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Late goals are bad for your vision

In the run up to last week’s game against Bohemians, the Shamrock Rovers twitter account was looking for fans to tweet some derby day memories. The first ever game against Bohs in Tallaght is one that Rovers fans never tire of talking or indeed tweeting about. Gary Twigg’s late goals that turned a Rovers defeat into a victory in the blink of an eye left an indelible mark on people’s memories and quite a mark on my shins as in the mad celebration that followed I was forced into the seats in front of me!

Gary Twigg celebrates late goal against Bohs in 2011 in Tallaght - Photo by Bobby Best

Gary Twigg celebrates late goal against Bohs in 2011 in Tallaght – Photo by Bobby Best

Looking through last week’s tweets, unsurprisingly there weren’t too many recent good memories of derby days in Dalymount given Rovers’ record in the Dublin 7 venue with no wins in the five outings coming into the game. However, tweets from the ground were trending in Ireland that night thanks to photos of the atmospheric pyro display by the SRFC Ultras and a Vine video of Gary McCabe’s penalty opening the scoring in front of a full house of over 3,500.

Pyro in Dalymount ahead of kick off

Close to 1,000 Hoops fans watched from the Shed End as McCabe opened the scoring from the penalty spot directly in front of them. A couple of hundred Rovers fans had ringside seats sitting in the Jodi Stand at the opposite end of the stadium in the second half for the two sweeping moves that ended with goals from Ronan Finn and Marty Waters. Those headed goals cemented the 3-1 win as the Hoops put three past Bohs for the first time since the win in Tallaght in 2011 a few days after the Hoops had played Juventus in the Europa League qualifiers.

McCabe’s goal in Dalymount was the first Rovers had scored in the venue since Ronan Finn’s late late header in April 2011. My video of that goal – Ronan Finn injury time equaliser for Shamrock Rovers against Bohs – was the memory that I tweeted ahead of last Friday’s match. It is a dramatic late goal but you can also see the exact moment when I got my glasses broken in the goal celebration thanks to a stray elbow!

With 93 minutes gone on the clock, the Hoops won a corner, which saw Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus sprint into the penalty area to try and get on the end of. When the ball came in, both Finn and the Northern Ireland goalkeeper rose to head the ball, with many thinking it was Mannus’ touch that sent the ball into the top corner of the net. Nobody really cared that it was actually Finn and nor did I too much as put my bent set of specs back on my face after the whistle to end the game moments later.

This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten some collateral damage off an injury time goal. Back in November 2002, during Shane Robinson’s first spell with Rovers, the Hoops had a “home” game against St. Patrick’s Athletic in Richmond Park. The scoreline was 1-1 deep in injury time when Robinson found Hoops striker Noel Hunt in the penalty area. Hunt squared for James Keddy who scored the winner to provoke a manic celebration from The Hoops fans in attendance.

In the ensuing madness in the Rovers end, a fan crashed into me from behind and sent my glasses flying. My eyesight is pretty poor and with a -10.5 prescription it puts me pretty much in blind territory without my specs. All around me Rovers fans were jumping around in delight and I’m trying to tell them to stop as my glasses are somewhere below them! When the final whistle went a minute or so later, I’m thinking how the hell am I going to get home without my specs. Friends and strangers alike standing around me, cast there eyes downwards to try and spot them when a friend goes “I’ve got them!” They had somehow flown off my face and settled on the upright in between two seats. I think I celebrated the return of my glasses more than the goal.

IMG_3570

The final late goal that comes to mind affecting my vision is from 2011. It was a finish to a game that caused a complex secretometer phenomenon involving my lacrimal apparatus. In fact it might have affected the Hoops Scene reader too that night, whether you were at the game or watching from your TV back in Ireland.

You might need a bit more information to know what I’m talking about but if I say that it was the result of a Rovers game in Serbia, you might recognise that what was affecting my vision that night and maybe yours were tears.

I’m almost surprised to think back that I had any liquid in my body that evening in Belgrade for the Europa League Play-off against Partizan. That was due to the temperatures being above 35 degrees at kick off, the sweat inducing atmosphere in the ground from the Grobari Ultras and the tension filled game that went into extratime after Pat Sullivan’s stunning strike.

Rovers fans had been advised that maybe football colours wouldn’t be the best thing to wear while wandering around Belgrade, the city where crowd trouble caused Partizan to thrown out of the same competition four years previously. On match night, most did wear colours. Someone asked me was I wearing the old 2006 Rovers home jersey, as a point of how far Rovers had come since then relegation to the First Division. No, was the answer as it was simply the thinnest jersey I had and hence the most comfortable in that weather!

