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Joey O’Brien: ‘I wanted to win the league. I wanted to win the cup. I wanted to put the club back at the top’

Published in Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers May 2021)

There have been plenty of crucial late goals this season that have helped propel the Hoops top of the league and cement the record run of games undefeated in League of Ireland history but for Shamrock Rovers defender Joey O’Brien a few run of the mill wins built on the back of clean sheets would do just as nicely.

“It is always something we talk about in the dressing room that clean sheets win leagues,” said O’Brien. “It is obviously great to get last minute winners. We know if we can get a clean sheet, a win will be easier as the lads are going to score goals. 

“The foundation at the back allows you to be in the game and control the game. A single goal can win you the game with that clean sheet. We would like to get a few more this year. Come the end of the season, the team with the most clean sheets will probably win the league.

“It has gone on so long across three seasons,” said O’Brien about the record of undefeated games for Rovers. When the Hoops hit 31 unbeaten following the win in Finn Harps, they beat a record that had stood since 1927.  “It is a great achievement but it is probably something that you will only look back on in years to come as at the minute it is just on to the next game and the next game. 

“To be honest there isn’t much talk on it in the dressing room. Let’s just win the game in front of you and that is what we were at. It isn’t about keeping the run going. It is about winning what is in front of you. Keep rolling on to the next game.”

It took an injury time winner for Rovers to earn all three points against St. Patrick’s Athletic in Richmond Park, while Rory Gaffney’s goal on the back of a quickly taken throw in from Liam Scales got the Hoops a point last time out here in Tallaght.

“You can’t beat a last minute winner,” said O’Brien about Danny Mandroiu’s goal against the Saints. “It was a tough hard game against Pats. Tackles were flying in. It is a local derby so it makes the win that bit sweeter. It was first against second in the league which added to it and made the win that bit more important.”

The current Shamrock Rovers squad is one that has been created by Stephen Bradley since he took up the Head Coach role at Rovers. The acquisition of O’Brien in 2018 was a crucial one – bringing in a player with both Premier League and international football experience but just as important a player with a driven attitude who is a crucial member of the leadership group in the squad.

“I wanted to win the league. I wanted to win the cup. I wanted to put the club back at the top,” said O’Brien about his ambitions on signing for the club. “That was it. Nothing else. Speaking to the manager when I first came in, that was why I came here. 

“I maybe didn’t realise how far off we were at the start. We weren’t really near the top then. We were qualifying for Europe but there was Dundalk and Cork battling each other and we were below that. 

“You could see the change in the team with the players who left and those who came in. There has been a huge turnover in players since I came to the club. The quality has come into the group and players have improved and improved. 

“The manager has changed the system of play and that has really benefited us. He has brought in really good players who have really fitted into the system. It has been really good over the last 18 months and more from when we won the cup. 

“That was a huge turning point for us,” said O’Brien about the team winning the FAI Cup in 2019 beating Dundalk on penalties in the Aviva Stadium  – the first Rovers side to achieve that success in 32 years. “Winning the cup was a massive massive moment. There is no hiding from that. 

“The club had waited so long. The size of this club and the magnitude of this football club, the players realised how long it was. On cup final day, you could see how big the crowd was, the outpouring of emotion, to see fans who had waited so long or those that had never seen us win the cup. 

“That gave the players in the group a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment. But also confidence in our ability – we were the team that ended that cup drought. A huge part of football is the having the confidence to go out and to excel. We got that from the cup final and it rolled on to the following season. 

“It isn’t just being about an older player going around as an older voice of having seen it and done it,” said O’Brien about the leadership dynamic in the Rovers squad. “You don’t really want that. It is about creating the right environment in the dressing room where there are no issues. No cliques.

“If there are any issues, you want the younger lads to be comfortable and confident to go and speak to one of the senior players. You have the experience in the dressing room but it isn’t authoritarian and that these lads are the main men who run it. It isn’t like that. It means you are there to give guidance if you are asked and if there is something that is worrying them. It means you’ve been there and can offer them some advice on how to handle it.

“I am an older player so my life experience is different. I’m going home to play with my kids whereas they younger lads are going home to play on their PlayStation. What you have in common is playing football and the dressing room. 

“The competitiveness and intensity of training are things that will never change. The older lads in the group probably do demand more in training, we put the demand of each other. That then leads on to match day.”

After last Friday’s visit to Oriel Park, the Hoops welcome Sligo Rovers to Tallaght Stadium this evening. When the teams last met a Rory Gaffney deflected shot off John Mahon two minutes from time earned the Hoops a draw. O’Brien knows this evening’s game will be difficult against the Bit O’ Red. 

“I’ve always had a lot of time for Liam Buckley looking at his teams from the outside. Looking at the level and clubs that he played at and also his Pats team and how he had them play. Even now at Sligo you can see how he has changed them. He has brought in some really good players and he has improved the squad. They are right in the race. Sligo have done really well. 

“It will be a tough game and that has been the case when we have played the last few times. The scorelines maybe haven’t reflected the game. They have been a lot tighter games than the final outcome.”

Toasting a Harps win and a Rovers title win

Published in the official Finn Harps match day programme Issue 4/2021 (Finn Harps v Shamrock Rovers)

There has always been a good relationship between Finn Harps and Shamrock Rovers dating right back to when the Hoops provided the opposition in 1969 for Harps’ first League of Ireland game. As a Shamrock Rovers fan I’ve always enjoyed travelling up to Finn Park and cannot wait to get up to Ballybofey again when restrictions allow – and the new stadium in Stranorlar when finances for opening the venue allow. 

