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Rovers’ positive attitude pays off (Irish Times)

My match report published in The Irish Times (Wednesday 20 July 2011)

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/sport/2011/0720/1224301010887.html


MACDARA FERRIS in Tallinn

SOCCER: SHAMROCK ROVERS produced a disciplined display away to FC Flora Tallinn yesterday and the result was enough to see them through on aggregate.

On the basis of the number of chances and quantity of possession, Rovers should have won the tie by more, but manager Michael O’Neill was delighted with the performance.

“We bossed the game from start to finish,” he said last night. “It’s just amazing we didn’t manage to win the game, but the important thing is we won the tie and got two clean sheets.”

The reward that awaits them in the third qualifying round is a difficult trip to FC Copenhagen in the first leg next Wednesday night.

O’Neill made one change from the first leg, bringing in Conor McCormack for Stephen O’Donnell. McCormack, a former Serie B player with Triestina, was making his starting debut in the Champions League and the 21-year-old provided crucial protection in front of the Rovers defence.

“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 and he said he spent two and a half years learning the game and that system. It paid dividends because he looked comfortable.”

The Estonian champions were first to press as they looked to overcome the one-goal deficit from the first leg.

Masitsev played in Luts, whose shot went over the bar and into the 350 or so Rovers fans behind the goal before Rovers forced the first corner after seven minutes. Flora were forced to make an early change three minutes later when Alliku went off with a shoulder injury to be replaced by Dupikov.

Rovers, playing in black, let Mosnikov get in and his shot went just past the left post. Full back Pat Sullivan saw plenty of the ball and some link-up play with captain Gary Twigg created space for Ronan Finn, who couldn’t keep his shot on target.

A deflected Finn shot gave Dean Kelly the chance to put the ball in the danger area, but Flora goalkeeper Pedok held the ball under a heavy challenge from Chris Turner.

Alan Mannus was next called into play when he punched clear through a crowd of players from a Minkenan cross. It was Mannus’ last game for Rovers as he moves to SPL side St Johnstone later this week. In injury-time, in the first half, Billy Dennehy’s header whistled just over the bar.

In the second half, Rovers stepped it up, and following a 13-pass move, Twigg forced Pedok into a good save.

The Dublin side forced a string of corners and from one by Dennehy, Ken Oman again tested Pedok. The Macedonian referee produced a yellow card for Turner so he will miss the first leg against Copenhagen.

As the shadows lengthened across the pitch Kelly went closest to breaking the deadlock with a header from a Stephens cross.

Even though Rovers knew 0-0 would be enough to take them through, they avoided sitting back in the last 15 minutes.

“We said to them before to hold on to what we have by being positive,” explained O’Neill. “We were always trying to win.”

Rovers greatest concern in the second half came in injury-time when a McCormack foul handed Flora a free-kick on the edge of the box. When Luts sent the ball over the bar, the Rovers fans in the ground knew the tie was over.

Rovers now have a minimum four more games in Europe, with a full house expected in Tallaght against Copenhagen.

Jonathan Roche, club chairman, confirmed Copenhagen will likely take up their full 10 per cent allocation and was in no doubt about the importance of the games from a financial and publicity point of view. “It’s great for us,” said Roche, “but more importantly, it’s the profile for the next month.”

FC FLORA TALLINN: Pedok; Kams, Palatu, Baranov, Jurgenson; Alliku (Dupikov 10), Minkenen, Mosnikov (Beglarishvili, 72 mins), Masitsev (Peitre); Anier, Luts.

SHAMROCK ROVERS : Mannus; Sullivan, Sives, Oman, Stevens; Dennehy, Turner (O’Donnell, 82 mins), McCormack, Finn, Kelly; Twigg.

Referee: Dimitar Meckarovski (MKD).

O’Neill confident of counter-attack tactics (Irish Times)

My Champions League match preview published in the Irish Times (Tuesday July 19)

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/sport/2011/0719/1224300946563.html

SOCCER : SHAMROCK ROVERS go into today’s second round qualifying match away to FC Flora Tallinn holding a 1-0 lead. Karl Sheppard, due to injury, is the only player unavailable. Rovers manager Michael O’Neill will field a similar team to the home tie probably using the same 4-3-3 shape.

“There will not be huge differences, personnel wise,” said O’Neill, speaking in Tallinn. “The system we played at home last week suited us. We saw (Chris) Turner and (Ronan) Finn, in particular, affect the game from an attacking point of view. Flora will be a different proposition at home. They have to come out and try and win the game. We have the players to hurt them on the counter-attack.”

Certain to return to the starting line-up from Friday’s laboured 1-0 win in Drogheda will be goalkeeper Alan Mannus. O’Neill confirmed following the game Mannus will leave Rovers for SPL side St Johnstone. “It will be Alan’s last game,” said O’Neill. “He has been an excellent ’keeper and has certainly been very valuable to us. His level of professionalism is outstanding. It is not a financial decision. He is prepared to go there for less money. It is his last chance to break into a full-time set-up and into the SPL, a league with a higher profile than our own.”

Tallinn’s manager Martin Reim will hope his side, which drew 1-1 in the league last Saturday, will test Mannus more than they did in the first leg when they mostly hit Rovers on the break. This was something commented on by Rovers full back Pat Sullivan.

“I thought they were decent,” said Sullivan. “They countered fairly quickly. It showed with their penalty. They went from the halfway line to getting a penalty in about five seconds so they have the potential to cause some damage.”

