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Euro success built from the League of Ireland

“In Ireland there is no league,” were the words uttered in 2013 by the then Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni but at EURO 2016 the League of Ireland was central to some magnificent Ireland performances in France. The results were very much built on the back of players who began their trade in the League of Ireland, with a certain former Shamrock Rovers manager leading Northern Ireland’s success.

 

When Trapattoni’s two former international teams came up against one another last week in the group stage of the Euros, it was the Republic of Ireland team who emerged on top – in a game that had seven former League of Ireland players contribute to that famous 1-0 win over Italy. Robbie Brady’s winning goal in Lille coming off a Wes Hoolahan cross will be one of the sporting highlights of not just the year but the decade!

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Players who were on the pitch for the famous win over the Italians had previously lined out in our league for Shelbourne (Wes Hoolahan), St. Patrick’s Athletic (Stephen Quinn), Cork City (Shane Long), Waterford United (Daryl Murphy), Bohemians (Stephen Ward), Derry City (James McLean) and Sligo Rovers (Seamus Coleman), with former Cork City player David Meyler also named on the bench.

 

In the days following the win over Sweden, the FAI organised a photoshoot with all eight ex-League of Ireland players in the Euro squad wearing the jerseys of their former Irish clubs. Of course, the Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane also played in the league with Cobh Ramblers.

I was lucky enough to be out in France for the tournament, sitting in the stands supporting the boys in green, and with a press pass for a few other matches as I was doing some work with extratime.ie. The day after that photocall, I went out to the Ireland training camp in Versailles.

With Roy Keane up for media duties, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him about the photo and was he tempted to pull on a Cobh Ramblers jersey and join in?

 

He smiled and gave a quick “no” but went on to elaborate with great enthusiasm about the crucial contribution of the league in both his own career and the careers of more than a third of the Ireland squad at the Euros.

 

“Over the years people have been quick to criticise League of Ireland football but it played a huge part in my career,” said Keane. “You saw yesterday with those lads that was brilliant, a really nice photograph.

 

“No Ramblers player there” said Keane and I thought in my own mind a pity that there were no Shamrock Rovers players in it but hopefully in years to come! “With the criticism that the League of Ireland gets, it has played a big part in these lads having a very good career, so it was nice to see.”IMG_2017

 

There were a few League of Ireland flags flown at the games during the tournament. Both the Lynch Family flag ‘Hooping since 1984’ and the ‘London Hoops’ flag were visible at the Belgium and Italy games respectively. During Iceland’s battling draw with Portugal, a Galway United Football Club flag was hung down near the cornerflag visible to everyone watching the game.

 

These flags almost seemed a novelty with their support of League of Ireland clubs rather than the novelty ‘whack a funny Father Ted slogan’ on a flag that seems to have become the norm.

 

I was on press duty in the Parc des Princes for the Germany and Northern Ireland game. Former Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill has done a superb job with his national team. O’Neill took up the role as the boss with the North soon after leaving the Hoops at the conclusion of our remarkable run in the Europa League – the competition we are back in the qualifying rounds of today.

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It is five years since we had that famous 20,000km journey through Europe from Tallinn to Copenhagen, London, Thessaloniki and Kazan. It was Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That first single step was taken against Estonian team Flora Tallinn and crucial to that was goalkeeper Alan Mannus.

In the first leg against the Estonian champions in Tallaght, Mannus saved a penalty minutes before Chris Turner would score the only goal of the tie and set us on our way. Those early games would be Mannus’ last for the Hoops as he made the move soon after to join St. Johnstone.

Mannus was part of Michael O’Neill’s squad at the Euros, which also qualified for the knock out stages of the competition earned by their 2-0 win over Ukraine. I got the chance to talk to Mannus after his side’s battling 1-0 defeat to World Champions Germany, on a night in Paris when the North were grateful for a brilliant performance by their number one goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

 

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Mannus has been a regular in O’Neill’s ‘Norn Iron’ squads. The former Rovers boss had a tough opening campaign in a failed attempt to get to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That meant Northern Ireland were fifth seeds in the qualification campaign for France. However, Michael O’Neill led his team to top spot in their qualifying group – the first team ever to do so from Pot 5 of the draw.

