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Going Dutch Groundhopping


As the Shamrock Rovers squad and supporters were taking in the pre-season trip to the Algarve with the Hoops in Atlantic Cup action, there were a few Hoops fans making a football trip of our own.

 

It is a long planned groundhopping football weekend to a country steeped in football history with our trip beginning in a castle, had us standing amongst the Rats and ending up in a tub – this is the tale of a football trip to the Netherlands.

 

Don’t worry we did go to see some of the architectural and cultural sights of Rotterdam but for this group of groundhopping nerds it was the chance to take in some of the Dutch football culture.

 

We began in Delfshaven, a part of Rotterdam that escaped the Luftwaffe bombing of the city in 1940 which destroyed the historic town centre. Built in 1916 Het Kasteel (or The Castle) is home to Sparta Rotterdam, the oldest professional team in the Netherlands. The ground held a couple of matches in the 1928 Olympics but only the Castle element of the ground with its striking two brickwork towers remain from that era.

 

It is as a case of following the floodlights to find the ground which is a short stroll from 18th century windmill amongst Delfshaven’s canals. The old school floodlight pylons aren’t in the corners of the ground, as they turned the pitch through 90 degrees in the late 1990s, and so the floodlights now sit outside the footprint of the stadium.

 

The club’s wonderful club crest stands out on the front of the main stand – a player in an old school red and white striped jersey controlling a ball. One of the club officials in the club shop when we call in is only delighted to not only open up the museum for us but give us an impromptu stadium tour.

There aren’t too many trophies in their trophy cabinet – their last league title was 1959 – but having been promoted back to the Dutch top flight in 2016 and with manager Dick Advocaat in charge they hope good times are on the way back.

 

We can see some European pedigree in the museum with mementoes from matches against Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade and even Coleraine – with a match poster on display from their 1970 UEFA Cup tie against the Bannsiders.

 

True groundhoppers wouldn’t really count our trip to the Castle as we didn’t get to see a game in the stadium. While the club official tries to coax us to stay and watch an under 21 game later that day, we have a train to Breda to catch.

 

 

Breda is a town 50km south of Rotterdam, just 10km from the Belgian border. That evening NAC Breda is taking on VVV Venlo at the Rat Verlegh Stadion – named after Antoon ‘Rat’ Verlegh who was involved with the club all his life in various roles (player, coach, board member).

 

The 19,000 capacity stadium is sold out most weeks and we aren’t far off getting the last three tickets available and all in different location in the ground. We arrive to collect our tickets as per the polite ticket office request 90 minutes before kick off. We were wondering why fans were queuing to get into the stadium already but with a large terrace up the middle of the stand behind the goal, this is where ‘The Rats’ or the vocal supporters like to stand and where we squeeze into.

 

The club has a link up with Manchester City, with six players in their squad on loan from City. Spaniard Manu García is one such player with the 20-year-old-playmaker central to all his side’s good play but he couldn’t prevent a 1-0 loss to Venlo.

 

The home supporters don’t seem to mind their team’s poor overall performance as they are focused more on getting the beers in. That could also be due to the fact that a drinks promotion means you get a free woolly hat with a purchase. I don’t pine for bringing back winter football towards the end of the game as the temperature dips below 4 degrees on a cold and wet night in Breda!

The main aim of our groundhopping weekend though is to see Feyenoord play at De Kuip. Their stadium is an old school venue colloquially known as ‘The Tub’, a short tram ride from Rotterdam city centre for us on Sunday afteroon. We are enjoying some fast food outside the ground when the convoy of coaches carrying the Den Haag away supporters drive by.

 

There is all this banging on the windows and when I look up, we are being given the fingers and others gestures as we are mistaken for home supporters! The coaches pull into a car park behind us with the fans walking through an enclosed bridge into the back of the stadium.