Yesterday evening Rovers trained at the venue for today’s game, the A Le Coq Arena. This was also the venue for the Republic of Ireland’s 2-0 win over Estonia, which included a goal from Tallaght native Richard Dunne, on the way to qualification for the 2002 World Cup.

Awaiting the winners in the next round is FC Copenhagen who reached the last 16 of the Champions League last season. There are considerable financial rewards for winning this tie. The players are aware of this as Rovers midfielder Stephen Rice outlined. “We all know about the possibility of the draw,” said Rice, “but that won’t mean anything unless we go out and win. I think Irish clubs are now going into Europe looking to progress which is a positive thing.”

O’Neill said: “The financial elements are huge and it would allow us to do some things we hadn’t budgeted for. It is double what you get for winning the league so it is hugely important for the club. If you can get through this round, whilst the next tie would be a difficult tie, there is the luxury of parachuting into the Europa League final qualifying round.”

Closer each day, not home we’re away

This week the focus switched for Shamrock Rovers from home to away. The week began on Monday morning with the Hoops in the draw for the Champions League followed in the evening by a home game against Dundalk; the last of three consecutive home games for the Hoops.

On Monday at 11:00 (12:00 CET), like many Rovers fans, I logged on to http://www.UEFA.com to watch the draw for the Champions League qualifiers. The day before, as expected, the draw was regionalised and the Hoops knew who they could face in the draw. Rovers were one of the seeded teams entering the competition in the second qualifying round. The prime draw was probably a trip to Bangor in Wales but the Hoops could also have faced a trip north to play Linfield or further north to Iceland. As it turned out Rovers came out of the bowl in Nyon Switzerland against FC Flora from Estonia. A tough enough footballing draw but a lovely destination for tourists or so I’m told.
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On Monday evening, Rovers had to come back from 2-0 down with two late goals. The late comeback, rounded off with an injury time equaliser from Billy Dennehy, kept Rovers top on Monday night but they wouldn’t end the week in that position.

With Monday’s Dundalk game out of the way, many Shamrock Rovers fans left their online debates about Rovers form and formation to focus on how they were going to travel to Rovers’ away game in Estonia against FC Flora.

It took a few days for the exact date of both the home and away fixtures from the clubs involved and UEFA. Quick on the keyboard some fans snapped up quickly the direct Dublin to Tallinn flights with Ryanair. However Hoops fans were picking various routes to Tallinn. Edinburgh, London and Oslo are all staging posts for many fans with flights coming in around to €200 mark.

There has been some talk of the club running a charter flight from ‘Tallaght to Tallinn’ as this trip will inevitably be known as. However by today (Friday) with still no word on a charter I was another one to get the flights booked. They were booked as I was sitting in the Hoops SC bus en route to Sligo. Turning up 3 minutes late not a good idea but I just about made it onto the bus. Some one who couldn’t make the trip made the online flight bookings and we will be heading to Tallinn via Luton a couple of days ahead of the game.

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Looking online on the journey to Sligo I could see that the upcoming European fixtures were causing changes to upcoming games. With St Pats playing in the Europa League the upcoming game against Rovers in Tallaght would now be played on a new date. Outside Sligo’s ground they had posters advertising their upcoming Europa League campaign.
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Whether the thoughts of the upcoming July trip to Tallinn distracted the Shamrock Rovers team, it was certainly a below par performance in The Showgrounds. The Hoops had won four in a row this season against Sligo. This included a dismantling of them in the last games against them en route to winnning the Setanta Cup. Manager Michael O’Neill made a number of changes from the last starting lineup with Murray and Twigg omitted from the starting team. The early loss to injury of Turner certainly didn’t help the Hoops playing in front of the live RTE TV cameras. The conditions didn’t help either team with Sligo town under heavy cloud giving wind and rain for the players to deal with.

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Sligo certainly made the best of those conditions harassing and pressing the Away team at every opportunity. It was a set price that provided the opening goal. The ball was whipped in and Peers rose highest to score.

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In the second half Shamrock Rovers tried to raise their game. Former Hoop Joey Ndo won the overall man of the match. For the Hoops, man of the match was certainly Gary McCabe. The winger was very impressive against the club he played with last year (whom he scored the winning goal for in the penalty shooting against The Hoops in the FAI Cup final in Lansdowne). His free kick was pushed wide by the Sligo goalkeeper in probably the best chance for the away team. Another young player in Conor McCormack put in another fine performance. Switches from Manager O’Neill saw Gary Twigg and Ciarán Kilduff enter the fray. Sligo were creating chances hitting the bar and forcing a number of corners.

As The Hoops pushed on for an equaliser they were caught by the home team through Eoghan Doyle. Sligo celebrated with great gusto like they had won the World Cup to be honest but they do enjoy getting one over on the Shams are they like to call us. The away fans sung back that “there’s only one Fu_kin’ Rovers” but Sligo were singing loudest at the end.

The away fans were certainly not happy fans at the end of the game. With results elsewhere going against Rovers, St Pats leapfrogged the Hoops to go top. But supporting a football team is not easy. You have to take the tough times, and Rovers have more than their fair share of them, as well as the good times. It was only Rovers’ third defeat of the season. It is how the management, playing staff as well the fans respond to this defeat that is vital in shaping the outcome of this exciting 2011 season .