“We worked together at Shamrock and he did very well there,” said Mannus discussing his time with the Hoops under Michael O’Neill. “I’m delighted that he has done so well with Northern Ireland as I knew he was capable of that.

“The first campaign we probably played better than the results showed and in this qualifying campaign we played well and got the results we deserved and got through. I’m sure a number of clubs will be looking at him with a view maybe to take him on as manager.

“I’m delighted for him. He is a brilliant manager and understands football and that has been shown in the way we’ve played and the results we’ve got.”

Going into the last group game, the permutations were very clear for the Republic of Ireland. Beat Italy and qualify or else it was time to go home. The stadium in Lille was a sea of green with Ireland fans taking almost three sides of the stadium. With the roof of the venue closed, the atmosphere was incredible and the tension (and heat!) almost unbearable.

 

In the run up to the match, former Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli commented in La Gazzetta dello Sport that Irish players had “trouble handling the game tactically. They don’t get that football is also an intellectual matter, and not just about attacking and going forward.”

 

Seamus Coleman dismissed those comments ahead of the game – “I’m not really bothered what Marco thinks” – and the Irish team dismissed the Italian side with a tactical, hard pressing and physical performance against Italy. Martin O’Neill had made four changes to his starting XI, dropping Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, Ciaran Clarke and captain John O’Shea. Handed the armband was Donegal man Seamus Coleman.

 

O’Neill brought Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy into the centre of defence and they successfully marshalled the Italian attack. Ireland had left a win behind them against Sweden in Paris and it seemed the same would happen in Lille; Particularly after Hoolahan, on as second half substitute, missed a great chance in the closing minutes.

 

However, he picked up the ball moments later and delivered as good a cross as you will see onto the head of Robbie Brady. 1-0. ‘Who put the ball in the Italian net? Brady, Brady. Who put the ball in the Italian net? Robbie Robbie Brady.’

 

There were emotional scenes after the final whistle on the pitch – have we seen a happier Roy Keane – and in the stands. Speaking after the final whistle, the players were still coming to terms with the win that set up last Sunday’s game in Lyon against France. Coleman spoke about all those hours his father had driven him down to train and play with Sligo Rovers and how they are paying off now.

 

I bumped into the Cork City manager John Caulfield in the hotel I was staying in after the game and the City boss agreed that it was great to see big managerial decisions rewarded with a win! Both Martin and Michael O’Neill had made significant switches to their starting teams, against Ukraine for the North and Italy for our Boys in Green, and these were central to the success of both teams in the group stages of the competition.

 

Article published in Shamrock Rovers match day programme Hoops Scene Issue 10 – Shamrock Rovers v RoPS Rovaniemen  – Thursday 30 June 2016

 

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Hyland hitting the heights with the Hoops

December 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Interview with Craig Hyland from Hoops Scene 4/2015 Shamrock Rovers v Bohemian FC (27 March 2015)

It was the fifth meeting of the teams in Oriel Park in 2015. The Dundalk crowd, and indeed their team, were nervy as the Lilywhites faced Shamrock Rovers in their penultimate home game of the season; the point they would earn in this 0-0 draw against the Hoops would turn out to be crucial in securing Dundalk the title. Referee Rob Rogers had a busy game and by the final whistle would brandish nine yellow cards, one red card and give Rovers a late penalty that they would miss.

 

The yellow card the referee gave Barry Murphy for time wasting would have a significant influence on the goalkeeping situation at the start of this season for Shamrock Rovers. Murphy’s fifth yellow card of 2014 meant that he picked up a suspension that would rule him out of the first league game of this season. This essentially ensured Craig Hyland would start in goal for Rovers at the start of the 2015 league campaign.

