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A host of firsts await Finn Harps in the future

September 5, 2021 Leave a comment

Published in the Finn Harps match day programme – Issue 13 2021 – Finn Harps v Shamrock Rovers

There is something special about the first time. Tunde Owolabi fired home his first hat-trick for Finn Harps recently with the Belgian bagging all three goals in the 3-1 win over St. Patrick’s Athletic.

“What an insane night,” was how Owolabi described it on twitter afterward with a couple of on fire emojis also included and sure why not! “Feels like a dream. Super delighted with my first hat-trick for the club. The boys were unbelievable tonight. We are on [fire emoji]. Thank you for your wonderful support…the atmosphere was absolutely electric.”

It was a different type of temperature and atmosphere when Jason Colwell scored in Finn Park back in 1999 for what was his first goal for Shamrock Rovers. Colwell came from a staunch Shamrock Rovers supporting family – his father Joe was Rovers’ chairman and both Colwells were part of the club in the difficult years when the Tallaght project was stalled for a long period.

Jason joined the Hoops after several seasons with UCD and he got his first goal for Rovers on a Ballybofey pitch blanketed in snow in mid-April 1999.

“My first goal for Rovers was up in Finn Park in a rescheduled mid-week match,” said Colwell when he spoke recently to this writer. “It was snowing, we played with an orange ball and I scored with a diving header! Out of everything that shouldn’t be, it was, because I wouldn’t have scored too many headers [at five foot seven] and I wouldn’t have played too many times in snow with an orange ball! 

“We lost the game though so it didn’t really count for much. Probably nobody else remembers it but I’ll always remember it because it was my first goal for Rovers.”

A look back through the records shows that Harps won the game 4-1 with James Mulligan scoring twice, along with a goal from Eamonn Kavanagh with Peter Murray scoring an own goal putting the ball by Rovers ‘keeper Tony O’Dowd.

Colwell had the frustration of seeing a partially built stand in Tallaght Stadium lay idle during his playing career with the club. And his thoughts may be echoed by Harps players and supporters alike as the wait on further developments on the new ground in Stranorlar – although there was good news on that front earlier in the year with the government allocating a provisional grant of close to €4m for the project.

“We could see the stand being built and we were training on the pitch so we thought we’d be playing there soon but it didn’t happen,” said Colwell. “It’s a shame that the years I was playing we didn’t have our own ground but to have Tallaght now – I hope the players know how fortunate they are because plenty who went before them weren’t afforded that.”

Last week in the North West derby Owulabi got the winner in Harps’ first ever FAI Cup victory over Derry City. When the new stadium comes for Harps, the first goal and the first derby win will be massive events for the club. 

For Shamrock Rovers supporters the first win over Bohemians in Tallaght Stadium back in 2009 has gone down in history. Stephen Rice, the newly appointed Republic of Ireland senior men’s team chief scout and opposition analyst, was part of that Hoops team who somehow conjured a late win over the Gypsies who were leading 1-0 with a couple of minutes to go in that game in May 2009. 

“If anyone says to me ‘the Bohs game’ – and I’ve played in I don’t know how many Rovers v Bohs games – I know the one they are talking about,” said Rice. “It is always the first one in Tallaght. It was a great night with Gary Twigg getting real poacher’s goals. 

“Typical Twiggy, out of nowhere he got two goals in the 88th and 89th minutes to win the game. When the first goal went in you could see the crowd went off the wall. When that winning goal went in, it was unbelievable.” 

Rovers rowing in the right direction – Liam Scales interview

Published in Hoops Scene No. 13 / 2021 (Shamrock Rovers v KF Teuta Durres / Longford Town)

In a four week period, the Hoops will play across four different competitions – League of Ireland, FAI Cup, Champions League and Europa Conference League. So plenty of football to concentrate on for the Shamrock Rovers players. Getting a break away from the game is also important so enjoying the July heat wave with some sea swimming and golf while watching the Olympics has been a nice distraction for Hoops player Liam Scales.

The interest in the watching events from Tokyo is heightened for the 22-year-old as a number of the athletes with Team Ireland were on scholarship with Scales during his time at UCD. Not only that, the Hoops defender lived in first year with Paul O’Donovan, one of just eight Irish Olympians to have won a gold medal.

“The sports scholarship I was on at UCD wasn’t just the football scholarship but included other sports,” said Scales. “There are good few from that scholarship system who are out at the Olympics including swimmer Darragh Greene in the breaststroke (the Ireland record holder at 50m, 100m and 200m), Lena Tice is on the hockey team (and an Irish international cricket player) and I lived with Paul O’Donovan in first year in college.

“He is an insane athlete. Living with him, I could see the amount of work he put in, eating the right food and all the hours he spent in training. I would have seen him in the gym training beside us. He would be on the rowing machine going flat out and often he’d end up going over to the bin to throw up. The rowers push themselves to the limit and they can’t do anymore.”

While sea swimming has become very common during coronavirus times, Scales has always been fond of a dip in the Irish Sea. “Being from Brittas Bay, I’m well used to the sea. I enjoy sea swimming. It is not like I’m forcing myself to hop in only for recovery. Even if I wasn’t playing, I’d do it anyway but it is still great for as part of my recovery with football. It is like an ice bath and I always feel much better after.

“On the days off you have to be able to take your mind off football so I love sea swimming and I play golf with a few of the lads in the squad too. With the lockdown we have had a tough few months where you couldn’t do much but now the golf courses are open it is good to be able to enjoy yourself on the days off. With the weather we’ve had in the last few weeks, we have made the most of it but with football in the mind we haven’t done too much.”

