom applauded the fans in the away section before leaving, the Rovers team came across to the small away contingent and threw jerseys, training tops and some even their shorts into the away section! Pat Sullivan and Ronan Finn probably hugged every away fan down at the front of the stand. When they returned to the team hotel, the team were clapped into the lobby by the Rovers fans. I had the pleasure of showing Pat Sullivan his goal from my phone as it had already made it on You Tube. “Decent” was his unstated response to seeing his goal again! The players and fans then went to the bar and were able to watch the highlights of the game together. With an FAI credit card behind the bar, the travelling party of officials, fans and media relaxed and discussed the implications of what they had just seen and been a part of.

The celebrations went long into the night with some fans heading straight to the airport for their 05:30 flight home. I managed to get 90 minutes of sleep before heading for our flights home. Even though it was such an early start, I awoke with a smile remembering what Rovers had done the night before. The sense of unreality of the occasion was increased when I ended up by giving a fans perspective on the night over the phone to both RTÉ Radio and BBC Radio Ulster. Jonathan Roche and Noel Byrne made their way to Monaco to see the draw for the Europa League stages as the team made their way home, via Frankfurt, for a homecoming that I don’t think anyone in Dublin Airport had ever seen the likes of.

It will take some time for the repercussions of Shamrock Rovers’ win in Belgrade to be assessed. The win guarantees the Hoops a minimum of one million euro in prize money which, while being a significant amount of money, is not the most important thing about the win. The win has made people in Ireland and Europe sit up and notice there is a league here with teams capable of competing at this level. The club chairman Jonathan Roche was quick to acknowledge that Rovers’ journey through Europe was helped by the seeding accumulated by Irish teams in recent years. In Europe, Irish sides have been close to making the break through before but Rovers were the team that eventually did it. If Rovers and other clubs can capitalise on this and attract more fans through the turnstiles then that will be a fitting reward for Rovers’ progression in the Europa League. If that is the case we will see Irish sides enter Europe with the continued expectation of progressing in the competition rather than simply competing. In the meantime, Rovers fans can enjoy the upcoming European games and after the heat of Belgrade, worry about the cold that awaits the travelling support in Russia in November!

Published in Hoops Scene 16, 9 September 2011 (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers)

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