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No Christmas in July – Postcard from the Arctic Circle

With the official home of Santa Claus just a few miles from the venue for the RoPs v Shamrock Rovers match, it was no surprise to hear an old ‘winter football’ Rovers tune being sung by the Hoops fans in Finland.

 

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Rovers win away!”

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For some of the Europa League First Qualifying Round second leg in Rovaniemi, it seemed that Rovers might get that precious away win in Lapland but ultimately it was an early ‘Finnish’ to the Hoops European adventures for 2016.

 

It was quite an experience for everyone involved at the club – traveling to the edge of the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t set during the summer months, trailing 2-0 in the tie with a new boss in charge. The departure of Pat Fenlon from the manager’s role after the disappointing first leg defeat, meant it was Stephen Bradley who was the new man in charge.

 

I was lucky enough to be one of the dozen or so club members who got a place on the club charter for the trip. So membership not only gets you a parking space in the Tallaght Stadium Car Park but also gives you the chance of spot on the club charter! The managerial change also meant one fan essentially got the seat on the flight that was freed up because of Fenlon’s departure from the managerial hotseat!

The Rovers squad and ‘entorage’ checked in early on Wednesday morning beside some Welsh fans who were making their way to France via Dublin and Switzerland for their Euro 2016 semi-final later that evening. The lady at airport security said she would light a candle for a 3-0 Rovers win. All help was required for the Hoops as they looked to do what no League of Ireland club had done before and progress in a European tie after losing the first leg at home.

 

With the Rovaniemi runway close for repairs, it was a three hour flight in our 48 seater plane to Kemi. From there it was a further 90 minute bus ride through the Finnish countryside with a vista of trees, water and a few Moose munching grass at the roadside. The players were well fed themselves en-route, on the flight and coach trip; the benefit of having a caterer amongst the Rovers support who was able to provide his services on the trip – with some spare meals making their way to supporters too!

Rumours that the team was staying in the Hotel Santa Claus were true but rumours of the match venue being snowbound proved a work of fiction! Many of the travelling supporters took the chance to sample the local cuisine on Wednesday evening – I can recommend the Fell Highland Reindeer at Restaurant Nili!  RoPS also hosted their pre-match meal with the Rovers Directors and Finnish FA Officials in the same venue, so you knew the food was going to be good!

 

Afterwards most ‘retired’ to Oliver’s Bar to watch the Euro 2016 semi. That match ended close to midnight with Portugal defeating Wales. Midnight came and went with no sunset. We truly were in the land of the midnight sun being so far north.

For Stephen McPhail the Rovers club captain and now player-coach under Stephen Bradley, he knew what to expect. “I’ve been to Iceland and Norway for preseason at this time of year so I knew what was coming. It is still strange though going to bed and it is still bright as a button outside! It was a bit of work to get those curtains to stretch all the way across in the room but got a goodnight’s sleep.”

The next morning quite a few supporters made the 8km trip further north from Rovaniemi to the Arctic Circle. There were plenty of photos taken standing either side of the line at 66 degrees north, 32’ 33’’. The location is surrounded by plenty of shops, with Santa Claus also available to meet visitors, so it didn’t exactly feel we’d travelled north of the wall Games of Thrones style!

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On match night the Rovers support from the charter flight was boosted by about 20 or so fans who had travelled independently to the game. The away section was at one end of the bottom tier of the very impressive steep two tiered 2,000 seater stand built in recent years. The floodlights were on for the 7pm local kick off time, not that they would be needed here at the Arctic Circle!

 

Gary McCabe had the captain’s armband for the game and his first half goal halved the deficit in the tie. His penalty, the third goal he has scored in Europe, moved him to joint third in the all-time list of Rovers European goalscorers.

 

An unfortunate Hoops error though handed RoPS an equaliser and Rovers couldn’t make any additional breakthroughs themselves in the second half despite the impetus brought about by Bradley’s introduction of youth off the bench. Sean Boyd, Trevor Clarke and Aaron Dobbs came on, with the teenagers gaining some valuable European game time, but a couple of late goals couldn’t be conjured up.

McPhail was an unused substitute on the night so was able to give me his assessment from the vantage point of the bench. “When we played over in Finland, the most pleasing thing if I put my coaches hat on was that the lads responded to what we wanted them to do. They gave it everything.

 

“We went 1-0 up and I was confident we would score more. We conceded a goal off an error but these things happen. We didn’t get the rub of the green. Their ‘keeper made an unbelievable save with about 20 minutes to go. It could have been different. Performance wise the boys were spot on.”

 

Everyone at Shamrock Rovers was made feel very welcome on our visit, with the hospitality extended to the away fans after the game with food and coffee supplied by the RoPS American goalkeeper from their women’s team.

 

Following Rovers’ elimination from Europe, inevitably it was a quiet bus ride from Roveniemi. The small airport in Kemi was kept open for our departure midnight departure and it was still daylight when we boarded our flight to Dublin. The end of European football for Rovers for another season but a short memorable adventure all the same.

 

 

An abridged version of this article was first published in the Shamrock Rovers match programme – Hoops Scene 11 (Shamrock Rovers v Bohemians/Leeds United July 2016)IMG_2456