There is always a great welcome for the travelling supporters in Donegal; there is the wonderful soup and from a Hoops perspective in recent years the results have gone Rovers way. You have to go back to November 2008 for the last Harps win over the Hoops with Marc Mukendi and Conor Gethins on the scoresheet in the 2-0 victory in Finn Park.

Cementing the relationship of good will of course is Finn Harps’ role last season in handing Shamrock Rovers the title. Yes, the Hoops went through the COVID-19 shortened season unbeaten, conceding just seven goals and keeping 13 clean sheets in the 18 games but it was a Finn Harps win in November that got Rovers over the line to confirm the league title – even better from a Rovers perspective was that Harps’ crucial win was against Rovers’ rivals Bohemians.

Harps had lost 12 in a row in Dalymount Park but came up trumps that night. I was probably the only Shamrock Rovers supporter who was present to see Rovers win the league. I was in the Phibsborough venue reporting for extratime.com. Come the final whistle I was thankful of the mask I was wearing so I could have some semblance of neutrality as people couldn’t see the wide grin going across my face as Rovers had secured their 18th league title.

Aaron McEneff described the scenario on the night when I spoke with the former Rovers man recently. “I was sitting at home and looking at the Bohs v Finn Harps game on WatchLOI. The Finn Harps ‘keeper had a stormer pulling off great saves. Around the 75 minute mark with Harps 2-0 up and Bohs down to ten men, our players WhatsApp group slowly started to take off. When it got to 85th minute, I had the drinks open. We then went on FaceTime with the lads to celebrate.” The Hoops Head Coach Stephen Bradley wasn’t even watching that night and was only alerted to what was unfolding thanks to his assistant coach Glenn Cronin messaging him with ten minutes to go.

The 2-0 win for Harps was their first win over Bohs in Dalymount Park this century and was quite a time to do it. Ollie Horgan’s men were battling to avoid relegation and the three points that night, as well as making the Hoops champions, sent one of their relegation rivals Cork City down.

Mark Russell was the hero for Harps (and the Hoops!) scoring a goal either side of the half time break. It left Harps five points behind Shels but with two games in hand and it was a gap Harps would overcome to stay up so that tonight they could welcome once again the Hoops to Ballybofey in Premier Division action.

Alan Mannus: ‘We have a style of play where we want to keep possession’

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 3/2021 (Shamrock Rovers v Longford Town – 17 April 2021)

Looking back on last season’s title winning campaign for Shamrock Rovers, the defensive statistics for the Hoops are worth highlighting. Across the 18 league campaign, the team kept 13 clean sheets and conceded just seven goals – the fewest in the history of the League of Ireland (which includes 22 seasons which were 18 game campaigns or less). In the final 11 matches of the 2020 Premier Division, the Hoops conceded just the one goal.

“It was remarkable,” said Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus reflecting on the title success built on that defensive strength. “Normally when it is a team like Shamrock Rovers who are competing to win the league, you set yourself a target of 20 clean sheets over a 36 game campaign. 

“It was different last year with the season cut in half (due to COVID-19) but we had 13 clean sheets so if we had played double the games we would have had over 20. I wasn’t that busy in terms of making saves and that shows how good the team was especially the defenders but we defend from the front. Everyone contributes towards that.” 

While Mannus mentions that defending that starts with the strikers, the way the Hoops play it also works the other way – with the attacks starting from the goalkeeper. In Rovers’ recent 2-1 win over Dundalk in the last game played here in Tallaght, it was noticeable how involved Mannus was in beating the press that Lilywhites exerted on Rovers in that game.

Possession and beating the press

“We have a style of play where we want to keep possession. We have worked hard on distribution, particularly in the last few weeks. We are trying to progress with that in training as a goalkeeping team. We are working on not just hitting it to the player but to their chest or feet over an opponent rather than just close to them. I’m trying to learn to do that as a goalkeeper. 

“Previous to being at Rovers, it was usually about hitting it as far as you could into an area where you strikers can challenge for the header. It is very different now where you are trying to pick people out and maintain possession.

“The way Dundalk set up their press, I couldn’t really go to the centre half a lot of the time but that meant there was someone else who was free. We should always have an option if I can’t get to the centre half. They players need to be in certain positions to create space and then I need to recognise that and be good enough to try and get it to that player.

“I think that football is changing and evolving. You can see the way the best teams in the world play. Teams like Man City and Barcelona are playing that way for years and, while we are not comparing ourselves with them, it is about seeing can we progress with what we are doing. 

“We all know the role we have and we have a purpose to either receive the ball or create space for someone else to receive it. That puts a certain responsibility on me for where I need to be after I make a pass.” 

Rovers were made work for the win against Dundalk with Mannus pulling off a number of saves that helped the Hoops to all three points.

“In the second half I was quite busy and you’d expect that against a team like Dundalk. Any team that has players up front like Pat Hoban and Michael Duffy, they are going to cause you problems. I thought Liam (Scales), Sean (Hoare) and Lee (Grace) were excellent in front of me as a back three – they defended really well. 

“I was pleased with that save when I pushed in onto the bar even if it was offside. We were working on that thing in training during the week with Jose [Ferrer – Rovers’ goalkeeping coach] with a header that bounces around you. The main thing against Dundalk was we won and I was pleased that I was able to contribute.”