Our League of Ireland connection on this day is that Brad Jones is in goal for the home team. He spent some time on loan with Shelbourne back in 2001. The 51,000 venue was close to capacity for a game with Robin van Persie making his return to make a first appearance at home since re-signing for Giovanni van Bronckhurst’s Feyenoord side.

 

With additional ‘temporary’ seating close to the pitch below the permanent lower tier and with the overhanging roof, the venue has a vibrant atmosphere, helped by the strong home team performance.

 

We are at the back of the lower tier with the home fans in front spending much of the game taunting the away fans who are high above them. It is the Feyenoord fans who are singing at the final whistle with a 3-1 win as we filter out of the stadium having ticked De Kuip off our groundhopping bucket list.

 

Published in Hoops Scene 2/2018 Shamrock Rovers v Derry City

 

 

 

 

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The Write Stuff – a decade of Hoops Scene contributions

October 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene 19/2017 (October 2017)

On the bookshelves, there they all are. Neatly packaged away in a programme folder for each year is every copy of Hoops Scene from the last ten years. On my computer, there they all are. Neatly packaged away in an electronic folder for each year, are all my contributions to Hoops Scene over the last decade.

 

As we come towards the end of the 2017 season, I realise that it is my testimonial year as contributor to the Shamrock Rovers programme. Don’t worry, I’m not looking for a programme testimonial dinner in the 1899 Suite, with Con Murphy asking me my thoughts on my favourite programme article but maybe indulge me and let me give you some thoughts on penning articles for the programme.

 

A quick flick through my computer and I reckon that this article is number 255 that I’ve written for the Shamrock Rovers match programme. It remains to be seen if this will even be published but more of that later.

 

 

 

My programme contributions began in in 2007 and I hoped to provided Hoops Scene with a bit of colour writing. They began with tales from Tolka Park as the club went into the final season of renting off rivals – Tallaght was on the near horizon for the Hoops.

 

Flicking through the programmes, I see stories on football fashion, football literature and football groundhopping adventures. My very first article was a look at the switch to summer football and how it was faring five years on from the move.

 

In 2010, the then editor asked me would I help out in doing the player interview for each programme. I was a bit unsure but did a bit of homework to develop some questions to run by the editor ahead of doing the first interview. I felt they were deemed to be okay when she said ‘there was some stalker level of detail’ about a couple of the questions!

 

The player interview is the staple of the traditional match programme in Ireland and the UK and so I do view it a privilege to get the access to the players and tell their story to the readers. The aim has always been to make it interesting for Rovers fans but also the away fans who pick up a programme when they visit Tallaght. On each match night, a programme is left for each player in both the home and away dressingroom but I’m unsure if any Rovers quotes have been pinned to the opposition wall as inspiration.

 

As the interviews are for the Rovers match programme, the players are usually fairly talkative, sometimes even too forthcoming. When one former player in a colourful interview described the chairman at his previous club as telling “more lies and more lies” during a particularly different season, the editor suggested maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to potentially libel the chairman and the quote didn’t make the final cut.

 

When I interviewed one player after a defeat one particular season, he didn’t hold back on the performance. About an hour after I spoke to him, he rang me back and asked actually maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea for those criticisms to be in the programme for all to read. Best left in the dressingroom and so it was.

 

I usually conduct the interview over the phone which sometimes for me means popping into a meeting room in work and making a call from there while recording on phone.

 

When a colleague came into a meeting room recently to quickly grab a jacket they had left behind, they must of wondered who the hell I was talking to that was describing a game in front of “a full house in a concrete bowl open air stadium with army everywhere. There must nearly have been 20,000 soldiers!” It was John Coady discussing a Rovers game behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s!

 

It can sometimes be difficult to track down players. A missed call from me is sometimes returned and if I’ve rung from the landline in work, I’ll get a call from reception saying something like “I’ve Gary Twigg on the line for you Macdara…” That’s something nice to hear!

 

With a Sunday night deadline for the 1,250 word interview, there isn’t much time to turnaround a programme interview if the Hoops have played on the previous Friday but the players are very good about making themselves available.

