Posts Tagged ‘Champions League’

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.

Rovers’ European Commission

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Both Shamrock Rovers and UCD are looking to progress tonight to the quarter final of this year’s FAI Ford Cup with the ultimate aim of reaching and winning this year’s final in Aviva Stadium. The winners, as well as collecting the trophy, will win €50,000 in prize money and gain entry into the Europa League qualification process next season. However, the main prize in Irish football is to win the league, which provides a cheque of €100,000 this season, and a ticket into the lucrative Champions League qualification process. This season Shamrock Rovers have managed to play in both European qualifying competitions bringing valuable experience to the playing squad, publicity for the Hoops and, essentially for the club’s future progression, a significant financial boost.

It is clear from the player’s post match comments that they enjoy the involvement of playing in Europe pitting their skills and stamina against teams from continental Europe. The team spirit fostered on the trips to Estonia, Denmark and Serbia can only help the Hoops as they move into the crucial last two months of the domestic season. A win tonight would increase the possibility of extending the domestic season into a further month with a trip to Lansdowne Road and the cup final in early November.

Aside from the footballing benefits for Rovers, the extended run in Europe has brought a wealth of media publicity to the club and will bring a certain amount of monetary wealth from the large attendances and UEFA prize money. Whilst the club had not budgeted to progress past the first round in Europe, those involved in the club knew the benefits that the win over Flora Tallinn in the second qualifying round brought. Club chairman, Jonathan Roche, noted that the 1-0 aggregate win over the Estonian champions was “good for cash flow which is great for us, but more importantly, it’s the profile for the next month.”

That profile was raised by Rovers playing their six games in Europe to date, while coinciding with most of the close season for all the main European Leagues. As such, the Rovers European odyssey was the main footballing story in Ireland as the English, Scottish, Italian and Spanish leagues were on siesta. Four of Rovers’ games were carried live on Irish television with Setanta picking up the away games in Tallinn and Copenhagen while RTÉ’s cameras carried the live the home games against Copenhagen and Partizan. The coverage showcased Shamrock Rovers competing at his high level in Europe and the exposure of having the live TV cameras here in Tallaght was advertisement that money can’t buy. RTÉ took the opportunity to have Liam Brady in the studio in Tallaght and Kenny Cunningham in the commentary booth under the East Stand roof showing the seriousness that they were taking of the matches. Approximately 170,000 viewers watched RTÉ’s coverage of the Copenhagen game with nearly 7,000 watching online on The viewing figures for the Partizan game were less but were still a healthy six figure mark.

Photo: George Kelly

The Irish newspapers gave extensive coverage to Rovers’ European adventure. Five of the daily newspapers flew staff over to Tallinn and six travelled to Copenhagen with a number also travelling to Belgrade last Thursday. As Rovers supporters know, none of these trips were particularly cheap with independent travel required for two of the three trips. It was a reasonable investment by the newspapers when their industry is not in the most robust of health. For each of the six games, there was a pre-match press briefing the day before the game. This meant on match day there was significant copy given to the preview of the game with Rovers manager Michael O’Neill’s thoughts along with the quotes from a couple of the players. With the good performances and good results, it also meant decent match report coverage the next day and even follow up articles with player quotes in the newspapers two days after the game. Knocking out Flora Tallinn also put Rovers on the front page of the Estonian newspapers!

The story of Shamrock Rovers in Europe got decent radio coverage on RTÉ and even on Newstalk with the Shamrock Rovers website, Facebook page and Twitter feeds getting significant traffic due to the games. The Hoops put up information in Danish and Serbian on their official website to satisfy the large number of fans from their opponents who were logging on to see who Shamrock Rovers were. In the last six weeks, Rovers increased their Twitter followers by 25% due in no small part by the interest in the European fixtures and the club’s Facebook ‘likes’ now stand at over 13,000.

The sold out signs were up in Tallaght Stadium for the Copenhagen game with a 6,000 capacity crowd and there were crowds in excess of 5,000 for both the Flora and Partizan home games. These are excellent attendances considering that between the three opponents there were probably less than 100 away fans at all the games combined. These bumper home attendances are a timely financial boost for the club in the middle of the season netting the club in excess of €150,000 from gate receipts alone. Added to that total is revenue from food sales, match programme purchases and merchandising as well as money from the TV coverage from RTÉ and Danish TV3.

The prize money from UEFA is only paid at the end of the season so the revenue generated from the home games is important in paying the expenses of travelling to the away games. Whilst Rovers didn’t have the massive expense that Saint Patrick’s Athletic had with their trips to Iceland, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, none of Rovers’ trips were short haul. A charter flight was only affordable for the trip to Copenhagen with scheduled flights used for the journeys to both Estonia and Belgrade with the Hoops flying back through Frankfurt last Friday. The official travelling party had over 35 people including players, management, back room staff and officials and that is an expensive travel bill when accommodation is included with the flights. A conservative estimate for each trip would be around €50,000.

Of course, these travel expenses will be offset by the prize money for winning the league and also the prize money from UEFA. The cash reward for winning the Airtricity League last year €200,000. On top of the FAI prize money, Rovers will also received €330,000 from UEFA as champions and had over €200,000 at stake when they played and beat FC Flora. Manager Michael O’Neill knew the significance of the win in Estonia when he spoke touchline after the 0-0 draw in Tallinn. “The financial element is huge, it’s double what you get for winning the league,” said O’Neill. “The upside is that it is not money we budgeted for this year so its very positive to have that income stream.”

The aim for Irish clubs in Europe is to qualify for the group stages of the competition. However, the real prize would be to qualify for the Champions League rather than the Europa League as the blue riband event has a staggering amount of money on offer for participation. Rovers fell at the second last hurdle when they were beaten by Copenhagen but if they had overcome the Danish and then Czech champions in the play off round, it would literally have been like winning the Euro Millions lottery. When Partizan qualified for the Champions League group stages last year they netted themselves €7.2m for simply turning up and losing every group game. The Serbian champions would have earned €400,000 if they had drawn one game and if they had managed to win any game by overcoming either Arsenal, Braga or Shaktar Donetsk they would have earned a further €800,000 for each win. This would be massive money for Rovers who currently operate with a turnover in excess of €2m.