Behind closed doors

The atmosphere in Tallaght Stadium for that behind-closed-doors win over the Lilywhites was very different from a little over 12 months ago when over 7,500 fans packed into the same venue to see a Rovers 3-2 win. “You do miss the crowd especially when you walk towards the goal and the supporters are behind the goal, you hear your name being sung and we clap one another. It is different but I’m quite used to having no supporters now.

“Some players can get an edge off the adrenaline of a big crowd. I’ve always tried to be quite relaxed on the pitch. I don’t want to be pumping adrenaline too much. I want to be calm. That’s the way I want to try and play.”

The Hoops haven’t been able to have their usual gym regime with COVID-19 regulations meaning only outdoor facilities can be used. Mannus has built up his own home gym over the years and it has come into its own during lockdown. The goalkeeper feels the strength and conditioning work he has done over his career has been massively beneficial to him.

“We have an outdoor set up at Roadstone which we call ‘the rig’ and Darren Dillon does a great job organising that work for us. I also have a set up at home that I’ve had for a while. Outside of goalkeeping training, that has been the most important thing for me. There is a saying that the best ability is availability. If I look back over my time, one of the biggest things for me is that I’ve been available to play where as other goalkeepers have picked up knocks. I’ve had a few injuries along the way but I’ve missed less time over 20 years than most goalkeepers and for me it is has been through that strength training and the gym work.

“Other goalkeepers might have been better than me but they got injured and allowed me get by them in the pecking order and that is down to the training I was doing. I’ve put the time in over the years and that has helped me.” 

Gavin Bazunu

When Mannus re-joined Rovers during the 2018 season he worked closely with Gavin Bazunu who last month made his senior international debut for the Republic of Ireland. “Me and Gavin still text each other and I congratulated him when he was called up to the squad. I was delighted to see how well he has gone on to do and nothing has happened by chance for Gavin.

“The very first training session when I came back to the club, he came over to me and said ‘if you see anything that can help me, please tell me’. He was only 16 then and hadn’t played for the first team and that was really impressive to me. With a younger ‘keeper,  there are two parts as to how good they are. There is the technicality of their game and then the mental side – not just on the pitch but attitude and desire and determination to be the best. 

“Gavin had good levels of both but his desire and determination was the main thing for me. He has been excellent. He should be in the senior squad in future and not the under-21.”

We want to retain the cup that we worked so hard to win – Roberto Lopes

December 4, 2020 Leave a comment

Interview from Hoops Scene No. 11 (2020) – Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers, FAI Cup semi-final, Sunday 29 November 2020

Everything about this year has been quite different including the fact that with a shortened SSE Airtricity League season due to COVID-19 the league finished up before the quarter-final stage of the extra.ie FAI Cup.  With Shamrock Rovers 2-0 down at half time away to Finn Harps in their quarter-final last week, those looking in on WATCHLOI might have felt that the Hoops had only another 45 minutes of football to go in 2020. On a miserably cold and wet night on a sticky pitch in Ballybofey, it wasn’t looking too good for Rovers. 

However the Hoops weren’t happy with letting their unbeaten run in the league and cup that goes back to August 2019 come to end. Awarded a remarkable three penalties in five minutes – with Aaron McEneff missing the first and scoring the next two – coupled with Graham Burke’s winner saw the Hoops through to tonight’s semi-final.

 “We went a goal down after 15 minutes and you are thinking this is going to be hard work,” said Roberto Lopes when he spoke with Hoops Scene this week. “Then for them to get a second one so quickly, your thoughts are we have a mountain to climb on that pitch, in the form they are in and how hard they work for one another but there was no panic. 

“The important thing was to be calm and trust what we do. We just needed to increase the energy and the tempo. We got that reaction in the second half – we got more in their face and we turned the screw and the pressure told in the end. We got our reward.

“We know that if we lose a game now, it is the season finished. It became real that Friday night in Harps – you live to fight another day or the season either ends. For me, I can’t imagine finishing the season and there are other teams still playing games. You want to be there at the end.” 

Lopes recalled that his captain Ronan Finn told his teammates that were well prepared to take on Harps in such difficult weather conditions. “Finner said it before the game that we had the best preparation of this quarter-final which was playing them two weeks before. The conditions that night were maybe worse then as there was a threat of the game being called off.

“We had to change slightly the way we played, but the principals were still there in how we attack, create chances and be patient and the opportunities will come. Having that experience of playing up there a couple of weeks ago and knowing what it was going to be like really prepared us for the game.”

The Hoops became the first League of Ireland club to go through a league campaign without a defeat since the 1920s and Rovers are focussed on retaining the FAI Cup which would also mean the club going through the full domestic season without a defeat. 

“The drive for this team is to remain unbeaten and we need to win this cup or else we will be beaten. We want to retain the cup that we worked so hard to win. The fans waited so long for Rovers to win the cup and for most of the players like myself it was the first time to win it. There is a massive motivation to win the cup and cap a great year off with a double.”

The statistics are quite remarkable for Rovers this year. In the 18 game league campaign the Hoops conceded just seven goals – the fewest ever in League of Ireland history. They kept 13 clean sheets and in the final 11 league games of the season, they conceded only one goal. 

“Defenders earn their crust on clean sheets and how well you defend. It isn’t just about getting your body in front of the ball, giving no chances up but when you have the ball can you keep it long enough so your opponents don’t get it. Can you be brave and play out from the back and through midfield without giving the opponent an opportunity to attack. That is a big part of defending – when you have the ball.

“We have such a fantastic goalkeeper in Alan (Mannus) – he gives us that confidence. 

