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Ricer of the Rovers

September 10, 2017 Leave a comment

The scoreboard ticked to 90 minutes and no more; it read Shamrock Rovers 3 Longford Town 0. Soon after referee Neil Doyle blew his whistle and the Hoops had got by First Division opposition in Longford to go through to the quarter-final of the 2014 FAI Cup. Rovers fans were thinking that maybe, just maybe, it might be the year for the 25th time to collect that trophy.

 

But before the fans could get too carried away with themselves, there was one of their own to acknowledge. The SRFC Ultras in Block M of the East Stand deployed their banner for a player who always carried the tag of a fan favourite. Former Hoop and then Longford Town player Stephen Rice came over and gave two thumbs up in front of the ‘Thanks for everything Ricer’ banner.

 

‘Ricer’ joined Shamrock Rovers back in 2008 when the completion of Tallaght Stadium was still a season away. Over a six year period he would go on to captain Rovers, win the club’s player of the year award and be part of a squad led by manager Michael O’Neill who brought trophies to the club in quantities not seen since the heady days of Milltown – winning two league titles, two Setanta Cups and a league cup before his departure from Tallaght at the end of 2013.

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Rovers fans – Rovers family

“It was amazing that night when I came back with Longford when the fans held up that banner; it meant a lot to me and my family,” said Rice when he spoke to Hoops Scene ahead of Rovers’ latest first steps in claiming a long overdue 25th FAI Cup.

 

“My family all became Shamrock Rovers fans because of what they saw when I was at the club,” said Rice who is now back at Rovers as the manager of the u17 team. “You don’t just play for the club, you become a fan of the club and part of the club. It is that type of club.

 

“I always had a fantastic relationship with the fans,” said the 32-year-old Rice. “They knew I was never going to cut open a team but they appreciated the work rate. They could see when you played, you gave absolutely everything for the club and they responded to that. They want people who work hard, if they see that they will always be on your side. The relationship from very early was excellent with the fans.

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“When I first came to Rovers we were still in Tolka Park and to go from there to all of sudden playing to full houses in Tallaght, lifting those trophies and playing teams like Juventus within the space of a couple of years, it was an amazing time. So many nights that you would never forget.”

 

In 2011 those nights included putting the Hoops 1-0 against Spurs at the ‘old’ White Hart Lane in the Europa League and that famous night in Serbia when Rovers beat Partizan to became the first Irish side to make the group stages of a major European club competition.

 

 

Belgrade

“That was an amazing night. It was just meant to be when you think about some of the chances that were missed by Belgrade. It was just phenomenal to beat a club of that stature out there.

 

“Nobody gave us a chance going out there. We rode our luck early on but once Sully got that goal – when you get a goal like that – they were rattled and we knew we had them.

 

“It is a night that I will never forgot playing in what was like 35 degrees. We got the penalty late on (in extratime) to win and the whole experience with the excitement the next morning of the draw, it was surreal.”

 

Rice began his career with Coventry before returning to the League of Ireland with Bohemians. He noted that “after coming back from England, you think that you are never going to get the chance to play in the big arenas and on those stages.

 

“For that to come along, it was such an opportunity. Players are realising that now there are fantastic opportunities here in Ireland that aren’t available in League One or League Two in England – you aren’t going to get a chance to play on those stages.”

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Roadstone

Rice combines his coaching role at the Rovers Academy in Roadstone with working as an FAI development officer in the Lucan area and is very appreciative of the facilities now available to all the Hoops players – both in the senior team and across the Rovders academy.

 

“When I played with Rovers we trained everywhere; we trained in the AUL, Johnstown House and even Stannaway Park when I came to the club. What has been built here at Roadstone gives us a home, a base and an identity with our youth development setup.

 

“It gives the club a real platform to attract the best young players but also for them to be developed and improved in the Shamrock Rovers way. As a coach it is fantastic to have those facilities.

 

“Every single training session we carry out is video recorded so the players can watch and analyse their own performance. Every single game is uploaded, whether that is in Roadstone or in Tallaght, and from that we develop analytical clips so the players can sit at home and watch their performance so they can improve.

 

“Self-analysis is such a big part of their development. There is nothing more powerful that seeing yourself do something and we use it as a training tool.”

 

Coventry

It is all very different from the early days in Rice’s career over in England. “The landscape has changed. It is more about learning and developing rather than being told what to do and if you didn’t do it you’d be hammered! That was the old way when I went as a young boy.

 

“I went on a number of trials from age 12 right up until I moved over to Coventry at 15. I found the first week very difficult and once I settled in it became easier but to be honest I never really enjoyed the experience. I never settled for many reasons.

 

“I did really well in the first year over there when I was playing two years above my age with the u17s but I wasn’t really happy and once it started to affect my performance and my mental state, that was the sign to get out of there. I was waking up dreading going to training. I went up to the academy manager and said I was out of there and I had my bags packed.”

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Academy Coaches

That experience and varied experience of the rest of Rovers’ extensive coaching staff is available to help influence the young players at Rovers. “Looking at our u17 coaching team, I went at 15 to England, Pat Flynn also went at 15 and Keith O’Halloran stayed and went at 18.

 

“Flynny went to Wolves, left there and progressed up through lower level clubs and played a bit, whereas I made a decision to come home, while Keith went later and ended up playing in the Premiership with Middlesbrough. So we can talk to our lads about our different experiences and pass that on.

 

“In the u19s we have Aidan Price who had a fantastic League of Ireland career, John Martin who played in the league and then there is Damien Duff. He is an amazing person to have in charge of the new 15s squad and it is great for the kids to be around him.