The prize money for the Europa League is appreciably less than the Champions League but it still considerable for a League of Ireland club. Rovers would have gained direct entry into the group stages if having lost to Copenhagen they were beaten in the play off round. Last year, it was Juventus who knocked the Hoops out of the Europa League qualification process. The ‘Bianconeri’, like all clubs who qualified for the Europa League group stages, received a cool one million euro for reaching that stage. Juve managed to draw all six of their group games getting €70,000 for each and every draw and would have got double that for each win. There is also additional money depending on the commercial value of the media rights and some additional factors.

So Shamrock Rovers were essentially playing for €1m in last Thursday’s game against Partizan. Not exactly small change. However, after the drama of the last month or so in Europe and Thursday’s encounter in the heat of Belgrade, Rovers need to put all thoughts of Europe, the large press coverage or financial earnings out of their mind tonight and concentrate on making it to the quarter final of the FAI Ford Cup.

Published in Hoops Scene 15 (Shamrock Rovers v UCD AFC, FAI Ford Cup, 29 August 2011)

Sives savours Serbian Steamrollers Test

August 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene 14 August 2011 Shamrock Rovers v FK Partizan (Europa League)

The recent taste of Champions League action has whetted the appetite for more European football amongst the fans and players alike here at Shamrock Rovers. The Hoops are hungry to continue their European campaign and do so tonight against FC Partizan from Belgrade in the first leg of their Europa League play off. Since elimination by Copenhagen from qualification for the Champions League two weeks ago, Rovers have won both their games in the Airtricity League beating Bohemians 1-0 and UCD 6-0.

Craig Sives and his team mates would certainly be happy with another clean sheet tonight against the Serbian Champions who began their own league campaign last Saturday with a 5-0 win. “I think we need to keep a clean sheet at home,” said Sives speaking after the Europa League draw which he watched on Eurosport. “They grouped it so we knew who we were getting. It was a difficult group which included Athletico Madrid.”

As it turned out the unseeded Rovers, who are the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition, were paired against the lowest ranked seeded team so it could be viewed as a favourable draw. “You can look at it like that but they were in the Champions League last year,” said the Scotsman. “Now I think they lost every game but the fact that they were in the Champions League group stages means that they are no mugs. It is not going to be easy put it that way.”

In Rovers’ last European game against Copenhagen, the Hoops gave another team with plenty of Champions League experience lots of difficulty. The knowledge gained from those games and the win over FC Flora Tallinn in the previous round is something that will prove very valuable against the experienced Partizan team. “We can take confidence in how we performed especially in the Copenhagen away leg and the first forty minutes of the return leg in Tallaght. You want to challenge yourself against better players and see what kind of level you are at. As a player it has been good when you come up against those sort of players. We handled ourselves really well. We can all be pretty proud of our efforts. Personally I have certainly enjoyed it.”

Having lost the away leg 1-0, Rovers had Copenhagen under huge pressure in the second leg in Tallaght when they could have led at the break rather than go in a goal down. Alas Chris Turner’s header came back off the bar rather than under it. “If Chrissy’s header goes in, it changes the whole complexion of the game,” explains Sives. However, Copenhagen were able to capitalise on Rovers not scoring and they grabbed their a goal of their own just before half time which left Sives and his team“totally deflated, as deep down we knew our chances of progression had pretty much gone.”

Both Rovers and St. Pats have competed well in Europe this season. They will play a minimum of twelve European games between them this season and the Hoops will obviously hope to play more by beating Partizan over two legs. Sligo Rovers really should have won away in Ukraine in their first leg against Vorskla Poltava. Sives has his own opinions on the question of what Irish clubs need to do to be able to progress and qualify for the group stages of a European competition. Part of it is down to just a bit of luck but the other is down to fitness.

“There is the luck side of things,” said the centre half. “If we had scored out there (in Copenhagen) when Billy (Dennehy’s) chance was saved by the keeper who got lucky and saved with his heel. If Turner’s header goes in, it changes the whole tie. I watched MNS the other night and the guy in Sligo smacked it over from two yards. If he scores there, then they have the vital away goal. There is a small margin.”

Rovers had the advantage over Copenhagen in terms of match sharpness as the Danes had only just begun their playing season. Similarly, Partizan have themselves only just begun their campaign whereas Rovers have played 37 competitive games to date this season. However, the amount of time that the clubs can spend on overall fitness is a different story. “To really truly compete the club’s have to be full time,” states Sives. “Unfortunately the way the financials are in Ireland it is not going to be possible. Copenhagen have a state of the art training facility of their own. They will be in every day working on football specific stuff in the morning and work on their physical condition in the afternoon like most full time clubs work. Until that happens, it is always going to be hard. We are not that far off. We competed really well. I think over there, especially in the second half, we were on top of them. You could see that they were maybe a bit tired with it being the start of their season. But the general size of the guys, they were all big strong guys. There was an occasion in the first half and the ball has gone out wide and I’ve tried to run around the guy N’Doye. He has stood his ground and I ran into him and it was like a brick wall. He’s ridiculously strong! And that goes for their centre half as well who I was marking at corners; he was really strong. They do have something in the other leagues and other countries that gets them into that condition.”

Next Thursday, the Hoops will line out in the Stadion FK Partizan against the team known as Parni Valjak or the Steamrollers. Domestically Partizan have lived up to their nickname winning the last four Serbian titles. However recently in Europe they have shown some frailties. In the Champions League last season they played in the same group as Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk and the Europa League runners up Braga but lost every single game. Just two week ago, they were eliminated from the Champions League, at the same stage as Rovers, by Belgian side Racing Genk.

“If you were watching their games in the Champions League last year then you know that it is going to be a hostile and intimidating place to go,” said Sives of the trip to play against the team who’s fan group are known as the Grobari or Gravediggers. “It is all part of the European experience and if it is going to be intimidating and hostile, who cares. You want to play in front of big crowds. Me personally, I felt very comfortable in Copenhagen and also in the Cup Final in front of 30 odd thousand. I felt very comfortable playing in that sort of arena. I think a lot of the players felt that way as well especially in the Copenhagen game. They felt that this is the stage that we should be at. We felt very comfortable and obviously it showed in the performance.”