Joey (O’Brien) is top class. We know what Lee (Grace) is capable of. In his first season at the club, there is nothing that fazes Liam Scales – he has fitted right in and been brilliant. You go through the team and we defend from the front. It is so important what Aaron Greene does for the team. The ability to win the ball high up and in midfield like we’ve done this year, it really does take the pressure off us defenders. Keeping that mentality throughout the team we will concede fewer goals.”

Lopes has played a crucial part in those clean sheets but his late goals have been invaluable too – all scored from set pieces. With Rovers trailing 2-1 to Dundalk in February, Lopes popped up with the equaliser on 71 minutes before Jack Byrne got the winner in front of over 7,500 fans in Tallaght – the last time supporters have watched a game in the stadium. Lopes got the winner nine minutes from time in the Brandywell as Rovers came from 1-0 down to win in August. In the Europa League later that month, it was the defenders’ flicked goal on 78 minutes that forced the game to extra-time before Rovers won the most remarkable penalty shootout (with Lopes scoring his side’s seventh spotkick).

“It is very important to chip in with goals throughout the team. When you have the quality of delivery with Jack Byrne, Aaron McEneff or Sean Kavanagh at set pieces you need to be scoring off them. We have great opportunities from set pieces and we work really hard on them. Goals win games and if we can chip in with a few goals between us that can make a difference. It is a team effort.”

Lopes was a half-time substitute in the 3-2 win over Finn Harps having just returned from being part of the Cape Verde squad in home and away Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Rwanda – both of which finished scoreless.

“It was a fantastic trip,” said Lopes. “It was professionally done. We were COVID tested four times in eight days when I was there plus the test before I left Ireland. They were really on top of it. You had a room to yourself and it was mask and hand sanitiser like here. 

“We were disappointed that we didn’t get three points in both games. There are some great quality players in the squad who are playing across the world. We are trying to qualify for the Cup of Nations – we will probably have to beat Mozambique and get something off Cameroon in the games next March. I’d love to be a part of the team who can qualify.”

It was a long journey home for Lopes with a flight from Rwanda to Uganda then a nine hour flight to Amsterdam where he had a further six hour layover before landing in Dublin the day before the game against Harps.

It has also been a journey for Lopes to win his first League of Ireland title. He was one of Stephen Bradley’s first signing for the Hoops moving across the Liffey from Bohemians. He is a player that Rovers fans mark out as one who has improved the most since his arrival in Tallaght. Playing in one of the club’s strongest ever teams, the 28-year-old defender is one of those in contention to win the club’s player of the year award.

It has also been a journey for Lopes to win his first League of Ireland title. He was one of Stephen Bradley’s first signing for the Hoops moving across the Liffey from Bohemians. He is a player that Rovers fans mark out as one who has improved the most since his arrival in Tallaght. Playing in one of the club’s strongest ever teams, the 28-year-old defender is one of those in contention to win the club’s player of the year award.

“One of the reasons I signed for Shamrock Rovers was to improve as a player. I knew my strengths coming here and I knew my weaknesses. One of the big things I said coming here is that I can learn the game. I can become a better footballer. 

“The fact that people said I couldn’t pass water when I signed here and say now that I look like a footballer, I see that as a massive complement to me. It is testament to the manager and all the coaching staff who have brought me to this level. I’ve worked really hard to learn. They have given me the tools to become the player that I have. I am still not there yet and I can improve

“Winning the league wasn’t just something we’ve been trying to achieve this season but something we have worked towards over the last number of years. It was a fantastic experience and that is my first time ever winning the league. I’ve been trying to do it over the last ten years so it was a really special moment for me. We enjoyed the night of the trophy presentation and we made sure we celebrated as it is important to do that and acknowledge what we had done.” 

A hardcopy and digital version of this programme is available to purchase from Shamrock Rovers here.

Leaving The Liberties Lockdown

We head out of lockdown on Monday, with the revised three phase exit strategy providing a certain symmetry for what was effectively a three stage entry process back in March. It has been a long and strange time over these past few months for everyone.

Maybe I should have kept a diary to document it all. Instead I tweeted random thoughts and took plenty of photos of cats and street art for Instagram – hey whatever gets you through – so I had a flick through those posts as a prompt to pen a few thoughts on what lockdown here in The Liberties was like for me.

Phase 3 begins on Monday – 105 days after the first stage of lockdown. We knew things were serious back on 12 March when at 7am in the morning in Washington DC (11am in Dublin) then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was giving a speech to the Irish public starting with “I need to speak to you about the Coronavirus”. Looking up from my desk in the office at that time, people were going about their daily work oblivious that this would be their last few days in the office for over three months.

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I make Leo Varadkar’s speech five days later – his unprecedented St. Patrick’s Day address – the second phase of entering lockdown. The whole thing got serious when even I was sitting on my couch that night getting a bit emotional about it all. “This is the calm before the storm, before the surge. And when it comes, and it will come, never will so many ask so much of so few.” Gulp.

A week and a bit later and it was our final phase of entry – into full lockdown. By then there was over 2,000 cases and sadly 22 deaths. Friday 27 March it was announced that “with effect from midnight tonight…everybody must stay at home in all circumstances” except for a number of situations including brief individual physical exercise within 2km of your home – no more running in the Phoenix Park for me.

This all had me so addled that at the end of that speech I did my first bit of panic shopping as I stuck my runners on, went out to the local shop just before it closed and embarrassingly this was what I brought home – that and some chips as I thought the chippers would be closed at midnight – thankfully it never came to that.