Front cover Tallaght Time

“Tallaght Time” isn’t the only recent football book that has a chapter written about that famous Shamrock Rovers win in Serbia. Last year James Moor wrote a book about his experiences as an Englishman working in Belgrade and following Partizan in the 2011 season. “Grobar – Partizan Pleasure, Pain and Paranoia” doesn’t have a happy ending for the home team in the play off as we know. It is interesting to read his take on the penalty minutes from the end of extratime that had Europa League group stage qualification at stake.

“As Shamrock’s Stephen O’Donnell prepared to take the penalty the stadium booed as one. O’Donnell kept his nerve and put it away. Shamrock’s 50 or so travelling fans, hemmed in beneath the executive boxes by a thin luminous line of stewards managed to make their cheers heard among the stunned silence of 20,000 Grobari. At the final whistle, while the Irish players jumped up and down and saluted their few dozen fans, the Partizan fans let their team know what they thought of them.”

It is a cold hearted Shamrock Rovers fan who didn’t have a tear in their eye that night when the penalty went in or at the final whistle when the famous victory was confirmed. I’d even hazard a guess that if this evening you watched back the 35 second video – Winning penalty by Stephen O’Donnell, Partizan Belgrade v Shamrock Rovers – taken from amongst the small section of Hoops fans in the stadium and the subsequent screaming celebrations, some moisture might well effect your vision once again!

Article published in Hoops Scene 2014 Issue 4

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View from the Terraces – Shamrock Rovers

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Published on extra time.ie (http://www.extratime.ie/newsdesk/articles/7215/)

The best season ever. That pretty much sums up the 2011 season for this Shamrock Rovers fan. What Rovers managed to achieve over an 11-month and 60-match season was unprecedented in Irish football as we retained our league title, won the Setanta Sports Cup and qualified for the group stages of the Europa League.

This success is even more significant when compared with where the club was just six years ago when we were a decision of the High Court away from going out of business. Back then the fans stepped in to fund the club helping it emerge from Examinership in the ownership of its supporters, bouncing back from relegation before eventually reaching the promised land of Tallaght in 2009. So forgive us Rovers fans if we are not going to enjoy these exciting times at our club!

In our debut season in the Setanta Cup, Rovers captain Dan Murray lifted the trophy following the 2-0 win over Dundalk in the final played at Tallaght Stadium. In the league, Derry City and Sligo Rovers pushed the Hoops hard. However, in the penultimate game of the season, Rovers secured our 17th league title thanks to Dean Kelly’s injury time winner. The celebrations involving players, substitutes and fans after the winning goal and final whistle will be indelible images of the season.

That league title win was made even more remarkable by Rovers achieving it whilst involved in a lengthy six-month, 12 game European odyssey in Tallinn, Copenhagen, Belgrade, London, Salonika and Kazan. Impressively, each time Rovers returned from Europe they won the next league game.

It was a privilege for me to have been part of the small group of 43 Rovers fans who were in Belgrade in August to see Irish domestic football history made, as the club became the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a European competition. Against Partizan, Rovers won thanks to Pat Sullivan’s superb second half volley and Stephen O’Donnell’s pressure penalty six minutes from the end of extra time. The celebrations in the away section of the stadium included screaming, shouting, hugging and tears – and that was just my reaction! At the final whistle on an unforgettable night, there was delirium on the pitch and in the stands with the celebrations going long into the night back at the team hotel where the travelling party of players, officials and fans watched the highlights of the game together.

In the Europa League, the Hoops, whilst never disgraced, were well beaten in all of the home games. There is no doubt that the highlight of the group stages was going 1-0 up in White Hart Lane. Stephen Rice’s goal celebrated with great gusto in front of the 4,000 strong travelling support saw the Hoops lead Spurs for ten glorious second half minutes before eventually losing 3-1. It is never nice to lose a game but I can safely say that it was the most enjoyable defeat I’ve witnessed in my 25 years supporting the Hoops!

With the departure from Rovers this month of Michael O’Neill, who has taken over as Northern Ireland manager, Stephen Kenny was quickly installed as the new Rovers manager. The club’s chairman Jonathan Roche speaking this week made it clear that Kenny was “the board’s unanimous choice” appointed because of “what we think we can achieve together in the future.” That future should see a greater emphasis on the quality of football played at Rovers following criticisms in some quarters of the style under Michael O’Neill. “I’m looking forward to coming here to put out a team to play exciting football,” said Kenny speaking at Tallaght Stadium on Wednesday. “I want to entertain the fans. I want them to look forward to coming to games, to be exhilarated and excited by the football that they come to watch.” If that style is also effective in winning trophies, then everyone at Rovers will be very happy.