 

Some stories stand out, like when I asked Billy Dennehy who he swapped his jersey with after playing Juventus in 2010. “I decided to hold on to my own and give it to my Dad,” said Dennehy. “He will be happier than any player to have that. None of the Juventus players will know who I am, so it will be nice for my Mum and Dad to have.”

 

Stories like Stephen McPhail having his phone ring in Cardiff and have Venus Williams on the other end looking to chat with him on dealing with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune issue that McPhail and the tennis star both have to deal with.

 

Or talking to Pat Sullivan a few days after his goal in Belgrade helped the Hoops qualify for the Europa League. “(After the final whistle) I stood on the pitch for 15 minutes trying to soak it up with the few Rovers fans that were there. It was phenomenal. I’m still in a bit of shock.”

 

This year the editor asked me to also help with the ‘manager’ notes, another staple of the standard programme. There was nothing standard about Damien Richardson’s manager notes and in the past manager notes might be cobbled together with little input from the gaffer.

 

We have gone with an interview format with quotes specifically sourced for the programme from Stephen Bradley. The Hoops Head Coach takes a phonecall every Monday lunchtime ahead of each home game for a five minute chat with the copy to be with the editor by late night Monday.

 

 

Every fan wants a home draw in the cup. For programme editors and contributors, it does mean another match programme to add to the workload. However, an away draw in later rounds means a potential requirement for a quick turnaround match programme. With that in mind, that is why you are reading this piece today.

 

I’m sitting here on Saturday evening having attended a very positive club AGM in Tallaght earlier in the day. It is the eve of the FAI Cup semi-final up in Oriel Park between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers. If you are reading these words, then it means the match in Oriel ended in a draw. A win or loss means you will never get to read this – and my Hoops Scene contribution goes back to 254.

View from the Sporting Director’s chair

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Stephen McPhail isn’t the first former Ireland international who made his name at Leeds United and has looked to shape a new future at Shamrock Rovers. Back in 1977 John Giles was appointed the manager at Glenmalure Park. In ‘The Hoops – A History of Shamrock Rovers’ by Paul Doolan and Robert Goggins, the authors summarise the Giles era by noting that “he believed that he could apply professional logic with which he was familiar in England to the League of Ireland. However he was handicapped by the fact that no other club attempted to complement his ideal and as a result he was always going to be fighting an uphill battle.”

So it was interesting to hear from Stephen McPhail when Hoops Scene caught up the Shamrock Rovers Sporting Director this week, that amongst the people he spoke to around appointment was the one time Ireland and Shamrock Rovers manager.

“When I got this job I actually rang Johnny Giles and I asked to spend some time with him,” said McPhail. “We met up for three or four hours and his story was very similar to how I want to do things even though I know it was a long time ago.

“I was able to pick his brain, what he thought went wrong and what he thinks I should do and how I should go about my job. I was lucky I was able to take some ideas from that.”

Rovers’ ambitious plans for the academy at Roadstone are well underway, with a long term strategy at the club for players development. Unlike in the 1970s, other clubs around the League of Ireland are also looking to match those ambitions and McPhail, like Giles before him, thinks that is what is required.

“A lot of clubs will hopefully look at us and look to do similar. That is what we need with other clubs jumping on board to make the facilities in the country better as we are lacking that.

“What both Stephen Kenny has in Dundalk and John Caulfield in Cork is ambition to do similar to ourselves. Limerick have invested in their academy too. You hope that it catches on as there needs to be a change in this country.”

The FAI have brought national underage structures in gradually from top down with u19, u17 and now u15 national leagues in place, with an u13 league to follow – all with the aim of fostering a clear player pathway to the first team within each club.

Last week Rovers secured €180,000 financial support from the FAI to finish phase one and move forward with phase two works at Roadstone. The club hope to get final grant of planning permission shortly to construct four new dressing rooms, a coaching room and gym.

