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Rovers rowing in the right direction – Liam Scales interview

Published in Hoops Scene No. 13 / 2021 (Shamrock Rovers v KF Teuta Durres / Longford Town)

In a four week period, the Hoops will play across four different competitions – League of Ireland, FAI Cup, Champions League and Europa Conference League. So plenty of football to concentrate on for the Shamrock Rovers players. Getting a break away from the game is also important so enjoying the July heat wave with some sea swimming and golf while watching the Olympics has been a nice distraction for Hoops player Liam Scales.

The interest in the watching events from Tokyo is heightened for the 22-year-old as a number of the athletes with Team Ireland were on scholarship with Scales during his time at UCD. Not only that, the Hoops defender lived in first year with Paul O’Donovan, one of just eight Irish Olympians to have won a gold medal.

“The sports scholarship I was on at UCD wasn’t just the football scholarship but included other sports,” said Scales. “There are good few from that scholarship system who are out at the Olympics including swimmer Darragh Greene in the breaststroke (the Ireland record holder at 50m, 100m and 200m), Lena Tice is on the hockey team (and an Irish international cricket player) and I lived with Paul O’Donovan in first year in college.

“He is an insane athlete. Living with him, I could see the amount of work he put in, eating the right food and all the hours he spent in training. I would have seen him in the gym training beside us. He would be on the rowing machine going flat out and often he’d end up going over to the bin to throw up. The rowers push themselves to the limit and they can’t do anymore.”

While sea swimming has become very common during coronavirus times, Scales has always been fond of a dip in the Irish Sea. “Being from Brittas Bay, I’m well used to the sea. I enjoy sea swimming. It is not like I’m forcing myself to hop in only for recovery. Even if I wasn’t playing, I’d do it anyway but it is still great for as part of my recovery with football. It is like an ice bath and I always feel much better after.

“On the days off you have to be able to take your mind off football so I love sea swimming and I play golf with a few of the lads in the squad too. With the lockdown we have had a tough few months where you couldn’t do much but now the golf courses are open it is good to be able to enjoy yourself on the days off. With the weather we’ve had in the last few weeks, we have made the most of it but with football in the mind we haven’t done too much.”

On the pitch, Scales has been one of the standout players for the Hoops this season who sit top of the table in the League of Ireland. Coming into the UEFA Europa Conference League home qualifier against Teuta, he has played in every game so far this season starting all bar the recent 2-0 cup win over Galway United. In that match, he made a substitute appearance for the final half an hour of Rovers’ 20th win in a row over United.

“The first half goals were taken really well,” said Scales about the strikes from Rory Gaffney and Dylan Watts. “We controlled the first half. With John Caulfield in charge (of Galway), you have to expect a reaction from them like we saw in the second half. To be fair to them, they came out and had a proper go in the second half, creating a couple of chances. 

“I think overall we were comfortable and happy enough. It would have been nice to go and dominate the second half like we did in the first but it is rare that games work out like that. It is all about getting through to the next round and the draw for that means we are  really looking forward to playing Bohs.

“We have lots of games to focus on between then and now but if you want to win the cup, you have to play big games,be it last-16 stage, quarter-final or semi-final. You are going to have to play the likes of Bohs, Dundalk or Pat’s and win those type of ties if you want to win the cup. 

“We have a big European tie before then and tough league games too but we are looking forward to playing Bohs down the line and hopefully get the same result the lads got a couple of years ago in the semi-final when they went on to win the cup.

“It is nice to be in the team every week but I know I need to keep playing well and working hard as the competition is so strong. When you look at our bench, there are players who would be playing week-in week-out in the league with other teams. I’ve been playing between centre-half and wing-back and that is helping me be picked as I can slot in for either position. If I want to keep playing every week, I have to keep up my form and stay fit.

“I’ve scored twice this year, both against Dundalk and they are two of the best goals that I’ve scored in my senior career. As a kid I would have played higher up the pitch in midfield or as a winger and scored a few goals. Playing as a wingback you can get into these higher positions and every now and again there is going to be a chance that will fall to you. It is about taking it. I’ve been in the right place at the right time to score those goals this season. It is nice to chip in with a couple of goals and assists.”

Rovers come into their home European tie three points clear at the top of the table having won four matches in a row in all competitions – including last week’s 3-1 win over St. Patrick’s Athletic – putting behind them a difficult period when, struggling with an injury crisis, they earned only eight points from the 21 on offer in the league. 

“We went through a tough spell in June. We lost a couple of games after being on that long winning streak. To lose a couple of games in a month was tough. We bounced back really well from that. The spirit is high. We have players back from injury and Richie (Towell) has come in and done really well. It is all positive in the camp at the moment. It is such an important busy month in August and so it is a good time for us to be kicking into form and playing well. 

“Last year when we were winning every week and on that streak of unbeaten games, we always just took it game by game. We never looked beyond our next game. That is all we can do now especially with so many games coming up. This isn’t time to be thinking about different games, only the one coming up. We have been in this situation before. Every year the schedule gets hectic when Europe and the cup is around. Hopefully we can stay on top of it, stay fit and go on another run.”

Joey O’Brien: ‘I wanted to win the league. I wanted to win the cup. I wanted to put the club back at the top’

Published in Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers May 2021)

There have been plenty of crucial late goals this season that have helped propel the Hoops top of the league and cement the record run of games undefeated in League of Ireland history but for Shamrock Rovers defender Joey O’Brien a few run of the mill wins built on the back of clean sheets would do just as nicely.