 

“We have Stephen Bradley, Stephen McPhail and Shane Robinson. It is an open environment we have in Roadstone. The coaches generally meet every week from the first team coach down, u19s, our team at 17s. It is really important to know what is going on, who is doing well and what areas we need to improve on.

 

“Ultimately we are in the charge of teams but we are looking to develop individuals and for them to progress. We have to give them the structures within the teams for them to fulfil that potential – that could mean moving them to the u19s team or up into the first team. That is the real goal.

 

“I’m on the Elite Youth A licence course at the moment along with Shane Robinson. It is the first time it has been run in this country and it is technically the pro licence for coaches working with elite youth players.”

 

u17

The Hoops u17 team are currently second in the Southern Elite Division table. “We are in a good place. The key objective of the team now is to develop these boys in the Shamrock Rovers way so they are capable of progressing – into the u19s and progressing as young adults as well as footballers. That is what we are trying to instill in the boys.

 

“We get them together on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a match at the weekend. They also come in early on the training nights to do some strength and conditioning work. Plus some of the more local lads would be in for a gym session on a Tuesday night with Pat Deans – that is solely strength and conditioning.

 

“At Rovers, we are looking to develop players for our first team. That is the ultimate goal. If you look down through the coaching staff that we have right through to the younger ages, there is a real passion for the club and the aim to develop players and get back to winning trophies. Our main objective is for players to come here and we will improve and develop them.”

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Development squad

For a number of seasons the FAI have put together a Future Developers Squad and Rice has taken charge of the squad at the Kennedy cup in recent years. The squad, that plays at u15 level, is selected by FAI Emerging Talent Programme coaches, compiled of players who are technically excellent but are lack the physicality to compete in their age group.

 

“The idea is that over the years too many players get lost in the game in our country because of physicality and the emphasis at times on all about winning. Players can be the most technical and intelligent player that the teams have but physically they can be overrun in games so then they can be left out.

 

“Ultimately we would have lost a lot of players who were late developers. If we can keep them in the game, then develop that strength and power to go with their technical ability and the game intelligence and all of a sudden we have a player on our hands.

 

“The FAI have looked to make sure we keep these boys in the game and focussed and that the international team – although they aren’t quite physically there for them – it is not a million miles away. We don’t go on size but players who are technically astute as that suits how we want to play.”

 

Published in Hoops Scene 16/2017 Shamrock Rovers v Glenville (FAI Cup First Round)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does your telly know you’re here?

The slick live TV presentation style with graphics, commentary team and replays give the television viewer at home a real sense of a sporting occasion. Throw in the multi-camera, super slow-mo and spidercam views and it is almost like being there. Almost but not quite.

To get a sense of what it really means to be at a game, fan footage can nearly be a better option. There is something about those shaky camera angles, foul language and those guttural screams when a goal goes in that Sky Sports just can’t beat.

Here is a top eight of Shamrock Rovers fan footage.

 

‪8. A million euro penalty – Partizan Belgrade v Shamrock Rovers (August 2011) 

‪2,081 views

Maybe a surprise that this video from Shamrock Rovers’ incredible 2011 season is only at number eight. Despite the grainy footage and being a long distance from the action, this is Rovers video gold. The drama builds as Hoops fans realise what this will mean if Stephen O’Donnell slots this penalty away. The screams from the small pocket of 43 fans when he scores tell you Rovers have made history and qualified for the group stages of the Europa League.

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‪7. Injury time equaliser in the Dublin derby (April 2011)

‪3,929 views

‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hivM-DQks5c

‪Nobody likes to lose to their bitter rivals but that was the fate awaiting Rovers in April 2011 in Dalymount Park. Despite times call for desperate measures and that meant Alan Mannus making the journey up into the Bohs box for this last minute corner. He went up for the header but it is his team mate Ronan Finn whose touch earns Rovers a draw and the owner of the camera in the crowd a broken pair of glasses in the celebrations.

 

 

 

‪6. No European hangover as Gary Twigg helps Hoops beat Bohs (August 2010)

5,920 views

‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FWBV2wB0E0

‪Shamrock Rovers returned to Ireland on a Friday morning at 5am after their 1-0 defeat to Juventus in Modena facing into a crucial Sunday lunchtime kick off against Bohemians. Rovers were leading 1-0 in the second half when their defender Pat Flynn was sent off. ‪Could Bohs capitalise on the extra man and opposition tiredness after their recent European distractions? No was the answer as Gary Twigg scored a brilliant goal with his celebration in front of the Bohs fans not overly well received by the away fans! It would be a goal that would help the Hoops win the title.

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  1. He shoots, he scores, he wins Shamrock Rovers the league (October 2011)

7,066 views

What is better than a good pitch invasion? How about two pitch invasions! Dean Kelly’s injury time goal for Shamrock Rovers in Belfield secured the Hoops the 2011 title. Some Hoops fans celebrated the goal with the players and a couple of minutes later when the final whistle went it looks like every Rovers fan piled onto the pitch to celebrate winning back-to-back titles.

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‪4. Injury time goal earns Rovers passage to Setanta Final (April 2013)

‪7,404 views

‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCPUerFWkaE

‪It looked like Cork City had earned themselves a place in the Setanta Sports Cup final. However the Hoops won a free kick deep in injury time in the semi-final second leg in Turner’s Cross. One Rovers fans felt the wall needed to go back further. “That is not 10 fucking yards,” he said. It didn’t matter as Billy Dennehy’s free kick sent the Rovers fans, who had travelled mid-week down to Cork, home happy and the Hoops into the final.