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

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Sullivan: The player’s player

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill gathered his squad together and asked his players to chose their player of the year for this new award he wished to instigate. At the club’s recent end of season dinner, O’Neill presented the award to the man who the player’s unanimously saw as their player of the year; Pat Sullivan.

Photo by George Kelly

The 29-year-old full back was delighted to receive the recognition of his own teammates to go with the recognition of his own peers in the league when last month he was named in the PFAI team of the year. He also picked up the SWAI Airtricity Player of the Month back in August for his instrumental part in the Rovers away win against Partizan Belgrade. In addition to all these personal awards, he also picked up League and Setanta cup winners medals in a highly successful season with Shamrock Rovers. “I’m grateful to get the award,” said Sullivan speaking about winning the Rovers Player’s Player of the Year. “The Player of the Year Award (won by Craig Sives) is great to get from the fans but the players themselves don’t vote for that. I think there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that fans and other people wouldn’t see. We train four or five times a week and that gets added to how we play and perform in the games.” So is the award recognition for his performances on the field during games or his efforts on the training ground? “I think it is a combination of both. I don’t know how many times we’ve trained this season with it having gone on so long but I don’t think I missed a training session. I think it is things like that the other players notice. I’ve done quite well in the games this year and hopefully that has some bearing on the award as well.”

The biggest highlight in Shamrock Rovers’ season was probably the away win in the Europa League play off second leg in Belgrade where Sullivan scored with a spectacular 25 yard volley against Partizan helping Rovers into the Europa League. He nearly got another notable goal in the next away European game against tonight’s opponents Spurs in White Hart Lane. However it was Stephen Rice who got the crucial touch from Sullivan’s long-range shot to take it into the net. “Yeah it was a bit unfortunate!” joked Sullivan. “It was probably going to be saved so it was lucky Ricer got the touch. He hasn’t been short in letting everyone know about it but I’d do the exact same thing if it was myself!”

Rice’s early second half goal put the Hoops 1-0 in front but did Sullivan think they could hang on and get successive European away wins? “If you’d asked us honestly we mightn’t have given ourselves a chance of winning. It was bitter sweet in that respect in that we probably rode our luck and should have been losing two or three nil at that stage. But to go ahead and then look up at the scoreboard, you were trying to let it sink in that we were 1-0 up. The fact that we held on for another 10 minutes or so and you were thinking god this isn’t really going to happen. Then unfortunately we let our guard down and they took advantage of that but that is the standard of Spurs. We were so aware that to lose to Tottenham 3-1 and put up such a good display for 60 minutes, we did ourselves a good bit of justice.” The 4,000 travelling Shamrock Rovers fans, who’s voices echoed around White Hart Lane that night, certainly enjoyed their trip despite the defeat but was it still a similar experience for the players? “Yeah, it was enjoyable to play a team like Tottenham who are quality and probably the best we have played.”

Whilst Rovers have been competitive in all their Europa League group games, they are still pointless going into tonight’s final game. Looking back on the European games, how does Sullivan assess how the Europa League has gone? “If you’d have put me back a few months ago and told me with a game to go we wouldn’t have any points, I wouldn’t have been in disbelief. For me Tottenham, the way they are playing at the moment and what they did last year, they are probably a Champions League team. I think Rubin Kazan for a lot of different reasons, how good a team they are, the players they have and probably where they play, they are such a tough team to play against so they are probably a Champions League team as well. We’ve done ourselves justice in parts of games but we’ve given teams a head start. There are a lot better things we could have done to stop that happening but that is what happens when you make mistakes against these teams, they punish you. Although we’ve played well in Europe we still have conceded a lot of goals. I think that is genuinely down to the calibre of opposition as the minute you switch off and the minute you give away possession, the ball can be in the net within three or four passes. That is something we are not used to. We might give away possession on the half way line in a league game and most of the time it won’t result in a goal. It is something we have to learn from these games. If we are lucky to play six or more games a season in Europe again, we will only get better as players and as a club at the same time. We’ve given away a few soft goals when we’ve let them have possession at the back and the defence and midfield have not pressed well enough. These are all things that we have worked on in between the European games. Maybe you kind of have to concede goals to realise how they happen and maybe try and stop them. If we are playing in a league against teams like that over 36 games, the improvement we would get would be huge.”