“It is always something we talk about in the dressing room that clean sheets win leagues,” said O’Brien. “It is obviously great to get last minute winners. We know if we can get a clean sheet, a win will be easier as the lads are going to score goals. 

“The foundation at the back allows you to be in the game and control the game. A single goal can win you the game with that clean sheet. We would like to get a few more this year. Come the end of the season, the team with the most clean sheets will probably win the league.

“It has gone on so long across three seasons,” said O’Brien about the record of undefeated games for Rovers. When the Hoops hit 31 unbeaten following the win in Finn Harps, they beat a record that had stood since 1927.  “It is a great achievement but it is probably something that you will only look back on in years to come as at the minute it is just on to the next game and the next game. 

“To be honest there isn’t much talk on it in the dressing room. Let’s just win the game in front of you and that is what we were at. It isn’t about keeping the run going. It is about winning what is in front of you. Keep rolling on to the next game.”

It took an injury time winner for Rovers to earn all three points against St. Patrick’s Athletic in Richmond Park, while Rory Gaffney’s goal on the back of a quickly taken throw in from Liam Scales got the Hoops a point last time out here in Tallaght.

“You can’t beat a last minute winner,” said O’Brien about Danny Mandroiu’s goal against the Saints. “It was a tough hard game against Pats. Tackles were flying in. It is a local derby so it makes the win that bit sweeter. It was first against second in the league which added to it and made the win that bit more important.”

The current Shamrock Rovers squad is one that has been created by Stephen Bradley since he took up the Head Coach role at Rovers. The acquisition of O’Brien in 2018 was a crucial one – bringing in a player with both Premier League and international football experience but just as important a player with a driven attitude who is a crucial member of the leadership group in the squad.

“I wanted to win the league. I wanted to win the cup. I wanted to put the club back at the top,” said O’Brien about his ambitions on signing for the club. “That was it. Nothing else. Speaking to the manager when I first came in, that was why I came here. 

“I maybe didn’t realise how far off we were at the start. We weren’t really near the top then. We were qualifying for Europe but there was Dundalk and Cork battling each other and we were below that. 

“You could see the change in the team with the players who left and those who came in. There has been a huge turnover in players since I came to the club. The quality has come into the group and players have improved and improved. 

“The manager has changed the system of play and that has really benefited us. He has brought in really good players who have really fitted into the system. It has been really good over the last 18 months and more from when we won the cup. 

“That was a huge turning point for us,” said O’Brien about the team winning the FAI Cup in 2019 beating Dundalk on penalties in the Aviva Stadium  – the first Rovers side to achieve that success in 32 years. “Winning the cup was a massive massive moment. There is no hiding from that. 

“The club had waited so long. The size of this club and the magnitude of this football club, the players realised how long it was. On cup final day, you could see how big the crowd was, the outpouring of emotion, to see fans who had waited so long or those that had never seen us win the cup. 

“That gave the players in the group a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment. But also confidence in our ability – we were the team that ended that cup drought. A huge part of football is the having the confidence to go out and to excel. We got that from the cup final and it rolled on to the following season. 

“It isn’t just being about an older player going around as an older voice of having seen it and done it,” said O’Brien about the leadership dynamic in the Rovers squad. “You don’t really want that. It is about creating the right environment in the dressing room where there are no issues. No cliques.

“If there are any issues, you want the younger lads to be comfortable and confident to go and speak to one of the senior players. You have the experience in the dressing room but it isn’t authoritarian and that these lads are the main men who run it. It isn’t like that. It means you are there to give guidance if you are asked and if there is something that is worrying them. It means you’ve been there and can offer them some advice on how to handle it.

“I am an older player so my life experience is different. I’m going home to play with my kids whereas they younger lads are going home to play on their PlayStation. What you have in common is playing football and the dressing room. 

“The competitiveness and intensity of training are things that will never change. The older lads in the group probably do demand more in training, we put the demand of each other. That then leads on to match day.”

After last Friday’s visit to Oriel Park, the Hoops welcome Sligo Rovers to Tallaght Stadium this evening. When the teams last met a Rory Gaffney deflected shot off John Mahon two minutes from time earned the Hoops a draw. O’Brien knows this evening’s game will be difficult against the Bit O’ Red. 

“I’ve always had a lot of time for Liam Buckley looking at his teams from the outside. Looking at the level and clubs that he played at and also his Pats team and how he had them play. Even now at Sligo you can see how he has changed them. He has brought in some really good players and he has improved the squad. They are right in the race. Sligo have done really well. 

“It will be a tough game and that has been the case when we have played the last few times. The scorelines maybe haven’t reflected the game. They have been a lot tighter games than the final outcome.”

We want to retain the cup that we worked so hard to win – Roberto Lopes

December 4, 2020 Leave a comment

Interview from Hoops Scene No. 11 (2020) – Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers, FAI Cup semi-final, Sunday 29 November 2020

Everything about this year has been quite different including the fact that with a shortened SSE Airtricity League season due to COVID-19 the league finished up before the quarter-final stage of the extra.ie FAI Cup.  With Shamrock Rovers 2-0 down at half time away to Finn Harps in their quarter-final last week, those looking in on WATCHLOI might have felt that the Hoops had only another 45 minutes of football to go in 2020. On a miserably cold and wet night on a sticky pitch in Ballybofey, it wasn’t looking too good for Rovers. 