On the pitch, Scales has been one of the standout players for the Hoops this season who sit top of the table in the League of Ireland. Coming into the UEFA Europa Conference League home qualifier against Teuta, he has played in every game so far this season starting all bar the recent 2-0 cup win over Galway United. In that match, he made a substitute appearance for the final half an hour of Rovers’ 20th win in a row over United.

“The first half goals were taken really well,” said Scales about the strikes from Rory Gaffney and Dylan Watts. “We controlled the first half. With John Caulfield in charge (of Galway), you have to expect a reaction from them like we saw in the second half. To be fair to them, they came out and had a proper go in the second half, creating a couple of chances. 

“I think overall we were comfortable and happy enough. It would have been nice to go and dominate the second half like we did in the first but it is rare that games work out like that. It is all about getting through to the next round and the draw for that means we are  really looking forward to playing Bohs.

“We have lots of games to focus on between then and now but if you want to win the cup, you have to play big games,be it last-16 stage, quarter-final or semi-final. You are going to have to play the likes of Bohs, Dundalk or Pat’s and win those type of ties if you want to win the cup. 

“We have a big European tie before then and tough league games too but we are looking forward to playing Bohs down the line and hopefully get the same result the lads got a couple of years ago in the semi-final when they went on to win the cup.

“It is nice to be in the team every week but I know I need to keep playing well and working hard as the competition is so strong. When you look at our bench, there are players who would be playing week-in week-out in the league with other teams. I’ve been playing between centre-half and wing-back and that is helping me be picked as I can slot in for either position. If I want to keep playing every week, I have to keep up my form and stay fit.

“I’ve scored twice this year, both against Dundalk and they are two of the best goals that I’ve scored in my senior career. As a kid I would have played higher up the pitch in midfield or as a winger and scored a few goals. Playing as a wingback you can get into these higher positions and every now and again there is going to be a chance that will fall to you. It is about taking it. I’ve been in the right place at the right time to score those goals this season. It is nice to chip in with a couple of goals and assists.”

Rovers come into their home European tie three points clear at the top of the table having won four matches in a row in all competitions – including last week’s 3-1 win over St. Patrick’s Athletic – putting behind them a difficult period when, struggling with an injury crisis, they earned only eight points from the 21 on offer in the league. 

“We went through a tough spell in June. We lost a couple of games after being on that long winning streak. To lose a couple of games in a month was tough. We bounced back really well from that. The spirit is high. We have players back from injury and Richie (Towell) has come in and done really well. It is all positive in the camp at the moment. It is such an important busy month in August and so it is a good time for us to be kicking into form and playing well. 

“Last year when we were winning every week and on that streak of unbeaten games, we always just took it game by game. We never looked beyond our next game. That is all we can do now especially with so many games coming up. This isn’t time to be thinking about different games, only the one coming up. We have been in this situation before. Every year the schedule gets hectic when Europe and the cup is around. Hopefully we can stay on top of it, stay fit and go on another run.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 4, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour de Force from Lee Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jeff Hendrick – one of Burnley’s Boys in Green

August 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Photo by George Kelly

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo by George Kelly

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Leading the Way – Stephen McPhail

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

 Interview with Stephen McPhail in Hoops Scene 17 (Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk – 9 October 2015)

 

With 10 minutes remaining in Shamrock Rovers’ last home outing and the Hoops 2-0 up against Galway United, Pat Fenlon decided to bring on some fresh legs. You had to feel sorry for the United defenders though when they saw who was coming on, as lining up on the half-way line to enter the pitch were Stephen McPhail and Damien Duff. Rovers left back Luke Byrne, sitting in the stand due to injury, tweeted out a picture of the substitutes saying “Two young lads coming on here!!”

 

Stephen McPhail appreciated the tweet when Hoops Scene mentioned it when we spoke this week. “Myself and Damo are moving on so we aren’t exactly young lads but it is great to have Damien at Rovers! I grew up with him playing schoolboy football and international football. He is a great lad and it is great to have him around with the experience he has from his career. All the lads have taken to him and he is looking to help the young lads along the way.”

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McPhail is also helping the younger lads at the club and not just in the first team squad. The former Cardiff City captain is also part of the coaching staff with Rovers’ under 17 team which is managed by Aidan Price. Currently taking his UEFA A coaching licence, McPhail has been putting some of what he is learning on the course to use with the team playing in the new underage national league.

 

“I’m really enjoying it and they are a great bunch of lads. It is obviously a new league and it is going to be great in a year or two as we develop the players and then hopefully bring some through into our first team.”

 

The focus is obviously on player development at that age but six wins and a draw from their first seven games is extremely positive as the under 17 team face a trip to Sligo next weekend.

 

“They have started well. We are trying to help them with their performances. That is the most important thing so that they understand their role in the team and formations and at that age you are just trying to give them as much information as possible.

 

“Results wise, we don’t look too much into it but it is great to build confidence when they see themselves at the top of the table. But they are at a big club so they should expect to be up around there all the time. We have had to dig in a few times in places like Galway and Longford so it is an eye-opener for them.

 

“They are playing in those stadiums which is great for them. Coming from schoolboy football, they are now playing in Tallaght Stadium and they will get to play in Inchicore in a few weeks time. You can see the buzz in their eyes before they go out for the warm up, so you have to kind of calm them down and get them to concentrate on their performance.”

