Monday 24 October 2016

Intrepid Shamrock Rovers' trek to India adds to great adventures list

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

New Shamrock Rovers signing Dean Clarke. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
New Shamrock Rovers signing Dean Clarke. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

In the southern Indian city of Calicut, an impressive 8,500km away from their base in Dublin, the players of Shamrock Rovers will today take part in a game which they could never have imagined featuring on a pre-season itinerary.

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They will take on a young selection from top Ukrainian side Dnipro in the Sait Nagjee Tournament, an event they were invited to participate in before Christmas by a contact of their manager Pat Fenlon.

Games against 1860 Munich and Argentina's Olympic side will follow later this week and if they can progress from their group then a Watford U-21 side managed by Harry Kewell are possible opponents. It's an all-expenses-paid adventure which could last for three weeks; 30,000 fans attended Watford's opener.

"Coming to Rovers, you get things like this," said new signing Dean Clarke last week. That could be stretching things a little.

Clarke went on to reference the fact that the Hoops have played a few decent friendlies in their time, not least the Tallaght visit of Cristiano Ronaldo for his Real Madrid debut, so you could see his point. But the chances are this Indian trip will go down as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

That said, it is by no means the most unusual voyage that a League of Ireland squad has embarked upon. Modern communication allows them to research every part of their journey, whereas Fenlon has experience of surprise trips into the unknown.

He reflected last week on his jaunt to Libya in 1989 with a combined Bohemians/St Patrick's Athletic side that got a lucrative invitation to take on the local champions on a free weekend that cropped up when they were knocked out of the FAI Cup.

"It was only a couple of years after the chaos," said Fenlon, a reference to the 1986 US air strikes on Colonel Gaddafi's regime.

"And it was a hairy experience. I think initially they thought we were Yanks and that didn't go down too well. We explained we were Irish and that was alright."

Gaddafi's funding of the IRA led to opposition to that exercise, with former Fine Gael foreign affairs minister Peter Barry urging the players to engage in lobbying on the matter during their visit. It was an optimistic expectation for a football trip.

In 1990, Brian Kerr's St Pat's went to Tunisia to take on their national side before moving up the ladder of curiosity by departing for Tehran for a pair of matches that culminated with a scoreless draw with Iran in front of 60,000 spectators.

Trips to America seem mundane in comparison, although a host of clubs went there in the '70s, following the path of the Hoops, who effectively went native by providing the bulk of a Boston Shamrock Rovers side that competed in the short-lived USA League in 1967.

League of Ireland performers also filled squads for representative games around the world during that period, including full international matches when cross-channel based players were unavailable.

There's nothing too remarkable about a national association visiting another jurisdiction, though, whereas for individual clubs it's a real novelty.

Cork City went to Shanghai in 1991, where they were tagged as the Irish representatives in another invitational.

However, their Chinese tale pales in comparison with UCDs 1976 expedition which actually came ahead of their admission to the league.

They were the first European sports team to visit the country and the late, great Dr Tony O'Neill chronicled a relationship-building exercise which consisted of six games and a realisation that their hosts could play a bit.

"In many welcoming speeches, our Chinese hosts repeated that they looked forward to learning from us on the field of play," he wrote in the Irish Press.

"It looks as if the reverse will be the case."

O'Neill and his companions had no idea that they would soon find themselves in situ for a major historical event as the death of Chairman Mao sent China into mourning.

All activities were suspended as the grieving population marched in what 'The Doc' described as a series of "unending ceremonies".

One morning, a couple of UCD players who went to their hotel balcony caused a disturbance as thousands below stopped their procession to check out the unfamiliar faces.

"Our unintended interruption was followed by a visit of a deputation of party members who requested us to refrain from waving to the crowd who were, as they put it, 'in great sorrow'," O'Neill explained.

That experience sets the bar high for this year's travellers.

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