However the Hoops weren’t happy with letting their unbeaten run in the league and cup that goes back to August 2019 come to end. Awarded a remarkable three penalties in five minutes – with Aaron McEneff missing the first and scoring the next two – coupled with Graham Burke’s winner saw the Hoops through to tonight’s semi-final.

 “We went a goal down after 15 minutes and you are thinking this is going to be hard work,” said Roberto Lopes when he spoke with Hoops Scene this week. “Then for them to get a second one so quickly, your thoughts are we have a mountain to climb on that pitch, in the form they are in and how hard they work for one another but there was no panic. 

“The important thing was to be calm and trust what we do. We just needed to increase the energy and the tempo. We got that reaction in the second half – we got more in their face and we turned the screw and the pressure told in the end. We got our reward.

“We know that if we lose a game now, it is the season finished. It became real that Friday night in Harps – you live to fight another day or the season either ends. For me, I can’t imagine finishing the season and there are other teams still playing games. You want to be there at the end.” 

Lopes recalled that his captain Ronan Finn told his teammates that were well prepared to take on Harps in such difficult weather conditions. “Finner said it before the game that we had the best preparation of this quarter-final which was playing them two weeks before. The conditions that night were maybe worse then as there was a threat of the game being called off.

“We had to change slightly the way we played, but the principals were still there in how we attack, create chances and be patient and the opportunities will come. Having that experience of playing up there a couple of weeks ago and knowing what it was going to be like really prepared us for the game.”

The Hoops became the first League of Ireland club to go through a league campaign without a defeat since the 1920s and Rovers are focussed on retaining the FAI Cup which would also mean the club going through the full domestic season without a defeat. 

“The drive for this team is to remain unbeaten and we need to win this cup or else we will be beaten. We want to retain the cup that we worked so hard to win. The fans waited so long for Rovers to win the cup and for most of the players like myself it was the first time to win it. There is a massive motivation to win the cup and cap a great year off with a double.”

The statistics are quite remarkable for Rovers this year. In the 18 game league campaign the Hoops conceded just seven goals – the fewest ever in League of Ireland history. They kept 13 clean sheets and in the final 11 league games of the season, they conceded only one goal. 

“Defenders earn their crust on clean sheets and how well you defend. It isn’t just about getting your body in front of the ball, giving no chances up but when you have the ball can you keep it long enough so your opponents don’t get it. Can you be brave and play out from the back and through midfield without giving the opponent an opportunity to attack. That is a big part of defending – when you have the ball.

“We have such a fantastic goalkeeper in Alan (Mannus) – he gives us that confidence. 

Joey (O’Brien) is top class. We know what Lee (Grace) is capable of. In his first season at the club, there is nothing that fazes Liam Scales – he has fitted right in and been brilliant. You go through the team and we defend from the front. It is so important what Aaron Greene does for the team. The ability to win the ball high up and in midfield like we’ve done this year, it really does take the pressure off us defenders. Keeping that mentality throughout the team we will concede fewer goals.”

Lopes has played a crucial part in those clean sheets but his late goals have been invaluable too – all scored from set pieces. With Rovers trailing 2-1 to Dundalk in February, Lopes popped up with the equaliser on 71 minutes before Jack Byrne got the winner in front of over 7,500 fans in Tallaght – the last time supporters have watched a game in the stadium. Lopes got the winner nine minutes from time in the Brandywell as Rovers came from 1-0 down to win in August. In the Europa League later that month, it was the defenders’ flicked goal on 78 minutes that forced the game to extra-time before Rovers won the most remarkable penalty shootout (with Lopes scoring his side’s seventh spotkick).

“It is very important to chip in with goals throughout the team. When you have the quality of delivery with Jack Byrne, Aaron McEneff or Sean Kavanagh at set pieces you need to be scoring off them. We have great opportunities from set pieces and we work really hard on them. Goals win games and if we can chip in with a few goals between us that can make a difference. It is a team effort.”

Lopes was a half-time substitute in the 3-2 win over Finn Harps having just returned from being part of the Cape Verde squad in home and away Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Rwanda – both of which finished scoreless.

“It was a fantastic trip,” said Lopes. “It was professionally done. We were COVID tested four times in eight days when I was there plus the test before I left Ireland. They were really on top of it. You had a room to yourself and it was mask and hand sanitiser like here. 

“We were disappointed that we didn’t get three points in both games. There are some great quality players in the squad who are playing across the world. We are trying to qualify for the Cup of Nations – we will probably have to beat Mozambique and get something off Cameroon in the games next March. I’d love to be a part of the team who can qualify.”

It was a long journey home for Lopes with a flight from Rwanda to Uganda then a nine hour flight to Amsterdam where he had a further six hour layover before landing in Dublin the day before the game against Harps.

It has also been a journey for Lopes to win his first League of Ireland title. He was one of Stephen Bradley’s first signing for the Hoops moving across the Liffey from Bohemians. He is a player that Rovers fans mark out as one who has improved the most since his arrival in Tallaght. Playing in one of the club’s strongest ever teams, the 28-year-old defender is one of those in contention to win the club’s player of the year award.

It has also been a journey for Lopes to win his first League of Ireland title. He was one of Stephen Bradley’s first signing for the Hoops moving across the Liffey from Bohemians. He is a player that Rovers fans mark out as one who has improved the most since his arrival in Tallaght. Playing in one of the club’s strongest ever teams, the 28-year-old defender is one of those in contention to win the club’s player of the year award.