 

Last Friday night, McPhail and Damien Duff lined out with three members of Rovers’ under 19 squad when the Hoops took on Bohemians in the Leinster Senior Cup semi-final. Jamie Whelan, Trevor Clark and James Doona all started the game and helped the Hoops to a place in the final. The 4-2 penalty shoot-out win in Dalymount Park, after a scoreless 0-0 draw over 120 minutes, means the Hoops will take on Dundalk one more time in this season’s Leinster Senior Cup Final.

 

As part of the FAI Licensing requirements, all youth coaches must have a UEFA B badge for teams with players of 16 years and above, with an A licence required to be an assistant manager of a first team squad or to be a First Division manager – a pro-licence is required to be first team manager.

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McPhail is part of a current A licence course being run by the FAI which also includes another former Irish international Mark Kinsella (in charge of Drogheda United until the end of the season), Carlo Cudicini (coaching with the Ireland under 21 team) and Rovers first team coach Gareth Cronin.

 

“I’m grateful to Pat (Fenlon) who encouraged me to go on the course when I spoke to him last year. It is set up by the FAI so that you can fit it in around playing. They want you to do so many hours a week coaching at an elite level so the under 17s all ties in with what I’m doing.

 

“There is a lot of work involved. I haven’t found myself before being in front of the computer for days like I have over the last few months! It is not easy. It takes its toll at times as you have long nights.

 

“The three day seminars are really interesting but they are long gruelling days so I’m glad when I’m coming home after. You have to do it as you are trying to learn. Hopefully at the end of it, I will get the badge and push on with my coaching.”

 

He isn’t about to hang up his boots just yet and prior to injury curtailing his season, McPhail had been involved in 15 of Rovers’ first 21 games of the year. His midfield play was central to much that the Hoops had to offer and so it was so disappointing for the player to pick up a hamstring injury in the final league game before Rovers’ European matches.

 

“I’m concentrating on playing as long as I can. I’m only 35 years of age. I feel quite fit and that I can give something to the team. Last year there was a bit of settling in back home with my family. My football wasn’t as good then as I wanted it to be. Until I got injured this year, I felt I was comfortable where I was in terms of my performance and fitness.

 

“It was a massive disappointment,” said McPhail about the injury picked up in the 2-1 win over Galway at the end of June. “I felt I was doing well and in great form coming into Europe. That was a big blow for me and I knew then I was going to be out for a while. It was very frustrating having to watch the games and not being involved.

 

“Fitness wise I’m okay now but match fitness is a bit different but I’m slowly getting there, even though there are only a few games left to go in the season. It has been a bit of a catch up.”

 

With European football secured for next season, thanks to the teams above Rovers qualifying for the FAI Cup final where Dundalk will play Cork City, the Hoops are looking to finish as high up as they can in the table. A runners up spot is well in the reach of Rovers but tonight the aim is to prevent Dundalk from winning the title in Tallaght.

 

“It is in our mind already that we don’t want that to happen!” said McPhail when he was asked about the prospect of Dundalk celebrating winning the league on the Hoops’ home turf. “Hats off to them though, they have had a great season again. They’ve been relentless and have ground out results when they have had to. They are coming to Tallaght and I’m sure they know it will be tough but we want to get one over on them.

 

“Cork are in our sights. There are only a couple of points between us. I’m sure it will go down to the wire but we need to concentrate on ourselves and can’t take our eyes off that. Second spot is definitely up for grabs.”

 

No doubt in Tallaght tonight there will be a few German football fans who will have stayed on in Dublin after last night’s game in the Aviva. It is a big task that awaits Ireland in Poland on Sunday no matter what last night’s result. McPhail doesn’t expect Ireland to have gained anything out of last night’s match but thinks that the game in Warsaw is our best chance of picking up points to at least earn a play-off.

 

“It will tough as they are two massive games this week. I’ve been to the last couple of games in the Aviva. We haven’t really played particularly well through the campaign. I’m sure that most would agree with that. Performance-wise we haven’t really been at the level where we need to be in the qualifiers.

 

“To say we are in with a shout is great but I can’t see us getting too much from Germany. You are just hoping that it will come down to the Poland game and looking at them I don’t think there is too much to fear really. It will be a tough place to go in terms of atmosphere and they have good players. But as a squad we shouldn’t really fear them and should get something from the game.”

 

The current Ireland squad contains a good handful who have played in the League of Ireland and it is that player development that is McPhail’s focus when he saw the recent review of the league from Declan Conroy.

 

“The structure of the league should be better and so should the facilities. We can all see that. We are going about it the right way, looking at the youth and schoolboy system. Making the under 17s and 19s league is all good for me as I can see that producing players and making the league stronger.

 

“We need to produce more players so that they can go on into the international team. That is the aim. Our standard in the FIFA ranking isn’t great. We need to get back to where we were, rather than being between 50 to 60. Teams can do it. Look at Wales who are a similar size to ourselves or countries like Iceland and even Belgium who have worked hard on their set up. They have formidable schoolboy teams at underage and then develop them into the first team.”

The Tallaght Project – Stephen Bradley

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Interview with Stephen Bradley (Hoops Scene 9/2015 – Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers – 5 June 2015)

 

For over a decade the discussion about Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght was about bricks and mortar. The Tallaght Project priority was seeking to complete the half-finished stand languishing on Whitestown Way so that Rovers could finally play their first game in the Dublin 24 venue.

