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The Rice Review

Shamrock Rovers will be looking to put Good Friday’s bad league result against St. Patrick’s Athletic behind them as they face into games against Dundalk in the league and Derry in the Setanta Sports Cup. The 5-1 loss in Inchicore to Pats was Rovers’ first domestic defeat in 16 games stretching back to September 2011.

That was the month that Rovers travelled to play Tottenham in the Europa League. It was one of the many great nights that the club had last season alongside the famous win in Belgrade, defeating Dundalk in the Setanta Sports Cup final at Tallaght Stadium and the late drama in winning the league title against UCD in Belfield. Whilst Rovers lost to Spurs 3-1 back in September, the game will be forever remembered at Rovers for Stephen Rice putting his team 1-0 up in the second half. His celebration in front of the 4,000 or so travelling Shamrock Rovers fans was one of the iconic images of 2012 for Rovers fans and the 900,000 or so viewers who watched the match live on TV that night.

Photo by George Kelly

Following last week’s game against Pats, Hoops Scene chatted up with the goalscorer from that night in White Hart Lane and asked him are the great nights in players careers made even better when juxtaposed with low points such as the loss to Pats? “I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Rice. “We all have low points in our careers but when you go through a result like Friday, the important thing is how you react to that. The good nights come because of hard work. We have a great bunch of lads who are willing to work hard and have so much ability. Hopefully we will have more of those great nights this year. They are enjoyable when they come because you know what you’ve put into it, rather than necessarily that you’ve had low nights. The work you’ve done off the pitch and on the pitch is why those nights are good for us as players.”

Rice is a player that plays with his heart on his sleeve and brings a high level of intensity to Rovers’ play on the pitch. What does that mean for him off the pitch when his team suffers a defeat like in Inchicore? “It is not easy,” admitted the 27 year old. “You can’t put football to bed when you go home. When you get a result like that, it effectively ruins your weekend until you have another game. We’ve had a bad result on Friday. It is a blip. We know the manner in which it happened wasn’t acceptable to us as professionals. Pats were fully deserved of their win. Any chance they got, they took but it doesn’t make it any easier for us to swallow. We spoke about it after the game. The most important thing is we learn from it. We have to make sure that is doesn’t happen again and we take what we need to take out of it. The beauty of football is that there is always another game like in Galway on Monday and luckily we have another league game on Friday to put it right and put it right quickly.”

As expected for the EA Sports Cup tie away to SD Galway last Monday, Rovers manager Stephen Kenny made several changes to his starting 11 from the previous game. There were seven changes to the team including a debut for goalkeeper Reyaad Pieterse following confirmation of the South African’s work permit late last month. It was still a very strong Rovers team that included Colin Hawkins coming in to play against the club where he started his career and Conor McCormack getting another chance to play as he returns from injury. Stephen Rice, who captained the team in Ken Oman’s absence, anchored the midfield in a game that Rovers dominated from start to finish. The Hoops won 2-0, progressing to the competition’s quarter final, thanks to Gary McCabe’s two first half penalties.

The management team of Stephen Kenny and Stephen Glass were no doubt working hard in training during the week in keeping the playing squad focussed as they faced three games in eleven days including that game against SD Galway in the EA Sports Cup alongside games against Dundalk and Derry. So how intense has training been this season?

“The sessions are sharp,” said Rice, “and that comes from the manager Stephen and Glassy (Stephen Glass). Glassy is a good coach who he has played at the highest level. He has respect from all the lads. Training is driven by them and by the group of players. They determine how training is, the tempo and standard of it and it has been really good. We are talking about how it is important we keep working as hard in training.”

“There are a lot of games. It just means that everyone is getting games and that is really important when you have a squad the size we have. But the league will always be the priority. The other trophies are very important. Even the EA Sports Cup is important as I haven’t won it and I haven’t won an FAI Cup. They are targets for us as we want to win those things as well.”

Rice is one of the few Rovers players to have work commitments outside of playing with Shamrock Rovers but this work is very much complimentary to his playing career as he is a community football facilitator with the FAI. Previously Rice was President of the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland (PFAI) and has done some work as a player ambassador with SEAT last season before the company came on board as Rovers’ main sponsor this year.