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“He was unfortunate to get that suspension but that gave me my chance,” said Hyland about Murphy’s yellow card when Hoops Scene caught up with the goalkeeper after last Friday’s 0-0 draw with Cork City in Tallaght Stadium. “My whole focus in the off-season was to work really hard in the gym, and then on the pitch when we came back training, as I knew I was going to play in the first game.”

 

24-year-old Hyland had a previous spell with the Hoops in 2011 and he re-signed with Rovers last season making ten first team appearances (plus a further three starts with Rovers’ First Division team). He played in the EA Sports Cup Final at Oriel Park in the 3-2 defeat to Dundalk and kept a clean sheet in each of his three league appearances made in the last four weeks of the 2014 season.

 

“I played a few more times under Pat (Fenlon) than Trevor Croly and I felt I did well. The cup final was a big one for me for confidence. The result didn’t go well but goals aside I played fairly well and that gave me confidence for the games where I came in. I played relatively well, kept a few clean sheets and that stood me in good stead for this year.

 

“The whole goal for the start of the season was, even though I was going to play the first game, to extend it and play as much as possible. Luckily the first game went well; I kept a clean sheet and I’ve managed to stay in the team.”

 

On the opening night, played in windy conditions particularly tough for a goalkeeper, Hyland pulled off a spectacular save in injury time to deny St. Patrick’s Athletic striker Ciarán Kilduff a goal and earn the Hoops a 1-0 victory. He followed that up with a clean sheet in the 2-0 win away to Longford before last week’s draw against Cork – making it six clean sheets in a row for the Hoops.

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The goalkeeping team at Shamrock Rovers is led by coach Dermot O’Neill and bolstered by under 19 goalkeepers Michael Kelly and Luca Gratzer. The situation with goalkeepers is an interesting dynamic as ‘keepers can go many matches without getting on the pitch, unlike outfield players who can come in and play in usually a couple of positions.

 

“You can go long periods of time without playing or sometimes you are in and out for cup games and then back on the bench. It is a mental challenge more than anything else. Last year, even though I knew that was the case, it was difficult at times. It can be frustrating. As a goalkeeper, you know there is only one position but there is always a few alternatives as an outfield player.

 

“You do work a lot closer with your fellow goalkeepers maybe compared with two outfield players in the same position. I’ve heard it can go one of two ways but I’ve never had an issue with any of the goalkeepers I’ve played with. I’m an easy going type of guy and I’d be friends with the ‘keepers who have been number one ahead of me or number two to me. That is certainly the case with Barry and we are good friends. He is very helpful especially now that I’m in the team. He is giving me little tips and pointers about different players and different teams which is great.

 

“I’m in the team now and hopefully that lasts but I know I need to perform really well in every game as Barry is there waiting to get back in and he is good enough to step back in whenever needs be. You don’t want a situation where you have your goalkeeper who is in the team but is extremely comfortable and not really pushing himself for form. You need to be at your best if you want to win leagues and do well in Europe.

 

“There is a rivalry for places but there is no bitterness if you are not in the team. The lads are always willing to help each other out which is massively important. That is the ethos Pat (Fenlon) has brought in. It is very long season and players are going to be in and out but everyone will get a run in the team. There is competitiveness for places, not just in goal but all positions in the team.”

 

It can be a bit of a surprise if you are hanging around Tallaght Stadium more than a half an hour after a game to see Rovers players with flip-flops and towels around the waist shuffling across Whitestown Way coming from the Arena Leisure Centre back into the stadium. The chance to carry out their warm down in the swimming pool opposite the stadium is one of the many positives for Hyland to the set up at Shamrock Rovers.

 

“We often do our after match recovery cool down in the pool especially when we have games coming all the time. It takes the weight off your joints. It is low impact and we can do our stretching. The affect of the water releases the tension in your muscles. After games I’m sorer from diving around and ‘keepers probably don’t need it as much as other players but I find it very beneficial.

 

“We go over, do our bit and then come back over and have a shower so the lads can clean up and tidy away. The gym does us a courtesy by staying open so late which is great. I’ve done pool sessions before but never as close to the stadium, with the option to do it straight after the game. The quicker you can do it after the game and get the recovery done the more rest you stand to have.

