SHAMROCK Rovers are in line for a €1million bonanza and the prestige of the Europa League Group stages after a dramatic night in Belgrade.
The 14/1 outsiders confounded the experts by dumping Partizan Belgrade out of the competition thanks to Pat Sullivan's stunning volley and Stephen O'Donnell's extra-time penalty.
It was a performance of bravery and high technical ability which created the most historic night in club soccer in Ireland. Michael O'Neill put the gulf in financial clout between the two sides into perspective following the final whistle. “I thought it would be a step too far. You've got this (Rovers) squad put together for €600,000,” he said. “They'll have a player out there who' ll earn that alone. I doubt whether a club has been able to progress so far with that level of budget. “This is a platform. It gives us more European experience, we'll continue in the adventure.
“It's a very good night for everyone in the club.” Rovers are now ranked 48th out of the 48 teams remaining in the competition but that will not bother O'Neill and Co.
The night nearly began in the worst possible fashion when a scuffed kickout from Rovers keeper Ryan Thompson landed at the feet of Vladimir Jovancic but he could only drag his shot wide. Rovers began with a 4-5-1 formation and struggled to gain a foothold in the Partizan half with lone striker Gary Twigg toiling bravely. Thompson atoned for his earlier error with a fingertip save to deny Vladimir Volkov on the half hour mark, but Rovers would eventually fall behind after conceding a succession of corners.
Nemanja Tomic's out-swinging corner was met by Volkov and his neat header nestled in the unguarded bottom corner of Thompson's net. Knowing that Rovers would have to revert to attack mode, O'Neill brought on Karl Sheppard at the break and changed to a 4-4-2 formation. The change brought instant dividends with a Chris Turner header hitting the woodwork.
Zvonimir Vukic could have eased the home side's tension but he was denied by Thompson before the Hoops equalised in sensational circumstances. A Rovers corner was cleared by the Partizan defence only to fall to the unmarked Sullivan who unleashed an unstoppable 30- yard arching volley to the net. Partizan bombarded the Rovers goal for the remainder of normal time but could not find a way through. Both sides seemed pleased get a break from the intensity and sweltering Serbian heat before extra-time got under way.
Partizan came close when a Stefan Babovic free-kick rebounded off the woodwork. A limping Twigg was replaced before the second period of extra time by Ciaran Kilduff and the substitute would have a telling impact. He galloped into the Partizan area and forced Radisa Ilic to parry his shot to the feet of Sheppard who was unceremoniously brought down by the keeper.
O'Donnell cooly tucked away the penalty and Rovers confidently saw out the game for a famous win. Partizan midfielder Medo was sent off for a cynical stamp on Sheppard near the end, which was greeted with joyous scenes from the 40 travelling Rovers fans.