With Rovers training in the morning, it enables Rice to work in the afternoon with the FAI and the Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council sports team. “I work for the FAI 25 hours a week. It is in communities and schools around the Dundrum area and I also am involved in educating coaches for the Kickstart 1 and 2 courses.” The Kickstart programme course is designed to assist parents and coaches to introduce children from the age of six to football and then to develop their skills up to the age of 12.

This coaching role provides Rice with a break from Rovers whilst still being involved in a professional basis with football. “It is nice to be involved in it as for 10 years all I did and all I played was club football. Sometimes it is nice to have another thing to focus on. The job can come in handy as you have another focus and have other things to concentrate on but football with Rovers is the priority.”

There is still plenty of footballing years ahead for Rice with Rovers but is the coaching role something he will look to do long term? “Yeah, it will be. At the moment, the work is very much community based so you aren’t really working with elite players. Certainly the coaching element is something I am pursuing and hopefully I will be starting my A licence soon.”

Published in Hoops Scene 5 (Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk/Derry City, April 2012)

Pat Sullivan: The player’s player

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

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

Photo by George Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brush Past and Future

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

All those involved in Shamrock Rovers have been living the dream over the past few months with the club managing to successfully defend their Airtricity League crown whilst competing in the Europa League group stages. For one player in particular it has been a dream come true after a nightmare last year. Richard Brush began 2011 without a club and trying to recover from a career threatening injury. The year is ending with Brush as a key player in Rovers’ European campaign and with him helping Rovers retain their League title, which they did in such dramatic circumstances against UCD last Tuesday. It doesn’t get much better than that.

It was the departure of Alan Mannus from Rovers last July that prompted Michael O’Neill to get on the phone to Brush and invite him to train with the Hoops. It was a bit of gamble to bring in a player with doubts over his fitness, but similar to the initial fitness gamble O’Neill made in 2009 with Craig Sives, it was a gamble that paid off. It was a big move for the twenty six year old to join Rovers who acknowledged the difficulty he faced in getting back into the game having been out of action for over a year. “I was coming in to prove myself again after being injured. From the football side the difficulty was trying to get back into it, having to fill Alan Mannus’ boots plus the expectations at the club. But the atmosphere (in the squad) and the lads were great and in that sense it wasn’t hard at all.”

It was a wrist injury that Brush picked up in the build up to the 2009 FAI Cup final here in Tallaght Stadium that threatened his career. “It was a simple shot before the Sligo v Fingal final, ” recalled the man born in Birmingham. “It was just the way the ball caught my hand. When I saved it, it fractured a tiny bone in my wrist, the scaphoid, and once you fracture it, it cuts off the blood supply. It was a difficult injury to come back from. If it doesn’t heal it can be a bit of a pain and it might never heal. If it had taken any longer I was looking at maybe not playing football again and having to try and move on to something else. It struggled to heal and a couple of things did go wrong but it got better and fortunately for me I got the all clear.”

During his extended layoff Brush kept himself fit and when the opportunity came to train with Rovers he jumped at the chance. “I was a free agent and was training and keeping myself fit. Until I signed for Rovers, I hadn’t tested the wrist. So I was told to come up and train and see how it went from there.” Brush impressed O’Neill during this time and signed for Rovers in July. With Ryan Thompson’s good form on taking over from Alan Mannus between the sticks, it was early September before Brush made his debut for the Hoops in the 2-1 win against Dundalk on their artificial pitch. “With Ryan’s form it looked like it could be a long time before I got back playing but fortunately for me and unfortunately for him, he got injured. It was great to get back playing again. It probably wasn’t the best pitch with the astro turf after not playing for 14 or 15 months but I was just happy to get a game and get it out of the way.”

The following game in the FAI Cup against UCD in Belfield, Brush had an impressive display keeping a clean sheet as the Students were hit for six. “The game against UCD, although the score line was more favourable towards us, was harder than the Dundalk game with the saves I had to make but that was another game that it was just good to be involved with.”