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I was lucky enough to be able to continue to work from home during this time and have that routine of a typical working day to keep me in check. I switched my usual morning commute time for daily yoga! Certainly it was a stress reliever and a help for my lower back which hasn’t enjoyed the kitchen table chair I’ve been sitting on every day!

With live sport also in lockdown what the hell was I going to do with my time. Initially I started with chronicling all my Shamrock Rovers match programmes going back to the 1990s, then I moved onto the jerseys and then I started working my way through the Rovers squad doing video interviews for the club’s social media channels!

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The videos of course allowed me to showcase my bookcases – and I also added some new books to the shelves. All told I reckon I read 16 books during lockdown. My lockdown recommendations are:

Football: Stillness & Speed, Football Hackers, Forever Young
Apocalypse now: Station Eleven, Zone One, Notes from the Apocalypse
Fiction: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Devil in the White City, Normal People

Ah yes, Normal People. What a great distraction the TV version was. Wonderfully shot, acted and soundtracked and who didn’t fall in love with Marianne or become fixated with Connell’s chain.

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As we exit lockdown, there will be things I will miss and I know that can sound a bit selfish when you think of the reasons why we went into lockdown. Such as the evening walks through the near deserted streets around The Liberties but I’m hoping to keep these strolls going post-lockdown (see previous blog post here). I will miss that time walking to the soundtrack of David O’Doherty’s hilarious Isolation podcast from Achill Island on the Second Captains podcast platform.

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There were a few weeks when the DPD driver was the person I spoke to most face-to-face as I availed of some online shopping – one of these deliveries was a hair clippers and two haircuts later I will be glad to get back to a real barbers sometime in the future.

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I got back into the habit I had long gotten out of and started watching the main evening news on RTÉ each night. And live sport on TV was replaced by live CNN in the evening with Wolf Blitzer and the Situation Room chronicling America’s woes. As the US numbers get worse with 125,000 deaths and counting, the numbers in Ireland got better and better, with thankfully no deaths recorded on some days in late June.

The outgoing government, which I had very little time for, I think deserve great credit for the excellent job of handling the crisis and they hand over to a new government just as we leave lockdown. Let’s wish them the best and not worry about what is in or out of their programme for government. Let’s not worry about a second wave, question when can we go on holidays abroad or give out about the increased traffic on the roads.

Let’s think of all those who have worked so hard over the last 100+ days to get us into the position that we can leave lockdown. Think of those who we have lost and those friends and family that have helped us get through this. Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands and be thankful of the good days that are to come.

Away Days

August 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene, Shamrock Rovers match programme versus Finn Harps (9 August 2019)

When I’m asked just how much a Shamrock Rovers fan I am, I usually respond that I’m a season ticket holder. The questioner might ask do I travel to away matches? Why yes I do is the answer and we are talking North (Derry and Rovaniemi), South (Cork and Thessaloniki), West (Galway and Reykjavik) and East (Bray and Nicosia).

I remember my first Shamrock Rovers away match, a trip to the northside to Tolka Park at the end of the 1993/94 season. It was the night Alan Dodd’s lob was the opener in a 3-0 win over Shelbourne, a victory that all but sealed the league title for Rovers that season. My first trip to Dalymount Park was for the part of the Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers FAI Cup trilogy in 1994 when Stephen Geoghegan celebrated his equaliser climbing up onto the fence at Dalymount Park.

As I got older, I began to attend games outside of Dublin and a crucial game for sucking me into being an away day fan was the midweek FAI Cup replay against Cork City in January 2000. With no floodlights at the Munster FA venue at the time, it was an early afternoon kick off.

This was back in the day before the Rovers Chat group on Facebook and maybe even before the SRFC Ultras Forum when we just had a fans email distribution list. Either way, a Rovers fan made a booking with Iarnrod Eireann and opened it up for random Hoops to sign up to and avail of the group booking discount. I think my work colleagues thought I was mad to take the day off work to travel down to Cork on a Wednesday for the game. I arrived at Heuston Station on my own that day not really quite knowing what to expect about the day’s outing.

By the time I got back to Dublin after Rovers latest cup heartache, although I didn’t know it then, I had made friends for life. Going to Cork that day I got chatting on the carriage to a number of Hoops who I didn’t know at the time and to be honest that conversation hasn’t stopped since. A number of those lads are part of the group of fans I still go and watch the games with now 19 years later!

That is the thing about traveling away. Time spent in the supporters club bus, on the away terrace or in the car form firm friendships and the football away day becomes so much more than about the 90 minutes of action out on the pitch.

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Travelling for a European away trip takes it all to another level. Last week’s visit to Cyprus was my 17thEuropean trip. There have been highs (did I ever tell you about that time in Belgrade?), there have been lows (what ever happened to that Rovers manager who presided over our embarrassingly early European elimination in Lithuania in 2012?) and everything in between.

My first Euro away was to the Czech Republic when Rovers took on Slovan Liberec in 2003. The most amusing thing from that trip was seeing Bohemians player Kevin Hunt turning up in Dublin Airport for a weekend in Prague that his partner had booked unaware that they’d be sharing the flight with Shamrock Rovers players, officials and supporters heading to their Intertoto Cup game. To be fair, Hunt took it very well but I suppose what else could he do!

It will be hard to ever beat the 2011 European campaign with its six Euro away trips. I remember in Tallinn being a bundle of nerves ahead of kick off of the 2011 Champions League qualifier against Flora. The Hoops carried a 1-0 lead with them to Estonia and the second leg – thanks to Alan Mannus’ first leg penalty save in Tallaght – and we knew that getting through would mean a minimum two more ties. The nerves were due to the finally poised tie but also due to the fact that one of the Irish national newspaper had asked me to pen a match report for the game and I’d never written one before that point!

