Posts Tagged ‘Europa League’

Rovers Russian Route

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

So after 60 competitive games Shamrock Rovers 2011 season, which began with a Leinster Senior Cup tie back in February, ends with tonight’s Europa League game against Tottenham Hotspur here at Tallaght Stadium. It has been a dream season for everyone involved at the club, one that nobody could have realistically foreseen when the season began eleven months ago. Our visitors tonight Spurs still have some ambitions to progress to the Europa League knock out stages but for Rovers this incredible season will end with tonight’s home game. Away from home this season, the Hoops have travelled in excess of 20,000km on their European travels. Whilst clocking up all those air mile points, they haven’t managed to pick up any Europa League points in Group A of the competition but have provided tough opposition in all the games against Spurs, PAOK and Rubin Kazan.

The name Shamrock Rovers has been placed firmly on the European football map this season with the club gaining massive amounts of publicity as the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a European competition. There has been plenty of attention paid to the fact that we are a fans owned club and that our budget is a minor fraction of the teams we have played against including our guests from London tonight. It has been an amazing six month European odyssey which began first in the Champions League qualifiers in July and then moved into the Europa League as Rovers routed through Estonia, Denmark, Serbia, England, Greece with the final away trip to Russia at the end of last month.

During the season there have been some incredible highs and some lows and I’m only just talking about the temperatures. Much of the talk ahead of our game against Partizan Belgrade back in August was of the heat where temperatures hit 39 degrees during Shamrock Rovers successful stay in the Serbian capital. But with thermometers plummeting below -10 degrees the week before the game in Kazan it was all about the cold ahead of the last away game which took place at the end of November. Ahead of that last away trip, Rovers fans were spending their money on Russian visas as well as snow boots, thermal layers, gloves and hats; the hat style was definitely the sillier the better with plenty of ear flaps and (fake?) fur on show when Rovers reached Russia.

Around 20 or so adventurous Rovers souls, travelled independently to Russia for the game routing through Moscow and either flying or getting the overnight train the 720km further east to Kazan. For the Shamrock Rovers official travelling party of 40 and the 100 accompanying fans, including this writer, it was a more straight forward flight from Dublin direct to Kazan the day before the game. The Thompson airplane had been jokingly dubbed “Ryan Thompson Air” in honour of our Jamaican goalkeeper and as the plane descended below the clouds on the final descent to Russia’s “third capital”, we got our first view of the winter wonderland awaiting us with snow carpeted on the ground below. There was some mention as we all queued getting through passport control that it was quicker to travel the 3,500km from Dublin than get through immigration into Russia but with all the forms completed and passport stamps received we eventually all made it through and out by customs.

The Rovers team hadn’t much time before they went for their eve of game training session in the Tsentralnyi Stadium nestled beside the frozen Kazanka River. It was a session of a different kind for the Rovers fans, who suitably dressed in novelty winter hats, ventured out into the snow of Kazan to avail of the local hospitality possibly muttering “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

On match day with the game not kicking off till 21:00 local time, there was plenty of time for sightseeing allowing us to trek out in the snow to the Kazan Kremlin. The Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to the Kul Sharif mosque. There were plenty of Rovers fans that took the opportunity to look in on the afternoon prayers in the mosque; maybe it was the equivalent of lighting a candle in prayer for a good Rovers performance. In Kazan city centre, you could pick up plenty of souvenirs including some Russian babushka dolls which were painted with images of Lenin (whose local connection was that he was expelled from the Kazan University), Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev.

There was much preparation ahead of kick off for the supporters who layered up in the hotel lobby and bar before being bussed to the ground ninety minutes ahead of kick off. The policing was lower key than previous Rovers European away trips such as in Belgrade or Salonika but I was bizarrely still given a police escort in the ground when I went to pick up a match programme. The military police that surrounded the Rovers fans in our small away section were quite friendly and facilitated the swapping of scarves between home and away fans.

From the away part of the ground, the Kremlin and Kul Sharif Mosque were visible above the stand opposite. Ivan the Terrible besieged the Kremlin in 1552 and the Hoops were hoping that they could withstand whatever the Russian side would throw at them in the stadium that will host matches in the 2018 World Cup. Some light snow and a stiff breeze off the frozen river meant Ryan Thompson and Richard Brush, sporting a balaclava to keep warm, were literally trying to warm up when they emerged first from the dressing rooms. When both teams came out for kick off, there was plenty of under armour and gloves on show but Stephen Rice and Rovers captain Dan Murray are made of sterner stuff and were both gloveless with Murray wearing only a short sleeved shirt. I meanwhile was wearing several layers and two pairs of gloves! At least the players on the field could move around to keep warm; those on the bench were given blankets in the dug out to keep out the cold.

The Hoops started brightly and put Kazan under considerable pressure before conceding an early goal to Paraguayan international Nelson Valdez. However, the Hoops hit back just two minutes later when Ken Oman headed home at the back post from a well flighted Billy Dennehy free kick. The small pocket of Rovers fans at the opposite end of the ground erupted in celebrations. Some Rovers fans celebrated by stripping to their underwear having promised to do so should the Hoops scores. The rest of us jumped around in celebration and possibly also just to keep warm in the -5 degree weather. The goal meant Rovers had scored in each of their Europa League away games with all those goals having a meaningful impact on the game rather than simply being consolation goals towards the end of the game.

Rovers were 2-1 down at half time and were clapped off by the away support, albeit that it was slightly muffled clapping due to the gloves being worn by the fans! The players welcomed the sanctuary of the dressing room at half time to regroup and get some warmth back in the bones. However, they were caught cold early in the second half when Valdez grabbed his second on 51 minutes before €17m signing Obafemi Martins grabbed his Russian sides fourth goal just after the hour mark.

There was a fear that Rovers, who had been competitive in all ten European games up till then, were about to take a real hammering. However, manager Michael O’Neill has instilled a great belief and determination in his team who in the last half hour shut out Rubin and went close to doubling their own tally when Karl Sheppard hit the bar. Towards the end of the game there was a spot of snowball throwing amongst ourselves in the away end and signing “Gloves Off for the Super Hoops” whilst swinging mittens overhead! The home fans went a lot further and they were the ones stripped to the waist celebrating their win but Stephen Rice and Enda Stevens (making his penultimate appearance for Rovers before joining Aston Villa) also took their shirts off throwing them into the away section as souvenirs at the conclusion of the game.

For those of us flying back with the team, it was time to head for the buses to the airport and get some heat back into our toes. Despite the defeat, delays to the flight due to passport issues and the time spent de-icing the plane, the Rovers fans were still in good spirits having seen their team give a good account of themselves against a team of Rubin Kazan’s high calibre.