With the following cup round matching up Sligo and Shamrock Rovers, Brush needed little incentive to play against the club that signed him back in 2006. “I had been in their dressing room for over five years, so to carry on those extra yards to the away dressing room was a bit strange! That was the game I was really looking forward to and I was absolutely gutted the way the result went,” said Brush of the 1-0 quarter final defeat. “ I really wanted to get one over them so to speak”

His desire to have an affect of the outcome of the match could be seen when Brush ventured into the Sligo penalty area in injury time when the Hoops got a late corner. “I was going up thinking as much as I’d love to score it might not be a favourable result for us having to play a replay with another 90 minutes but you don’t want to lose any game,” said Brush as a replay if required was fixed for just 48 hours later. “It would still have been nice to score, I know I was only millimetres away! If that had gone in, it would have been a nice one. We would have dealt with the replay after the euphoria of not losing up there. It doesn’t matter about a fixture pile up, you’d have got on with it. We didn’t go there to lose. But we’ve come on to bigger and better things since then with us having been knocked out of the cup, the fixture pile up wouldn’t have been favourable for us if we want to look at it in a positive way.”

With 24,730 in attendance at White Hart Lane and over 900,000 watching the game in Ireland, Brush was centre stage in Rovers’ next European performance. It was a huge European night for everyone at Shamrock Rovers but for Brush, playing only his second European tie, it was even more so. The Englishman relished the challenge putting in a fine performance in Rovers’ creditable 3-1 defeat to the Londoners. Brush pulled off some great saves from Spurs stars Giovani, Defoe and Pavlyuchenko keeping a clean sheet in the first half. Early in the second half Stephen Rice put Rovers 1-0 ahead and Brush had his own view of the Rovers goal. “As soon as the ball was dropping to Sully (Pat Sullivan) you had flashes of Belgrade and you think it can’t happen again! It obviously wasn’t as pretty as that goal as it took a touch from Stephen Rice, he said he meant it but I’m not so sure! Down my end it went deadly silent with all the noise coming down from our end.” Brush was hoping for another memorable European win to go with September’s win in Belgrade. The Spurs motto emblazoned around their ground was on his mind. “I was thinking for a split second that we dare to dream, that we could cling on and get a bit more luck. They stepped it up a gear, got three goals in six minutes and it was probably job done for them after that.”

Despite the 3-1 defeat, Brush still enjoyed the occasion and the whole European experience with Rovers. “I’d never played in atmosphere as close as that before and in front of that number of people. Looking back the game flew by. Certain games you remember everything but that game did just fly by. I did enjoy every minute of it especially when you look at the standard of opposition and you look at how we played. We played very well against a team of that quality. I had played one qualifying game out in Albania with Sligo before. That was the only European adventure that I had and we went out there and got knocked out. To be involved at this length, the sort of places we are going to and the trips we are going on, it may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for us. The lads are enjoying it and as the group goes on maybe we know we can get a few results and pick up a few points.”

In last week’s game against PAOK in Thessaloniki, Brush had to watch the match on the bench as Ryan Thompson came back into the side. “Every game I’m fit for I want to be chosen for, especially in the big games, but the manager explained the reason why he was going for Ryan and I could see where he was coming from,” was Brush’s honest basement. “I was obviously disappointed not to be playing but you have to put that behind you and have to move on.”

The Shamrock Rovers bench was located towards the vocal home section and their Gate 4 ultra group and Brush was impressed with the atmosphere in Greece. “It was similar to Belgrade as they kept going for ninety minutes non-stop at that end. There was a bit more in this game with the atmosphere. There were a few bangs that went off during the game. I don’t know what they were but a few people on our bench jumped! It is a completely different sort of world football wise with everything like the atmosphere, the weather and the pitches. It is great to be involved and they are the memories that you have as well as the fans that are spending money to come away and see us. It shows how much it does mean to people.”

Brush is signed until the end of this extended season European season and is doing a spot of commuting at present with his family still based in Sligo. “If things work out longer term at the club that may have to change and bringing the family to Dublin may be a more permanent thing. At present I’m travelling up and down which is not ideal. I’m staying the odd night in the house that the club has got for us.”

