Posts Tagged ‘PAOK’

King Billy from the Kingdom

Shamrock Rovers sit top of the league with three other clubs after the opening three games of this year’s league campaign. Both Rovers and Shelbourne, tonight’s visitors to Tallaght Stadium, have two wins and a draw so far in the league. Stephen Kenny has named the exact same starting line up for each league game this season and it might be four in a row tonight. If it is, it will mean Billy Dennehy has continued this season for Rovers in a similar vane to last. As well as being ever present in the starting line up, he has been getting assists and also scoring goals.

Dennehy was involved in every one of last season’s league games bar, due to suspension, the game against UCD in Belfield on the night that the Hoops retained their league title. He finished the season as Shamrock Rovers’ top goalscorer in all competitions. He also finished top of the assist charts with the Hoops. His 13 assists showed the great value he brought to the team in terms of supply of goals to go alongside the important goals he also scored in the league, FAI Cup, Setanta Sports Cup and the Europa League. Hoops Scene caught up with the Kerryman ahead of tonight’s game and started by asking him what was his favourite goal from last season?

“It would probably be scoring in the Europa League,” said Dennehy recalling his goal in the game in Tallaght Stadium against PAOK. “It was a big thing for me to score on such a big stage. All my family were at that home game in Tallaght. I scored 16 goals last season and that was my best season so far. I will continue to try and help the team and chip in with goals at times to take pressure off the strikers.”

The man from Tralee opened his league account for the season in the game against Monaghan United with a superb left foot strike from outside the box. “It was nice to score. It was my first league goal of the season and in our first home game as well,” said the winger of the goal in the 3-1 win. “It came in a game where we found ourselves drawing 1-1. It was nice to score a goal that put us in front and get me off the mark in the league for the season.”

In the celebrations after the goal, Dennehy also picked up his first yellow card of the season. The celebration in front of the East Stand, which also involved Hooperman, was deemed excessive by referee Graham Kelly. “I said it to the ref afterwards that I thought it was a bit harsh but it is his job to make those decisions. I just have to be more careful next time!”

It took a late equaliser from Gary Twigg to rescue a point for the Hoops in Turners Cross in Rovers’ last league game. Tommy Dunne sent his Cork side out to contain Rovers, a tactic that many opposition managers will inevitably use also here at Tallaght Stadium during the season. “They obviously made it a bit harder for us the way they played and the way they set up,” said Dennehy of the system his former club used in the game. “They got a lot of men behind the ball. We had a lot of possession but they dropped kind of deep. That made it hard for us to create lot of chances. Overall I thought we did quite well and we probably thought we deserved to have won the game.”

“It happened an awful lot last year,” said Dennehy about teams putting out defensive formations against Rovers. “A lot of teams set out to stop us scoring and stop us playing. That is a challenge for us. It is up to us to go beat that, score the goals and win the games. I’m sure we will do that. It is just about being patient. We have a lot of good footballers in the squad so somebody will make a good pass or score a good goal. I think we learned a lot from that last season and that will help us this year.”

Last Friday, with Rovers down to ten men, it was Cork City that looked to have the game wrapped up but Dennehy got a cross over in the 94th minute that Ken Oman knocked back across for Twigg to score with his head. Both fans and players alike enjoyed the celebrations in front of the large travelling Rovers support. “It was great to score so late on. Though we did that and got a point, we were still disappointed because we were good enough to win the game. Possession wise, we dominated and had a lot of the ball. We probably deserved to have won the game. Under the circumstances being 1-0 down and having a man sent off, getting a draw was probably a good result. Everyone kept going and kept digging in. It was a good point in the end.”

Photo by George Kelly

Being top of the league after three games is a nice position to be in but as Dennehy rightly points out “it is still very very early days. We need to get into the season and then it is the end of the season that counts. It is vitally important to start well and pick up points early. I think we aren’t playing at our best. There is a lot more to come from us. Hopefully we will continue to pick up the points and the performances will improve as the season goes on.”

Rovers will be looking to build on last season’s incredible campaign that was led by Michael O’Neill. New manager Stephen Kenny is now setting his stamp on the Rovers squad. “It is a massive change,” said Dennehy about Rovers making the switch of managers. “It goes without saying that it has been unbelievable winning two leagues and playing in the Europa League. It has been phenomenal over the last two years. It is important that everyone makes their mark this season. We need to go again, be ambitious and win more. That is what the new manager wants. As a player that is why I’ve come back to try, continue to do well, to win and compete for trophies. I’m sure Stephen Kenny, Stephen Glass his assistant and Colin Hawkins are the same. They want to be involved in winning things and I think we are all pulling in the same direction which is good for everyone.”

Whilst the line up has been consistent in the league, Stephen Kenny has mixed it up in the Setanta Sports Cup games against Cliftonville and in Rovers’ game in the Leinster Senior Cup where the Hoops knocked out Bohemians on penalties. Utilising the Rovers squad to its fullest worked really well for Rovers last year and will be required if the Hoops are to retain the League and Setanta Sports Cup as well as challenge in Europe.

“When you are winning, it is good to continue the confidence and get used to playing together,” said Dennehy of a consistent starting 11. “But I think you’ve seen that on Friday making substitutions can help and it is important that you have good players that you can bring on; players to make an impact on the game. It is important that everyone performs because there are other players who can come in and do a good job. It is good for the squad that everyone knows they have a big part to play this season and it important that everyone does the best for the team and we can get the results that are needed. Last season was the club’s first time ever competing in the Setanta Sports Cup and obviously it was our first time winning it. It was great for us last year. It is a good competition. It is good to be in it and if your can make a final it is good as it is so early in the sesaon. Our aim will be to play well and hopefully try and retain that Cup as well.”

Published in Hoops Scene 2012 Issue 3 (Shamrock Rovers v Shelbourne – 23 March)

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)

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)