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Euro success built from the League of Ireland

“In Ireland there is no league,” were the words uttered in 2013 by the then Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni but at EURO 2016 the League of Ireland was central to some magnificent Ireland performances in France. The results were very much built on the back of players who began their trade in the League of Ireland, with a certain former Shamrock Rovers manager leading Northern Ireland’s success.

 

When Trapattoni’s two former international teams came up against one another last week in the group stage of the Euros, it was the Republic of Ireland team who emerged on top – in a game that had seven former League of Ireland players contribute to that famous 1-0 win over Italy. Robbie Brady’s winning goal in Lille coming off a Wes Hoolahan cross will be one of the sporting highlights of not just the year but the decade!

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Players who were on the pitch for the famous win over the Italians had previously lined out in our league for Shelbourne (Wes Hoolahan), St. Patrick’s Athletic (Stephen Quinn), Cork City (Shane Long), Waterford United (Daryl Murphy), Bohemians (Stephen Ward), Derry City (James McLean) and Sligo Rovers (Seamus Coleman), with former Cork City player David Meyler also named on the bench.

 

In the days following the win over Sweden, the FAI organised a photoshoot with all eight ex-League of Ireland players in the Euro squad wearing the jerseys of their former Irish clubs. Of course, the Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane also played in the league with Cobh Ramblers.

I was lucky enough to be out in France for the tournament, sitting in the stands supporting the boys in green, and with a press pass for a few other matches as I was doing some work with extratime.ie. The day after that photocall, I went out to the Ireland training camp in Versailles.

With Roy Keane up for media duties, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him about the photo and was he tempted to pull on a Cobh Ramblers jersey and join in?

 

He smiled and gave a quick “no” but went on to elaborate with great enthusiasm about the crucial contribution of the league in both his own career and the careers of more than a third of the Ireland squad at the Euros.

 

“Over the years people have been quick to criticise League of Ireland football but it played a huge part in my career,” said Keane. “You saw yesterday with those lads that was brilliant, a really nice photograph.

 

“No Ramblers player there” said Keane and I thought in my own mind a pity that there were no Shamrock Rovers players in it but hopefully in years to come! “With the criticism that the League of Ireland gets, it has played a big part in these lads having a very good career, so it was nice to see.”IMG_2017

 

There were a few League of Ireland flags flown at the games during the tournament. Both the Lynch Family flag ‘Hooping since 1984’ and the ‘London Hoops’ flag were visible at the Belgium and Italy games respectively. During Iceland’s battling draw with Portugal, a Galway United Football Club flag was hung down near the cornerflag visible to everyone watching the game.

 

These flags almost seemed a novelty with their support of League of Ireland clubs rather than the novelty ‘whack a funny Father Ted slogan’ on a flag that seems to have become the norm.

 

I was on press duty in the Parc des Princes for the Germany and Northern Ireland game. Former Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill has done a superb job with his national team. O’Neill took up the role as the boss with the North soon after leaving the Hoops at the conclusion of our remarkable run in the Europa League – the competition we are back in the qualifying rounds of today.

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It is five years since we had that famous 20,000km journey through Europe from Tallinn to Copenhagen, London, Thessaloniki and Kazan. It was Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That first single step was taken against Estonian team Flora Tallinn and crucial to that was goalkeeper Alan Mannus.

In the first leg against the Estonian champions in Tallaght, Mannus saved a penalty minutes before Chris Turner would score the only goal of the tie and set us on our way. Those early games would be Mannus’ last for the Hoops as he made the move soon after to join St. Johnstone.

Mannus was part of Michael O’Neill’s squad at the Euros, which also qualified for the knock out stages of the competition earned by their 2-0 win over Ukraine. I got the chance to talk to Mannus after his side’s battling 1-0 defeat to World Champions Germany, on a night in Paris when the North were grateful for a brilliant performance by their number one goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

 

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Mannus has been a regular in O’Neill’s ‘Norn Iron’ squads. The former Rovers boss had a tough opening campaign in a failed attempt to get to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That meant Northern Ireland were fifth seeds in the qualification campaign for France. However, Michael O’Neill led his team to top spot in their qualifying group – the first team ever to do so from Pot 5 of the draw.

“We worked together at Shamrock and he did very well there,” said Mannus discussing his time with the Hoops under Michael O’Neill. “I’m delighted that he has done so well with Northern Ireland as I knew he was capable of that.

“The first campaign we probably played better than the results showed and in this qualifying campaign we played well and got the results we deserved and got through. I’m sure a number of clubs will be looking at him with a view maybe to take him on as manager.

“I’m delighted for him. He is a brilliant manager and understands football and that has been shown in the way we’ve played and the results we’ve got.”

Going into the last group game, the permutations were very clear for the Republic of Ireland. Beat Italy and qualify or else it was time to go home. The stadium in Lille was a sea of green with Ireland fans taking almost three sides of the stadium. With the roof of the venue closed, the atmosphere was incredible and the tension (and heat!) almost unbearable.

 

In the run up to the match, former Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli commented in La Gazzetta dello Sport that Irish players had “trouble handling the game tactically. They don’t get that football is also an intellectual matter, and not just about attacking and going forward.”

 

Seamus Coleman dismissed those comments ahead of the game – “I’m not really bothered what Marco thinks” – and the Irish team dismissed the Italian side with a tactical, hard pressing and physical performance against Italy. Martin O’Neill had made four changes to his starting XI, dropping Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, Ciaran Clarke and captain John O’Shea. Handed the armband was Donegal man Seamus Coleman.

 

O’Neill brought Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy into the centre of defence and they successfully marshalled the Italian attack. Ireland had left a win behind them against Sweden in Paris and it seemed the same would happen in Lille; Particularly after Hoolahan, on as second half substitute, missed a great chance in the closing minutes.

 

However, he picked up the ball moments later and delivered as good a cross as you will see onto the head of Robbie Brady. 1-0. ‘Who put the ball in the Italian net? Brady, Brady. Who put the ball in the Italian net? Robbie Robbie Brady.’