 

  1. Penalty save providing passage to European glory (July 2011)

11,599 views

‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnvv7LjGl9I

‪A penalty save that would set Rovers on the way to European success in 2011. The journey from Tallaght to Tallinn to Belgrade and White Hart Lane, all came about because of Alan Mannus’ penalty save against Flora Tallinn.

 

 

2. Spurs v Shamrock Rovers…the Hoops goal (September 2011)

‪26,384 views

‪Video from the Spurs end showing Stephen Rice putting Shamrock Rovers 1-0 up in the second half of this Europa League Group game in White Hart Lane. The laughter accompanying the goal suggests it wasn’t shot by a Spurs fan.

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  1. ‪Hoops half time sing song against Juventus in Modena (August 2010)

‪52,572 views

‪https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j75fFPS9u8c

Okay, not fan footage of any action on the pitch but of fans sheltering from the Monsoon in Modena at half-time in the Europa League qualifier against Juventus. Not the most PC of lyrics but this is fan footage so what do you expect?

 

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Tallaght Time book launch

July 16, 2013 1 comment

The official launch of Tallaght Time took place in the Gala Room in Tallaght Stadium on Friday 12th July ahead of the Shamrock Rovers v Derry City game. Broadcaster, and well known Hoops fan, Con Murphy officially launched the book and it was great for the authors to have Con do the honours and to have so many friends and family there for the launch.

Con Murphy with the authors of Tallaght Time

Con Murphy with the authors of Tallaght Time

There are some more photos of the launch on the book’s facebook page here.

On the night in Hoops Scene, Shamrock Rovers’ matchday programme, there was an edited extract from Chapter Seven of Tallaght Time describing the dramatic conclusion to title battle between Rovers and Bohs in 2010 when the Hoops travelled to Bray on the final night of the season.


Chapter 7: Who wants to be League Champions? 2010 Title Run-in

A draw was all that was needed for Rovers to be crowned champions unless Bohs could put a hatful past Dundalk in Dalymount Park. It was first blood to Bohs who went 1-0 up against Dundalk after only 12 minutes. When Bray scored eight minutes later, it meant that if results stayed that way, it would be three in a row for Bohs. Gary Twigg was not going to let that happen without a fight as he latched onto a through ball from Craig Sives just before the break in Bray.

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Gary Twigg
The ball gets down the side and the boy’s slipped and I was in. I saw the keeper coming and I took it around him. I don’t know why but for some reason I let the boy get back on the line. I’d usually hit it first time. I kept taking it in. The boy was closing me and I had nowhere to go except through his legs so I took it with the outside of my left foot. Thinking about it now I don’t know how I kept so calm with the pressure! The roar that went up that night when it went in was unreal. I think there was a lot of nervous energy going out from everyone.

Stephen Rice
With that goal other strikers may have snatched at it but Twiggy showed why he was the best striker in the league.

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The Rovers fans’ nerves were eased when Twigg’s strike partner Thomas Stewart rounded off a fine passing move one minute into the second half giving Rovers a 2-1 lead while Bohs had conceded and were now only drawing their game. In the season that was in it, there was to be another twist when Gary Shaw’s diving header equalised for Bray after 69 minutes and Bohs went 2-1 up 10 minutes later. Rovers went into the three minutes of injury time at the Carlisle Grounds knowing that one more goal for Bray would mean the end for Rovers’ title ambitions.

In Dalymount Park, the final whistle went with Bohs 3-1 winners. In Bray, the Rovers fans beseeched referee Alan Kelly to blow up with a cacophony of whistles of their own. Alan Mannus had to make one final save but the referee blew up after what seemed the longest few minutes ever of injury time. The Hoops had waited 16 years to win the league but they had to wait no longer.

Rovers fans swarmed onto the pitch to celebrate with the players. Fans embraced each other with tears streaming down their faces. After all the ups and mostly downs since the last league title in 1994, this meant so much to the Shamrock Rovers fans. Nobody ever said winning the league would be easy but Rovers had managed to do it the very hard way. After 36 games, just two goals separated them from Bohemians at the end of the season.

There was a chaotic trophy presentation on the pitch. Surrounded by thousands of Rovers fans, captain Dan Murray managed to get his hands on the trophy alongside Stephen Rice to lift the coveted trophy to the backdrop of confetti and flares. In the melee that followed with fans swarming the podium, Pat Flynn was cracked over the head with the trophy, cutting his head open with blood flowing down his face. It was champagne though that flowed in the Rovers dressing room when they eventually got there.

Stephen Rice
The trophy presentation was poor but if you had to present me that league trophy in hell with fire and demons running around me, I would have taken it! It was crazy stuff. It was a massive night for the club and all of us players. It is something that we will never forget. It was incredible that some of the young fans out in Bray that night weren’t even alive when we won the last title.

Gary Twigg
What a night. If anybody says to me what is your best night playing for Shamrock Rovers, well the answer is that is the best night. That night will never be beaten for me, that was pure emotion.

The league trophy ready to be presented on the pitch in Bray

The league trophy ready to be presented on the pitch in Bray

Trevor Croly
My daughter was at the game with my mam and dad, and I wanted to stand and watch the presentation with her. I had her in my arms and I just watched the guys. I just wanted to see the lads get their reward. It was an emotional night, one of those special moments in your life.

Justin Mason
It was mayhem but who cares. It was brilliant. There was a guy in a wheelchair in front of us and he was trying to get on the pitch with two of his mates. We came down and lifted the wheelchair over the wall so he could get on the pitch! I thought Pat Flynn had head butted the trophy because he is that mad. I didn’t realise it was accidental!

