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Ricketts’ Revival at Rovers

It really has been an incredible last couple of months for Shamrock Rovers since their famous win in Belgrade propelled the Hoops into Europa League. Last week, Rovers claimed back-to-back titles adding a 17th League title to their roll of honour. The Hoops can now concentrate on their three remaining Europa League group stage games starting with tonight’s game against Greek side, PAOK from Salonika.

It is some of the surprisingly small things that have stuck in the mind and highlighted the recent progression for Shamrock Rovers. Examples like having the New York Times write about the success of the club detailing the resurrection of Rovers as a fans owned club, having the novelty factor of the additional match officials running the line behind the goals in the Europa League games and Rovers’ recent signings making the headlines on transfer deadline day. On that day back in late August Sky Sports, as well as the usual Premier League/Championship/SPL player merry go round, were informing their viewers about Shamrock Rovers signing Scotsman Jim Patterson and former Premier League player Rohan Ricketts.

In midfielder Rohan Ricketts, Rovers manager Michael O’Neill added a player to his squad that he saw as “a very exciting option that can add a little bit extra in the final third of the pitch. He has also played first team football at the highest level.” Ricketts was part of a very successful Arsenal youth set up at the turn of the millennium before moving across north London to Tottenham Hotspur. At Spurs, he made over 30 appearances for the club in the top flight of English football. However, in recent years, the player has found himself playing far away from the bright lights of the Premier League in such leagues as Hungary, Moldova and the north regional league in Germany. Since joining Rovers however, Ricketts has played a key part in the Hoops retaining their League of Ireland title and competing in the Europa League group stages.

It was an Arsenal connection that was the link that saw Ricketts join Rovers with the offer of European football being a key sweetener to the deal. Former Arsenal, Shamrock Rovers and Ireland international player, Graham Barrett was instrumental in the deal explains Ricketts. “It was through Graham Barrett and Paulo Vernazza. They played at Arsenal and I was a couple of years below them. I was in contact with Paulo who works with the same company as Graham. Graham came to me with the Rovers opportunity the day before deadline day. Exeter wanted me to come down but I would rather have played for Shamrock and try to win the league and play in the Europa League than play in League One. I know I am better than League One.”

Rickett’s recent playing spells include a stint in the MLS with Toronto, time with Diosgyori VTK from Hungary, playing in the fourth tier of German football with SV Wilhelmshaven and a disastrous spell with Dacia Chisinau in Moldova. His time in the Moldovan League was a real low point for the player who has had to take a case with FIFA over salary issues with the FC Dacia. So what were his expectations, on and off the pitch, about moving to the League of Ireland? “I saw the worst from the last few clubs so nothing could have fazed me,” said the 28th year old about off field matters. “My other clubs were far from professional. We’ve been getting our salaries on time which is normal over here for this team. I’m really happy.” And what about the quality of football? “It is a bit hectic! It is not something that exactly suits me or my style. The manager and Jim Magilton have been smart and have used me, understanding how I play and my strengths. They try and make sure that I can be really effective from the wide position or from the central position like I did against Dundalk.” The player feels that Rovers’ footballing style suits him. “I am a technical player and need to be in a passing team. Touch players can’t be put into teams that don’t pass. It would be like taking Iniesta and making him play for Stoke City. It doesn’t make any sense.”

It was against Dundalk that the former under-20 England international made his debut for the Hoops in a 2-1 win where he supplied assists for both Rovers goals. “That for me was a massive game as I was coming into a team where I was expected to do well. The manager met me at the airport and he said to me that he expected me to do well. I said to him ‘Look, I’m up for the challenge’. Even though I knew I wasn’t 100% fully fit, I knew I had to deliver in that game. I had only trained one day before the game. The gaffer comes to me and he says to me ‘Are you ready to play?’ I was like ‘yeah’. I thought I wasn’t as fit as everyone else but I went in there having been given the chance and I had a great day. I could have had four or five assists.”

In the penultimate home game of the league season, Shamrock Rovers faced Derry City in a crucial top of the table clash. Both sides knew that if they won that encounter and their remaining games they would be champions. In a tight game, the Hoops emerged 1-0 winners with Ricketts getting the crucial goal five minutes into the second half. Ricketts reacted quickest to a Richard Brush through ball, lobbing the advancing Derry keeper from outside the area with the ball bouncing into the empty net. “We worked hard and rode our luck in the first half but for me to be a part of it and then to score the winning goal was great. It wasn’t an easy chance. It wasn’t like it was bouncing high. It was coming across me and I used my instep. Ryan [Thompson] said that to me last night ‘You won us the league with that goal’. The gaffer was saying I was the calm man in the right place.”