The closest the Hoops have gone to getting a point was their 2-1 defeat away to PAOK Salonika and in the return match there was a certain amount of expectation that Rovers could get a result at home in Tallaght Stadium. “We never talked about it as a group saying realistically that the two PAOK games were where we were going to get points from. We lost away in Greece and a few of us were very disappointed after that because we did have maybe a draw in the locker in that game. But at the same time they were a good team and we didn’t have a lot of the ball in the game. We were 1-1 for a lot of the second half but I don’t think we really threatened them after Shep (Karl Sheppard) scored. We played a game or two domestically before we got to play Salonika again. We won the league in between, which was such a big thing, but I don’t think the fact that we won the league the week before had any bearing on the PAOK defeat at home. They came here and let us have possession and preyed on the fact that we gave the ball away. They just counter attacked us and hit us on the break. It just shows our naivety at times in the games but these are the things you can only improve on by getting the experience.”

Having had to deal with temperatures of 32 degrees in Belgrade during the Europa League play off, the Hoops faced sub-zero temperatures in their last away trip against Rubin Kazan in a game they lost 4-1. How did Sullivan find playing in the -5 degree Russian temperature? “When we went training, it was cold but we were well wrapped up. For the game, it was different we couldn’t wear hats, scarves and leggings and all that. When we came out for the warm up it was pretty cold, and we knew it was going to be cold, but by the end of the warm up we were pretty much okay. Most of us had gloves on and during the game it wasn’t really something I noticed or thought about because you were concentrating on the match.”

Rovers have had to juggle both European and domestic commitments since July. It is testament to the quality and depth of Michael O’Neill’s squad that the club was able to defend their league title whilst playing 12 European games. Did it make winning the league even more enjoyable to do so whilst mixing it with high quality European opposition? “Yeah it did and it just shows our concentration levels as well as our ability. It is very tough to go away to play someone like Tottenham and come home and play teams like maybe Drogheda, Bray or UCD, with no disrespect, where we’d be expected to win and we’d have a lot of the ball. I think when you are travelling and coming back from an away game, it is easy to maybe let your guard down a little bit. We never really let it happen. We didn’t always play great when we came back but we won the games and that was the most important thing for us.” Indeed Rovers on their return from European action won the next league game that took place after every European away trip, which is no mean feat.

Rovers retained their league title with the Hoops wrapping up the league with one game to spare with Sullivan playing a much fuller part in the championship win compared with his injury hit season last year. So was there a difference for the players in winning this time around? “It seemed that it meant a bit more this year. Last season it was Bohs challenging us and there were a lot of times where they were faltering themselves. Whereas Derry were strong for the whole year and they beat us away and then Sligo beat us and it looked like maybe they thought they had it won with four or five games to go. The way we got back on top and won it with a game to spare probably made it even sweeter especially with the fact that Sligo probably thought they had it won. It was quite a sweet moment that we snatched it back off them and won it out in UCD.”

That penultimate league game in UCD saw Ken Oman and Dean Kelly return from injury to score the second half goals that sealed the league win. Rovers have had to utilise their full squad throughout the year due to the length of the extended season, suspensions and players missing due to injury. “In a way that sums up the season we had,” said Sullivan of the 2-1 win in UCD. “It was great for Ken and Dean who were injured for so long in the season for them to come back and score the two goals that helped us to win the league. Stephen O’Donnell was another player who had huge chunks of the season where he didn’t play due to injury but his goal got us into the Europa League group stages. Everyone played their part in the squad.”

Some players maybe played a bigger part than others and Sullivan could be viewed as one such player. Along with captain Dan Murray, Sullivan made the most number of league appearances starting 32 of the 36 league games, so is he fatigued after being involved in over 50 competitive games in 2011? “I think I played more than anyone else but I feel okay. I’m getting on, I’m 29 now, but I would have thought with the amount of games and the amount of training, it would probably have hit me more than it has. I feel fresh going out to training and going out to the games. There is an element in games when you might be fine in training and you might be right in the first 20 minutes of games but then after that you can be fatigued. But as of now I feel okay.”

As well as the Rovers manager, there are a number of Hoops players who will be out of contract come the end of this evening’s game against Spurs. Sullivan is one such player but he is hoping to be playing again with the Hoops when pre-season training begins in a little over four weeks time. “I’m not contracted (for 2012) but we discussed at the end of the league season that we would talk at the end of Europe. I presume we will sit down two or three days after the Tottenham game and most of the lads who are out of contract will have a chance to talk to the Gaffer and see what his plans are.” Meanwhile, the defender will be looking for another solid European performance tonight against Spurs before a well-deserved break for Christmas following this marathon success of a season.