“The Junior academy (kids aged 4 to 7) moved to Roadstone a couple of weeks ago and that is the whole club in the one venue now. It was something we had spoken about with the board when I was a player, to have that feel of everyone under the one roof where we all know one another, all help one another and all look out for one another.

“We are really grateful for the funding from the FAI to help finish these top facilities where our young boys and our first team can work out of.

“For the young kids to see lads like Aidan Price (u19 manager), Stephen Rice (u17 manager), Damien Duff (Under 15 manager) and to be around them on a daily basis is great. Then there is the manager who never goes home – he lives in the place!”

So what is a typical day for the Hoops Sporting Director? “Giving you my daily routine would be mad as it really does vary. Typically, myself and the manager open up in the morning at 8 o’clock. We make sure everything is ready for the lads coming in. We have a staff meeting at 9 o’clock to prepare training and the coaches go through how the session is going to be.

“Some days I’ll be around till the academy come in at 4 o’clock. Most days are quite long but enjoyable. It is a bit of everything. I try and take the pressure a little bit off the manager in picking up some things so he doesn’t need to do them and he can concentrate on setting up his team and the coaching sessions.

“I am really enjoying it. We have a great back room staff from the head coach, first team coaches Glenn Cronin and Damien Duff, Darren Dillon (Strength & Conditioning coach), Tony McCarthy (Physio), Jose Ferrer Montagud (goalkeeping coach) and the kit men Mal (Slattery) and Gerry (Byrne).

“All of us are a really tight knit group. They work their socks off and are always looking to get better. I’m someone who they can lean on and they can pick my brains and I can point out little things that can be better. I try and knit it all together, along with the academy under Shane Robinson.

“Shane has a massive role with the academy from the u8s to the u19s. I’m around Shane on a daily basis. We see quite a bit of each other and we are always on the phone to each other – picking each other’s brain.

“He works really hard. He is really devoted to the academy and has a done a great job so far. Glenn (Cronin) has come into a coaching role in the academy and he has made a big difference.”

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Last week Robinson was with three of Rovers’ teams (u9, u10 and u11) at Premier League club Southampton. “Shane has that connection with Southampton for quite a while. They are a great club. I was over there with him and our team for an u18 game a couple months ago so we have a good relationship with them.

“Me and Shane have been to maybe six or eight clubs over the last ten months and we’ve kept in contact with them. We spent a couple of days at those clubs including the likes of Leeds where I played at. We were at Celtic and we’ve been over in Belgium too. We’ve got all sorts of help in that regard. We try and see if there is anything that we can take back and improve on here.

“Those clubs are really interested when we sit down and speak to them and tell them what we are doing; it is interesting for them to hear about our academy and us having such a young first team. I think they feel we are trying to do things right with the professionalism at the club.”

While McPhail retired from the game last year but the former Cardiff City captain still gets involved on the training pitch along with former Ireland internationals Damien Duff and Robbie Keane (who is still training with Rovers ahead of a move to India next month). Gary Shaw’s tweeted last week saying A goal was scored today in training…it started with McPhail, who played out wide to Duff who in turn crossed for Keane to finish’.

“I love getting my boots on but the body has had enough and is shouting stop!” joked the 37-year-old. When the Gaffer has been short of numbers in training I’ve jumped in.

“We had a five a side competition last week and the staff had a team in it. We won it so there was a bit of stick going around but we probably haven’t walked properly since then so we know our time is done!”

Jeff Hendrick – one of Burnley’s Boys in Green

August 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Photo by George Kelly

Published in Hoops Scene No.13 2017 season (July 2017)

Today won’t be the first time that some of the Irish internationals at Burnley have played here at Tallaght Stadium. Back in May 2012, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady lined out for the Republic of Ireland under 21 team against Denmark, with Kevin Long on the bench, as Brady scored Ireland’s only goal that day with a superb left foot free kick.