 

“Sometimes the sessions are done on Saturday morning but a lot of the lads including myself sometimes struggle to sleep after the game as you are so hyped up. It is a luxury to get to do the pool session straight after the game. You mightn’t sleep but you have more time for resting in the morning. A lot of other clubs wouldn’t have the ability to do that. It is a credit to the club, Pat Fenlon and the other coaching staff that we have that.

 

“If you want to be a top club you have to have the top facilities and ours have been upgraded on last year. We train in the morning and have full access to a kitchen so a lot of the lads would have their food there. We have a mini-gym so we can do our gym sessions with our strength and conditioning coach (Conor Clifford) and do extra bits including before training which is another improvement on last year.

 

“Conor did most of our fitness work in the off-season and is at most of the sessions. We do at least one gym session a week with him together as a team a. I’m the type of person who can train all your like but I need to be in the gym to stay as sharp as I can. It is a bonus for me as I get the extra hour there and that it will be tailored specifically for you.

 

“The group this year is tighter knit,” says Hyland speaking ahead of last Tuesday’s game away to Sligo Rovers. “We do spend a lot more time together. We work hard and are four to five hours a day with each other. That extra bit of gym work is done together and you can have that bit of craic and a laugh while working.

 

“It is a long season and there will be setbacks but as a group we are stronger this year. There is no micro groups within the group. Everyone talks to everyone and spends time with each other. The more experienced players like Stephen McPhail, Keith Fahey, Patrick Cregg and Tim Clancy have come in and they are helping us all, myself included. The new players have integrated straight into the group seamlessly almost as if they were always at the club.

 

“It can be tough for new people and a little intimidating coming in especially at a club as big as this and as competitive as this, where you are competing for trophies and qualification for Europe. It was a bit of a shock when I came back to Rovers from playing in the First Division with Waterford United. It took me a while to adapt to full time training last year but it is what you aspire to be. Full time football is what you want to do. When you get there, there is a lot of effort but what else would you want to be doing!”

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When Hyland was last with the Hoops it was in the heady days of the Europa League. If it was a yellow card issued to Barry Murphy last October that gave Hyland his opportunity this season, it was a penalty save by Rovers goalkeeper Ryan Thompson that gave him a chance to be part of the Europa League experience in 2011. 35 minutes into the match against Rubin Kazan in Tallaght, which was Rovers’ first group game, Thompson faced a penalty won by Obafemi Martins, the former Inter Milan and Newcastle player now playing in Seattle. The Jamaican goalkeeper made the initial save from Nelson Valdez’s spot kick and then got back up and across the goal to block the rebound before the ball was cleared.

 

When Thompson made that penalty save he picked up an injury and, while he travelled to Tottenham Hotspur for the next game, Hyland was also brought along with the squad. It was a great experience for a 20-year-old player to be involved with the squad at that time. Looking back now the goalkeeper drew some parallels with this 2015 Rovers vintage, as well as outlining a mature lesson that he took from his time in Michael O’Neill’s squad.

 

“It was a very successful time for the club. The highlight of the whole thing was going on the trip to Spurs. Ryan Thompson had an injury at the time and I got to experience that game. It was mayhem. It was great to see how well Richard Brush did in that game and he was a standout player.

 

“I had the luxury of working with talented goalkeepers back then too. You had Alan Mannus who I still rate as the best I’ve seen and trained with, you’d Richard Brush, and Ryan Thompson who is back in America having a good career for himself.

 

“My memory of that time was the attitude of the team which had a refusal to concede goals. The team was very difficult to beat, very well organised and set up. Similar to how we are now.

 

“We do a lot of work on the training pitch to be organised. There is a good solidarity with the back four whoever comes in. We look like we will be hard to score goals against and that was a key back then. Under Michael O’Neill, the club won two leagues and qualified for the Europa League in the season when we also won the league. The levels of performance and effort were monumental.