Buzz O’Neill
We went into a pub in Bray and what struck me was that it was all the same faces who had been in those meetings in the Plaza Hotel back in 2005, who had gone to the High Court hearings, who had been in Cobh back in 2006 [when Rovers won the first division]. A friend was there with her Dad and I started hugging her Dad and she was saying, ‘oh, by the way Dad, this is Buzz’. Never met the man before in my life! We limped over the line to a degree but when they engrave the League of Ireland trophy it doesn’t say ‘won it by one goal’, it just says ‘champions’.

Match Facts
Two or more teams had finished level on points at the top of the table five times before in League of Ireland history. Shelbourne had a superior goal difference to Derry City in 2006 and three titles were decided by playoffs, including Cork Hibernians’ 3-1 win over Shamrock Rovers in 1970/71.

15 Rovers players won the first League of Ireland medal of their careers that night. In the modern era, seven players have won the Premier Division with three different clubs. All of them played with Rovers and, with the exception of Joseph Ndo and Colin Hawkins, they all won a title at Rovers – John Coady, Mick Neville, Paul Doolan, Neale Fenn and Gary O’Neill.

© Macdara Ferris and Karl Reilly / The Liffey Press (2013)

Tallaght Time, published by The Liffey Press, tells the remarkable tale of Shamrock Rovers’ recent history since the club moved to their new home told through the words of those closely involved; Rovers officials, players and fans. In depth interviews were carried out specifically for the book with a number of Rovers officials and players including Gary Twigg, Stephen Rice, Dan Murray, Trevor Croly, Stephen Kenny and Jonathan Roche amongst many others.

The book describes the many magical nights since the Hoops moved to Tallaght such as Cristiano Ronaldo making his debut for Real Madrid against Rovers; the visit of Alessandro Del Piero and his star-studded Juventus team and winning their first league title since 1994. The book also charts Rovers’ extraordinary 2011 European campaign including the never-to-be-forgotten win over Partizan Belgrade in Serbia and the trip to White Hart Lane.

The book is 320 pages in length with over 70 colour photos by club photographers Bobby Best and George Kelly and includes historical inserts and detailed appendices with results, appearances and scorers for all Rovers matches from 2009 to 2012.

Tallaght Time is available from the Shamrock Rovers megastore, online and in Easons, Reads and Dubray Books.

Front cover Tallaght Time

 

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)

Euro Vision and Reality

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene 13 (Shamrock Rovers v UCD, 10 August 2011)

Ahead of the club’s entry into the Europa League, Macdara Ferris chats to some Hoops players about the recent Champions League campaign…

After the recent Champions League qualifying campaign, it is back to domestic action for Shamrock Rovers tonight as the Hoops take on UCD. Rovers know that if they want to replicate this season’s European football adventures in 2012, then they need to go about securing three points tonight against the Students in the Airtricity League. The Hoops currently sit joint top of the table on 48 points along with Sligo Rovers and Derry City but with a game in hand.

In the league there is a certain level of expectation that surrounds Rovers this season. Manager Michael O’Neill has brought in several new players to the squad that won the league last season and the talk in some quarters, but not at the club, was that this could be a side that might dominate the domestic league for a number of years. The last team to have a strangle hold on the League of Ireland was the Shamrock Rovers four in a row league winning side in the mid-1980s during the last days of Milltown. However that historic team failed to reproduce their domestic dominance in Europe being eliminated in the first round on each attempt. It was therefore nice for the current Rovers squad to make their own history last month when they became the first Rovers team to win a European Cup match following their 1-0 win at home to Flora Tallinn. They did so on the night that the club celebrated that four in a row team by hosting a reception for them in the stadium 25 years on from their game in Milltown against Glasgow Celtic.

This season’s European campaign in the Champions League qualifiers to date and Europa League playoff against Partizan Belgrade to come have been a nice distraction for Rovers away from the pressure of trying to retain their League of Ireland crown. A number of the Rovers fixtures have been re-arranged to suit the European schedule and tonight is Rovers’ first home game after the short mid-season summer break in the league. “It’s good to have a break and take your mind off it,” said Rovers full back Pat Sullivan. “You have so many Friday-Tuesday games in the league and sometimes that can get on top of you. Breaks like this, and getting one or two games moved, it’s quite nice and we have the summer break which is even better.”

Last season, Rovers were very effective in juggling their domestic and European commitments. The Hoops garnered 25 out of the 27 points on offer in the middle third of the season that coincided with Rovers defeating Israeli side Bnei Yehuda before playing Juventus. Sullivan, who was watching those games last season on the sideline due to a lengthy injury layoff, was quick to point out that “it was our best period coming off the back of Europe”.

European games afford the team a chance to go up against new players and new playing systems. “In league games you know the teams and what systems you’re going to play,” explains Sullivan. “When you’re playing higher level teams in Europe, you raise your game. The more we raise our game it makes the club and us look better. It improves the club’s reputation and our reputation and that’s what you want.”

With the 1-0 aggregate win over Flora Tallinn and the fine performances in the defeats to Copenhagen, the Hoops have shown they are well able to compete on the European stage. The club will be expecting more ‘Sold Out’ signs to be going up in Tallaght Stadium ahead of next week’s Europa League playoff first leg against the Serbian Champions Partizan. Rovers will be hoping for a similar atmosphere as to the one here in Tallaght against Copenhagen in front of the capacity 6,000 crowd. These games are the prize for what the club achieved last season in winning the league and they mean a lot to the team as Stephen Rice explained. “It’s great, it’s a reward for the achievement of last year,” said the central midfielder. “A lot of time in Europe, it’s been a reward for clubs and has just been a reward. But I think Irish clubs are now going into Europe looking to progress which is a positive thing.”

