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Plan B for Shamrock Rovers

Article for Hoops Scene Issue 1 2015 (Shamrock Rovers v LA Galaxy)

Sporting history was happening 8 March 2014 in both Dublin and Cork. In Ireland’s capital city, it would be the last home playing appearance of the most-capped international rugby player in the game’s history. His mother remarked in the Irish Times following the game “the atmosphere in that stadium to celebrate his career was extraordinary. Everyone stayed back to a person.”

Sorry to disappoint you Mrs. O’Driscoll but not every person stayed back to see your son Brian do his lap of honour following the win over Italy in the Six Nations. With 10 minutes remaining in the Aviva, I was leaving early to make the 530km round trip to St. Colman’s Park. I was more interested in a small piece of football history taking was that place in Cobh as the Shamrock Rovers B-team in were playing their first ever competitive match

 

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The last time I had attended a game in the Cobh venue it was also for a First Division fixture but in quite different circumstances. Back in 2006, Rovers travelled to play Cobh Ramblers where a late Tadhg Purcell goal earned the Hoops the First Division title. The team received the trophy and celebrated promotion back to the Premier Division at the first time of asking in chaotic fashion after the final whistle. Everyone at Rovers couldn’t wait to leave the First Division behind back then and yet here in 2014 we were back in it again but this time of our own choosing.
The Hoops had made the decision to put a team into the First Division with the aim of providing a playing bridge between the Under 19 level and the first team squad. This team would play in front of a much smaller Rovers crowd in Cobh for their B-team debut compared with 2006. Just eight people stood in the away end last March but I’m told there were a handful of Hoops fans in the home stand that night.

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Colin Hawkins was the man in charge of the Hoops and the team was a mix of players from his under 19 team and a few more experienced players brought in to bolster the squad. To be honest under the floodlights it was difficult to tell who the players were. The fact that two of the eight people in the away section were non-playing Rovers squad members, meant we got to ask them which player was which!

The Hoops took the lead through a superb Daniel Purdy goal scored on the player’s 21st Birthday and Rovers were only robbed of the win when Cobh found a goal two minutes from time. A good start to a campaign, one that at times the team would struggle with against the more experienced sides in the Division.

For most of the season I would watch the B team play from the vantage point of the Tallaght Stadium pressbox. There were a few weeks when there was only three people in the press box. There would be a Rovers stalwart juggling multiple roles as DJ/Stadium Announcer/Teamsheet author/scoreboard updated, I’d be doing minute by minute updates for extratime.ie and there would be one journalist doing multiple reports for various media organisations.

Other weeks in Tallaght, it could nearly be a full house in the media zone bolstered by those covering the opposition. The seats would be filled with the opposition media officer tweeting their take on affairs, there would be journalists from competing provincial papers and then there would be the local radio station commentators.

The latter generated one of my highlights of the season when during one game the co-commentator disagreed with his radio colleague on a penalty call made by the referee. As the exchange became heated on air, the co-commentator threw off his headphones and microphone and stormed off down the West Stand. After the game, the two had to pretty much be separated as they squared up to each other but don’t worry next time I saw them working at a game in Tolka Park they were back on friendly terms!

Rovers’ first win of the season came against Longford in a very satisfying result against a very strong Town squad, containing no less than six former Rovers players. In a game where maybe unsurprisingly Pat Flynn was sent off and Pat Sullivan booked for the visitors, Rovers’ injury time winner meant a lot to the Hoops young team.

The Hoops had to use squad rotation for much of the year especially as some of the younger players had already played a full season at Under 19 level. Some of the squad were able to take a break from football in early June, but that was only because a number of them were sitting their Leaving Cert Examinations!

In an 11 game spell mid-season the Hoops wouldn’t win a game, suffering nine defeats in a row and going 1,025 minutes without scoring a goal. Thankfully they ended that run in August with a 2-0 away win in Waterford, followed by an impressive 6-0 victory at home of Cobh Ramblers.

The reaction of the team to the win over Cobh reflected the good bond within the group as the players sprayed the manager with water bottles during the warm down as it was his birthday! The tightness of the group was also reflected in the win the following week against Finn Harps and it wasn’t simply because the Hoops had won three in a row.

At the end of the season when I asked Colin Hawkins what was the standout moment from the year, he chose that Harps win for a very personal and poignant reason. “It is a strange game that stands out for me as I wasn’t even there when we played Finn Harps. My father had passed away and I was at the wake.

“For the lads to win that night 1-0 up there was a special night for me. I got the game recorded and I watched it back. There was a minute silence for my Dad and I got a lot of pride in that. That is the memory that stands out, as the lads dug out a result for me that night.”

For many opposition fans coming to Tallaght for the Sunday afternoon kickoffs it was there first time in the stadium and were able to take it all in – including the Glenmalure Suite at half-time where both sets of supporters would chat about what they’d seen in the first half over a half-time cup of tea.

Eight players dropped down from Rovers’ Premier Division squad during the season with a few, like Sean Heaney, Cian Kavanagh and Even Osam, going the other way. It was great to see the reaction of Osam’s team mates when he came to sit with the non-playing members of the squad a couple of days after making his league debut in the Premier Division with Rovers. All of his teammates in the stand stood up to shake his hand or pat him on the back leaving him with a grin from ear to ear.

The penultimate game of the season was a trip to Longford Town. Tony Cousins’ men needed a win to earn themselves the First Division title and they dispatched the Hoops B team 6-0 with little mercy. They received the trophy after the game and standing just to the side of the big Longford Town crowd on the pitch the young Rovers players watched on and clapped the champions.

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“I wanted them to see what it is all about,” said Hawkins. “That is where they want to be later in their career, winning trophies in the First Division or the Premier Division.”

The team played their final game of what would turn out to be their one and only season the following weekend against Waterford United in Tallaght. They had the target of a win so that they could leap above the Blues into sixth spot so it was a great feeling watching the one season wonders win with a comprehensive 3-0 victory that final day.

The players had developed over the season, and not just physically which was the case for all of the players who had come through the Under 19 Rovers team.
Back in the dressing room after the game, the Hoops players and coaching staff watched back video highlights of the season and when it concluded it drew a warm round of applause that could be heard outside the home dressing room.

Rovers took the reluctant decision at the end of the season to fold the second team as the club felt it wasn’t viable to continue with two squads and the associated cost and administration work required. This was especially the case with the club planning on fielding a new team in the national under 17 league next August. The bulk of the squad returned to the Hoops’ Under 19 team for the 2014/15 season, with others heading to various clubs. However, all those involved on the playing and coaching side can be really proud of what they had achieved during a unique season of League of Ireland football.

 

For a more detailed critique of Shamrock Rovers one season of B-team football see No plan B for Shamrock Rovers

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