Glory days beckon for Hoops again
O'Neill puts faith in players to send league's most decorated club back to promised land
THE diehards who have followed Shamrock Rovers through thick and thin appreciate the importance of perspective.
For them, failing to win the League of Ireland title tonight wouldn't be the end of the world. They flirted with that eventuality through examinership and relegation and homelessness and all the associated grief.
It's been a grim road since 1987, when Ireland's most decorated club were forced out of Milltown. They go to Bray tonight looking to end a championship drought going back to 1994, when Ray Treacy led his RDS-based side to glory.
But Rovers were already stuck on the carousel then, with no real base from which to build upon that triumph. The pain that followed was the inevitable consequence of their uncertain situation.
This is different. Whatever happens tonight, the club is now in a position to dominate the next decade with Bohemians, who are praying for a miracle ahead of the final round of games, set to cost-cut rapidly over the winter.
Michael O'Neill's side are a long way short of the finished product.
Deep down, the powers that be at the club know that. The manner in which this crop followed a 17-game unbeaten run by losing four of the next five games to hand the initiative back to the Gypsies emphasised the work in progress. Bohs' capitulation in Galway last Friday delivered the 'get out of jail free' card in a year that is likely to be remembered for both teams trying to give the trophy away.
The silverware will be present at the Carlisle Grounds tonight, where a win for the visitors will ensure that it makes its maiden voyage to Tallaght. A draw should be enough, unless Bohs can somehow knock five past Dundalk at Dalymount Park.
It's a strong position, and the Rovers camp exuded belief on Wednesday, refreshed by a couple of days off after a hectic period. In the midst of a long discussion with assembled press, part of which revolved around the familiar Irish theme of whether enough credit has been given to his team, O'Neill was asked if he was nervous.
"Do I look it?" he fired back. "No I'm not. There's nothing to be nervous about. The players will be prepared, the players that we've had have come through big games this season, and I'm confident that they'll come through this one."
Positive vibes from a man who looked as though he was pondering the merits of immolation in the aftermath of the shocking loss to Sporting Fingal last Saturday fortnight.
Yet in the cold light of day, away from the perils of post-match frustration, O'Neill is trying to look at the bigger picture rather than getting bogged down in the 'what ifs' in the event of everything going awry by the seaside.
He is conscious that every team to lift the prize in the last decade has hit the rocks shortly afterwards.
"Well, we certainly won't be following that model," he declared.
"Success means everything to football clubs, but at times it can be taken out of the perspective. Obviously, the league title would mean everything to the supporters.
"And we have a mix of supporters, we have the new fans since we moved to Tallaght and the old core supporters who were there and kept the club alive when maybe a lot of people didn't think that was the wisest thing to do.
"Those fans are the ones that I particularly look forward to maybe seeing with smiles on their faces, because if you'd have said that in the five years since the members took control of the football club that it would get to where it is now -- being one game away from winning a league title, involved in a cup final, we've had Juventus here in European football, we've had Real Madrid -- I mean, that's testimony to the work of the board, the members and what this football club stands for.
"If we are successful, we'll have been successful without jeopardising the financial stability of the club and that's important as well, I think. There's many things we'd like to do that are only in their infancy.
"They will be equally as defining of the success as having a trophy. If we have a higher number of season tickets that will be a success, or if we have home-grown players coming through. There's so many facets but, sometimes, winning a title or a cup can galvanise that whole situation."
Bray are the obstacle, although they have survival on their minds and a promotion/relegation play-off with Galway in Terryland Park on Tuesday.
However, the prospect of a full house and the energy of Pat Devlin's improving, youthful side means that they shouldn't be a pushover.
"We don't expect any favours from Bray but their cup final is on Tuesday night," said O'Neill.
"How they choose to prepare is entirely up to them. But the dangers are there, they come with no pressure or expectations."
Rovers are burdened with those responsibilities, and tonight they must prove that it sits comfortably. A new chapter is ready to be opened.
Bray Wanderers v Shamrock Rovers, Live, RTE 2, 7.45