 

There were emotional scenes after the final whistle on the pitch – have we seen a happier Roy Keane – and in the stands. Speaking after the final whistle, the players were still coming to terms with the win that set up last Sunday’s game in Lyon against France. Coleman spoke about all those hours his father had driven him down to train and play with Sligo Rovers and how they are paying off now.

 

I bumped into the Cork City manager John Caulfield in the hotel I was staying in after the game and the City boss agreed that it was great to see big managerial decisions rewarded with a win! Both Martin and Michael O’Neill had made significant switches to their starting teams, against Ukraine for the North and Italy for our Boys in Green, and these were central to the success of both teams in the group stages of the competition.

 

Article published in Shamrock Rovers match day programme Hoops Scene Issue 10 – Shamrock Rovers v RoPS Rovaniemen  – Thursday 30 June 2016

 

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Does your telly know you’re here?

The slick live TV presentation style with graphics, commentary team and replays give the television viewer at home a real sense of a sporting occasion. Throw in the multi-camera, super slow-mo and spidercam views and it is almost like being there. Almost but not quite.

To get a sense of what it really means to be at a game, fan footage can nearly be a better option. There is something about those shaky camera angles, foul language and those guttural screams when a goal goes in that Sky Sports just can’t beat.

Here is a top eight of Shamrock Rovers fan footage.

 

‪8. A million euro penalty – Partizan Belgrade v Shamrock Rovers (August 2011) 

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Maybe a surprise that this video from Shamrock Rovers’ incredible 2011 season is only at number eight. Despite the grainy footage and being a long distance from the action, this is Rovers video gold. The drama builds as Hoops fans realise what this will mean if Stephen O’Donnell slots this penalty away. The screams from the small pocket of 43 fans when he scores tell you Rovers have made history and qualified for the group stages of the Europa League.

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‪7. Injury time equaliser in the Dublin derby (April 2011)

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‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hivM-DQks5c

‪Nobody likes to lose to their bitter rivals but that was the fate awaiting Rovers in April 2011 in Dalymount Park. Despite times call for desperate measures and that meant Alan Mannus making the journey up into the Bohs box for this last minute corner. He went up for the header but it is his team mate Ronan Finn whose touch earns Rovers a draw and the owner of the camera in the crowd a broken pair of glasses in the celebrations.

 

 

 

‪6. No European hangover as Gary Twigg helps Hoops beat Bohs (August 2010)

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‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FWBV2wB0E0

‪Shamrock Rovers returned to Ireland on a Friday morning at 5am after their 1-0 defeat to Juventus in Modena facing into a crucial Sunday lunchtime kick off against Bohemians. Rovers were leading 1-0 in the second half when their defender Pat Flynn was sent off. ‪Could Bohs capitalise on the extra man and opposition tiredness after their recent European distractions? No was the answer as Gary Twigg scored a brilliant goal with his celebration in front of the Bohs fans not overly well received by the away fans! It would be a goal that would help the Hoops win the title.

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  1. He shoots, he scores, he wins Shamrock Rovers the league (October 2011)

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What is better than a good pitch invasion? How about two pitch invasions! Dean Kelly’s injury time goal for Shamrock Rovers in Belfield secured the Hoops the 2011 title. Some Hoops fans celebrated the goal with the players and a couple of minutes later when the final whistle went it looks like every Rovers fan piled onto the pitch to celebrate winning back-to-back titles.

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‪4. Injury time goal earns Rovers passage to Setanta Final (April 2013)

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‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCPUerFWkaE

‪It looked like Cork City had earned themselves a place in the Setanta Sports Cup final. However the Hoops won a free kick deep in injury time in the semi-final second leg in Turner’s Cross. One Rovers fans felt the wall needed to go back further. “That is not 10 fucking yards,” he said. It didn’t matter as Billy Dennehy’s free kick sent the Rovers fans, who had travelled mid-week down to Cork, home happy and the Hoops into the final.

 

  1. Penalty save providing passage to European glory (July 2011)

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‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnvv7LjGl9I

‪A penalty save that would set Rovers on the way to European success in 2011. The journey from Tallaght to Tallinn to Belgrade and White Hart Lane, all came about because of Alan Mannus’ penalty save against Flora Tallinn.

 

 

2. Spurs v Shamrock Rovers…the Hoops goal (September 2011)

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‪Video from the Spurs end showing Stephen Rice putting Shamrock Rovers 1-0 up in the second half of this Europa League Group game in White Hart Lane. The laughter accompanying the goal suggests it wasn’t shot by a Spurs fan.

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  1. ‪Hoops half time sing song against Juventus in Modena (August 2010)

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‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j75fFPS9u8c

Okay, not fan footage of any action on the pitch but of fans sheltering from the Monsoon in Modena at half-time in the Europa League qualifier against Juventus. Not the most PC of lyrics but this is fan footage so what do you expect?

 

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Northern Exposure to the League of Ireland

January 5, 2012 4 comments

On his appointment as the new Northern Ireland manager, Michael O’Neill has made it clear this week that he will be looking to maximise the use of the small player pool available to him. O’Neill will attempt to stop the trickle of players born in the North, some of whom have played under-age football for Northern Ireland, switching their allegiances to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland team. O’Neill has spoken about tempting former Northern Ireland under 21 international James McClean back to the North after last year he pulled out of a Northern Ireland senior squad saying he wished to play for the Republic of Ireland team.