With Christmas and New Year fast approaching, it is a time when you look back on the year and assess what it has been like. For this Shamrock Rovers fan, it has been an incredible season with it being the best year ever following the team. This Rovers side has not only delivered a double of the league title and Setanta All Ireland Cup but has done so whilst qualifying for the Europa League group stages, playing twelve European games in total. The European trips helped sustain an amazing team spirit that no doubt helped the team to retain their league title. That spirit has been equally present amongst the travelling Rovers support. Personally, it has been a privilege and an amazing experience to have seen and shared the journey with this Rovers team, our fans and friends (both old and new friends that I’ve gained) on the away trips. The exploits of this team away from Tallaght Stadium will live long in my memory. From the disciplined 0-0 draw in Tallinn, the gritty 1-0 defeat in Copenhagen, the spectacular win in Belgrade with that stunning goal from Pat Sullivan and pressure peno from Stephen O’Donnell, that goal celebration in White Hart Lane, that atmosphere in Salonika and the winter football in Kazan. Can we add another indelible memory to this 2011 season against Spurs tonight? The way this year has gone, would we really be surprised if we got another famous story to tell about this incredible season? Probably not.

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

Pat Sullivan: The player’s player

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

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

Photo by George Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ricketts’ Revival at Rovers

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

It really has been an incredible last couple of months for Shamrock Rovers since their famous win in Belgrade propelled the Hoops into Europa League. Last week, Rovers claimed back-to-back titles adding a 17th League title to their roll of honour. The Hoops can now concentrate on their three remaining Europa League group stage games starting with tonight’s game against Greek side, PAOK from Salonika.

It is some of the surprisingly small things that have stuck in the mind and highlighted the recent progression for Shamrock Rovers. Examples like having the New York Times write about the success of the club detailing the resurrection of Rovers as a fans owned club, having the novelty factor of the additional match officials running the line behind the goals in the Europa League games and Rovers’ recent signings making the headlines on transfer deadline day. On that day back in late August Sky Sports, as well as the usual Premier League/Championship/SPL player merry go round, were informing their viewers about Shamrock Rovers signing Scotsman Jim Patterson and former Premier League player Rohan Ricketts.

In midfielder Rohan Ricketts, Rovers manager Michael O’Neill added a player to his squad that he saw as “a very exciting option that can add a little bit extra in the final third of the pitch. He has also played first team football at the highest level.” Ricketts was part of a very successful Arsenal youth set up at the turn of the millennium before moving across north London to Tottenham Hotspur. At Spurs, he made over 30 appearances for the club in the top flight of English football. However, in recent years, the player has found himself playing far away from the bright lights of the Premier League in such leagues as Hungary, Moldova and the north regional league in Germany. Since joining Rovers however, Ricketts has played a key part in the Hoops retaining their League of Ireland title and competing in the Europa League group stages.

It was an Arsenal connection that was the link that saw Ricketts join Rovers with the offer of European football being a key sweetener to the deal. Former Arsenal, Shamrock Rovers and Ireland international player, Graham Barrett was instrumental in the deal explains Ricketts. “It was through Graham Barrett and Paulo Vernazza. They played at Arsenal and I was a couple of years below them. I was in contact with Paulo who works with the same company as Graham. Graham came to me with the Rovers opportunity the day before deadline day. Exeter wanted me to come down but I would rather have played for Shamrock and try to win the league and play in the Europa League than play in League One. I know I am better than League One.”

Rickett’s recent playing spells include a stint in the MLS with Toronto, time with Diosgyori VTK from Hungary, playing in the fourth tier of German football with SV Wilhelmshaven and a disastrous spell with Dacia Chisinau in Moldova. His time in the Moldovan League was a real low point for the player who has had to take a case with FIFA over salary issues with the FC Dacia. So what were his expectations, on and off the pitch, about moving to the League of Ireland? “I saw the worst from the last few clubs so nothing could have fazed me,” said the 28th year old about off field matters. “My other clubs were far from professional. We’ve been getting our salaries on time which is normal over here for this team. I’m really happy.” And what about the quality of football? “It is a bit hectic! It is not something that exactly suits me or my style. The manager and Jim Magilton have been smart and have used me, understanding how I play and my strengths. They try and make sure that I can be really effective from the wide position or from the central position like I did against Dundalk.” The player feels that Rovers’ footballing style suits him. “I am a technical player and need to be in a passing team. Touch players can’t be put into teams that don’t pass. It would be like taking Iniesta and making him play for Stoke City. It doesn’t make any sense.”

It was against Dundalk that the former under-20 England international made his debut for the Hoops in a 2-1 win where he supplied assists for both Rovers goals. “That for me was a massive game as I was coming into a team where I was expected to do well. The manager met me at the airport and he said to me that he expected me to do well. I said to him ‘Look, I’m up for the challenge’. Even though I knew I wasn’t 100% fully fit, I knew I had to deliver in that game. I had only trained one day before the game. The gaffer comes to me and he says to me ‘Are you ready to play?’ I was like ‘yeah’. I thought I wasn’t as fit as everyone else but I went in there having been given the chance and I had a great day. I could have had four or five assists.”

In the penultimate home game of the league season, Shamrock Rovers faced Derry City in a crucial top of the table clash. Both sides knew that if they won that encounter and their remaining games they would be champions. In a tight game, the Hoops emerged 1-0 winners with Ricketts getting the crucial goal five minutes into the second half. Ricketts reacted quickest to a Richard Brush through ball, lobbing the advancing Derry keeper from outside the area with the ball bouncing into the empty net. “We worked hard and rode our luck in the first half but for me to be a part of it and then to score the winning goal was great. It wasn’t an easy chance. It wasn’t like it was bouncing high. It was coming across me and I used my instep. Ryan [Thompson] said that to me last night ‘You won us the league with that goal’. The gaffer was saying I was the calm man in the right place.”

Rovers’ late late win in the next league game away to UCD wrapped up the title setting up the party atmosphere last Friday night when Rovers were presented with the trophy following the 4-0 win over Galway. It would have been a more nervy occasion if Dean Kelly had not produced the late 94th minute winner against UCD the previous Tuesday. That goal sparked huge scenes of celebrations with fans and the Rovers bench invading the pitch. With 10 minutes remaining Ricketts had made way for Dean Kelly to come on a substitute so did Ricketts join in the wild celebrations off the bench? “I did! It was a dream, it was amazing. It is great to part of it. All the fans had fun. It was hectic man!”