 

There were a few other familiar faces in the Ireland squad that day – including senior internationals Shane Duffy, Eunan O’Kane, John Egan, Conor Hourihane and Greg Cunningham, along with former Dundalk player Richie Towell.

 

With some time off ahead of June’s Ireland v Austria match, Jeff Hendrick dropped by Tallaght Stadium to have a chat with Hoops Scene. “Yeah, I remember playing at Under 21 level here a good few years ago,” said Hendrick. “Noel King called up and asked me to play. For me it is about pulling on that green jersey and representing the country.”

 

Hendrick would go on to represent Ireland at senior level for the first time less than a year later under then Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni. “It was brilliant to be called up to the first team squad, really unbelievable. I started that season with an ankle injury but when I came back I had a good January and I was scoring goals. I got the call up just after my 21st birthday so it was a great thing to celebrate.”

 

His debut was a friendly against Poland at a packed Aviva Stadium with Hendrick coming off the bench to provide an assist for Wes Hoolahan in the 2-0 win. “I wasn’t taking it as a friendly, it was a game for Ireland. The atmosphere was brilliant and it was great for me to get that chance. I have my jersey framed in my Mam and Dad’s house now and they have all the newspaper clippings! I set up a goal, which was good. You need to impress on your first game wherever you are.”

 

Photo by George Kelly

Hendrick was one of Ireland’s stand out performers in the European Championship in France last year when Ireland qualified for the knock out stages of the tournament. The recent results in Ireland’s Russia 2018 campaign mean qualification for the World Cup is still very much in the hands of Hendrick and his Irish teammates.

 

“It would be unbelievable to qualify for Russia. After playing in the Euros, you saw the atmosphere at the games, it is something we’d love to do again, play in a big tournament. It is a hard old group. We are doing well but we aren’t getting carried away.”

 

Today we should get to see a number of Burnley’s Boys in Green in action – with four of the starters in Ireland’s 1-1 draw against Austria coming from the club – Hendrick, Brady, Stephen Ward and Kevin Long (who was handed his first competitive start by Martin O’Neill in that match). It is a pretty influential Irish contingent in the Clarets’ squad [with Jon Walters also signed ahead of the new season].

 

Hendrick joined the club in August last year and admitted that having so many Irish players at the club helps. “You feel at home a little bit.” In the winter transfer window Robbie Brady joined, meaning Hendrick got the chance to play club football again with Brady. The pair played as kids in the same St. Kevin’s Boys team.

 

“It was great when Robbie came in during January. We keep in touch anyway as we are friends since we were young so it is great to be back playing with him. The likes of Wardy has been brilliant as well.”

 

Although when Hoops Scene reminds Hendrick, that Stephen Ward is a former Bohs player, he says “We won’t big him up too much here (in Tallaght)!”

 

When Brady joined Burnley for £13m, he broke the club’s transfer record which had been previously been set when Hendrick joined for £10.5m from Derby County. Being a £10m plus player can add some pressure to perform but Hendrick didn’t see it that way. “I didn’t really look at it as pressure. If someone is willing to pay that, I just have to use that to give me confidence and try to show that I’m worth that.

 

“From day one they made me welcome. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the place. We worked hard but it was enjoyable. That made it easy for me to settle in. The main thing for me was to play games. I’m always happy when I’m playing.”

 

The 25-year-old midfielder made 32 league appearances for the Clarets last season, scoring two goals, including the club’s goal of the year for a long range effort in the 3-2 home win over Bournemouth. The priority for the player for the season though, was to contribute to the club staying in the Premier League.

 

“It was a nice goal to get but the main thing for us was staying in the league. Everyone wrote us off before the season started and we proved a lot of people wrong. They kept us going all year. The results we were getting with our home form was something that everybody was talking about and I really enjoyed the season.”

Burnley racked up ten home wins in the league – the seventh highest in last season’s Premier League (two more than Manchester United). However they only managed one away win all campaign and that was in late April. So it took some time for them to reach the magical 40 point mark which most seasons, like last year, confirms safety. They got to that stage with a 2-2 draw against West Brom two games from the end of the season.