“One of the reasons I signed for Shamrock Rovers was to improve as a player. I knew my strengths coming here and I knew my weaknesses. One of the big things I said coming here is that I can learn the game. I can become a better footballer. 

“The fact that people said I couldn’t pass water when I signed here and say now that I look like a footballer, I see that as a massive complement to me. It is testament to the manager and all the coaching staff who have brought me to this level. I’ve worked really hard to learn. They have given me the tools to become the player that I have. I am still not there yet and I can improve

“Winning the league wasn’t just something we’ve been trying to achieve this season but something we have worked towards over the last number of years. It was a fantastic experience and that is my first time ever winning the league. I’ve been trying to do it over the last ten years so it was a really special moment for me. We enjoyed the night of the trophy presentation and we made sure we celebrated as it is important to do that and acknowledge what we had done.” 

A hardcopy and digital version of this programme is available to purchase from Shamrock Rovers here.

Watching LOI online and in the flesh

November 20, 2020 Leave a comment

Published in the Finn Harps match day programme – Issue 9 2020 – Finn Harps v Shamrock Rovers (1 November)

It is a Finn Harps v Shamrock Rovers game with a difference. COVID-19 restrictions mean there will be no home fans in Finn Park singing “Finn Harps, Finn Harps we are really here to stay”.

There is usually a sizeable travelling support for this fixture, with Rovers fans always made feel very welcome in Ballybofey but you won’t be hearing Hoops supporters serenading the newly crowned champions with (for reasons that are beyond me!) David Essex’s ‘Hold me close’.

However there will be plenty of football fans across Donegal, Dublin and beyond tuning in online via WATCHLOI for today’s fixture. The streaming service has been so vital for supporters since the resumption of the League of Ireland behind closed doors.

I’ll be watching this game online tonight deciding not to make the trip to Donegal but as a reporter with extratime.com I’ve been one of the lucky people to be able to attend games – and have watched matches in each of the league grounds in Dublin since August.

The added benefit of having WATCHLOI is that it streams about 90 seconds behind the live action, it has been very handy to have the stream available for action replays to make sure your match report is accurate!

The setup and organisation in each stadium I’ve visited has been very professional ensuring the safety of those in attendance and the match officials, management and players. A COVID-19 form completed ahead of match day, a temperature check on arrival, hand sanitiser available and social distanced seating in the stadium – and of course masks being worn. 

Most grounds now have an overflow press area as the press box simply isn’t large enough to accommodate the reporters and the required social distancing. In Tallaght Stadium, a new press area opposite the main stand was put in for the AC Milan Europa League qualifier to facilitate the large press core for that game from Ireland and Italy. Stickers with the reporters names were marked out on the desks. The Hoops have kept the area for the rest of this season and I’ve taken to sitting at Giovanni D’Elia’s desk in Tallaght for the past few weeks!

When St. Patrick’s Athletic played Harps behind-closed-doors in the FAI Cup in August, a number of Saints supporters made the trip to Finn Park to watch the game through the stadium perimeter fence – maybe there will be a few Rovers fans who might do similar although with heightened COVID-19 travel restrictions it might not be for the best.

One of the most memorial moments of this season for me involved fans watching another behind-closed-doors game that month. It was on a damp night in Tallaght when Rovers played Finnish side Ilves Tampere in a Europa League qualifier. In extra-time, from the pressbox you could hear the odd shout from behind the goal at The Square end of the ground. Then some more and before long out of the darkness about a dozen or so fans could be seen standing on top of the stadium perimeter wall – at one stage a few flares were lit  with smoke and song drifting into the stadium.

Those fans got to see the most dramatic of penalty shootouts. Jack Byrne missed Rovers’ first spot kick but then the Hoops scored the next dozen with Alan Mannus blasting one home before saving the 25th peno of the night. It set Joey O’Brien up to score his second penalty in the shootout for the win before the players trotted down to celebrate with the Rovers supporters – the ‘Ilves dozen’ – peering in over the perimeter wall.   

Categories: Uncategorized

Exploring 2km from home and some family history

On Tuesday 5 May I’ll be released from my #2kmfromhome zone into the #5kmfromhome zone. I’ve been content to stick within the 2km zone since the rules came in, as we all know they are for a very good reason. I’ve enjoyed exploring the good – including some family history – and I suppose the bad of the area I live in during the lockdown as I reflect on the last number of weeks.

I feel lucky living in The Liberties being close to Dublin’s city centre with plenty of history, street art and sunsets over the canal to take photos of during exercise taken all within 2km from my home. It is nice to see neighbours – while social distancing – out chatting as they sit on their stoops or on a kitchen chair at their front door. There are plenty of signs and pictures in the windows supporting the frontline workers.

However, the lack of green space in the city centre has become even more apparent since the restrictions came in and I couldn’t use my usual running route through the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, and beyond 2km to the War Memorial Gardens and on into the Phoenix Park. The closing of the Royal Hospital annoyed me until it was pointed out that the OPW were facilitating the area close to James’ Hospital for a morgue to deal with the covid-19 crisis.

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So my recent running routes a couple of times a week have been north to Grangegorman or along the canal to the south. Running east into the city centre in the evenings hasn’t been too enjoyable due to the bizarre atmosphere on the deserted Dublin Streets. Many shops are boarded up or their stock removed from the premises. Those on the streets are typically Gardai, Deliveroo “staff” and people whose homes are those streets.