The good results from Irish teams in Europe in recent years do bring a certain level of expectation to progress through at least the opening round. If teams go out “it’s not a good sign,” said Pat Sullivan. With the European matches squeezed into a tight schedule the players go into the game knowing who they will face in the next round should they progress. “It doesn’t help knowing who you can potentially play,” said Sullivan. “That doesn’t do anyone any favours as it potentially puts pressure on you. If you don’t get through a round, you’re going to be disappointed.”

The holy grail for an Irish team of qualifying for the group stages of a European competition still has not been attained. Rovers had Copenhagen under real pressure in the second leg of their third qualifying round. How the tie would have developed if Chris Turner’s powerful header had bounced down over the line rather than up and out, we will never know. Is it a realistic ambition to get to the group stages of the Champions League? “I think it’s a fair stretch to get to the group stage,” said Pat Sullivan. “The way European competition has gone, there seems to be more rounds. You have three qualifying rounds in the Champions League and then a [play off] qualifier round. It never seems to end. We’re a part time team but train like a full time team. Training itself is done in a full time manner, we just train in the evening and some mornings. It won’t change the fact of will qualify for something or not. The fact there are more clubs in Europe that are allowed try and qualify in the first and second rounds makes it harder. I wouldn’t say never but it will take a lot to qualify [for the group stage]. But when a team does, I hope it’s something that could happen more regularly.” His team mate Stephen Rice has this view on where Irish teams stand. “We’re still progressing,” says Rice. “I think that has a lot to do with the summer league, playing against clubs that are only coming back from pre-season and us being mid-season helps.”

Rovers’ elimination from the Champions League qualification process has resulted in the club being parachuted into the Europa League play off round with the prize of entry into the group stages if they can overcome Partizan. The Rovers manager Michael O’Neill is well aware of what his team have to deal with in terms of the number of European games that are taking place alongside domestic action like tonight’s game against UCD. However, O’Neill feels the minimum six European fixtures that Rovers will face this season can also aid his side domestically. “Our intention at the start of the league was to retain the title and that is still the case,” said O’Neill. “The European thing is something that can be positive. You have to deal with fatigue and more games but you get a togetherness with your squad that is difficult to get on a weekly basis. We will gain in terms of player unity and their relationships and we will be stronger as a result.”

Player photography by George Kelly

The tale of two away games

It was a sporting away game double header for me last week. First up on Friday night was a trip up the M1 to Hunky Dorys Park for the Drogheda United v Shamrock Rovers Airtricity League of Ireland fixture. Saturday evening I ventured down the M7 to Thomond Park for the Munster v Leinster Magners League clash.

Friday’s football fixture was top versus bottom with Champions Shamrock Rovers taking on Drogheda United. Rovers have brought bumper away crowds to their first two away games of the season (in Sligo and Derry) and Friday was no exception with several hundred making the journey. An hour before kick off, there was a healthy crowd of 100 or so away fans waiting not so patiently for Drogheda to open up their ticket sales office. After 30 minutes of queuing, we got our €10 terrace tickets and entered the ground. The queue for food was nearly as long inside as the ticket queue outside. The players could be watched by those queuing for burgers through the back of the Drogheda dug out. Maybe the plexiglass distorted the view but John Lester in the Drogheda midfield did look like he had a few too many burgers or crisps himself. Hunky Dorys Park itself also stretches the boundaries of what is allowed under the FAI licensing. Certainly the away section is old school with its terrace and corrugated iron roof and sides.

Manager Michael O’Neill made his first change to Rovers’ starting line up which had been unchanged for the opening four league games. The injured Chris Turner was replaced with fans favourite, and last year’s Shamrock Rovers Player of the Year, Stephen Rice. It looked like Rice was chomping at the bit as he bossed central midfield. He didn’t give the Drogheda players a moment to settle as he disrupted their play, gave the simple ball to his team mates and as usual was very vocal in encouraging the players around him in the famous green and white hoops. It was tough but fair tackling by Ricer, a player who seems to be the most fouled man in the league but always gets up and just gets on with it. “It is part of being a midfielder,” Ricer told me in an match programme interview earlier in the season. “I don’t really think about it. I have never had a red card in my career. Once the tackles are fair and someone plays the ball that is what the game is about. If you took that out of the game it wouldn’t be the same.”

There was a strong breeze blowing from the south that Rovers played into in the first half. The game was exciting but we did still manage to count nine Drogheda footballs exiting the ground over the north wall during the 90 minutes due to the wind. By half time, Scotsman Gary Twigg had put the Hoops 1-0 up. Ciarán Kilduff, making a starting debut for Rovers, doubled the lead. This was his first league goal for Rovers, having netted in both Rovers’ Setanta Cup games against Lisburn Distillery, and his delight in scoring was apparent as he turned in a Billy Dennehy header which had hit the post from a shot from Gary McCabe that had hit the crossbar!

As any Rovers fan knows, no player shows more delight in scoring than Twigg who got his second and Rovers’ third just short of an hour. I managed to get a video clip of the goal and the celebration in front of the Rovers away section. I got this up on You Tube and it has had so many hits I got an email from You Tube stating that:

Your video Gary Twigg goal for Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United (April 2011) might be eligible for the YouTube Partnership Program, which allows you to make money from playbacks of your video.

I think RTÉ probably have the rights so I’ll ease off on the money making videos.