 

If there is such thing as a Tallaght Project now however, it is more likely about the structures being developed for player development throughout the club from schoolboys right through to the first team. Someone who has seen both these different Tallaght Projects at close hand is Stephen Bradley.

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Growing up in Jobstown, Bradley was 11-years-of-age when there were the initial discussions began about Rovers moving to Tallaght. He saw the shell of the stadium develop and then lay idle for years when his time in Tallaght was visiting home during breaks from being a youth team player with Arsenal.

 

When Michael O’Neill looked to bring Bradley into the Hoops squad for the inaugural season in Tallaght, the player knew he was joining a club, now his local club, at the most exciting time in decades. He would line out in the opening night in the new stadium, play 63 games in two seasons with the Hoops and become part of a Rovers team that would win the club’s first league title since the days in the RDS.

 

Bradley has a remarkable story to tell and it is fascinating to hear him discuss going over to the UK on football trials before he was even a teenager, how he fell out of love with playing the game and how passionate he is now with his coaching role at Rovers.

 

At just 30 years of age, he is now back at Shamrock Rovers. Having left his playing career behind him he is now playing a crucial part in footballer development at the club, at both ends of the spectrum; he is in charge of player development at foundation stage (under 8s to 12s) and is also a vital member of Pat Fenlon’s first team coaching staff. Hoops Scene spoke to the player recently to discuss both his playing and coaching career and also his scouting work that he currently does for Arsenal.

 

So when did he first go over to the UK on trial? “I was 10,” said Bradley. “It is crazy when you think of it. Would I do it again? It was a massive opportunity but it is far too early. We are maybe in danger of going back towards that having come away from it in the last number of years. Now some kids are going at under 11s and 12s and I think that is too young.”

 

Late last year when Bradley was manager of the PFAI team at the Fifpro tournament in Oslo, he spoke about having signed for Arsenal on a big money contract at 17, his head was turned by the size of his bank balance despite not playing with the Gunners first team. He forgot that he was in London to learn his trade and not spend money on extravagant things. He is happy to share his thoughts on that experience and what he learned on his return to Ireland to play professional football where he won league titles first with Drogheda United and then with Rovers.

 

“I spoke about this as I felt not enough people were talking about it and nothing was been done to rectify it. I went over really young. I fell out of love with the game when I signed a professional contract. Some people may say ‘can clubs not set money aside so you don’t get it until you are 20’ but there are bigger issues. I didn’t deal with it very well but that was my scenario.

 

“If we want to keep producing players like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, we need to look at how we are supporting our players before they go, when they go and when they come back. We shouldn’t just send them over to a cattle market at the age of 15 and say best of luck.”

 

Bradley believes that there is no reason why Ireland cannot develop talented young footballers. Having retired from playing the game at a relatively early age, the passion that he has for coaching players is clear when he speaks about it and how he was drawn to being part of setting up coaching structures at his former club here in Tallaght.

 

“I don’t believe Ireland can’t produce players, we do produce players. We just have to get them early enough when they are in the learning stage. Then they take it in and grasp what you are saying to them. We want to give kids an option of staying in Ireland and finishing their education. I would encourage any kid that has that option to do that.

 

“I wouldn’t have gotten involved if I didn’t believe the club wasn’t behind it or were only going to do for 18 months. I wouldn’t have any interest if players weren’t going to gain from it. It must be long term. From the board, to the first team manager and Shane Robinson (Rovers’ Head of Player and Coach Development), it is getting the backing right through the club.

 

“The end goal is to develop players for the first team. It isn’t a two or three year project. We will see in 10 to 15 years time six or seven players coming through from youth set up into the first team.

 

“The fans, the board and the coaches want to see that. Our aim is to get them into to team to show people you don’t have to go away at 15 like I did. You can stay here, play first team football for Shamrock Rovers at the age of 18. If they are good enough, then they can be sold on.

 

“The new under 17 league is needed because I saw schoolboy football players fall away from the game if they didn’t get over to England at 15. They thought they had missed their chance. This is showing them now that if you stay in football, play first team football with a top League of Ireland, you can move on.

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“Look at Keith Fahey here at Rovers. He went over to the UK, came home and then went again. You look at so many who have done that (in the current Ireland international squad). It shows that if you play in this league and do well enough, you will go over at a stage when you are ready.

 

“My thing with the kids is that I’ve seen and gone through it not so long ago. I know why I didn’t fulfil my potential and I’m okay with that. But now it is about helping other kids become better players and deal with different scenarios. That is why I am so passionate about the youth side of the game as I feel I have something to offer. The younger you get them, the better. They hang onto every word you say and that is fantastic.”

 

Rovers have put a group of coaches together to run the underage set up with extensive experience playing both in the League of Ireland and in leagues outside the country. Shane Robinson (FK Haka), Stephen Bradley (who also spent time playing in Scotland), Graham Gartland (St. Johnstone), Keith O’Halloran (Middlesbrough) are all either UEFA A and B qualified, and along with Pat Deans, whose qualification is in Strength & Conditioning, all five of them played previously for Shamrock Rovers at different stages of their careers.

 

“I don’t believe you have to play at the top level to be a top coach or manager but it definitely helps when you are looking at these kids and you hear them saying to another ‘he played for Shamrock Rovers a few years ago’ It makes an impact with the kids. All of us involved have played with Rovers so it is great to have that connection to the club.