After the Copenhagen loss, Rovers returned to domestic action with a trip to Dalymount Park which has its own hostile atmosphere. Sives thought that the game “was the perfect way to come back. They may have felt we would be a bit tired but that wasn’t the case at all. We took the Copenhagen away performance and the home first half performance into the game. Once we got the goal, which was thoroughly deserved, we maybe took the foot off the gas a wee bit. I think Ger O’Brien had a couple of chances to score especially late on which was disappointing on our part at the back. I thought we were fantastic for the majority of the game. Going to Dalymount it is a difficult place to go. The game is always pretty tight. I think the tables have turned on that one and we are now the top team.”

Emotions ran high in the game with the Rovers captain Dan Murray and goalkeeper Ryan Thompson having a disagreement over a back pass but at the final whistle the pair were quick to embrace each other and celebrate with the rest of the Rovers squad after the hard fought 1-0 win. “These things happen in football,” said Sives of the back pass incident. “They are two strong personalities. Dan obviously thought Ryan should have come out and Ryan thought Dan should have played it back and neither happened. We were all laughing and joking about it after! Ryan has stepped up to the plate and has done fantastic since he has come in.”

There was also a disagreement over the Rovers goalscorer which was more light hearted. Both Dean Kelly and Gary Twigg met Billy Dennehy’s corner on the head for a goal that was either Kelly’s first league goal or Twigg’s first goal at Dalymount Park. “At the time we thought Deano had scored,” said Sives, “but when you watch it back and you see it from behind the goal you see it has hit Twiggy square in the face. I’m delighted for him that he scored his first goal at Dalymount.”

Since just before the start of the European campaign, Rovers manager Michael O’Neill has brought in Jim Magilton as his number two. Magilton has a wealth of footballing experience from both playing the game, including as an international teammate with O’Neill, and also as a manager. Sives is very positive about the Belfast man’s influence on the squad especially at the back. “It has been great. There certainly is a good buzz in training and everything is done with the ball. He works everyday with the back four quite a lot. Working on passing the ball and being comfortable on the ball. It has been great for all the players at the back and I think our performances have improved since Jim has come in. We are all hoping he will stay until the end of the season at least.”

At the start of this season, Rovers had to begin their league campaign without the 2009 Shamrock Rovers young player of the year. Thankfully Sives injury was nothing to do with his previous injuries that had jeopardised his career when playing with Hearts in Scotland. “I tore my hamstring in the first few minutes of the game down in Killarney in our very first pre-season game. I probably should have come off. I stayed on till half time but it was pretty clear I couldn’t continue. I came back in the Leinster Senior Cup game against Dundalk but it went again unfortunately. So it meant even longer being out which was disappointing but the defence performed really well without me.” When Sives did return he did so with a bang getting his name on the score sheet against Drogheda United. “I scored on my first game back which was very pleasing, as I don’t get very many goals! I’m just happy to be back fit again and playing regularly which I’ve always wanted to do.”

The European campaign has garnered plenty of good publicity for the club with live TV coverage of the away game in Tallinn, both games against Copenhagen and RTÉ’s cameras are here again to cover tonight’s game live. The Hoops also made an appearance on TV3’s Celebrity Head Chef with the ‘celebrity’ chefs preparing a meal for the Rovers squad. There was more publicity for the club when one of the chefs took exception to the criticism of her dessert and called one of the Rovers squad a peasant. “It was all good fun. Nobody really knows who the comments from Twink were aimed at. If it was aimed at myself than I don’t really care as I’d never heard of her until this programme came about! It is not a big deal as it was just a bit of fun and it was good publicity for the club.” Earlier in the season, Billy Dennehy told Hoops Scene that his signature dish was spaghetti bolognaise. So what would Craig Sives cook for the squad if he had to? “It would be basic stuff like a stir fry or chicken and pasta. Don’t believe everything you see on TV as I don’t make haggis at all!” Sives will be hoping tonight that the recipe of hard work served with plenty of skill and maybe garnished with a bit of luck will help his team devour the Serbian opposition.

Photography by George Kelly

Euro Vision and Reality

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene 13 (Shamrock Rovers v UCD, 10 August 2011)

Ahead of the club’s entry into the Europa League, Macdara Ferris chats to some Hoops players about the recent Champions League campaign…

After the recent Champions League qualifying campaign, it is back to domestic action for Shamrock Rovers tonight as the Hoops take on UCD. Rovers know that if they want to replicate this season’s European football adventures in 2012, then they need to go about securing three points tonight against the Students in the Airtricity League. The Hoops currently sit joint top of the table on 48 points along with Sligo Rovers and Derry City but with a game in hand.

In the league there is a certain level of expectation that surrounds Rovers this season. Manager Michael O’Neill has brought in several new players to the squad that won the league last season and the talk in some quarters, but not at the club, was that this could be a side that might dominate the domestic league for a number of years. The last team to have a strangle hold on the League of Ireland was the Shamrock Rovers four in a row league winning side in the mid-1980s during the last days of Milltown. However that historic team failed to reproduce their domestic dominance in Europe being eliminated in the first round on each attempt. It was therefore nice for the current Rovers squad to make their own history last month when they became the first Rovers team to win a European Cup match following their 1-0 win at home to Flora Tallinn. They did so on the night that the club celebrated that four in a row team by hosting a reception for them in the stadium 25 years on from their game in Milltown against Glasgow Celtic.

This season’s European campaign in the Champions League qualifiers to date and Europa League playoff against Partizan Belgrade to come have been a nice distraction for Rovers away from the pressure of trying to retain their League of Ireland crown. A number of the Rovers fixtures have been re-arranged to suit the European schedule and tonight is Rovers’ first home game after the short mid-season summer break in the league. “It’s good to have a break and take your mind off it,” said Rovers full back Pat Sullivan. “You have so many Friday-Tuesday games in the league and sometimes that can get on top of you. Breaks like this, and getting one or two games moved, it’s quite nice and we have the summer break which is even better.”

Last season, Rovers were very effective in juggling their domestic and European commitments. The Hoops garnered 25 out of the 27 points on offer in the middle third of the season that coincided with Rovers defeating Israeli side Bnei Yehuda before playing Juventus. Sullivan, who was watching those games last season on the sideline due to a lengthy injury layoff, was quick to point out that “it was our best period coming off the back of Europe”.