Billy Dennehy wrapped up the win with a fine team goal involving Rice, McCabe, Twigg and Pat Sullivan before he hit an unstoppable shot into the net. McCabe, who had an excellent game, ended up on his rear end when trying to score a free kick to be greeted with the chant of “We’re Shamrock Rovers, we do what we want” which in this case meant we slice the ball out for a throw in! After full time, Rovers fans had the opportunity to leave the ground bizarrely by being directed across the penalty area by the Drogheda stewards, happy in the knowledge we were travelling home with three points and were sitting three points clear at the top of the table.

Saturday it was a change of codes from football to rugby but not before talking at lunchtime with Shamrock Rovers player Ronan Finn for next week’s programme. Finn was full of chat and had interesting things to say about his career to date including the fallout from Fingal’s failure. While Friday I used the Port Tunnel to get to Drogheda, Saturday it was the first time for me through the Limerick Shannon tunnel that allows easy access to the redeveloped Thomond Park which is a bit more impressive than Hunky Dorys Park! We grabbed some food in a local hotel ahead of the game where they were playing the more recent Munster v New Zealand game on the TV. Bit strange to be playing a defeat on the TV but I suppose it would be the equivalent of Rovers playing a recording of last year’s Europa League games against Juventus.

Leinster had got an allocation of 6,500 tickets that went on sale to season ticket holders but only 2,500 were sold with the remainder returned to Munster where they were snapped up by the home fans. Unlike at Rovers, there was no segregation with our €22 south terrace tickets meaning we were standing amongst the red army.

They give it a good buildup to the game in Thomond Park so there was the Munster Rugby supporters choir banging out “Stand up and fight” which got the home fans singing along. Their mascot Murty, who is an inflatable fan with number 16 on the back, was trying to get the crowd going but he is no Hooperman. It was a tight game with Leinster leading at the break 20 to 9 thanks to some nice footwork and kick through by Isa Nacewa allowing Shane Horgan, playing in his 200th game for the province, to score.

Leinster were attempting to make it six wins in a row against Munster after completing the drive for five at the game in Lansdowne Road before Christmas. Munster never need much encouragement to up their game against Leinster but they were determined to say no to six in a row. Each side had yellow cards to contend with but Munster’s was across half time with Johne Murphy off. Significantly Leinster’s yellow was late in the game for talismanic Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll (fresh from receiving Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council’s First Civic honour earlier in the week!).

Ireland’s Number 10s went toe to toe with each man in fine kicking form. Jonny Sexton scored 6 from 7 kicks but crucially O’Gara got 8 from 9 including the clincher with only about two minutest left on the clock.

When the final whistle blew the Munster fans all around us celebrated and I was almost disappointed with their comments to us Leinster fans. They agreed it was great entertainment, either team could have won it and then they wished us well next week against Leicester! That is way to sporting for my liking. We left with a little consolation that we had shut Munster out for the sixth game running on the try score but crucially the main scoreboard read Munster 24 Leinster 23.

Next week for me it will be a home double header. Shamrock Rovers v Bray Wanderers is on Friday night and that is followed on Saturday by Leinster taking on Leicester at the Palindrome in the Heineken Cup Quarter Final. Keep ‘em coming.

Ricer raising the flag

Interview with Stephen Rice in ‘Hoops Scene’ (Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk – 4 March 2011)

Tonight the League of Ireland Champions flag will be raised for the first time here at Tallaght Stadium. Of course Shamrock Rovers have won a record 16 league titles during the club’s illustrious history but has there been one as hard fought as the 2010 title? In an incredible season, the Hoops secured the title but it went right to the wire, with the final league night in Bray continuing to provide drama. When Rovers secured the crucial draw required to win the title, the man to receive and lift the league trophy, along with Dan Murray, was Stephen Rice. It wasn’t to be the only silverware the midfielder would win that weekend as the very next evening he received the Shamrock Rovers Player of the Year award at the Rovers Awards Dinner in the Burlington Hotel. It was a memorable season for ‘Ricer’ who took the chance to look back with ‘Hoops Scene’ on that amazing league title winning season and to look forward to the 2011 season to come.

(Photo:George Kelly)
“It was crazy stuff”, says Rice of the night the Hoops won the league. “It was a massive night for the club and all of us players. It is something that we will never forget. It was incredible that some of the young fans out in Bray that night weren’t even alive when we won the last title.”

That night in Bray was a culmination of a long league season that must have left the players tired both physically and emotionally. This was especially the case after conceding those late goals against Sporting Fingal in the penultimate home game of the league campaign which seemed to hand the title to Bohemians. “I have never been as low in football after that Fingal game,” says Rice. “That was very strange game. It was a long season but it was enjoyable even though it was tough. The season goes a lot quicker when you are winning and enjoying it like we did. When we finally got over the line, I think we deserved it over the whole season even though we did stumble towards the end. Bohs stumbled as well but that was more in the middle of the season and that is not as highlighted. We stumbled towards the end but over the whole season the league table doesn’t lie. If we had of romped home and won it by 10 points and beaten Bohs in Dalymount that night maybe we wouldn’t have learned as much through the ups and down about ourselves as individuals and as a team.”

The Hoops went into that last game of the season knowing that realistically a draw was all that was required to win the title. However heading towards halftime they were still a goal down. Gary Twigg then latched on to the ball taking it around the goalkeeper. He was then the calmest man in the Carlisle Grounds as he took another touch, steadied himself and proceeded to slot the ball calmly using the outside of his left foot between the legs of the defender on the line. “It shows the character of the squad to go 1-0 down and then to come back into the game but as I say the way we won it we will learn a lot. With that goal other strikers may have snatched at it but Twiggy showed why he is the best striker in the league.”