The Hoops escaped with a scoreless draw – the newspaper got their 700 word report – and Rovers were off on a European adventure that I would follow for the next five months via Copenhagen, Belgrade, London, Thessalonica and through to Kazan in the snow in December.

The high point of that Europa League campaign was probably Stephen Rice putting Rovers in the lead in White Hart Lane but I also remember fondly the trip to Greece to play PAOK as peak-Shamrock Rovers for that Michael O’Neill squad. We were unlucky to only lost 2-1 in the Stadio Toumba and as supporters we celebrated in the pub after the game the fact that we were about to retain the title the following week. “We are going to win two in a row, and we are going win three and we are going to win four and we are going to win five in row,” we sung but it didn’t quite turn out like that!

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PAOK Away – 2011 Europa League Group stages

On a couple of occasions I’ve signed up to travel when the club have run a charter. The most bizarre trip ever was the one to play ROPS Rovanaimi on the Arctic Circle in Finland. It was a fairly small group of supporters who went on that one and we literally travelled on the team bus from the stadium to the airport after!

That was Stephen Bradley’s first match in charge of the Rovers in Europe with last week’s his 11th as Hoops Head Coach and his team came as close as possible in the tie against Apollon that the cup action this week was nearly European rather than the FAI Cup but it just wasn’t to be. For the second consecutive season, Rovers took quality opposition to extra time away from home in the second leg of a Europa League qualifiers before being unlucky not to get over the line. There is only optimism for next year’s European campaign already. Get the dates in your diary for Europe next July – it is always worth making it an away day.

London Calling

September 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Article published in Hoops Scene – Shamrock Rovers match day programme – on Friday 14 September 2018

If there is a phrase to raise the hackles of a League of Ireland supporter, then it is one often used in August by some people saying ‘football is back’. For us of course February is the return of our #greatestleagueintheworld but that phrase did make sense for me last month when I spent a month or so working in London – providing me with a great opportunity to check out some local football in the London area just as the English football season was beginning.

As a self-confessed groundhopper, it was great to get to some grounds I hadn’t been to before, including a couple of stadiums that won’t be hosting their current clubs for too much longer. So I got out the football fixtures, downloaded the Citymapper travel planner and put some of the Queens shilling on my Oyster card to get me to six games in 18 days!

With 46 games in the regular season, League One kicks off on the first weekend of August and Wimbledon’s first home game of the season was the first match on my schedule – a traditional 3pm Saturday afternoon kick off against Coventry City.

Construction work has begun on the new Plough Lane stadium, which will host AFC Wimbledon in seasons to come but at present they play in the ‘Cherry Red Records Stadium’ in Kingsmeadow.

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Like can be seen in Tallaght on the opening day of any season, fans were wishing each other a ‘happy new season’, the pitch was in impeccable condition and there was a sense of optimism about the season ahead. The scoreless draw that came soon after may have dented that optimism somewhat!

The early rounds of the Carabao Cup are set in amongst the first couple of weeks of the season and I got to two midweek League Cup games beginning with Gillingham’s visit to Millwall.

There were a few familiar faces in the ground on match night – fixed to the walls of the concourse area below the main stand. Amongst the photos of Millwall teams from days gone by, one that caught me eye was a picture of the Lions team from the very first game in the ‘New Den’.

In the back row are a future Republic of Ireland captain and someone familiar still on the pitch both at Ireland games and here in Tallaght. Kenny Cunningham and Tony McCarthy, currently the Ireland and Rovers physio, both played in the first match at Millwall’s new ground back in 1993.

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It was a sparse enough crowd for this League Cup game with the biggest cheer on the night nearly coming when the PA man confirmed that the game would go straight to penalties without any extra time after a scoreless 90 minutes. The shootout included a spectacular miss by Gillingham’s Josh Parker who skied the ball into the away crowd located in the upper tier behind the goal allowing Millwall to ultimately prevail on penalties.

Like AFC Wimbledon, Brentford are also building a new ground. Their fancy new stadium just a mile away from their current ground will replace the old school Griffin Park. The existing venue gets its name from the griffin that features on the logo of Fuller’s Brewery which once owned an orchard where the ground is located. Renowned for having a pub in the four corners of the ground, the Bees will move from Griffin Park in the summer of 2020.

With Ireland international Alan Judge ruling the midfield battle, Brentford should have beaten Cheltenham Town in the league cup by more than the 1-0 scoreline that they got on the night.

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It was a trek out of London to Luton for another midweek game. I grew up when Luton Town were in the top flight of English football with Steve Foster – and his trademark headband – captaining the side that played on the plastic pitch in Kenilworth Road.

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While I hadn’t been to a match at the ground before, I did take a wander around the outside to break up the eight hour stopover in Luton en-route to Tallinn during Rovers amazing 2011 European campaign.

‘Kenny’ is hemmed in by housing on three sides and a road on the other and is a tight compact ground. While the plastic pitch may be gone, its row of corporate boxes close to the pitch opposite the main stand still give it its distinct look. It was a very pleasant evening sitting in 25 degrees watching Town win 2-0 over Southend in front of an impressive 9,000 plus attendance for a Tuesday night League One fixture.

For many years the Valley was one of Britain’s biggest football grounds with a 75,000 capacity but it is now reduced to just a third of that. A crowd of 8,810 came on the day I made the trip to the Valley for another League One fixture – Charlton Athletic v Fleetwood Town.

