Home > Random Rovers thoughts > Kenny tasked to build on O’Neill’s tenure in Tallaght

Kenny tasked to build on O’Neill’s tenure in Tallaght

On Wednesday, Tallaght Stadium will see the official unveiling of Stephen Kenny as the new Shamrock Rovers manager. The Dubliner will replace Michael O’Neill who managed Rovers since the club’s move to Tallaght. It will be a tough act to follow for Kenny as O’Neill during this three year tenure captured two league titles, a Setanta All-Ireland cup and qualified Rovers for the Europa League. That success means that O’Neill looks set to be named manager of Northern Ireland early in the New Year. To be selected manager to the country he won 33 caps for will be quite an achievement for the man Rovers appointed from the relative managerial obscurity of Brechin City in December 2008.

It was a brave move by the Rovers board at the time to hire someone from outside the league with relatively little managerial experience. The Rovers director’s obviously felt O’Neill understood what Rovers was about; a fan’s owned club, working within budgetary constraints and, at the time, a club on the verge of the long awaited move to their new stadium in Tallaght. The faith given to O’Neill by the board was rewarded with Rovers enjoying their most successful time since the 4-in-a-row era of the mid-1980s.

It was interesting to hear O’Neill talk on his departure of his most fond memory of his time at Rovers. He didn’t pick winning one of the three major trophies claimed during his tenure in Tallaght or one of those amazing nights against heavyweights of European football like Real Madrid, Juventus, Partizan Belgrade or Spurs. “The most enjoyable night was my first night here at Tallaght, when we beat Sligo,” recalled O’Neill of opening night in the new stadium. “To see the look on the supporters faces after being 20 years on the road and just to see what it meant for them was fantastic.”

Following that emotional first win in Tallaght, Rovers went on to mount a serious challenge for the league in O’Neill’s first season finishing runners up. His team would go one better the following year in a dramatic conclusion to the 2010 season. O’Neill’s charges prevailed over rivals Bohemians winning the league on goal difference by a mere two goals.

2011 would prove to be O’Neill’s, and possibly Shamrock Rovers, best ever season. His side began as overwhelming league favourites having assembled a mix of experience and exciting young talent. New signings like Ronan Finn, Karl Sheppard and Conor McCormack would be valuable editions to the squad in a season that would eventually stretch over 11 months and 60 games. The Hoops would go on not only to retain their title and win the Setanta All-Ireland cup but would become the first team from Ireland to qualify for the group stages of a European competition.

It was not all plain sailing for O’Neill during the year with the manager under immense pressure just as he was about to face into his first European game. O’Neill’s style of football never won over all the Hoops supporters, many of whom have high expectations in how their team performs on the pitch. In June when his side lost to away to Sligo Rovers and Trevor Croly, O’Neill’s assistant, resigned because his “football relationship with the manager differed”, there was talk that O’Neill may be forced out of the club. It was a defining moment in O’Neill’s time at Rovers. He successfully rallied his players around a new management team bringing in his friend and highly experienced player and coach, Jim Magilton, to help out as Rovers began their European campaign.

They overcame Estonian champions Flora Tallinn in their first tie, before coming against FC Copenhagen in the next Champions League qualifying round. Rovers put in a very credible performance against Copenhagen losing away in the first leg 1-0 to a side that made the last 16 in the previous year. O’Neill spoke afterwards about the “hint of disappointment to have lost the game” which was a measure of his team’s disciplined performance and standard he was looking. The Hoops would be eliminated following the second leg 2-0 defeat with O’Neill’s team placed into the play off round of the Europa League.

Gary McCabe’s late equaliser in first leg of the play off in Tallaght against Partizan meant Rovers travelled to Belgrade with a chance of progression even if they went with little expectation. O’Neill’s men were to make Irish footballing history by winning 2-1 thanks to Pat Sullivan’s superb second half volley and Stephen O’Donnell’s pressure penalty six minutes from the end of extra time. The win generated massive publicity and revenue netting €1million for a club whose annual turnover is only €2.5million.

O’Neill’s masterminding of that win was the high point of the European campaign. Drawn in a difficult Europa League group, the Hoops lost all six games shipping heavy home defeats. However, away from home O’Neill’s men gave a good account of themselves especially against Spurs, where they led 1-0 in White Hart Lane after the hour mark, and in Salonika where they went closest to getting a point in the 2-1 defeat to PAOK.

All these European ties didn’t distract O’Neill’s team domestically as they won each of the league games on their return from Europe where they wrapped up the league with one game to spare. With O’Neill’s contact up in December, there was much speculation surrounding the northerner and vacancies at his former club Hibernian and also the Northern Ireland job, where it is understood Jim Magilton was also a candidate. The day before the last Europa League game, the club confirmed O’Neill would be leaving. It was clear by that time that relationships were strained between O’Neill and the board that had brought him in from Brechin. “I wouldn’t say it’s amicable,” O’Neill said of the breakdown in discussions on a new contract and future direction of the club.

It is probably too early to say what legacy O’Neill leaves behind him at Rovers. There is no doubt that the Irish champions are in a much stronger position now than three years ago when O’Neill took on the task. Of course, he was greatly helped by the new found stability within the club that was brought about by the move to Tallaght. The new stadium generated considerable amounts of money due to the large crowds and new commercial sponsorships, far in excess of that available during Rovers’ recent arrangements renting from their rival Dublin clubs. Depending on results in seasons to come, both for O’Neill with his national team and for Rovers under Stephen Kenny, it may be seen as a mistake for Rovers not to renew O’Neill’s contract.

O’Neill himself summed up his time with Shamrock Rovers by saying that “the three years have been very enjoyable, hard work and a huge challenge. It will be up to the supporters and members, who subsidise the club, to look back and hopefully say they’ve enjoyed what I’ve done here.” With those back-to-back league wins and extended European campaign, suffice to say that most Rovers fans will look back fondly on O’Neill’s time at Rovers and will hope for a continuation of that success in years to come. Over to you Stephen Kenny.

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