It was a special moment when Rovers captain Dan Murray lifted the league trophy here in Tallaght Stadium last Friday. Ricketts enjoyed the occasion as he got his hands on his first senior winners medal. His only other honours are back to back FA Youth Cups with Arsenal in 2000 and 2001. “Yeah, that is my first medal since then. It was big for the fans and you could see what it means for Tallaght. When I came here I wanted to win the league. To win the league it means I’ve achieved one of my objectives.”

Another objective was to play in the Europa League, a key reason for him joining the Hoops. “The Europa League was major. I had played in the Premier League obviously a lot of times but I never played in Europe. So for me it was a massive opportunity. A lot of people around Europe and the world are watching you so it is a chance to display your talents on that platform so you can’t turn it down so I had to grab that. It was a great experience to play against Rubin Kazan and coming on against Spurs. It has been good. This week everyone is fighting to get into the team for the Salonika game.”

As an un-used substitute against PAOK in Salonika, Ricketts had to be content with watching the game from the bench. Rovers were set up away from home to contain PAOK but the away side still took the game to them when the opportunity arose. The Hoops, who were 1-0 down following Costin Lazar’s 12th minute goal, got back into the game thanks to Karl Sheppard’s second half headed goal. However, the Hoops were undone by an excellent goal scored by Vierinha after 63 minutes. Speaking about the away game Ricketts described the atmosphere in the Toumba Stadium as being “incredible”. He also feels that PAOK’s two goalscorer from that night are players that Rovers will need to watch this evening but he thinks that at home the Hoops will be a different prospect than the more cautious approach used in Thessaloniki.

How did he rate the side that finished third in the Greek League last season and are unbeaten in their last eight European games? “They were all very good and they moved the ball really well. They were patient and are technically better than us. They played very good, two touch, football. They’ve got some very good players like the Number 20 Vierinha and the midfielder from Romania, Lazar but they were not good defensively as a unit.”

“If we were more ambitious at times in the game, individually and as a unit, we could have got more goals. The way we approached the game, it allowed them to keep the ball a bit longer as we sat off deep. We could have got something as they were there for the taking. We were reluctant at times to commit men forward. As a unit, I thought we could get at them but we didn’t fully commit but we now have nothing to lose as no one is expecting us to pick up a point. Tonight we can be ambitious and go for the game and if we lose, then we know we went for it and were trying.”

As well as his playing career, Ricketts in recent years has carved out a nice sideline in media work. The player has his own online magazine called Column 10 and has an incredible 24,200 followers on Twitter – sparking the comment on deadline day that “Twitter’s Rohan Ricketts signs for Rovers!” It was during his time in Toronto that the man from Clapham began his work in journalism. “I enjoy doing the media stuff as for me it is something that I do naturally. You are just talking about something that you love and there is nothing easier than that. Fortunately for me when I went to Toronto I had the opportunity to display those talents and skills on a national broadcasting level whether it was on radio with the biggest radio network in the country or on TV for ESPN or TSN. They gave me the opportunity to speak. I did radio for the World Cup and did the U21 European Championships for ESPN broadcasting around North America and the Caribbean. I started writing with my columns that are syndicated around the world. I created my own online magazine called Column 10 and we are getting loads of hits at the moment so I’m keeping that bubbling. I’ve been offered a radio show in North America for a station based in New York and I can run that from home and I’m developing the pilot now. That will be a soccer and lifestyle show and I will do that once a week in my spare time. I think a lot of players have spare time and they are not effective with it. Who knows when I will finish playing but when I do I will have maybe seven or eight years having been seasoned as a media pundit.”

Rovers’ final game of the Europa League group stages will take place next month when Rickett’s former club Spurs come to Dublin. This may be the player’s last game for the Hoops, as his existing contract will end following the game. After chatting to Ricketts, it is clear the player is ambitious both for his on field and off field work so can we expect to see the player line out with the Hoops in 2012?

“Who knows, I don’t know. If I was here next season, I would not be unhappy. I’ve had a great time here. Everyone at Shamrock Rovers should be ambitious. I’m not saying I’m leaving and goodbye because I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m content within myself and appreciate the opportunity that Shamrock Rovers gave me to come and play and be a part of a championship winning team. I’ve played my part in that in the last quarter. That has been enough for me and coming to the end of the season you want to put yourself in the shop window. Everyone wants to be wanted.”

Published in Hoops Scene 22 (Shamrock Rovers v PAOK Salonika – Europa League- 3 November 2011)

Hoops hoping to make it hot for Spurs (Irish Examiner)

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Published in Irish Examiner (12th December 2011)

Shamrock Rovers fan and 400 Club member Macdara Ferris assesses his side’s hopes this week.

Shamrock Rovers bring the curtain down on their extended 2011 season on Thursday when they welcome Tottenham Hotspur to Tallaght Stadium for their final Europa League Group game. Spurs have a slim chance of progressing to the knock out stages of the Europa League where they would have the possibility of facing Manchester City or United following the Manchester clubs surprise elimination from the Champions League. Tottenham require a win in Tallaght, a defeat for Rubin Kazan and a six-goal turn around in goal difference for the Londoners to progress. Meanwhile, Rovers are still harbouring ambitions of picking up their first point of the group stages but it will be tough against a Spurs side currently riding high in Premier League.

Spurs will join the list of big name clubs, all former Champions League teams, that have played in Tallaght over the past 18 months including Juventus, FC Copenhagen, Partizan Belgrade and Rubin Kazan. Rovers worked long and hard to ensure their Europa League matches would be played in their home stadium of Tallaght. This has meant the League of Ireland Champions have been able to showcase to the Irish and European sporting public their stadium, their impressive squad and the structures put in place off the field by the board elected by the club’s 450 or so members. Additional seats have been erected with Thursday’s match having been a 8,500 capacity sell out for weeks. Rovers will be hoping that the publicity they have gained in Europe, culminating in this week’s high profile game, will entice new fans to come through the Tallaght turnstiles for league games next season boosting the current average attendance of over 4,000.

Come Friday morning, a significant number of the Rovers squad, as well as their manager, will be out of contract. The performances in Europe have put manager Michael O’Neill, and indeed some of his players, on the radar of clubs outside of Ireland with O’Neill also being mentioned as a possibility for the Northern Ireland manager’s job. Rovers were propelled into the Europa League group stages by Pat Sullivan’s spectacular strike away to Partizan Belgrade back in July [correction – August]. The 29-year-old defender is one of the players unsure as to where he will be playing next season and as to who will be managing the Hoops in 2012. “As players, we are in the dark as much as anyone if he is staying or going,” said Sullivan about O’Neill’s future at Rovers.

