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Conor McCormack Interview

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Tallaght to Tallinn

Published on the Rovers Rambling blog: http://roversramblings.webnode.com/

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

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

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

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

Photo from George Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in Copenhagen.

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.”