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

To Belgrade and beyond

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The best night ever. With so many superlatives that you could use about Shamrock Rovers’ win in Belgrade, that simply sentence sums it all up for me. It was a phrase I had heard from those lucky enough to see Rovers win away in Europe against Odra Wodzislaw in 2003 and from those fans who travelled last year to see the win against Bnei Yehuda. Now it is a phrase I can use especially as I was privileged to be part of the small number of Shamrock Rovers fans who were in the FK Paritzan Stadion for last month’s historic European win. Each of the 43 Shamrock Rovers fans that were there in Belgrade were not just representing themselves but were also representing those fans that had made the previous trips in Europe this year, the 450 or so club members and the 3,000 season ticket holders. Whether you were in the ground or not, the win that night was for each and every Shamrock Rovers fan. The win writes another chapter in this amazing Shamrock Rovers story which in recent seasons has seen the fans save and take over the club, emerge from the relegation finally getting to our home in Tallaght and now compete at the highest level in Europe.

Since the win every Rovers fan has inundated with congratulations; be it from friends, work colleagues, old girlfriends, fans of other League of Ireland clubs or random strangers like the Bohs fan who came up to me in Vienna airport on the way home from Belgrade who offered me his congratulations when he saw my club colours. The Rovers fans obviously weren’t the ones who scored the goals, made the saves or put in those tackles against Partizan, but watching the game that night in the ground or on Setanta TV each fan felt like they were kicking the ball or making those runs and each of us celebrated at the end as if we were a player. That can be seen in the You Tube clips of fans watching at home, in the Vintage Inn in Ringsend or in the away section in the Partizan Stadium.

With the trip to Belgrade being the third away trip in just six weeks, the travelling support for this trip was much lower than the 400 supporters that went to Tallinn or the 200 fans who were in Copenhagen. The flights weren’t cheap and required independent travel to get to the Balkans with fans having to take a couple of days off work to make the trip. Fans now have the problem of having to find money and time off work for another three additional away trips right into December but this is still a nice problem to have all the same. There had been some concern about security in Belgrade with the city’s football fans having a certain reputation. The police were taking no chances on the trip with each fan landing in Belgrade given the phone number of ‘Ivan’ to ring if there was any trouble. Thankfully, that call never had to be made. A policeman was positioned in the team hotel and also in the hotels where the Rovers supporters were staying. Fans avoided wearing Rovers colours but we probably stood out more because of this; that and probably the fact we had four policemen accompanying us on the day of the game including when a group of us went to the Kalemegdan Citadel overlooking the Danube for some sightseeing!

The security continued at the game with Rovers fans bused in under police escort to the ground just after the team had got a similar escort. We had never seen such security and spent a couple of minutes getting photos in front of the riot police with their helmets and shields before entering the ground. The Rovers fans were placed in the ‘VIP’ section in two rows at the back of the main stand with stewards and plain clothes police around us. We were able to hang our flags on the railings off to our left with stewards minding our flags during the game and they even took them down and returned them to us at the end of the match!

It was unseasonably warm in Belgrade during the trip with the temperature having dropped to ‘only’ 32 degrees by kick off at 20:30 local time. There were 16,000 Partizan fans in the stadium with their Grobari or ‘Gravedigger’ Ultra group located at one end of the ground. The noise they generated during the game was incredible. It was intimidating, hostile and just plain loud. The small pocket of Rovers fans tried to make our presence felt but the home fans just increased their noise to try and drown us out.

When Rovers fell behind to Vladimir Volkov’s header from a 34th minute corner, it certainly presented Rovers with a challenge but the comment was made amongst the fans that we always needed to come and score to progress. And score we did and what a goal! Any away goal would have sparked massive celebrations amongst the away section, but Pat Sullivan’s goal made the celebrations as sweet as his superb second half strike. Rovers had begun the second half by bringing on Karl Sheppard and changing the formation to take the game to Partizan. The home side had chances to wrap up the game but the Rovers defence stood firm taking the game into extra time.

It was incredibly tense in the stadium during extra time with Rovers pushing for that second away goal which would effectively end the tie. Different Rovers fans handled the pressure in their own way. Some concentrated on berating the referee who made plenty of erratic decisions during the evening. Others watched with their hands on the head as if unwilling to believe the Hoops were in extra time playing for a place in the group stages. I did some tapping into my phone giving twitter updates and had to be reminded to watch the game in front of me.