When the match kicked off, suddenly I was getting hit on the back of the head by packets of crisps. Charlton are a club currently in crisis with the fans at loggerheads with the owner and what they perceive as his penny pinching measures. A member of staff at the club reputedly had to ask could they eat a packet of crisps at their desk after the working hours of the cleaners had been reduced as part of cutbacks to the club’s spending. In protest, the fans decided to have a crisp protest with the game delayed as stewards had to clear the thrown assorted crisp packets off the pitch!

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It was another scoreless draw for me to watch with the best bit of play that afternoon coming from the Charlton fan who won £5,000 at half time hitting the woodwork as part of the club’s crossbar challenge!

I didn’t just wallow in the lower leagues of English football but did take in one Premier League game. Archibald Leitch is the architect responsible for many of the iconic grounds in Britain and beyond, although with stadium regeneration there is less and less of his work still to be seen.

While the architect’s work at Ayrsome Park, the Old Den and even Dalymount Park can no longer be seen, Leitch designs can still be spotted at Ibrox, Villa Park and the main stand and pavilion at Fulham’s Craven Cottage.

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In Fulham I sat amongst 2,000 or so Burnley fans and quite a few fellow football tourists including both French and German groundhoppers with the home team winning 4-2. It was one of few wet days in London this summer so half time I was glad of the warm Bovril and felt it rude not to have a Cottage Pie at Craven Cottage. I sampled a few pies on my travels with my main take being that they seem to heat them up to the temperature of molten lava before serving them to the supporters!

While it was great to be able to groundhop around London taking in these various games, I much prefer to be back here in Tallaght watching Shamrock Rovers. There is definite truth tonight for me in saying that ‘football is back’.

Homegrown Hero: Mick Leech

Article in the FAI’s Republic of Ireland v USA match programme (Aviva Stadium, 2 June 2018)

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In a new series on League of Ireland players who earned caps, we catch up with a Shamrock Rovers’ goalscoring legend.

Before Mick Leech ever got two goals for the Republic of Ireland in Brazil, before he scored 132 times in his long League of Ireland career or got 56 goals across all competitions in the 1968/69 season, and before he ever earned his legendary status at Shamrock Rovers helping the Hoops win half of their FAI Cup six-in-a-row in the 1960s, he was playing with junior side Ormeau.

During that time, a month before his 18th birthday, he travelled to the 1966 World Cup in England as a spectator. He watched Hungary play Brazil and was blown away by the brilliance of that Hungarian team. Within a year, he would join Rovers and win his first FAI Cup and just three years later he would line out for Ireland against that Hungarian side.

“I thought Hungary were the best team I’d ever seen playing when I saw them in the ‘66 World Cup against Brazil in Goodison Park.

“They were a brilliant team with Bene and others who beat Brazil 3-1 that day and a few years later I was playing against them in Dalymount Park. I thought it was an honour to be on the pitch with them,” said Leech about Ireland’s 2-1 defeat to the Magyars in June 1969.

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It was only a month before that Leech had first been included in an Ireland squad. “Outside Easons there was a paper seller with a big poster beside him and it said ‘Leech called into Ireland squad’ so that is the way I heard about it!”

If the way in which he learned about making his first squad inclusion seemed a bit strange, his debut in that game against Czechoslovakia left an even bigger impression. Leech ended up with 10 stitches, being locked out of the Dalymount Park dressing room and having to ring his father to get a lift home after the match!

“I was carried off in the first half. The fella would have got six years for the tackle these days, never mind a yellow card! I got taken in the ambulance to the Mater Hospital.

“By the time I got seen to it was late. I had to walk back up the Phibsborough Road in my football gear to Dalymount afterwards. But sure there was nobody there.

“The bar was at least open so I could ring my Da and go ‘look Da, can you come over and collect me?’ There was no way I could get home with all the bandages on!

“In those days for Ireland you just met on a Saturday morning up in Milltown and we would have a kick around. Some of the players were playing club matches in England and would only arrive on Sunday morning when we would all report to the Gresham Hotel for the game.

“You’d have cup of tea and some toast and the manager Charlie Hurley would name the team and say this is the way we are going to play.”

In 1972, Ireland took part in a 20 team ‘mini-World Cup’ called the Brazil Independence Cup. “We were based in Recife and Natal in the north of Brazil and we did quite well.”

In Ireland’s opening game Leech scored his first international goal in the 2-1 win over Iran. They beat Ecuador next 3-2 before losing to Chile 2-1. Leech got his only other international goal from his eight Ireland caps in the final group game against Portugal.

“The winning team went on to play in two groups of four. If we had beaten Portugal, we would have gone on to Rio for the next round. There were eight Benfica players including Eusebio in the team (who were double winners that season).”

Ireland lost 2-1 with Portugal progressing to the next round and then the final in the Maracana against Brazil. They lost 1-0 only conceding a last minute goal from Jairzinho – a player Leech had seen play in the ’66 World Cup six years previously.

Reflecting on what might have been Leech concludes that “half the lads on the team who were playing professionally in England, didn’t want to play for a couple of more weeks and wanted to go home but for me it would have been about going to Rio to play in, what was as far as I was concerned, the home of football.”

For someone who went on to become a League of Ireland legend, Leech can always reflect with pride his time in an Ireland jersey.

He is a true Homegrown Hero.