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The fact there are so many homeless people isn’t a COVID19 issue, but reflects the Ireland that we live in and how successive governments haven’t managed to solve this issue and the overall housing crisis. The global pandemic has wrought so much grief but has given us things that we should always have had – a single tier health service, proper rent control and finally a contraflow bike lane on Nassau Street. It didn’t need a global pandemic for us to get these things or to reaffirm that Air BnB properties were sucking the life out of the rental market in the city.

My favourite place for an evening run or walk is through the Tenters with its picturesque housing built in in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The houses were built by the Dublin Corporation in response to a housing crisis in the city at the time. Following the collapse of tenement buildings on Church Street – a tragic event which saw seven people killed and hundreds left homeless – the subsequent public inquiry highlighted the horrific housing conditions in Dublin at the time.

There is a stone marking the entrance to the area erected that reflects the history of this part of Dublin where the Huguenots, escaping religious persecution in France, settled in and set up an industrial zone for weaving.

“This area is known as the tenters, because linen cloth was stretched out on tenterhooks to bleach in the sun. When the linen trade failed, the fields were used for market gardens.”

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The fields are long gone, replaced by a lovely mix of houses including some picturesque red brick, two up-two down houses along Danore Road and Hamilton Street. I’ve taken to running down the latter road in particular as it was where my great grandfather lived. Padraig Breathnach worked for Elliots as a weaver in an industry that employed as many as 5,000 people in the early 1800s but when higher taxes were imposed from London the industry declined. By the 1900s there few looms working in the area and my great grandfather became known as last silk weaver in The Liberties working on a loom downstairs in his house on Hamilton street.

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I’m told he used to travel from the area over to Grangegorman to gather the silk from the mulberry bushes for his weaving so it seems I’ve been following in my great grandfather’s footsteps over the last few weeks as I’ve ventured from the Liberties across the Liffey and into Grangegorman and back.

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Will we go all the way?

October 28, 2019 Leave a comment

We are one with the Hoops, with the Hoops we’re in love
Hold our head high as the underdogs
We are not fairweather but foulweather fans
Like brothers in arms, in the streets and the stands

There’s magic in the ground and the green score board
The same one I stared at as a kid keeping score
In a world full of greed I could never want more
Someday we’ll go all the way

And if you ain’t been I am sorry for you
And when the day comes with that last winning goal
And I’m crying and covered in beer
I’ll look to the sky and know I was right
To think someday we’ll go all the way

Yeah, someday we’ll go all the way
Oh, someday we’ll go all the way

With apologies to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, I’ve reworked his song about his beloved Chicago Cubs. This track was released in 2008 when the Cubs had gone 100 years without winning the biggest prize in baseball – the World Series.

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Now that’s a proper sporting famine that can put Shamrock Rovers’ FAI Cup one in the ha’penny place. However after the semi-final drama in Dalymount Park last month, Rovers are Aviva bound in a few weeks and are just one game away from ending a 32 year wait to win the FAI Cup.

The Hoops are the ‘cup specialists’ and maybe we should embrace it. That tag was bloody hard won over nearly a century. The Hoops played in the very first FAI Cup final in 1922 and secured their first of a record 24 FAI Cups 94 years ago. We are one of only two clubs to have played in every FAI Cup competition and Rovers hold the record for appearances in semi-finals (47) and finals (34 including next month’s game) and

In terms of victories there was a five-in-row from 1929 to 1933, back-to-back wins in both the 40s and 50s and in the 1960s Rovers essentially owned the FAI Cup. Just three times in that decade were green and white ribbons not adorning the trophy for Rovers and this year is the 50th anniversary of securing a sensational six-in-a-row..

There was just one cup secured in the 1970s before a purple patch that coincided with the final years in Milltown. Rovers dominated the League of Ireland in the mid-1980s. They made four consecutive FAI Cup finals, winning three of them in a period when the Hoops won four league titles. After winning their last FAI Cup in 1987, the Hoops departed Milltown and the decision by the Kilcoyne family to leave Glenmalure Park is a big reason for the subsequent Rovers cup famine.

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Having moved around countless ‘home’ grounds in Dublin and getting into severe financial difficulties trying to complete Tallaght Stadium, it meant the Hoops had difficulty fielding competitive teams capable of challenging for league titles and cup successes in the intervening years.

The Hoops only major trophy in their time between leaving Milltown and getting to Tallaght was during their tenure at the RDS when they won the 1993/94 league title. That was the one period when the Hoops had the stability of a home ground that was effectively their own rather than renting venues off their rivals.

Rovers have gotten to just three FAI Cup finals since the 1980s. A shock 1-0 defeat to Galway United in 1991, a loss in Tolka Park against Derry City in 2002 and the 2010 final lost on penalties to Sligo Rovers.

Damien Richardson, who won the cup with the Hoops in 1968 and 1969 and managed the Hoops between 1999 and 2002, had this to say about Rovers’ cup tradition and subsequent cup famine when he spoke to this author last year.

“When it came to cup football Shamrock Rovers had an aura about them. Milltown came alive for cup week even if it was the first round. Everyone senses were heightened.”

Looking back on his time as a manager he said “it was a different Shamrock Rovers. It was difficult time for the club. It is something that I find incongruous when you look at the tradition of Shamrock Rovers in the cup. I would love Shamrock Rovers to win the cup as I think it would be more important than winning the league because of the cup tradition.”