The issue of players who were born in Northern Ireland declaring themselves available for the Republic is a thorny one. The Irish Football Association (IFA) went all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne to try and prevent FIFA’s ruling on players being born in the North playing for the Republic. It is particularly galling for the IFA to see players who are capped at underage level for them moving to play for the senior Republic of Ireland team. This issue has elements of politics and probably religion wrapped up in it with the singing of God Save the Queen as the anthem played at Windsor Park and the Good Friday Agreement being parts of the debate. A Great Britain and Northern Ireland team will take part in the football tournament at the London 2012 Olympics but the football associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not backed the team for fear of jeopardising their separate teams in UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Photo by George Kelly

Having been appointed Northern Ireland manager after successfully winning back-to-back League of Ireland titles with Shamrock Rovers, Michael O’Neill will look to cast his net to include player’s currently plying their trade in the League of Ireland. O’Neill was critical of his predecessor Nigel Worthington for not calling up League of Ireland players to the North’s squad for last summer’s Carling Nations Cup competition held in Dublin. Back then, Alan Mannus was O’Neill’s goalkeeper at Shamrock Rovers. Mannus’ superb form for Rovers in 2011 earned up a move to SPL side St. Johnstone in August but it couldn’t get him a spot in the Northern Ireland squad when he was at Rovers. “I would be disappointed that playing at Shamrock Rovers diminished Alan Mannus’ opportunity to play internationally,” said O’Neill back in July. “I did find it strange that Northern Ireland had six players in the Carling Nations Cup with Irish League experience and then there was the likes of Alan Mannus and James McClean of Derry that have both been in the Northern Ireland system but hadn’t been picked.”

However, as soon as Mannus had left Shamrock Rovers, even though he didn’t play a game for St. Johnstone, he was straight in the Northern Ireland squad. Mannus himself told of how Worthington gave him the impression that he needed to be playing away from the League of Ireland before he would be getting a call up for the North. “When the Northern Ireland manager (Nigel Worthington) spoke to me, he said in his words the fact that I’m not in England or Scotland doesn’t help me,” recalled Mannus last season. “I don’t think they pay too much attention to the League of Ireland. I know that he really wants players to be in England or Scotland. It is a case of even if it is Scottish First Division or League Two in England, they will still choose them ahead of lads in the League of Ireland and the Irish League”.

Shamrock Rovers player Chris Turner may be hoping that his former club boss will be in touch with him about a call up to the senior squad. Turner captained the Northern Ireland u21 team but has yet to get a senior cap. At Rovers this year, the 24 year old won the League of Ireland, the Setanta Sports All-Ireland Cup competition and qualified for the Europa League group stages. Turner’s crucial goal in Rovers’ opening game in Europe ensured the win over Estonian Champions Flora Tallinn setting Rovers on their way in Europe where he played 10 European games. His former team-mate certainly thinks he could do a job for the North. “I don’t necessarily think that the players in the squad are better than those playing in the League of Ireland like Chris Turner,” said Alan Mannus previously. “I’ve seen people come in from the Irish League in the same position in midfield and they weren’t any better than the likes of Chris Turner.”

Turner himself has spoken about the situation of League of Ireland players and the Northern Ireland international squad. “I obviously played the whole way up through from schoolboys up to the u21s but I’ve never been close to getting into the full national team,” said Turner last season of his time with the international set up in Northern Ireland. “I don’t think the league here gets enough recognition. I don’t even know if anybody comes down to watch any of the games. There are a number of players who could play for Northern Ireland like myself, Alan Mannus, Ruaidhri Higgins and a few of the Derry lads last year. There are players in this league more than capable of playing international football.” You would imagine that Michael O’Neill, who will be based in Northern Ireland, will be keeping a greater eye on talent available to him in both the League of Ireland and Irish League than his predecessor.

Photo by Bobby Best

Returning to the recent move of James McClean from Derry City to Sunderland, it is a case in point about the calibre of players in the League of Ireland. McClean made his debut for the Black Cats in their 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year’s Day and followed it up by scoring two days later in a 4-1 win over Wigan. Subsequently, there have been calls for McClean to be rushed into the Republic of Ireland squad, probably more so now following O’Neill’s words this week about looking to change McClean’s on playing for the North. Turner spoke last season about this strange situation of players suddenly becoming good enough to play international football just because they make a short flight or ferry ride across the Irish Sea. “You just have to look at some of the players who were playing here in the League of Ireland,” said Turner. “Once they get a move, they get called up. They don’t become a better player overnight. They were always a good player whenever they played in this league. Just because you get a move over the water to England or Scotland it doesn’t necessarily make you a better player.”

It will be interesting to see how far O’Neill will go to encourage players to play for Northern Ireland. He spoke this week about asking players who had quit international football to return. Will he look to bring ‘granny rule’ players in who are plying their trade in the SPL or English football? Or maybe bring in a naturalised Northern Ireland man? Possibly Shamrock Rovers star striker Gary Twigg may be eligible and O’Neill knows all about the striker who has scored 66 goals for Rovers in the last three seasons! Whatever he does, O’Neill knows he has a tough task ahead of him as his side faces into qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 in a group including Russia and Portugal. Ensuring he has a squad with as high a number of quality players will certainly help him as he cuts his teeth in international football.

In Godda we trust

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

The tale of Ryan Thompson’s journey from Jamaica to Tampa University and on to Tallaght is a compelling story. The Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper has used his footballing skills to move himself and his family away from the Kingston ghetto where he grew up, becoming his country’s first representative in the Champions League and being part of Irish football’s first representatives in the Europa League. If you add in the fact that his inspiration to shine at his sport comes from both from his family and the small matter of a broken heart from his college sweetheart, then the story has all the elements of a decent screenplay or a captivating book.

Hoops Scene spoke to the player in the aftermath of Rovers’ debut in the Europa League, a 3-0 home defeat to an impressive Rubin Kazan side. “You could tell that those guys were a notch above us,” said Thompson of last week’s opponents. “They were clinical with everything done precisely. If you give them chances, they will take them.” The Russian side certainly took their chances, with Rovers, disappointingly in Thompson’s view, offering up the opener to the visitors after just three minutes before Kazan scored two very well taken second half goals. “We have the quality in our team to do a lot. The expectation is high so every time you fall below that expectation, you are a little disappointed.”