European games afford the team a chance to go up against new players and new playing systems. “In league games you know the teams and what systems you’re going to play,” explains Sullivan. “When you’re playing higher level teams in Europe, you raise your game. The more we raise our game it makes the club and us look better. It improves the club’s reputation and our reputation and that’s what you want.”

With the 1-0 aggregate win over Flora Tallinn and the fine performances in the defeats to Copenhagen, the Hoops have shown they are well able to compete on the European stage. The club will be expecting more ‘Sold Out’ signs to be going up in Tallaght Stadium ahead of next week’s Europa League playoff first leg against the Serbian Champions Partizan. Rovers will be hoping for a similar atmosphere as to the one here in Tallaght against Copenhagen in front of the capacity 6,000 crowd. These games are the prize for what the club achieved last season in winning the league and they mean a lot to the team as Stephen Rice explained. “It’s great, it’s a reward for the achievement of last year,” said the central midfielder. “A lot of time in Europe, it’s been a reward for clubs and has just been a reward. But I think Irish clubs are now going into Europe looking to progress which is a positive thing.”

The good results from Irish teams in Europe in recent years do bring a certain level of expectation to progress through at least the opening round. If teams go out “it’s not a good sign,” said Pat Sullivan. With the European matches squeezed into a tight schedule the players go into the game knowing who they will face in the next round should they progress. “It doesn’t help knowing who you can potentially play,” said Sullivan. “That doesn’t do anyone any favours as it potentially puts pressure on you. If you don’t get through a round, you’re going to be disappointed.”

The holy grail for an Irish team of qualifying for the group stages of a European competition still has not been attained. Rovers had Copenhagen under real pressure in the second leg of their third qualifying round. How the tie would have developed if Chris Turner’s powerful header had bounced down over the line rather than up and out, we will never know. Is it a realistic ambition to get to the group stages of the Champions League? “I think it’s a fair stretch to get to the group stage,” said Pat Sullivan. “The way European competition has gone, there seems to be more rounds. You have three qualifying rounds in the Champions League and then a [play off] qualifier round. It never seems to end. We’re a part time team but train like a full time team. Training itself is done in a full time manner, we just train in the evening and some mornings. It won’t change the fact of will qualify for something or not. The fact there are more clubs in Europe that are allowed try and qualify in the first and second rounds makes it harder. I wouldn’t say never but it will take a lot to qualify [for the group stage]. But when a team does, I hope it’s something that could happen more regularly.” His team mate Stephen Rice has this view on where Irish teams stand. “We’re still progressing,” says Rice. “I think that has a lot to do with the summer league, playing against clubs that are only coming back from pre-season and us being mid-season helps.”

Rovers’ elimination from the Champions League qualification process has resulted in the club being parachuted into the Europa League play off round with the prize of entry into the group stages if they can overcome Partizan. The Rovers manager Michael O’Neill is well aware of what his team have to deal with in terms of the number of European games that are taking place alongside domestic action like tonight’s game against UCD. However, O’Neill feels the minimum six European fixtures that Rovers will face this season can also aid his side domestically. “Our intention at the start of the league was to retain the title and that is still the case,” said O’Neill. “The European thing is something that can be positive. You have to deal with fatigue and more games but you get a togetherness with your squad that is difficult to get on a weekly basis. We will gain in terms of player unity and their relationships and we will be stronger as a result.”

Player photography by George Kelly

Conor McCormack Interview

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 12 (Shamrock Rovers v FC Copenhagen – 2 August 2011)

Last week’s Champions League game for Shamrock Rovers took place in the Parken Stadium north of a certain Danish brewing company who also sponsor FC Copenhagen. The Danish champions were probably playing the best side in League of Ireland football. While Rovers don’t do away wins in the European Cup losing 1-0, they did put in a fine performance on a night that certainly did call for every Hoop fan to be proud of their team.

Rovers player Conor McCormack can be also proud of his own performance as the 21 year old looked like a Champions League veteran in both last week’s game and in the previous away match against Flora Tallinn. Rovers manager Michael O’Neill gave McCormack a crucial role in front of the back four which provided a solid defensive base. McCormack was a second half substitute in the home leg against Flora Tallinn and has cemented a starting line up since then. “It was a great atmosphere,” said McCormack of the 1-0 win in Tallaght against Flora. “No one really knew what to expect with it being our first time in the Champions League.”

In Europe, avoiding conceding a crucial away goal is a high priority for the home team and against Flora the Hoops were very close to conceding that away goal after giving away a penalty in the first half. However Alan Mannus got down to make a vital penalty save. “They were lucky enough I think to get the break and get the penalty,” said McCormack, “but thankfully Big Al saved it. Justice was done as we went straight upfield to score and rightly so.” Mannus has subsequently moved on from Rovers to SPL side St. Johnstone. “He is massive loss and he is a big character,” said McCormack of the goalkeeping situation. “Ryan Thompson is here now and I’m confident he can step up.”

Tonight Copenhagen will be looking for an away goal to effectively end the tie. However, Flora when they came to Tallaght played a similar game to many of the domestic visitors to the Dublin 24 venue this season. They sat back and soaked up the Rovers pressure hoping to run the clock down and hit the Hoops on the break. Rovers have had some good practice in trying to break down teams playing that style and have mixed the team formation playing 4-3-3 on a number of occasions including against the Estonian visitors. “Like most European teams when they come away from home, they want to keep it tight and play five across the middle,” said the Carlingford native. “Sometimes it is a wee bit hard to break down. We had the majority of the ball but we deserved to win as we were the better side. It is a great experience to play in the Champions League and a great thing to have under your belt. In the second leg in Tallinn, McCormack felt Rovers deserved to progress. “We did well. We knew it was going to be tough. It is a different climate and a different culture of football. We did our homework on them to get the 0-0 draw that brings us through.”