 

“More so what I took away from that time, and I wouldn’t have said it then, was the overriding feeling that I needed to go away and play somewhere else. At no stage when I was at the club back then was I ready to play. The step up would have been much too big.

 

“I didn’t know what was going to happen with Michael O’Neill as there was uncertainty there. It looked like I was going to go on loan but I didn’t want a new manager coming in to Rovers and next thing I had was nothing. I had the opportunity of going to Longford and I took it. Was it a good decision or not? I don’t know but it has probably worked out for me. Being at Longford and Waterford was great and was massively beneficially so in hindsight I probably made the right decision for my career.

 

“It was a great experience watching the side do so well in 2011, winning and being so successful and knowing that is where I wanted to be. It was a goal after I left Rovers, if you want to play at the top, you want to get back to Rovers, there is no other team you want to play for, it is the top team in the country.”

 

“I did well enough to sign back here. I am getting a run in the team now and Pat has shown great confidence in me. If you get in the team and do well, you stay in the team. If you get that opportunity you need to take your chance and that is what I’ve done. I want to stay in the team at the minute but I want to improve and maintain that level of performance.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Continent Football: Part 4 – Europe (Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght)

Four Continent Football: Part 4 – Europe (Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght)

It seemed over a two decade period that Shamrock Rovers had played home games in the four corners of the world even if that wasn’t actually the case. This time three years ago everyone at the club was building up for probably the biggest home game ever – our first proper home match since the eviction from Milltown back in 1986.

I’ve reminised recently about attending football matches across four continents including Asia, South America and Africa but in this final blogpost of Four Continent Football, we are in Europe and I’m bringing it back home for Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght.

Since leaving Milltown, it was only really in the time period at the RDS (1990 to 1996) that it felt like they were home games for Rovers. In the years since Milltown, home matches were played in various grounds rented off our rivals including playing in Tolka Park, Dalymount Park, Richmond Park and, probably most embarrasingly, Turners Cross. That night in Cork when the Hoops ran out to play a home game over 250km from Dublin not actually wearing hoops but their away strip, was one of the very many low points that has surrounded the club during my time as a supporter.

The build-up to certain big games can seem like years but the build up to Rovers’ first game in Tallaght was that, it was over a decade in the making. Planning Permission had been granted in 1997, the sod had been turned with the builders coming on the site in 2000, they came off site the following year, and finally come back on the site in May 2008. In that period Rovers went bust, had the fans take over the club and got relegated. South Dublin County Council had taken ownership of the site and a lengthy court case had ensued when the GAA tried unsuccesfully to get their grubby little hands on the keys to access the stadium.

When the 2009 fixtures came out, we could finally see in black and white Rovers were finally scheduled to play in Tallaght. There was symmtery to the fixture with Sligo Rovers providing the opposition for the first game in Tallaght, just as they had done for the final game in Milltown. The first game in the RDS back in 1990 was awful and half of the 20,000 crowd didn’t come back for the next game. I was somewhat worried that the game would be an anti-climax but it wasn’t. It was everything I’d hoped for and more. There were goals, there was drama and there was a Shamrock Rovers win. We’ve kept coming back for more ever since.

That day so many people came up to me in work and wished me and the club well. It was one of those days where it was very hard to concentrate on anything but the match. At around 4 o’clock my boss told me to head off. He knew what it meant for me. Everyone knew what it meant. I got countless e-mail and texts from friends telling me to enjoy the game and enjoy it I would. When I got into stadium, people were hugging each other. This was the moment we had dreamed about for so long and now it was a reality. People were walking around trying to take it all in with a permanent smile on their faces and a ball hadn’t even been kicked at that stage.

As well as being Rovers’ first game in Tallaght, it was Michael O’Neill’s first home game in charge of Rovers. It was a much changed Rovers side with a new strike partnership of Dessie Baker and Gary Twigg. The fans were wondering who this Twigg player was that O’Neill had paid out a transfer fee for to bring from the Scottish Second Division and could he combine with Baker, a player most thought was past it.