Rubin Kazan won a penalty just before half time but Thompson was on hand to pull off an amazing penalty and rebound save. “I was very very happy. I always wanted to be on a stage like that, make big saves and save a penalty. Thankfully for me I did it.” In the previous European round with the game deep into extra time in Belgrade, Rovers were facing the prospect of a penalty shoot out. Ultimately, Stephen O’Donnell’s 113-minute penalty won the game for the Hoops but had Thompson been hoping for the game to go to penalties? “It was funny,” admitted Thompson, “I wanted it to go to a penalty shoot out. I was actually raring for that moment to happen. I can always tell when I’m going to be really good and that night I was ready for the shootout.”

It was a good night in Belgrade for the Jamaican net minder without the requirement of the drama of facing penalties as he kept the Hoops in the tie with a number of saves. This included a breath-taking finger tip save behind him low to his left from Vladimir Volkov’s header. “I’m blessed with natural athletic ability and amazing reflexes,” said the keeper nicknamed Godda. “I think most of the time I can get myself out of trouble because of my athletic ability and I can pull off saves like that. It is something I have in my locker waiting to unleash.”

Photo: Bobby Best

The final whistle saw scenes of jubilation amongst the Rovers squad, as they became the first Irish side to make the group stages of a major European competition. And Thompson’s reaction? “It was disbelief for me personally. I was numb, I didn’t have any real feeling. I’m like this little kid that was dreaming a couple of months back about all this stuff and now I’m actually playing against these players that I see on TV almost every day.”

At the start of the 2011 season, Alan Mannus was the undisputed number 1 at Shamrock Rovers with Ryan Thompson as his understudy. Mannus’ move to the SPL following Rovers’ 1-0 aggregate win in the Champions League qualifiers against Flora Tallinn, meant it was time for Thompson to step up. It is clear that the keeper is not short of confidence but even he was nervous when his big opportunity came when making his European debut in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen in the Champions League qualifiers. “You say I’m a confident individual and yeah I’m very confident,” said the 6 foot 1 shot stopper. “I’ve all the confidence in the world in my ability. However, Alan had set such high standards, they were huge shoes for me to fill. At that moment, I was nervous to be honest and I’m not a guy who gets nervous easily. I remember calling my coach in American while I was over in Denmark, to regain that confidence. I was like ‘Coach, I’m nervous’. He laughed at me. His comments were ‘Ryan, if you were going to look at a girl, I’d be nervous for you but you’re not – you’re an excellent player, so I’m not nervous for you; go out and play’. That’s what he told me to do and it did help.”

At Rovers, Thompson is part of a team within a team. The Shamrock Rovers goalkeeping team is led by coach Tim Dalton and, as well as Thompson, includes Richard Brush, Robbie Hughes and Craig Hyland. “Tim has being doing a great job. The dynamic is very good and everyone supports each other,” said Thompson of the goal keeping team. “We are very competitive in practice but friends at the end of the day. If anybody needs to work on something, we will all stay back and help them. If I need to work on crosses, everyone will stay back to work on crosses. No one would leave until everyone is satisfied. It is a great environment for us to grow and develop.”

The keepers train together but know that often only a mistake or an injury to the current number 1 will afford them the opportunity to get 90 minutes in the big games. “I can talk from being in that position. It is very difficult but at the same time in every difficulty you can find a way of making it a positive and that is what I try to do. When I was sitting on the bench behind Alan Mannus, I looked at the stuff that he was doing that I needed to work on, both on and off the pitch. He was such a professional. If you look in the dictionary for the word professional, you would see Alan Mannus beside it. I think that there was stuff I needed to improve before I was thrown into the first team. Sitting on the bench allows you to have the leverage to learn and develop yourself. Even though you want to be on there sometimes, it is not the best thing for you.” And when Thompson got into that position and played such a pivotal role in Rovers progressing to the Europa League, it was nice to hear that his former teammate was quick to get in touch. “Alan was one of the first people to text me congrats when I played over in Belgrade,” said Thompson who is still in contact with the Ulsterman.

The goalkeeper is thankful that football and his family provided a structure for the Thompson clan to move away from the tough area in Kingston where he grew up. “I didn’t have a Dad around when I was growing up but I had my Mom, and my Grandma, my aunts and my cousins and we all loved each other,” stated Thompson. “That’s what brought us up – love. Football saved me from a lot of things. It saved my family. Let me get this straight, I was never a guy who wanted to go down a negative path. I was always a guy who was willing to go out and do all that is positive to put myself and my family in a better position. Back then, coming home, you never knew when you might get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe getting caught in crossfire. That is the stuff that could have happened to me but I’m lucky that football helped me and my family move out of that area.”

Thompson began his career at an early age with Kingston side Harbour View and went on to win one senior cap for Jamaica in a qualifier for the Caribbean Cup but injury and his move to America for college later in his career reduced his opportunities for the Jamaican national team. “I was thrown into the first team when we won the Champions League of the Caribbean when I was 17,” recalled Thompson. “That’s when I was called up and began playing with the Jamaican underage teams and then the senior team. I was meant to be one of those prospect goalkeepers that I was going to go on and do something great until I tore my hamstring. The injury was a setback for my career.”

Thompson had a choice to make whether to continue to play in Jamaica or travel to the US and see what opportunities education and football would bring. “I had seen things with quality goalkeepers who didn’t achieve much when they were in Jamaica. So I said to myself I’m going to give myself a better chance. I’m going to leave Jamaica, I’m going to go to America, and I’m going to study and try to get into the MLS. I wanted to get my degree first and foremost. That’s what I did. That journey wasn’t easy, it had a lot of challenges.”

The journey saw him travel to the University of Tampa in Florida where he majored in marketing and played with the Tampa Spartans team in the NCAA. Over four seasons, he made 57 appearances and managed to get on the score sheet once. “I scored one goal, a penalty.” So would he be willing to take one at the car park end where Rovers have missed eight penalties from the ten they have taken? “I like responsibility. I will take on responsibility every single day. I’m not afraid of failure. I will score, thrust me!” said the keeper confidently.