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“After the kids come out of the Academy (weekend sessions in the Spawell for under 7s), we are trying to give them the basic elements of football. Control, pass, dribble. Let them express themselves. As they are enjoying it, they are learning about the game and that is what we are trying to do with them at that age.

 

“They play in leagues but there are no league tables until they go 10s. They train three times a week and then they play a game on the Saturday. There is supposed to be nobody keeping score but tell the parents and the other coaches that!

 

“The kids do ask about the score. I don’t think we will ever stop it but there is no harm in that! The main thing is that the adults don’t feed into that and say ‘we won or we lost on Saturday’. It isn’t about that. It is about the kids learning the basics of how to play football and letting them make decisions which is really important.

 

“Whether it is right or wrong, we encourage them to do that and over time they will learn whether it was correct or not. It isn’t up to us to tell them that, they need to work it out and I believe in the long term that will help them.

 

“Football is very different now. There is no street football being played anymore. People ask me how I was technically gifted but it was because I was on the street every day all day kicking the ball off a wall or the path. You kicked it at different angles and you had to control it in different ways but that is gone now and we have to try and replicate it.”

 

Some of the kids that take part in Rovers’ Academy programme were not even born when the Hoops played their first game in Tallaght back in March 2009. That is a game that standouts from Bradley’s playing career.

 

“Being from Tallaght I’d seen the slow progress (of the stadium) growing up. At one stage with a lot of things going on, you were thinking this may never happen. So to play in the first game in Tallaght stadium was special.

 

“When Michael O’Neill spoke to me about signing, I knew how big it was from growing up in the area. I knew there would be a good buzz but I never thought it would be as big as that night. The first game in Tallaght was massive. The whole build up to the game was absolutely unbelievable.

 

“When we came out, the ground was packed. We played well and we won. It was one of those nights that you look back on and you will never forget as it was a special night. When we came into the dressing room after the first game it was like winning the league. That was the buzz. All the lads had a high like we had won the title.”

 

While Rovers just missed out on winning the league in that opening season in Tallaght, the following year the Hoops did lift the league trophy. “I’ve been lucky to win things with a few teams (winning a title, FAI Cup and two Setanta Cups with Drogheda) but the Rovers one was special. As a Tallaght lad and hearing how long it was since winning the league, to win one was really special. It was something you thought it might never happen but that squad wanted to win things together and we did.”

 

Next month marks five years since Rovers’ famous encounter in the Europa League qualifiers with a club who over the weekend are looking to win the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin. “We played really well,” said Bradley speaking about the game against Juventus in Modena. That was a night where it took a moment of genius from Alessandro Del Piero to separate the teams.

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“Del Piero put one in the net from 50 yards! I didn’t play in a game where I saw a better free kick. He was brilliant playing wise and after the game too. He came into us and brought us all into their dressing room and made sure we all swapped shirts. They were excellent.”

 

In between his coaching role with Rovers, Bradley also is a scout for Arsenal. Prior to his current role at Rovers, he did a lot of scouting in Europe for the Gunners. He would travel over to a league or international game in Europe. Now for scouting players outside of Ireland, Arsenal normally send him a live link of the game to watch.

 

“If you are doing stuff for the first team, the boss (Arsene Wenger) usually gives you a target to give a full report on. Other times you go to a game and they won’t tell you which player they are looking out for. They let you watch the game and see if you pick him out.

 

“It keep you on your toes! You have to be tuned in for the game and every player. When you are filling out the report on the system, you nearly always have to get the player that they have ear marked. I would look from first team players down to young players and all around Europe.

 

“Sometimes you might get a link from a live game somewhere else in the world and you have to scout Ronaldo or Messi. You have to forget about his reputation and scout him whether he has played well or not. They might get a few scouts to do that game and then they will compare reports. It is a good indication to see which scout is looking at certain things.

 

“The manager has always done it that way and you can see the results with their recruitment which has been some of the best around in the last 10 to 15 years. Coaching is what I love doing with the first team or with the young lads but scouting makes you look at the game in a different way. I love it. Training in the morning with the first team, doing stuff in the evenings with the kids or go to the North or down to Cork to watch a team or watch a live stream of a game. It is football 24/7!”

 

 

 

Not Odd but Odra

December 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Article for Hoops Scene 12/2015 – Shamrock Rovers v Limerick – 26 July 2015

 

Shamrock Rovers win over Progres Niederkorn in the first round of this year’s Europa League qualifers was the 14th Hoops victory in Europe – a League of Ireland record. Two of those wins also came against a Luxembourg team – the Hoops won both home and away against Spora Luxembourg back in 1966.

 

That was the first time that a League of Ireland side had done so in Europe and the Hoops have managed that feat on four separate occasions in total – another League of Ireland record. This afternoon we delve back into the recent history to recall the last time Rovers managed to be victorious in Europe in a knockout tie winning both and away legs.

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Having finished third the previous season, the Hoops qualified for the 2003 Intertoto Cup – a UEFA competition that provided an opportunity to qualify for the UEFA Cup. The Hoops, managed by Liam Buckley back then, were drawn against Odra Wodzislaw in the first round.

 

The first leg took place in the southern Polish city of Wodzislaw in June 2003. The crowd of over 3,000 fans were entertained ahead of kick off by a marching band and majorettes, with the away fans adding to the atmosphere by letting off a number of firecrackers as the teams entered pitch.

 

Tickets for the game were 20 zlotys (less than €5) and certainly the 100 or so Rovers fans who made the trip got their monies worth even if the first didn’t come to life until the final 20 minutes.