The dreaded spectre of penalties hung over the situation for Rovers supporters but it was to be a penalty that would be the winner for the Hoops in extra time so maybe we can say our luck with penalties has now changed. Even though Rovers faced an extra 30 minutes in that sapping heat, they never let their efforts drop during extra time. Michael O’Neill had spoken previously about playing in the heat of Europe as being “a 14 man game and having to use three players off the bench.” His three substitute players combined for the crucial goal of the game. Ciarán Kilduff got in on the left and after adjusting his feet was unlucky not to score past Radissa Ilic who took down Karl Sheppard as he got on the rebound. We waited to see would the referee point to the spot and when we did Karl Sheppard and the fans around me celebrated as if it was a goal. It was Stephen O’Donnell who took the pressure penalty kick for Rovers. He wasn’t fazed by the delay in taking it or having to re-spot the ball by the referee. We implored, screamed and prayed for O’Donnell to score and the Galway man was the calmest man in the stadium slotting the penalty into the bottom right hand corner of the goal. The celebrations in the VIP section where the away fans were located had screaming, shouting, hugging and tears – and that was just my reaction!

At the final whistle, there was delirium on the pitch and in the stands. The reality of result has maybe even still not sunk in to those who were there to witness the greatest result for Irish football in Europe. When some of the board members, were spotted by the Rovers fans they were serenaded with the ironic chant of “sack the board”! The Grobari Ultras were gracious in the defeat to the visitors, clapping the team off the field at the end. How gracious they were to their own team remains to be seen? When Shelbourne knocked out another team from the Balkans in 2004, the Hadjuk Split fans subsequently broke into their own training ground and dug eleven graves in a 4-4-2 formation so I wonder what the Partizan Gravediggers will do!

When the ground eventually emptied of the home fans, many of whom applauded the fans in the away section before leaving, the Rovers team came across to the small away contingent and threw jerseys, training tops and some even their shorts into the away section! Pat Sullivan and Ronan Finn probably hugged every away fan down at the front of the stand. When they returned to the team hotel, the team were clapped into the lobby by the Rovers fans. I had the pleasure of showing Pat Sullivan his goal from my phone as it had already made it on You Tube. “Decent” was his unstated response to seeing his goal again! The players and fans then went to the bar and were able to watch the highlights of the game together. With an FAI credit card behind the bar, the travelling party of officials, fans and media relaxed and discussed the implications of what they had just seen and been a part of.

The celebrations went long into the night with some fans heading straight to the airport for their 05:30 flight home. I managed to get 90 minutes of sleep before heading for our flights home. Even though it was such an early start, I awoke with a smile remembering what Rovers had done the night before. The sense of unreality of the occasion was increased when I ended up by giving a fans perspective on the night over the phone to both RTÉ Radio and BBC Radio Ulster. Jonathan Roche and Noel Byrne made their way to Monaco to see the draw for the Europa League stages as the team made their way home, via Frankfurt, for a homecoming that I don’t think anyone in Dublin Airport had ever seen the likes of.

It will take some time for the repercussions of Shamrock Rovers’ win in Belgrade to be assessed. The win guarantees the Hoops a minimum of one million euro in prize money which, while being a significant amount of money, is not the most important thing about the win. The win has made people in Ireland and Europe sit up and notice there is a league here with teams capable of competing at this level. The club chairman Jonathan Roche was quick to acknowledge that Rovers’ journey through Europe was helped by the seeding accumulated by Irish teams in recent years. In Europe, Irish sides have been close to making the break through before but Rovers were the team that eventually did it. If Rovers and other clubs can capitalise on this and attract more fans through the turnstiles then that will be a fitting reward for Rovers’ progression in the Europa League. If that is the case we will see Irish sides enter Europe with the continued expectation of progressing in the competition rather than simply competing. In the meantime, Rovers fans can enjoy the upcoming European games and after the heat of Belgrade, worry about the cold that awaits the travelling support in Russia in November!

Published in Hoops Scene 16, 9 September 2011 (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers)

Sullivan serves up a Serbian screamer

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

“Rovers have a corner. Comfortably dealt with this time as the SHOT COMES IN! Oooooooh, what a screamer! 1-1. Pat Sullivan. Man Alive! Out of nowhere the right back has given Shamrock Rovers a Europa League life line…On the volley, absolutely unstoppable.”
Nigel Bidmead (Setanta Sports)

It was a goal that will linger long in the memory both for its sheer quality but also its importance in the history of Shamrock Rovers and indeed League of Ireland football. Pat Sullivan’s superb 58th minute strike against Partizan in Belgrade, along with Stephen O’Donnell’s extra time penalty, earned Shamrock Rovers a 3-2 aggregate win in their Europa League play off. The result propelled Rovers in with the big boys of European football and into the unchartered territory for Irish football clubs of the group stages of the Europa League. Sullivan’s shot resonated around European football and the result was a hold the front and back page moment in the Irish media and made top sports billing on both TV and radio.