It was telling last December when Michael O’Neill took leave of Shamrock Rovers that he spoke about that night. He was asked about what he would remember most from this tenure in Tallaght. He didn’t pick winning one of the three major trophies claimed during his time managing Rovers or one of those amazing nights against a heavyweight of European football like Real Madrid, Juventus, Partizan Belgrade or Spurs. “The most enjoyable night was my first night here at Tallaght, when we beat Sligo,” recalled O’Neill of opening night in the new stadium. “To see the look on the supporters faces after being 20 years on the road and just to see what it meant for them was fantastic.”
The passion and noise generated as the teams came out was almost overwhelming and many a tear was shed on the night. 22 years of pent up frustration at the loss of Milltown and a home of our own, spilled out in a wall of noise when the teams emerged. I certainly let out a primiordal roar anyway!

It was a horrible night weather wise in Tallaght but in every other way it was perfect. If we were wondering would Twigg do the business in Tallaght, we weren’t wondering much longer after the opening period of the game. First Twigg had a goal dissallowed. Then after 18 minutes we saw what we now know as classic Gary Twigg. He got a sniff of the ball in the box and scored. It seemed that as soon as he swiviled and got his shot away over his shoulder, the ball was in the back of the net and he was celebrating in front of the Ultras.

On opening night, there was only one stand constructed in the stadium and it was filled to 3,500 capacity and probably a bit more! In front of the live TV cameras, Shamrock Rovers searched out a second goal early in the second half and got it. Ollie Cahill made a great run down the left and found Dessie Baker whose finish put the Hoops 2-0 in front. The Baker-Twigg strikeforce would continue to do damage during the rest of the season with Rovers finishing runner’s up in the league at the end of the year.

This wasn’t an exhibition game though and Sligo did not come just to make up the numbers. The home side had to earn their win and there was some nervous moments toward the end of the game following Gavin Peer’s 82nd minute goal for Sligo. The Hoops never make it easy but had to go an earn that win on opening night. The celebrations at the final whistle continued long into the night. The win, our first home win in over two decades, was a long time coming. We were home.
KOH!

Northern Exposure to the League of Ireland

January 5, 2012 4 comments

On his appointment as the new Northern Ireland manager, Michael O’Neill has made it clear this week that he will be looking to maximise the use of the small player pool available to him. O’Neill will attempt to stop the trickle of players born in the North, some of whom have played under-age football for Northern Ireland, switching their allegiances to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland team. O’Neill has spoken about tempting former Northern Ireland under 21 international James McClean back to the North after last year he pulled out of a Northern Ireland senior squad saying he wished to play for the Republic of Ireland team.

The issue of players who were born in Northern Ireland declaring themselves available for the Republic is a thorny one. The Irish Football Association (IFA) went all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne to try and prevent FIFA’s ruling on players being born in the North playing for the Republic. It is particularly galling for the IFA to see players who are capped at underage level for them moving to play for the senior Republic of Ireland team. This issue has elements of politics and probably religion wrapped up in it with the singing of God Save the Queen as the anthem played at Windsor Park and the Good Friday Agreement being parts of the debate. A Great Britain and Northern Ireland team will take part in the football tournament at the London 2012 Olympics but the football associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not backed the team for fear of jeopardising their separate teams in UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Photo by George Kelly

Having been appointed Northern Ireland manager after successfully winning back-to-back League of Ireland titles with Shamrock Rovers, Michael O’Neill will look to cast his net to include player’s currently plying their trade in the League of Ireland. O’Neill was critical of his predecessor Nigel Worthington for not calling up League of Ireland players to the North’s squad for last summer’s Carling Nations Cup competition held in Dublin. Back then, Alan Mannus was O’Neill’s goalkeeper at Shamrock Rovers. Mannus’ superb form for Rovers in 2011 earned up a move to SPL side St. Johnstone in August but it couldn’t get him a spot in the Northern Ireland squad when he was at Rovers. “I would be disappointed that playing at Shamrock Rovers diminished Alan Mannus’ opportunity to play internationally,” said O’Neill back in July. “I did find it strange that Northern Ireland had six players in the Carling Nations Cup with Irish League experience and then there was the likes of Alan Mannus and James McClean of Derry that have both been in the Northern Ireland system but hadn’t been picked.”