 

A slip by full back Richie Byrne on the wet pitch allowed a low cross to find Novacky who put the home team 1-0 up on 72 minutes. The Hoops didn’t let their head’s drop however and within four minutes they were level. Tony Grant found Stephen Grant who coolly knocked the ball past the advancing ‘keeper with his right foot for the equaliser.

 

Six minutes later the away fans were in dreamland – and were climbing the railings in front of them in celebration – as Shane Robinson put Tony Grant clear in on goal. The striker outpaced two defenders before slotting the ball home to give Rovers the 2-1 win.

 

“It was a real feeling of jubilation when I saw the ball go in,” was how Tony Grant described the goal and the resulting celebration with the Rovers fans. “I just had to be with the fans at that moment, to thank them for all the support they’ve given me over the last few years. I felt that we merited the win.”

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Writing in the Hoops Scene back then, Gerry Matthews described the conclusion of the game from the fans perspective. “The superb goals had us bouncing around the stand for joy. The final whistle was greeted with an outpouring of emotion not seen in quite a while.”

 

“I’m as proud as punch for the players, club and our supporters,” said Liam Buckley after the game as he reflected on the first ever victory by an Irish club over Polish opposition. “This is a great achievement by the club and that was fully merited, even if we got a rub of the green on a few occasions.”

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The win was the first for Rovers away from home in Europe since 1982. The second leg was played at Richmond Park a week later. Played out in glorious sunshine the venue beside the Camac was packed. Glen Fitzpatrick got the only goal of the game, scoring in the 66th minute, to secure the second leg victory and a ticket into the next round where they would face Slovan Liberec (the Czech side would win both the home and away legs 2-0).

 

It really was a superb home and away victory especially considering it was against a Wodzislaw side who finished just four points behind Wisla Krakow in the league. This was the first season of summer football in the League of Ireland and the Hoops boss at the time felt that gave his Irish club an advantage – something that certainly seems to be true looking at results since the switch in seasons for our league. “There’s no doubt that the fact we have played two months of our league campaign was a major help,” he said.

 

The Hoops thus became the first Irish club in 20 seasons to win both legs in Europe (Rovers’ 7-0 aggregate win over Fram Reykjavik in 1983 was the previous time to that) and those two wins by Rovers remain the only victories by a League of Ireland club against a Polish side in 10 attempts.

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So what happened to that Rovers side?

 

Barry Ryan – Goalkeeper (36)

The goalkeeper from Clare is not to be confused with the ‘keeper for the Irish National Quidditch team in the Harry Potter world. The Rovers Ryan was released by the club the season after the win in Poland after failing a drugs test. Subsequently he played for Dublin City, St. Pat’s, Galway United and Limerick, only retiring from the League of Ireland last year.

 

Stephen Gough – Defender (34)

Lives in Qatar. Assistant Manager and player with EIS Pearl Community FC who play in Division 3 of the Qatar Stars League.

 

James Keddy – Defender (42)

Many will remember Keddy for his late headed miss for Rovers in the 2002 FAI Cup final against Derry City in Tolka Park. One of a number of players from this Rovers team who crossed the Dublin divide to later play for Bohemians. He won the league with Drogheda United in 2006 and 2007. He was involved with managing Mount Merrion FC and currently works as an electrician.

 

Jason Colwell – Midfieder (41)

Still can be seen at Rovers home games following the Hoops. Son of former Rovers Chairman Joe Collwell.

 

Terry Palmer – Defender (42)

Played for Rovers from 1998 to 2004 but left to join Bohemians where he ended his League of Ireland career. Palmer is a Director with a financial broker firm in Dublin

 

Richie Byrne – Defender (33)

Moved to Dunfermline a few months after the matches in Poland. Played for Aberdeen in the Europa League group stages in 2007/08. Played for Horsham FC in the Ryman League Division One (South) last season.

 

Shane Robinson – Midfielder (34)

Won the league title with Drogheda United in 2007. Captained the Hoops on the opening night in Tallaght in 2009. Had a two season spell playing with Haka in the Finnish top division before returning to Rovers where he is now Head of Player and Coach Development.

 

Tony Grant – Forward (38)

Scored the winning goal in Poland but he will be forever remembered for his controversial move to Bohemians the following season and the Pigs Head that was thrown onto the pitch in Dalymount Park by Rovers fans in his first derby after joining “the darkside”. Another former Hoops who won the league with Drogheda United. He also played several seasons with Glenavon. Was manager of Duleek in 2014 but was replaced by Trevor Molloy (see below).

 

Glen Fitzpatrick – Forward (34)

League winner with Shelbourne and Drogheda United. Was involved in the coaching set up at Broadford Rovers in the Leinster Senior League.

 

Alan Reynolds – Midfielder (41)

Returned for two spells at his hometown club Waterford before winning the league with Shelbourne in 2006. Is now part of Liam Buckley’s coaching staff at St. Pat’s.

 

Stephen Grant – Forward (38)

Ended his professional football career the following season at the age of 27 before taking up golf full time. He is a member of the European Challenge Tour.

 

Substitutes

Trevor Molloy – Sub in both legs (38)

The former bronze medal winner with Ireland from the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship, left Rovers in 2006 for St. Pat’s before moving to play with Motherwell. He ended his professional playing career with Glenavon in 2011. He was assistant manager to Roddy Collins with Monaghan United before they left the League of Ireland. After managing Duleek last season, he is currently managing Ardee Celtic in the North East Football League.

