Hoops aiming to go where no Irish club has gone before
Published 02/08/2011 | 05:00
THIS is no ordinary game. For Shamrock Rovers, it is much more than that.
There is an element of tempting fate in discussing the rewards for overturning a 1-0 deficit from the first leg and eliminating FC Copenhagen from the Champions League tonight.
An upset would bring their earnings from this European adventure to €2m, with the promise of more riches to come, and take them to within 180 minutes of the group stages of the world's biggest club competition; the consolation prize if they fall at the final hurdle is a place in the Europa League's equivalent round-robin.
In other words, it would take them to places where no club in Irish football has been before.
Shelbourne came close to the Champions League in 2004, while St Patrick's Athletic, Derry City and Cork City have all reached the last qualifying hurdle in Europe's secondary competition.
Michael O'Neill's side arguably have a stronger hand, however, because they play their second leg on home soil in front of a sell-out crowd.
St Patrick's Athletic were still in the tie when they welcomed Hertha Berlin in 2008, but they were two goals behind, and had to play at the RDS rather than their Richmond Park fortress.
Human nature dictates that the powers that be around Tallaght Stadium have thought about the possibilities.
"All of these things are 'what ifs'," stressed O'Neill yesterday. "They're not things that I am banking on.
"Progression in this competition, or progression in the Europa League, would be great for the profile of the club, but I don't think it would lead to us changing the way we would run the club," said the Northern Irishman when asked about a possible transition towards a proper full-time set-up.
"I couldn't see us saying, 'right, we're going to double our wage bill now'. That's not going to happen.
"There are other areas at the club that we'd look at. Training facilities would be one. We could do things around the first team as well.
"We've a young lad with us who works on sports science. It's all the peripheral things. Jim Magilton, who is assisting me at the minute, told me that Ipswich spend £100,000 on video analysis, on Prozone.
"We're never going to do that, but they're all the things that clubs spend on -- in the wider sense of the game -- so there may be a lot of other areas where, if money was available, we could utilise it."
For FC Copenhagen, the narrative is different, of course. Operating out of a 38,000-seater stadium with top-of-the-range corporate and training facilities, they arrive into Europe with a different perspective.
Advancing to the last 16 of the Champions League doubled their turnover last season. Falling in Tallaght would be unthinkable and manager Roland Nilsson arrived in Dublin exuding the air of a man who still doesn't think it could happen.
When asked if his side needed to improve on their first-leg performance to make sure they qualify, Nilsson's answer was short and to the point. "Yes," he replied. "And they will."
Sure of that? "I'm confident of that, yes." After a 2-0 league win at the weekend, Nilsson has a few decisions to make.
Key striker Dame N'Doye is available again, which should give the Rovers rearguard another dimension to deal with. Another front man, Morten Nordstrand, came in and hit the target last Saturday, and is also in the frame to start.
Nilsson is short of options at right- back. Johnny Thomsen was given plenty of problems there by Billy Dennehy in the first leg, and was withdrawn at half-time with an injury that ruled him out of their league fixture. He has travelled and, should he get the nod, then it is an area that O'Neill's charges will look to exploit.
Rovers could make three changes. One is enforced, with Ken Oman's knee injury worse than initially feared. A scan on his medial ligaments will reveal the full extent, but he faces at least a month on the sidelines.
The good news for O'Neill is that he can recall club captain Dan Murray, an experienced European campaigner from his days with Cork City.
"Hopefully this is a chance to show the gaffer that I'm good enough to be in the team," said Murray, who has endured a frustrating period.
Winger Gary McCabe is in line to get the nod ahead of Dean Kelly on the right, but the manager's real call is who to play in midfield, with Chris Turner available again after suspension.
Turner can provide goals and was responsible for the strike against Flora Tallinn that brought Rovers to the third qualifying stage. Stephen Rice, who deputised ably in Copenhagen, could lose out.
While Rovers will be cheered on by all but 36 Danish fans in a 6,000 sell-out, don't expect a gung-ho approach.
"It won't be an approach where we are looking to score right from the off," warned O'Neill. "We will approach the game in a sensible fashion, not a reckless fashion, because losing a goal will give us a big task -- then we'd have to score three.
"We have to make sure we keep the tie as tight as possible. I believe we're capable of scoring and proved that in Copenhagen but, in the final third of the pitch maybe our final ball wasn't good enough, or we needed to get more bodies into the box at the right times."
The bookies' odds indicate that the Dubliners face a mountainous task before they can contemplate the scale of the winnings. Football lends itself to the optimist, though, especially when such a massive prize is just 90 minutes away.
Shamrock Rovers (probable) -- Thompson, Sullivan, Murray, Sives, Stevens; McCabe, McCormack, Turner, Finn, Dennehy; Twigg.
FC Copenhagen (probable) -- Wiland; Thomsen, Ottesen, Zanta, Bengtsson; Bolanos, Claudemir, Grindheim, Diouf; N'Doye, Nordstrand.
Shamrock Rovers v FC Copenhagen,
Live, RTE 2, 7.45