Of course, Conor McCormack has plenty of continental European football experience having joined Shamrock Rovers this season following a spell with Italian Serie B team, Triestina. His time in Italy came after beginning his career at another big European club, Manchester United. “I went on trial when I was just coming up on 15,” recalled McCormack of his time with United. “I was lucky enough that they signed me up. I was on a scholarship but I was told I wasn’t going to get a professional contract that year. I could have stayed on for another year but I wanted to get a professional contract and play football.” McCormack had the opportunity to stay at United and had offers from elsewhere in England and in Scotland. However, he felt he would look for opportunities elsewhere. “I thought it would be better to leave United and try to get a chance elsewhere. There was word about going to Italy and my agent wondered would I be interested? It came out of the blue. I went and took the trial. I said I would go over for a week and see how I liked it. They liked me so I signed a three year deal. There are not many Irish players playing in Europe and I thought that might suit me a wee bit better. ”

Ultimately it was a frustrating time in Italy for the former Ireland youth international as he got limited playing time. “There were only a handful of matches for the first team, some friendlies and the odd cup game,” said McCormack who was player of the year in 2008 for his Ireland u17 team. “In the two and half years I was over there, it was way below what I expected. There were different managers coming in with six different managers in my two and a half years there. I kept getting pushed back and I thought I should have got a chance myself. Different managers came in with different ideas and different players. Every two months there would be a change in the manager and directors so it kind of went pear shaped. I wasn’t happy and the wages weren’t coming. I decided I had to get out of there come January so I ended up cancelling my contract and coming back here. And luckily enough the gaffer [Michael O’Neill] got me here and signed me up so I was happy with that.”

It was that European experience that meant Michael O’Neill had no hesitation in bringing McCormack into the starting line in the Champions League. Speaking on the touchline after the game in Tallinn, O’Neill was quick to compliment his player. “I thought he was fantastic,” said his manager. “He was always in the right place at the right time to pick the game up for us. He’s very disciplined, probably more disciplined than any player we have. He had two and a half years in Italy learning the game and that system. It paid dividends because he looked comfortable.”

McCormack himself recongised that his own European experience was an important factor in O’Neill putting him in the starting line up. “He said that I could do a job and I think that I did and I’m happy with that. Coming over here, European football is a lot different than the Irish football or the English game. I might have had a wee bit more experience than the rest of the lads including the climate which I would have been used to in the two and a half years over there. He said he had faith in me and he wanted to put me in there.”

In Europe last season, the Hoops came up against Italian giants Juventus in the Europa League. “This time last year I was in a pizzeria watching them!” said McCormack about the Juve game. The players involved in that game will have their own opinion on Italian football but McCormack is well placed to compare the League of Ireland with Italian football having spent time playing in both countries. “It is a lot more tactical and technical over there,” explains the 21 year old. “The game itself is slower and you can get on the ball a lot more. There is not an awful lot of pressure on you. The speed of the game is a lot slower. Over here, in England and in Scotland, the football is a lot different, it is a lot quicker and more intense. The climate has a big part in the game as you are playing in 30 degrees of heat you can’t go flying around the pitch the whole time!”

With the Hoops battling to retain their title at the top of the league, with his first taste of Champions League football and a Setanta Sports Cup winners medal in his pocket, McCormack must be pretty pleased with how the season has progressed for him. “It is great. Looking back on last year, I was in and out of the team and not really getting a game over there. I’ve come here and the gaffer has had faith in me, he’s played me and I’ve come on leaps and bounds. I think I’ve improved as a player and I’m happy with the way things are going at the minute and that I’ve achieved a bit of success and hopefully there is more to come.”

While Serie A has some strong following amongst many Rovers fans, there is less interest in Serie B. So McCormack was certainly an unknown prospect for most Hoops fans. They were unsure of how much game time he would get but as soon as he got some early in the season, it was clear how much potential this 21 year old has. Was the player himself worried about getting in team and what position he would line up in? “Well I knew it was going to be tough with the quality that is in the team. The gaffer has brought in most of the best players from last season around the league into the team and put them together. I knew it would be a tricky task but I’ve got a few games under my belt and I just have to keep pushing forward and try to cement a place in the team. I will keep thinking positive and do better. I prefer to play my football probably as a defensive midfielder but I don’t mind where I play really. I will give 110% and try and do my best. I don’t mind really where I play, I just want to get playing and then I’m happy. I do enjoy playing in a sweeping role in midfield in front of the back four.”

Across all the competitions, McCormack has made over twenty appearances for the Hoops. He was handed his competitive debut for Rovers in the Setanta Sports Cup and he started in all the games in that competition including the win in the final over Dundalk. His performance in the first leg of the semi final away to Sligo Rovers is the game when it was clear to see that Michael O’Neill had acquired a real gem in McCormack. With the game live on Setanta TV, the Hoops lined out with an offensive 4-3-3 system and proceeded to play Sligo Rovers off the park. Central to the win on the night was McCormack who started in his preferred defensive midfield role. “It was my first real game in midfield,” recalled McCormack about the 2-0 win in the Showgrounds. “The gaffer told me before the match to watch out for Joey Ndo and to try and stop him. All the lads were telling me how he is a great player in the league as I wouldn’t really know much about him having not been here or seen many games. All the lads were saying how good and skillful he is and that he’ll try and nutmeg you but I just decided to put that to the back of my mind. I went about playing my own game, to stop the opposition, get on the ball and do a job for the team. I think I did that and stopped one of their best players and we went on to win the match. So that was a big point to the game and I’m delighted as we went on to win the competition.”

It was a similar performance that McCormack put in against Flora that helped the Hoops bring Copenhagen to Tallaght tonight. McCormack is under no illusion as to the difficult task the Hoops will face against a team that made the last 16 of the Champions League last season and hold a 1-0 lead after the first leg. “It is going to be a tough ask,” said McCormack about playing a team that emerged from the Champions League group stage in the same group as Barcelona. “They drew at Stamford Bridge last season. We will go out there and have nothing to lose. They are going to be a tough side. But we will go out and give everything. We will go out an enjoy it and take in the experience.”

Not quite a Danish fairy tale in the Champions League

Shamrock Rovers are rightly proud of our history. Alongside the many tales of domestic glory, the stories of playing the giants of European football like Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Glasgow Celtic, sustained many Rovers fans in the difficult years following the club’s exile from Milltown. Six years ago if you were a Rovers fan you were likely to be reading the court pages rather than the sports pages as the club’s existence hung by a thread during the period when the club was in Examinership. Five years ago the away trips were to St. Mel’s Park, St. Colman’s Park or a ground even a Saint wouldn’t want to go in, Hogan Park in Limerick. But in 2011 the away trips require a passport as we head to foreign lands humming the Champions League theme tune in our heads. Tallinn and Copenhagen have been the destinations so far and tomorrow we will find out where we head to as Rovers chase entry in the Europa League Group stages.