Sullivan was part of the Rovers side that led 1-0 after the hour mark against Spurs in White Hart Lane. The goal by Stephen Rice, deflecting home Sullivan’s shot, was scored in front of the 4,000 plus travelling Shamrock Rovers supporters sparking huge celebrations and that goal has probably been the high point of Rovers’ Group A campaign to date. On Thursday, the Hoops will hope that they can put in another disciplined performance to prove that League of Ireland sides can compete at this level in Europe. It remains to be seen how experienced a side Harry Redknapp will bring to Dublin this week. In the earlier group game in London, three quick goals over a 10-minute period after the hour mark from internationals Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Giovani Dos Santos proved the difference between the teams. Sullivan hopes Spurs will deploy a decent team against the Hoops. “Hopefully they do bring as good a team as they can when they come over,” states Sullivan. “You want to play against as good a player as you can; to pit your wits against players that are playing at the Premier League level as that is the only way you get to learn.”

Media Watch: Evening Echo (Hoops are ones for City to admire)

November 24, 2011 1 comment

Article by Alan Smith and published in the Evening Echo (Friday 11 November)

While City will look to topple them next season, Shamrock Rovers remain a benchmark in terms of fan-owned clubs. Back in 2005, when City were riding high en route to a premier division title, the Hoops were in Examinership.

The passionate support wouldn’t allow the club go to the wall however and after a long convoluted battle, the 400 club acquired ownership of the club at the end of the Examinership period in July 2005.

Fast forward six years from the same first division Cork City had to ply their trade in for the past two seasons to the Europa League group stages, the rise of Rovers under the supporters’ control is a sporting fairytale.

“Being a part owner of the club certainly has made the recent success even sweeter,” Macdara Ferris, an original member of the 400 club says. “I’m not just a fan and I don’t just support the team but I actually part-own, with close to 500 others, the league champions. It is great to be able to say that. When we say that “our” club won the league, we really mean it as we don’t just have a ‘sense of ownership’ but have actually ownership of the club.”

Rovers will pocket over €1m from their success in 2011 and while there would have been a danger of reckless spending under previous ownerships, there’ll be no fear of that with the fans making collective decisions. “The success in Europe has provided a significant financial boost for the club with €1 million coming directly from qualification for the group stages of the Europa League alone. It will up to the board, backed up by the membership, how that money will be spent. Many members will be keen to develop training facilities in Kiltipper, close to the stadium in Tallaght, that can help develop a few more players to join the club to help us maintain this success in years to come.”

One of the biggest benefits of being a fan-owned club – and its the same case with FORAS – is that the board are elected by the members. Ferris attributes some of Rovers’ success to the wide array of skills that board members bring to the table. “The members elect the board at Rovers and we are very fortunate that within our membership we were able to vote directors onto the board with a wide skill set including expertise in marketing, finance, media, legal and commercial matters.”

However, he believes the most important ingredient to their success has been the ‘ordinary’ fans that volunteer their services to the club. “At all League of Ireland clubs there is a huge element of volunteer support in the running of clubs but I think at a members club the wider fan base are more likely to give of their time knowing their work is helping their club. The members helping out on matchday all do jobs that contribute to the club both financially and help add to the club.”

A Greek Odyssey

November 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Last month’s Europa League away trip was a real Greek Odyssey for Shamrock Rovers. The Hoops had to journey south to take on tonight’s opponents PAOK in Thessaloniki on the fringes of the Aegean Sea. It is a turbulent economic and political time in Greece. In Ireland, we can empathise with the Greek economic difficulties with the IMF now having a say in the running of both of our countries but Greece in particular is struggling to emerge from their country’s economic morass. This had an impact on Shamrock Rovers, as a general 48 hour strike was called by the Greek Trade Unions for the time Rovers were due to play in Greece. This included a plan by the air traffic controllers to close the country’s airspace. Would the Gods conspire to prevent Shamrock Rovers and our fans getting to Greece?

Thankfully the official Shamrock Rovers travelling party was able to make their way safely to Greece the day before the strike along with a small number of Rovers fans. The rest of us were facing the option of either cancelled flights resulting in having to watch the game on TV or looking at alternative routes to get to Greece. There was talk of ferries from Italy, flights to Skopje or Sofia. In order to make the game I, along with another 30 fans, booked new flights the weekend before the game flying into Sofia on match day with one fan organising a bus to get us to Thessaloniki for the game. The bus company were assured we were not football fans, as that seemed to be an issue with them, so I think the cover story was that we were a group of journalists or maybe religious pilgrims!

As it turned out the air traffic controllers only undertook a 12-hour stoppage so, with less than 24 hours notice, my flights to Thessaloniki through Stansted were back on. A group of seven Rovers fans having cancelled their original flights did travel to Sofia with their plan B seeing them fly to the Bulgarian capital and travel five hours south in a mini-bus over the border getting in at six o’clock on match night. Other fans were not so lucky with it turning into a Greek tragedy for them as they were stranded in Rome due to electrical storms and didn’t even make it to Greece.

The flight I was on out of Stansted the day before the game was only half full, no doubt due to the fluid situation with the strike. 50 or so Rovers fans were on the flight and, with public transport and taxis on strike on our arrival, we were all a bit unsure as to how we would get the 15km from the airport into the city centre. Some arranged private transport with their hotels while the airport police assured us that the airport bus still running but on a reduced service. After a 90-minute wait, eventually the bus did arrive to take us to into Thessaloniki.

It was a long build up to the game on match day. With the game kicking off at 22:05 local time due to TV, there was a lot of time to kill during the day. Hotel staff had warned guests not to stray to the north of the city centre where protests were held at the Arch of Galerius. The police were also visible on the notably quiet city streets. These streets had significant piles of rubbish littering them due to the local binmen being on strike. While in Athens, 50,000 protesters took to the streets with rioting leaving one man dead and 200 injured, alongthe seafront it seemed relatively relaxed in Greece’s second city. Many Thessalonikians seemed to be enjoying the strike by spending it in the many cafés and bars on the seafront. If you can’t beat them, join them, which is what the Rovers fans did. The locals were all very friendly when they saw our Rovers colours especially the fans of Aris, PAOK’s main rivals, who wished us all the best in the game! The only strife I saw during my three days there, was some people arguing over access to the comfy seats in the October sunshine outside one of the local coffee shops where inside customers played backgammon, monopoly and jenga; the last game maybe being a simile for the Eurozone economic crisis!