One of the reasons behind Thompson travelling ultimately from Tampa to Tallaght is because of an unrequited love with a former college girlfriend. “I was hoping with my performances in college that I would be drafted into the MLS, maybe in the Top 10 draft but when all the scouts realised I had a Jamaican passport then all that interest went south. I had a girlfriend I was dating who left Tampa and went to Maine. There were two PDL teams (US Premier Development League) after college I was looking at; one in Tampa and one in Maine. You know what, I went to Maine because my girlfriend was living there and I was hoping we would get married. I was chasing love, that’s what I was doing! To cut a long story short, she literally turned her back on me when I was there. That forced me to be mentally tough and focus all my energy into football and that is what I did when I was there. I trained twice a day and started playing really well. The coach looked at me and believed I could play anywhere based on what I was doing. He set up a few opportunities for me that included the New England Revolution in the MLS and at Rovers. Originally I was here for two weeks and the gaffer [Michael O’Neill] offered me another two weeks. I said ‘you know what, I like it here, I’m going to stay another two weeks’ and I stayed a month and then they offered me a contract.”

“I love every moment here. The Rovers fans have made everything easy for me. There are a few die-hard supporters who are my really good friends. These are people who have made living here easy and they are like family to me. I have always been a big dreamer growing up always picturing myself doing great things. I was close to giving up soccer when I graduated college. Now I’m creating history being the first Jamaican in the Champions League, I’m playing in the Europa League and am part of the first Irish team to be in the major group stages. I’m thankful and grateful for all this stuff that Rovers have provided for me.”

Published in Hoops Scene 18 (Sunday 25 September 2011 – Shamrock Rovers v Bray)

Mannus: A Man for all seasons

In Alan Mannus, Shamrock Rovers have the best goalkeeper currently plying their trade in the League of Ireland. Last season, in addition to his league winners medal, both his own peers in the Professional Footballer’s Association of Ireland (PFAI) and the Sports Writers Association of Ireland (SWAI) voted him their goalkeeper of the year. The Rovers keeper is certainly the most decorated player at the club with six league titles, four cups and a couple of Setanta Cups collected in his time playing in both the League of Ireland and Irish League. These trophies have meant Mannus has been involved in several campaigns in the various European competitions including last year’s trip to Israel and Italy with the Hoops. Ahead of the kick off of Rovers’ 2011 Champions League campaign against FC Flora Tallinn, Hoops Scene chatted with Alan Mannus to get his thoughts on last year’s Europa League games as well the challenges of retaining Shamrock Rovers’ league title.

Bnei Yehuda was the opposition for Shamrock Rovers in their opening Europa League fixture last season. Rovers drew the first leg in Tallaght Stadium before travelling out to Tel Aviv for the second leg. “I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in quite a few European games in my time playing and it is the one that sticks out the most,” recalled Mannus of the trip to Israel. “We were drawing 1-1 before we went over and nobody expected us to get through. After the first game, the draw was made so we knew that if we got through we would be playing Juventus. Outside of the team and obviously the Rovers fans, everyone else didn’t expect us to do it and didn’t want us to do it probably.”

In the game in Tel Aviv, Mannus pulled off a string of top class saves that drew appreciative cheers from the Rovers fans that made the trip to the Holy Land. Those back in Ireland, watching the live internet stream on their home computer or maybe in one of the hotels showing the game in Tallaght, were also cheering the saves which eventually set up Rovers to win the game when Thomas Stewart scored sending Rovers through 2-1 on aggregate. “It is probably the most memorably trip I’ve been on,” admits Mannus, “due most importantly to the result and not only that but also the country as I had never been to Israel before. It was a great experience to be there. It was great how we got on as a team. The feeling afterwards in the changing room is something I will never forget. We came in and we knew we had done pretty much the impossible and we were going to play Juventus after that. I will always remember that and it is great to be part of games like that.”

The clean sheet and away goal in Israel meant that just one week later the players from the grand old lady of Italian football, Juventus, were being greeted by Rovers mascot Hooperman as they entered Tallaght Stadium. In front of the live TV cameras, it only took Juventus 3 minutes to take the lead but it would take another 72 for them to get the only other goal of the game. “I thought we did quite well,” said the 29 year old keeper. “The goal sort of killed us a wee bit with it being so early but we were always going to be up against it. We just wanted to put in a good performance. We were pretty proud afterwards. It was a great experience and great for the squad of players to be playing against them and to bring them to Tallaght Stadium for the supporters after only being there for a quite short amount of time playing in the stadium.”

The second leg was played in monsoon like rain in Modena in front of a sizeable Juventus crowd and around 900 or so sodden Shamrock Rovers fans. “I thought it would have been called off if it had have been any other situation really,” recalls Mannus. “If it had been a league game in the League of Ireland it would have been called off I think. I suppose they wanted to play with everyone travelling over. We went out in the warm up, me, Pat Jennings, and the goalkeeper coach Tim Dalton and we were standing out in the rain looking at each other, smiling and saying you have to love playing this game, you have to love football and being a goalkeeper! It made it difficult for both teams and you could see it with them that they couldn’t pass it as much as they probably would have done if it hadn’t been those conditions. I thought we gave a good account of ourselves and we kept it 0-0 for over seventy minutes.”

It was only on the 74th minute mark that the teams could be separated and it took a moment of magic from the Juventus record goal scorer and appearance maker Alessandro Del Piero. It needed to be something special to beat Alan Mannus on the night and the Italian international’s free kick from all of 35 yards was certainly that. “I’ve never had a free kick hit against me like that before and I probably never will again!” Mannus said ruefully. “He is a world class player isn’t he and that’s what can happen.”