With Rovers claiming the required 0-0 draw in Tallinn in their second qualifying round second leg to go with the 1-0 home win, it was a quick turnaround with back to back away trips to get to Copenhagen for the next round the following week. The day trip to Denmark was booked out before I had even got back to Ireland the day after the game in Estonia so I booked on with the official club trip. This had around 60 seats available for supporters to travel on with the official Shamrock Rovers group made up of 40 players and officials. It was the equivalent of travelling on the team bus to an away game so it was a bit of a novel experience travelling on the same airplane as the team. The players were located at the front of the plane that didn’t have a first class section so Dan Murray, Craig Sives and Ciarán Kilduff had to squeeze their lengthy frames into the same size seats individuals like Gary McCabe and myself could readily fit in. All the players were in official Rovers gear with a few additions like Gary O’Neill’s non-Umbro branded headwear and Billy Dennehy’s massive footballer headphones for his iPod!

The Captain welcomed “Michael O’Neill and his Rovers team” on board over the PA having been well briefed by a Rovers fan who works on the ground crew in Dublin Airport. By early lunchtime, we were all in Copenhagen with the team heading to their hotel on the outskirts of the City and the rest of us making our own way into the city centre. This allowed us time for a stroll around the city to get a feel for the place. A good place to start was in the Town Hall tower that affords great views of Copenhagen even on an overcast Tuesday. Having been watching “The Killing” on DVD, I recognised this as the location where the office of candidate for Copenhagen Mayor Troels Hartmann works.

There wasn’t a huge amount of sight seeing time for me, as this was somewhat of a working trip for me. In the previous Champions League round, I had managed to get the gig reporting on the match for the Irish Times as weren’t sending anyone to cover the game. The opportunity arose through contacts I had made when volunteering at the Europa League final and my contributions to the Rovers programme. However it was mainly due to the fact I was travelling out there anyway and Emmet Malone was kind enough to ask me. It did mean giving up watching the game with my friends and fellow supporters in order to cover the match for the newspaper and it was a bit of a learning curve for me.

The Irish journalists were very accommodating to me in Tallinn and also in Copenhagen with the same crew travelling out for that game including Paul O’Hehir, Owen Cowzer, Daniel McDonnell, Philip Quinn and Paul Lennon who were joined on the Copenhagen trip by Emmet Malone. This time around I was covering the game for the Irish Examiner. On the back of the match report in Tallinn, I had carried out an interview over the phone for Danish TV3 who televised the match in Copenhagen. They used a few minutes of audio and lifted a photo of me for the piece off the Internet holding up a Rovers jersey at the 2009 Rovers Player of the Year award with Graham Barrett cut out of the photo. I certainly didn’t come across as the most objective of journalists referring to Rovers as “we” in both the piece they used or when asking a question of Michael O’Neill at the pre-match press conference in Copenhagen much to the amusement of the professional journalists there. Maybe Michael O’Neill was wondering who the person in the Hoops SC T-Shirt referring to his team as “we” was at the press conference! The Copenhagen press officer recognised me off the TV when I turned up at the conference much to my own amusement!

Roland Nilsson pre-match conference was carried out all in English. I’m sure Nilsson was trying not to be condescending but he was certain who was going to win the game the following evening. “We are favourites definitely.” The press got the opportunity to talk to the Copenhagen players pitch side but the only player the Irish journalists wanted to speak to was a certain Thomas Joseph Delaney. This Dane had obvious Irish connections but when asked they were from the 1800s rather than the 1980s so it wasn’t quite what they had hoped for. Ideally for my newspaper target audience I was hoping he had some Cork ancestry but it wasn’t to be!

With a 500 word piece filed, it was a quick bus ride back into the city centre. To give an idea of the cost in Copenhagen, the 15 minute bus ride cost nearly €4. There were some horror stories of burger, chips and a beer costing €27 but we availed of some reasonably priced drinks that evening watching Rangers lose at home to Malmo (which may ultimately mean Rovers may now play Rangers in Europe later this month).

Match day came around with it being a bright sunny day in Copenhagen and a chance to do some more sightseeing in the morning including the Little Mermaid and some of Copenhagen’s modern architecture before catching up with some of the Rovers fans that had arrived by lunchtime on the day trip. Out at the Parken Stadium ahead of kick off, lots of Rovers fans were perusing the merchandise in the Copenhagen club shop that is significantly bigger than our own impressive shop in Tallaght. Don’t know whether we’d be allowed sell a Rovers own brand beer but the Copenhagen Carlsberg beer is an interesting idea.

The Rovers fans, numbering somewhere over 200, were located behind the goal beside the dressing rooms and that allowed them to greet their team with great gusto when they emerged for the game. The attendance on the night would touch just over 11,000 including a sizeable Copenhagen Ultras section down the opposite end of the ground. The home fans must have thought the match would be a walkover when the scored within four minutes of the kick off but they maybe weren’t aware of the resilience of this Rovers team. Rovers created plenty of chances during the game and were unlucky not to score from chances that fell to Dennehy in the first half or Finn, Oman or Twigg in the second half. Admittedly they also rode their luck at the back but Ryan Thompson stood firm on a night he became the first Jamaican to play in the Champions League. The match ended 1-0 matching Michael O’Neill’s objective of keeping the tie alive for Tallaght.

Speaking to the press after the game, O’Neill was honest in his assessment of the game and it showed the measure of where this Rovers team is when he said that “there is a slight hint of disappointment to have lost the game to be honest.” Roland Nilsson came in to say a few words to the press but with deadlines looming was told actually he wasn’t needed for quotes. He was happy to head off with one member of the Irish press core joking after that it’s not often you tell a bronze medal World Cup winner to essentially f— off, we don’t want to talk to you! With match reports filed, it was time head to the airport with the buses carrying the players and supporters getting a police escort out of the city towards the airport for our 00:15 flight.

