Shamrock Rovers make history and enter Europe League
Partizan Belgrade1Shamrock Rovers 2
(Shamrock Rovers win 3-2 on aggregate)
AN incredible night for Shamrock Rovers. A ground-breaking night for Irish football. Historic. Brave. Fearless. No amount of adjectives can do it justice.
They are in the group stages of the Europa League and today, in Monaco, they will learn their opponents. It will present logistical questions that no club from this country has ever had to deal with before.
Either way, Rovers have €1m in the coffers, with more to come. A mere six years after they faced oblivion, Michael O'Neill's team will return home today tired after giving every ounce of energy in their bodies, and withstanding an onslaught from a Partizan Belgrade side who have the budget to dine regularly at the top table.
The Northern Irishman was overcome with pride.
"If I'm honest, I always felt it would be a step too far," said O'Neill, when asked about crossing the hurdle into the group stages. "We've got this squad put together for €600,000. They probably had players out there who'll earn that alone.
"I would doubt whether a club has been able to progress so far with that level of budget. But it's not just about budget. We have to try and raise the levels. And the players raised it to unbelievable levels.
"I would have been proud regardless of the result, because of how they played, but to have players give what they did for the club and each other, you can't ask for any more than that."
And, for those endeavours, they will be greeted as heroes. Just like they were applauded off the pitch last night by the fans of Partizan Belgrade, who rose to acclaim the Irish visitors after booing off their own staff with the exception of Medo, the midfielder, who was ordered off for a petulant punch at the death. Overall, though, the locals' sporting treatment of the Dubliners was at odds with their pre-match reputation.
It had already been an extraordinary day for the small travelling support from Ireland, some of whom were even tailed by local policeman on an early morning wander to a museum. Security were keen to keep an eye on the visitors to avoid a repeat of nasty incidents in previous years. They needn't have worried.
Within the stadium, the 30-40 merry souls in green and white were cordoned off in a section near the VIP area after being escorted into the grounds with the team. They were strangers in a sea of black and white.
True to form, the Partizan hardcore arrived early and in force, producing a wall of sound from behind the goal which Rovers struggled to attack in the opening half.
O'Neill went with his favoured 4-5-1, with Stephen Rice instructed to shackle the returning Partizan playmaker Zvonomir Vukic. They made a disciplined start with the exception of one gift which was presented to the hosts by visiting keeper Ryan Thompson. A poor kick-out went straight to Vladimir Jovancic who couldn't believe his luck but dragged wide.
It was an appalling miss, and Rovers took encouragement from it. Yet, in a familiar theme from this European battle, they were initially slow to get numbers forward to support the isolated Gary Twigg who toiled heroically.
When the Slovakian official awarded a free in favour of Twigg, or a throw was won in the Partizan half, Rovers tried to slow things and bring the cavalry forward. Alas, the distribution was poor in the first half; the best moment for the Hoops came when Ronan Finn stole possession and advanced to take aim with his right foot. Partizan 'keeper Radisa Ilic, deputising for Vladimir Stojovic, collected at the second attempt.
The third change in the Partizan side from last week was the introduction of Vladimir Volkov at left-back in place of Vojislav Stankovic. He proved influential. Not only was he a far better player in general play -- keeping first-leg hero Gary McCabe quiet -- he also marauded into the final third with intent.
Thompson atoned for his earlier error by producing a wonderful fingertip stop to push away a Volkov effort just before the half-hour mark. The Hoops were gradually being pegged back and conceded a succession of corners from which they eventually paid the penalty. Right winger Nemanja Tomic curled in a dangerous delivery and Volkov nipped into space to dispatch a header beyond the helpless Thompson.
Like last week, the Rovers management used the interval to plan a reshuffle, and they went 4-4-2 with Karl Sheppard brought in for Dennehy to support Twigg.
From the resumption, there was a glimmer of light, with Chris Turner's well-timed run ending with a header off the woodwork. It was followed by a let-off when Vukic poked over in a crowded area under pressure from Sives with Thompson at full stretch.
Nevertheless, the introduction of Sheppard was bringing the League of Ireland champions out of their own half, with some frustrated whistles from the natives and some heated discussions between black and white shirts.
They sensed their position of comfort was being challenged and so did coach Aleksandar Stanojevic, who responded to the concession of a corner by withdrawing Vukic to loud jeers. He was regretting it within a matter of seconds when a headed clearance dropped onto the boot of Pat Sullivan who unleashed a delicious right-foot volley that arched into the bottom corner of the net. A stunning strike.
Partizan's crowd responded by raising the volume, and their boys poured forward with purpose. O'Neill brought O'Donnell in for McCabe just after Sasa Ilic had shot straight at Thompson, and the new boy made an instant impact with an incredible goal-saving tackle to deny Vukic's replacement Stefan Babovic.
From here, it was a war of attrition. Rovers knew that another away goal would effectively put them through, but it was Partizan pressing and pressing, playing into the end where the Grobari were making the din. Sub Lazar Markovic added further manpower and another heroic O'Donnell tackle was required to send this intriguing tie into extra-time.
The break for refreshment was needed in sapping conditions, but there was little respite from the resumption with a Babovic free rebounding off the woodwork. It was seat-of-the-pants stuff, with numerous nervous moments in the Rovers area. Home 'keeper Ilic was stretching to keep himself active as 15 minutes passed by without much for him to do, despite O'Neill sending in Ciaran Kilduff for a limping Twigg.
Ilic had work to do after the final restart, and there were opportunities at either end before the moment that will be replayed for many years to come. Rovers broke and Kilduff galloped into the box. His shot was parried away by Ilic, the rebound fell to Sheppard who went down under the challenge of the Partizan netminder. Jan Valasek pointed to the spot. Pandemonium.
O'Donnell had the courage to step forward. With the same conviction as his earlier tackles, he powered the ball into the net with confidence. The rest was making history.
Partizan Belgrade -- R Ilic; Rankovic, Rnic, Ivanov, Volkov; Tomic, Medo, Vukic (Babovic 57), S Ilic; Eduardo (Markovic 84), Jovancic.
Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson; Sullives, Sives, Murray, Stevens; McCabe (O'Donnell 67), Rice, Finn, Turner, Dennehy (Sheppard 45); Twigg (Kilduff 100).
REF -- J Valasek (Slovakia).