However, as soon as Mannus had left Shamrock Rovers, even though he didn’t play a game for St. Johnstone, he was straight in the Northern Ireland squad. Mannus himself told of how Worthington gave him the impression that he needed to be playing away from the League of Ireland before he would be getting a call up for the North. “When the Northern Ireland manager (Nigel Worthington) spoke to me, he said in his words the fact that I’m not in England or Scotland doesn’t help me,” recalled Mannus last season. “I don’t think they pay too much attention to the League of Ireland. I know that he really wants players to be in England or Scotland. It is a case of even if it is Scottish First Division or League Two in England, they will still choose them ahead of lads in the League of Ireland and the Irish League”.

Shamrock Rovers player Chris Turner may be hoping that his former club boss will be in touch with him about a call up to the senior squad. Turner captained the Northern Ireland u21 team but has yet to get a senior cap. At Rovers this year, the 24 year old won the League of Ireland, the Setanta Sports All-Ireland Cup competition and qualified for the Europa League group stages. Turner’s crucial goal in Rovers’ opening game in Europe ensured the win over Estonian Champions Flora Tallinn setting Rovers on their way in Europe where he played 10 European games. His former team-mate certainly thinks he could do a job for the North. “I don’t necessarily think that the players in the squad are better than those playing in the League of Ireland like Chris Turner,” said Alan Mannus previously. “I’ve seen people come in from the Irish League in the same position in midfield and they weren’t any better than the likes of Chris Turner.”

Turner himself has spoken about the situation of League of Ireland players and the Northern Ireland international squad. “I obviously played the whole way up through from schoolboys up to the u21s but I’ve never been close to getting into the full national team,” said Turner last season of his time with the international set up in Northern Ireland. “I don’t think the league here gets enough recognition. I don’t even know if anybody comes down to watch any of the games. There are a number of players who could play for Northern Ireland like myself, Alan Mannus, Ruaidhri Higgins and a few of the Derry lads last year. There are players in this league more than capable of playing international football.” You would imagine that Michael O’Neill, who will be based in Northern Ireland, will be keeping a greater eye on talent available to him in both the League of Ireland and Irish League than his predecessor.

Photo by Bobby Best

Returning to the recent move of James McClean from Derry City to Sunderland, it is a case in point about the calibre of players in the League of Ireland. McClean made his debut for the Black Cats in their 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year’s Day and followed it up by scoring two days later in a 4-1 win over Wigan. Subsequently, there have been calls for McClean to be rushed into the Republic of Ireland squad, probably more so now following O’Neill’s words this week about looking to change McClean’s on playing for the North. Turner spoke last season about this strange situation of players suddenly becoming good enough to play international football just because they make a short flight or ferry ride across the Irish Sea. “You just have to look at some of the players who were playing here in the League of Ireland,” said Turner. “Once they get a move, they get called up. They don’t become a better player overnight. They were always a good player whenever they played in this league. Just because you get a move over the water to England or Scotland it doesn’t necessarily make you a better player.”

It will be interesting to see how far O’Neill will go to encourage players to play for Northern Ireland. He spoke this week about asking players who had quit international football to return. Will he look to bring ‘granny rule’ players in who are plying their trade in the SPL or English football? Or maybe bring in a naturalised Northern Ireland man? Possibly Shamrock Rovers star striker Gary Twigg may be eligible and O’Neill knows all about the striker who has scored 66 goals for Rovers in the last three seasons! Whatever he does, O’Neill knows he has a tough task ahead of him as his side faces into qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 in a group including Russia and Portugal. Ensuring he has a squad with as high a number of quality players will certainly help him as he cuts his teeth in international football.

View from the Terraces – Shamrock Rovers

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Euro Vision and Reality

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player photography by George Kelly