David Kelly: Nothing can pierce pride of underdogs
Published 16/09/2011 | 05:00
On the plaza in front of Tallaght Stadium, two kids bang a football against the wall. Bursting with expectation, their beaming faces preface a historic night for Shamrock Rovers.
True, few expected a result last night. But then nobody expected Shamrock Rovers to get here at all.
Uncharted territory for Rovers, perhaps, but at least it was upon their own territory that they unleashed what had, in the darkest hours of near extinction, seemed like an impossible dream.
The herculean work required to upgrade their stadium ensured that, at the very least, the turf upon which they had so daringly pursued this dream would also be the same sward upon which they would fulfil the throbbing vitality of this unprecedented achievement in Irish domestic football.
Having had the gall to insist that Ireland tackle the mountain-top nation of Andorra in international football's equivalent of the local parish hall, UEFA could barely desist when presented with the Hoops' desire to show off their proud hearth.
Not to mention their supporters' proud hearts.
We thought of big Deco, Johnno and lots of others whose names end in 'o', and many others ending in 'er', who have toiled on days less glamorous than these in less profitable and popular times, when some League of Ireland grounds wouldn't have been passed fit to house farm animals.
How their hearts swell as their hooped heroes emerge, their combined weekly wages amounting to a mere €16,000, Davids against the Goliaths from the east whose annual operation barely musters change from €50m.
Sadly, it doesn't take long for gruesome reality to pinch the dreamers.
Only 132 seconds, to be precise, scarcely enough time for a local player to get a feel of leather before an innocuous cross created a guilty quartet of home defenders who can only watch in horror as Obafemi Martins tickles a tame shot to the net.
Last seen undermining Arsene Wenger's forlorn attempt to end his trophy drought at Wembley, thanks to him profiting from a last-minute blunder in the Arsenal defence at the tail end of Birmingham's League Cup final win last March, the 34-year-old troubadour pierces the party atmosphere.
Martins may finish the odd chance, but, characteristically, he doesn't finish this game, hounded out by some teak-tough tackling from the Tallaght terriors.
Rovers remain unbowed, despite the rangy attacking threat of Gokdeniz Karadeniz, the pick of Rubin's crop of international stars housed in a team boasting seven different nationalities.
A €70,000 bonus accrues for just a point in this group game; having cleared all other financial commitments, the club hope to amass a seven-figure sum from their fairytale venture.
But in the heat of battle, money is not an issue.
Watched by a slew of Rovers legends, one imagined how the dear departed Phillip Greene, scanning serenely from the heavens above, may have called proceedings on such an historic night.
For sure, he would have diverted into familiar feverish paroxysms when Craig Sives conceded a needless penalty, only for cult hero Ryan Thompson to save wonderfully from new signing Nelson Valdez.
Rovers fans renew their throaty exhortations. On the sideline, Kurban Berdyev, once slayer of Barcelona, twiddles his familiar rosary beads.
The half-time biscuits are dunked with anticipation from the faithful. Hadn't miraculous endeavours got them this far?
Except class has a way of trumping such intangibles. Five minutes after tea, Christian Noboa thunders a shot beyond Thompson before the goalkeeper could even fashion an attempted dive.
And still Rovers refuse to relent. Their best move of the night culminates in Scottish striker Gary Twigg flicking goalwards towards the lurking Ronan Finn; his header lacks conviction and power and Sergei Ryzhikov punches away the danger.
A third Rubin goal arrives on the hour. This time Karadeniz embellishes his smooth display with a rocketing arrow from the edge of the area.
All hope is now forlorn. But not pride. Belatedly, the home side seize on the opposition defence's rarely exposed lack of surety.
A floated ball from the left allows Twigg to beat his marker who, seemingly miffed at the insult, promptly hauls down the goalside striker, earning a yellow card and a lecture from his team-mates in the process.
Lamentably, Stephen O'Donnell's kick is spooned away by the diving 'keeper. And yet without his penalty in Belgrade, Rovers would not be on this stage at all.
Which is why, as the stadium empties into the still night, those two kids are still wearing the broadest of smiles. They're just enjoying the journey.