For the second consecutive away match on continental Europe, the Rovers fans were bussed into the game under police escort. 171 fans had made the trip and squeezed into the three buses for the journey to PAOK’s stadium with a police van front and back and motorbike riders stopping the traffic. The main PAOK fans group known as ‘Gate 4’ generated an incredible atmosphere during the game and especially ahead of kick off in the Toumba Stadium or ‘Black Hell’ as their fans sometimes call it. Three of their Ultra group made their way to the centre of the pitch. One with a giant tifo flag, another carrying a drum and the third with a large drumstick that he used to beat out an initially slow rhythm that the fans matched by clapping with their arms above their heads. For the time in between the slow drumbeats, the fans stood statuesque with their arms outstretched as if live TV had been paused. The rhythmic clapping gathered in tempo, building up to a crescendo as the two teams emerged from the tunnel area to AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Belles’ playing over the PA.

There had been some mention of a protest ahead of the game to coincide with the general strike but the only visible protest to my eyes was a massive banner hung behind one goal saying “IMF – Get the **** out of here” but the PAOK fans could have been singing non-stop about austerity during the game but it all sounded Greek to me! The Rovers fans generated our own atmosphere during the game including singing a couple of songs slightly tongue in cheek in recognition of the economic situation. There may have been some sympathy with Greece in singing that there was “No surrender to the IMF” but whatever the result “The Hoops are having a party – and Greece are going bust”!

When the draw was made for the Europa League group stages, the games against POAK were the ones Rovers probably felt were our best hope of gaining a pointor a win worth that is worth 140,000 euro (40,000 more than winning the League of Ireland). No doubt, PAOK were looking for maximum points against us in their home game and they went at Rovers from the start. Rovers manager Michael O’Neill made a number of changes to his side facing PAOK, a team that was managed by another manager from Northern Ireland, Billy Bingham, in the mid 1970’s. Ryan Thompson returned in goal for Rovers in Europe after Richard Brush’s heroics in Rovers’ last Europa League game away to Spurs. But Thompson could do nothing when Romanian international Costin Lazar opened the scoring after 12 minutes with a fine shot from outside the box. Rovers were very disciplined in their performance with Karl Sheppard, in for the injured Gary Twigg, proving very effective as the lone man up front holding the ball up and bringing other players into the move. Billy Dennehy went closest in the first half with a shot that whizzed past the post which some Rovers fans thought had gone in.

The equaliser did come for Rovers early in the second half with Dennehy the provider. He won a free kick that he sent into the box which Karl Sheppard met with his head after 47 minutes for his ninth headed goal from the fourteen goals the twenty year old has scored in all competitions this season. The pocket of Shamrock Rovers in the stadium went delirious with some climbing the railings in front to celebrate. Parity lasted for a little over fifteen minutes. On a week of strikes in Greece, the 1-1 deadlock was broken by a fine strike by Vieirinha from outside the area. PAOK created a number of chances after that with Rovers also exerting considerable pressure forcing a late corner that unfortunately we couldn’t convert.

At the end, like in our last three European away games, the players and fans were applauded off by the home crowd. They recognised a spirited performance by Shamrock Rovers who managed to score against a Greek side that had only conceded one home goal in Europe in close to 600 minutes of play. Yes, it was another heroic Europa League defeat but the Hoops can learn from the defeat in the Toumba Stadium. The team can rightly be proud of their display as we reached the half way point of our Europa League group stage campaign.

It was after midnight by the time the Rovers fans left the ground and the talk in the pub later on was of how disappointed we were not to claim a point. It shows how far we have travelled as a club in recent years when this is the case. The talk and the singing soon turned to thoughts of two in a row and maybe more with the League of Ireland title within our grasp. Some words from Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ come to mind of the post-match activities:

“The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.”

Published in Hoops Scene 22 (Shamrock Rovers v PAOK Salonika – Europa League- 3 November 2011)

Brush Past and Future

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

All those involved in Shamrock Rovers have been living the dream over the past few months with the club managing to successfully defend their Airtricity League crown whilst competing in the Europa League group stages. For one player in particular it has been a dream come true after a nightmare last year. Richard Brush began 2011 without a club and trying to recover from a career threatening injury. The year is ending with Brush as a key player in Rovers’ European campaign and with him helping Rovers retain their League title, which they did in such dramatic circumstances against UCD last Tuesday. It doesn’t get much better than that.

It was the departure of Alan Mannus from Rovers last July that prompted Michael O’Neill to get on the phone to Brush and invite him to train with the Hoops. It was a bit of gamble to bring in a player with doubts over his fitness, but similar to the initial fitness gamble O’Neill made in 2009 with Craig Sives, it was a gamble that paid off. It was a big move for the twenty six year old to join Rovers who acknowledged the difficulty he faced in getting back into the game having been out of action for over a year. “I was coming in to prove myself again after being injured. From the football side the difficulty was trying to get back into it, having to fill Alan Mannus’ boots plus the expectations at the club. But the atmosphere (in the squad) and the lads were great and in that sense it wasn’t hard at all.”

It was a wrist injury that Brush picked up in the build up to the 2009 FAI Cup final here in Tallaght Stadium that threatened his career. “It was a simple shot before the Sligo v Fingal final, ” recalled the man born in Birmingham. “It was just the way the ball caught my hand. When I saved it, it fractured a tiny bone in my wrist, the scaphoid, and once you fracture it, it cuts off the blood supply. It was a difficult injury to come back from. If it doesn’t heal it can be a bit of a pain and it might never heal. If it had taken any longer I was looking at maybe not playing football again and having to try and move on to something else. It struggled to heal and a couple of things did go wrong but it got better and fortunately for me I got the all clear.”

During his extended layoff Brush kept himself fit and when the opportunity came to train with Rovers he jumped at the chance. “I was a free agent and was training and keeping myself fit. Until I signed for Rovers, I hadn’t tested the wrist. So I was told to come up and train and see how it went from there.” Brush impressed O’Neill during this time and signed for Rovers in July. With Ryan Thompson’s good form on taking over from Alan Mannus between the sticks, it was early September before Brush made his debut for the Hoops in the 2-1 win against Dundalk on their artificial pitch. “With Ryan’s form it looked like it could be a long time before I got back playing but fortunately for me and unfortunately for him, he got injured. It was great to get back playing again. It probably wasn’t the best pitch with the astro turf after not playing for 14 or 15 months but I was just happy to get a game and get it out of the way.”

The following game in the FAI Cup against UCD in Belfield, Brush had an impressive display keeping a clean sheet as the Students were hit for six. “The game against UCD, although the score line was more favourable towards us, was harder than the Dundalk game with the saves I had to make but that was another game that it was just good to be involved with.”