Ultimately, the fact that Rovers couldn’t get that crucial away goal in Copenhagen would handicap them in the return leg and so when the Danish team scored just before half time in Tallaght effectively ending the tie. Shamrock Rovers as a team and as a club can take lots of positives from the experience of the Champions League and hopefully that will all be helpful as we attempt to become the first Irish club to qualify for the group stages of a European competition. Watching the draw on on Friday lunchtime we will find out where Rovers will be taking us next.

O’Neill’s men park bus to keep dream alive (Irish Examiner)

Match report published in the Irish Examiner

FC Copenhagen 1 Shamrock Rovers 0

By Macdara Ferris, Parken Stadium
Thursday, July 28, 2011

SHAMROCK ROVERS came into last night’s Champions League qualifier knowing they were facing formidable opposition in Copenhagen, a team studded with full internationals and players with knockout stage experience of Europe’s biggest competition.
The League of Ireland champions emerged from the game with much credit, putting in a determined performance but they still face the difficult task of overcoming last night’s 1-0 defeat when Copenhagen visit Tallaght next Tuesday.

Rovers manager Michael O’Neill had made it clear that his objective for the first leg in the Parken Stadium was to contain the Danish champions and keep the tie alive. That is what his team managed to do with his team effectively deploying a 4-1-4-1 system to stifle the attacking threat of Copenhagen.

“I was delighted with the performance and I thought we were excellent throughout the game,” said O’Neill. “There is a slight hint of disappointment to have lost the game to be honest.”

Things did not go exactly to plan for O’Neill, with his side conceding a goal after only three minutes. Copenhagen won a corner which Rovers cleared but Pierre Bengtsson collected the ball and his cross was headed into the top right-hand corner by Solvi Ottesen.

Copenhagen went on to create a number of chances down the left in the first half. Pape Pate Diouf initially turned Craig Sives, cutting in on the left but his right-foot shot went over the bar.

Next, Bengtsson got clear down the left but Diouf wastefully hit the ball over the bar.

The Dubliners’ best chance of the half came when a Pat Sullivan cross was flicked on by captain Gary Twigg to Billy Dennehy but he couldn’t force the ball home under pressure in the six yard box in front of the 200 or so Rovers fans who had made the trip.

Ryan Thompson was certainly the busier goalkeeper as he came through a crowd of players to punch clear a cross from the Copenhagen player with the Irish ancestry, Thomas Delaney.

It was a big night for the goalkeeper, who became the first Jamaican to play in the Champions League on the night he replaced the recently departed Alan Mannus in goal.

Just before half time he pulled off a fine save when Diouf powered a free header towards the top corner from another Delaney cross.

O’Neill was delighted with the performance of his goalkeeper and the defence in front of him.

“He made key saves at key moments and dealt with everything else that was asked of him,” said O’Neill. “It was fantastic from him and fantastic from the back four. We defended valiantly.’’

Ken Oman, who picked up a knee injury late in the game, came closest for Rovers in the second half when his header had keeper Johan Wiland scrambling.

Both Ronan Finn and Twigg created chances for the Hoops as the game moved into the last quarter but they couldn’t claim the away goal ahead of next week’s return leg.

O’Neill said: “Every time the ball went into the box we asked questions of them and it gives us every encouragement for the second leg. The players enhanced their reputation.”

COPENHAGEN: Wiland; Thomsen (Sigurdsson 45), Ottesen, Jorgensen, Bengtsson; Bolanos, Claudemir, Grindheim, Delaney (Absalonsen 60); Diouf, Santin (Nordstrand 69).

SHAMROCK ROVERS: Thompson; Sullivan, Sives, Oman (Murray 82), Stevens; McCormack; Kelly (McCabe 52), Rice (Kilduff 89), Finn, Dennehy; Twigg.

Referee: Pavle Radovanovic (Montenegro).

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Relaxed Rovers ready for Danish test (Irish Examiner)

Match Preview published in the Irish Examiner

By Macdara Ferris
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

SHAMROCK ROVERS go into tonight’s Champions League third qualifying round clash against FC Copenhagen with a massive task. They must overcome a club that made the knockout stages of the competition last year, emerging from the group stages behind Barcelona before being eliminated in the last 16 by Chelsea.

It is a different situation for Rovers tonight compared with their other games this season with Copenhagen clear favourites. However, Rovers manager Michael O’Neill speaking in the Parken Stadium ahead of the game, feels this may actually help his side. “The pressure was on us to get through the last round,” said O’Neill, “We can maybe approach this game in a slightly more relaxed manner. The expectation level is lower and I think the players will relish that.”

Rovers are missing two of their key performers from their win against FC Flora Tallinn. Midfielder Chris Turner is suspended and will most likely be replaced by Stephen Rice. An even bigger miss could be Northern Ireland international Alan Mannus who joined SPL side St Johnstone last week.

Mannus will be replaced in goal by Jamaican international Ryan Thompson. Listening to Thompson, it is clear the keeper is confident about stepping up to play his first game in the Champions League. “I’m ready. I’ve been preparing for years and months, sitting on the bench, biding my time. Now I’m ready to go on and express myself. The stage is set, it’s about time I show here who Ryan Thompson is all about.”

His manager has no worries about his new keeper. “I think his mentality and his mindset will help him,” said a relaxed O’Neill. “He has the right character to deal with the situation.”

O’Neill went on to explain his team’s strategy for tonight’s game. “The objective is to make sure the tie is very much alive when we go back to Tallaght, to contain Copenhagen and look to exploit them when we get the opportunity to do so. We do believe there are areas that we can exploit.”

Copenhagen’s new manager Roland Nilsson, a former teammate of Michael O’Neill at Coventry City, spoke about Rovers. “They are well organised and have lots of energy,” said the former Swedish star. “We are favourites. If you are going to beat a team that are well organised, you need to do something to break it up and that is with good passing and a high tempo.”

SHAMROCK ROVERS (probable): Thompson; Sullivan, Sives, Oman, Stevens; Dennehy, Rice, Finn, McCormack, Kelly; Twigg.