Rovers last made the final in 2010, on the back of Rovers winning their first league title since 1994. The Hoops, under manager Michael O’Neill, had been involved in a titanic tussle with Bohs that season with the Hoops securing the title thanks to a 2-2 draw in Bray, beating Bohs by a better goal difference of two.

Current Hoops Head Coach Stephen Bradley saw red in the FAI Cup final that followed. It was scoreless after extra-time before Sligo Rovers prevailed on penalties as Rovers failed to score any of their spot kicks.

That 2010 final now looks like a missed opportunity although that wasn’t the view at the time. Hoops supporters thought an opportunity to win the cup would come their way soon again but it hasn’t worked out that way. Since 2011, the Hoops have reached five semi-finals (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019) but only this year’s one ended in victory.

However something is building at Rovers under Stephen Bradley. It has been slow progress at times for some impatient supporters but the Hoops Head Coach has changed the playing style and completely overhauled the Hoops squad over his three years in charge.

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He has brought players in to suit his preferred passing game and he secured second place in the league five games from the end of the league campaign. That is the best result for Rovers since they won the title eight years ago and it certainly looks like they can take on Dundalk in a tighter title tilt next year. But first up there is the cup final between the pair. Dundalk looking for a treble and Rovers looking to win the cup for the first time in over three decades.

Noel Larkin was part of the last Rovers team to lift the trophy. He has an indelible image from the day showing how much the cup meant to supporters and to his own family.

On the 25th anniversary of that cup win Larkin recalled “when I went over to my Dad after collecting my medal, the tears of pride and joy were streaming down his face. That to me is the memory I have of winning the cup that day. It means so much, to so many people, not just the players.”

You’d suspect should Rovers manage to end the cup famine and go all the way to get a fabled 25th cup win, there will be plenty of tears shed. The Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016 so why can’t this be the year that Rovers go all the way in the FAI Cup.

The late winner in Galway, the victory in the dramatic semi-final Dublin Derby at Dalymount Park means maybe, just maybe, this can be Rovers’ year. Of course, it is the hope – or is it the Hoops – that say that will kill you!

Published in Hoops Scene 19/2019 (Shamrock Rovers v Cork City – 25 October)
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Postcard from Lords – A special test match

Old Father Time watches on. He has seen it all played out on the field below but the drama of this week’s test match in Lords could almost have sent him spinning even if there was only a light wind blowing out across St. John’s Wood giving some relief from the 30 degree temperatures.

At early lunchtime on Wednesday, below that famous weather vain, the scoreboard read England all out for 85 – the first time they had been bowled out in the first innings of a test match at Lords before lunch. England, the One Day Cricket World Champions who were crowned at this very venue just ten days previously, had been skittled out by an Ireland side playing only their third test match.

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The Old Father Time weather vain above the scoreboard at the Tavern Stand.

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Ireland celebrate bowling England out for 85

I never played cricket as a kid– save for mowing the grass out the back garden to the lowest level and playing a bit of tennis ball cricket. Yet, the game was a part of my sporting childhood. Those long summer days when cricket was played out across five days on the telly, taking up its part in the TV sporting summer that included Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

And while we had Irish heroes to cheer on at the Tour, cricket was very much an English game and as such, unlike any other sport, I’ve always been an England cricket fan rooting for various iterations of England teams that contained David Gower, Mike Atherton and Alistair Cook across the decades.

I first visited Lords as a young teenager during a trip to stay with my Aunt who lived in London. In between the travelling to all the usual tourist sights such as Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge, my Aunt took me to Wembley – where she sweet talked the Irish security guard on the gate to allow me walk up the famous tunnel of the old stadium – and also she brought me to the home of cricket.

We spent a day watching Desmond Haynes hit an unbeaten 222 for Middlesex against Sussex at Lords. I’ve been back a few times since to watch England play test match cricket but last Wednesday was something special.

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Middlesex v Sussex – August 1990

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I never thought I’d get the opportunity to cheer on an Irish side in a test action against England. Now was a chance for Irish players to walk through the Long Room on the way out to the field and take on England. There is such history about the place with cricket first played here in the 1814 season, test matches since 1884 and the pavilion built in 1890.

I just hoped that Ireland would be competitive on day one and boy were they. There is a unique sound about test match cricket at Lords. The humming of conversation that rings out around the ground, occasionally punctuated by bottles of bubbly being uncorked or the sound of bat on ball followed by polite clapping.

Although on this morning there was also the sound of giddy Irish people – myself included – celebrating the constant fall of English wickets. It was incredible. A few days after Olé Olé and the Fields of Athenry rang around Portrush for Shane Lowry, here at the home of cricket those familiar tunes began to filter out from the Edrich and Mound stands.

England one down, then two down, oh wait another wicket, what is that 42-4. There were ironic cheers around the ground as England made 50 but by then they had lost seven wickets. Tim Murtagh, bowling on what was effectively his Middlesex home turf, ran in from the nursery end to tear the English apart. He would have his name up on the famous Lords Honours board by the end of the day with his five wicket haul conceding a mere 13 runs.

I was nominally sitting at the back of the Grand Stand but this was genuinely edge of the seat stuff as I leant forward each time Murtagh or Big Boyd Rankin ran in. When the wickets fell, it was straight up out of the seat with a football style goal celebration.

