Rovers Russian Route

So after 60 competitive games Shamrock Rovers 2011 season, which began with a Leinster Senior Cup tie back in February, ends with tonight’s Europa League game against Tottenham Hotspur here at Tallaght Stadium. It has been a dream season for everyone involved at the club, one that nobody could have realistically foreseen when the season began eleven months ago. Our visitors tonight Spurs still have some ambitions to progress to the Europa League knock out stages but for Rovers this incredible season will end with tonight’s home game. Away from home this season, the Hoops have travelled in excess of 20,000km on their European travels. Whilst clocking up all those air mile points, they haven’t managed to pick up any Europa League points in Group A of the competition but have provided tough opposition in all the games against Spurs, PAOK and Rubin Kazan.

The name Shamrock Rovers has been placed firmly on the European football map this season with the club gaining massive amounts of publicity as the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a European competition. There has been plenty of attention paid to the fact that we are a fans owned club and that our budget is a minor fraction of the teams we have played against including our guests from London tonight. It has been an amazing six month European odyssey which began first in the Champions League qualifiers in July and then moved into the Europa League as Rovers routed through Estonia, Denmark, Serbia, England, Greece with the final away trip to Russia at the end of last month.


During the season there have been some incredible highs and some lows and I’m only just talking about the temperatures. Much of the talk ahead of our game against Partizan Belgrade back in August was of the heat where temperatures hit 39 degrees during Shamrock Rovers successful stay in the Serbian capital. But with thermometers plummeting below -10 degrees the week before the game in Kazan it was all about the cold ahead of the last away game which took place at the end of November. Ahead of that last away trip, Rovers fans were spending their money on Russian visas as well as snow boots, thermal layers, gloves and hats; the hat style was definitely the sillier the better with plenty of ear flaps and (fake?) fur on show when Rovers reached Russia.

Around 20 or so adventurous Rovers souls, travelled independently to Russia for the game routing through Moscow and either flying or getting the overnight train the 720km further east to Kazan. For the Shamrock Rovers official travelling party of 40 and the 100 accompanying fans, including this writer, it was a more straight forward flight from Dublin direct to Kazan the day before the game. The Thompson airplane had been jokingly dubbed “Ryan Thompson Air” in honour of our Jamaican goalkeeper and as the plane descended below the clouds on the final descent to Russia’s “third capital”, we got our first view of the winter wonderland awaiting us with snow carpeted on the ground below. There was some mention as we all queued getting through passport control that it was quicker to travel the 3,500km from Dublin than get through immigration into Russia but with all the forms completed and passport stamps received we eventually all made it through and out by customs.

The Rovers team hadn’t much time before they went for their eve of game training session in the Tsentralnyi Stadium nestled beside the frozen Kazanka River. It was a session of a different kind for the Rovers fans, who suitably dressed in novelty winter hats, ventured out into the snow of Kazan to avail of the local hospitality possibly muttering “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

On match day with the game not kicking off till 21:00 local time, there was plenty of time for sightseeing allowing us to trek out in the snow to the Kazan Kremlin. The Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to the Kul Sharif mosque. There were plenty of Rovers fans that took the opportunity to look in on the afternoon prayers in the mosque; maybe it was the equivalent of lighting a candle in prayer for a good Rovers performance. In Kazan city centre, you could pick up plenty of souvenirs including some Russian babushka dolls which were painted with images of Lenin (whose local connection was that he was expelled from the Kazan University), Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev.

There was much preparation ahead of kick off for the supporters who layered up in the hotel lobby and bar before being bussed to the ground ninety minutes ahead of kick off. The policing was lower key than previous Rovers European away trips such as in Belgrade or Salonika but I was bizarrely still given a police escort in the ground when I went to pick up a match programme. The military police that surrounded the Rovers fans in our small away section were quite friendly and facilitated the swapping of scarves between home and away fans.