In Rovers’ last domestic football outing here at Tallaght Stadium, they beat Saint Patrick’s Athletic to go back top of the league and end the visitors’ 14 game unbeaten streak. In the early Sunday afternoon sunshine, it was another clean sheet for Mannus and his team and he was very pleased with the whole experience. “It was a good performance against a team that at the time were above us in the league. Pats are a good team and are going to be challenging like a number of other teams are going to be. The fact that we were at home it was important that we gave a good performance and got a result that we know we are capable of. I thought we did that, we defended very well and we didn’t give them many chances. We were very solid at the back and we might have scored a couple more and the goal we scored was probably the best goal of the season so far.”

That goal saw Gary Twigg net his 10th league goal of the season as he ended an impressive 16 pass move to score. “You don’t tend to see too many goals like that with so many passes,” admits Mannus, “and not just passes but the movement which created space for other people. It will be one of the best ones of the season as it involved most of the team.”

The match was played in front of a crowd of over 5,000 and the goalkeeper could enjoy the atmosphere even from his position playing on the pitch. “It usually tends to be a good atmosphere against Pats, both away and at home. That’s what I’ve seen at my time at Rovers. It was one of the better atmospheres and they brought a big crowd. There is that rivalry between the two teams and the teams are doing quite well in the league. It is always good to play in games like that. They are the type of games you want to be playing in with a big crowd and a good atmosphere.”

The Hoops had been knocked off top spot in the previous game when they lost 2-0 away to Sligo Rovers. This was the fifth game between the two Rovers sides this season and the first game that the Hoops had not won. Maybe this was a reason that the 2-0 defeat to Sligo seemed to cause such interest around the league but it was also due to the fact that following the game Shamrock Rovers assistant manager Trevor Croly decided it was time to leave Rovers. Following the defeat the players and management discussed in detail the Sligo performance with a view to rectifying it at the next available opportunity which they did against St. Pats. “We were disappointed with the performance and the result against Sligo. I thought Sligo did very well and they are a good team. We didn’t do what we could have done. When that happens you end up getting beaten.” Talking about the post-match discussion Mannus explained that “after the game people say what they feel on how we can improve and not let that happen again. That is part of football.”

Shamrock Rovers played fifty competitive games in all competitions last season. With the exception of the ninety minutes played in a Leinster Senior Cup tie, Alan Mannus played every single minute of the other 49 games in the season where he was instrumental in Shamrock Rovers winning the League of Ireland title for the first time since 1994. That title win brings certain pressure to players, teams and clubs as there is greater scrutiny of successful clubs along with opposition teams looking to take the scalp of the league champions. However, Mannus feels that the squad are certainly up for that challenge. “I think the thing is that after last year when we won the league and did well in Europe, we are really considered the team to beat now. There is no other real team in the league that is expected to win, other than us. Obviously other teams are trying to win and want to win but really we are the only team expected to win. That is all part of being a big team.”

“If you have a bad performance and a bad result, people make a big deal out of it,” continued Mannus. “People tend to really enjoy the fact that you get beaten and you didn’t play well. In my opinion, that is all about being at a big team. Really it should be considered that this is a good thing. We are really the only team that this is being said. We are the only team that is going to get that reaction. There are two ways of looking at it. You can either let it get to you and let yourself become negative or scared. Or you can say to yourself, I’m here at this team because I’m good enough to be here and, not only that, I can deal with these things and use them as motivation to do better next week.”

“Whenever you get comments from other people when you get beaten or if you’ve not done so well and maybe things are said in the papers, you can use that as motivation,” Mannus went on to say. “Don’t use it as a negative. As a team and as individual players we need to look it as the reason I am here is that I can deal with it whereas maybe other people can’t do that. I see it as a challenge to be able to respond to a bad performance so that you can do a good job next time. We have to be at our best every week as every other team is going to raise their game against us more than they would against other teams. And if people can’t deal with it, then it isn’t the right club for them to be at.”

It certainly seems that the Rovers goalkeeper thrives on this pressure and his form, along with that of the back four in front of him, has kept Rovers on top of the league for virtually all of the season so far. It is a high standard that Mannus expects at Rovers especially of himself. This could be seen with his reaction to conceding a goal against UCD last month despite the Hoops being 5-0 up at the time. “I was disappointed as I felt I should have done better with it and I wanted the clean sheet as well. That is what I aim to do as a goalkeeper so I was very disappointed with myself as I felt I could have done better. It is the sort of thing I knew that I would have saved 99 times out of 100. It is the kind of thing we work on in training and so I was disappointed in that way when I didn’t do my job for that one second. You come so close to keeping a clean sheet and because of me we didn’t get it.”

Rovers’ defensive form meant they went half way through the league campaign without conceding two league goals in a game and that fine form is something that Mannus is proud of. “We’ve been very good. It was only in the recent games against Dundalk [in a 2-2 draw] and in Sligo that we’ve conceded more than one goal in a league game. It was disappointing and so was the Sligo game but that can happen every now and again. Up until then we really hadn’t given up many chances or goals, we’ve worked very hard as a back five and as a team to do that. I have the best back four in front of me in every position that you can have in the league. If someone doesn’t play for whatever reason someone else can come in and do a job. It must be hard for the manager to pick the team but that is the sign of a good team.”

We’ll never dry, we’ll keep the green flag flying high

“Don’t want to go home, don’t want to go home, this is the wettest trip, I’ve ever been on!”

We came, we saw, we didn’t conquer but we certainly gave a good account of ourselves on the sodden pitch and rain soaked away section against Juventus. Facci sognare the Ultras banner said at the Rovers home game against Juve and dream we did with Rovers getting the opportunity to take on the bianconeri in the Europa League.

It was the clichéd planes, trains and automobiles to Modena for the game which was switched from Torino due to Bono and the boys. The club had a charter for the squad, management team, admin staff and fans which came out the day before the game. Who but Rovers could fill another charter with an Airbus 380 used for the day trip (also referred to as Con Air or Snakes on a plane!). Fans flew to Milano, Bologna, Pisa & Roma to get to game, hiring cars (which SRFCTV did) or buses (which the Tallaght Hoops Supporters Club did) or just grabbed a trenitalia ticket.