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Tour de Force from Lee Grace

Interview with Lee Grace in Hoops Scene No. 10 2018, Shamrock Rovers match day programme v Dundalk (1 June 2018)

As we kick off June with the clash of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium tonight, the front loaded League of Ireland schedule means that at the end of this evening’s match we are already a couple of games into the second half of the SSE Airtricity League season.

That is 20 league games completed in the first 16 weeks of the season with the remaining 16 matches due to take place over of the next 21 weeks. Only one Shamrock Rovers player so far this season has played every minute of every league game for the Hoops and it isn’t really a surprise that it is Lee Grace the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

A former member of the Irish defence forces, Grace hails from the town on the River Suir where they are made of hardy stuff. On the Tipperary and Waterford border, it is where Sean Kelly was reared. Kelly is a legendary cyclist who dominated the professional era in the 1980s. His palmares, which is listed on a plaque in Sean Kelly Square in the town, includes nine of the top monument one day classic races, seven Paris-Nice wins, four Tour de France green jerseys and one Tour of Spain overall win.

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The town is also home to Sam Bennett who recently became the first Irish rider to win three stages of a Grand Tour, something even Kelly didn’t manage. Bennett also went one better than Stephen Roche who won two stages en-route to winning 1987 Giro d’Italia. Bennett, whose father Michael managed Waterford in the League of Ireland, mixes it in the rough and tumble of the bunch sprints – something that Kelly did particularly early in his career.

When Grace was growing up he played hurling, soccer and did some cycling and has been following the progress of Sam Bennett closely.

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“I used to cycle as a kid with my uncle who is mad into the cycling,” said Lee Grace when he spoke to Hoops Scene earlier this week. “I was in school with Sam Bennett so I’ve been following his progress. He was a year ahead of me in school but my brother was in the same class.

“He has been doing unbelievable. He is flying. He is the first Irish man to win a stage of a grand tour in over 30 years. Fair play to him. He deserves it. I’ve never seen a man work as hard.”

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Last week, the Hoops went head-to-head with Bohemians in a keenly contested Dublin derby at Dalymount Park that ended in a 1-1 draw. The Bohs fans ahead of kick off displayed a banner ‘The North Side’. With Bohs based north of the Liffey and Rovers south, it isn’t too far off the sporting rivalry that Grace has seen in his home town, although the rivalry is mainly between the two clubs on the Tipp side of the county boundary.

“Carrick-on-Suir is right on the border with half of the town in Tipperary and the other half in Waterford. I’m from the Tipp side. There are two clubs on Tipperary side and one on the Waterford side.

“I played for the Waterford side when I was younger and then moved to the Tipp side. The two clubs in Tipp have a very big rivalry and it is intense in the town every time they play.”

It looked like the Hoops were going to have the Dublin derby bragging rights when captain Ronan Finn put Rovers 1-0 up with seven minutes remaining. However, it was to be another late derby goal for Bohs – this one two minutes from time – that saw the points shared.

“It was a tight game and a scrappy affair,” was Grace’s assessment of the match. “There wasn’t much ball played. There were patches where we tried to play. Those derby games are always like that.

“We caught them on the break. Greg (Bolger) tried five or six of those balls in the game and he said himself that none of them came off until that one for Ronan. He got in on goal and it was a great finish. We scored and I thought we would see it out as there were only six or so minutes to go.”

However the Hoops conceded a free kick high up the pitch, one that most Rovers fans felt was very soft. “A set piece did us in the end and so it was a disappointing result. Ethan (Boyle) said he barely touched him but any contact there and they are going to go down and from the referee’s view it is an easy free kick to give.”

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Last Friday Graham Burke and Shane Supple were rivals on the pitch but both then were part of the Ireland squad that flew to France last Saturday ahead of the friendly against France.

“It is great for the both of them to get into the Ireland squad and it is great for the league as well. It shines a great light on the league. I hope they do well. For Graham he really deserves it as he is such a hard worker but he will go out and enjoy himself.”

Over the years, there have been a couple of occasions when Grace has had to choose between different sports and even different clubs as he looked to progress as a footballer. “I’m a big hurling fan and I used to play but then had to give it up to concentrate on the soccer.”

A couple of years ago there was the option of continuing his career in the Irish Defence Forces with a deployment overseas or to give full time professional football a go with Galway United at the time – an option that he eventually went with.

Whether Stephen Bradley has deployed his men in league action with a flat back four or three centre halfs, Grace has been every present even with all the matches played so far this season.

“The midweek games are grand. You are none stop and there isn’t much time for preparation. Now we have a full week to prep for this Dundalk game and that is great. We can get a bit of freshness into the legs.”

“When we have three at the back we are obviously more stable defensively as we are a bit more compact and we weren’t conceding as many goals but at the other end we aren’t scoring as many. The other way we are a bit more open but we are scoring more. I’m happy in either formation.

“We went back to four against Pat’s and we scored three that night,” said Grace reflecting on the 3-0 win over the Saints in the last home game here at Tallaght Stadium.

“We brought a lot more energy and a lot more legs to the game in Tallaght. Even in Richmond Park, I think the 2-0 defeat to Pat’s wasn’t a fair reflection on the game. The sending off for us didn’t help but even with ten men I thought we were comfortable until a couple of mistakes cost us two goals. In Tallaght there was none of that and we fully deserved the win.”

It was Grace who opened the scoring with a header off a corner and another header by his centre-half partner Pico Lopes late in the game kept a Rovers clean sheet.

“We work on that a lot in training and those clipped balls to the front post are working for us. As defenders clean sheets are what we play for and I think that clearances off the line like that are as good as goals so fair play to Pico for getting back and clearing it with that great header.”

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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