From the away part of the ground, the Kremlin and Kul Sharif Mosque were visible above the stand opposite. Ivan the Terrible besieged the Kremlin in 1552 and the Hoops were hoping that they could withstand whatever the Russian side would throw at them in the stadium that will host matches in the 2018 World Cup. Some light snow and a stiff breeze off the frozen river meant Ryan Thompson and Richard Brush, sporting a balaclava to keep warm, were literally trying to warm up when they emerged first from the dressing rooms. When both teams came out for kick off, there was plenty of under armour and gloves on show but Stephen Rice and Rovers captain Dan Murray are made of sterner stuff and were both gloveless with Murray wearing only a short sleeved shirt. I meanwhile was wearing several layers and two pairs of gloves! At least the players on the field could move around to keep warm; those on the bench were given blankets in the dug out to keep out the cold.


The Hoops started brightly and put Kazan under considerable pressure before conceding an early goal to Paraguayan international Nelson Valdez. However, the Hoops hit back just two minutes later when Ken Oman headed home at the back post from a well flighted Billy Dennehy free kick. The small pocket of Rovers fans at the opposite end of the ground erupted in celebrations. Some Rovers fans celebrated by stripping to their underwear having promised to do so should the Hoops scores. The rest of us jumped around in celebration and possibly also just to keep warm in the -5 degree weather. The goal meant Rovers had scored in each of their Europa League away games with all those goals having a meaningful impact on the game rather than simply being consolation goals towards the end of the game.

Rovers were 2-1 down at half time and were clapped off by the away support, albeit that it was slightly muffled clapping due to the gloves being worn by the fans! The players welcomed the sanctuary of the dressing room at half time to regroup and get some warmth back in the bones. However, they were caught cold early in the second half when Valdez grabbed his second on 51 minutes before €17m signing Obafemi Martins grabbed his Russian sides fourth goal just after the hour mark.

There was a fear that Rovers, who had been competitive in all ten European games up till then, were about to take a real hammering. However, manager Michael O’Neill has instilled a great belief and determination in his team who in the last half hour shut out Rubin and went close to doubling their own tally when Karl Sheppard hit the bar. Towards the end of the game there was a spot of snowball throwing amongst ourselves in the away end and signing “Gloves Off for the Super Hoops” whilst swinging mittens overhead! The home fans went a lot further and they were the ones stripped to the waist celebrating their win but Stephen Rice and Enda Stevens (making his penultimate appearance for Rovers before joining Aston Villa) also took their shirts off throwing them into the away section as souvenirs at the conclusion of the game.

For those of us flying back with the team, it was time to head for the buses to the airport and get some heat back into our toes. Despite the defeat, delays to the flight due to passport issues and the time spent de-icing the plane, the Rovers fans were still in good spirits having seen their team give a good account of themselves against a team of Rubin Kazan’s high calibre.

With Christmas and New Year fast approaching, it is a time when you look back on the year and assess what it has been like. For this Shamrock Rovers fan, it has been an incredible season with it being the best year ever following the team. This Rovers side has not only delivered a double of the league title and Setanta All Ireland Cup but has done so whilst qualifying for the Europa League group stages, playing twelve European games in total. The European trips helped sustain an amazing team spirit that no doubt helped the team to retain their league title. That spirit has been equally present amongst the travelling Rovers support. Personally, it has been a privilege and an amazing experience to have seen and shared the journey with this Rovers team, our fans and friends (both old and new friends that I’ve gained) on the away trips. The exploits of this team away from Tallaght Stadium will live long in my memory. From the disciplined 0-0 draw in Tallinn, the gritty 1-0 defeat in Copenhagen, the spectacular win in Belgrade with that stunning goal from Pat Sullivan and pressure peno from Stephen O’Donnell, that goal celebration in White Hart Lane, that atmosphere in Salonika and the winter football in Kazan. Can we add another indelible memory to this 2011 season against Spurs tonight? The way this year has gone, would we really be surprised if we got another famous story to tell about this incredible season? Probably not.

Published in Hoops Scene 23 (Shamrock Rovers v Tottenham Hotspur, 15 December 2011)

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