There were a good few Hoops on the yellow pack flight that I was on to Bologna on Wednesday. These were the Hoops who had been quick to book on the Internet following the Rovers away win in Tel Aviv in the previous round. Modena was a short bus ride away. We checked out the medieval town centre including the 12th century cathedral which is a UNESCO world heritage site. After giving a ‘pal’ some quotes for his national newspaper article, we enjoyed a traditional pizza dinner.

All the Rovers fans staying in Modena gravitated towards Piazza Pomposa where the owner of one bar must have thought they had won the lotto with the numbers in their bar on a Wednesday night. It was a select crew including the management team, six of the board of directors, medical and physio team, club solicitor, our Garda liaison, club interpreter, his deputy(!), some St. Gallen fans (who had come down to support another team in green and white) a James Chambers look-a-like, members of the print media and RTE staff. However the local policeman didn’t care who anyone was when he came to shut the place up that night!

On Thursday morning a few of us travelled to Bologna which is a lovely city to visit in the rain as the old stone brick porticoes provide great protection from the rain. We climbed up the 486 steps of the Torre degli Asinelli which provides a great view of the city and location for Ultras stickers. On our return to Modena the Piazza Grande was now decorated with loads of Rovers flags and hundreds of Rovers fans were enjoying some al fresco refreshments in the bright afternoon sun. The policing was low key and friendly as they posed for photos and listened to the Rovers songs echo off the medieval walls.

As the fans began to gravitate towards the stadium the heavens opened and Shamrock Rumours was in full effect with discussion on the match being off, a delayed kicked off or postponement till Saturday. There was no way the pitch was playable for the first 20 minutes of the game. The Greek ref had other ideas and the players just got on with splashing around in the puddles. There was certainly no appetite for an abandonment from the 800 to 1000 Rovers (according to some match reports). In years to come the number claiming to have been there that night will rival 10,000 no doubt. Thunder rang out and lightning lit up the Modena sky above the 17,579 fans (paying €259,425 in gate receipts) who were in the Stadio Braglia stadium.

The curva ospitti was decked out with virtually every Rovers flag and despite the rain the Rovers fans were in fine voice. The rain probably leveled the playing field between the teams as the ball constantly got stuck in the pools of water across the pitch. Manager Michael O’Neill had made a few changes to the Rovers team which has been relatively settled in recent games. Murphy and Flynn came back in as full backs and Bradley joined the five man midfield.

Everyone in the uncovered away section were soaked to the bone by the time the rain eased after 30 mins or so and it looked like the game would now see out the 90 minutes (or more if Rovers could score a couple of goals). Rovers were solid in the first half and the 0-0 score at half time was probably a fair score. The half time singsong in the dry below the away stand had to be seen and heard to be believed.

In the second half Juve stepped it up. The Italian national team when they are worried about a tricky game move the game south. Juve had come south from Turin and then had to bring on Del Pierro to make the difference. Turner and the in form Stewert came on at half time. Juve generated a good few chances with Mannus and a last gasp Murray tackle preventing a goal.

It was a disputed free and a Italian football legend that ultimately were the difference on the night as substitute Del Piero struck a free kick in from all of 35 yards. The Juve Ultras at the far end unfurled a few banners in honour of Alex. The Rovers fans kept on singing with the “Juve, Juve, vafenculo” chant getting the ‘home’ fans a bit annoyed, I wonder why! The game petered out and so Juventus progressed 3-0 on aggregate. No shame in that scoreline unlike Bohs being eliminated by Welsh side TNS 4-1 on aggregate or the seven Bohs players involved in conceding seven goals in the friendly in Lansdowne Road against Manchester United (obviously that League XI could have done with some Rovers players but we had much bigger fish to fry).

With the day and club charters heading off straight after the game, the town centre was very quiet that night but the hotel bars did well by all accounts. On Friday morning we headed off on the train to Roma to see some of the sights and flight home but not before purchasing a few copies of the Gazetta della Sport which had extensive coverage of the previous nights match. It included a great photo of Del Piero wearing the Shamrock Rovers jersey he swapped at the end of the game. We had sung “you’ll never play for Rovers” but that photo allowed us to keep on dreaming about what Rovers can achieve in years to come. Out of Europe but the small matter of the derby on Sunday lunchtime to keep Rovers busy.

“Don’t want to go home, don’t want to go home, this is the best trip I’ve ever been on”

A good catch

Interview with Alan Mannus for Hoops Scene Issue 6 (Rovers v Bray/Sligo April 2010)

Photo by George Kelly from http://www.shamrockrovers.ie

Shamrock Rovers fans packed the away section to capacity in Hunky Dorys Park in Drogheda last Friday night.  The last few minutes were very enjoyable ones for the Hoops fans who the previous week had celebrated the win over fierce rivals Bohemians with gusto.  With injury time looming and only a goal between the teams, news filtered through that Bohs had lost to an injury time goal.  Meanwhile Gary Twigg latched onto a through ball to round the keeper to score Rovers’ second goal and wrap up the game for the Hoops.  The win in Drogheda was founded on a solid defensive display, a defence which has been improving as the season progresses, something noted by the Rovers goal keeper Alan Mannus when he spoke to Hoops Scene after the game.

“That is four clean sheets in the last five games and obviously that is a reflection of how well the team has done defensively.  The back four in front of me have done really well and I haven’t been that busy apart from maybe the UCD game.  I thought we had a good performance (in Drogheda) and did what we needed to do.  I didn’t really have that much to do and that is down to how well the team, but especially the back four in front of me, defended.  Towards the end of the game, when we were under a bit of pressure winning 1-0, the defenders were throwing themselves in front of Drogheda shots.  It just shows you the determination from the team to get the result.”

