Wednesday 24 May 2017

Reaping the rewards of dream night

FOR Shamrock Rovers, the dream has become reality sooner than they ever could have imagined.

Michael O'Neill admitted after Thursday night's famous win in Belgrade that, in his heart of hearts, he believed that progression to the group stages was a step too far at this stage of the League of Ireland champions' development.

It's here now, with the Northern Irishman masterminding a plan to take the Hoops into headspinning territory a mere six years after they flirted with going out of business.

Flight delays prevented chairman Jonathan Roche from making it to Monaco on time for yesterday's draw, yet there was good news waiting for him. Spurs was exactly who they wanted.

The benefits of landing Premier League opposition offset the awkward nature of travelling to Russia to take on Rubin Kazan. Greek side PAOK were the middle-of-the-road alternative from the third pot.

Whatever happens from now, the Hoops have made history. They are entering a different world, and the prospects are mouthwatering.

There's headaches involved in the logistics, but they are good problems. Roche and secretary Noel Byrne were mulling over the possibilities in the salubrious surroundings of Monte Carlo last night, with UEFA extending an invitation to stay and watch the Super Cup final.

The implications for Rovers and the domestic game as a whole have the potential to be wide reaching.

THE PLAYERS

After their magnificent exploits in the heat of Belgrade, the squad enjoyed a well-earned celebration in the Serbian capital on Thursday night. Naturally, they are giddy about what comes next.

Considering the majority are on 40-week contracts, and some have day jobs, then there are significant financial benefits. As it stands, all but a handful are due to be out of contract in November. Contracts will have to be re-registered with the terms and conditions changed to reflect a campaign extension until December 15.

A bonus structure was in place for the European qualifying rounds, but they will have negotiating wiggle room from here. "We'll sit down next week," said Roche. "We don't envisage any problems."

The bigger picture is that for the younger players like Enda Stevens, Karl Sheppard, Gary McCabe and Conor McCormack -- the last named missed Thursday with injury and is a fine prospect -- this is a chance to perform on a platform that could bring them on to the radar of bigger fish.

For those who are at a later stage of their careers, it's a chance to be involved in an experience that will live with them for the rest of their days.

Belgrade is already in that category, and now there's another six European nights to look forward to. It is beyond all expectations.

THE MANAGER

Michael O'Neill's stock is at an all-time high. Particularly as, in tandem with his assistant and friend Jim Magilton, a plan was concocted to pull off the upset.

Tactically, the Hoops manager has excelled in Europe. The utilisation of substitutes was crucial to both clashes with Partizan, and they got the timing right on Thursday by keeping Ciaran Kilduff in reserve until extra-time.

His burst of energy led to the penalty. Rovers certainly had plenty of options on the bench and management made the right calls, with Stephen O'Donnell and Sheppard inspired introductions.

O'Neill still hasn't put pen to paper on a new contract and is technically a free agent at the end of December.

Suddenly, his bargaining stance is commanding. Clubs from across the water will sit up and taken notice, while there are persistent rumours that the O'Neill/Magilton ticket could be in line to take over the Northern Ireland reins if this European Championship campaign marks the end for Nigel Worthington.

Rovers want him to stay, and O'Neill has consistently stated that he wants to sign a new deal. There's more talking to do now. "Hopefully it'll be sorted out in a few weeks," stated Roche.

THE CLUB

They were almost dead and buried in 2005. After surviving that brush with extinction, anything was going to be a bonus.

Since the protracted switch to Tallaght went through in 2009, however, landmark moments have followed with the intensity of a domino effect.

There was the housewarming, Real Madrid, Juventus, a first league title since 1994, and now this. All within a budget that is the largest in Ireland, yet a portion of what other clubs were spending a couple of years ago. O'Neill has assembled a squad at a cost of €600,000.

This is another level now. Rovers will receive €100,000 if they retain their League of Ireland title this year. Qualifying for the Europa League group stages is worth a minimum of €1m. A draw is worth €70,000 and a win €140,000. It's a staggering jump in earnings.

Of course, profits can easily be eaten up by logistics. Travelling to Russia will be expensive and if they are unable to host games in Tallaght then the cost of renting the Aviva Stadium will be significant -- it's believed to be around €200,000 a game. In that event, they would need a response from the general public for the first two home matches against Rubin Kazan and PAOK.

Over the next week, the purse strings will be loosened to allow O'Neill to bring in fresh blood before the close of the European deadline, provided he can find the right quality.

In the longer term, though, the priority for the club is to work on developing training facilities in Kiltipper and laying the foundations for sustained excellence.

THE LEAGUE

Unsurprisingly, some hardcore fans of rival clubs are terrified by the prospect of Rovers ruling the roost for years. They will be taunted mercilessly on their next visit to Tallaght.

However, there's been hysterical talk about the win in Belgrade having grave implications for Irish football. Anyone spouting that nonsense needs to open the curtains.

This is a huge opening for the League of Ireland, a welcome respite from the negative publicity arising from repeated financial catastrophes.

Sure, it is grating for the hardcore element when people who have no interest in the league -- and often denigrate it -- hop onto the bandwagon with patronising platitudes.

Rather than moaning about their lack of knowledge, the window should be seized to educate and welcome the floating punter. Maybe some of the daytrippers will be encouraged to pay attention on a more regular basis.

The example of Rosenborg is often thrown around like a doomsday scenario, as though their dominance at home was bad for the game there. On the contrary, their Champions League exploits put Norwegian club football on the map. Facilities there have improved considerably. It encouraged others to raise the bar.

Clubs around Ireland have to look at the example of Rovers as an inspiration. If their success encourages people in their areas to take the local game seriously, then everyone can benefit in some way.

They cannot allow this opportunity to pass.

Irish Independent

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