Sitting either side of me were a pair of middle aged Englishmen both with their elderly fathers watching the game. They were disgusted with their team’s performance but genuinely delighted with how Ireland were playing and were sporting enough to be amused by the amazed the reaction of the sizeable Irish crowd around them without being patronising.

We chatted about the joy of their team winning the World Cup earlier in the month and about the Ashes series to come. Their hopes for winning against Australia seemed to shrink as the morning went on.

I was listening in to BBC’s Test Match Special and Jonathan Agnew and Alistair Cook were scathing about the England batting performance. Meanwhile Niall O’Brien was enjoying how his brother and former teammates were doing out on the pitch. Lunch was scheduled for 1.15pm but by then England were all out.

I enjoyed the early lunch by nipping into the museum – reputedly the oldest sporting museum in the world – and seeking out the little Ashes urn that is kept here at the back of the Pavilion.

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After lunch, Ireland put in a very creditable batting performance getting initially to 132 for the loss of just two wickets before England got on top. Balbirnie got to his 50 before he went as Ireland lost five wickets for just 15 runs.

By the time Ireland made 200 they were nine wickets down and it was time to head for the exits. I walked up St. John’s Wood Road towards Paddington to catch the train to Heathrow with a grin fixed to my face. Yes, it would turn out that England would win the test on Friday but boy had Ireland given them a game. The Boys in Green in their Test Match cricket whites had truly arrived on the world’s cricketing stage.

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Homegrown Hero: Mick Leech

Article in the FAI’s Republic of Ireland v USA match programme (Aviva Stadium, 2 June 2018)

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In a new series on League of Ireland players who earned caps, we catch up with a Shamrock Rovers’ goalscoring legend.

Before Mick Leech ever got two goals for the Republic of Ireland in Brazil, before he scored 132 times in his long League of Ireland career or got 56 goals across all competitions in the 1968/69 season, and before he ever earned his legendary status at Shamrock Rovers helping the Hoops win half of their FAI Cup six-in-a-row in the 1960s, he was playing with junior side Ormeau.

During that time, a month before his 18th birthday, he travelled to the 1966 World Cup in England as a spectator. He watched Hungary play Brazil and was blown away by the brilliance of that Hungarian team. Within a year, he would join Rovers and win his first FAI Cup and just three years later he would line out for Ireland against that Hungarian side.

“I thought Hungary were the best team I’d ever seen playing when I saw them in the ‘66 World Cup against Brazil in Goodison Park.

“They were a brilliant team with Bene and others who beat Brazil 3-1 that day and a few years later I was playing against them in Dalymount Park. I thought it was an honour to be on the pitch with them,” said Leech about Ireland’s 2-1 defeat to the Magyars in June 1969.

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It was only a month before that Leech had first been included in an Ireland squad. “Outside Easons there was a paper seller with a big poster beside him and it said ‘Leech called into Ireland squad’ so that is the way I heard about it!”

If the way in which he learned about making his first squad inclusion seemed a bit strange, his debut in that game against Czechoslovakia left an even bigger impression. Leech ended up with 10 stitches, being locked out of the Dalymount Park dressing room and having to ring his father to get a lift home after the match!

“I was carried off in the first half. The fella would have got six years for the tackle these days, never mind a yellow card! I got taken in the ambulance to the Mater Hospital.

“By the time I got seen to it was late. I had to walk back up the Phibsborough Road in my football gear to Dalymount afterwards. But sure there was nobody there.

“The bar was at least open so I could ring my Da and go ‘look Da, can you come over and collect me?’ There was no way I could get home with all the bandages on!

“In those days for Ireland you just met on a Saturday morning up in Milltown and we would have a kick around. Some of the players were playing club matches in England and would only arrive on Sunday morning when we would all report to the Gresham Hotel for the game.

“You’d have cup of tea and some toast and the manager Charlie Hurley would name the team and say this is the way we are going to play.”

In 1972, Ireland took part in a 20 team ‘mini-World Cup’ called the Brazil Independence Cup. “We were based in Recife and Natal in the north of Brazil and we did quite well.”

In Ireland’s opening game Leech scored his first international goal in the 2-1 win over Iran. They beat Ecuador next 3-2 before losing to Chile 2-1. Leech got his only other international goal from his eight Ireland caps in the final group game against Portugal.

“The winning team went on to play in two groups of four. If we had beaten Portugal, we would have gone on to Rio for the next round. There were eight Benfica players including Eusebio in the team (who were double winners that season).”

Ireland lost 2-1 with Portugal progressing to the next round and then the final in the Maracana against Brazil. They lost 1-0 only conceding a last minute goal from Jairzinho – a player Leech had seen play in the ’66 World Cup six years previously.

Reflecting on what might have been Leech concludes that “half the lads on the team who were playing professionally in England, didn’t want to play for a couple of more weeks and wanted to go home but for me it would have been about going to Rio to play in, what was as far as I was concerned, the home of football.”

For someone who went on to become a League of Ireland legend, Leech can always reflect with pride his time in an Ireland jersey.

He is a true Homegrown Hero.

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Tour de Force from Lee Grace

Interview with Lee Grace in Hoops Scene No. 10 2018, Shamrock Rovers match day programme v Dundalk (1 June 2018)

As we kick off June with the clash of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium tonight, the front loaded League of Ireland schedule means that at the end of this evening’s match we are already a couple of games into the second half of the SSE Airtricity League season.

