O'Neill fires up Hoops for real business
LATE on Thursday night, with the serious business of his press conference over, Juventus manager Luigi Delneri asked his translator if she could convey a message to Shamrock Rovers.
"I know that Shamrock Rovers play a very important game on Sunday, that is crucial for them," he said. "I say to you that Juventus wishes you great luck for the championship."
A touch surreal, perhaps, to hear such a statement from a Juventus manager about a Shamrock Rovers-Bohemians derby.
Clearly, though, Delneri paid enough attention to the messages coming out of the Hoops' camp this week, as they approached the second leg of their glamour Europa League tie with tomorrow's Tallaght showdown with their arch-rivals in mind.
Only four of Rovers' starting side from the first leg, effectively Michael O'Neill's strongest available team at the moment, played the full 90 minutes in Modena -- goalkeeper Alan Mannus, Aidan Price, Dan Murray and Gary Twigg.
It makes their performance in the 1-0 defeat all the more credible, particularly when they were only undone by Alessandro Del Piero's genius.
Del Piero, incidentally, was snapped in yesterday's 'La Gazzetta Dello Sport' walking off the pitch in Gary Twigg's Rovers jersey, while the Hoops had to refuse an invite to the U2 concert in Turin last night, which forced the switch from Juve's regular home.
Now, they must put their novel adventure to one side, and switch their attention towards claiming a first League of Ireland title since 1994, with Bohs the main obstacle in their path, even though St Patrick's Athletic are keen to have their say.
"We felt it was the right time to rest some of the team up," said O'Neill. "And we were making substitutions with Sunday's game in mind."
Nevertheless, he was proud of his players' application, and feels their display might have placed Irish football in a more positive light after Wednesday's Aviva Stadium fiasco, although he stopped short of criticising Damien Richardson's cobbled-together team.
The League of Ireland could do with an entertaining showpiece tomorrow, but the atmosphere won't be helped by the 12.30 kick-off.
Invariably, recent meetings between the sides have been tight, with Bohs still in search of a first point at Tallaght Stadium against the Hoops -- having suffered three defeats thus far at the new venue.
With a lingering feeling in Dalymount circles that there are people in Irish football who would love a Rovers title success, given the good-news vibe that currently surrounds the Hoops, they are determined to spoil the party.
Not that Rovers are particularly popular around the league at the moment, with extra spice added to this game by their signing of Neale Fenn just a week after he retired from Dundalk.
O'Neill has moved to defend his club against any suggestion of impropriety.
Dundalk are looking for the FAI to investigate the matter, although they have skirted around making any actual allegations.
They terminated Fenn's contract, leaving him a free agent, because he gave the impression that he wanted the freedom to line out at junior level.
Manager Ian Foster believed that Fenn wanted to retire for family reasons, and is outraged by his subsequent move to Rovers.
"I am saddened that a man who was so integral to our season would act in such a callous manner," he said. "He has been disrespectful to his team-mates, myself, directors and supporters of Dundalk FC. I believe the PFAI should publicly condemn his actions and the precedent that it may set in our sport."
Yesterday, through the PFAI, Fenn released a statement defending his actions. "I'm very disappointed that any adverse allegations have been made," he said. "I had intended to retire."
O'Neill has sympathy for Foster, but says the chain of events was a coincidence. "Any conspiracy that I spoke to Neale Fenn and tried to dream up: 'How about retiring Neale? That's a way of getting out of it'.
"I'm not clever enough to do that. I wish I had thought of it, to be honest," he said.
"Neale saw the attraction of Rovers, with the convenience for his family life, us training in the evenings.
"I think all those things were factors in him saying he'd play the rest of the season. I don't think he's done it with any malice or deviousness."
Meanwhile, O'Neill has also hit back at Galway manager Sean Connor, who complained that the Rovers boss hadn't contacted him in relation to a bid for young striker Karl Sheppard.
"It was Nick Leeson that contacted me personally to offer me the player, and another player at Galway," said O'Neill.
"If Sean Connor has a problem with that he should go and speak with his CEO, because, at the end of the day, the conversation me and Nick Leeson had was initiated by Nick Leeson.
"We weren't able to agree a deal for Karl and, with that in mind, the option of signing Neale became available to us. We've done our business in a professional manner."
Shamrock Rovers v Bohemians
Live, Setanta Ireland, tomorrow, 12.30