With the following cup round matching up Sligo and Shamrock Rovers, Brush needed little incentive to play against the club that signed him back in 2006. “I had been in their dressing room for over five years, so to carry on those extra yards to the away dressing room was a bit strange! That was the game I was really looking forward to and I was absolutely gutted the way the result went,” said Brush of the 1-0 quarter final defeat. “ I really wanted to get one over them so to speak”

His desire to have an affect of the outcome of the match could be seen when Brush ventured into the Sligo penalty area in injury time when the Hoops got a late corner. “I was going up thinking as much as I’d love to score it might not be a favourable result for us having to play a replay with another 90 minutes but you don’t want to lose any game,” said Brush as a replay if required was fixed for just 48 hours later. “It would still have been nice to score, I know I was only millimetres away! If that had gone in, it would have been a nice one. We would have dealt with the replay after the euphoria of not losing up there. It doesn’t matter about a fixture pile up, you’d have got on with it. We didn’t go there to lose. But we’ve come on to bigger and better things since then with us having been knocked out of the cup, the fixture pile up wouldn’t have been favourable for us if we want to look at it in a positive way.”

With 24,730 in attendance at White Hart Lane and over 900,000 watching the game in Ireland, Brush was centre stage in Rovers’ next European performance. It was a huge European night for everyone at Shamrock Rovers but for Brush, playing only his second European tie, it was even more so. The Englishman relished the challenge putting in a fine performance in Rovers’ creditable 3-1 defeat to the Londoners. Brush pulled off some great saves from Spurs stars Giovani, Defoe and Pavlyuchenko keeping a clean sheet in the first half. Early in the second half Stephen Rice put Rovers 1-0 ahead and Brush had his own view of the Rovers goal. “As soon as the ball was dropping to Sully (Pat Sullivan) you had flashes of Belgrade and you think it can’t happen again! It obviously wasn’t as pretty as that goal as it took a touch from Stephen Rice, he said he meant it but I’m not so sure! Down my end it went deadly silent with all the noise coming down from our end.” Brush was hoping for another memorable European win to go with September’s win in Belgrade. The Spurs motto emblazoned around their ground was on his mind. “I was thinking for a split second that we dare to dream, that we could cling on and get a bit more luck. They stepped it up a gear, got three goals in six minutes and it was probably job done for them after that.”

Despite the 3-1 defeat, Brush still enjoyed the occasion and the whole European experience with Rovers. “I’d never played in atmosphere as close as that before and in front of that number of people. Looking back the game flew by. Certain games you remember everything but that game did just fly by. I did enjoy every minute of it especially when you look at the standard of opposition and you look at how we played. We played very well against a team of that quality. I had played one qualifying game out in Albania with Sligo before. That was the only European adventure that I had and we went out there and got knocked out. To be involved at this length, the sort of places we are going to and the trips we are going on, it may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for us. The lads are enjoying it and as the group goes on maybe we know we can get a few results and pick up a few points.”

In last week’s game against PAOK in Thessaloniki, Brush had to watch the match on the bench as Ryan Thompson came back into the side. “Every game I’m fit for I want to be chosen for, especially in the big games, but the manager explained the reason why he was going for Ryan and I could see where he was coming from,” was Brush’s honest basement. “I was obviously disappointed not to be playing but you have to put that behind you and have to move on.”

The Shamrock Rovers bench was located towards the vocal home section and their Gate 4 ultra group and Brush was impressed with the atmosphere in Greece. “It was similar to Belgrade as they kept going for ninety minutes non-stop at that end. There was a bit more in this game with the atmosphere. There were a few bangs that went off during the game. I don’t know what they were but a few people on our bench jumped! It is a completely different sort of world football wise with everything like the atmosphere, the weather and the pitches. It is great to be involved and they are the memories that you have as well as the fans that are spending money to come away and see us. It shows how much it does mean to people.”

Brush is signed until the end of this extended season European season and is doing a spot of commuting at present with his family still based in Sligo. “If things work out longer term at the club that may have to change and bringing the family to Dublin may be a more permanent thing. At present I’m travelling up and down which is not ideal. I’m staying the odd night in the house that the club has got for us.”

Amongst all the European matches, Rovers have dealt with the immense pressure and have successfully defended their domestic title, which is an amazing achievement. Rovers were required to dig out a few results over the past month especially due to dropped points at home to Bohemians in Brush’s first experience of the Dublin Derby. “The atmosphere was amazing and our fans were absolutely brilliant. The result didn’t go our way. Unfortunately, the way things went with them getting a man sent off, we actually played better against 11 men. We seemed to be knocking it about well against 11. Unfortunately it was 1-1 after they scored a deflected goal. It put a bit more pressure back onto us but the game against Derry that was a massive massive result for us in the league and I think we were deserved winners.”

Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s game in UCD that ended with Dean Kelly’s crucial injury time winner for Rovers, Brush was clear what winning the league and collecting the trophy tonight here at Tallaght Stadium means for the club and for himself personally. “For everyone involved, the way things went in the last couple of weeks, the pressure was put on us from Sligo and Derry that to put the final nail in the coffin against UCD would be massive. Especially with the added bonus of the last game at home in front of all our fans who have come, week in, week out. For me, it would be absolutely massive. It is great. The club gave me my chance to come back. To step into a club that were still in the Champions League then, top of the league, they gave me a chance to prove myself and get back playing where it mattered. I will be massively indebted to the club for that.”

Published in Hoops Scene 21 (Shamrock Rovers v Galway United – 28 October 2011)

Turner and Hoops

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Shamrock Rovers have scored some incredible goals on their European odyssey this season. There was Gary McCabe’s goal following his mazy run in the 1-1 draw in Tallaght Stadium against Partizan and away in Belgrade there was Pat Sullivan’s amazing volley along with Stephen O’Donnell’s pressure penalty. But none of these goals would have happened without Chris Turner’s tap in goal that he scored in Rovers’ first European game back in July. Turner’s goal in Tallaght against Flora Tallinn in the Champions League qualifiers proved to be the only goal of the tie and changed the complexion of Rovers’ season. It guaranteed the Hoops progression in Europe with Rovers going on to become the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a major European competition.