Speaking a week or so on from the event, Pat Sullivan hasn’t bored of talking about his goal, the drama of game in Belgrade and the win’s importance to Shamrock Rovers. “It is great when it’s a goal that means something rather than a goal when you’re two nil down,” said Sullivan. “It was great to celebrate it when it meant something in the game with us getting back into it. It is worth even more. The coverage has been something different. I do the odd paper interview but over last few days I had radio interviews, papers and been on RTÉ which is not something I’m really be used to but it has been good. If you score a goal like that, it works out that your going to get some of the headlines.”

On match day in Belgrade the temperatures were as high as 41 degrees but dropped to a relative low of 32 degrees by kick off. The atmosphere was just as hot in the FK Partizan Stadion with the Grobari Ultras in place well ahead of kick off generating intense noise. “It is not something I really find a problem,” said Sullivan about the heat. “The noise was pretty incredible at the start and it was something you had to get used to. After 20 minutes you were used to it and were concentrating on the match.” There had been a significant security presence surrounding Rovers in Belgrade but the team had no difficulties. “There was a police escort but there was no danger. We had it all week in training and had a lot of police in our hotel. We got out of the hotel for a walk and never had anyone come up to us or talk to us. So we never really felt threatened.”

Partizan led 1-0 at half time thanks to Vladimir Volkov’s header but Hoops boss Michael O’Neill made some changes to personnel and team formation in the second half, which provided rich dividends culminating in Sullivan’s fantastic goal. “We started the second half and changed our shape a bit,” said the Rovers right back. “It showed in how we got back into the game. We got at them. We made some changes to freshen it up.”

It was a difficult task to face into 30 minutes of extra time in the heat of Belgrade but O’Neill gave his team clear instructions. “It was to continue what we had been doing,” said Sullivan. “When we won it, to keep it, get forward and put them under pressure. You can’t chase it; if you do they will open you up, as they were decent on the ball. We never said anything about just getting to penalties, there was nothing like that said. We went about playing the same way because we knew we would get chances the way they play and luckily we took one in the end.”

Sullivan didn’t think that Rovers were lucky with the result but that the team earned it during the course of their European campaign and with the hard work done in the game in Serbia. Substitute Stephen O’Donnell was to play a crucial part in the Rovers win with his goal from the penalty spot and with a couple of great last gasp tackles. “Over the course of the other European games, we had a bit of harsh luck in the chances we missed in Copenhagen and when we hit the bar in the second leg,” recalled Sullivan. “Stevie (O’Donnell) came on to keep our shape and make sure we got on the ball. One or two times when Stevie did make a last ditch tackle, it’s as much down to good play than getting lucky, as it is about tracking runners when you could easily let a runner go and they could score. I don’t think we were lucky but they had a few chances that came their way which they hit straight at Ryan (Thompson).”

The crucial chance that Rovers did create came when Karl Sheppard was brought down in the box for a penalty to Rovers in the second period of extra time. It was O’Donnell who was quick to get the ball in his hands for the penalty. Did Sullivan expect his former teammate at Cork City to score? “I was 100 % confident. I’ve played with him before and I know he is a penalty taker. I know he has taken penalties before in Scotland so it doesn’t faze him. At the time when we got the penalty he was the only one who went looking for the ball. He wanted the ball. When you see someone do that, you don’t have it in your mind that he is going to miss.”

Conceding the penalty left Partizan with just a few minutes to get back into the game but they lost their discipline getting a man sent off and never really threatened the Hoops. “When we celebrated the penalty and I turned around to jog back, I looked up at the scoreboard and the time hadn’t come up. I didn’t really know what was gone and then it came up that there was 11 minutes gone in the second half of extra time and I just thought two goals, they need two goals. The first thing I expected was their centre half would go forward. They needed a goal but they started playing the ball normally and that was it, I think they were done.”

The enormity of the result will probably only sink in when Rovers play their first game in the Europa League group stages next Thursday in Dublin against Ruben Kazan and the consequence of the win have the potential to be felt for years to come. So what was Sullivan’s reaction at the final whistle? “I stood on the pitch for 15 minutes trying to soak it up with the few Rovers fans that were there. It was phenomenal. It was a weight lifted off your shoulders with all the training and all the work we had put in, you could then let it all go. The fact that we won as well, we didn’t just do ourselves justice and come off with a narrow defeat. I’m still in a bit of shock how well we played. I know we can play that well but to do it on that stage and in that manner, it was amazing. We rose to their caliber as opposed to doing it for 45 minutes or 90 minutes but we did it over two games. Defensively we tried to keep our shape and that is as important as getting the ball, knocking it around and scoring goals. I’m proud of the fact that we only conceded two goals over the two games.”