Amongst all the European matches, Rovers have dealt with the immense pressure and have successfully defended their domestic title, which is an amazing achievement. Rovers were required to dig out a few results over the past month especially due to dropped points at home to Bohemians in Brush’s first experience of the Dublin Derby. “The atmosphere was amazing and our fans were absolutely brilliant. The result didn’t go our way. Unfortunately, the way things went with them getting a man sent off, we actually played better against 11 men. We seemed to be knocking it about well against 11. Unfortunately it was 1-1 after they scored a deflected goal. It put a bit more pressure back onto us but the game against Derry that was a massive massive result for us in the league and I think we were deserved winners.”

Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s game in UCD that ended with Dean Kelly’s crucial injury time winner for Rovers, Brush was clear what winning the league and collecting the trophy tonight here at Tallaght Stadium means for the club and for himself personally. “For everyone involved, the way things went in the last couple of weeks, the pressure was put on us from Sligo and Derry that to put the final nail in the coffin against UCD would be massive. Especially with the added bonus of the last game at home in front of all our fans who have come, week in, week out. For me, it would be absolutely massive. It is great. The club gave me my chance to come back. To step into a club that were still in the Champions League then, top of the league, they gave me a chance to prove myself and get back playing where it mattered. I will be massively indebted to the club for that.”

Published in Hoops Scene 21 (Shamrock Rovers v Galway United – 28 October 2011)

To Dare is to Do (Spurs away – Europa League)

October 1, 2011 Leave a comment

‘Audere est facere’ is the club motto at Tottenham Hotspur with the English translation ‘To Dare is to do’ adorning the inside of White Hart Lane. Last Thursday night Shamrock Rovers dared to take the lead in their Europa League group game against Tottenham. For 10 glorious second half minutes, the massive Irish away support in the ground dared to dream that their team could get a win against Harry Redknapp’s multi-million pound men. The scoreboard read Tottenham Hotspur 0 Shamrock Rovers 1 and there are plenty of photos taken of it by the Rovers fans but at the end of 90 minutes it would read 3-1 to the home team. The League of Ireland champions couldn’t hold on to their lead but came away from the match with their reputation enhanced despite the defeat.

The away support for this game swelled from Rovers’ previous European game where the away contingent was just 43 fans in Belgrade. This time it was more like 4300 fans in Tottenham. Rovers had sold out their ticket allocation bringing 2,250 from Tallaght to Tottenham. These numbers were bolstered by London based Irish who had snapped up around 2,000 tickets for the neutral section adjacent to the travelling support.

The day after the win in Belgrade, the Europa League draw paired off Rovers and Spurs and I walked straight in the door from the last Euro away to book the next two. Flights were secured to London for less than €100 before the price started to head skywards. Talking to someone in work yesterday, he was laughing saying that Rovers had cost our company €550 as that was the cheapest flight he could get to London last Thursday having been called there at short notice for a meeting!

Following the morning flight on Thursday, I spent a pleasant chatting to many of the Hooperati who chose Covent Garden as their HQ for the day. They had come by the usual planes (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead and Luton), trains (from Holyhead via the ferry) and automobiles (with two buses having come from Tallaght via the ferry). In one of the bars overlooking the square in Covent Garden, we got chatting to some Arsenal and Olympiacos fans who had played each other in the Champions League the previous night. Both wished us well against our Group A opponents of Spurs and PAOK Salonica. The builders working on the roof of the church opposite seeing Rowan McFeely’s “North American Hoops” flag hanging from the balcony (on its debut trip from Boston) gave a “Shamrock Rovers – give us a wave!” shout out from across the square that we were happy to oblige.

I was pleasantly surprised how good a venue White Hart Lane was once we got out there following rush hour. A tight compact ground, we had been given half of the lower tier and an even bigger section of the top tier. We were able to stand in these sections and this helped the atmosphere that built up as kick off approached. It was great to see so many familiar faces standing around us ahead of kick off and you could see the delight in their faces that our team (and our fans) were about to perform on this big stage.