During the close season, Rice and the other players were able to take some time away from the game but not for too long. “We took three to four weeks off to do nothing which is important. I got away for a couple of weekends. Then in early December Trevor [Crolly] and the Gaffer [Michael O’Neill] sent us out a fitness programme. This programme was for the weeks leading up to coming back for pre-season. It was gym work and some running for strengthening and building back up a base for pre-season. Pre-season has been very good. We have had lots of games and training as always has been really good so we are looking strong. Everything we do generally is with the ball. You get your touch back and the fitness comes, with next step being the match fitness. Last week we had a fitness test and nearly all the lads scored really well and that gives a guide of where you are at. The fitness scores were up from the start of preseason.”

The Shamrock Rovers squad has been bolstered for the 2011 season with new signings who have joined before and during pre-season. They have been made feel welcome by the squad which as usual involves a bit of banter. The latest editions to the squad include Conor McCormick, who joined from Italian Serie B side Triestina, and Ronan Finn who signed following Sporting Fingal’s collapse. “Conor has been in for most of pre-season with Ronan joining after Fingal closed down. All the new lads have been great even if a few of them have dodgy clobber,” jokes Rice. It seems no one escapes the banter, be it the new lads, certain players accused of being on the sunbeds or Rice himself. “It is my FAI gear I usually get stick about but no matter what you wear, you are going to get hammered. That is the way it goes in the dressing room!”

Even at the age of 26, Stephen Rice is one of the most senior members at Shamrock Rovers which has quite a young squad. “When you are younger, you never think you will be 25 or 26 but it comes around. But with the age profile of the squad we are very young. From the outside looking in, I am probably one of the senior members of the squad but I don’t feel like it. But when you see some of the lads’ date of births in 1990s and then I think maybe I am getting bleedin’ old! The gaffer has signed some established players from the League and also young players that have a lot of potential. They will do really well for Rovers and may go on to play at a higher level. Being with the gaffer and Trev can only help getting the players to develop further.”

Along with the new signings, Rovers welcome back Pat Sullivan to the team. Sullivan got a season ending injury at the very beginning of the 2010 season. “It is great to have Sully back. He has looked really sharp in training and in the matches. It is great to have him back both in the dressing room and on the pitch. It is like another new singing.”

The pre-season began with a trip to Kerry, the county of Rovers’ winger Billy Dennehy, before moving on to Cork. The team played Killarney Celtic, winning 6-1, and followed that by beating Cork City 2-1. This match was in the unusual surrounding of Musgrave Park with the temporary football goals placed in front of the rugby posts. “The trip was really good. We had double training sessions and got a lot out of it including getting to know the new lads. We played on Tuesday in Killarney. A lot of the guys played 45 minutes that night. Billy Dennehy was like a God down there when we played! I played the second half in Cork. I skyed one over the bar and got a flashback to when I was playing GAA for Synge Street when you’d stick it over the bar. That’s my excuse anyway!”

Next up on the road was a trip to Belfast to play Cliftonville. An impressive performance saw the Hoops beat the side currently third in the Irish League by five goals to two. Rovers are debuting in the Setanta Cup this season and with the prospect of taking on other Irish League sides on the horizon it proved a useful exercise. “They are a decent side and it could have been more. It is a pre-season friendly so you don’t know the tempo they were at. We made a lot of changes at half time. It was a good victory up in their own place and especially to do it so comprehensibly. We had a few goals disallowed. It was all very positive and a good performance. I know a lot of the lads haven’t played against Northern teams, I know I certainly haven’t so it was nice to go up there and get a feel for what they are about and how they play. It was positive like the whole of preseason.”

The pre-season ends tonight and the Hoops get down to the real business of defending their hard fought league title. Hoops fans would certainly like to see a repeat of last year that would see Stephen Rice lifting the trophy aloft again at the end of the 2011 Airtricity League of Ireland season.

Rice’s Field of Dreams

It is the little details that can make all the difference. We have all probably heard Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday talking about football being a game of inches, about being one half step too late or too early and that being the difference between winning and losing. Last week with seventy minutes on the clock in the humid Tel Aviv evening, Shamrock Rovers got a throw deep into Bnei Yehuda territory. The inches that might have made the difference between winning and losing were those that Aidan Price had over his Israeli marker enabling him to flick the ball on from the throw into the path of Thomas Stewart. Stewart was that half step ahead of the Bnei Yehuda defender allowing him to sweep the ball home for the only goal of the game. Maybe the difference was the inches that Stephen Rice gained on his long throw by cheekily wiping his sweaty hands on the Israeli ball boy just before taking his throw in which means that tonight the Italian giants of Juventus visit Tallaght Stadium.

It is a mere seven days since Shamrock Rovers overcame Bnei Yehuda in the Europa League second round qualifying game. For the club’s back room team, on both the playing side and administration side, it has been an incredibly hectic week trying to get ready for what has to be the biggest game of the season so far and one to rival any of Rovers’ previous European encounters. The players and club management only returned to Ireland close to midnight last Friday night and on arrival got a very pleasant surprise. Waiting at Dublin Airport was a couple of hundred eager Rovers fans, one very eager club mascot Hooperman and Print and TV media from all over Ireland. It is not often that Rovers get a piece on the Saturday night nine o’clock news but we did last Saturday. RTÉ’s cameras, who are always here covering the game live tonight, got a real sense of the pride that Hoops fans had in their team with their coverage of the homecoming. Stephen Rice was one of the players that just couldn’t believe his eyes and ears on entering into the arrivals hall to be greeted by the Rovers fans belting out the Irish terrace classic of ‘Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Italy, Que Sera, Sera.’ “It was unbelievable! It was something else, I never even thought it would be like that,” Rice told Hoops Scene on his return to Dublin.