 

Stephen McGuinness – Unplayed Substitute (41)

He was unavailable for the second round away leg against Slovan Liberec as he was getting married. He is now PFAI General Secretary.

 

Derek Treacy – Sub in second leg (44)

A one-club player, Treacy is a Shamrock Rovers legend who played close to 500 games for the Hoops. Still supporting Rovers, Treacy played in the Shamrock Rovers Pride of Ringsend football tournament earlier this month.

 

Glen Lacey – Sub in second leg

Played subsequently with Drogheda United and Shelbourne before playing non-league football with Glebe North.

 

Manager

Liam Buckley

Currently manager at St. Patrick’s Athletic where he has led the club to a league title and an FAI Cup in the last two seasons.

 

 

 

 

Hyland hitting the heights with the Hoops

December 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Interview with Craig Hyland from Hoops Scene 4/2015 Shamrock Rovers v Bohemian FC (27 March 2015)

It was the fifth meeting of the teams in Oriel Park in 2015. The Dundalk crowd, and indeed their team, were nervy as the Lilywhites faced Shamrock Rovers in their penultimate home game of the season; the point they would earn in this 0-0 draw against the Hoops would turn out to be crucial in securing Dundalk the title. Referee Rob Rogers had a busy game and by the final whistle would brandish nine yellow cards, one red card and give Rovers a late penalty that they would miss.

 

The yellow card the referee gave Barry Murphy for time wasting would have a significant influence on the goalkeeping situation at the start of this season for Shamrock Rovers. Murphy’s fifth yellow card of 2014 meant that he picked up a suspension that would rule him out of the first league game of this season. This essentially ensured Craig Hyland would start in goal for Rovers at the start of the 2015 league campaign.

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“He was unfortunate to get that suspension but that gave me my chance,” said Hyland about Murphy’s yellow card when Hoops Scene caught up with the goalkeeper after last Friday’s 0-0 draw with Cork City in Tallaght Stadium. “My whole focus in the off-season was to work really hard in the gym, and then on the pitch when we came back training, as I knew I was going to play in the first game.”

 

24-year-old Hyland had a previous spell with the Hoops in 2011 and he re-signed with Rovers last season making ten first team appearances (plus a further three starts with Rovers’ First Division team). He played in the EA Sports Cup Final at Oriel Park in the 3-2 defeat to Dundalk and kept a clean sheet in each of his three league appearances made in the last four weeks of the 2014 season.

 

“I played a few more times under Pat (Fenlon) than Trevor Croly and I felt I did well. The cup final was a big one for me for confidence. The result didn’t go well but goals aside I played fairly well and that gave me confidence for the games where I came in. I played relatively well, kept a few clean sheets and that stood me in good stead for this year.

 

“The whole goal for the start of the season was, even though I was going to play the first game, to extend it and play as much as possible. Luckily the first game went well; I kept a clean sheet and I’ve managed to stay in the team.”

 

On the opening night, played in windy conditions particularly tough for a goalkeeper, Hyland pulled off a spectacular save in injury time to deny St. Patrick’s Athletic striker Ciarán Kilduff a goal and earn the Hoops a 1-0 victory. He followed that up with a clean sheet in the 2-0 win away to Longford before last week’s draw against Cork – making it six clean sheets in a row for the Hoops.

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The goalkeeping team at Shamrock Rovers is led by coach Dermot O’Neill and bolstered by under 19 goalkeepers Michael Kelly and Luca Gratzer. The situation with goalkeepers is an interesting dynamic as ‘keepers can go many matches without getting on the pitch, unlike outfield players who can come in and play in usually a couple of positions.

 

“You can go long periods of time without playing or sometimes you are in and out for cup games and then back on the bench. It is a mental challenge more than anything else. Last year, even though I knew that was the case, it was difficult at times. It can be frustrating. As a goalkeeper, you know there is only one position but there is always a few alternatives as an outfield player.

 

“You do work a lot closer with your fellow goalkeepers maybe compared with two outfield players in the same position. I’ve heard it can go one of two ways but I’ve never had an issue with any of the goalkeepers I’ve played with. I’m an easy going type of guy and I’d be friends with the ‘keepers who have been number one ahead of me or number two to me. That is certainly the case with Barry and we are good friends. He is very helpful especially now that I’m in the team. He is giving me little tips and pointers about different players and different teams which is great.

 

“I’m in the team now and hopefully that lasts but I know I need to perform really well in every game as Barry is there waiting to get back in and he is good enough to step back in whenever needs be. You don’t want a situation where you have your goalkeeper who is in the team but is extremely comfortable and not really pushing himself for form. You need to be at your best if you want to win leagues and do well in Europe.

 

“There is a rivalry for places but there is no bitterness if you are not in the team. The lads are always willing to help each other out which is massively important. That is the ethos Pat (Fenlon) has brought in. It is very long season and players are going to be in and out but everyone will get a run in the team. There is competitiveness for places, not just in goal but all positions in the team.”

 

It can be a bit of a surprise if you are hanging around Tallaght Stadium more than a half an hour after a game to see Rovers players with flip-flops and towels around the waist shuffling across Whitestown Way coming from the Arena Leisure Centre back into the stadium. The chance to carry out their warm down in the swimming pool opposite the stadium is one of the many positives for Hyland to the set up at Shamrock Rovers.

