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Rovers Russian Route

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Sullivan: The player’s player

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

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

Photo by George Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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