Hoops heroes struggling to come to terms with historic Euro breakthrough
THE players of Shamrock Rovers returned to a heroic reception in Dublin airport last night, still coming to terms with the scale of their achievement in Serbia on Thursday night.
Michael O'Neill's squad had an immediate chance to reflect on their performance when they returned to their Belgrade hotel to catch local TV highlights.
The loudest cheers were reserved for three special moments. A first-half wonder-stop from goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, the top-drawer equalising goal from Pat Sullivan and the extra-time penalty from Stephen O'Donnell.
For that trio, victory comes with the afterglow of knowing their feats will go down in the history books.
"I'm all over the place to be honest," reflected Sullivan, "Everything is racing through my mind. It's what you play football for. It's why we do this.
"The goal? I saw it coming out of the sky and I said to myself, 'I'm not taking a touch on this, I'm just going to smack it'. If it goes over the bar, it goes over the bar, we get back into our shape and play on. But for it to go in! It's once in a lifetime.
"Myself and Enda Stevens (the other full-back) had a bet at the start of the season to see who would score the most goals, but none of us had scored up to now.
"A goal was one point and a goal on television was two points. We only said at dinner before the game -- if one of us scores a goal tonight and we don't lose, the bet is done. He can score 10 for the rest of the season, I don't care. The bet is done!"
Sullivan's incredible volley, which has already been viewed by tens of thousands people around the world on YouTube, brought the tie level 2-2 on aggregate. A string of saves from Thompson helped to keep them within touching distance.
The Jamaican is no ordinary League of Ireland player. He takes inspiration from his faith.
"It's very important to have a spiritual aspect in your life," he said. "You are nothing without a spiritual aspect and if you lose that side of you, then you don't really stand for anything. I'm a firm believer.
"My faith is Christianity... and Rastafarian -- a mixture of both. My dad is Rastafarian and my mum is Christian. The religion will cross over. Rastafarian stands for love and I'm a loving person. That's a big thing for me -- love."
O'Donnell wouldn't have been expecting to return home to such love considering that he made the trip with slim hopes of involvement.
He has suffered with injury since his winter move to the Hoops and was sidelined for the Champions League ties with Copenhagen due to a hamstring problem.
The Galwegian was sent in as a second-half substitute on Thursday and made two goal-saving blocks in normal time before stepping up in extra-time to convert after Karl Sheppard was felled.
"I lost my runner for the first tackle, so I needed to produce that," he grinned. "Ah, it's just sensational. It hasn't sunk in.
"We rode our luck a few times but I don't think many teams in Europe would come over to Belgrade and win."
O'Donnell (25) spent his youth at Arsenal, and had a stint at Falkirk, before returning home for stints with Bohemians, Cork, and Galway. Having tasted the various sides of the domestic game, he appreciates the significance of reaching the group stages.
"This is the breakthrough," he said, "The first team to make it. Hopefully this carries the league along and gives it hope. You know, there's too many people in the country who down the Airtricity League. We know we have good players."
What were his feelings before the penalty, which was delayed as the Slovakian official observed that the ball wasn't properly on the spot?
"I knew I was going the way I did," he asserted. "I always go for that spot against goalkeepers I haven't taken a penalty against before. It was just pick a spot, and hope for the best."
With his conviction, everyone's prayers were answered.