The Rovers players travelled back to the team hotel where they were give a heroes welcome by all the Rovers fans that had made the trip to Belgrade. Both fans and players were then able to watch the match again over a few quiet drinks. “We had to wait around for Chris Turner and Brushy (Richard Brush) who were getting drugs tested. We went back to the hotel, had a bit of dinner upstairs and went and had a drink and watched the highlights of the game before heading out for a few more drinks.”

Qualification for the Europa League group stages adds another six games to the 2011 season with three games being played during the league season and three after its conclusion. Sullivan isn’t concerned about the additional games and sees an advantage in their timing. “I’m not that bothered (about the extra games). It is a bonus and we’ll take it as it comes. The fact we have three games after the end of the season is probably a help rather than playing all six in the season. We will have a full week’s training and preparation for those games (in November and December). It won’t be a rush. We will be able to have a day or two off and then go into training three days in a row to really work on our shape and play.”

The season’s run in Europe has been made even more special for Sullivan due to the fact he missed out on last year’s European games against Bnei Yehuda and Juventus because of a serious knee injury. The defender was close to getting back to the action for the Hoops last season. “The last month of the season it was more the fact I wasn’t fit enough to play games rather than being injured,” recalled Sullivan. “If there were one or two bodies less for the cup final, I would have got on the bench. I couldn’t play because I just hadn’t had a pre-season so there was no way I could get in ahead of anyone else who was playing.”

The player also missed out on European football while injured at Drogheda United but did play in Europe with Cork City. His time with clubs elsewhere coincided with the push for full time football in the League of Ireland. Sullivan is well placed to compare the set up of the so-called full time football and the set up here at Shamrock Rovers. “I’ve been with other teams full time and at Rovers where we train just as much, just at different times of the day. We are a professional team, just as much as anyone. We don’t do the wrong things when we shouldn’t. You do everything you can to win the next game. I missed a few European games with Drogheda and last year with Rovers. The only European tie I’ve played before was with Cork when we played FC Haka. It doesn’t seem like it’s been six or seven weeks playing in Europe. It seems like an in entire season itself because they were really enjoyable. I don’t think there was any time where I thought that we were really under pressure or anything like that. It was just so enjoyable to play in those games.”

Published in Hoops Scene 16 September 9 2011 (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers – Airtricity League)

Media Watch: You Boys in Green Fanzine, Irish Daily Mail, Irish Sun, Blic

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Extracts from Mark McCadden’s article from the You Boys in Green Fanzine Issue 25

Full article available to view here.

Another travelling Hoop Macdara Ferris said: “It probably was the best night supporting Shamrock Rovers and I’ve been supporting them for quite a number of years.

“I suppose it’s the culmination of the story of Rovers over the past few years – going from relegation to the First Division to getting into Tallaght.

“Every year we seem to do something bigger. There was the friendly game against Real Madrid in 2009, then we played Juventus in a competitive game a year later and then to go where no Irish team has gone before by getting to the group stages of the Europa League.

“To actually win the other night just meant so much to the Rovers fans who were there and for those who were watching at home on the television.”

Macdara added: “I think it will take a long time for it to sink in but there were definitely tears – from me and most of the fans around.

“People were sitting down with their heads in their hands kind of struggling with what they had just seen. And then it was very much celebrating down with the players after the final whistle.”

The atmosphere inside the stadium was pretty special too, with the small group of Rovers fans drowned out by the 16,000 locals.

Macdara recalled: “It was up there with anything I had seen before – just the sheer noise that the Grobari Ultras made during the game right from the start to the end, we were a little bit away from where it was but it really was incredible.

“Was it intimidating? Yeah it was. But it wasn’t aggressive. They were supporting their own team.”

Those celebrations continued back at the team hotel, where players and supporters sat together to watch highlights of the match on a local TV channel.

“That was a real highlight, I suppose. It was an experience we were able to share with the team and I think that was quite a privileged position that we could actually do that,” said Macdara.

“There is always a great bond between fans who travel away from home and the team. But when you get that close it makes it pretty special.”

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Blic (Friday 26 August)

With a very rough translation!


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Irish Daily Mail (Friday 26 August)

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Irish Sun (Friday 26 August)