The scorer of the goal against Tallinn Chris Turner knows the significance of that goal even if he can joke about its perceived lack of quality. “It wasn’t the prettiest of goals but it was obviously a very important goal for the club!” said Turner of the goal that came just after Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus had saved a penalty from Flora. “Everyone was delighted we got the goal after Al got the penalty save. It was just a good time to get it and it lifted everybody going 1-0 up.” It was Ronan Finn’s cross that caused the confusion in the Flora box and with Gary Twigg and Billy Dennehy just missing out on getting the decisive touch, the ball fell to Turner who made no mistake tapping it home from two yards. “I will take tap ins all day! It is always nice to get on the score sheet.”

In the away leg in Estonia, in a game they dominated, Rovers’ positive attitude was rewarded, not with another win, but with the required 0-0 result that set up a trip to Copenhagen in the next round. However, having been shown a yellow card in both matches against the Estonian Champions, it did mean Turner had to sit out the first leg in Denmark. “It was obviously not nice to miss the Copenhagen game,” said the 24 year old. “It was a silly yellow card as I didn’t really think it was deserved. It was disappointing that way but the lads were brilliant out in Copenhagen and did very well to keep the score 1-0 with a very disciplined performance.”

Turner returned for the home leg and was central to the pivotal moment in the game. The Hoops had Copenhagen under real pressure in the first half and the Ulsterman was a whisker away from putting the home side all square on aggregate. “It was a good to start the game when we came back to Tallaght,” recalled Turner. “I saw the ball come into the box from Enda [Stevens] and I just tried to get my head on the end of it. I think I’ve caught it too well and it’s hit the bar. I like arriving in the box and getting on the end of them. It is a part of my game that is quite good. It obviously could have been a different story if it had gone in. But then they got a goal just before half time which killed us a bit as it meant we needed to get three goals which was a massive ask against a team of that quality.”

The elimination by Copenhagen from the Champions League meant Rovers’ next European game was in the Europa League Playoff against Serbian champions Partizan. Having drawn the home leg 1-1, thanks to that superb goal from Gary McCabe, the players had to dig deep in the second leg that went to extra time on a hot and sultry night in the Serbian capital. How did Turner find playing for 120 minutes in that heat in Belgrade? “It was tough but we knew that the rewards at the end of it were enormous. You don’t really think of how tired you are in the game really. You are just thinking that this is going to be unbelievable if we can pull this off and thankfully we did. It was amazing. Partizan had quality all over the pitch. They had glorious chances that they missed and that we just capitalised on. We knew we would get chances in the game and thankfully they went in for us.”

In between all these European battles, the Hoops have been fighting on the home front as well trying to retain their Airtricity League title. The League of Ireland champions had to do without Turner’s services at the start of August due to his controversial three-match suspension. Turner had been playing with charges of racism over his head following the home match against Derry City. He was of course cleared of these charges as there was no evidence of such an occurrence. However, the player did receive a ban under a different rule breach for making offensive comments towards Derry player Eamon Zayed, something that Turner is still a bit puzzled by. “At the end of the day I didn’t say anything racist to him whatsoever,” Turner categorically stated. “I didn’t think there was any real proof or evidence to ban me. If somebody makes a claim against you and there is nothing to back it up, I don’t understand how you can get banned. Anybody can go out of their way and say that somebody said something and you just get a three match ban for nothing. It was a bit bemusing. I just had to bite my tongue and get on with it, put my head down and see the three games out. I just wanted to get back into the team and get some game time under my belt and thankfully I’ve been able to do that over the last few weeks and hopefully that will continue over the rest of the year.”

Fitting in the European, League and domestic cup games has meant lots of football for the Rovers squad. The players last week has their longest break in over a month with a six day turnaround between their FAI Cup defeat in Sligo and last Sunday’s comprehensive 5-2 home win over Bray. Michael O’Neill gave his squad a three-day break from training that allowed Turner to head to Scotland to see his family. “I was over seeing my missus and my wee boy. She is from Scotland so she stays over there with her family. It was hard for her being over here because my family is up north so she is back in Scotland now. I go back every time I get a chance, it is always last minute but there is nothing much really that I can do about it so I just get on with it. I think it was a good time for us to get a few days off as we had a lot of games in a row with Europe and stuff. It is the only time we could really get a few days off with the game on the Sunday.”

In order to cope with all the fixtures, Manager Michael O’Neill has been using his full squad and bolstered it by bringing in the experienced Rohan Ricketts and Jim Patterson. This was in addition to holding onto the services of Enda Stevens for the rest of this season before he makes the move to Aston Villa in January. “They’ve come in and freshened things up and the competition for places will be as fierce as ever,” said Turner of the arrival of Patterson and Ricketts (who scored his debut goal for the Hoops last Sunday). “It is massive for us that Enda can stay till the end of the year. He is a quality player and it was only a matter of time before he got his move. I’m delighted for him. He deserves it. I’ve no doubt that he will go over to England, settle in well and established himself in the Premier League.”

The last two home games have been on a Sunday afternoon as the Hoops juggle European and League games. “As for all the games, we have a big squad and we have to use it,” explained Turner. “All these games are because we are doing well. You don’t want to be playing only 36 games a year because you aren’t in any of the other competitions. 50 and 60 games a year is better when you are in all these competitions and challenging for them. I do know that there are a lot of games. I don’t really think it is fair on teams doing well in all these competitions that there is a fixture pile up or a backlog of games that they have to catch up on. I don’t think that is right but I don’t know how to sort it out.”

Derry, Rovers and Sligo have being switching around positions at the top of the league over the past month as the season enters its final phase. Turner unsurprisingly is enjoying the tussle at the top. “You have to enjoy it or you shouldn’t be there. After the Bray game, I think we’ve got six games left, four at home and two away. Every game is going to be a cup final. We’ve got to play every game like it is a league decider and that is what we are going to do to bring the title back here for another season.”

Despite all the positive publicity and experienced being gained with Shamrock Rovers competing in the Europa League, it is clear in Turner’s mind what the priority is for the Hoops over the next month beginning this afternoon with the game against Drogheda United. “The main thing is the league. We want the league as it is our bread and butter and we have to win it to get into the Champions League next year. The league is the most important thing. I think if we don’t win it everyone in the squad will see it as a bit of a failure and as being disappointing. We’ve done so well in Europe and won the Setanta Cup but the league is the main thing; that is the big one. That is the one we want. We feel as a squad and as a team that we can win every game. We never go into a game thinking that we can win it. We approach every game the same and we prepare for every game the same. We want to go out and win. The manager has brought the players in because he thinks everyone is a winner. Hopefully we can be winners and can be champions at the end of the year.”

