'Where Rovers go from here could be thrilling or terrifying'
Published 29/08/2011 | 05:00
I always find it hard to look at footballers celebrating promotion without an image forming in my head of circus seals giddy over imminent relocation to a French fashion house.
Inevitably, maybe half of those getting a Bollinger shampoo are already, in their manager's thoughts, people who just won't "cut it" at the higher altitude. They're drinking to their own demise, in other words. It's just the penny hasn't dropped.
The seal is about to become a pelt.
Which is why you have to hope that some of the heroes of Belgrade won't, in time, recall last Thursday as the day Shamrock Rovers outgrew them.
The defeat of Partizan was wonderful but money changes things. And just about every last second of Rovers' existence since Stephen O'Donnell stroked home that extra-time penalty has been like something out of the movie It Could Happen to You.
Already, Michael O'Neill is -- we are told -- on a whirlwind recruitment drive to strengthen Rovers' hand before the close of the European deadline. Qualification for the group stages of the Europa League brings with it an immediate windfall and it would probably be unwise not to invest at least some of that money in new players.
One million euro banked and Heaven knows how much more pending -- already this story is threatening to burst the seams of that sweet little stadium in Tallaght gifted to Rovers by the state. And that's quite some resurrection for a club that, six years ago, just about dodged the sheriff.
There are a lot of Rovers heroes today, maybe none more obvious than the members of the then '400 Club' consortium whose loyalty -- and willingness to back that loyalty with cash -- once seemed the ultimate eccentricity.
These people bankrolled Rovers through an examinership process in '05 that, essentially, transformed it from a privately owned basket-case into the democratic, members-owned club it is today.
Perhaps hindsight makes a monthly standing order of €40 seem relatively modest. But signing that form represented a leap of faith that, at the time, must have felt like backing an unborn horse. The club, remember, amounted to little more than a hill of unpaid invoices back then.
So this Rovers story is beautiful in that it is a story of love, finally, requited.
But where it flies from here could be either thrilling or terrifying. Moneymen follow success like bloodhounds and chairman Jonathan Roche will be getting an endless flow of correspondence right now from people keen to assist in the next step of Rovers' odyssey.
Everything about Roche speaks of a bona fide fan, a man drawn to football by emotion, not arithmetic. He is, patently, business-smart too, but there was something reassuring about his weekend observation that "money is one thing, but we need to look after our fans who go to games against UCD and Bray Wanderers and clubs like that".
You see, the easy thing would be for Rovers to forget themselves.
Some newspapers yesterday speculated on the possibility of the current playing squad even being head-hunted by cross-channel clubs in January's transfer window. This isn't really what Roche needs to be reading as all but a handful of Thursday's heroes are out of contract in November. Hence new contracts need to be registered to facilitate Rovers' European adventure, a journey you would expect to end with that home game against Tottenham on December 15.
Having heads turned is, maybe, an inevitable by-product of success and undoubtedly the greatest challenge facing O'Neill right now is protecting the essential humility that defined Rovers' eviction of Partizan.
They beat a technically more accomplished team because, to a man, the players were selfless. An environment in which every conversation suddenly revolves around money makes that dynamic difficult to protect. Even O'Neill himself now sees his own future speculated upon as if, suddenly, he's become an oil well.
In a sense, everything Rovers knew about themselves last Thursday morning fell open to reappraisal on Thursday night.
And just when they need to catch their breaths, they find there is no time. The story is a ticking clock now. Every decision carries a sense of seemingly desperate urgency, none more so than whether to try selling the charms of an improvised Tallaght Stadium to UEFA or, alternatively, gamble the family silver on a switch to the Aviva.
Their presence on a stage that has, this time, proved too high for either of the Glasgow 'giants' has instantly emboldened those who believe that the domestic game here is scandalously undervalued by the general populace.
The catchline of the Airtricity League is "Real football; Real fans", a clear jibe at those who sit in pubs wearing the colours of English Premier League clubs many have never even seen in the flesh. And, maybe, you have to remember what Rovers once were to appreciate what they mean to people.
My first boss with this newspaper, Pat Courtney, was on the team that won six successive FAI Cups between 1964 and '69. He was of an age when the domestic game packed old, austere stadia to breaking point.
But those crowds drifted away and, over time, the league became a gravely retarded product.
There was that brief Hollywood flicker when John Giles came home to be unveiled as the spearhead of a push to turn Rovers into serious European contenders.
It came to nothing, though, and the subsequent sale of Glenmalure Park tossed them into a gypsy existence that would stretch for almost quarter of a century.
Now they have a decent home, play in a competitive, respected league and, in Pat Sullivan, probably possess the scorer of the finest goal Europe will see this year.
It is a fairytale but with all fairytales in sport comes momentum for change. Managing that change will require some hard decisions now because, when commerce supplants romance, standing still is death.
Some people will, inevitably, slip from the story and end up feeling cheated. That's the flip side of glory.
At least they'll always have Belgrade.