Rovers ring of confidence can test Juve super stars
AT lunchtime today, at a restaurant in Lower Ormond Quay, 14 officials from Shamrock Rovers and Juventus will sit down for the obligatory pre-match meal. A disparate gathering.
On one side of the table, you'll have Juve president Andrea Agnelli, a man appointed by his cousin and part of the family which have ruled one of the world's most significant football clubs since the 1920s.
His hosts for the day will be the group of hardworking Dubliners who, until five years ago, were ordinary fans of a club hurtling towards extinction. Through their endeavour, and the generosity of the Wilson family, they saved their hobby from the brink and taken the club to unlikely places.
Games like tonight are an unexpected reward. They could never have anticipated that just over a year after finally moving to Dublin 24, Alessandro Del Piero would be sitting in the environs of the Tallaght Stadium for a Europa League tie, pictured in front of a Woodies DIY-sponsored back-drop and having his words translated by the owner of the local branch of Silvio's chipper, drafted in as a last minute call-up. Try making it up.
The little details are a novelty, a completely new experience for the Hoops' back-room organisation. For example, they didn't quite realise that today's sit-down function was part of UEFA protocol until the build-up to their initial Europa League meeting with Israeli side Bnei Yehuda. That was a drama in itself. To kosher or not to kosher. Turns out their guests weren't so hard-line and didn't need a Rabbi in the kitchen. They wondered where they could bring the Juve delegation. "Well, not to an Italian anyway," smiles club director, Mark Lynch.
What can they talk about between courses at the Winding Stair Restaurant? Well, both clubs are starting into a decade which they hope will be more stable than the last. Both have tasted demotion to the second tier and the associated shame. And they've won a lot of trophies.
However, after that, the comparisons run thin. In terms of scale, they operate in a different worlds. The beauty of football, as the one, true global sport, is that polar opposites can be brought together by circumstances.
There was a real buzz around Tallaght yesterday. Down in the club shop, the specialised merchandise, produced at short notice after Thursday's famous win in Israel, is flying off the shelves. A few cheeky kids pop in the door and ask the teller if there's any tickets going. "I can't believe they just asked that," he exclaims.
The challenge is to invest the money from this game properly. It might go towards the development of new training facilities down the road in Kiltipper. Right now, Shamrock Rovers' first team do the majority of their sessions in Enfield, while the schoolboy sections operate in a variety of venues. In short, they're aware of the bigger picture which surrounds this tie. They're not quite as flush as people might think they are.
For Michael O'Neill and the players, though, this is an opportunity to seize the here and now. Their own pride is at stake. The Hoops' Northern Irish boss concedes that, in some respects, it's a no-lose tie. Nevertheless, he is intent on ensuring that they will travel to Modena next week with something at stake. That's the short-term, best-case scenario.
"We'll have to play conservatively," he concedes. "We know that. We forced the game very much against Yehuda and we probably won't be able to do that as often or as early in this game. But we know that we're at our best when we play with high energy and high tempo and when we press the ball. We'll be trying to do that tonight, but again we are coming up against quality opposition."
How will the players react to the occasion? Stephen Rice, a survivor from the friendly game with Real Madrid last year, a game he isn't drawing too much from considering it was a non-competitive encounter, tried to put it into context.
"Just another game," he smiles. "The difference is that there'll be a few World Cup medals on the pitch."
O'Neill believes that his largely young team have the mental strength to cope with the pressure that the extra attention will bring.
"I'll give you the answer after the game," he says. "But I don't anticipate we'll have huge problems in that respect. We have players in our squad who are typically in the 21-24 age bracket and this is a big opportunity for them. They've maybe had some disappointments in their career, a lot of them were at English clubs and are playing their football here now.
"This is an opportunity to show people what they are capable of, how good they are individually and I have no doubt they will take that. I fully trust them to deal with the situation."
The League of Ireland side will likely stick with the 4-5-1 formation that secured the spoils in Tel Aviv, with Gary Twigg leading the line, flanked by Thomas Stewart and James Chambers.
There's less certainty about the make-up of the Juve side, with the change of manager and some alterations in personnel complicating O'Neill's research. He watched some footage of their friendly win over Lyon, yet isn't entirely convinced about the identity of their starting XI. The indications from Italy are that Del Piero and David Trezeguet may start on the bench, with Diego and Amauri -- signed at a combined cost of almost €50m -- the humble alternatives.
It's not your average Shamrock Rovers team news bulletin -- and that's the thrill of it.
The battle to bring Ireland's most successful club to Tallaght was long and arduous, fraught with obstacles that were sometimes of their own making and sometimes emanating from other sources who wanted a part in the new facility.
The local Thomas Davis GAA club, who took their grievances to the High Court, weakened their hand by expressing the concern that the youth of Tallaght would be 'restricted to a diet of association football'.
Right now, with another European footballing giant on their doorstep, the diet is tasting pretty damn good.
Shamrock Rovers v Juventus, Live, RTE2, 7.45
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