Published in Hoops Scene 19 (October 2011 – Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United/Bohemians)

In Godda we trust

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

Photo: Bobby Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Dare is to Do (Spurs away – Europa League)

October 1, 2011 Leave a comment

‘Audere est facere’ is the club motto at Tottenham Hotspur with the English translation ‘To Dare is to do’ adorning the inside of White Hart Lane. Last Thursday night Shamrock Rovers dared to take the lead in their Europa League group game against Tottenham. For 10 glorious second half minutes, the massive Irish away support in the ground dared to dream that their team could get a win against Harry Redknapp’s multi-million pound men. The scoreboard read Tottenham Hotspur 0 Shamrock Rovers 1 and there are plenty of photos taken of it by the Rovers fans but at the end of 90 minutes it would read 3-1 to the home team. The League of Ireland champions couldn’t hold on to their lead but came away from the match with their reputation enhanced despite the defeat.

The away support for this game swelled from Rovers’ previous European game where the away contingent was just 43 fans in Belgrade. This time it was more like 4300 fans in Tottenham. Rovers had sold out their ticket allocation bringing 2,250 from Tallaght to Tottenham. These numbers were bolstered by London based Irish who had snapped up around 2,000 tickets for the neutral section adjacent to the travelling support.

The day after the win in Belgrade, the Europa League draw paired off Rovers and Spurs and I walked straight in the door from the last Euro away to book the next two. Flights were secured to London for less than €100 before the price started to head skywards. Talking to someone in work yesterday, he was laughing saying that Rovers had cost our company €550 as that was the cheapest flight he could get to London last Thursday having been called there at short notice for a meeting!

Following the morning flight on Thursday, I spent a pleasant chatting to many of the Hooperati who chose Covent Garden as their HQ for the day. They had come by the usual planes (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead and Luton), trains (from Holyhead via the ferry) and automobiles (with two buses having come from Tallaght via the ferry). In one of the bars overlooking the square in Covent Garden, we got chatting to some Arsenal and Olympiacos fans who had played each other in the Champions League the previous night. Both wished us well against our Group A opponents of Spurs and PAOK Salonica. The builders working on the roof of the church opposite seeing Rowan McFeely’s “North American Hoops” flag hanging from the balcony (on its debut trip from Boston) gave a “Shamrock Rovers – give us a wave!” shout out from across the square that we were happy to oblige.

I was pleasantly surprised how good a venue White Hart Lane was once we got out there following rush hour. A tight compact ground, we had been given half of the lower tier and an even bigger section of the top tier. We were able to stand in these sections and this helped the atmosphere that built up as kick off approached. It was great to see so many familiar faces standing around us ahead of kick off and you could see the delight in their faces that our team (and our fans) were about to perform on this big stage.

Manager Michael O’Neill had made four changes from Rovers’ last game but Harry Redknapp had made 10. Even still, there was real quality in his side with six full internationals including a strikeforce of Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Roman Pavlyuchencko. For once in Europe, Rovers managed not to concede an early goal but we rode our luck in the first half. The woodwork twice, ‘keeper Richard Brush and Stephen O’Donnell, standing at the post for a corner, all prevented Rovers from conceding a goal. The Hoops, playing in black but with the green and white hooped socks, created very little in the attacking final third in the first half. Rovers did maintain a fair amount of possession and worked neat triangles around Spurs who pressed Rovers hard. The fans behind Richard Brush’s goal got to cheer each pass during a series of lengthy first half passing moves that ultimately lacked any real penetration.

Everyone in the away end was quite happy when the Lithuanian official blew for half time. Sadly UEFA didn’t write us a cheque for €35,000 since we were half way to a draw. There is no goal bonus from UEFA for scoring but we didn’t care when we broke the deadlock five minutes into the second half. When Carlo Cudicini parried Gary McCabe’s well taken free, the ball fell to the scorer of that superb volleyed goal in Belgrade, Pat Sullivan. He struck the ball well on target but Stephen Rice got the decisive touch to lift the ball over the keeper to score in the south end of the stadium in front of the Rovers support. It was absolute mayhem, as Rice and his teammates celebrated in front of us.

In the home game against Juventus in the Europa League qualifiers last year, our Ultras unveiled a banner saying ‘Facci Sognare’ or ‘Dare to Dream’. Well we were continuing the dream in Europe as we spent the next 10 minutes leading the game. Could we hold on? Could we maybe get a second as we got greedier? No was the answer as Spurs stepped it up a gear and over a devastating six minute period scored three goals in quick succession. It was international quality that was the difference with clinical finishes from internationals Pavlyuchenko, Defoe and Dos Santos giving Spurs a 3-1 lead.

Only the goals seemed to liven up the library-esque silence of the Spurs fans. They got the full song repertoire from Rovers with plenty of ones familiar to them (‘Shall we sing a song for you?’, ‘Here to see the Rovers’ and eventually ‘Sing when your winning’). They may have been scratching their heads when hearing David Essex ‘Hold Me Close’ or going “Is that really ‘Build me up Buttercup’ being sung?” as we went through our vocal repertoire. The rendition of Tallaght to ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Keep the Green Flag Flying high’ were sung with real emotion as Rovers fans who followed the club through the tough times got enjoy this reward even if we were losing 3-1 (so naturally we also sung “We’re going to win 4-3”!). Maybe it might have happened if the extra official behind the goal had signaled for a penalty when Billy Dennehy looked to have been fouled towards the end of the game but probably not.

The players made their way over to the Rovers end to clap our support and they genuinely seemed to enjoy the occasion even with the result. Jersies, shorts and socks were thrown into the crowd with Pat Sullivan leaving for the dressing room only in his skimpy briefs! On the arrival back in Covent Garden, random passers by seeing our colours were congratulating us. Those that asked me the score were told it and then I giddily would tell them “but we went 1-0 up!” It was one of those glorious defeats. Yes, we should be striving wins in Europe but Spurs are just on another scale from the set up at Rovers and that is no disrespect to anyone at our fan owned club. What we are trying to do at Rovers is develop further so that we can get into the group stages on a regular basis and that we are a quality destination for young Irish footballers to develop in the game with opportunities for them to play regularly in Europe.

Nights like these for the players, and everyone involved in the club including the fans, just makes everyone want more of them. Even though Shamrock Rovers lost, it doesn’t mean we are out of Europe of course. We still have another four more games in the group stages. I had travelled to London hoping we wouldn’t be taken apart and that we might get a goal to cheer. For me, what we got was so much more. We got a goal, we got a lead and we got the most enjoyable defeat that I’ve ever witnessed as a fan of Shamrock Rovers.

I’m going to keep on enjoying this European odyssey with our next adventure coming in just three weeks time when we head to Greece, the home of Odysseus.