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Rovers ready to roar

"Who is this Shamrock Rovers?" Italian football fans have been asking Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli.

Many younger Juventus supporters won't have come across the club before. Because the famous Hoops haven't been involved in European competition for seven years.

And in the lifetime of those under 23, Shamrock Rovers have been a spectral presence in football. If Juventus is the Old Lady of Italian football, Rovers are Ireland's Old Woman of the Roads, a homeless Kitty The Hare, until they got the keys of Tallaght Stadium and played their first match there in March of last year.

But Juventus should be warned. Not alone is there an impressive weight of history behind their Irish opponents, but this current club is a phoenix risen from the flames of disaster and despair with a dogged determination not to be beaten down.

The first thing the Juventus players will see as they head for the pitch tonight is a sign which boasts "WE ARE ROVERS". At the same time they'll be hearing the roar of supporters who've been dreaming about just such an opportunity to again take their place among the footballing families of the world.

Passion

It's impossible to gauge and quantify passion but the noisiest fans in green and white tonight will be those who fought to save their club from extinction. Sure, for most of them, being wiped out was never an option. But the years of graft and scrabbling to bring the Hoops back to the top has finally brought a tangible reward, a competitive tie against "one of the top five clubs in the world".

It's a story that's been told before. But in these financially-straitened times it's a story worth telling again.

It's almost inconceivable to think that in 1987 Shamrock Rovers found themselves evicted from their home at Glenmalure Park. With the country in the grip of recession, those little KRAM badges (Keep Rovers at Milltown) seemed sadly futile.

In professional boxing the sign of a worthy champion is a fighter who can soak up punishment, take a count, get up off the canvas, stay on his feet and deliver the punch that decides the result.

That Shamrock Rovers are still in the ring is credit enough. That they've earned themselves a European title bout is truly remarkable. But this is a club that's absorbed important life-saving lessons in the school of hard knocks.

If An Bord Snip wants some advice on how to get the country shipshape again, they could do worse than speak to members of the Rovers board.

Five years ago, the situation for Rovers looked dire. The club was in examinership and the bills were mounting up. That's when the club members took the initiative and devised a viable life support system to keep the club afloat. Although the club was relegated, the supporters stuck to their task. A new streamlined Rovers operation bounced straight back up the following year, with an exciting new ethos in place.

In 2004, Rovers supporter John Byrne stood for election to the Trustees which became the Board the following year. Today he recalls, "Getting involved with the 400 Club and thinking that maybe, just maybe, we could turn this into something different."

The supporters who took up the challenge of devoting time and energy to the club's survival did so with hope for the future. Hope that, one day, Shamrock Rovers would be a force to be reckoned with. It's been a long, slow, arduous climb back. And no one is saying that the club has reached its destination. But in a League peppered with casualties and rumours of casualties, Dublin City, Shelbourne, Cork City and Drogheda, Shamrock Rovers adopted a refreshing approach. Nothing flash. Just prudent, intelligent housekeeping.

"The basic philosophy from day one was to figure out what finances you're going to get in for the year and that's your budget," explains Byrne.

Genius

"There's nothing genius about it. We're just not being stupid."

As he surveys rival clubs that are said to be in trouble, Byrne notes, "It's a bit like the bloke who gets his wages and puts it all on number six and then wonders why it didn't work out and has to tell his wife when he gets home."

"With us, it's about the club," he says. "For Rovers people it's about making Rovers as good as we can, both on and off the pitch. This is what we're doing and trying to do. If you genuinely love something, it's going to get special care and devotion."

Rovers currently have 3,200 season ticket holders, over half the club's normal capacity, on their books. With the promise of European football next season, that figure is certain to rise.

But John Byrne sounds a note of caution. "Unlike Shels versus Deportivo, this isn't a culmination," he states. "This is a work in progress. The important thing is to not take our eye off the ball and think, "We've done it". You learn stuff from this European experience that you can bring into what you're doing domestically. The most important for us is to see this as a learning process. Hopefully, next season we will be better."

While Rovers are relishing the opportunity to take on Juventus, the Italian side is a little less excited about playing in front of 6,000 lusty Hoops fans in Tallaght. "We didn't want this, but it's what happened," says midfielder Claudio Marchisio. "We have to think this game is fundamental and do well straight away because there will also be a return leg."

In the face of the Italian giants, Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O'Neill is optimistic.

Desperate

"When you come to Rovers you can sense what it means to the club," he says. "What it means to bring success to the club and the players are desperate for that. I'm desperate for it. And I think we're going the right way about it."

While he's no longer on the Board, John Byrne is still actively involved in club affairs. Naturally, he's hoping the team will give a good account of themselves but, in the light of Rovers' troubled past, he feels the club is already winning.

"On RTé's Morning Ireland news programme I heard the presenter say, 'Rovers face Juve', he says.

"When I heard that I thought, 'We're back to being Rovers again'. That's very intimate. When people say United they don't mean Sheffield United or Monaghan United. Now, if people don't know anything about League of Ireland football, they know about Rovers."


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