That is 20 league games completed in the first 16 weeks of the season with the remaining 16 matches due to take place over of the next 21 weeks. Only one Shamrock Rovers player so far this season has played every minute of every league game for the Hoops and it isn’t really a surprise that it is Lee Grace the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

A former member of the Irish defence forces, Grace hails from the town on the River Suir where they are made of hardy stuff. On the Tipperary and Waterford border, it is where Sean Kelly was reared. Kelly is a legendary cyclist who dominated the professional era in the 1980s. His palmares, which is listed on a plaque in Sean Kelly Square in the town, includes nine of the top monument one day classic races, seven Paris-Nice wins, four Tour de France green jerseys and one Tour of Spain overall win.

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The town is also home to Sam Bennett who recently became the first Irish rider to win three stages of a Grand Tour, something even Kelly didn’t manage. Bennett also went one better than Stephen Roche who won two stages en-route to winning 1987 Giro d’Italia. Bennett, whose father Michael managed Waterford in the League of Ireland, mixes it in the rough and tumble of the bunch sprints – something that Kelly did particularly early in his career.

When Grace was growing up he played hurling, soccer and did some cycling and has been following the progress of Sam Bennett closely.

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“I used to cycle as a kid with my uncle who is mad into the cycling,” said Lee Grace when he spoke to Hoops Scene earlier this week. “I was in school with Sam Bennett so I’ve been following his progress. He was a year ahead of me in school but my brother was in the same class.

“He has been doing unbelievable. He is flying. He is the first Irish man to win a stage of a grand tour in over 30 years. Fair play to him. He deserves it. I’ve never seen a man work as hard.”

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Last week, the Hoops went head-to-head with Bohemians in a keenly contested Dublin derby at Dalymount Park that ended in a 1-1 draw. The Bohs fans ahead of kick off displayed a banner ‘The North Side’. With Bohs based north of the Liffey and Rovers south, it isn’t too far off the sporting rivalry that Grace has seen in his home town, although the rivalry is mainly between the two clubs on the Tipp side of the county boundary.

“Carrick-on-Suir is right on the border with half of the town in Tipperary and the other half in Waterford. I’m from the Tipp side. There are two clubs on Tipperary side and one on the Waterford side.

“I played for the Waterford side when I was younger and then moved to the Tipp side. The two clubs in Tipp have a very big rivalry and it is intense in the town every time they play.”

It looked like the Hoops were going to have the Dublin derby bragging rights when captain Ronan Finn put Rovers 1-0 up with seven minutes remaining. However, it was to be another late derby goal for Bohs – this one two minutes from time – that saw the points shared.

“It was a tight game and a scrappy affair,” was Grace’s assessment of the match. “There wasn’t much ball played. There were patches where we tried to play. Those derby games are always like that.

“We caught them on the break. Greg (Bolger) tried five or six of those balls in the game and he said himself that none of them came off until that one for Ronan. He got in on goal and it was a great finish. We scored and I thought we would see it out as there were only six or so minutes to go.”

However the Hoops conceded a free kick high up the pitch, one that most Rovers fans felt was very soft. “A set piece did us in the end and so it was a disappointing result. Ethan (Boyle) said he barely touched him but any contact there and they are going to go down and from the referee’s view it is an easy free kick to give.”

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Last Friday Graham Burke and Shane Supple were rivals on the pitch but both then were part of the Ireland squad that flew to France last Saturday ahead of the friendly against France.

“It is great for the both of them to get into the Ireland squad and it is great for the league as well. It shines a great light on the league. I hope they do well. For Graham he really deserves it as he is such a hard worker but he will go out and enjoy himself.”

Over the years, there have been a couple of occasions when Grace has had to choose between different sports and even different clubs as he looked to progress as a footballer. “I’m a big hurling fan and I used to play but then had to give it up to concentrate on the soccer.”

A couple of years ago there was the option of continuing his career in the Irish Defence Forces with a deployment overseas or to give full time professional football a go with Galway United at the time – an option that he eventually went with.

Whether Stephen Bradley has deployed his men in league action with a flat back four or three centre halfs, Grace has been every present even with all the matches played so far this season.

“The midweek games are grand. You are none stop and there isn’t much time for preparation. Now we have a full week to prep for this Dundalk game and that is great. We can get a bit of freshness into the legs.”

“When we have three at the back we are obviously more stable defensively as we are a bit more compact and we weren’t conceding as many goals but at the other end we aren’t scoring as many. The other way we are a bit more open but we are scoring more. I’m happy in either formation.

“We went back to four against Pat’s and we scored three that night,” said Grace reflecting on the 3-0 win over the Saints in the last home game here at Tallaght Stadium.

“We brought a lot more energy and a lot more legs to the game in Tallaght. Even in Richmond Park, I think the 2-0 defeat to Pat’s wasn’t a fair reflection on the game. The sending off for us didn’t help but even with ten men I thought we were comfortable until a couple of mistakes cost us two goals. In Tallaght there was none of that and we fully deserved the win.”

It was Grace who opened the scoring with a header off a corner and another header by his centre-half partner Pico Lopes late in the game kept a Rovers clean sheet.

“We work on that a lot in training and those clipped balls to the front post are working for us. As defenders clean sheets are what we play for and I think that clearances off the line like that are as good as goals so fair play to Pico for getting back and clearing it with that great header.”

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2015 in review

December 30, 2015 Leave a comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 53 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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