 

“We often do our after match recovery cool down in the pool especially when we have games coming all the time. It takes the weight off your joints. It is low impact and we can do our stretching. The affect of the water releases the tension in your muscles. After games I’m sorer from diving around and ‘keepers probably don’t need it as much as other players but I find it very beneficial.

 

“We go over, do our bit and then come back over and have a shower so the lads can clean up and tidy away. The gym does us a courtesy by staying open so late which is great. I’ve done pool sessions before but never as close to the stadium, with the option to do it straight after the game. The quicker you can do it after the game and get the recovery done the more rest you stand to have.

 

“Sometimes the sessions are done on Saturday morning but a lot of the lads including myself sometimes struggle to sleep after the game as you are so hyped up. It is a luxury to get to do the pool session straight after the game. You mightn’t sleep but you have more time for resting in the morning. A lot of other clubs wouldn’t have the ability to do that. It is a credit to the club, Pat Fenlon and the other coaching staff that we have that.

 

“If you want to be a top club you have to have the top facilities and ours have been upgraded on last year. We train in the morning and have full access to a kitchen so a lot of the lads would have their food there. We have a mini-gym so we can do our gym sessions with our strength and conditioning coach (Conor Clifford) and do extra bits including before training which is another improvement on last year.

 

“Conor did most of our fitness work in the off-season and is at most of the sessions. We do at least one gym session a week with him together as a team a. I’m the type of person who can train all your like but I need to be in the gym to stay as sharp as I can. It is a bonus for me as I get the extra hour there and that it will be tailored specifically for you.

 

“The group this year is tighter knit,” says Hyland speaking ahead of last Tuesday’s game away to Sligo Rovers. “We do spend a lot more time together. We work hard and are four to five hours a day with each other. That extra bit of gym work is done together and you can have that bit of craic and a laugh while working.

 

“It is a long season and there will be setbacks but as a group we are stronger this year. There is no micro groups within the group. Everyone talks to everyone and spends time with each other. The more experienced players like Stephen McPhail, Keith Fahey, Patrick Cregg and Tim Clancy have come in and they are helping us all, myself included. The new players have integrated straight into the group seamlessly almost as if they were always at the club.

 

“It can be tough for new people and a little intimidating coming in especially at a club as big as this and as competitive as this, where you are competing for trophies and qualification for Europe. It was a bit of a shock when I came back to Rovers from playing in the First Division with Waterford United. It took me a while to adapt to full time training last year but it is what you aspire to be. Full time football is what you want to do. When you get there, there is a lot of effort but what else would you want to be doing!”

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When Hyland was last with the Hoops it was in the heady days of the Europa League. If it was a yellow card issued to Barry Murphy last October that gave Hyland his opportunity this season, it was a penalty save by Rovers goalkeeper Ryan Thompson that gave him a chance to be part of the Europa League experience in 2011. 35 minutes into the match against Rubin Kazan in Tallaght, which was Rovers’ first group game, Thompson faced a penalty won by Obafemi Martins, the former Inter Milan and Newcastle player now playing in Seattle. The Jamaican goalkeeper made the initial save from Nelson Valdez’s spot kick and then got back up and across the goal to block the rebound before the ball was cleared.

 

When Thompson made that penalty save he picked up an injury and, while he travelled to Tottenham Hotspur for the next game, Hyland was also brought along with the squad. It was a great experience for a 20-year-old player to be involved with the squad at that time. Looking back now the goalkeeper drew some parallels with this 2015 Rovers vintage, as well as outlining a mature lesson that he took from his time in Michael O’Neill’s squad.

 

“It was a very successful time for the club. The highlight of the whole thing was going on the trip to Spurs. Ryan Thompson had an injury at the time and I got to experience that game. It was mayhem. It was great to see how well Richard Brush did in that game and he was a standout player.

 

“I had the luxury of working with talented goalkeepers back then too. You had Alan Mannus who I still rate as the best I’ve seen and trained with, you’d Richard Brush, and Ryan Thompson who is back in America having a good career for himself.

 

“My memory of that time was the attitude of the team which had a refusal to concede goals. The team was very difficult to beat, very well organised and set up. Similar to how we are now.

 

“We do a lot of work on the training pitch to be organised. There is a good solidarity with the back four whoever comes in. We look like we will be hard to score goals against and that was a key back then. Under Michael O’Neill, the club won two leagues and qualified for the Europa League in the season when we also won the league. The levels of performance and effort were monumental.

 

“More so what I took away from that time, and I wouldn’t have said it then, was the overriding feeling that I needed to go away and play somewhere else. At no stage when I was at the club back then was I ready to play. The step up would have been much too big.

 

“I didn’t know what was going to happen with Michael O’Neill as there was uncertainty there. It looked like I was going to go on loan but I didn’t want a new manager coming in to Rovers and next thing I had was nothing. I had the opportunity of going to Longford and I took it. Was it a good decision or not? I don’t know but it has probably worked out for me. Being at Longford and Waterford was great and was massively beneficially so in hindsight I probably made the right decision for my career.

 

“It was a great experience watching the side do so well in 2011, winning and being so successful and knowing that is where I wanted to be. It was a goal after I left Rovers, if you want to play at the top, you want to get back to Rovers, there is no other team you want to play for, it is the top team in the country.”

 

“I did well enough to sign back here. I am getting a run in the team now and Pat has shown great confidence in me. If you get in the team and do well, you stay in the team. If you get that opportunity you need to take your chance and that is what I’ve done. I want to stay in the team at the minute but I want to improve and maintain that level of performance.”