Rovers’ late late win in the next league game away to UCD wrapped up the title setting up the party atmosphere last Friday night when Rovers were presented with the trophy following the 4-0 win over Galway. It would have been a more nervy occasion if Dean Kelly had not produced the late 94th minute winner against UCD the previous Tuesday. That goal sparked huge scenes of celebrations with fans and the Rovers bench invading the pitch. With 10 minutes remaining Ricketts had made way for Dean Kelly to come on a substitute so did Ricketts join in the wild celebrations off the bench? “I did! It was a dream, it was amazing. It is great to part of it. All the fans had fun. It was hectic man!”

It was a special moment when Rovers captain Dan Murray lifted the league trophy here in Tallaght Stadium last Friday. Ricketts enjoyed the occasion as he got his hands on his first senior winners medal. His only other honours are back to back FA Youth Cups with Arsenal in 2000 and 2001. “Yeah, that is my first medal since then. It was big for the fans and you could see what it means for Tallaght. When I came here I wanted to win the league. To win the league it means I’ve achieved one of my objectives.”

Another objective was to play in the Europa League, a key reason for him joining the Hoops. “The Europa League was major. I had played in the Premier League obviously a lot of times but I never played in Europe. So for me it was a massive opportunity. A lot of people around Europe and the world are watching you so it is a chance to display your talents on that platform so you can’t turn it down so I had to grab that. It was a great experience to play against Rubin Kazan and coming on against Spurs. It has been good. This week everyone is fighting to get into the team for the Salonika game.”

As an un-used substitute against PAOK in Salonika, Ricketts had to be content with watching the game from the bench. Rovers were set up away from home to contain PAOK but the away side still took the game to them when the opportunity arose. The Hoops, who were 1-0 down following Costin Lazar’s 12th minute goal, got back into the game thanks to Karl Sheppard’s second half headed goal. However, the Hoops were undone by an excellent goal scored by Vierinha after 63 minutes. Speaking about the away game Ricketts described the atmosphere in the Toumba Stadium as being “incredible”. He also feels that PAOK’s two goalscorer from that night are players that Rovers will need to watch this evening but he thinks that at home the Hoops will be a different prospect than the more cautious approach used in Thessaloniki.

How did he rate the side that finished third in the Greek League last season and are unbeaten in their last eight European games? “They were all very good and they moved the ball really well. They were patient and are technically better than us. They played very good, two touch, football. They’ve got some very good players like the Number 20 Vierinha and the midfielder from Romania, Lazar but they were not good defensively as a unit.”

“If we were more ambitious at times in the game, individually and as a unit, we could have got more goals. The way we approached the game, it allowed them to keep the ball a bit longer as we sat off deep. We could have got something as they were there for the taking. We were reluctant at times to commit men forward. As a unit, I thought we could get at them but we didn’t fully commit but we now have nothing to lose as no one is expecting us to pick up a point. Tonight we can be ambitious and go for the game and if we lose, then we know we went for it and were trying.”

As well as his playing career, Ricketts in recent years has carved out a nice sideline in media work. The player has his own online magazine called Column 10 and has an incredible 24,200 followers on Twitter – sparking the comment on deadline day that “Twitter’s Rohan Ricketts signs for Rovers!” It was during his time in Toronto that the man from Clapham began his work in journalism. “I enjoy doing the media stuff as for me it is something that I do naturally. You are just talking about something that you love and there is nothing easier than that. Fortunately for me when I went to Toronto I had the opportunity to display those talents and skills on a national broadcasting level whether it was on radio with the biggest radio network in the country or on TV for ESPN or TSN. They gave me the opportunity to speak. I did radio for the World Cup and did the U21 European Championships for ESPN broadcasting around North America and the Caribbean. I started writing with my columns that are syndicated around the world. I created my own online magazine called Column 10 and we are getting loads of hits at the moment so I’m keeping that bubbling. I’ve been offered a radio show in North America for a station based in New York and I can run that from home and I’m developing the pilot now. That will be a soccer and lifestyle show and I will do that once a week in my spare time. I think a lot of players have spare time and they are not effective with it. Who knows when I will finish playing but when I do I will have maybe seven or eight years having been seasoned as a media pundit.”

Rovers’ final game of the Europa League group stages will take place next month when Rickett’s former club Spurs come to Dublin. This may be the player’s last game for the Hoops, as his existing contract will end following the game. After chatting to Ricketts, it is clear the player is ambitious both for his on field and off field work so can we expect to see the player line out with the Hoops in 2012?

“Who knows, I don’t know. If I was here next season, I would not be unhappy. I’ve had a great time here. Everyone at Shamrock Rovers should be ambitious. I’m not saying I’m leaving and goodbye because I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m content within myself and appreciate the opportunity that Shamrock Rovers gave me to come and play and be a part of a championship winning team. I’ve played my part in that in the last quarter. That has been enough for me and coming to the end of the season you want to put yourself in the shop window. Everyone wants to be wanted.”

Published in Hoops Scene 22 (Shamrock Rovers v PAOK Salonika – Europa League- 3 November 2011)

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