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From Tallaght to Tallinn

Published on the Rovers Rambling blog:

The trip from Tallaght to Tallinn for this Rovers fan began with an early Sunday morning flight out of Dublin. With various routes via Edinburgh, Liverpool, Copenhagen and Oslo, we chose the route with an eight-hour stop in Luton Airport. There were a dozen or so Rovers fans taking this flight option to Tallinn. With the 20-minute high-speed rail link into London closed for maintenance works, we didn’t bother with the 90-minute bus ride into London but settled for a five-minute taxi ride into Luton. As a self-confessed ground hopper, we took a stroll out to Kenilworth Road home to Luton Town FC. I’m old enough to remember Luton playing in the top flight of English football, with their plastic pitch and their ban on travelling fans. Let us just say that Luton, the town, the club and their ground, has seen better days as they currently ply their trade in the Blue Square Conference. The ground on one side is like Richmond Park with the entrance through a gap in a terraced row of houses.

A short stroll and a Sunday roast later, we were back in Luton Airport for our Ryanair flight to Tallinn. We got the chance that evening to sample the atmosphere of the main square in a quiet condition before the travelling hoards of Hoop fans descended on the square in the coming days. The Molly Malone bar was the venue for those Rovers fans that had made the early trip out and there were some quiet Sunday evening drinks for the Rovers fans, Rovers management and backroom team in attendance.

Monday was an opportunity to see the wonderful Old Town in Tallinn, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Rather than any one particular church, building or site, the best bit about the Old Town is to stroll around the cobbled streets in what is one of the best preserved medieval towns in northern Europe (well so says the Rough Guide to Estonia). The Shamrock Rovers team were also taking in the sights. With the temperatures up around 25 degrees, each had a bottle of water to keep hydrated. Speaking to Stephen Rice and Pat Sullivan that morning, Ricer was saying that the heat might be a factor “The only other kit we have is black, the cotton one we wore in the Setanta Cup final,” said Rice, “we’ll be baking.” Sullivan was looking forward to the change of playing in Europe. “It’s good to have a break. In league games you know the teams and what systems you’re going to play. When you’re playing higher level teams in Europe, you raise your game. The more we raise our game, it makes the club and us look better. They are good games to play in.”

The team had their pre-match training session at 18:45 on Monday evening to match the kick off time of the match on Tuesday. A handful of Rovers fans made their way to the A Le Coq Arena that was a half an hour stroll from the old town. While Jim Magilton started the session, Michael O’Neill spent 15 minutes chatting with the Irish media, including SRTV ahead of the game. He was quite upbeat about Rovers’ prospects. “I think we are well capable of scoring, that’s the main thing,” said O’Neill. “We created a lot of chances last week and we would like to start in a similar vein this time. “Obviously if we score it puts us in a very strong position and that’s what we will be hoping for.”

Photo from George Kelly

Coming back into the old the town, we were drawn into the main square by the siren call of Shamrock Rovers fans singing. The arrival of more fans swelled the numbers in the square and swelled the coffers of the surrounding bars and restaurants.

Fans arising on match day when they opened their curtains in the morning, or some in the afternoon, were greeted by rain outside. All the fans were hoping for the rain to stop ahead of the game, as there was no roof over the away section. The players were certainly hoping for cooler conditions that the previous day but maybe some rain. “If it rains it will be a bonus!” said Pat Sullivan. In the main square they had kindly erected some fences for Rovers fans to hang their flags on and also probably for the European Young Movement forum that was setting up a stage in the square. Tallinn locals and tourists alike were taking photos of the colourful Rovers supporters singing in the main square.

There was no Modena style march to the stadium given the distance from the main square so most fans used the local taxi service or tram to get to the ground. Just over 400 Rovers fans made the trip from Tallaght to Tallinn and they almost filled the bottom tier of one end of the ground. The sun had emerged but thankfully for the Rovers players the temperature wasn’t too uncomfortable helped by the shadows across the pitch. As usual, the Hoops fans had brought a massive number of flags and these were draped over the fence at the front. It attendance on the night was close to 2,000 football fans which Flora would have been delighted with given their average crowds are usually only a tenth of that.

Alan Mannus, making his last appearance for the Hoops before moving to SPL side St. Johnstone, was given a great reception by the Rovers fans as he took up his position in the first half defending the goal in front of the Rovers fans. As it turned out, Mannus had very little to do in a game that Rovers pretty much dominated. Flora created very little and with Conor McCormack patrolling in front of his back four it allowed Chris Turner and Ronan Finn get forward to support Dean Kelly, Billy Dennehy and Rovers captain Gary Twigg.

0-0 at half time and Rovers controlled the second half creating a succession of corners and scoring opportunities. Kelly got in a number of shots and Oman and Dennehy headers were probably the two best chances in the game. Besides not scoring a deserved goal, the only other disappointment on the night was the fact that Turner picked up a yellow card meaning he will miss next Wednesday’s away leg in Copenhagen. This was something Manager Michael O’Neill picked up on when talking on the touchline after the game. “It’s disappointing for Chris to miss the first leg. It’s a blow to us because he’s powerful in there and in the system he gets forward a lot.”

No surprise that the Rovers fans were in full voice during the game and their singing reached a crescendo at the full time whistle. Players and fans celebrated together with many players throwing their jerseys into the crowd and happiest was the fan that Alan Mannus carefully threw his jersey to before his teammates jumped on top of him in celebration.

As the stadium emptied, Michael O’Neill spoke about the win. “I’m delighted to get through. I thought we played excellently; to a man we were excellent. The objective was to get through to Copenhagen and we’ve managed to do that. It’s great for the club, it gives us four more European games, the financial implications of that as well, everything is positive about tonight.”

Rovers fans returned to the square post match for some local beer and with some heading to taste some local food such as Wild boar. The players also made an appearance. A group of us headed to the Depeche Mode bar off the main square that had been mentioned on the Rovers forum. The music was quite appropriate from a band with albums such as “Ultra” and “Songs of Faith & Devotion”. We couldn’t decide if “Personal Jesus” was a song about Gary Twigg or Chris(t) Turner.

Fans are now turning their attention to trying to get the time off work and get the money together to get to Copenhagen for next week. With the Rovers team flying home through there, Michael O’Neill and Jim Magilton stayed on to see their opposition lose 1-0 to West Ham in a friendly before getting back to Dublin to help prepare the Hoops for their next big challenge.

See you in Copenhagen.

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.”