 

“It was relief (to avoid relegation). We thought we were in a good position, a good bit out from the end of the season but you still have to keep putting points on the board and win games.”

 

Unsurprisingly Hendrick is very happy working under Burnley boss Sean Dyche. “From the minute I went in there, he told me what he wanted from me. I got to know the way his team plays. He tells it as it is and that is all you can ask as a player. You know where you stand and what you need to do to stay in the team.”

 

The player was 16 when he first moved over to England to Derby County where, like at Burnley, there was a sizeable Irish contingent, with five players on the youth team books including current Rovers player Ryan Connolly.

 

“From a very young age, any chance I got I was going over to different clubs. You hear stories of kids getting homesick and so but for me I was moving over to do something that I love – to play football every day. Any kid would love to do that.

 

“Ryan (Connolly) texted me when the fixture came out. We still keep in touch as we were good mates when we were over there together. It will be good to play against him.

 

“We are here for a week, with a few days training, then the game and then back to England. It is always good when I’m home with Ireland that the parents can drop out for a cup of tea and have a chat. It will be good for my friends and family to see me play a game here (in Tallaght). Hopefully we win. It is going to be tough as yous will be half way through your season.”

 

This article was published in Hoops Scene for Shamrock Rovers v FK Mlada Boleslav / Burnley in July 2017.

 

Legends live on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a woman so known for her dramatic acting roles, it is fitting that Maureen O’Hara is buried in such a dramatic setting. In Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, the burial plot of the legendary Hollywood actress is shaded by mature trees, within sight of the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame.

 

Buried alongside her husband Charles Blair – a former Brigadier General in US Air Force – the p
lot is just below Arlington House, once the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

 

On holiday in Washington over Easter, I found myself at Arlington on Good Friday on the day when Rovers were commemorating 30 years since the loss of Milltown.

 

O’Hara’s father Charles Fitzsimons was a part-owner of the Hoops from the 1930s and so O’Hara was a regular attendee at Milltown and never lost her love for the Hoops.

 

On the morning I’m there, the stars and stripes flag flys at half mast on the hill behind her grave. With a funeral taking place not far away, amongst the startling bright rows of white gravestones, the sound of a lone bugler playing taps drifts on the wind.

 

O’Hara travelled far from her days growing up in Ranelagh. She became the ‘Queen of Technicolor’ in the golden age of Hollywood. While her allegiance to Rovers is not mentioned on the reverse of the gravestone, her lifetime achievement award from the Irish Film & Television Academy is noted just above her honorary Oscar she received in 2014.

 

Later that weekend I swap my fix of League of Ireland football for a slice of something as American as apple pie – a baseball game. The Washington Nationals play in a stadium opened in the same season that the Hoops moved to Tallaght.

 

Playing in Navy Yard, the ‘Nats’ are the latest team to represent the American capital in Major League Baseball. The franchise system in baseball means that many supporters over the years have lost not just their stadiums but have lost their teams to another city.

 

Washington’s original team were the Senators who won the 1924 World Series while playing at Griffith Stadium. The venue also played home to the Washington Redskins American Football team for 24 years. It was a stadium where at some stage every American President from William Taft to John F Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Soon after the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1962, the Stadium was demolished and became the site for Howard University Hospital. Just like at Milltown, tere is a monument to the famous stadium at its former location but one that is a bit different than a simple plaque.The Glenmalure Park monument in Milltown is topped off by a football and there is a baseball theme to the Griffith Stadium memorial.

 

If you stroll through the hospital from the main entrance and turn right, you will see the marker. Griffith Stadium may be gone but it is not forgotten as beside the gents toilets, a home plate and batter box is marked out on the corridor watched over by photos of the venue.

 

Published in Hoops Scene – Shamrock Rovers match programme v Dundalk (5 May 2017)

 

 

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

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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