The result saw Rovers move up the league table following back to back wins.  This is after a start to the season that was hampered by injuries and suspensions but Mannus wasn’t making any excuses and feels the Rovers squad should be able to cope with missing players.  “We all were obviously delighted with getting a win, keeping a clean sheet and to score two goals was very positive for us.  If you want to do well and have a good season, you need to have a good squad.  We have two players who can play in each position and you need that to have a good season.”

The Rovers keeper knows there is room for improvement and recognises that in his own game when things arise.  “I would know if I could have done something better and I would work on it at training.  After a game is just up, I will think of what I could have done better and make sure I improve on that for the next time.”

Rovers have conceded six goals in the league (only Saint Patrick’s Athletic have conceded less) but the difficulty for the Hoops has been scoring goals with just six goals scored in eight league games.  So the return of last season’s top league goal scorer Gary Twigg to the team in the last two league games has given the whole club, both the fans and players, a lift.  Mannus wasn’t surprised at the impact Twigg had following his absence due to surgery on his calf.  “When he came back into training, we were doing finishing and he just came straight back in and didn’t look like he was out for any time at all.  If you have it, you have it and he has it.  He has an ability to be a goal scorer, that’s what he is, he can finishes things.  It is a boost for the team, other lads can do a job in that position but it is good to have him back.  He showed the other night that it didn’t look like he had been away at all.  He took it around the goalkeeper and did what he usually does, he scores goals”.

Mannus joined Rovers part way through last season and had the task of claiming the Rovers goalkeeper jersey for himself.  “I was aware that Barry (Murphy) was a very popular person and a good goalkeeper.  I knew that Robert Duggan was a good keeper too.  From my point of view, I was offered to go to a good club and have a chance to try and work my way into the team.  Why would I turn it down, when you have a chance to do something like that?  I’m sure that there are plenty of goalkeepers who wouldn’t want to do it because of Barry’s popularity, thinking they wouldn’t get a chance or it being too difficult.  I didn’t really think of it that way.  I saw it as an opportunity to play for a good club and work my way in.  I knew that some people might not be happy about it but that is football.  I focused on positive things, dealt with things and in doing that things have worked out well for me”.

Mannus had a very successful spell as Linfield goalkeeper picking up five Irish League titles and numerous cups (including a Setanta Cup) before he joined Shamrock Rovers.   “There are similarities with the clubs as both are very big clubs and it is good for me to have been part of both of them.  The manager at Linfield would always talk about it being more than a club, it’s like a community, not just a club.  From what I’ve seen at Rovers, it is similar.  Rovers have such a good fan base.  People said that to me before I came down that Rovers were the biggest supported club in all of Ireland.  You can see that whenever we play, at home especially.  For most games the stadium is nearly full where we are getting 4 or 5,000 most of the time.  Then there is the travelling support you get as well.  One of the differences between Linfield and the other Irish League teams , is the supporters will travel.  No matter where you played, you always got a good support going and it seems to be the same with Rovers.  When we play in Sligo or Galway, there is a good travelling crowd going which is a sign of good club and a big club.”

It is a wealth of experience that Mannus has brought with him to Rovers.  He captained Linfield on a number of occasions including in a win over Glentoran which is something he is very proud of!  In addition to winning plenty of trophies, he played 14 games in European competition and gained four international caps.  His strong displays with the Blues in the Irish League, were recognised by Northern Ireland and his appearances included games against the World Champions Italy and against the European Champions Spain. “When I was younger, I never really thought I would get playing for my country.  I wanted to do it but I never thought it would happen.  So to get four caps was very special for me”.   Mannus would like to add to that total.  However, in a situation similar to players from the Airtricity League trying to break into the Republic of Ireland squad, it seems the Northern Ireland  international squad will continue to be filled only with players playing in Britain.  “When the Northern Ireland manager (Nigel Worthington) spoke to me, he said the fact that I’m not in England or Scotland doesn’t help me.  There is not much I can do about that.  He told me I wasn’t completely out of the squad and that he would keep an eye on things and I could get back in again.  All I can do is play well and work hard in training and hopeful they will notice that.  It is a case of even if it is Scottish First Division or League Two in England, they will still chose them ahead of lads in the League of Ireland and the Irish League.  I can’t really complain in that I was involved but now there are some lads who have come through the under 21s into the senior squad”.

This international and European club experience will be utilised later on in the season when Rovers begin their Europa League campaign in the middle of July.  Unsurprisingly Mannus believes that the timing of the games helps teams from the League of Ireland be better placed than teams from Northern Ireland when it comes to the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers.  However, he also thinks the standard of football played here also helps.  “I was very fortunate to be involved in so many European games with Linfield.  I think League of Ireland teams are much more prepared going into the games compared to Irish League teams because of the timing.  With the Irish League, it would typically be a maximum of three weeks pre-season with a couple of games against amateur teams or a Division One team and then you are playing teams like Dynamo Zagreb of Croatia for example.  When we played them, they had just sold Modric for £20 million to Spurs.  What chance do you have of getting through?  We did well when we drew 1-1 away.  Over the past few years League of Ireland teams have done quite well.  One of the reasons is that they are much better prepared as it is the middle of the season.  I think that the style of European football is more similar to the League of Ireland than the Irish League.  They are quite happy to pass the ball about and wait for opportunities while the Irish League is back to front doing things a lot quicker, closing down quicker and going into tackles.  There are other players at Rovers who have played in Europe and it is good to have that experience.  I’m certainly looking forward to playing for Rovers in Europe.”

But before the excitement of European football, it is the league that Mannus is focussing on utilising his experiences from his previous club.  “I was fortunate to be part of some very good teams over my time there and we won a lot of trophies.  Everybody wants to win things and at Rovers that is all we are trying to do.  It is important we don’t get carried away, we’ve won a couple of games and we’ve kept a few clean sheets.  We need to do the usual, focus on the next game, one game at a time, do our best in the next game and try and get a result.  But we obviously want to finish as high as we can.  All we can do is fulfil our potential and if we do that I think we will do quite well.”