Rovers had made the long journey to Tel Aviv earlier in the week for the second leg. It was a trip manager Michael O’Neill had made two weeks previously to scout out his opponents and check the weather conditions in the city on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. “We got there at 5 o’clock on Tuesday morning and trained that evening,” said Rice. “We trained Wednesday evening and it was very warm. The heat was unbelievable, it was humid and very hard to get used to the conditions.”

It was an injury time goal at the first leg in Tallaght, courtesy of Robert Bayly, that had left the tie so finely balanced. Rice and his teammates were confident that they could go and win against the team that finished fourth last season in the Israeli Premier Division. “We always felt, even with how the game went in Tallaght that we looked the more dangerous side. We felt we would create chances which we did in Tallaght. They had a lot more possession than us but we were more dangerous when we did go forward. Out there I don’t think they underestimated us. We had a game plan that we went out to play with and we were patient. They had a lot of the ball at times and had chances but you expect that at European level. We knew we would create a number of chances which we did and we scored from one to win.”

It was a select group of Rovers fans who made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the game with close to 80 Hoops fans in the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa that night. For most of those fans it was the best night of their lives following Shamrock Rovers. Those fans stood and sung making their voices heard in the sparsely populated stadium and the players responded. The celebrations for the goal and more especially at the end of the game, with players throwing their shirts into the crowd, were very special. “The celebrations on the pitch and over with the fans at the end of the game were amazing. You know what it means to the fans, they’ve spent their hard earned money to travel. It was great to get a result for them having spent the money and time to go out there. There were great scenes of celebrations at the end and that continued in the dressing room with singing and even a bit of dancing!”

Those celebrations were echoed by all the Rovers fans that couldn’t make the trip but watched the live feed from Israeli TV on the internet on their computers. In the Maldron Hotel across the road from the stadium here in Tallaght, several hundred fans squeezed into the bar to watch the live internet coverage on the large screen. A casual visitor to the hotel would have been bemused by the celebrations with plenty of tears and the perfect strangers hugging each other at the conclusion of the 90 minutes. The Rovers away contingent will have plenty of reinforcements next week with an allocation close to 1,000 tickets available for away fans for the third round tie.

The draw for that next round was made after the first leg and so by the second leg both Bnei Yehuda and Shamrock Rovers knew they had the opportunity of playing Juventus, the most successful club in the history of Italian football, in the third round. The Rovers players were trying to concentrate on the immediate obstacle of getting through the tie but Rice acknowledged that it was hard and when he first heard the news of the draw he didn’t quite believe it, “I was talking to a friend on the phone that day and I thought he was winding me up at the start when he said we got Juventus. It was such a big incentive for us. There was a bit of talk in the dressing room about playing Juventus, you couldn’t help that.”

This time last year Rovers played an equally famous club in Real Madrid when they came to Ireland for the start of their pre-season. With Cristiano Ronaldo making his debut following his world record transfer to Real Madrid, the world’s media descended on Tallaght. Many thought we would not see the likes of it again but tonight’s competitive fixture is not far off. It took a late Karim Benzema goal from a Real side filled with internationals to defeat Rovers in that friendly. Like all players Rice has dreamed of playing against the big footballing sides. “You want to play at the highest level, playing against the best teams. It was Real Madrid last year and we thought that it was a bit of a one off and here we are playing Juventus.” He also recognises that while that game was good preparation for the club that “lots of our current players didn’t play in that Madrid game.” Indeed only five players including Rice from the win over Bnei Yehuda were involved in the game against Real Madrid last year.

Stephen Rice has some previous European football experience from his time at Bohemians in 2005. “I played the games against Gent with Bohs.” Having won the home leg, Bohs lost the tie 3-2 on aggregate but that result was a lot better than last week’s 4-1 loss over two legs to Welsh side TNS. The defeat was “shambolic and embarrassing” and that was the verdict of their own manager Pat Fenlon. With Sporting Fingal losing to Portuguese side Maritimo 6-4 on aggregate and Dundalk being outclassed 8-0 by Levski Sofia, it meant Shamrock Rovers were the last Irish side to be involved in European competition this year going into last week’s second leg. Rice explained that they didn’t concern themselves with other results but were concentrating on performing for themselves, their team mates and for the fans. “We were not really thinking about that, people just linked it all together with the bad results and what happened during the week.”
UCD were due to visit Tallaght last Monday night for an Airtricity League fixture but Rovers looked for a postponement which the Students and FAI thankfully acceded to. “I wouldn’t say it was a relief to get the UCD postponed,” said Rice, “but it just allows us more time to recover and prepare. We got back late on Friday evening and trained Sunday evening.” And has he had many ticket requests? “Ah stop, the phone hasn’t stopped hopping and they are not just looking for one ticket but people are on looking for six tickets!” Those lucky enough to have a ‘golden ticket’ for tonight’s game will be hoping that at the very least Rovers can extend their 15 game unbeaten streak. But can they really dream of a win against a squad containing Del Piero, Melo, Grosso, Salihamidzic, Camoranesi, Trezeguet to name but a few? “You are kind of putting me on the spot there as they obviously have some quality players but we wouldn’t be going out on the pitch if we didn’t think we could get a result. We will do our best and try and enjoy the game.”