Manager Michael O’Neill had made four changes from Rovers’ last game but Harry Redknapp had made 10. Even still, there was real quality in his side with six full internationals including a strikeforce of Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Roman Pavlyuchencko. For once in Europe, Rovers managed not to concede an early goal but we rode our luck in the first half. The woodwork twice, ‘keeper Richard Brush and Stephen O’Donnell, standing at the post for a corner, all prevented Rovers from conceding a goal. The Hoops, playing in black but with the green and white hooped socks, created very little in the attacking final third in the first half. Rovers did maintain a fair amount of possession and worked neat triangles around Spurs who pressed Rovers hard. The fans behind Richard Brush’s goal got to cheer each pass during a series of lengthy first half passing moves that ultimately lacked any real penetration.

Everyone in the away end was quite happy when the Lithuanian official blew for half time. Sadly UEFA didn’t write us a cheque for €35,000 since we were half way to a draw. There is no goal bonus from UEFA for scoring but we didn’t care when we broke the deadlock five minutes into the second half. When Carlo Cudicini parried Gary McCabe’s well taken free, the ball fell to the scorer of that superb volleyed goal in Belgrade, Pat Sullivan. He struck the ball well on target but Stephen Rice got the decisive touch to lift the ball over the keeper to score in the south end of the stadium in front of the Rovers support. It was absolute mayhem, as Rice and his teammates celebrated in front of us.

In the home game against Juventus in the Europa League qualifiers last year, our Ultras unveiled a banner saying ‘Facci Sognare’ or ‘Dare to Dream’. Well we were continuing the dream in Europe as we spent the next 10 minutes leading the game. Could we hold on? Could we maybe get a second as we got greedier? No was the answer as Spurs stepped it up a gear and over a devastating six minute period scored three goals in quick succession. It was international quality that was the difference with clinical finishes from internationals Pavlyuchenko, Defoe and Dos Santos giving Spurs a 3-1 lead.

Only the goals seemed to liven up the library-esque silence of the Spurs fans. They got the full song repertoire from Rovers with plenty of ones familiar to them (‘Shall we sing a song for you?’, ‘Here to see the Rovers’ and eventually ‘Sing when your winning’). They may have been scratching their heads when hearing David Essex ‘Hold Me Close’ or going “Is that really ‘Build me up Buttercup’ being sung?” as we went through our vocal repertoire. The rendition of Tallaght to ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Keep the Green Flag Flying high’ were sung with real emotion as Rovers fans who followed the club through the tough times got enjoy this reward even if we were losing 3-1 (so naturally we also sung “We’re going to win 4-3”!). Maybe it might have happened if the extra official behind the goal had signaled for a penalty when Billy Dennehy looked to have been fouled towards the end of the game but probably not.

The players made their way over to the Rovers end to clap our support and they genuinely seemed to enjoy the occasion even with the result. Jersies, shorts and socks were thrown into the crowd with Pat Sullivan leaving for the dressing room only in his skimpy briefs! On the arrival back in Covent Garden, random passers by seeing our colours were congratulating us. Those that asked me the score were told it and then I giddily would tell them “but we went 1-0 up!” It was one of those glorious defeats. Yes, we should be striving wins in Europe but Spurs are just on another scale from the set up at Rovers and that is no disrespect to anyone at our fan owned club. What we are trying to do at Rovers is develop further so that we can get into the group stages on a regular basis and that we are a quality destination for young Irish footballers to develop in the game with opportunities for them to play regularly in Europe.

Nights like these for the players, and everyone involved in the club including the fans, just makes everyone want more of them. Even though Shamrock Rovers lost, it doesn’t mean we are out of Europe of course. We still have another four more games in the group stages. I had travelled to London hoping we wouldn’t be taken apart and that we might get a goal to cheer. For me, what we got was so much more. We got a goal, we got a lead and we got the most enjoyable defeat that I’ve ever witnessed as a fan of Shamrock Rovers.

I’m going to keep on enjoying this European odyssey with our next adventure coming in just three weeks time when we head to Greece, the home of Odysseus.